Alan Burnham – Music To Save The World By (Cherry Red single, 1981)

Alan Burnham 'Music To Save The World By' artwork

cherry red | cherry15 | 16/01/1981

Alan Burnham’s ‘Music To Save The World By’ was released by indie stalwart Cherry Red in 1981. As well as being something of an electropop obscurity, its interest to Mute fans is that it was produced by Daniel Miller and engineered by early Mute studio guy, Assembly member and Blackwing Studio owner Eric Radcliffe. The two tracks on this solitary release from Burnham were recorded at Blackwing, Mute’s studio basecamp for a good few years, which was based in All Hallows Church in South London. Hold on, apologies… I called this an electropop track didn’t I? Apparently we call that minimal wave these days, proof yet again that I’m not down with the kids these days at all.

Around this time, Miller was to be found producing the odd track here and there for non-Mute acts like Soft Cell, Missing Scientists and Alex Fergusson. I like to think that it was for aesthetic reasons or to help promote his nascent label, but the reality it was probably to make ends meet. Until Depeche Mode signed to Mute, the label nursed a small roster of acts and one-off singles that were unlikely to make Miller much money, so picking up the odd production job might well have helped pay some of the bills.

Could synth music save the world? Somewhat unlikely, but Alan Burnham’s single suggests it could. His vocal has a subtle, whispered quality that sits somewhere between completely captivated and slightly saddened, as if the observations catalogued on the lead track both intrigued and depressed him. Around his quiet delivery is wrapped a backdrop of ponderous bass synths, atmospheric whooshes and echoing bleeps that recall satellite signals being broadcast into space. In a blind listening test you might consider ‘Music To Save The World By’ to be a very early I Start Counting track. With distinct echoes of Miller and Radcliffe’s later work, this is a Mute record in all but name, aiming toward the radio-friendly pop that early Depeche Mode and later Yazoo would call their own, mixed in with a sci-fi sensibility that had inevitably surrounded music made with synths the decade before.

B-side ‘Science Fiction’ continues the spacey vibe with an enquiring bassline that gently nudges its way through the track. Hissing synths, bleeping melodies and live drums from Cam Findlay give this a more organic feel than ‘Music To Save The World By’, a throwback to a slightly proggier vibe with vaguely apocalyptic portents of a technologically-driven life on the horizon in Burnham’s lyrics. ‘Are we living at all?’ asks Burnham of a populous living in fibreglass domes. Maybe he hoped synth music would save us from that fate rather than being a contributing factor to the decline of mankind.

First published 2013; re-edited 2014.

(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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