How Landscape’s Subversive Synth-Pop Helped Shape the ‘80s

Follow the journey from jazz to New Romantic as “Einstein a-Go-Go” turns 40

Landscape ’81 (Art: Jim Allen)

When synth-pop was still in its infancy, a bunch of British jazzers with a subversive streak and a big thing for high tech became unlikely pop stars and prophets of a new movement. 

Landscape’s second album, fancifully titled From the Tea-rooms of Mars … to the Hell-holes of Uranus, arrived in February 1981. By April, the creepy-but-catchy, synth-slathered single “Einstein a-Go-Go” had reached the Top Five in the United Kingdom.

Landscape’s path to synth-pop stardom was anything but a straight line, though. They started out in the mid ‘70s as a hard-grooving, all-instrumental band playing a funky, sometimes frenetic blend of jazz and rock they dubbed “punk jazz.” They developed a huge grassroots following and got snapped up by RCA, who released the band’s self-titled debut LP in 1979.

Landscape Landscape, RCA 1979

Having already become fascinated by the burgeoning revolution in electronic music technology, the band applied cutting-edge touches to their jazzy tunes.  Drummer Richard James Burgess had already begun experimenting with the electronic drum set he co-created with Dave Simmons (a couple of years before Simmons Drums conquered the world). But the album got little commercial traction. When RCA released it,” says Burgess, “it became obvious that they had no idea how to promote a weird instrumental album.” Something had to change.

“Over the holidays that winter,” remembers Burgess, “we realized that making another instrumental album in the style of the live band would be a waste of time. The band talked about it and we decided to write lyrics and add vocals to the second album.” A timely injury edged the process along. “I had broken my little finger and couldn’t play for a few weeks,” he explains. “In that time, I had bought a Roland MC8 Microcomposer [an early sequencer] and began using that to make music in my home studio…. Most of the drums on the album were played by the MC8 Microcomposer and quite a few of the other parts as well. We were excited by this new direction and thought that the record label might have a better idea of how to promote it.”

All five members of the band — Burgess, keyboardist Christpher Heaton, bassist Andy Pask, saxophonist John Walters, and trombonist Peter Thoms — added electronics to their arsenal, in most cases the latest gear available.  “Adding electronics to every instrument enabled us to really expand the sonic horizons of the band,” says Burgess. “It was a time of music-tech innovation and we were in the thick of it. Once we started using electronics, the whole thing snowballed, and we kept stretching further and further. We wanted to make records that didn’t sound like other records of the time.”

They succeeded in that goal. Burgess and the others added vocals to their skill set, and the songs delivered danceable grooves with a surfeit of synth hooks, a combination that was only just beginning to take the world by storm in the days before “Tainted Love,” “Don’t You Want Me,” and “Pocket Calculator.” But that was where the comparisons with the rest of the synth-pop squad ended. For one thing, many of the sounds on the band’s second album were generated by electronically processed sax and trombone. 

And while Landscape fully embraced the brave new world of electronic pop on Kraftwerk-sounding cuts like “Computer Person,” they still threw in a couple of instrumental tunes like “New Religion” and “Alpine Tragedy/Sisters” with way more harmonic knowhow than any synth jockeys schooled strictly in New Wave. And thanks to their love of avant-garde oddness, “The Doll’s House” feels closer to the oddball edginess of The Residents than to any ‘80s electro-popper. 

 

VIDEO: Landscape “Computer Person”

Then there were the lyrics, which set Landscape even further apart from their contemporaries. Burgess, who had added lyricist to his job description by that time, says the danceable “European Man” was “a social comment on the potential for the relatively new micro-chip technology to automate work, increase productivity, and increase leisure time — assuming that the wealth would be distributed to benefit all of society. It wasn’t a prediction, the writing was on the wall, but it was an observation of a direction that society could have chosen to have taken. Forty years on, we know what actually happened.”

The slinky electro-funk of “Shake the West Awake” held a global political message too. “This was a time when Japanese industry was really coming into its own,” explains Burgess. “Suddenly more cars on the road were Japanese, I had a deal with a Japanese drum company, most of our synthesizers were Japanese, they were making amazing stuff. At the same time, Jaguars were overheating in traffic, shoes were no longer being made in England. It was clear that we were falling behind and that’s what this song is really about. When I grew up, British workmanship was considered to be the finest in the world and that was becoming less true.”

