Slightly odd and very groovy Belgian synthpoppers Telex are getting ready for a renaissance. Having enjoyed their first success in the late 1970s, they are digging into their back catalogue to reissue a collection of their many highlights. And no one is more surprised than the group themselves
On 26 July 1979, Telex made their one and only appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’. Their metronomic, sardonic cover of Bill Haley & The Comets’ ‘Rock Around The Clock’ had slipped quietly into the UK charts at Number 34. But rather than being nurtured by the makers of the programme as the exotic creatures they were, Telex were considered more a curiosity to try some new special effects on.
The Comets and their ungainly teddy boy singer had caused teen mania in Britain in 1956. The Belgian electronic trio covering the landmark single 23 years later, however, were met mostly with bemusement by Auntie Beeb. Telex were bemused too, especially after spending some time in the BBC Television Centre canteen.
“Having a meal at the BBC was quite an event,” says Telex frontman Michel Moers. “We were suddenly surrounded by a crew of Roman soldiers drinking beer after a day’s filming.”
Michael and his bandmate Dan Lacksman start laughing as they recall that day more than four decades ago.
“I sat next to Gary Numan for a whole hour,” continues Michel. “He didn’t say anything and nor did we, maybe because we were a bit nervous. That was also very strange.”
“I don’t know if you know Pete Waterman from Waterman Aitken Stock?” asks Dan, reeling off the names of the 1980s hit factory stalwarts in reverse order. “He was our guide that day. He wasn’t famous for his productions yet. He drove us everywhere at the BBC and he stayed with us. I have good memories of Peter. He was a really nice guy and I think he later did a remix of one of our tracks.”
“He remixed ‘Moskow Diskow’ and he put a saxophone on it,” interjects Michel, looking nonplussed.
“A saxophone!” roars Dan. “Whoa! Saxophone!”
As well as Telex and Tubeway Army, the programme also featured punky popsters Buzzcocks and The Undertones, plus American jazz-rock outfit Spyro Gyra. It was compered by Jimmy Savile wearing a wacky dress.
“The big hit of the moment was The Boomtown Rats,” remembers Dan. “Something about Mondays. It was always on the radio.”
Telex were not a band who played live very often. In the early days, they’d resolved never to perform if they could get away with it. And if they had to, they’d wear masks.
“We thought the music was more important than who we were,” says Michel. “Also, we live in a small country, so we wanted to be able to lead normal lives. Of course, you have Daft Punk now.”
Disguises have been prevalent in dance culture for decades. But in the 1970s, the only people who regularly wore masks were wrestler Kendo Nagasakiz and the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the left-wing militant group. The nefarious activities of German terrorists made face coverings too controversial for television, so Telex approached their ‘Top Of The Pops’ appearance with a detachment bordering on sang-froid, perhaps intimating that they’d rather be somewhere else.
Michel performed ‘Rock Around The Clock’ from the comfort of a deckchair, a newspaper clutched in his hand. He was flanked by Dan and Minimoogist Marc Moulin, playing their synthesisers side-on and giving an occasional choreographed wave. It was all delivered in such a deadpan way that it added to the impression Telex weren’t exactly taking the occasion seriously. Back then, the charts were full of disco bangers from the likes of Chic, Sister Sledge and Amii Stewart, making Telex appear positively sedentary by comparison.
Throwing Pan’s People on to add some energy wouldn’t have helped much. So given that Telex would have looked more at home on ‘Tomorrow’s World’, the BBC graphics department decided to go into overdrive with Quantel effects. The result is one of the most confusing three-and-a-half minutes in British television history.
Michel’s face was projected behind the band by the power of bluescreen throughout the track, flipping left and right and sometimes turning upside down at the whim of the effects unit. At one point, his beard expanded so widely that it looked like a huge hairy sofa, with the background and foreground merging like a particularly nausea-inducing Magic Eye picture.
“They’d just got a Quantel machine,” says Michel. “And since we were making electronic music and we’d recently entered the charts, they thought we’d be the ideal act to use it on.”
