Testcard F

Testcard F: early experimental synth pop

Before releasing solo material as alpha seven, Pete used to be in Testcard F, an early experimental synth pop outfit based in Norwich, reaching the dizzy heights of a Peel session in 1982 and two singles on the Backs record label.

Instrumentation included electronic percussion built from Maplin kits, augmented with a coat rack and waste bins to give a human feel. There was a borrowed EDP Wasp, 1960s Farfisa organ, Casio VL-Tone and a drum machine that held a single song, hence they used backing cassettes.

Live sets were a lively spectacle of smoke machines, hitting things and slide-shows. The lack of ‘real instruments’ may have divided audiences, but underneath it all they played very accessible and catchy pop, rarely going beyond 2 mins 50 secs. As writer Vince said – “there’s no substitute for a good tune”.

Musicians

    John Hartwell, Pete Roberts (aka Pete Casio), Vince Rogers

Vocals

    Sue Hope, Rebecca Slater, Various guest vocalists from other bands including Angie, Jeanette, Jill and assorted Fabulous Fezettes

Beginnings: The Home Service

The founding trio of Vince, John and Pete first mulled over the idea of a band while in a pub in Bowthorpe in 1981. At this time they were students at UEA. Vince had a Farfisa organ from the 1960s and they borrowed an EDP Wasp (thanks to Tim Webb). With a couple of kits from Maplin, they built a very Kraftwerk-inspired set of drums.

The Wasp had a unique feature - 'repeat mode' - which made it re-trigger a note repeatedly and giving a useful rhythm track to play along to, tho’ it wasn’t practical attempting this live as it took too long to set up. It also had a tendency to drift out of tune. Backing rhythm tracks of the Wasp were therefore recorded onto cassette.

Everything was now in place for the first gig, which they decided would also feature free cucumber sandwiches (obviously) and would go under the band name ‘The Home Service’.

They borrowed a PA system and lights from the UEASU Ents team and set up. It’s probably fair to say they weren’t exactly over-rehearsed, with Vince (on vocals) having to remind Pete & John how the tunes went during the gig, but it all worked. The crowd mostly appreciated it and the sandwiches (courtesy of Tim again).

First Home Service gig - three people playing synths behind rope lights
The first Home Service live gig in 1981: a mass of rope lights and cucumber sandwiches
Shortly afterwards, they discovered a folk band with the same name so changed to Testcard F.

Testcard F, Bandwagon Tango and Peel

Around 1982, they graduated, just, Sue joined on vocals and they all lived together in a house in Wingfield Road, which made rehearsing much easier. This being the early 1980s, they were unemployed but the benefits system was much more sensible back then, possibly explaining the huge independent band scene.

Early promo photo for Testcard F
Underpass! Testcard F (thanks to Music from the East Zone for the pic)

The instrumentation had grown, with a Soundmaster SR-88 drum machine that could store one song at a time (hence the cassette player remained a feature of live performances). There was also a Casio VL-1, MT40 and MT70 and Roland SH-101. More interestingly, they used waste bins and coat racks as percussion to give a more human feel.

In late 1982 they travelled down to London for a Peel session, complete with coat rack and bins. Martin Colley at Maida Vale Studio 4 didn’t bat an eyelid while arranging the mics on the coat rack and with producer Dale Griffin ensured the band recorded four songs that all sounded amazing.

They appeared on a number of local compilation cassettes, won the Norwich heat of the Battle of the Bands and released Bandwagon Tango on Backs records, recorded at Spaceward studios by Joe Bull. Shortly afterwards Sue left the band and moved away to work.

Third Stroke

After a succession of guest vocalists, Rebecca joined along with Roland JX3-P and Juno-60.

The material and the synths were getting more sophisticated and the live sets were augmented with smoke machines (Chris on the Manhattan Fogger II) and slideshows, but the waste-bin drums remained and the performances were lively.

The follow-up single followed on Backs but despite lots of gigging and a couple of NME articles, things were slowly fizzling out. Success in the music biz proved elusive and the band went their separate ways in 1986.

The return of Testcard F

Some 32 years later, they were included on a Cherry Red compilation of independent synth pop which inspired them to reform and work on new material.

Testcard F discography

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