Today see the release of the ultimate collection of the music of synthpop pioneers Landscape, across five feature-packed CDs. The box set, released on Cooking Vinyl, comes complete with a fully illustrated 52-page perfect bound book and exclusive signed print from the band's Official Store. To celebrate, we had the pleasure of a Q&A with band members Richard James Burgess and John Walters to explore their exciting and innovative career, and have original 7" EPs of Workers Playtime and U2XME1X2MUCH, plus an authentic 1979 Landscape poster, to give away!
Landscape – Richard James Burgess, Chris Heaton, Andy Pask, Peter Thoms and John L. Walters – is best known for the ground-breaking electro-pop of ‘Einstein a Go-Go’ and ‘Norman Bates’, which were made into memorable and influential videos.
Formed in London, the band toured the UK constantly during the mid-to-late-1970s, playing jazz, punk and rock venues and released instrumental EPs on their own indie label Event Horizon before signing to major label RCA Records.
The group used electronic processing, synthesizers, electronic drums, and music computers, and from the late 1970s focused on making records in the emerging genre of synthpop.
TM: Landscape formed back in 1975, touring jazz, punk and rock venues, and the band truly found its sound by the end of the 70s as pioneers of the nascent synthpop genre. What was the impetus behind wading into the unchartered waters of electronic music rather than using traditional rock instrumentation?
John: Landscape started as a vehicle for my compositions, making the most of the personal sounds of some really distinctive players, such as Peter (Thoms) on trombone, who was always outstanding. Chris (Heaton) was great at coaxing unusual sounds out of his electric piano, using pedals and then an Oberheim ring modulator. When we became a five-piece, the challenge was to make this non-standard line-up sound powerful, using a wide range of timbres, and we became a kind of live research lab, writing, arranging and playing a big repertoire of tunes that stretched what we could do with what we had, and drove us to experiment with new sounds. Andy (Pask) added fretless bass; Peter and I used pedals on our horns; Chris got a CS80 polyphonic synth; Richard (James Burgess) started to experiment with pick-ups and electronic drums; I got a Lyricon and a Wind Synthesizer Driver. Peter added a P/V synth to his trombone.
"Traditional rock instrumentation was not on the table!"
Richard: When Landscape started a lot of bands were using the same palette of sounds. We were never content to sound like other bands and the seventies was an exciting time in music technology with new synthesizers, effects pedals, digital outboard equipment in studios, and computers so we really went for it. I recall it being a unanimous feeling that we really wanted to be on the cutting edge sonically, while still making exciting and accessible music.
"Just the lack of a singer and a guitar player set the band apart, so we didn’t have much to lose really."
TM: I notice a marked progression from the instrumental debut album Landscape, which is chockfull of synth-driven adventures into jazz-funk, exotica and lounge to the second album From the Tea-Rooms of Mars… to the Hell-Holes of Uranus, which is very much a record that helped define the genre of synthpop with somewhat sparser arrangements and the addition of vocals on the majority of the tracks. What was behind the decision to add vocals and evolve the sound of the band?
John: The band sound was constantly evolving but the first Landscape album marked the end of an era of making instrumental singles and short tracks with distinctively different atmospheres and soundscapes. You can hear a bit of this on the box set live tracks and EPs, with pieces like ‘Stranger’ (actually a James Joyce poetry setting minus vocals), ‘Watt is Knott’, ‘Bagel Street Blues’ and ‘The High Window’, influenced by literature and movies and contemporary composition. We always thought what we were doing was commercial, and the live audience response was pretty wild, but we still didn’t fit in anywhere. Richard and I had already started to teach ourselves music programming using the MC-8 MicroComposer (which we immediately grasped as a sea change in synth control) and we were all alert to a change in the air. It felt there could be a place for us in the post-punk pop world by devising pieces with vocals, spoken word, musique concrète and fantasy electronics on top of what we could already play.
"We were carrying on what we did before – devising these distinct sound worlds – but on computers and in the studio instead of on the road."
And though it might seem as if we had left jazz-funk behind, we always wanted our tracks to have a good feel. Underneath the weirdness of ‘The Long Way Home’ and ‘Norman Bates’ are some deep grooves, and we missed a trick by not releasing ‘Shake The West Awake’ as a single. CD3 includes some instrumental backing tracks (mixed by Andy) that foreground that Landscape groove.
Richard: Recently I have taken to pondering all the theories I have had about life the universe and everything that turned out to be wrong and one I had at this time was that instrumental music was more universally appealing because of the lack of the language barrier. As John said, the response to our music at gigs was overwhelming. What we didn’t factor in was that the recorded music industry is controlled by gatekeepers who tend to steer music in a particular direction at any point in time. The other theory I had after we morphed into our vocal period was that love songs are kind of lame and it would be more interesting to write songs about social issues, apocalyptic fundamentalists, national economic suicide, AI, UBI, a post-planet earth existence, and a few other lightweight topics. We did get away with it on ‘Einstein a Go-Go’ though.
John: "Still the world’s most popular song about nuclear terrorism..."
