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BBC4 has a bit of a reputation for making extremely good music documentaries. A varied array of artists and genres have been covered in entertaining and informative ways. With this high standard in mind I have to say that Synth Britannia may very well be my favourite of the lot. It's not that I am a rabid fan of synth pop – I enjoy it and think it has considerable merit but am certainly no fanatic of it. But I felt this film simply tells us about this subject in a manner that makes it extremely interesting. So interesting it turned out that I immediately went out and bought an extensive compilation of synth-based pop from the 80's. You know a music doc has been successful when it makes you seek out more music.
It starts in the early 70's with the advent of experimental electronic music, exemplified by the likes of the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange by Walter Carlos. This bit of hugely influential music was pretty ground-breaking in 1971 and created a soundscape using electronic music that was both sterile, haunting and ominous; which of course perfectly sound-tracked Stanley Kubrick's dark film. The next major happening was the emergence of the West German band Kraftwerk who were for many the true progenitors of electronic pop music. Throw in punk music with its DIY approach and the availability of cheap synthesizers to the public and there was a scenario for the first time where electronic based music could flourish. From this, many synth pop groups emerged. The movement began as resolutely uncommercial, with some acts being practically avant-garde in approach. As the genre developed more and more acts began to make an impact on the charts and synthesizers soon became inextricably linked with the new wave. By the mid 80's it had become overly commercialised and began to become irrelevant but in its time it produced some commendably forward looking music which genuinely was new music in the truest sense.
There are many reasons why this documentary is excellent. For one, the musicians interviewed seem to be more intelligent than you normally get. In fact, a considerable number of them seem quite bookish. This leads onto a further strength of the film in that it links in the influence of the novels of J. G. Ballard whose strange form of contemporary urban psychological sci-fi provided a massive source of material for many of the bands. The late 70's synth music in particular synthesized Ballard's bizarre ideas into a musical form which seemed to suit it perfectly. These bleak sounds were a perfect accompaniment to the concrete high-rises of a Britain at the time which was going through many social problems and ills. But in another way, this shows the genesis for what would go on to be electronica and dance music which would begin to rise to prominence in the late 80's and beyond. The influence of synth pop is therefore pretty incontestable and this documentary very successfully tells its story in a logical manner which covers all of the big hitters of the time. This is the definitive documentary on this subject and is recommended to all music fans; even if you are not a fan of synth pop this is still a great watch.
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