Bands become mythological for a reason. Not because they sell millions of records or have their faces blown up on Times Square billboards; quite the opposite in fact. The true pioneers of pop culture are those whose impact comes later. Synth-punk originators UNITS are one such band, their influence stretching all the way through synthpop and new wave into contemporary electro.
San Francisco at the end of the 1970s was a fertile time. Aided by technological developments and aesthetically distanced from the nihilistic rockist cliques of LA and NY, a new scene was emerging. Inspired by punk in ideology but not necessarily in sound, this young breed of dystopic visionaries, art space prodigies and trash culture futurists were reshaping sound for a new age. Leading the charge were UNITS, along with only a couple of others such as Screamers and Chrome, lit the touch-paper for a new sound, a new scene. A new approach. Equally as influenced by experimental cinema, performance art and Brechtian street theatre as they were the music of Suicide and Devo, UNITS offered a glorious glimpse into how and what pop music could be.
UNITS centred around the line-up of Scott Ryser (synthesizer/vocals) and Rachel Webber (synth/vocals/projections), officially debuting in Jan 1979 in the window of a JC Penney’s department store, playing not a gig but rather performing as a backing band to a piece that dealt with the leisure activities revealed in the display windows, including sun-tanning, and a go-go punk rock party at the beach. Around them were agit-prop banners that asked “On Vacation From What?” and “Do You Like Your Job?”, and so the tone was set as UNITS early line up played in America’s most acid-fried city alongside bands such as Dead Kennedys and Crime, where shows were chaotic and phlegm-drenched, in front of genuinely unhinged crowds.
In 1980 came UNITS true calling card and masterpiece; debut album Digital Stimulation. Reviewing it at the time, Sounds remarked: “the debut from San Fran’s UNITS is possibly the colony’s first ever party-time electronic album, and frequently achieves the exquisite pop vertigo of our own Human League.” Re-visited today, Digital Stimulation is a valuable document from the dawn of the digi-age; all metronomical rhythms, wry lines and ice-cold delivery. Just check out the juddering pop of opener ‘High Pressure Days’ which, in lines like “Our paths still cross in these high pressure days / A crowd pattern will emerge / Exchange phone numbers, wither away…” seemed to prophesize Reaganomics / Thatcherism and the rampant consumerism of the incoming ‘me culture’ 1980s.
In the wake of Digital Stimulation’s relative success UNITS supported Ultravox, The Psychedelic Furs, The Police, OMD and Iggy Pop. The dancefloor-filling robo-funk of ’82 single ‘The Right Man’ brought a deal with Epic and heavy MTV rotation. With money being thrown at them, UNITS found themselves up at Rockfield Studios, sharing living quarters with Robert Plant. How far they had come. Yet by 1984, and with a wealth of unreleased major label material behind them, they were a spent force; possible victims of a business that just wanted to twist their cerebral approach for quick commercial gains. They split, and watched as many lesser bands and synth-toting solo artists took their sound to greater commercial success. No matter. The UNITS had made a classic of their genre. That classic is Digital Stimulation, and as the patronage of a new generation of electronic DJs and remixers attests, UNITS have found a second life and long-overdue critical acclaim in the 21st century…where their music belongs.