The Only 1983 Playlist that Matters: Electronic & Experimental

For better and often for much worse, 1983 was a year in which the technology we take for granted went public: the Internet, cellphones, the Macintosh, Microsoft Word etc etc.

The same can be said for music: two of the creations that came to define "Eighties Music" (as its commonly known) hit the shelves that year, specifically the Yamaha DX-7 digital synthesizer and MIDI, officially known as Musical Instrument Digital Interface.

  Put simply, MIDI allowed a Trent Reznor to make an album like Pretty Hate Machine by himself and allowed a Mark Snow to create fully orchestral scores TV shows and films without the aid of an actual full orchestra.

German electronic legends Tangerine Dream were early adopters of MIDI technology and put it to use for Hollywood, naturally. Their soundtrack for Risky Business -- which made Tom Cruise a star -- is a landmark for electronic music in film scoring.

No matter how it all ended up, I would argue that the music you're about to hear better expressed the weird, elusive energy of 1983 than most of the rock and pop music we've heard. The meeting of experimental music, cutting-edge electronics and low-budget/independent film soundtracks would be short-lived, but would truly capture that weird zeitgeist-lightning in a bottle, allowing us to look back, listen and see if there's anything we can use among all the strange revelation.


Ryuchi Sakamoto's soundtrack for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is another. Sakamato was using an early-ish sampler for the score; reportedly the E-Mu Emulator, but it sounds more like a Fairlight to me.


Brian Eno released the soundtrack for another big-budget Hollywood production in 1983, accompanied by his brother Roger and his protege Daniel Lanois. The music was recorded in 1981 and 1982 so it didn't take advantage of the 1983 technology. To its advantage, arguably; Eno would become fixated on the DX-7, much to the consternation of the fans who felt the digital synths lacked the warmth and spontaneity of his classic records.


Minimalist composer Phillip Glass used a mix of synthesizers and orchestral elements for his landmark Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack, also released in 1983.

Steve Roach, a Californian composer who's often categorized with Glass, sounds as if he went full-bore with the new technologies on his epochal 1983 LP Travelers, but apparently the sound was the result of innovative use of analog synths.

Glenn Branca existed in a similar space as well, an avant-garde composer with extensive contacts with the rock world, particularly the Downtown NYC rock world. His third symphony was released in 1983 and used heavily-treated electric guitars. 

I first heard this piece on WERS-FM back around the time of its release. I had been taking my usual after school nap and this was playing as I was waking up. Around the ten-minute mark I looked out the window and the street and porch lights were glistening after a fresh autumn rain and the world looked magical and mysterious and synched up absolutely perfectly with the music. A formative experience in my life, doubt it not.


Public Image Ltd. were also based in the East Village at the time, working on their aborted LP You Are Not Entering a Commercial Zone. Johnny Lydon fired Keith Levene, with whom he started the band, scrubbed all his guitar and keyboard tracks and pooped out This is What You Want, This is What You Get the following year.

This Levene composition acted as the title song for Copkiller AKA The Order of Death, a proto-Bad Lieutenant Italian production starring Lydon and Harvey Keitel. Released in the US as Corrupt, it was the kind of weird amalgamation that could only have happened in 1983. 

PiL-inspired Post-Punk bands like Section 25 and Clock DVA would ultimately go way overboard with MIDI technology in the 80s but the latter were still doing some interesting things in 1983 amongst the sweaty dance grooves.

Australia's Severed Heads also had a one-way ticket to MIDI City but still managed to produce some interesting musique concrete in 1983.

There was also some interesting experimental music seeping out from behind the Iron Curtain.

The weirdo avant-garde scene orbiting Ralph Records was quickly fading in 1983, after peaking around the turn of the decade. But there were still some interesting things popping up here and there, like this collaboration.

So what were your most favoritest experimental and electronic offerings from 1983? Drop your suggestions in the comments.

The come over and enroll at the Secret Sun Institute of Advanced Synchromysticism.  


  1. Speaking of "synthesizers" and "experimental" in 1983, my mind couldn't help but wonder about Bad Religion's black sheep release "Into the Unknown"; was it released in 1983? Sure 'nough, it was. It's such an inexplicable blip in their discography, did someone cast a magic spell that year? Your thesis is sounding more and more convincing.

    1. Total news to me, Shamus. Bad Religion had no constituency in Boston HC when I was on the scene. They were pretty much regarded as a poseur band. I guess maybe that was why. TBH I was pretty much oblivious to them and didn't really hear them until several years later.

    2. Being a 90s "punk" kid for few years, my perspective was completely different; the entire scene was one huge wave of pathetic posers (I came to realize), with a tiny handful of groups who at least had some decent music.
      For my part, compared to the other "punk" garbage I fooled myself into liking, I always loved BR's melodicism, and just the good ol' fashioned fundamentals (Greg Graffin's academic materialism is incredibly wearisome however). But for that second album, for some completely inexplicable reason they went full-on synthesizers-and-acoustic-guitar-prog. It never made sense in their broader history, and they've always disavowed it; but hearing more about the inexplicable year of 1983 from you, it perhaps makes a little more sense.

    3. (Weirdly, after getting sick to death of so many idiot 90s "punks" decrying the "sell-outs!", Bad Religion going major label was satisfying in a contrarian way. God I hated everything about all those Warped Tour fuck-wads.)

  2. Once again, some wonderfully 'weird' stuff here, Chris, never heard of most, so thanks.

    Also from '83:



  3. Koyaanisqatsi is a wild piece of music.

  4. And Tangerine Dream conceptualized and brought into being a whole bunch of gear we take for granted today. As an example, they had someone build them what would turn out to be the first external 'global clock' to sync their multiple synths to the same tempo. Brilliant people, musically and technically.


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