21/11/2013 12:02 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 16:01 GMT

What the '80s Meant to Me

What were we dancing to back then? Talking Heads' Life During Wartime and Kraftwerk's Computer Love. It sums up a lot. What was I trying to do? To be a composer, musician, artist. To make records like a band or producer would, in the studio but also to be a composer like Stravinsky and Philip Glass - whatever that meant.

I'm involved in a concert about the 1980s on 30 November as part of The Rest Is Noise season at the Southbank Centre featuring an all British composer line-up: Steve Martland, Michael Nyman, John Tavener, Anne Dudley and the Art of Noise, and myself.

The BBC Concert Orchestra are performing my piece 32 Frames for Amplified Orchestra written in 1981 - at the time I thought about this work as Velvet Underground crossed with Beethoven - and I'm also playing the piano in another of my works, Almost the Same Shame.

There are versions of both pieces here.

The orchestra will be performing John Tavener's work, The Lamb, which is a beautiful piece based on a William Blake poem (video here). In some ways there are few parallels between the late John Tavener's life and my own, except that his first big break came in the '60s when The Beatles record label Apple recorded his piece The Whale. I got my first real break when Trevor Horn's ZTT Records recorded 32 Frames in the 1980s.

When I was a student at Goldsmiths College in the '70s my idea was to leave the UK and go to the States. It wasn't so much about being disillusioned. I was totally in love with American composers, writers, poets and theatre artists. As a student I'd visited the Ear Inn - the heart of the downtown Manhattan scene - and had hitched across the States. I'd met John Cage and played in an ensemble with Christian Wolff, performed music by Morton Feldman, Terry Riley and Philip Glass and been inspired by a rare UK performance by Robert Wilson at The Royal Court Theatre. In my coat pocket there was always a collection of Donald Barthelme short stories or the poems of Berryman, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti.

So I planned to get out but when I stepped out of education in late '79 something happened. I got busy. There were things to do here! My first job was improvising at the piano at 8.30pm every morning for a room full of men and women in lycra as accompanist at The Laban Centre dance school. I was half asleep but really in a dream being able to spend my days making some kind of music. The decade went past in a blur of creative work and experience. I completely forgot to emigrate!

What were we dancing to back then? Talking Heads' Life During Wartime and Kraftwerk's Computer Love. It sums up a lot. What was I trying to do? To be a composer, musician, artist. To make records like a band or producer would, in the studio but also to be a composer like Stravinsky and Philip Glass - whatever that meant. The thought was a kind of innocent madness! To somehow connect my love of pop, rock and disco to the American art culture that fascinated me. Mixing up classical instruments, violins and clarinets with electric pianos and synthesisers and bass guitars. I don't want to have to choose between acoustic and electronic instruments.

This is a picture of my ensemble performing for the opening of the Museum of Science and Technology, LaVillet Paris in 1987 - piano, two singers, three DX7 keyboards, trombone, soprano sax and percussion.

Credit: A J Barrett

What were we looking at in the 1980s? The Face magazine brought visual art values to the high street, doing what Beatles album sleeves had done in the 60s with artists Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake. In 1982 I collaborated on a PTV record; Gen and Sleazy gave me their Throbbing Gristle box set - a brilliantly packaged object designed by Neville Brody. One of the records has a secret message scratched into the run out grooves - Thank you Paul Morley. In '83 I made a track for the newly-formed TOUCH cassette magazine label. Touch Travel was a wild mixture of experimental music and ethno-musical explorations. Hybrid was a kind of theme back then.

The days of the recording studio are over now but in the '80s they were moving towards a peak of development both technically and socially. People came together in studios to create, to think, to play and work. I started to make records with The Lost Jockey - a large ensemble I was part off. I was also working as an arranger, collaborating with different artists and producers and sound engineers in the studio. Suddenly I was working in studios that I'd known about from record sleeves - Air, Trident, Abbey Road, Basing Street. All the time taking cassette demos of my compositions round to labels. When I finally signed as an artist and composer to Trevor Horn and Paul Morley's ZTT Records in 1984, I knew how lucky I was. A record label with a state of the art studio. There wasn't time to think about it, there was so much to do.

This is IQ6 - a ZTT Records compilation from the 1980s with music by a collection of very different creative musicians including The Art of Noise and myself and a cover by the British abstract painter Kenneth Martin which incorporates Martin's painting, Order and Chance No 20.

People say that the pace of change is fast now but what happened in the 80s is more significant. The digital revolution happened; midi instruments, computer technology and sampling. I made a piece for the Fairlight Mk1 music computer in 1983. There were only three or four in the country. Blue Weaver (keyboard player with Amen Corner/Strawbs/Bee Gees) had one. I sat with him for hours, with my score, inputting the musical events of a piece called The Passage (see 'Andrew Poppy on ZTT' Disc 3). The Fairlight cost more than buying a house and was as heavy as a gas stove and used 10 inch floppy discs. Today you can do all that stuff and more on an iPhone but it all started in the '80s.

The real change is from analogue to digital. But it isn't from vinyl to CD - it's from wax cylinder to file transfer. On my last record Shiny Floor Shiny Ceiling I made a track about this change. You can hear it here.

Sometimes looking back can seem strange but the current of creative energy in the 80s was unmistakable and if you were lucky enough to have a personal energy and could see the moment for what it was, you could jump in and swim a bit.

Hope to see you at the concert.

19 Eighties : The Rhythm of a Decade with the BBC Concert Orchestra takes place at Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall at 7.30pm on Saturday 30 November. For tickets visit There will also be a free pre-concert talk given by Martyn Ware (founder member of The Human League, Heaven 17 and British Electric Foundation) in The Front Room of the Queen Elizabeth Hall from 6.15pm.

The concert will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and available to listen again for seven days after broadcast at