The First Synthpop Song, Part One

Published on July 30th, 2008 in: Issues, Music, Pop Culture Holy Grail |

By Less Lee Moore

Read Part Two here.
Read Part Three here.

Although I usually consider the search for the Pop Culture Holy Grail to be a quest for a tangible object, this time around it was something more esoteric.

hot butter popcorn

It all started back in January when fellow Popshifter writer Hanna and I were discussing Dave Markey’s short film Popcorn, which features a piece of music of the same name: “Popcorn” by Hot Butter. According to Hanna, this piece was the subject of some controversy amongst musicologists (okay, music geeks). Apparently, there is considerable debate over whether or not “Popcorn” or “Son of My Father” by Chicory Tip is the first synthpop song. Intrigued, I did some Googling and found much more than I bargained for.

First, let’s address the heart of the matter: what was the first synthpop song? To answer that, we should probably first determine what synthpop is in the first place.

Wikipedia’s entry on the term is fairly polemic and cites no sources: “Synthpop is a subgenre of New Wave in which the synthesizer is the dominant musical instrument.” (1)

I’m old enough to remember New Wave so I can tell you synthpop can’t possibly be a subgenre of a movement that didn’t come about until after punk exploded in the U.S. in the mid-1970s. After all, both “Popcorn” and “Son of My Father” were on the charts at least six years before that.

Additional Google search results for “synthpop” yielded equally implausible and ridiculous claims. (2) There are references to The Human League’s Dare album from 1981 and assertions that Suicide was the first synthpop band, even though they didn’t release anything until 1977. (3) The most bizarre declaration comes from a message board topic on “The Most Influential Synthpop Bands” from Side-Line.com:

Kraftwerk—The Model (This is definitely the first synth “pop” song, other than maybe “United” from Throbbing Gristle) (4)

Good gracious. If Throbbing Gristle is “synthpop” then I’m Kim Jong Il (and I’m not).

The Stargarden Synthpop fanlisting can’t even provide a concrete answer; the manager admits to using the term “broadly” and lists the same bands found on that Wikipedia entry, which interestingly, does not include Chicory Tip or Hot Butter. (5)

lothar and the hand people

The only piece of evidence I could find which pointed to synthpop coming into existence before punk is an entry from the PowerPop Blog which claims that obscure late ’60s band Lothar and the Hand People’s cover of a Manfred Mann song is “pretty definitely the first synth-pop song ever.” (6)

I listened to the song and yes, it’s got some synth to it, but did this mean that Manfred Mann were the progenitors of this genre? I needed an expert opinion, so I went to Roger Manning (of Jellyfish, Imperial Drag, and more significantly, Moog Cookbook). After all, he has more than 50 keyboards at his house, so I trust his judgment. He suggested that I approach the other half of Moog Cookbook, Brian Kehew.

Brian got to the crux of the matter, by addressing the word “synthpop” itself and how the word “pop” comes from “popular.” This convinced me I should concentrate on charting records, not unknowns like Lothar and the Hand People (no offense there, Lothar). “What is a synthesizer anyway?” asked Brian rhetorically. “An organ creates tones from oscillators and filters. . . it’s a tough call.”

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5 Responses to “The First Synthpop Song, Part One”


  1. Popshifter » The First Synthpop Song, Part Two:
    September 29th, 2008 at 10:10 pm

    […] By Less Lee Moore In the July/August 2008 issue of Popshifter, I attempted to answer the question, “What was th… […]

  2. Popshifter » The First Synthpop Song, Part Three:
    November 30th, 2008 at 12:25 am

    […] In the July/August 2008 issue of Popshifter, I attempted to answer the question, “What was the…Not being able to resolve the quandary quite so easily in one article, I delved further into the issue in our September/October issue. […]

  3. Popshifter » MoogFest 2010: If You Build A Synth Fest, They Will Come:
    September 23rd, 2010 at 10:02 am

    […] of awesome music by the likes of Perrey & Kingsley, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Hot Butter (of “Popcorn” fame), Giorgio Moroder, Gary Numan, Roger Joseph Manning Jr. and Brian Kehew of The Moog Cookbook, and […]

  4. Mike:
    March 14th, 2017 at 1:22 pm

    I have had an early 70’s synthpop riff going round my head for about 4 months now and have tried so many searches to try and find it when i read this article and you mentioned Chickory Tip – it instantly came back to me – Thanks so much – a really interesting article

  5. Popshifter:
    March 14th, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    Hi Mike! I’m glad I could help you in your quest.

    Best,
    LLM

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