Completing the trifecta of politically astute but dancefloor-friendly tracks was “Einstein A Go-Go,” an antic, infectious synth-pop tune about a religious maniac threatening to annihilate the planet. It would cement Landscape’s place in history. Burgess calls the song “an anti-war/anti-religious extremist anthem in a comic book wrapper. This was a time when there were all kinds of nuclear concerns. The design for a nuclear bomb in a briefcase was circulating in underground circles — the equivalent of the dark web today — and there was a rise in religious fundamentalist extremism in the world.”

The track opens with snatches of phone calls to the Kremlin, White House, et al. “The telephone calls at the beginning were real,” reveals Burgess, “we actually called Iran and asked to speak to the Ayatollah and to the White House and asked to speak to Jimmy Carter, etc.”

The single initially stalled somewhere around 30 on the U.K. charts, but the band devised a plan to get on Top of the Pops and have their fortunes boosted by TV exposure. “Our manager at the time, Olaf Wyper, was at Jam Studios with us,” Burgess relates. “We persuaded him to go down to [BBC TV headquarters] White City with a broadcast copy of our video just in case somebody canceled [on TOTP]. One of the scheduled bands got stuck in bad weather somewhere in Europe, as I recall. Olaf was there with our video and it went on the show that Thursday night. ‘Einstein’ shot up the chart the following week.”

 

VIDEO: Landscape “Einstein A Go Go”

Meanwhile, the album was making a stir in the clubs where the New Romantic movement was emerging. By this time, Burgess had already become a key player in that scene via his production of Spandau Ballet’s game-changing debut album and his aid in the creation of Visage’s first LP.

“Rusty [Egan, Visage drummer, DJ, and architect of the scene] was a long-time friend of mine,” says Burgess. “What we were doing was consistent with what he was trying to cobble together at [New Romantic hub] the Blitz. It became a bit of a feedback loop. There was the electronic side of the movement —Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ultravox and others. Spandau Ballet, who I produced, became the epicenter of the New Romantic side of the Blitz. We were all feeling our way. There was a very conscious European identity that we reflected.”

Colin Thurston, who produced another early New Romantic milestone in Duran Duran’s debut album, was a part of the Landscape story too, producing one Tea-rooms track. “Colin only recorded the first track that we cut, ‘European Man,’ explains Burgess. “What we found, when we started recording the album, was that we were using technology that only we understood. We also had a very small budget, and we spent a significant portion of it on that first track with Colin. Our only option, to make the recorded we envisaged, was to produce it ourselves.” 

Burgess is even credited with coining the very term “New Romantic,” but the scene in which he was immersed didn’t escape Landscape’s sardonic sensibilities either. “Face of the ‘80s” seems aimed squarely at the fickle, fashion-focused side of the New Romantic movement. “’Face of the 80s’ was definitely a comment on the inelegant rush that happens when a movement takes off as I could see the Blitz/New Romantic movement was doing at that time,” Burgess confirms. “It wasn’t necessarily about any one person but as I became more involved in the Blitz scene and was beginning to work with Spandau Ballet, I started to see some ugliness manifested – jealousy and competition that wasn’t productive or supportive. I have to say that Rusty was always a great friend to me and remains so to this day.”

 

VIDEO: Landscape “Norman Bates”

An irony in line with Landscape’s signature mix of synth-pop appeal and off-piste eccentricity is that “Norman Bates” became the album’s other Top 40 hit. A deliciously twisted salute to Tony Perkins’ homicidal head case in Hitchcock’s classic Psycho, it repeats the lyric “My name is Norman Bates, I’m just a normal guy” over and over before shifting to the dialogue from the film’s unnerving final scene. Apparently British pop audiences were a lot more adventurous in those days. 

After their moment in the sun, Landscape would only last for one more album, 1982’s Manhattan Boogie-Woogie. The members went on to become involved in all corners of the music business, including production and session work. The innovations of Burgess alone in production and programming require (and have elsewhere received) an examination of their own, and he’s currently head of the American Association of Independent Music. The strides that Landscape made 40 years ago edged the evolution of pop along in ways that few may have foreseen in the moment but everyone would experience in short order.

 

 

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