At the time, the Musicians’ Union were exerting pressure on the BBC to keep the music on the programme live. Artists performed with the in-house orchestra or, as a compromise, were asked to re-record their tracks before miming them on the show, a process that would take much longer than the far simpler matter of a few takes with the synthesisers of the day. Michel recalls Dan’s wife having to speak with a BBC representative to try to appease him.
“Everything had to be live to protect musicians,” says Dan. “It wasn’t possible for us to do the song with the orchestra, so they offered us a day in the studio to re-record the track. That wouldn’t have been enough time, though.”
In the end, Telex surreptitiously switched the tapes with their own masters, with Dan producing a brand new remix for the show.
“And because of this new machine they had, we were given an extra day in the studio!” says Dan, enthusiastically. “This was very special, I think. It was a big adventure.”
It’s a shame that it was such a dog’s dinner visually, but it’s not a performance you’re likely to forget in a hurry.
The idea for Telex popped up one day when Marc Moulin and Dan Lacksman were having lunch between recording sessions for Kamikaze Records, the former’s small independent label.
Kamikaze only released four albums in their short tenure towards the end of the 1970s, most notably ‘Onze Danses Pour Combattre La Migraine’, the debut long-player from Belgian avant-pop outfit Aksak Maboul. This was music that was wilfully obscure, delighting in its own irrelevance to mainstream tastes.
The musicians involved in the label included Aksak’s Marc Hollander, who later founded Crammed Discs, and Parisian ethno-dadaist composer Ariel Kalma. Dan Lacksman had also been drafted in to help on several occasions, having worked with Marc Moulin many times previously, on one occasion adding synths to the oeuvre of the wonderful 70s jazz fusion band Placebo (not to be confused with the nasally Britpop upstarts).
“I remember being in the cafeteria after one of those sessions and Marc saying, ‘Let’s form an electronic group together’,” grins Dan.
Viewed through today’s optics, this might not seem particularly revolutionary, but there was nothing like Telex in Belgium at the time. The country’s best-known musical sons were Jacques Brel, although he’d turned his back on Brussels to become a celebrated chansonnier in Paris and was now on his last legs, and Plastic Bertrand, who had enjoyed a novelty punk hit with ‘Ça Plane Pour Moi’, largely thanks to producer Lou Deprijck. In terms of electronic music, only a handful of groups around the world were breaking similar ground, with Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Devo and Yellow Magic Orchestra leading the way.
“I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a great idea, but we will need a singer’,” continues Dan. “So then Marc said, ‘What about Michel Moers, who worked with us a few weeks ago?’.”
Michel had recorded three tracks on a Kamikaze compilation album called ‘Noises’, but he was best known for his work in the folk collective Nuit Câline À La Villa Mon Rêve. Both Michel and Dan scoff at the suggestion that Telex were effectively a Belgian supergroup and it would have been interesting to get Marc’s take on that, but he’s sadly no longer with us. The musician and journalist died in 2008, leaving a legacy of weird and wonderful sounds and well-chosen words, both in print and as a broadcaster.
“Marc was open to all kinds of music and so am I, so it was always a pleasure to work together,” says Dan.
“Marc was a thinker,” adds Michel. “He usually had ideas before doing things, which is the opposite of how I am. I would write the lyrics, but many times it was Marc who had the concept. He was talented, humble, nice, intelligent, funny, very tongue-in-cheek… and he was a good friend with a sense of diplomacy.”
He was also devoted to his dog.
“He had a dog called Sadie and he really loved her,” continues Michel. “He would walk her in the park and take her to interviews and recording sessions. Sadie was a real discovery for him. He hated dogs before getting that nice red and white one. For a long time, I thought I’d given him the only kind of dog he could stand – a toy one you put in the rear window of your car that bobbles its head on bumpy roads.”
