The writer Jon Savage is most associated with punk. When it broke in the UK while he was in his early 20s, Savage quickly became one of its first documenters and champions – and his 1991 book England’s Dreaming has been hailed by many as the definitive account of the British scene. But his interests never ossified, and over the years he has shown himself to be a cultural polymath, both staying in touch with contemporary developments, and looking back to the very birth of mass culture.
This has perhaps been most clear in his prolific work as a curator of compilation albums. From whimsical 1960s psychedelia, to the “baggy” indie-dance sounds of the 1990s, Savage’s collections are not just historically interesting but always eminently listenable. He selects and sequences like a DJ – which indeed he has been – as much as like a scholar. And that goes with bells on for his new collection, Do You Have The Force? (Jon Savage's Alternate History Of Electronica 1978-82).
This record documents the very birth – in the cracks between the avant garde, the club dancefloor and the world of rock bands – of what would become known as synth pop. It’s the sound of glorious weirdos testing out brand new technology, and (even as they often referenced dystopian visions) having huge fun doing it. The record, of course, is very much of its time, but the inspiration and innovation bubbling from it is still hugely enjoyable and inspiring today. We called Savage at home where he is working on his next book to find out more about it.
Hi Jon, was there a reason for this record coming when it did? Is it part of a book project? Is there something in the zeitgeist?
Not at all. There's a playlist on this theme in my iTunes that goes back to 2016, and it's just taken as long as it has because that's how it works. Clearing tracks, being honest, not bootlegging: it all just takes loads of time. John Kertland's label Caroline True Records [who produced the record] is a kind of boutique, single-person operation – plus he decamped to France after Brexit – so that slowed it again. Things happen when they happen, and if there are any good people like them.
Ultimately, I did it because I like it. The impulse behind any good compilation is "I like this stuff, maybe you will too" – it really is as basic as that. Beyond that, it's about finding gaps, finding areas of interest, finding records that go together even though they're different. So it's down to me making iTunes playlists – lots of them – and seeing whether they work or not. Not a great interface, but one I know and am comfortable with. If I like one I’ll send it to John, or in other cases send it to Ace, or to Jeff Baratt at Heavenly, and say, "Let's make a record!"
And were these the records that you liked at the time?
About half of them, I'd say. The big thing that happened to me is that in the mid-80s I started really enjoying disco, which I hadn't at the time. In 1977 I loved "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder and "Magic Fly" by Space. For me, they dovetailed with the Bowie records and Krautrock records I was hearing that really sounded like the future, which, of course by late summer in '77, punk wasn't anymore!
But my first real-time exposure to brand new Black American dance records as they happened came in about 1982 when I moved to Manchester and met Hewan Clarke and Mike Pickering. I also became good friends with Vince Aletti, who was one of the first people to ever write about disco, going back to '73. I'd go to New York, he'd put me down in front of these speakers, and play me all this stuff. So to go back to your question: there are some records like Slikk "Space Bass", Cabaret Voltaire and The Flying Lizards that I liked and bought at the time, but my enduring love for very synthetic Euro disco like The Droids and Harry Thurman, and American tracks like "Sharevari" came a bit later.
At the time, was there a sense that electronic music had a scene in the sense that punk did?
Well, the big difference was that none of this stuff had the interest of the music press in the way punk did, and of course none of it was tied into standard ideas of rock. When I look back at punk now, the problem was that it started off being fantastically new – it was exciting because it was strange and science fiction-y, and I adored it in '76 and early '77 for that reason. But when the music industry starts to get involved, it all becomes very boring... because rock is boring [laughs]. No, rock isn't boring, but that idea of rock is boring, the very post-Keith Richards, rooster haircuts and taking heroin and cocaine thing. It was disgusting, not at all interesting. But for all that, punk was a huge subcultural thing – perhaps not as important in changing things as some of its participants would like to have you think, but very, very popular all the same.
On the other hand, electronic music was much more underground. There was this wonderful thing of avant-garde white electronica from places like Sheffield, or a band like A Certain Ratio from Manchester, having a crossover with American clubs and the New York scene in particular: the Paradise Garage and places like that. I'm looking at a playlist now from the first year at the Hacienda, and it's got Afrika Bambaataa, [hi-nrg NYC gay disco act] the Peech Boys, Was (Not Was), and then "Flight" by A Certain Ratio, "Dream Baby Dream" by Suicide, "Torch" by Soft Cell. This was the standard kind of mixture. Mind you, nobody went to the Hacienda then, so it really was underground. Maybe they didn't go because of my DJing, but that's another story...
It's maybe still underappreciated how much the transatlantic conversation was just that – a two-way communication. Of course you've included "Sharevari" which was maybe the starting point of Detroit techno, and Juan Atkins, the real Godfather of techno, was actively imitating people like Gary Numan early on.
Absolutely. I absolutely love [Atkins's duo] Cybotron, and how things like "Cars" as well as "Numbers" and "Trans Europe Express" by Kraftwerk got picked up by Black American DJs and crowds in Detroit and Chicago and New York. That is just an amazing alchemy to me, and is one of the driving things behind the compilation: just how fertile the crossover was at that point, and yes, I feel it wasn't really recognised at the time, or not to the degree it should have been. I certainly don't remember people writing about Anumberofnames in the rock press! Maybe the story is better told now, but I still think there's a degree of historical rediscovery to be done, and that's certainly what I'm aiming for here.
Is there one track that's really close to your heart here?
I really, really love The Droids, because it's just so silly. It's got everything I like: there's this kind of naive, fun optimism about technology, and also I just really like the sound of those analogue synths. It's somehow cold but warm at the same time – these records come out of this place of alienation and anhomie, but they've got this wonderfully warm sound. That was my life. During that time first living in Manchester, I would play these songs driving home in the middle of the night, in the dark and rain, and it was somehow perfect.
Cover Image: Jon Savage
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs