Thomas Leer and Robert Rental: A tale of electronic pioneers

By Clive Lindsay
BBC Scotland news website

Image source, Chris Carter
Image caption, Robert Rental and Thomas Leer signed for Throbbing Gristle's Industrial Records

Some of the most significant names in the UK's early electronic music scene oscillate through the careers of Thomas Wishart and the late Robert Donnachie - and cite them as influences.

Names such as John Foxx, Art of Noise, ABC, The The, Throbbing Gristle, Propaganda, The Normal.

But, unlike many of their contemporaries, memories of the pair from Port Glasgow will not be rekindled by tuning into re-runs of Top of the Pops and the Old Grey Whistle Test.

Even their stage names, Thomas Leer and Robert Rental, will not strike a chord with most.

Music archivist and fan Simon Dell hopes his exhibition - From The Port To The Bridge - which runs at the Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock until 28 October, will help change all that and win greater recognition for what he regards as forgotten pioneers of British electronic music.

Leer's live solo debut

Image caption, The exhibition runs at Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, until 28 October

The Greenock exhibition has inspired Leer, now 65, to end a 30-year absence from the stage to play a short set at Friday's sold-out Live Electronic Night.

It also features JD Twitch, the Optimo DJ who is a lifelong admirer of Rental's work in particular.

Rental died of lung cancer in 2000, aged 48, and Leer tells BBC Scotland: "It will bring back quite a lot of memories - too many actually - and that was part of the reason I wasn't too keen at the beginning.

"There's a lot of sad memories and it will probably get more so on the performance night as his partner, Hilary, and his son will be coming up and I expect it will be quite an emotional night."

Although not one for nostalgia, Leer nevertheless found himself beginning to enjoy digging out relics of their musical past for the exhibition, "remembering good times" and being persuaded to make what will be his live solo debut.

"As you can imagine, I'm bricking it," he admits.

The Bridge to critical acclaim

Image source, Andy Wishart
Image caption, Leer and Rental preferred to work from home

Having followed one another on a hippy-era journey through communes and squats from London and Wales to Edinburgh, Leer and Rental returned to the UK capital inspired by the emergence of punk in the mid 70s, only to find their creativity being drawn in more experimental directions.

Recording with cheap basic equipment, including a Stylophone keyboard, in their London flats, the hard-up pair had self-released debut singles to some critical acclaim.

Leer's "Private Plane" was named single of the week by the NME.

Rental also toured as a duo with The Normal, the stage moniker of Daniel Miller, who would go on to establish Mute Records.

However, it was Leer and Rental's one and only album together, 1979's The Bridge, that received widespread recognition.

The exhibition recalls how the pair became the first signing to Throbbing Gristle's Industrial Records, had hired equipment thrust into their hands with basic instructions at Rental's flat and told to come up with an LP within a week - extended to two.

"It is one of the few albums made during that period that still stands up in terms of electronic trickery," Leer suggests.

"We were pretty ahead of our time I think.

"A lot of stuff from that time does sound dated, it is very specifically 80s, which is fine, but we were never really interested in being a fashionable band."

Indeed, despite the album leading to them gracing the front cover of the influential Melody Maker, their insistence that they were were "not a unit" and Leer's reluctance for playing live ensured their moment in the spotlight was short-lived.

Beyond The Bridge

Image source, Karen Willey
Image caption, Rental's multi-channel effects unit is one of artefacts in the Greenock exhibition

Rental was to release one more solo single and recorded the soundtrack to the Comic Strip television show "A Fistful Of Travellers' Cheques" before concentrating on family life in London and illness took hold.

Leer flirted with commercial success with his next three albums, the last enlisting the help of musicians from Art of Noise and ABC, and a series of singles, one recorded in John Foxx's studio.

He was invited by Matt Johnson to play on The The's seminal debut album, "Soul Mining", and formed a duo, Act, with Propaganda singer Claudia Brucken.

However, from 1988, there followed a long hiatus from the public eye and, shortly before his friend passed away, Leer returned to Scotland to help his ageing father care for a mother facing up to Parkinson's disease.

"I'd been away for a long time and I thought it was time to come back and be with them at the end," he says.

"I kind of fell in love with the place again once I was here for a while.

"It was nice to wake up next to the river and the brilliant skies you get up here. Things you don't get in London.

"But, once you are away from it, you can no longer do session jobs and even all my friends who would ask me to come and play on albums were too far away.

"Eventually you are out of sight, out of mind and the career just slipped away just not being there. I had to sign on the dole for a while, which was not fun."

'Years ahead of his time'

Image source, Andy Wishart
Image caption, Leer lives and works in Greenock, close to Beacon Arts Centre

In the documentary that accompanies the Greenock exhibition and also features Miller and Throbbing Gristle's Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti, Johnson suggests that Leer "was years ahead of his time" and inspired him to create The The.

Keith McIvor, aka JD Twitch, talks about admiration for Rental that led to Optimo Music last month releasing an album of his demos called "Different Voices For You, Different Colours For Me".

Leer has continued recording in his home studio in Greenock, releasing seven more albums since 2001, mainly through his own Future Historic records.

His latest though, "Freedom Of Steel", has the backing of German label Sleepers Records and gigs in Berlin and New York are a possibility on its release in the coming months.

Dell hopes to further spread the word by taking his exhibition, three years in the making, to London next year in the time for the 40th anniversary of The Bridge and a possible re-issue on Mute.

"From The Port To The Bridge" and back again, life has come full circle for Thomas Leer, but don't expect any appearance at a Rewind Festival any time soon.

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