The three men set to work in Dan’s home studio above a lingerie shop in Brussels. Their starting point was the old chanson variété number ‘Twist Á Saint Tropez’, which had been originally released by Les Chats Sauvages in 1962. They recorded their electronic version using Dan’s eight-track.
“I don’t remember exactly why we chose that song,” he says. “But the lyrics are completely surreal, you know.”
“We were trying to find something that was specifically from the continent,” says Michel. “We didn’t want to use guitars and we were intrigued by electronic music because at that time, with people like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, it wasn’t contingent on rhythm.”
Were Telex anti-rock ’n’ roll?
“We weren’t anti-anything,” replies Michel. “We were just trying to find our vocabulary and we chose a well-known song to help us to do that.”
As it turned out, they secured a record deal faster than it takes to, well, send a telex.
“We switched the machines on and we did the track at a slow tempo,” explains Dan. “It was quite basic, really. I did a rough mix of it and then Marc said he’d play it to one of his friends. The first person to hear it was Herman Van Laar from the Roland Kluger Music label. He put this cassette on in the car, liked it, played it to his boss, and the next thing we knew we had a record deal! I said ‘Stop! Stop! That was just a rough mix…’.”
The group knew they had to respond quickly.
“I raced to do it,” says Dan, laughing. “I added some snare and some fills to make it a bit more interesting and then we had to come up with a B-side. That was it. We had our first single.”
‘Twist Á Saint Tropez’ was released on RKM in Belgium and on Sire in the UK in the summer of 1978. For the flip side, Marc scanned the pages of the newspapers for inspiration. ‘Le Fond De L’Air’ features a heavily vocoded Michel dispassionately reading out a story about a factory exploding over a robotic sound bed, with cascading bubble noises competing for the listener’s attention.
The story of the studio above the lingerie store stretches back to December 1963, when Dan Lacksman installed his first tape machine in what was originally his parents’ dining room. The house in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek was slowly invaded with more and more equipment – Sony two-track recorders, a TEAC A-3340S four-track, then an 80-8 Tascam series eight-track with DBX noise reduction, and so on.
Dan was also an early adopter of synths. He wasn’t the first Belgian musician to own one, but he became the first artist in the country to make a living from playing synths at recording sessions and live gigs.
“Ever since I heard about the synthesiser, I was interested,” he says. “I was working at the Studio Madeleine in Brussels and one of the guys who was delivering equipment there was representing EMS in Belgium. He gave me the manual for the EMS VCS 3, which I used to take to bed with me.”
Having persauded his family to lend him a considerable amount of money, Dan travelled to London to buy a VCS 3 and keyboard from EMS in 1971.
“I remember crossing over the river on Putney Bridge from the metro station to reach the showroom. I met some very nice people who they showed me the VCS 3 and that convinced me even more that it was the right choice for me as my initial synthesiser purchase.
“And as soon as I took it away, Hot Butter’s ‘Popcorn’ became a big hit all over Europe. Suddenly, everyone was discovering the synthesiser and wanting to have electronic sounds on their tracks. My boss at the studio made a showreel to demonstrate to producers that I had a synth and I was ready to go. I started doing sessions almost immediately.”
Just a few months after ‘Popcorn’ – a track written by Gershon Kingsley and performed by Hot Butter on a Moog – Dan had his own success in Belgium with ‘Coconut’, a single released under the pseudonym The Electronic System. With the money he made from the record, he bought himself a modular synth the following year.
Once he’d secured a permanent recording space, Dan recorded more solo tracks, as well as undertaking radio, TV and film commissions and producing artists such as The Balladeers, The Bowling Balls, Les Tueurs De La Lune De Miel (aka The Honeymoon Killers) and singer Claude Lombard. Plus his work at Kamikaze Records, of course. When Telex broke out with ‘Twist A St Tropez’, he also released the magnificent ‘Disco Computer’ single under the name Trans Volta (a pun on transistor and Travolta), one of the earliest records to feature the Sennheiser VSM-201 vocoder. This was the same year that Kraftwerk and Herbie Hancock also started using one.
