The Most Influential Drum Machine That Nobody Knows

Photo by Steve Castellano, transformed by Reverb. CC 3.0

The drum machines that defined the ‘80s were all, in their era, thought to be ahead of their time. Yet there’s a machine almost nobody remembers today, one that might have been the furthest ahead of them all.

The Movement Computer Systems Percussion Computer might have had a short run: less than five years. And there weren’t many made: perhaps no more than 60 overall. But this rare and under-appreciated device anticipated most of the trends in recording that would soon become common.

Back when sampled, pre-recorded drum sounds were still a novelty, the Movement allowed users the opportunity to create their own. Back when home computers were still a rarity, the Movement was a dead ringer for an early desktop. And that included the most futuristic feature of all: A true visual interface that allowed users freedom from endless blind button-punching.

“It’s difficult to imagine now, but that was a totally space-age experience,” remembers Tom Bailey, the frontman of British hitmakers The Thompson Twins. “A wonderful thing—interaction with a screen.”

Photo of Movement Computer Systems (MCS) Drum System II by Steve Castellano, transformed by Reverb. CC 3.0.

The Movement was created in Bridgwater, a town in Somerset in south-west England, by designers John Dickenson and Dave Goodway. Between 1981 and 1983, the duo produced two different versions of the Movement. The devices offered analogue synthesized drum sounds, as well as 8-bit samples of real drums.

But it was the company’s offer to create special EPROM chips from sounds supplied by users that excited some musicians. One was Daniel Miller, the founder of Mute Records. Miller thought this new device would be perfect for the group he was helping climb the ladder to stardom: Depeche Mode.

“I thought, ‘Oh, this’ll be brilliant. We can create our own sounds!’” recalls Miller from his Berlin studio. “It was before sampling, before even the Fairlight, I think. We got really excited.”

Movement lent Mute a unit to try out. “You couldn’t actually sample into it—you had to record your own sounds and send them to them, and they’d burn a chip for you,” Miller says. “So we recorded loads of drum sounds and sent them off. And when we got them back, it just sounded shit! So we gave up on that.”

Miller says he thinks ex-Depeche Mode member Vince Clarke still has one. “But that’s more of a collector’s thing.”

Producer Mike Howlett, who worked with early-’80s hitmakers like A Flock of Seagulls, Blancmange, and OMD, had more success with the Movement’s sampled sounds. In part, he notes, that was because of another little-remembered feature of the Movement.

“It had the fastest trigger of anything at that time. It had a box which had eight jack sockets in it, and you could trigger any of these sounds from any audio signal,” Howlett explains. “So I could record a drum kit—and I did—and then use the kick drum signal to trigger my kick drum. And it was so fast, you didn’t have to do anything like reversing the tape to account for any triggering delays.”

Howlett, laughing, says he tortured a number of drummers with the Movement. He mentions using it on the 1983 China Crisis album Working With Fire And Steel—Possible Pop Songs Volume Two. “They were good musicians, those guys.” The downside of the Movement, from Howlett’s point of view, was more practical. “The design was its biggest failure. Because it was an unbelievably hideous orange,” he remembers, chuckling.

He’s speaking of the Mk.II Movement, contained in a one-piece molded case with keyboard attached. “Maybe two feet wide and 18 inches high. It’s a big lump. By the time you put it in a flightcase—which I needed to do—I had to have roadies to move it,” Howlett says. By contrast, the Movement’s main competitor, the Linn LM-1 drum machine, created by American musician and inventor Roger Linn and also offering sampled drum sounds, “was in a nice little suitcase.”

Other British musicians of the time also preferred the LM-1. John Foxx, the former frontman of Ultravox, was recording his second solo album, The Garden, in 1981. He’d been experimenting with the Movement. “But when the Linn arrived,” Foxx says, “that was the end of it.”

Meanwhile, ex-Human Leaguer Martyn Ware, who had formed a new band, Heaven 17, used the Movement on “Honeymoon In New York.” That was a song from the British Electric Foundation, a production company and side project Ware shared with fellow Human League alum and future Heaven 17 bandmate Ian Craig Marsh. The Movement was “interesting, but not very usable [or] multipurpose,” says Ware. “More of a curiosity.”

