It occurred to me the other day that, as writers – many of us plunging into National Novel Writing Month – we can learn a lot from eighties Brit synth-pop – and how that (briefly) re-framed music.
The genre was a child of the late seventies. Trevor Horn’s ‘Video Killed the Radio Star‘ brought the techniques together. Gary Numan was in at the ground floor with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ (1979). His signature instrument was the Polymoog 203a. I first played one in 1978. It had the Moog ladder filter, but never sounded fat enough to me. Numan evidently didn’t think so either, because he got his sound by pumping the output through a distortion unit. I did the same, a little later, with my Alpha Juno-2, already pretty fat and which could be uber-fattened with a Boss stomp-box. I ended up playing it, minus stomp box, in a garage band. (The guitarist ended up in the UK, writing and producing indie movies, I ended up
icing muffins writing history …but that’s another story).
The point being that 1980s tech briefly re-defined music, but looking back it was a fast track to weedliness. Step sequencers and Linn drums built songs with robotised and repetitive patterns – yet we looked on synth-pop as …the future. Drummers like Terry Bozzio and Simon Phillips were out. Electronic drums were in, get with the program.
It didn’t last, of course, any more than digital speedometers and watches. The genre peaked maybe 1985-86. Rick Wakeman lampooned the lot with ‘I’m So Straight I’m A Weirdo’.
The way synth-pop first stood out from seventies sounds – then rose and fell through the 1980s – speaks volumes about the way we react. About how we let our conceptions of what is ‘good’ flow not from pure imagination, but also from the way imagination is framed by its tools of expression.
What does this mean for writing?
Today, everybody writes stories with computers. There is even software made for novelists. And a lot of writers swear by that.
But I wonder. Is novel-writing software to writing what the 16-note sequencer was to music? I think it is. I think it’s framing everything in particular ways, directing our imaginations down particular lines. I think we’ll look back on the cultural norms of the 2010s and its tools, and say ‘well, that’s dated’.
Or will we? The onus is on writers to create – and to do so out of their own imaginations, unfettered by the way that the tools limit concepts. And every so often, somebody pops up who defines the next step. As Numan and Horn did in the late 1970s – bringing us Brit synth pop. They did it, at the time, by doing something nobody else had thought of.
That’s why I’m always suggesting things like writing notes with pen and ink. Or creating plots via jigsaws of note-paper. Or going for a ten-minute walk between chapters.
Ideas often come in from left field that way. And none of it is framed by the computer. I’m not dissing computers, of course – I couldn’t write without one, these days, and you couldn’t either. But what I’m suggesting is creating the ideas, the concepts – the framework of what you’re doing – by using something else. Then seeing what happens.
I figure that’s one way to get through 50,000 words of writing in a month. More to the point, it’s a way of creating something different – something that stands out. Something publishable.
What’s more, it seems to me that this kind of approach can help push us clear of the way our writing is inevitably framed by technology – and create something instead that is going to define the next wave?
Maybe. I’d like to think so. What are your thoughts?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Coming up: National Novel Writing Month prompts, more writing tips, more fun stuff…and more. Watch this space.