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Thomas Leer and Robert Rental and the Origins of Electro-Punk

My own mental algorithms bear me inexorably back to the modest, yet important, work of two of the  pioneers of DIY electronic post-punk, Glaswegians Thomas Leer and the late (died 2000, of lung cancer) Robert Rental (Robert Donnachie). These founding fathers moved to London at the height of punk, their leather jackets in full evidence, and hauled their cassette machines, effects pedals, guitars and electric bass and primitive synthesisers into their north London bedsits, and produced some of the most memorable music from that most memorable of periods (1978-80). It is said that Rental introduced both Chris Carter and Whitehouse’s William Bennett to the EDP synthesiser. He met Daniel Miller (The Normal at that time) at a Throbbing Gristle gig, which kick-started another connection - Rental went on to make a mini-album with Miller (on Rough Trade) and a single on the latter’s newly-formed Mute Records, both in 1980. He and Leer released the joint album The Bridge in 1979 on the Gristle’s Industrial Records (IR0007). It was a very close-knit scene,

Leer made Private Plane/International and Rental created Paralysis/ACC in 1978, and both were era-defining, in that they were completely independently produced in small amounts (Private Plane emerged in a batch of 650), with self-designed, photocopied and hand-stamped sleeves, and on their own, twinned labels. Leer had Oblique Records and Rental had Regular Records (a parallel to Frank Zappa and Herb Cohen’s ‘opposition’ of Bizarre and Straight Records in the late 60s perhaps?). At the time, these felt like genuine messages from the front line, a combination of ‘regular’ punk, through distorted ‘normal’ instruments and the more ‘oblique’ sounds of cheap (ish) analogue keyboards, which, particularly in Rental’s case, made for a cut-up Burroughs-ian sound field (William S, being the key literary influence, along with Ballard, of experimental post-punk.) Like the other members of the ’canonical six’, these sharp shocks to the system were, at least initially, also very short, and delivered in vinyl-single form. They both remain utterly of their time and yet timeless at the same ‘time’.

The unforgettably-titled Robert Rental and The  Normal Live at West Runton Pavilion remains my personal favourite product of these brief moments of artistic collaboration, a one-sided, 25 minute ‘electro-punk symphony in six parts’ (my title) and sounds like a partly-written, mostly-improvised juggernaut of analogue keyboard mischief and mayhem. The background audience noise is priceless as an aural enhancer to the whole experience. The Bridge stays closer to the ‘punk’ side, rather than the ‘post’’, and is a curate’s egg, but does feature the opening two onslaughts, the brattish Attack/Decay and Monochrome Day, which gave the Cabaret Voltaire of Nag, Nag, Nag and Silent Command a run for their money, We had to wait for nigh-on a mere forty years, for the eventual release of early Leer tracks on 2017′s 1979, to hear the cousins of these electronic-thrash numbers, on numbers like Semi-Detatched Suicide. It was an absolute delight to finally hear this hardly-rushed release. Crouch End (a tribute to the north London patch where his early material was made), on the other hand, sounds more like Boards of Canada. Leer might have garnered more kudos if this stuff had been released when it should have been?

 Leer went on to become a minor electro-pop figure in the 1980′s (but was soon dwarfed by the likes of Soft Cell, Depeche Mode and The Human League) and even attained the upper reaches of the (indie) charts with All About You  (number 11) and the double 12-inch mini-LP, Contradictions (number 8), both in 1982, and he’s still musically active and hopefully well, at the age of 66. But he and Robert Rental will be surely best remembered principally for their innovative role in the first couple of years of post-punk, at the inception of a genuine ‘movement’ (as opposed to stand-alone’s) which genuinely popularised electronic music.

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