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Daniel Miller – Godfather of Technopop

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Daniel Miller is the most influential figure in the history of technopop. As artist (The Normal, Silicon Teens), founder and owner of Mute Records (and sublabels Blast First, NovaMute, The Grey Area), and producer (Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Fad Gadget), Miller has had a hand in many of the genre’s finest moments.

Miller was born February 14, 1951 in London and was attracted to the wild rock ‘n’ roll of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry from a very early age. When he was 12 he got deeply into the Beatles, only to be disillusioned by what he felt to be their sell-out record, “She Loves You.” He gravitated toward the R&B-based rock of the Stones, Who, and Kinks, which in turn led him to the blues of John Mayall and John Lee Hooker.

Miller took up the guitar at around 12, and later the sax, but considers himself “a hopeless musician.” In the early-’70s he was turned on to the electronic music of German groups like Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Neu, Faust, Amon Duul, Can, and the like, affectionately known as “Krautrock.”

Miller loved the possibilities for fresh sounds that electronics afforded, as well as the opportunities for nonmusicians. As punk unfolded in the mid-’70s, he even anticipated that the synthesizer would become its central instrument (which certainly became true of industrial and new wave, if not punk itself).

Beginning to experiment with electronic music in punk’s anarchic spirit, Miller bought a microphone and used it to treat his sax with effects, wresting tortured tones that God never intended from the unsuspecting instrument.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Miller attended film school and worked as a film editor. He kept up with new music as a club DJ from ’74-76, and purchased a synthesizer when they became cheaper in the later-’70s. On a summer trip to Greece, he read the car crash/sex novel Crash, and was captivated by its premise that crashes are the final extension of pornography, as flesh and machine violently unite. He even wrote a screenplay based on the book, but when that went nowhere, he turned his attentions to creating a song that would evoke the imagery and tone of the book, “Warm Leatherette.”

Released as the first single on his own Mute Records in ’78, “Leatherette” struck a post-modern chord and sold a remarkable 40,000 copies in the U.K. A rapid, thin electronic beat, synth braps, and a rising/falling two-note vamp support Miller’s detached monotone recitation of an accident and its aftermath, culminating with the line,

“A tear of petrol is in your eye
The hand brake penetrates your thigh
Quick! let’s make love, Before you die.”

The inorganic minimalism of the backing and Miller’s dry tone drain the flesh and blood from the scene, leaving an icy erotic frisson.

After the unexpected success of the single, Miller signed Fad Gadget to Mute and entered a “real” studio, engineer Eric Radcliffe’s Blackwing in London, for the first time. Miller felt self-conscious producing Gadget; he had never worked in front of anyone before. Perhaps in response, he created a phantom band, Silicon Teens, and recorded a burbling all-electronic album of classic rock ‘n’ roll songs including “Memphis, Tennessee,” “You Really Got Me” and “Judy In Disguise,” aptly called Music For Parties, essentially wrapping up his career as an artist in ’80.

Keyboardists Vince Clarke and Andrew Fletcher had formed a new romantic band in the Basildon area of London in ’76 called No Romance In China, which evolved into Composition of Sound by ’79 when guitarist/keyboardist Martin Gore joined. The addition of singer David Gahan in ’80 completed the lineup and the group’s name was changed to Depeche Mode (“fast fashion” in French).

The group’s key move was to forsake all non-electronic instruments. They attracted a large following around the clubs of London drawn to their snappy dance beats and Clarke’s insistent, memorable melodies. Miller saw Depeche live and signed them to Mute.

Their first single was “Dreaming of Me,” its proudly artificial opening beat, and two-note Close Encounters synth beacon signaling the creation of technopop. The song’s jaunty, mid-tempo tune is conveyed by Gahan’s earnest Ringo-meets-Eno vocals, a plinking keyboard line, and supported by whizzing synth washes and cheerful harmonies.

A near-giddy cheerfulness underpins the whole affair. “Dreaming” reached the middle of the U.K. charts in spring ’81, followed almost immediately by a second single. “New Life” jumps out of the box much more quickly, rushing at the listener with the urgency – cleverly augmented by a circumambulatory synth line – of “Complicating, circulating, new life,” generating an image of greenish plasma coursing through incipient veins. “Life” shot to No. 11 in the U.K., the first of a remarkable 24 consecutive Top 30 hits in the U.K. for the band.

