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REVIEW: Close to the Noise Floor – Formative UK Electronica 1975-1984

Four disc box explores early electronica

Guest SDE reviewer Nico Pleimling reviews Cherry Red’s recent 4CD set.


The origins of electronic music go as far back as the end of the 19th century, when the first electronic devices for performing music were developed. It took a few more decades before the first compositions for electronic instruments were composed during the 1920s and 1930s.

However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that electronic music began to have a significant influence on popular music, with the adoption of polyphonic synthesisers, electronic drums and drum machines. The recently released Cherry Red four-CD compilation Close to the Noise FloorFormative UK Electronica 1975-1984 (subtitle: Excursions in proto-synth pop, DIY techno and ambient exploration) explores the wealth of electronic music emerging and developing in the UK from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s.

The 60 tracks featured in this nicely packaged set offer an extremely eclectic mix of acts and sub-genres, waiting to be (re)discovered by everyone who is willing to dive into more or less accessible soundscapes, spiked with early pop-induced electro gems. At a first glance, this musical playground appears as a rather messy affair. This makes it even more enjoyable to explore, because it offers a whole lot of aural surprises, especially those who’ve, so far, only managed to explore post-1989 electronica.

The artists and bands featured on the four CDs didn’t use the expensive synthesisers that were mostly in vogue a few years earlier during the Prog-era. On the contrary, they mainly relied on cheaper, compact, portable and – for that period – more user-friendly machines which became a serious competitor to the guitar as the most valuable do-it- yourself instrument. Among the 60 tracks included in this selection we find early key tracks from Blancmange, John FoxxThe Human League, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Throbbing Gristle or Legendary Pink Dots.

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These tracks are, of course, more than welcome to this compilation, since they are as much a part of the evolution of British electronic music as the lesser known, more obscure material that is by no means of a lesser value or importance. Some of the tracks featured on this set even served as an inspiration to later composed hits, such as Gerry and the Holograms’ self-titled 1979 released gem that shows many similarities to New Order’s massive Blue Monday which came out a few years later.

Each of the featured musical excursions, songs or experiments have their own liner-notes, some of which have been written by their composer or one of the band members, others have been borrowed from previously released essays. These texts give a deeper insight into the genesis and development of some of the compositions, as well as biographical information about the artist or band in question. It took about two years in the making before this ambitious project finally was released this May.

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The booklet housed with the four CDs in the hardcover package also features an essay by Dave Henderson, the writer of the influential early ’80s Wild Planet column in Sounds, which provides further insight into the first decade of British electronica.

Close to the Noise Floor is in large part a bow to a highly creative scene that was mostly left unnoticed back then for various reasons. Many of the artists most likely didn’t care about too much media exposure back then and their releases were not distributed via the mainstream channels. The music found here is mostly for diggers: those who cared to spend many afternoons in their favourite record store looking for a different listening experience, attended live shows of small do-it- yourself acts and cared to buy their handmade cassette tapes or vinyl releases. It’s music created at a time when people were not permanently exposed to social media or other online entertainment distractions. A time when they could sit down for hours and explore every single note of not so easily digestible material, until they got to the core of it and hence made it digestible for themselves.

Even though it does not feature any big names, the third disk of this compilation seems to be the most homogenous and intriguing. It mostly features tracks that can best be described as trippy, ambient excursions. Best put this one on with dimmed lights and avoid any kind of distractions, then let the music do its trick and enjoy the trip!

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Unfortunately, some of the featured tracks included here are not included in their full versions, such as Attrition’s Dead of Night which has been reduced from its original 22-minute version to a mere six minute long excerpt. That’s the way it goes with compilations and even though it collects a total of 60 tracks on four CDs, Close to the Noise Floor does not feature material from every artist of the period. In that context, it would be interesting to find out, why such an influential musician as Frank Tovey, aka Fad Gadget is missing on this comprehensive compilation that should find a spot in every decent music collection.

But who knows? Possibly Cherry Red Records will spoil us with another box set from that period in a couple of years! It would definitely make sense to create a companion compilation that focuses on early electronic music from that period that was more commercially successful. Overall, this well-presented and comprehensive compilation offers a whole lot of interesting material from a highly creative period that will never be reproduced in the same way. For a bit less then £22, Cherry Red Records have put out a musical treat for open-minded music enthusiasts, at a very decent price.

