Do You Have the Force? Jon Savage’s Alternate History of Electronic Music, 1978–82

Various Artists

A compilation of space age prog and disco novelties curated by Jon Savage recalls an era when the future was still something to look forward to

A recent Sunday broadsheet interview with the former rock critic Nick Kent raised eyebrows for his assertion that he stopped writing about music in 2007 as “there was no mystery, and rock’n’roll needs mystery.” Like Principal Skinner in black leather and a beanie hat, Kent had assessed the landscape and come to the shock conclusion that it was the kids who were wrong.

I couldn’t find the statement annoying, though, as some did, as it cemented what was quite obvious when I read Kent’s anthology The Dark Stuff in my teens about a decade ago. If this is “as close as British music journalism ever came to producing a legend”, then it’s a legend that I suspect will be of little use – if at all – for future generations. Jon Savage’s Do You Have the Force? is a compilation billed as an alternate history of electronic music, but it’s the alternative that became axiomatic. It won.

By 1978, all the things that Nick Kent liked about punk were boring Jon Savage, and this compilation catalogues the electronic music Savage found which more closely mirrored the ideological bursts he had found so appealing in punk in the first place. “Annihilating insistence on sex as opposed to puritan disgust” is one reason listed in the liner notes, “a delight in technology as opposed to a Luddite reliance on the standard Rock group format, acceptance of mass production as opposed to individuality.”

As such, if we are to look to 1977 for Year Zeros, we’re better going a few miles north of the Kings Road, just west of Watford, to Elstree Film Studios. The release of Star Wars created a commercial imperative for ambitious young producers to create music – novelty music, whatever – that had a futuristic impulse. By this point in disco’s history, for the major labels any gimmick would do – this gave the homophobes behind Disco Sucks the fig leaf they had been craving to denigrate the entire genre. What this impulse provided was tracks like Meco’s ‘Star Wars Theme’ disco mix, Sarah Brightman’s ‘I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper’, and – on this compilation – Transvolta’s terrific ‘Disco Computer’ (punctuated by R2D2 bleeps) as well as the Droids’ ‘Do You Have the Force’.

The story here is how between 1978 and 1982, this impulse shed its novelty genesis and its spoils were divvied up between gay producers making high-energy soundtracks for carnal abandon, and quiet Hawkwind fans smoking spliffs in Midlands bedrooms. Savage shows us how these impulses would converge. Take ‘Extraterrestrial Lover’ by Sylvia Love, which is a classic pantomime horse between these two impulses – the first half being a chart-facing, luscious disco hit, its rear a portal to entirely new ways of thinking about music and the dancefloor. A pair of Detroit high schoolers would, however, fuse body music with head music most successfully with 1981 single ‘Sharevari’. Anticipating techno, it’s probably the most important recording collected here. We know what happens next.

Amongst out and out bangers like the 12” edit of Harry Thurmann’s ‘Underwater’, Savage teases out the points at which the head music impulse in electronic music becomes more sophisticated. All phased percussion and ambient funk, I can still hear ideas from ‘Steam Away’ by Flying Lizards (from their still under-regarded 1981 album Fourth Wall) being mined as recently as this week on the new Virginia Wing album. BGM’s ‘And’ swaggers brilliantly, whilst Rayon Laser’s ‘Funky Meteor’ does little of what it says on the tin with a stern, futuristic mood piece.

Cultural history is what Savage does best, and the sleeve notes are typically solid and insightful. Being from Blackburn, I had no idea that when Suicide performed on the White Riot tour, Alan Vega was arrested for possession of hash when the tour hit my home town, and this would feed into the lyrics on ‘Mr. Ray’, which appears here. Savage tells a brilliant story, and of course the appeal for these compilations is nostalgia for a time when culture could progress this rapidly in just four years – discussions around this subject, blooming in the 2000s, have now lost their confidence, rendered more complex and uneasy by the Covid pause. All the same, this excellent compilation offers fresh understandings of a period in sonic history where the future was up for grabs. Were it still possible for me to exist as an occasional cash-in-hand amateur bar DJ, this record would never be out of my bag.

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