Reviews / November 27, 2017
While other bands swimming in that sketchily charted ocean sometimes called synthpop are remembered as pioneers—or at the very least with some residual affection—London’s New Musik seem to have simply evaporated, despite the fact that with their first album, 1980’s From A to B, the band (who in 1979 made their debut appearance on Top of the Pops with “Straight Lines”) produced a string of hit records in the UK, one of which, the single “Living by Numbers,” was allegedly adopted by Casio for use in an advert for its digital calculators.
New Musik were led by Tony Mansfield who, after leaving school at 15 and working in both the art department of Decca Records and his father’s South London building firm, decided to devote himself full-time to music. Despite the band’s unprepossessing mien and lack of photo-geniality, the chipper, repetitive surface melodies of their Science Fiction-referencing songs hid a more dystopian intent. “‘World of Water’ is really doomy, a really nasty song,” said Mansfield to Sounds magazine in 1980 of one of the band’s hits. “The whole LP is doomy. We’re doomy. But it’s put in such a jolly way that people don’t take in the words.” In the same interview he says that the band’s dream is “to get that medium between weirdness and commerciality,” before concluding, “Hopefully the New Musik thing will get a little weirder.”
The band’s follow-up album Anywhere (1981), which contained songs like “Churches” and “Areas,” more than lived up to the band’s stated aim, but the “doomy” penny seemed to have dropped: the two singles failed to chart and, having once left the fruit-fly life cycle of the pop circuit, the band’s third album, 1982’s Warp, was—aptly—doomed to be practically ignored. Aptly and also unfairly, because it was great, and still is. But New Musik were far too blokey-looking, and lacked the kind of discernible image that might have helped them survive the pop-buying public’s fickleness: despite the warmth of their melodic facade, they were pretty frosty at heart. Even the LP’s modern-looking Roslav Szaybo cover art feels strangely unmoored from any time or place.
Like previous New Musik releases, Warp camouflages its intelligence behind a wall of pop nous so proficient that it occasionally sounds practically anodyne, and continues to develop the sound that producer Mansfield had been evolving over the band’s previous LPs, blending traditional rock/pop instrumentation with increasingly dominant synths. The interplay between them and between Mansfield’s twin talents for the upbeat and the unnerving, provides Warp with a peculiarly ominous tension, the intermittent menace implicit on both the Straight Lines and Anywhere albums here showing its teeth more unambiguously.
Most of the album walks this same line of dissonance between the saccharine, the sardonic, and the frightened. It’s all wonderful, but Warp contains two masterpieces: the first is “I Repeat,” whose nursery-rhyme melodies and self-help lyric gradually reveal themselves to be a barbed and ambivalent comment on the nature of daily life. Increasingly dissonant melodies impinge on the pretty repetition as the song reaches its conclusion, and the chant of “I’ll say it again, and I’ll do it again—it’ll happen again, again and again” against an eerie fairground refrain begins to sound less like resigned observation and more like a threat. The second is “Hunting,” whose cryptic lyrics, perky cyclical melody, and pneumatic bassline gradually turn into something like torture, as the eeriness of the song mutates into enigmatic sci-fi nightmare.
Listening to it now, it’s clear that when it was released, Warp was too poppy to carry the weight of its ambiguities and too strange to work as straight-up pop—if you weren’t going to be obvious, you’d better be pretty, and pretty New Musik weren’t. Whatever its faults, though, it was, like all their output, hugely prescient, and even now sounds as fresh, engaging and worrying as if it had just been released. In fact, perhaps it actually works better now that it’s decontextualized from the silliness of the pop music world it first appeared in.
In their way, New Musik are like a bizzaro version of Wire. Take the album’s title track, whose lyrics, over an optimistically throbbing beat, speak to “system” while the song gradually deconstructs itself, in part through vocal samples so outrageously at odds with the song that they’ll have you looking around in shock for the person who’s taking the piss. It’s as though Mansfield can’t resist fucking up the songs on purpose just to make things uncomfortable. And then there’s Mansfield’s voice, whose nearest relative in popular music is fellow Londoner and “everyman” Phil Collins: undramatic, adenoidal, incongruous and slightly desperate—far too human to resemble either a gleaming future or the sheen of present-day pop.
Warp is a disconcerting little study of the modern condition couched in the language of popular music, one of the modern condition’s greatest sedatives as well as one of its greatest pleasures—and not often has the bittersweet bliss of sliding into a future equal parts idiotic gratification and frightening uncertainty been evoked so beautifully in pop songs.