New Musik’s near-total lack of commercial acceptance is one of the great mysteries of early-’80s pop. Their music, rooted in classic pop songwriting but with a forward-looking interest in shiny electronics, is both instantly accessible and coolly forbidding. This dichotomy is most clearly expressed in the split between group leader Tony Mansfield’s melodies, which are hummable, welcoming, and often quite bouncy, and his lyrics, which even Joy Division’s Ian Curtis might have sometimes found a little too alienated.
New Musik formed in 1977, growing out of a casual band of south London school friends who jammed together under the name End of the World; singer and guitarist Mansfield, keyboardist Nick Straker, and bassist Tony Hibbert drafted drummer Phil Towner, who had played on the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Rather than hotly pursue a record deal, the newly christened New Musik wisely chose to hone their craft first. Working during down times at a south London studio where Mansfield was informally employed as a session musician and apprentice engineer, the foursome recorded most of what would become their first two albums before approaching the British label GTO Records with the finished master tapes. However, before GTO released the first New Musik single, “Straight Lines,” in August 1979, Straker had left for a fusion-oriented solo career, scoring a minor U.K. hit with the jazzy disco instrumental “A Walk in the Park” and working on reggae sessions with Dennis Bovell and Linton Kwesi Johnson, among others. He was replaced by Clive Gates, who had previously played pub gigs with Mansfield’s King Crimson-inspired teenage band Reeman Zeegus. The new lineup completed New Musik’s debut album, From A to B, released in April of 1980.
Because GTO was a CBS subsidiary, Epic Records had first dibs on releasing From A to B in America; they chose not to, instead releasing an entry in their short-lived NuDisk series of 10″ EPs that collected “Straight Lines” and the group’s second U.K. single, “Living By Numbers,” along with both B-sides. After another pair of U.K. singles, “Sanctuary” and “Luxury,” the group’s second album, Anywhere, was released in April of 1981. Again, Epic declined to release the album as it was; instead, the label gathered a side’s worth of material from both From A to B and Anywhere and released the compilation Sanctuary. While Sanctuary does contain most of New Musik’s best early material, both of the group’s first two albums are strong enough that they deserve to be heard on their own.
After Anywhere’s disappointing commercial performance in the U.K. and Sanctuary’s instant oblivion in the U.S., New Musik went through a period of turmoil. Hibbert and Towner both left the band, leaving Mansfield and Gates to record the third and final New Musik album as a duo with a hired drummer. Unlike From A to B and Anywhere, which blended synthesizers with acoustic guitars, live percussion, and other classic pop elements, Warp is almost entirely electronic. One of the first albums to be recorded primarily with digital samplers and emulators, Warp sounds a bit more dated than the first two New Musik albums, but the songs, among the most lyrically pessimistic of the band’s career, are quite strong. New Musik split after this album, as Mansfield’s sideline career as a producer started taking more of his time. Through the first half of the ’80s, Mansfield produced hit singles for Naked Eyes, Mari Wilson, the B-52s, After the Fire, and others. ~ Stewart Mason, Rovi