Dan was the only member of Telex who was a full-time musician. Michel Moers had a successful concomitant career as a graphic designer and an architect, while Marc Moulin worked as a radio DJ as well as a print journalist. He hosted a number of different shows, mainly playing esoteric delights, including a slot on Radio Cité that had a large audience. He modestly refrained from ever playing Telex on the radio, though.
“Everything we did was popular elsewhere before coming back to Belgium,” says Michel, who sounds almost regretful that Marc wasn’t a little more unscrupulous, although he and Dan see the funny side of it.
“Unfortunately for us, his radio programme was one of the most popular in Belgium,” quips Dan.
“And there was another DJ at a rival station who was an enemy of Marc, so he wouldn’t play us either,” laughs Michel. “So we had to have our success outside of Belgium first.”
Telex’s most indelible and influential track is probably ’Moskow Diskow’. The opening cut on the band’s ‘Looking For Saint Tropez’ debut album, it was released as a single in June 1979, slotted in between ‘Twist Á Saint Tropez’ and ‘Rock Around The Clock’. It’s been covered by Man Parrish and remixed by Carl Craig, Louie Gomez and, of course, Pete Waterman. It was a reference point for Belgium’s new beat scene in the late 1980s and, perhaps most importantly, a popular track on the Chicago house scene, appearing on compilations alongside Steve “Silk” Hurley and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk.
“We thought we were making disposable music, ready for the trash bin after six months,” says Michel, noting that this was actually their intention. “In fact, we were asked to do some remixes when new beat came along. Marc was cleverer than us because he said, ‘Well, we did new beat first’. I’ve listened back to some of those mixes and they weren’t very good, but they were played in clubs and discos. We are considered to be a bit like godfathers.”
Michel chuckles to himself, as if he can’t quite believe it.
Some might have assumed that ‘Moskow Diskow’ was a nod to Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’, but Michel and Dan claim it wasn’t something they really considered. They point out that the locomotive theme of the track suggested itself from the sounds they were making spontaneously in the studio.
“There was no tempo on the computer, so we put it to 132 bpm or something like that and said, ‘OK, seems good, let’s go’,” says Dan. “I remember thinking it sounded like a train, so we put the flanger on it and made a whistle with a few cylinders and an envelope. The basic track was the kick drum, the choo-choooo, and the whistle of the train. It lasted for eight minutes, because there was eight minutes left on the tape. It came together very quickly.”
“It might have been about a train, but the original idea was to come up with French words that Americans would understand – fantastique, musique, Brigitte Bardot,” says Michel. “Then it occurred to us that a train has a restaurant carriage and we decided to have a discotheque in ours instead. There was also a revival of Russian constructivist art at that time, with lots of people using it. We often poked fun at clichés like that to make them amusing or interesting.”
Telex got to poke fun on an international scale in 1980, when they were invited to represent Belgium at the Eurovision Song Contest. The event was hosted by the Netherlands, so the group were up before The Hague.
“The record company asked us if we wanted to go,” says Michel. “We thought, ‘Don’t be stupid’. And then 10 days later we thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s something we might want to do’. After all, Eurovision is the epitome of pop music. So we decided to go, but to go with something special – a song that talked about Eurovision itself.”
As well as being about the contest, ‘Euro-Vision’ features the mandatory key change and includes a cheeky phrase from Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s ‘Te Deum – Prelude’, the Eurovision opening music for more than 50 years, played on a synthesiser as a finishing flourish. When it came to performing the song on the night, there was just the tiniest hint of the ersatz pizzazz that some of the other competitors manufactured in order to hype the crowd (the following year, the boys in Bucks Fizz memorably whipped the girls’ skirts off). As Telex left the stage, Michel casually reached into his pocket, threw some confetti over himself, and quickly snapped the audience with an Instamatic.
So how was their experience of this “epitome of pop music”? Was it fun to do?
“No,” says Michel, laconically.
