The trouble with modernists is their stubborn refusal to give up on the world. Their resistance is not so much rooted in the deluded belief that they can save it, as in a desire to find new ways of holding a mirror up to it. This month’s Invisible Jukebox candidate Daniel Miller launched Mute Records more than 30 years ago with the car-crash sex of The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette”, a wittily sick reduction of JG Ballard’s Crash into a handful of speech bubble lines, numbly intoned and repeated in a staccato voice that rhythmically interlocks with gear-crunching stabs of raw synth to drive the song to its climax. Its matching of weird sex and mechanismo grind might have made it a no-tongues kissing cousin to the synth pop that came to dominate the early part of the 1980s. But “Warm Leatherette” eschewed early synth pop’s cliched equation of ‘electronics equals alienation’. If not exactly joyous, the song gleefully re-enacted the bare bones of Ballard’s plot as a stillborn dance craze. Shortly after, through Silicon Teens, Miller fantasised three minutes into the future as a time when teenagers wanting to start a group would quite naturally turn to electronics as first-choice instruments. And right on cue, Depeche Mode stepped into the frame. The success of Depeche Mode and, later, Vince Clarke’s Yazoo and Erasure, enabled Mute to continue releasing the noise of Boyd Rice’s NON, Diamanda Galás’s extended song cycle documentaries about holocaust cover-ups and AIDS death, and, through the label’s Grey Area Of Mute subsidiary, reclaimed Industrial waste by Throbbing Gristle, and more.
But the Mute operation never clearly divided along strictly commercial or art lines. What’s great about the label is the dialogue it has kept up between the margins and the mainstream. The outcome of such dialogues was as audible as it was visible in mid-1980s Depeche Mode. When they still looked like the ditzy Basildon boys they never really were, they went to record an album in West Berlin, where Mute connections exposed them to the likes of Einstürzende Neubauten. And they returned to the UK a much darker perv-pop unit singing songs about masters and servants and wage slavery over sweaty, humid bunker electronics mined from still potent myths of Berlin in ruins. 1980s Depeche Mode enacted a modernist electro tango with the world, simultaneously sexing it up and keeping it at a distance, clinging on desperately as they critiqued it. In the process, they Trojan-horsed uncomfortable ideas picked up from the cultural fringe into the hearts and minds of their large popular audience.
In the Jukebox, upon being played a contemporary track clearly steeped in 1980s synth pop by Washed Out, Miller admits to feeling more nostalgic than he’d like to be. Unless it is bio-fed and bulked out by an excess of sentiment that threatens to overwhelm the here and now, personally I have never understood the need to apologise for remembering the past, or the sense of loss that fuels the modernist urge to devise new ways of revealing the world for what it is. Chris Bohn
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Issue 327 May 2011 £4 ISSN 0952-0680
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Words Steve Barker, Mike Barnes, Clive Bell, Marcus Boon, Michael Bracewell, Nick Cain, Philip Clark, Byron Coley, Julian Cowley, Alan Cummings, Sam Davies, Brian Dillon, Phil England, Kodwo Eshun, Mark Fisher, Phil Freeman, Louise Gray, Andy Hamilton, Adam Harper, Jim Haynes, Richard Henderson, Ken Hollings, Hua Hsu, David Keenan, Rahma Khazam, Biba Kopf, Alan Licht, Dave Mandl, Marc Masters, Bill Meyer, Keith Moliné, Will Montgomery, Brian Morton, Joe Muggs, Alex Neilson, Andrew Nosnitsky, Ian Penman, Richard Pinnell, Edwin Pouncey, Nina Power, Simon Reynolds, Nick Richardson, Tom Ridge, Bruce Russell, Peter Shapiro, Chris Sharp, Philip Sherburne, Nick Southgate, Daniel Spicer, Joseph Stannard, David Stubbs, Dave Tompkins, David Toop, Dan Warburton, Val Wilmer, Barry Witherden, Matthew Wuethrich
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