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From DEVO to Le Tigre and more, these artists defined synth-punk

Are Suicide, Screamers and DEVO more punk than the Sex Pistols?

December 9, 2021
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One of punk rock’s original goals was “the destruction of rock ‘n’ roll.” While that didn’t happen, most early punk musicians were rock fans, in spite of their espoused rhetoric. Hence why most early pogo soundtracks were basically Chuck Berry with a Marshall amp. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But this is hardly moving past rock ‘n’ roll, is it? And hardcore eventually became fast heavy metal, once first-wave HC bands learned to play their instruments.

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Given all this, and those ambitions (including the democratization of music to welcome non-musicians), shouldn’t the synthesizer be considered the ultimate punk instrument? After all, you truly need no chops nor basic music lessons to operate one. Which is why some punks went the electronic route early on. Some continue making those skronks, swishes and whirrs to jacked-up beats, layering significant attitude on top. Perhaps punk history requires some amendment, if not outright revision?

Electro pre-history

“Oscillations, oscillations…Spinning, magnetic fluctuations, waves of wave configurations,” NYC’s Silver Apples singer/electronics operator Simeon Coxe intoned on their 1968 debut album’s opening track, “Oscillations.” He would know something about that. The previous year, he chased off most of the membership of the Overland Stage Electric Band, the standard-issue East Village rock band he fronted, by bringing in a 1940s audio oscillator. Only Danny Taylor remained to work the arsenal of nine oscillators played via a system of pedals and telegraph keys under their new name of Silver Apples.

Without investing in inventor Robert Moog’s new keyboard-operated, room-filling electronic instrument the synthesizer, Silver Apples’ array of homemade equipment made them possibly the first electronic-rock group. They would soon be joined by others who’d take advantage of Moog’s invention, such as Tonto’s Expanding Head Band or Wendy Carlos, creator of A Clockwork Orange’s soundtrack. Even Pete Townshend embroidered Moog squiggles through 1971 Who singles “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” beneath his usual power chords.

But if anyone truly popularized the idea of the synthesizer as a democratic rock instrument, it was Brian Eno. Operating a VCS 3 synth at side stage with Roxy Music while clad in feather boas and heavy makeup, he made sonic science seem fun and easy. Eno became a cult figure, moving on to increasingly electronic solo work after creating uneasy electro environments under the surfaces of Roxy Music’s first two LPs. He certainly helped sell a lot of electro keyboards, via trailblazing audio ammunition such as “Third Uncle.” 

The first synth-punks

After seeing the Stooges at the New York State Pavilion in August 1969, visual artist Alan Bermowitz decided he wanted to indulge in creative expression as visceral as Iggy Pop’s stage act. Changing his name to Alan Vega, he teamed with jazz-trained keyboardist Martin Reverby, who became Martin Rev. Naming their duo Suicide, they were the first band ever to bill themselves as “punk,” after seeing the term used in a Lester Bangs article. Playing shows with the New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center and various early punk bands at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, Suicide appeared onstage in heavy leather and head-to-toe black, resembling arty street toughs.

Rev played repetitive, minimalist riffs on a battered Farfisa organ through a fuzz box atop primitive drum machine beats. Vega lunged at audiences a la Iggy, brandishing a length of motorcycle chain. Between pounding the mic into his forehead, he mumbled his urban psychodrama lyrics through an Echoplex like an electro-shock Elvis. Few sights or sounds were more terrifying than Suicide in the late ‘70s. They made the Stooges or Sex Pistols look weak in comparison. It got them booed, a lot. Audiences drawn to guitar-driven aggregates screaming ugly truths couldn’t take slash-and-burn electronics operators observing in such desolate soundscapes as “Ghost Rider” that “America, America is killing its youth.” Their disruptive power burns eternally.

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Meanwhile in Akron, Ohio, a group of Kent State University art students — brothers Gerald and Bob Casale and Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh, primarily — witnessed firsthand America literally killing its youth. Radicalized by the slaughter of their activist friends in the May 4, 1970 shootings on campus, they formed a band dubbed DEVO, after the concept of “de-evolution.” Basically, their idea was that mankind has devolved into dysfunction, know-nothingism and the classic American herd mentality.

They raged against this regression through a combination of absurdist humor and blistering rock performed on electronic gear, plus standard guitar/bass/drums. “Mongoloid” was typical, as Mark warbled over primal electro beats and queasy synths about a man “happier than you and me,” due to having “one chromosome too many.” Arena rock fans across America were bewildered by DEVO’s 1978 SNL appearance, threatened by their deconstruction of the Rolling Stones“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” For a few years after, the term “DEVO” became an insult aimed at punks about to be beaten up by high school bullies. 

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In Los Angeles, the Screamers looked and sounded more dangerous than the Germs or the Weirdos down at The Masque. They grinded out snot-rock outbursts on electric organs and pianos drowning in cranked-up fuzzboxes, backed by standard drums. In London, Ultravox stood out from the Sex Pistols and the Damned across their first two albums via the electronics wheezing from their rampaging art-punk. American acts Pere Ubu and Chrome wove similar power-electronics into what would otherwise be art-damaged Stooges impersonations.

