There‘s a retro party in Hamburg, and everybody is invited.
There‘s a retro party in Hamburg, and everybody is invited; guests are requested to wear black, look serious and bring a dry sense of humor. The German port city where this moody bacchanal takes place is the home of re-issue label Bureau B and DJ collective Damaged Goods, and their efforts combine for an archival anthology that is as danceable as your local ‘80s club night. But Sowas von Egal (loosely translated as “I just don’t care”) digs far deeper than the usual Top 40 hits, even in terms of European chart action. These Teutonic, guttural vocals and stiff new wave beats come from forgotten synth and post-punk groups who released records in small quantities handed out to friends and at gigs. Which means this darkly catchy compilation for the most part consists of small label and private press German synth pop from the early- to mid-‘80s—and it’s all good.
Träneninvasion’s “Sentimental,” originally issued as a 45 on the Welt-Rekord label in 1980, launches the set with a futuristic synth-shuffle beat and a dry vocal that sounds like a remote transmission. And an urgent one: It gets across its ominously catchy and not at all sentimental message in under two minutes. This synth scene is not all drum machines; post-punk outfit Der Moderne Man’s “Blaue Matrosen,” released on the short-lived Hannover label in 1982, begins with real and heavy drums before an electro-farfisa riff comes in.
The rapid-fire riff of Hoffnung & Psyche’s “Sie Bleibt Kalt” (”She Stays Cold”) seems like the dictionary definition of German synth-pop, with the cool, deathly dry vocals of Jutta K. and twitchy rhythms that will completely burrow into your ear. Yet as accessible as it is, the track originated in 1981 on a cassette release limited to 50 copies, produced in drum programmer Stefan Winczencz’ living room. In the same vein, but slicker, is Schwellkörper’s “Liebe, Triebe, Diebe,” (“Love, Drives, Thieves”), from a 1981 45 that was one of just a handful of releases on the AIN label. Its eerie, catchy riffs were achieved with an ominous farfisa-like timbre and lyrics sung by a guttural team who sound like they’re having a lot of fun extending consonants on “L-l-l-l-l-l-l-l-liebchen!”
One of the more widely distributed releases here, Berlin Express’s “Die Russen Kommen” (“The Russians are Coming”) actually got a US release on the CBS subsidiary Portrait, but without looking up discographic info you wouldn’t know it. That’s a testament to the consistency of this head-jerking, sunglasses-after-dark-wearing black-turtleneck set, its musicians tapping the same zeitgeist whether in a professional recording studio or in their basement. With 14 tracks in 52 minutes, Sowas von Egal is the perfect length for a comp, its multitude of dark voices converging enough for coherence yet diverging enough for a variety show that percolates from dense to minimal synth-pop with a few post-punk outfits thrown in for good pacing. And despite the language barrier, this music’s simple, effective elements will strike a synth chord in anyone with ears.