Join the Car Crash Set: The revolutionary D.I.Y. electro-pop of Daniel Miller’s “Warm Leatherette”

By on January 24, 2016

In 1978, “Warm Leatherette” — a sinister, futuristic-sounding synth-driven song with cynical, clinically-stark and antiseptic-sounding lyrics which were curiously sung devoid of any emotion but sounding robotically sexy nonetheless — nearly single-handedly revolutionized the D.I.Y. ethic of independently-made electronic industrial pop.

The track was released as the b-side to an unassuming single credited to a band, The Normal, which turned out to have simply been the first two recordings a then-unknown British bloke named Daniel Miller, who had been inspired to create music after his recent reading the dystopic novel Crash, written in the early 70s by British sci-fi author J.G. Ballard.

Decades later, the novel was turned into a film of the same name by director David Cronenberg, a montage of clips which you see here accompanied by Miller’s simplistically brilliant tune.

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In 1977, and depressed over his recent break-up with his girlfriend, Miller’s friend suggested that he distract himself by reading the fantastic book he’d just finished reading himself, J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash.

The novel was enormously controversial when it was first published in 1973, and remains notable today for its vivid depictions of graphic sexual acts instigated by violence. It concerns a man who, after surviving a car crash, becomes fascinated — and then obsessed — with the erotic possibilities and sexual connections that exist in the co-mingling of violent car crashes and the lingering lust-filled images he continues to imagine, a feverish fetish-driven world where sex and suffering — twisted metal and twisted naked bodies — have become entwined.

The novel’s narrator also meets a number of characters who share his particular paraphilia; a peculiar, disparate group of car-crash survivors who who remain sexually aroused by the über-violence of man (and woman) entangled with their machines; one character even fantasizes about reaching climax while having sex inside a car while as it simultaneously crashes into Elizabeth Taylor’s limo.

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J.G. Ballard

Here’s a short excerpt from Crash:

“The silence continued. Here and there a driver shifted behind his steering wheel, trapped uncomfortably in the hot sunlight, and I had the sudden impression that the world had stopped. The wounds on my knees and chest were beacons tuned to a series of beckoning transmitters, carrying the signals, unknown to myself, which would unlock this immense stasis and free these drivers for the real destinations set for their vehicles, the paradises of the electric highway.”

Most of the British publishers who read the novel — which Ballard said was the first “pornographic novel about technology” — rejected it outright, calling it disgusting. “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!” read one of the reports written by a publishing house staffer who was obviously pretty outraged by the book, but ultimately Crash did find a publisher in the UK, Jonathan Cape, and soon Ballard — who was already becoming known in England for his previously-published controversial fiction — became a sought-after public figure whose frequent warnings predicting a dire futureworld began to be quoted in newspapers.

Ballard called Crash “a cautionary tale.”

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Known for exploring unusual and controversial human impulses and their relationship to modernity and technology, Ballard said that everything he wrote was inspired by his early childhood and teenage experiences in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai in the early 1940s. His most popular novel, Empire of the Sun (published in 1984), is about his early years, which he has said showed him the “pathology” underlying modern life (it was filmed In 1987 by director Steven Spielberg).

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Regarding Crash, Ballard later said he believed that living in late 20th-century western civilization was similar to having survived a traumatic car crash. “Everybody is traumatized, everybody is overwhelmed,” he once said, “and what happens is you just shut down. You still have to function and interrelate, but the passion, the emotion, even the sexuality is gone. The characters in this movie have the passion to recover what has been lost, and they must go to extremes to find it.”

In 1970, before the book’s publication, Ballard alluded to his fascination with car crashes in an interview he did with Penthouse Magazine (Vol. 5, No. 5, pp. 26-30):

“A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinaesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status — all these in one event. I myself see the car crash as a tremendous sexual event really, a liberation of human and machine libido (if there is such a thing). That’s why the death in a crash of a famous person is a unique event –whether it’s Jayne Mansfield or James Dean — it takes place within this most potent of all consumer durables.”

“Really, it’s not the car that’s important: it’s driving. One spends a substantial part of one’s life in the motor car and the experience of driving condenses many of the experiences of being a human being in 1970, the marriage of physical aspects of ourselves with the imaginative and technological aspects of our lives.”

“I think the 20th century reaches just about its highest expression on the highway. Everything is there, the speed and violence of our age, its love of stylization, fashion, the organizational side of things — what I call the elaborately signaled landscape.”

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Crash was reprinted a number of times, but Ballard always said that he detested the cover art that most of the publishers used — the only artwork he actually liked was this one, and it’s quite possibly the same one that Miller had read too, as it was designed for a paperback published by London’s Panther Books, in 1975.

Miller — working as an assistant film editor at ATV at the time — loved the novel his friend had recommended, and felt that Ballard’s writing took him “five minutes into the future,” and he initially decided to write a screenplay based on the book.

He got together with a college friend to work on their film project, which they ultimately abandoned, but Miller couldn’t get Ballard’s Crash out of his head, and decided that he’d write a song inspired by the novel instead.

The thing is, Miller wasn’t really a musician, but this was the original 70s punk era, when hundreds of thousands of British teens (American teens too) weren’t letting that get in the way of them making music. He was disillusioned, however, by the fact that you “needed to learn three chords to be in a punk band.”

Still Miller was well aware that the burgeoning sounds of the then-emerging industrial music genre, experimental electronic pop music inspired and influenced by bands like the German synth-dance group Kraftwerk, running parallel with the punk scene in Europe, and he decided that the electronic music genre was the direction his creative impulses were pointing him toward.

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Miller, quoted in Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s (ed. Lori Majewski, Jonathan Bernstein, Abrams/2014):

“Punk rock inspired me because it was a real kick in the teeth to all that shit that I already hated. It wasn’t an awakening for me, because I’d had that years before. By 1970, I’d already rejected most Anglo-American music. I only listened to Krautrock and electronic music. I think Krautrock inspired a lot fo punk. The very first time I heard the Ramones on John Peel, I thought it was Neu!”

“I made music from the age of 12 — very bad music. I had a lot of ideas; I just couldn’t express them at all. I was making music in a very frustrated way for many years before I got my first synthesizer, which is what turned a corner for me. I’d figured out that electronic music was actually pure punk music. Not punk rock but punk music — that’s two different things. Punk rock was a type of music that was very important for a short period of time: ’76 to ’77. The punk aesthetic or ideal, which is the same as the hippie ideal — that do-it-yourself thing — does things that will change people’s perceptions. I was already in my mid-20s. I said ‘I this is my moment to do something. If I’m going to do anything, this is the cliimate, the atmosphere, in which to do it.’ I started mucking around and realized that I could do a lot of the ideas that I couldn’t with conventional instruments.”

Miller decided to purchase a synthesizer, because his thinking at the time was that you only needed to learn to press one key on a synthesizer, so he purchased a Korg 700s synthesizer from Macari’s music shop in London (it cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $150), and he began fooling around with it in his bedroom, experimenting with the Korg’s sawtooth waves/chords, with its “siren gliss and a thwap-thwap rhythm,” as one reviewer would describe it later.

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Miller was quite aware that he wasn’t really a songwriter, later saying:

“I think if you’re going to be creative in that area, you have to have the need to be involved. It’s like writing a book, it’s very hard to do if you haven’t got a real passion for it. And I don’t have that feeling. I don’t want to be a songwriter – I liked doing it and I was trying to make a certain point. In 1978, I was trying to make a point that there were cheap synthesizers out there, you could become involved, trying to link that in with punk. In fact, you don’t even have to learn the punk three chords, you don’t have to be a musician, all you need are the ideas and you can come up with something interesting.”

Despite not wanting to be a songwriter, he wrote two deceptively simple songs, both minimal in their structure but neverthelesss bursting with unique inspiration, and both of them re-creating some of the visual imagery he was seeing in his mind’s eye, all of it inspired by his recent reading of Ballard’s Crash.

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One of the songs was T.V.O.D.,” a fun little ditty about sticking TV antennas into the veins in your arm, while the other, which he has said he wrote in about two minutes, and sounded to Miller “like driving along a highway between large buildings then going through a tunnel.” The latter tune featured monotonously repetitive lyrics, dramatically ominous couplets about sex and car crashes:

A tear of petrol is in your eye
The hand brake penetrates your thigh
Quick! Let’s make love. . .before you die

He called this one “Warm Leatherette,” after its repetitive chorus, and he recorded both songs in the living room of his apartment using two Revox B-77 tape machines, with an eye toward pressing them up a single and distributing the product himself. Instead of using his own name, he credited the song to a non-existent band, The Normal.

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Miller called his new record label Mute, and pressed up five hundred copies (the minimum), taking them around to a handful of independent music shops in and around the greater London area, including Rough Trade, where it was played for customers who told Miller they loved what they were hearing, particularly the b-side, “Warm Leatherette.” Miller knew there was some potential there for a hit, even though he says he still had no real expectations.

Miller: “I left a couple of test pressings at Rough Trade, and they played it to a journalist called Jane Suck, who worked at Sounds. She had a pretty vitriolic tone and didn’t suffer any fools. She gave it an amazing review — called it an amazing review — called it ‘single of the century.’ Then John Peel played it, and that made everything worthwhile.” (Mad World)

Rough Trade gave him the money to press up an additional 2,000 copies. Once the single started to get its first print reviews, and airplay, though, the response was immediate, and enthusiastic, some of the reviewers eventually saying that “Warm Leatherette” had helped to create a revolutionary post-punk electronic sound which fit nicely with, even rivaled, the electro-pop recordings being made at the time by bands like Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, and Throbbing Gristle. “Warm Leatherette” has since been described as having “revolutionized electronic music with its punk aesthetic, stark sound and dark subject matter.”

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Daniel Miller

Years later, Miller would say this about the experience:

‘Warm Leatherette’ got a much better response than I thought. I didn’t think anyone would like it at all, and I did it as a hobby, really. It was in l978, right after Punk had started. The music at the time was quite unusual — apart from a few groups like Kraftwerk, that kind of electronic music wasn’t really being used. It was before the Human League. The people who’d read the book recognized the imagery of the lyrics instantly, and the rest just thought I was some kind of sicko. I made up a few hundred copies of the single, which was all I expected to sell. I would have been pleased to sell them all! But a reviewer at Sounds, which was the most forward-thinking magazine of the time, called it ‘Single of the Century’ and the demand grew. It sold a few thousand and then it got to America and all these strange radio reports started filtering through. It got on KROQ and Grace Jones did a cover of it. It never was a huge hit — it became a cult record.”

Miller, however, was more interested in putting out music by other artists on his new label rather than making more recordings, and that’s where he shifted his focus.

Miller: “The single sleeve had my address on it, so I was getting sent demo tapes because people thought I was a proper record label. Then a friend introduced me to his flatmate, Frank Tovey — Fad Gadget — and his were the first demoes I really liked. He was 21 at the time; I was 25. We met up and found we shared a similar aesthetic, and there was a humor in what we were doing. So I said, ‘Let’s make a record.” (Mad World)

Mute ultimately released recordings by bands like Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure, and Sonic Youth, growing into a hugely successful independent label.

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Meanwhile, “Warm Leatherette” became a song covered and performed live by many notable artists, including Grace Jones, about whom J.G. Ballard — who, upon hearing of the song based on his novel Crash — said the following (quoted in Re/Search #8/9: J.G. Ballard):

“There was a feature in Time Out about — I don’t know whether she’s American of Jamaican — the singer Grace Jones, who’s a black singer with a sort of robotic appearance — a very powerful character. She sings a song called ‘Warm Leatherette,‘ which I gather is based on Crash. Her manager, eminence grise (Jean-Paul Goude Ombres Blanches), is a photographer who has lived with her for five years. He gave her her image. He takes photos of her in, say, a running pose, and then cuts the photo at various points so that each thigh and leg and arm is cut; next he puts in little inserts that make her arms longer and legs longer, then retouches them so that the woman, in reality, would have to be about nine feet tall. But you don’t realize this, because she’s posed against naturalistic backgrounds like hotel rooms, and because it’s so beautifully done. He’s published a book of photos on Grace Jones, and they’re extraordinary. She’s sitting on a chair or lying across a bed, with an extra three inches of thigh or leg. Bizarre….”

Ballard continued to stir up occasional controversies and he continued to make dire predictions about the future, even correctly predicting that that one day former actor and then-California’s governor Ronald Reagan would become the President of the United States, and, goddamn it, his prediction turned out to be true.

Ballard was somewhat obsessed with Reagan, it turns out. In 1967, years before he’d written Crash, he’d penned a little pamphlet titled, provocatively, “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan.” It was later reprinted in his experimental 1969 novel The Atrocity Exhibition.

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The adjective “Ballardian” is now listed in the Collins English Dictionary and defined as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.” The term has not yet, as far as we know, made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary, but we’ve got our fingers crossed.

In 1996, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg directed a film he’d written the screenplay for, called Crash, which was also based on Ballard’s 1973 novel. When asked his impression of Cronenberg’s film, Ballard said he felt it was true to the book “in letter and in spirit.”

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In the UK, however, the original uncut version of the film was given the full NC-17 version by the BBFC, which caused it to be banned from sale or theatrical exhibition within the city of Westminster (although today it is possible buy the DVD in the greater London area and see the film at a cinema outside of Westminster).

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.