:: Article

The New Europeans – Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Hurts and Disco Lento

By Guy Mankowski.

The post-punks were good at using their output to develop phantasmagoria. Making representations, in pop videos, photographs and sleeve art that placed them in a stylised, alluring world.

David Bowie described how, post-Ziggy, he created the hugely influential album Low as a response to ‘seeing the Eastern Bloc [of Europe], how East Berlin survives in the midst of it.’ He felt unable to articulate this landscape in words, saying ‘it was something that…required textures.’  These textures found themselves represented on both sides of Low. Side one contained fragmented, synth-drenched songs, decorated with Carlos Alomar’s guitar, which were at once concise and exploratory. Side two held desolate instrumentals, broken with freeform vocals that cut straight to the marrow. In her book Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes, Europe East and West, Agata Pyzik accurately describes Low as a psycho-geographic album, on which Bowie mapped his inner landscapes. Caught in the clutches of cocaine psychosis, Bowie had fled to Berlin to detox, with Iggy Pop in tow, where he made Low. He was greeted with a strange, dislocated city: the empty shells of deserted housing and the ruins of war. Each of the two component blocs were deprived of information about the other. They, therefore, became blank canvases for the wheeling imagination, both for Germans and non-Germans. 

The post-punks were deeply preoccupied by Eastern Europe in general. Pyzik writes of ‘the post-punk Bowiephile obsession with the Eastern Bloc’: an encapsulation so neat that it renders an abstract set of ideas readily applicable. Pyzik elaborated, saying: ‘For the mythology of post-punk…three cities only really mattered.’ In her words ‘The Berlin-Warszawa-Moscow express used to map the phantasmagorical geography of the Eastern Europe of the mind, made in equal parts of ashes and brocade, death and glamour.’ The harsh aesthetics of the ruin, check-point and brocade were indeed attractive to post-punks.

Band’s such as Basildon’s Depeche Mode mined Eastern European aesthetics very carefully. In band photos they were often captured standing, in severe black coats against very European-looking pillars. Their video for the single ‘Everything Counts’ carefully balanced Eastern and Western aesthetics. On the one hand, they sang, stacked shoulder to soldier like East German soldiers on parade (even if their haircuts were probably too daft to pass even the most liberal military standard). On the other hand, the camera flitted admiringly over skyscrapers and flyovers, as if in praise of Western capitalism and its sleek edifices. Depeche sing of how ‘your handshake seals the contract / On the contract there’s no turning back,’ unconsciously predicting the hyper-capitalism that would surge in Eastern Europe in the years that followed. It was a balancing act that managed to appeal to the youth in East and West Europe, but for very different reasons. In Sascha Lange’s book on the band, Monument, she describes how, ‘for East German teenagers, Depeche Mode opened up a cosmos of endless yearning…for material goods not available on the East German market- posters, records, magazines.’ But Western audiences too found the appropriation of an Eastern aesthetic appealing. Other post-punks, such as Ultravox, made albums full of ‘angry exclamations of fear and loathing for Western civilisation’, such as Ha Ha Ha.

The ‘glamour’ component of the equation Pyzik refers to is perhaps most forcibly present in Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’, encapsulating as it does the post-punk glamourisation of Europe. The smoke-swept video to this song (recorded in fact as much in Covent Garden as during a snatched, budget trip to Vienna) attempts to capture the decadent, European opulence of an embassy party. Like many enduring pieces of contemporary art, it sticks in the consciousness as much for its failures as for its successes. The embassy party scene was filmed in a rented accommodation in North London. In it, candles and chandeliers light a room in which elegant guests are dressed in a curious mix of clothing. The outfits range from high society evening-wear to Blitz Club era New Romantic garb. Veils, long gloves, fur and feather boas abound, whirling against a backdrop of expansive staircases. Confidantes whisper in the ears of severe, monocle-wearing diplomats, and it is all very creepy and unnerving. In retrospect the video is not as enchanting as it could have been, with it now mainly evoking the 1993 Ferrero Rocher advert- famously housed at the mysterious ‘ambassador’s reception’.

The album that accompanied ‘Vienna’, on its cover photo, hinted at a ‘post-punk uniform’ that other bands such as the Scottish Orange Juice adopted in this era. That of the sharp blazer, the fastened top button, and the side-parting; eyeliner an optional extra. Such photos portrayed a young aesthete, deeply preoccupied with a matter just out of shot, doubtless with his eyes fixed on some real or conceptual European horizon. The album’s song ‘New Europeans’ suggested that the mysterious realm over-the-water was being viewed in aspirational terms, through its overall aesthetic tone, if not its content.

This enthrallment is potent enough to still be as evident in pop videos decades later. The Manchester synth-pop band Hurts deftly created a European mythology of their own with their debut video for the single ‘Wonderful Life’. Within four minutes they created an evocative visual landscape, rich with reference points, which proved that even in the contemporary era Europe retained a sense mystique for the English. From the lone dancer, dressed like an extra from a Berlin Cabaret, to the backdrop redolent of the interior of a continental art school. By the time the final, aching saxophone (straight out of a Tears For Fears single) wailed its long notes the message was clear; we are New Europeans.

In interviews regarding their formation, the duo described a desperate trip to Italy in which they discovered the sounds of Disco Lento, a genre of music concerned apparently with ‘slow, electronic ballads’. Disco Lento seems a wispy and attractive as the bands aesthetic- try to pin down exactly what it is and it slips through your fingers. The Wikipedia page that once existed for this genre has long vanished, making Disco Lento a physical and digital ghost.

It goes without saying that the Europe of this phantasmagoria did not exist. It was a snatched vision, its content altered by attempts to capture it. These stylised European visions then became an assumed reality of their own, even if, in the real-world, they never became a physical zone. But this vision had within it a strong enough core for artists to call and respond with it at will. There is, doubtless, a conceptual strength here permanent enough to endure across various artistic ventures and still connect with audiences. The unfamiliar may be party to these evocations and assume that somewhere, they can be lived-in. These visions might be useful as analogues, projections that are illustrative of emotions evoked, and the provocations behind them. But perhaps where such a vision is most useful is in how they encourage other artists to make their own creative visions as full-blooded as possible.

This extract is part of a collection out for review, entitled ‘Albion’s Secret History- Snapshots of England’s Pop Rebels and Outsiders’.


Guy Mankowski is an academic whose PhD concerned post-punk literature. He is also the author of How I Left The National Grid: A post-punk novel. His latest novel, An Honest Deceit, was published in 2016.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 8th, 2018.