Great Lost Synth Sounds Of The Eighties

A squiggle through some of the sillier electronic tones that pop history forgot...

This not exactly serious piece of musical archaeology was really just done for a bit of fun, and doubtless inspired in no small part by the repeats of Top Of The Pops on BBC Four; at that point they were up to the early eighties, and I took great delight in live-Tweeting the shows to ruminate on bewildering synth tones and the inexplicable prevalence of ‘Ronnie Hazlehurst Trumpets’ in serious moody New Romantic efforts, usually occasioning some dullard to scowl that I was spoiling their Classic Pop Classics and anyway it was a Contrabass Bugle.

There probably is a discussion to be had about why some electronic instrumental styles are considered high art in retrospect while others get written off as silly novelty fripperies that were an insult to the lofty standing of Classic Pop Classics, despite both having been equally popular with actual mainstream pop audiences at the time (in fact the latter were usually probably even more popular than the former), but this is scarcely an appropriate forum to raise the issue, so instead, just block off one of your nostrils and do the closest approximation you can of that sound from Feel So Real. Just don’t do what those kids in school did and high-five each other in the bathroom while wearing Letterman Jackets to the sound of Feel So Real weedily issuing from Walkman headphones. Incidentally, the Squiggly Synth’ only really appeared in the middle eight of the closing titles version of the Whatever Next! theme, but those opening visuals – which really don’t explain anything about the show whatsoever – were still worth including. If anyone knows what was going on with Noel fleeing from that bloke at high speed whilst carrying a giant match, please let us know.

Whenever everyone starts to get all misty-eyed about vintage pre-digital synthesiser sounds, it always seems to be 8-Bit this and monophonic that and someone that sounded a bit like a cut price Top Of The Pops Album equivalent of a Factory Records-inspired outfit who couldn’t even get signed to Cherry Red Records the other. There’s never any room for celebration for that next analogue evolutionary step – the pre-sampling Roland/Korg-driven ‘Whole Band In A Box’ sound – or to be more accurate an infinite(ish) permutation of moderately modifiable sounds – that dominated the bulk of the early and mid-eighties and made Go West records sound like, well, Go West records.

Well, it’s high time that somebody actually did. Here are five of the greatest synth sounds that you once couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing, but which now everybody tries to pretend never happened….

The ‘Squiggly Synth’
Notable Appearance: Mama Used To Say by Junior

A weaponised sine wave doodle initially much beloved of the Linx/Imagination-driven ‘Pigeon Street Soul’ brigade, then later co-opted to became a staple fixture of early to mid eighties primetime television themes, most infamously deployed for Nigel Havers divorcecom Don’t Wait Up and long forgotten post-Whirly Wheelgate Noel Edmonds ‘soft launch’ reboot Whatever Next!, in which it worked especially well in conjunction with the baffling ‘teleporting Edmonds’ visuals. Also famously heard in barely re-recorded form as the theme to TV-am’s Data Run summer stand-in, Summer Run.

The ‘Flattened Trumpet’
Notable Appearance… Love And Pride by King

A weedy yet still widely adopted analogue approximation of a vaguely ‘trumpety’ sound, which gained huge popularity on account of the relative cheapness of getting the Barry Andrews-haired 2000AD-jacketed Synth Wizard every early eighties band had to have by law to provide the illusion of a brass backing rather than hiring a small army of real live session musicians. Most infamously used for the instrumental break in Nikita by Elton John, which still finds its unwelcome way into the minds of office workers on a loop at 11am precisely to this day.

The ‘Tin Can Orchestral Sweep’
Notable Appearance… Feel So Real by Steve Arrington

A less aesthetically successful variant on the above, attempting to mock up the sonic experience of a full orchestra with some hamfisted ADSR-fiddling that sounded more like someone scrunching up some inadvertently tonal tinfoil backed up by a malfunctioning washing machine calling you on an analogue telephone where the magnet’s gone in the earpiece. A surprisingly enduring example which remained in use right through to the end of the decade, last sighted hidden somewhere behind Big Fun’s cover of Blame It On The Boogie.

The ‘Kamizake Portamento’
Notable Appearance… Yellow Pearl by Phil Lynott

A ‘Future Is Now!’-heralding plummet down the musical scale, possibly intended as a call-to-arms for robots, New Romantics and people drinking Quatro, but ending up sounding more like something that the most annoying kid in your year in school would be able to provide a note-perfect emulation of without anyone ever asking them to. One of the most short-lived yet briefly ubiquitous examples on this list, spending a short time as a go-to effect for everything from Heartache Avenue to Say Say Say, but ditched in favour of the more sophisticated ‘orchestra hit’ even before The Tripods began striding across our screens.

The ‘Existential Flute’
Notable Appearance… Does Caroline Know? by Talk Talk

An introspective Blue Jam-friendly soft-toned World Music-esque woodwind pretence usually reserved for when the more cerebral-ish artists were trying to get a bit ‘soundscape’, doubtless intended to convey a sense of zenned-out globally aware musical mindfulness but invariably ending up with nobody listening to the lyrics and just whacking it alongside Anita Baker and Oran ‘Juice’ Jones (who had his own neglected synth tones, but that’s another story) in the average local radio ‘Love Zone’. Peter Gabriel was not available for comment.

The ‘Entirety Of The Blockbusters Theme’
Notable Appearance… The Entirety Of The Blockbusters Theme

Requires no explanation.

Buy A Book!

You can find much more about ridiculous eighties pop music – and ridiculous eighties things in general – in my book The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, a collection of columns and features. The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Further Reading

Hits 5 Revisited is a track-by-track look back at a compilation album that featured more than its fair share of great lost synth sounds of the eighties; you can find it here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.