In Paris, Metal Urbain ground dueling fuzz guitars atop a burbling VCS 3 and a beatbox hot-rodded to pound out Tommy Ramone beats. It made them the most punk band in Europe. Otherwise straight-up, guitar-driven American bands, such as Philadelphia’s the Reds and Atlanta’s the Brains, were knitting synths into their work. Back in England, Throbbing Gristle created some of the ugliest, most subversive electronic noise yet, creating a new genre — industrial. As the ‘70s careened into the ‘80s, synth-punk was proving to be more treacherous than punk rock.

Synth-punk in the ‘80s

DEVO began the ‘80s scoring a massive hit single with “Whip It,” parodying every single self-help book ever written. Subversively, it made them huge pop stars, a loveable little novelty act, even as they were sneaking their ideas about de-evolution into the brainpans of the devolved. DEVO were no longer seen as “that weird punk shit.” They were accepted as new wave. So were the flood of synth-pop acts flowing from every corner of the world, especially from England, and into America’s living rooms via a new cable TV channel devoted to music videos, MTV.

Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Human League, even a reconstituted Ultravox — they were fully synth-laden and scoring massive hits. But while they all may have owned Suicide and DEVO records, make no mistake: They played synth-pop, not synth-punk. Not a speck of danger nor subversion was in their DNA. New-wave artist Cyndi Lauper even rode a cover of the Brains’ “Money Changes Everything” that softened its threat and danger to No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1984. DEVO were proving to be prophets: The ‘80s were gonna eat us all.

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It took a punk-rock veteran to reintroduce sex, style and subversion to electronic pop: Tony James, Billy Idol’s former partner in Generation X. Seeing Idol become a major rock star on the back of songs they’d written together in their old band, such as “Dancing With Myself,” must’ve irritated the bassist. He assembled a band called Sigue Sigue Sputnik, who looked like a glamrock outfit from the late 21st century. Killer singles such as “Love Missile F1-11” were a riot of science-fiction lyrics, kitsch movie samples and Johnny Thunders guitar work over a revved-up update of Suicide heavily reliant on the new sequencer technology. Hilariously, they sold advertising between songs on their debut album, Flaunt It. Using the tools of consumerism and commercialism against itself so blatantly was a genius subversive stroke.

In Los Angeles, Screamers contemporaries Nervous Gender continued to make dangerous rhythms out of heavily distorted electronics. Swiss electro-destructionists the Young Gods, meanwhile, created what could only be termed “electronic hardcore” out of samples of distorted electric guitars played over hyperspeed drum machines. But the ‘80s got split in half when Ministry released Land Of Rape And Honey in 1988. The texture of the Chicago synth-pop outfit changed considerably once leader Al Jourgensen resumed playing guitar. Now the drum machines sounded like cannons or jackhammers. All the electronic elements were as overdriven as the guitars, and all vocals were screams from the bowels of hell. Behold the birth of industrial metal.

Synth-punk enters the alternative ‘90s

Elements of the hellish marriage between punk and electronics came crashing into the mainstream once alternative rock became the mainstream. One year before Nirvana cleared a path for all manner of punk-influenced sounds, Cleveland industrialists Nine Inch Nails employed power electronics and heavy-metal guitars in “Head Like A Hole,” staking a No. 28 spot on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay charts. Trent Reznor created a market for electronic angst.

Two years later, Brainiac tumbled out of Dayton with a collision-course art-punk that was equal amounts lethal electro-damage and slash-and-burn guitars. In 1997, one year before singer Tim Taylor passed away unexpectedly, English electronica outfit the Prodigy had a freak No. 30 U.S. hit with “Firestarter,” on the back of Keith Flint’s Johnny Rotten-esque growl and ex-English Dogs guitarist Gizz Butt’s seething riffs. But the big synth-punk noise of the ‘90s was Atari Teenage Riot, the kings of digital hardcore. With mastermind Alec Empire and Nic Endo screaming leftist/anti-fascist politics over dirty samples from Bad Brains and Sham 69 records, and sheets of digital noise, ATR were truly the insurrectionist voice of the decade. And they accomplished it by exaggerating and overdriving concepts developed by the Young Gods just a few years beforehand.

21st century synth-punk

After Atari Teenage Riot, synth-punk could only get crazier and more extreme. So how about a powerviolence band that’s equal parts destroyed math rock, overamplified nowave guitars, and synthesizers and samplers being tortured until their circuit boards scream? Say hi to San Diego’s the Locust, whose records might be the most glorious electronic mess you’ve ever heard. Then there’s Omaha’s the Faint, perhaps the world’s first electro skate-punk outfit. They’ve managed the neat trick of featuring both deathmetal guitars and synths that sound like death-metal guitars. Synth punk also sprawled in many different directions, from Le Tigre and Peaches to HEALTH and Xiu Xiu.

But if anyone is carrying the spirit of synth-punk well into the 21st century, it’s Russian riot grrrl act Pussy Riot. They’re more guerrilla performance artists than a typical punk band, despite claiming Sham 69, Cockney Rejects and Bikini Kill as influences. Their records are roundly fuzzed-out electronics, dirty samples and lo-fi hip-hop production, not three-chord, guitar-based punk rock. They’re a digital fuck-you to oppression and the established order. Which is what punk is all about: The message is more important than the medium. Sometimes, an electronic keyboard is a more effective threat to the status quo than an overdriven electric guitar.

Written by Tim Stegall