The third single, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” was an even bigger hit, breaking the band in the U.S. where the song received ubiquitous airplay on modern rock stations like L.A.’s KROQ. An irresistible, bubbling synth line bounces in, joined by a synth bass, offset by an almost ska-like fricative on the upbeat, as Gahan sings Clarke’s most enduring melody. A sunny classic.

On the strength of the three singles and a general melodic consistency, the album Speak and Spell hit No. 10 in the U.K. and charted in the U.S. Miller was suddenly a hit producer and Mute was the home of a new genre.

Then suddenly Clarke left Depeche to form Yazoo (now called Yaz) with singer Alison Moyet. The first Yazoo album, Upstairs At Eric’s (as in Radcliffe) is another technopop landmark, showcasing Clarke’s melodies and Moyet’s dramatic, statuesque alto. Rising to No. 2 U.K. by mid-’82, Clarke’s success with Yazoo seemed to indicate that he had taken Depeche Mode’s future with him.

Produced by Miller, Radcliffe and Clarke, Eric’s is highlighted by the brilliant synth-ballad “Only You” and two dance classics: the throbbing “Don’t Go” – with Moyet wailing soul diva-style – and the shimmering, squirming “Situation.” Yazoo would do one more album together, the self-produced You and Me Both, before Moyet went solo and Clarke formed Erasure with the Moyet sound-alike Andy Bell.

In spite of general assumptions as to its imminent demise, Depeche carried on with Gore taking over the writing duties and Alan Wilder replacing Clarke on synths. Despite three more hit singles, A Broken Frame feels like a place-keeping effort, with Gore feeling around for his own voice, yet not wanting to stray too far from Clarke’s successful sound.

Gore found that voice on two sensational singles in ’83, “Get the Balance Right” and “Everything Counts.” “Balance” has a deeper, richer sound than earlier Depeche – much less rinky tinky – and a darker tone and theme: pondering one’s responsibility to the world and acknowledging that all actions have consequences. This change was akin to Bruce Springsteen’s move from the adolescent summer of Born To Run to the young adult autumn of Darkness On the Edge of Town.

“Everything Counts” weaves sonically within a carnivalesque setting between the queasy dark of the fun house and the cotton candy light of the carousel, while the lyrics question the ethics of materialism. Albums Construction Time Again and Some Great Reward continued the shift toward introspection and deeper, darker music. “People Are People” reached an industrial-like clanging murkiness, making the fact that it was the band’s first U.S. pop hit all the more noteworthy.

Miller is extremely proud of his work with the band. “We were all learning at the same time, and there was a really steep learning curve. Eric [engineer Radcliffe] helped us to become more creative with samplers and synthesizers. We felt that we were pretty much on the cutting edge of electronic music at the time. We were making records that sounded really different, and that, combined with very strong songs and great live performances, was very exciting.”

While this was unfolding, Miller became more and more absorbed in running his label. What started as a vehicle for his own electronic noodlings, became among the most successful indie labels in the U.K. with a roster that has included – in addition to the aforementioned acts – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Cabaret Voltaire, Einsturzende Neubauten, Inspiral Carpets, Moby, Nitzer Ebb, Renegade Soundwave, Sonic Youth, Throbbing Gristle, Wire, and many others.

By the time of Depeche’s Black Celebration in ’86, Miller was a label owner trying to find the time to produce. “Black Celebration wasn’t an easy record to make,” says Miller. “At the end of it we all said, ‘I think we should get somebody else to produce.’ I remember when the sessions for Music For the Masses started with Dave Bascombe – I went down to the studio to see how it was going on the first day, and when I left the studio I felt elated that I was no longer responsible for making the record.”

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About Eric Olsen

  • Jamie

    What a wonderful, informative piece. I have had nothing but admiration for Miller for over 2 decades now. It would not be any sort of exaggeration to say that he is the biggest single influence on my development as a music fan. I don’t like everything on Mute, but look at the stable: Nick Cave, Laibach, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Non, Alison Goldfrapp, SPK, DAF, Suicide, to say nothing of the dead and inactive (CabVol, Yazoo, Fad Gadget, The Normal, Nitzer Ebb, TG, to name but a few). Electroclash my ass, Daniel Miller is the real deal.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks so much Jamie, glad to find another Miller admirer; and I agree, that Mute roster is mighty imposing!

  • http://www.frenchviolation.com depeche moded

    Thank you very much, interesting piece about Daniel Miller. Do you have sources, interviews about Daniel Miller from 1978 / 1985 ? I just read the book Rip it up and Start Again which talk about post punk. Very nice but not focused on Mute.

  • ALAN

    WHAT N0OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO