When Belgian musicians Dan Lacksman and Marc Moulin first joined forces as Telex in the late 1970s, the goal, Lacksman said last year, “was to do something not serious,” like taking a well-known French song and make it as slow as possible. It was Moulin who suggested couching their hijinks in synth pop’s minimalism.
Lacksman already had ample experience making slight and silly music with modular synthesizers. Recording with his EMS VCS 3 as the Electronic System, he scored a European hit with “Coconut,” a jaunty, bleep-heavy novelty in the mode of Gershon Kingsley’s “Popcorn.” With the royalties from that single, Lacksman bought a Moog module—Moulin already had his own MiniMoog—that became the central instrument on a series of albums that further blurred the lines between bubblegum pop and disco.
With vocalist Michel Moers in the mix, Lacksman and Moulin developed a sound that was both futuristic and slightly tacky—like dancing to “Autobahn” while sipping a frothy drink in a seaside disco. The six albums that the trio released were knowingly goofy yet thoughtfully composed, much like the work of Sparks, with whom Telex would collaborate. Along the way, the group managed to make a modest splash on the charts, represent Belgium in the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest, and, as promised, slow Plastic Bertrand’s “Ça plane pour moi” to a sultry crawl.
That song is unfortunately absent from This Is Telex, but the compilation does provide a delightful overview of the trio’s work. Spanning three decades, the kitschy covers and playful originals collected here may not be as instantly recognizable as those of the synth-pop groups that emerged alongside them. But Telex’s bubbly energy and club-ready rhythms were just as influential to the first wave of techno and house DJs and producers. (The Detroit group A Number of Names were supposedly inspired by Telex’s “Moskow Diskow” when they recorded the 1981 single “Sharevari,” considered one of Detroit techno’s first tracks; in 1998, Carl Craig would remix Telex’s hit.)
This Is Telex runs in chronological order, and the sequencing demonstrates how Telex stayed true to their whimsical M.O. even as they brought new instruments into their arsenal. With two tracks culled from the group’s 1979 debut, Looking for Saint Tropez, the trio speed up the Trans-Europe Express on “Moskow Diskow” and put a synthesized spin on “Twist à Saint-Tropez,” a yé-yé single originally recorded in 1962 by French band Les Chats Sauvages. On selections from their final album, How Do You Dance?—released in 2006, after an 18-year absence—Telex are still up to their old tricks, turning Sparks’ “The Number One Song in Heaven” into a throbbing lament and rock standard “La Bamba” into a robotic trudge.
Telex’s most fascinating material arrived between those bookending albums. Encouraged by their label to enter the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest, the trio wrote “Euro-Vision,” a part tribute/part send-up of the annual competition. The lyrics poke gently at the ephemeral quality of most Eurovision songs, while the music is the sort of jaunty earworm that tends to perform well in the contest. Telex hoped that with their song and their adorably stiff performance, they would place last. But thanks to a surprise vote from Portugal, Belgium finished 17th out of 19 nations.
The group’s most impressive effort was their 1981 album Sex, which they recorded with Ron and Russel Mael of Sparks. The two bands were introduced by mutual acquaintance Lio, a Belgian pop singer and model, and quickly set about collaborating. The two tracks from Sex are a perfect wedding of the Maels’ arch, detailed lyrics (“Medium toast/Time to blow nose/Extraordinaire,” Mors sings with flat affect on “Drama Drama”) and Telex’s spare, bouncy production. Lacksman would later return the favor by helping engineer Sparks’ 1983 album In Outer Space at his Synsound Studios in Brussels.
This Is Telex does a good job of presenting the less-than-serious intentions of the trio, but the curation could be stronger. Placing undue emphasis on the group’s covers, the tracklisting skips over solid fare like the Art of Noise-esque “Peanuts” or “A/B,” their chirpy ode to listening to the flipside of singles. More than some of the original material included here, those songs show how Lacksman and Moulin evolved as composers as they added samplers and sequencers into the mix. But even with those oversights, this compilation makes a fine introduction to Telex’s quirky spirit and breezy sound.