TM: Speaking of nuclear terrorism, there’s some lovely serendipity happening right now with the huge cinema release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer when the title track of Manhattan Boogie-Woogie is based on the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
John: Yes, same-day release! "We had a project that got way out of hand." And Mark Cousins’ documentary My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock also comes out on 21 July.
Richard: Indeed, and I think it’s notable that the topic of AI has been top of everyone’s minds and agendas since late 2022 when ChatGPT was released. ‘European Man’ – the first track on the From the Tea-Rooms of Mars… album is about AI machines taking over all the work and we, aspirationally, postulated that there would be “no more work, only play.”
John: "When it came to lyrics, we felt that any subject was up for grabs."
TM: The band was known for ambitious and entertaining promo videos and song titles like ‘Norman Bates’ and ‘Gotham City’ betray a love of cult pop culture. Would it be true to say that the world of TV and cinema was one of Landscape’s biggest influences and how did the world of the moving image impact the band’s writing?
John: We were working at a time when you could stumble into all this interesting high/low culture with a library card and a copy of Time Out. Comic books, radio comedy, performance art, books, avant-garde theatre, cult television (though no one had much time to watch TV), sci-fi, film noir, video/kinetic art, late-night double bills, Beatnik culture, free jazz, concrete poetry, four-channel electroacoustic tape music, Radio 3, American Forces Network... We’d performed gigs opposite Annette Peacock; and Fran Landesman (followed by a screening of Forbidden Planet); and Roger Ruskin-Spear (ex-Bonzos), so we never thought of ourselves as particularly weird.
And we knew people from Not The Nine O’Clock News, which is how we got Pamela Stephenson to appear in ‘Norman Bates’, and Richard Curtis to script the video for ‘European Man’. The title ‘Kaptin Whorlix’ came from a comedy show about overlooked superheroes and we hired Peter Marinker for the album spoken word bits because I heard him reading Raymond Chandler stories on the radio.
Richard: Back in the early eighties, I commented that we conceived a lot of the music as a soundtrack to (non-existent) visuals. The videos were like a reverse engineering of the subliminally embedded visual material.
"Music is so powerful in the way that it conjures up images and feelings that are different for everyone but can be equally affecting."
TM: Of the three studio albums on Landscape A Go-Go: The Story Of Landscape 1977-83 5CD, which is your personal favourite and why?
John: From the Tea-Rooms of Mars… – we made a really original statement with that album, and each band member is featured at their very best. Having said that, we’ve really enjoyed rediscovering all our recordings during the process of compiling Landscape A Go-Go.
Richard: Without question, From the Tea-Rooms of Mars… At the time it felt very complete and coherent, and it still does to me. We were treading new ground. Almost nothing about the way we made that record was anything that we had done before and it wasn’t like anything we were hearing either.
"I hear all our diverse influences in the album; it feels to me like a seamless amalgam of the many musical experiences that each of us had had up to that point."
TM: The definite compilation of Landscape, Landscape A Go-Go: The Story Of Landscape 1977-83 5CD Box Set, is released today on Cooking Vinyl. In the streaming age, are you surprised by the continuing popularity of physical music formats and how do you listen to music yourself in 2023?
John: I really like CDs, especially box sets, and I have a big collection (partly from my time as a Guardian music columnist). Streaming is useful, and I love listening serendipitously to online stations like FIP and then tracking down music by newly discovered artists and adding them to personal playlists so I don’t forget them. Physical formats are always going to be here (I love printed books and magazines, too) but they are a smaller part of the market. The relationships between physical and online ‘content’ are in constant flux.
Richard: I have been a fan of streaming since the late 1990s – the access to almost everything is mind-boggling. However, unless you listen to hi-res streams or downloads, CDs are still the best-sounding format. They are the closest to what we heard when we mixed these tracks 40 or so years ago.
"The biggest loss we experienced in moving away from physical goods is the packaging and the notes. It makes no sense to me."
By now we should be accessing enhanced notes, images, and videos along with the streamed music, but we have lost that pleasure of reading about the music while listening to it. Perhaps the most egregious loss is the absence of detailed credits on digital formats. The lack of credits hurts the creators of the music and stunts the individual discovery process. Physical goods do make great gifts as well!
John: That’s why we went to a lot of trouble with the 52-page booklet for Landscape A Go-Go – we wanted it to be a good read as well as a good listen. And our designer John Warwicker just picked up from where he left off when Landscape stopped recording in 1983 and turned the whole box and contents into a highly original graphic statement.
Landscape A Go-Go: The Story Of Landscape 1977-83 is out now as a 5CD Box Set with Free Signed Print, exclusive to this Official Store.
Enter our exclusive giveaway to be in with a chance of the original 7" EPs of Landscape's Workers Playtime and U2XME1X2MUCH plus an authentic Landscape poster from 1979 advertising the band's classic debut album!
The winner will be chosen on Monday 31st July 2023.
N.B: If the competition entry module is inaccessible, enter the giveaway directly via the button below.