“It was not fun at all,” says Dan, shaking his head. “It was a bit boring. We were apart from the other artists and we could tell there were some who really wanted to win. It was very competitive.”
“We won’t go again, I don’t think,” grins Michel.
Ireland’s Johnny Logan won the contest and Telex came 17th out of 19 entrants, which was two places higher than they’d hoped for.
‘Looking For Saint Tropez’ was soon followed by two more albums, ‘Neurovision’ in 1980 and ‘Sex’ in 1981. The latter was renamed ‘Birds And Bees’ in the UK because somebody at their label was apparently offended by the original title. The English lyrics for ’Sex’ were provided by none other than the pop bard himself, Ron Mael of Sparks.
Given Sparks’ propensity for dry humour and their electronic adventures with Giorgio Moroder and Harold Faltermeyer, the collaboration looks like a match made in heaven, but their coming together was a fluke. It started when Sparks met the Luso-Belgian pop chanteuse Lio on a TV show in Paris in 1981. Dan and Marc had produced Lio’s ‘Le Banana Split’, the continental feelgood hit of the summer of 1979, and Lio’s next single, the equally massive ‘Amoureux Solitaires’, had been produced by Jacno. Sparks were keen to bring their own pop alchemy to Lio’s winning streak, but the planned session never took place.
“Lio didn’t show up,” states Dan. “It was that simple. Everything was ready, Sparks had travelled to meet her at a studio in Brussels, but she didn’t appear. She was a bit unreliable back then.”
It so happened that Telex were working on tracks for ‘Sex’ at the studio and Sparks had a listen to what they were doing. They liked what they heard and volunteered their services immediately. Among the highlights are ‘Sigmund Freud’s Party’, a title that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Sparks record.
“Ron’s sense of humour is amazing,” says Michel.
By the time they got to their fourth album, ‘Wonderful World’, which came out in 1984, Telex had undergone some changes in their approach. From the opening track, ‘L’Amour Toujours’ (‘Love Always’), they seemed to be taking their craft more seriously, with an increasingly sophisticated sound.
“It was the machines that got more serious,” says Michel.
“I do wonder if maybe we evolved too much,” ponders Dan, who always kept up with the latest equipment and was eager to utilise it in the band’s music. “We were the opposite of Kraftwerk. They always kept the same sounds to the point where they even sampled themselves.”
Telex went on to make two further albums, ‘Looney Tunes’ in 1988, followed almost two decades later by ‘How Do You Dance?’ in 2006. Neither of them quite captured the public imagination the way their earlier work had done, but they both have their moments. It’s certainly true to say that Telex were always way ahead of their time, which may be why their later works sometimes feel a little too intricate.
Over the last year or so, Michel Moers and Dan Lacksman have remastered around 60 tracks from their back catalogue, stripping them back and simplifying wherever possible. They’ve also selected 14 tracks for ‘This Is Telex’, a retrospective collection which will soon be available in the spring via Mute, reduxed and lovingly reimagined for a label that feels like a natural home for them. The email exchange with Daniel Miller that brought them to Mute was apparently as quick and unequivocal as the deal they secured with Roland Kluger Music back in 1978.
As well as the likes of ’Moskow Diskow’ and ‘Euro-Vision’, Michel and Dan have unearthed a couple of previously unheard tracks for ‘This Is Telex’ too. ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘The Beat Goes On/Off’ are two covers that somehow didn’t feel right at the time they were recorded, but sound magnificent with the benefit of a few decades having passed.
“Everything was played manually,” says Dan. “The exception was maybe ‘Moskow Diskow’, which was made with a new sequencer that wasn’t able to play more than eight notes. When I archived the multitracks, I realised that it was Marc’s playing – especially his basslines against the regular drums – that really gave Telex a groove.”
“Marc was a very good jazz musician, so he knew all about rhythm,” adds Michel. “That’s the thing about Telex – our music is groovier than most things made with machines.”
‘This Is Telex’ is out now on Mute