27 January 2010
Proto-industrial pioneer, and one of the architects of the DIY revolution in UK synth music, Robert Rental is perhaps best known for his pair of collaborations with other artists. With Thomas Leer, whose electro funk mash ups figure pominently in any collection of minimal synth classics, he released the brooding, epochal album, The Bridge, for Throbbing Gristle's Industrial Records in 1979. And with Daniel Miller, the man who signed everyone from Fad Gadget to Depeche Mode to his fledgling Mute label, he recorded a shambolic but strangely inspired live set at the West Runton Pavilion on March 6, 1980.
These collaborations have secured Rental a place in the annals of post punk, but his small but important body of solo work remains little known. Born Robert Donnachie in Port Glasgow, Rental and his friend, Thomas Leer, left their native Scotland in the late seventies to check out the burgeoning punk scene in London. Taking their cue from bands like The Desperate Bicycles, who had shown the world that it was possible to be successful in the music business on your own terms, Rental and Leer decided to each record and release a single on labels of their own. Leer would call his Oblique, perhaps in reference to Eno's Oblique Strategies cards, and Rental named his Regular Records.
They pooled their meagre resources to rent a four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, which they set up first in Leer's flat in Finsbury Park before carting it across the Thames to where Rental lived in Battersea. Leer recorded the exquisite pop paean to reclusive millionaires, "Private Plane," using Rental's "stylophone," a pen-like instrument that produced a vaguely theremin-like sound, to give the record its lo-fi futuristic sheen. Rental's "Paralysis," by contrast, layered splintered guitars, swampy basses, and sheets of discordant noise over an elliptical vocal that suggested nothing so much as a man allowing himself to be swept away by the river's under tow. The flip side offered more coherent fare, with the drum machine up front, and Rental's lyrical refrain ("We're vampires / Definitely") evoking the more gothic side of Suicide. "Private Plane" made single of the week in NME, while Rental's record went largely unnoticed, save by a handful of more progressive artists, like Cabaret Voltaire and Genesis P. Orridge, who felt they had found a soul mate.
Following their gig at the West Runton Pavilion, Daniel Miller offered to produce Rental's next single, and release it through Mute. "Double Heart" b/w "On Location" was recorded at Blackwing Studios in August 1980, with Rental joined once again by Leer on piano (for the a-side only) and Robert Gorl of D.A.F. on drums and backing vocals. The result is pure post punk bliss from start to finish. "Double Heart" is underpinned by Rental's moody-almost-dubby bass playing, with floating synth lines and piano weaving in out of a plaintive melody. "On Location" is a more dissonant affair, with Gorl's drums way up front in the mix, and Rental making excellent use of the fractured tape loops of his earlier releases.
"Double Heart" gave ample evidence that Rental could bridge the gap between synth pop and post punk, aligning the pastoral prettiness of Eno's Another Green World with the scenes of urban decay and despair that characterised PIL or Joy Division. A solo album seemed the next obvious step, and in the months that followed Rental turned his attention to creating some astounding soundscapes with his Wasp synthesizer, a British-made instrument that had a warmer yet more aggresive sound than the Japanese-made Korgs and Yamahas favoured by Depeche Mode and The Human League. In an article for Sound On Sound magazine, TG's Chris Carter recalls: "The first time I heard the Wasp was in 1978 while I was with Throbbing Gristle and Industrial Records, and happened to hear some demos by Robert Rental and Thomas Leer. They were writing very individualistic 'electronic' songs using just voices, guitars and two Wasps. The Wasps supplied all the keyboard and percussion parts, and we were amazed at the sound they were producing with these, especially as they were using no drum machines (I think they may have used a Spider sequencer)."
Circulated as a cassette tape entitled, "Mental Detention," Rental's home-made demos are dark, introspective, and never less than fascinating glimpses into an album that was never to be. Simply titled A1, A2, A3, and B1, B2, B3, and so on, these eight long instrumentals are less songs than architectural forms, ranging from the huge twisted heaps of a crashed airliner, to vacant office building concourses, and underground parking lots. Rental makes the most of his primitive gear, building his music out of the limitations of his resources rather than letting it be defined by them. The latter tracks are especially fascinating, with bits of seventies tv shows haunting the edges of the distant droning synths. Little wonder, then, that the A&R men of the day didn't snap it up.
Rental left the music business in the early 1980s, turning his attention to his family. He died following a bout with lung cancer in 2000. He was 48 years old.
Gathered together here are Robert Rental's two single releases, and the "Mental Detention" tape, each sourced from the very best copies available. Taken together they make a powerful argument for the man's talents, and our loss.
-- Crash The Driver