Review: Mike Batt – Zero Zero
Welcome to the age of Technofear
The late 1970s and early 1980s were a time of huge social and political upheaval. A political generation who had grown up in the shadow of World War II were beginning to take the reins, and remake the culture in a very different way to what had gone before. In this country in particular it introduced us to the grim new world of Thatcherism and the economic austerity that accompanied the dismantling of a social contract that had stayed in place for a generation. The collapse of the era of consensus politics, the convulsions of 1970s stagflation and economic travail, together with increased Cold War tensions made the world of the time an increasingly uncertain, and frightening place in many ways. Those of us who grew up in the era, especially in industrial towns and cities, saw the results of some of these policies, and lived in the often bleak consequences of their application. It had significant impacts in the wider culture, in what we read, saw and listened to in the media too.
In the UK at least, the process of de-industrialisation was beginning in earnest, with many major industrial centres feeling the impact of economic policies that looked to refashion the British economy without any clear idea of what it may become, nor took any great care of the consequences for those most impacted. One particular thread of this had been creeping up through the 1970s: the birth of the so-called Information Age. At this point, the pace of microprocessor technology, and miniaturisation was accelerating, and the presence of computer systems and automation was becoming difficult to ignore.
This happened no more so than in the world of media and culture, with the birth of digital visual effects, but most notably with the advent of (relatively) inexpensive digital sound synthesis. This was the kind of sound experimentation that had previously been the province of academics, and well-equipped labs and studios. It now found itself in the hands of a much more democratised base. What we saw was a proliferation of bands who had, for example, seen Kraftwerk’s minimalism, or the neo-impressionistic layering of Jean Michel Jarre and decided that they wanted to throw their guitars away and try a bit of that on for size instead. Suddenly, the mainstream pop world had a lot of very different soundscapes to contend with, as could be witnessed by the arrival of artists like Human League, Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, OMD, amongst many, many others. Even the so-called relics of the rock era were looking at synthesisers with narrowing and discerning eyes.
The thing is, very little of this futurism was particularly happy or shiny, in the way some of the more optimistic technological fantasies of the previous decades had been. No, lots of the oncoming rush of things to come was being met with fear and trepidation by people living in places that were quite literally decaying around them in real time. It’s a feeling that began to grow after the collapse of the optimism of the 1960s, and found its way into SF films of the period, such as Soylent Green, Silent Running, and Westworld.
It wasn’t by accident that around this time there was a resurgence of interest in works like Huxley’s Brave New World, Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, or (for obvious reasons) Orwell’s 1984. You might even include George Lucas’ early pre-Star Wars foray into SF, THX1138, in this list¹.
Two good examples of this restive and apprehensive mood are Buggles’ Age of Plastic, released in January 1980², and David Bowie’s Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, released in September. Lots of the sound of synth pop at the time is superficially bright, but it’s a very brittle kind of brightness, undercut by much more lyrically downbeat emotion. In the case of Bowie, there’s a rather grittier undercurrent where harsher, darker guitar sounds remain, possibly as an early progenitor of some of the “industrial” genre that was to grow up during the decade.
Into all this came Mike Batt, commissioned to write a piece for the Australian ABC’s 50th anniversary. What he came up with was Zero Zero, the tale of Number 17 (or Ralph to his friends), born into a future society where the emotional response of love has been genetically dampened to remove any of those tiresome sources of weakness. Surprisingly, given how closely I paid attention to Channel 4’s first week of broadcasting, I’d never even noticed it was shown here in the UK then in that first week of November 1982
When people use the phrase “very much of its time” about a piece of work, it’s often meant as a backhanded swipe at how badly it has dated. On this occasion, however, I mean it in a wholly more positive way. This is an album that wears its worries about the dehumanising potentials of technology, and what the lives of people at its sharp end will look like in the future very much on it sleeve. Visually, it also borrows extensively from the palette of the time, often using simple black and white, and elements of mime, as Bowie did. And all of this fits in with so much of the disquiet of the era. There are even faint thematic and musical associations for me here with ELO’s Time, which was released in July 1981. To deploy an increasingly much-used word, it’s all weirdly hauntological, pulling in images and ideas of an imagined future we had then that may, or may not, still happen. It certainly plays on those older memories of what we were told our bright shiny future would be like.
Musically, it has that previously mentioned brittle surface brightness much of that early 80s synth pop has, but this being Mike Batt it’s artfully weaved with classical influences, and like Bowie, the odd piece of unexpected instrumentation to keep you on your toes. At times, it is designed to be, if not actually discordant, than at the very least actively unsettling in musical terms: sharp, prickly, and cold to mirror its emotional landscape. And of course it has Batt’s impeccable melodic pop sensibilities, as the single, Love Makes You Crazy, demonstrates. In the spirit of the time too, there’s no happy, uplifting ending, though it’s noticeable that the final instrumental reprise moves away from the electronic back to the orchestral to add that extra, final little emotional punch to the tragedy.
And until this morning, I had no idea it even existed. It’s strange to feel an almost Proustian rush listening to a thing you don’t specifically recall at the point of its release, purely because it is so much in the key of the time it came from. It’s fascinating, and really rather wonderful.
¹ It’s tempting to mention Terry Gilliam’s Brazil here, especially because it too is heavily influenced by some of the same issues, and directly by 1984, though the film itself didn’t appear until a little later, in 1985.
² Though its famous lead single, Video Killed The Radio Star first appeared in September 1979