(First published in Electronic Sound magazine #73, January 2021)
Unearthing Electronic Gold
It was the early 1980s. Robots were everywhere. Star Wars had C-3PO and R2-D2, Doctor Who had K9, Metal Mickey had… well, Metal Mickey. Automation was the future, we were told. Robots would make our cars, and – in an early example of AI gone dangerously awry – were already mocking our traditional mashed potato.
It was a moment when mainstream British culture seemed to switch overnight from analogue to digital. A bubble of BBC Micro computers, synth-pop and TV sci-fi that began with ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and burst whenever the ZX Spectrum vanished up its own ‘R: Tape Loading Error’. If you were approximately 10 years old – which I was – then it was impossibly exciting. Older brothers had punk rock, but we had Vince Clarke, Pac-Man and Richard Stilgoe presenting Finders Keepers. The possibilities seemed endless.
Into this giddy mix came Tik and Tok. Mime artists Tim Dry and Sean Crawford had been Blitz Club regulars and members of Shock, a Rusty Egan-produced dance/synth outfit whose number also included Cherie Blair’s future lifestyle guru Carole Caplin. But by 1982 they were a duo in their own right, preparing to infiltrate primetime TV with blank white faces, boiler suits and the trademark stiff-limbed robotic dance that soon swept the dancefloors of the nation’s school discos.
My first memory of them comes from BBC1 comedy series Three Of A Kind. Hot on the heels of Tracey Ullman and Lenny Henry spoofing 1982’s Eurovision Song Contest, the episode broadcast on New Year’s Day 1983 featured Tik and Tok eschewing traditional lab coats for crimson tuxedos in a futuristic science lab routine. From thereon they seemed to be everywhere, their ubiquity even culminating in an appearance before the Queen in that year’s Royal Variety Performance.
But already, they seemed keen to move on from their trademark robotics. “It’s become a dance, which we never imagined,” Dry told John Craven on an August 1983 episode of science programme The Show Me Show. “We’re now trying to concentrate on other types of mime, as well as making music”. The duo had already recorded their own backing tracks, using gear partly funded by their appearance as salmon-headed rebel officers in Return of the Jedi, and in 1984 their debut album Intolerance appeared.
Written largely by Dry, it’s an evocative snapshot of the era. ‘A Date With The Palm Sisters’, with its breathy moans and saucy samples (“It’s a whopper!”) might have caused John Craven to raise an eyebrow, but it’s wonderfully sleazy synth-funk. ‘Show Me Something Real’ is the killer hit single that never was, an icy slab of electro-pop with Numan himself on keyboards. Elsewhere, ‘Intolerance 1’ is a beautiful, haunted instrumental, ‘Holding On’ could genuinely be George Michael, and Numan’s own ‘A Child With The Ghost’ is sensitively covered, too.
The album stalled at No 89, but it’s a fascinating reminder of an era when the genuinely avant-garde and experimental, combined with those dreams of a science-fiction future, invaded mainstream British culture for arguably the final time. The robots had arrived, and I was ready to surrender.
Tik and Tok’s official website is here: