The Fairlight is the Penny Farthing of Samplers.

Look at this will you. (Go ahead, I’ll wait..)

Nostalgic Music Buffs Embrace The Return Of The Fairlight

penny farthing

I Do Not Understand. Fairlight is coming back and for $20,000 you can own your very own piece of 8-bit sampling history. That’s fantastic for nostalgia buffs with more money than sense, but to imply there’s any musical value in the exercise is .. I don’t know .. stretching the point a bit. Why not just get the (equally awful) iPad app? You could get a keyboard controller and a dedicated iPad for under a tenth of the price of this re-issue and your audience won’t know the difference. Trust me, 99% of the time they won’t.

(I think Unca Tom’s already got this whole re-issuing old stuff because we have no new ideas thing pretty well nailed, so I won’t go there.)

I visited the Fairlight factory during a visit to Sydney as a spotty teenager back in 1985. I had imagined I’d just rock up to the place and there’d be a shop front and a couple of demo units on display, but it wasn’t quite like that. Luckily they took pity on me when I said I’d come from Tasmania to see the CMI, and I got a short but pants-wettingly exciting tour of their demo studio out the back. At that time, the CMI was all over just about every record I bought. Peter Gabriel IV was one of the earlier ones that I owned and I still love the distinctive, disturbing sound of that record. Jean-Michel Jarre’s Zoolook[1] was a fine comeback after what I thought was the somewhat limp Magnetic Fields. And of course Ms Bush’s Fairlight album is one of the all time pop classics, as is Songs From The Big Chair.

Back then in the past it really was the future.

But times change, and things – particularly technological things – move on. The thing that gave the Fairlight its distinctive sound was the awful sample resolution. A lot of people had to employ programmers to actually operate the thing because the software interface – although admittedly revolutionary at the time – was diabolical. And of course similar to today it required a mortgage or some extremely dodgy business practices to actually own one.

So now we have all this nostalgia wave and the chance to pay $20,000 for an instrument that frankly, half a dozen apps on my phone could eat for lunch.

Parked_penny_farthing

I Do Not Understand.

Money factor aside, why ride a Penny Farthing when you can get a modern bicycle with all the improvements that have been added over the years and enjoy a smoother, less ridiculous-looking ride? Your audience DOES NOT CARE. (Unless they’re hipsters in which case you all deserve each other ;)

The more I work on my latest project recreating a style of early-80s electronic music, the more I realise it doesn’t matter a jot what tools you use. What matters is whether you can raise the hairs on the back of someone’s neck by playing a particular combination of noises at them. (C minor ninths always do it for me.) Peter Gabriel’s record still sounds distinctive to this day, but the live versions of the same songs carry just as much punch, his (incredible) backing band could still keep playing if you pulled the power chord out of the CMI – and you’d still cry over Biko.

You can carp on about vintage authenticity all you like but if you’re not getting an emotional response out of the music – I’m sorry but splooging your pants over a bit of gear doesn’t count – you might as well go and play with Excel spreadsheets instead.

penny-farthing-crash.jpg-300

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. It says on the internet that Zoolok was released in 1984 – but I definitely bought it in ’85 from the new release bin of a record shop in regional Victoria. These days it’s hard to imagine not even knowing about an album for a whole year before it gets released in your own territory – but it happened.