One of the more satisfied users, however, was Dave Stewart of Eurythmics. In his 2016 autobiography, Stewart recalled his excitement at getting a prototype of the Movement. He and bassist Adam Williams of ska band The Selecter “had driven 200 miles outside of London and slept on somebody’s floor just to acquire it. I was completely fascinated and obsessed with recording and experimenting on it.” Stewart used the machine to create the beats for “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” a smash hit in 1983.

The official video for Eurythmics, Annie Lennox, Dave Stewart “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”, which features the Movement drum machine.

But perhaps no musician of this time has fonder memories of the Movement than Tom Bailey. He first encountered the device when his Sheffield group, The Thompson Twins, was a guitar-based seven-piece.

While recording their second album, Set, at Mickie Most’s RAK Studios, the group ran out of songs. But Bailey, who’d just gotten hold of an Oberheim polyphonic synthesizer, noticed an unusual-looking box in the RAK control room. “And everyone kind of looked and went: ‘What’s that?’” he says, recalling his introduction to the Movement. “It was the first time I’d ever seen a drum machine.”

Bailey recorded a demo of a new song, “In The Name Of Love,” using the synth and another drum machine, the Roland CR-78 CompuRhythm. But when it came time to record, he decided to use the Movement, which had beefier sounds and was much more readily programmable.

“So I programmed this very square beat, four-on-the-floor with a snare on top, and a clap, I think. Because that was all I could figure out how to do,” Bailey remembers. “The drummer just did the tom-tom overdubs.”

“In the Name of Love,” originally slated for Side Two filler, became a massive American dance hit in 1982. “It was a big sign for me,” says Bailey. The group slimmed down to just three members: Bailey, Alannah Currie, and Joe Leeway.

“Looking back, the fact that we reduced from seven people to three people, and suddenly became a technologically based band, meant that we stopped writing music for a band, and started designing music for records,” muses Bailey. “And that is a revolution. And it also coincided with a revolution in our success.”

Bailey got his own Mk.I Movement, which he took to Compass Point in the Bahamas, where the Twins began recording Quick Step And Side Kick with producer Alex Sadkin. “And on something like the second day, we were hit with an enormous electrical storm. Which erased all the memory of the sequences we were using,” Bailey says ruefully. “We had no choice but to reprogram the Movement,” he adds. “Luckily, in those days, I had more of a mind for detail, and could remember what I’d done.”

Thompson Twins "In the Name of Love", which features the Movement drum machine.

He says this led to a kind of hurried approach. “So again, the programming I did was very square. Straight up and down, straight sixteenths on the hi-hats,” says Bailey. “But because we had three percussionists in the band … it became an interesting kind of formula: to have a very industrial, square drum part, and then a party-style percussion section, where everything was very loose. Unpredictable, sometimes.”

The futuristic-looking Movement was also “infinitely cool, and something we were keen to show off,” Bailey says. That’s why it turned up in a couple of videos from the album. “We wanted to show our audience we’d become tired of the usual line-up of bands.”

When the Twins returned to Compass Point to record 1984’s global breakthrough album Into The Gap, they were toting the new, orange Mk.II Movement. “By then, Linn had become the industry standard,” remembers Bailey. “But we were like, ‘No—we’ve got our Movement, and we like it. There’s a reason why we sound different from every other band at the time.’”

By the time of 1985’s Here’s To Future Days, however, the Twins had moved on to the Fairlight for most of their programming needs. And Movement was no more: the Mk.II was the end of the line for the company.

Yet while there may not be many mourners for the Movement, Tom Bailey is one of the exceptions. “It was just a crazy time, and I was loving every second of it,” he says wistfully. “I was just having the time of my life with this technology.”

About the Author: Dan LeRoy’s latest book is Dancing To The Drum Machine: How Electronic Percussion Conquered The World (available here). For more information visit

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