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Various Artists

Close To The Noise Floor - Formative UK Electronica 1975 - 1984

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Amazon de 6LP coloured vinyl box 18.69
Amazon usa 6LP coloured vinyl box 20.65
Amazon ca 6LP coloured vinyl box 21.51
Amazon uk 6LP coloured vinyl box 22.99
Amazon fr 6LP coloured vinyl box 25.22
Amazon it 6LP coloured vinyl box 18.69
Amazon es 6LP coloured vinyl box 18.69
JPC de 6LP coloured vinyl box 24.64
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16 responses to REVIEW: Close to the Noise Floor – Formative UK Electronica 1975-1984

  1. Kevin says:

    I see nothing on the track list that qualifies as “electronica”, a crap industry term invented in the ’90s because the big labels either couldn’t understand the differences among the various forms of electronic music, or assumed that the average listener couldn’t. I’m disappointed that Cherry Red would stoop to even allowing that dubious term on the cover…

    • Trash says:

      @Kevin – But is it a good compilation? – which is surely what counts.

      Personally I am intrigued and might give it a try…

    • Just sayin' says:

      Why are you surprised? Cherry Red has some mighty large examples of “stooping” in their history.

  2. Rare Glam says:

    I sampled the whole set on the Juno website in May. I’m open minded about this sort of thing even though it’s not my primary area of interest. But it sounded like one long ‘Warm Leatherette’ then. However, I am minded to listen again, as I like how the whole thing is presented now I can actually see the packaging and I always find Chery Red’s essay liners well informed and insightful, so I’m hoping the context will make a difference for my listening experience. That plus it’s much cheaper seemingly now, it was on at £35-40 in May I think. I’m a big fan of the analogue Moog, especially when used in glam / rock music of the 70s. Back in c.1980-82 I played bass in a band which used an Arp Odessey (a la Billy Curry in Ultravox) as the lead instrument, that made some very nice synth sounds.

  3. Brian says:

    How can they talk of early British electronica and not mention Cabaret Voltaire?

  4. Simon F says:

    I love a lot of the electronic music from this period, and indeed have some of the records included on this set. Much of it sounds (to my ears at least) that it’s all about to fall apart but never quite does (if that makes any sense!). This seems like a very fine collection, and will certainly be added to my growing collection of early electronic compilations. Good stuff all round.

  5. David Mc says:

    This is an excellent compilation. It captures the excitement and freshness of a nascent music scene. The presentation is also of a very high standard. Cannot recommend highly enough.

  6. Steven says:

    This certainly looks worth purchasing. Thanks for drawing it to my attention. I agree, odd that there’s no Fad Gadget. The use of the term ‘electronica’ does grate a bit, as others have said; it has always felt like a contrived, unnecessary term. But I’m very interested in owning this regardless!

  7. Joseph says:

    Always nice to see the effort made when it comes to such worthy if less accessible fare. Not everything has to be a million seller. I do appreciate the sampler approach of utilizing excerpts to alllow for more variety & exposure – the lazy approach would’ve been to do the opposite although I admit to not understanding the licensing if track length at issue. Cracking open the door is enough, you can always chase down more of what you want if it really suits your fancy.

    Shall be buying, and may it lead to further discoveries.

  8. baward says:

    Its interesting how ones musical tastes change over the years; I would have appreciated this compilation more in 1981 than at my current point in life. A lot of the tracks are unlistenable rubbish in my opinion, studded with some great ones.

  9. Straker says:

    Anyone who likes this could do worse than buy the Minimal Wave and Cold Wave compilations.

  10. John D says:

    John Foxx is in but Gary Numan’s out?

  11. Jon says:

    Indifferent for people, who never had any further interests in electronic music before. Crap for connoisseurs of this genre. Close to the noise floor? But Nurse with wound, Coil, Cabaret Voltaire, Whitehouse missing? Brrrr…

    • jsd says:

      @Jon – it’s synth based (hence “electronica”, presumably). Those bands you listed are more of the noise/musique concrete thing.

      It’s a great compilation, despite the title. I’m a sucker for a synth, and there are some real gems in here that were new to me.

  12. Edward says:

    It’s on Spotify if you want to sample it before taking the plunge !

  13. 2wicky says:

    I don’t understand these complaints about not having tracks of some of the well known top artists like Gary Numan on this box set.
    I’m quite happy to see many lesser known underground artists here, these are usually hard to find and some might be worth discovering, I must admit that I hadn’t even heard of the existence of some of the artists on this box set before.
    Gary Numan on the other hand has a huge catalogue which keeps being reissued and therefore makes his music easily accessible for both casual and hardcore fans.

    Also regular readers of this excellent blog have come across those interviews with Blank & Jones or Paul Sinclair’s explanations on about how difficult it can be to license some tracks for a compilation, I guess this might be the reason behind why sometimes one of the ‘must’ tracks is missing – the compiler either couldn’t afford licensing or didn’t reach an agreement with the owner of the rights.

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