The birth of synth-pop and electro-disco is the true musical legacy of ’77.
We tend to think of electronic music as a very 1980s creation – sure, there were Kraut Rock bands, progressive acts and the odd keyboard noodler throughout the 1970s but the sort of synth-pop that we associate with electronica or whatever you want to call it was still very much a specialist thing until the emergence of Gary Numan and OMD at the end of the 1970s and the availability of affordable, portable synths led to the explosion of bands made up of a singer and one bloke poking away at a keyboard while affecting a look of bored disinterest. But the real year zero for synth music breaking into the pop mainstream with hit singles was actually 1977 when the embryonic sounds of disco blended with the experimental – but increasingly commercially conscious – prog rock world on a series of hit records that tell a very different version of the 1977 story to the one that you’ll have heard countless times. The fact that these were all instrumental records – usually the kiss of death for commercial singles looking for Top 40 success – makes everything even stranger.
The year in instrumentals began with Mike Oldfield in the top 5 with Portsmouth, though this folk number was far removed from the electronic sounds of Tubular Bells and was essentially a Christmas number hanging around. There is nothing in this record that hints of what is to come – sad, really because Oldfield was definitely a pioneer of the sound that would come to dominate ’77 but by this time had moved on.
There would be other instrumental (or virtually instrumental) hits scattered through the first half of the year, most of them proto-disco dance numbers – Brass Construction’s Cha Cha Cha (Funktion), Van McCoy’s Soul Cha Cha and The Shuffle, Cerrone’s Love in C Minor – that often didn’t feel like instrumentals thanks to some vocal MCing and the odd bit of ‘ooh-ahh’ female backing, even though they didn’t have lyrics as such. Similarly, Piero Umiliani’s Mah-Na Mah-Na was a hit in April/May on the back of the song’s appearance on The Muppet Show (and the weird relegation of the Muppet’s version to the B-side of the show’s first 7-inch).
The summer of synth instrumentals began on the 5th of June, the same week that the Sex Pistols were allegedly cheated of the Number One spot by some fiddling of the numbers to keep Rod Stewart at the top of the chart.* It started with the band that the punks hated more than anyone – the kings of self-indulgent prog rock themselves, Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
ELP spent 14 weeks in the top 40 with Fanfare for the Common Man, peaking at No.2. The band’s rock take on Aaron Copeland’s track was a Yamaha-driven, unexpectedly tight funky number where Greg Lake and Carl Palmer were very much on rhythm duties and Keith Emerson’s synths led the way. A furiously infectious number – especially in the seven-inch edit – its success was unexpected and might have been seen as a fluke – the last gasp of the old guard before the new young Turks laid waste to the past with their musical Year Zero – but it actually led the way for a whole summer and autumn of synthstrumentals and electronic music some three or so years before synth-pop actually became a thing. If music was now a three-chord rage against the machine, someone had forgotten to tell the public.
Perhaps it was the two months that Fanfare for the Common Man spent in the Top 10 that inspired Polydor to release Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene Part IV as a 7-inch, an extract from the Tubular Bells-style electronic conceptual instrumental LP that might not have otherwise had ‘hit single’ written all over it but which did have an infectious hook and the potential to appeal to the same audience as ELP’s track (as well as having some discotheque potential). Or perhaps it was all just coincidence. In any case, as ELP crept slowly out of the Top 40, so Jarre entered and Oxygene Part IV would also make its way up the chart, ultimately peaking at No.4 – not bad for a piece of music that is very much a piece of a larger whole.
Between ELP and Jarre came The Rah Band, a funky creation of Richard Alan Hewson that mixed a punk aesthetic – Hewson wearing a zipped-up face mask that seemed to somehow fit with the safety-pin-a-go go look of the punks – with dirty keyboard-driven music. Their one hit, The Crunch, was a masterpiece of grungy electroclash before such things existed and spent several weeks on the chart, helped by the fact that the band could and would appear on Top of the Pops, unlike ELP and Jarre. The track peaked at no.6, dropping out of the Top Ten just as Jarre entered at the start of September.
Already at Number 2 by that time – held off the top of the charts by Elvis Presley, whose death had given a sales boost to Way Down – was perhaps the most iconic synth-pop instrumental of 1977, Magic Fly by Space. Space were pioneers of Euro electro-disco and Magic Fly was a masterpiece of minimalist, pulsing electronic dance music performed by mystery men in astronaut suits and it sounded like nothing anyone had heard before. Well, almost. It emerged at exactly the same time as Giorgio Moroder’s remarkable work with Donna Summer – and his own solo projects that oddly stalled in the mid-20s on the UK chart, perhaps because the vocals on From Here to Eternity are an unnecessary intrusion – that sat alongside Space in the UK charts. If there was a genuine sound of 1977 – a new, revolutionary, game-changing musical creation – then it was surely this. Magic Fly sounds like something from 1982 but is much, much cooler. It sat in the runner-up position for three weeks, unable to shift Presley and claim the top spot that it so richly deserved. This seems a much bigger scandal than God Save the Queen not reaching Number 1, to be honest.
Not exactly – in fact not remotely – synth music, but propping up the presence of instrumentals in the chart towards the end of the year was Meco’s Star Wars Theme – a novelty disco number that, despite its reputation, uses orchestral sounds when it might have benefitted from synths; the theme tune to TV series Who Pays the Ferryman? by Yannis Markoupoulos; and the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band’s version of The Floral Dance, the sort of oddball hit that could never happen now but back in 1977 reached No.2 at the start of December and stayed there for six weeks, only kept off the top spot by the relentless reign of Wings and Mull of Kintyre. This is perhaps less of a travesty than the other 1977 records forced to sit in second place while inferior songs took the top spot.
It’s strange now to see just how many instrumentals became hits during 1977, a time when artists still depended on radio and TV exposure to find an audience. Then, as now, radio stations were generally not all that keen on instrumental tracks, yet these singles – often by artists who were rather unfashionable even before punk came along – somehow broke through. Sometimes, there would be two instrumentals next to each other on the chart – The Rah Band and ELP were side by side in the top 10 at the start of August and at the end of September, Magic Fly and Oxygene Part IV were alongside each other in the top 5. Given that it was still something of a niche sound back then, it’s interesting to see how much keyboard-driven music there was, how it spoke to the public taste and how much of it fed into the nascent disco scene, helping create the vibe that would propel that music into becoming the sound of the late 1970s and paved the way for the electronic dance music explosion of a decade later.
* I’ve yet to see any compelling evidence that this was actually the case rather than wish-fulfilment from those music documentarian revisionists who like to pretend that punk had more mainstream impact than the chart evidence suggests. There’s every chance that Rod Stewart actually did sell more records, given his wider appeal and heavy radio play. If you worked through the Top 40s for the second half of 1977 – the year that punk allegedly changed everything – you’d see little evidence that this singles-based genre even existed, let alone that it was the defining sound of the year.
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