Techno: Watts Going On

AND SO, we hear you say, tell us more about the origins and development of this exciting music you call Techno.

Well, if you want to be a damn fool about it, you can trace the whole thing back to the ’50s and the work of serious music experimentalists such as Karl Heinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez.

Stockhausen broke with the traditions of classical music by composing pieces for magnetic tape, echo chamber, ring modulator and the like. Sadly, since the technology was in its infancy, it took a whirring, gas-powered turbine device the size of a family saloon to make a sound roughly equivalent to your digital watch alarm. Also, most of the compositions sound like a small, bored child toying with a short-wave radio.

But the damage had been done and weirdos the world over had found their forte. Britain’s first Techno group proper were the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, an extraordinary body of men and women who spent most of the ’60s making up weird and spooky electronic tunes to go with the racing results and the gardening programmes on Radio Nottingham. They also came up with the utterly fabulous ‘Theme From Dr Who. In California, Dr Robert Moog (rhymes with vogue) was making their job a great deal easier by inventing the synthesiser.

Doc Bob’s brainchild has been the subject of fierce debate ever since. Stupid people claimed it would spell the death of real music and that its frightening imitative abilities would put all the world’s oboeists out of work. In fact, the only musician to have really suffered from the onset of hi-tech has been the drummer… and he hasn’t noticed yet.

Arguments rage in pubs about which is the first record to feature a Moog synthesizer, but experts often concur on Chicory Tip’s ‘Son Of My Father’ from 1972, an early product of the fertile mind of Giorgio Moroder. Rock purists were snobby throughout the ’70s, notably the execrable Queen, who made the pompous claim ‘No Synthesisers’ on all their LP sleeves, prompting the Human League’s ‘Synthesisers and vocals only’ legend.

The towering giants and first stars of the genre were Kraftwerk. a bunch of arty Germans who liked both The Beatles and Boulez enough to produce some terrific and hugely influential music. After a couple of ‘difficult’ experimental albums, they arrived at their definitive style with I975’s Autobahn and the albums which followed — RadioactivityTrans Europe ExpressThe Man Machine — had an enormous effect on established artists like Bowie and a new generation of English electropop bands of the late 70s such as The Human League, Depeche Mode and OMD. Kraftwerk’s genius lay in using synthesisers not as surrogate orchestration or cosmic decoration a la Rick Wakeman, but as a self-contained universe of sound with its own ideology; disciplined, intelligent, cool and futuristic.

The British bands which followed in Kraftwerk’s footsteps, the Depeches and The Human Leagues, took away with them a wry sense of detachment from rock’s bluster and guff. Like the punk scene that they (rather weirdly) emerged from, the electro-poppers were about vibing up the senile man, re-introducing mystery and fun after years of Poco, Uriah Heep and tedious Eric Clapton albums. The first two Human League albums, as well as producing a sonic palette for the Detroit scene to dip into, were both scary and funny — qualities at a premium in mainstream rock.

Of course, not everyone got it so right. And so for a while Top Of The Pops was filled with knobbos in aluminium boiler suits and white pancake make-up. Lord Advocate, High Priest and Grand Vizier of these knobbos was Sir Garfield Numan, perhaps the most ridiculous superstar pop has yet produced. His scores of hits, all called things like ‘Remember I Was Asbestos’ and ‘It’s So Cold In This Scary Futuristic City On Jupiter’ all missed the point by a small but crucial amount. They were boring rather than repetitive, daft rather than menacing and laughable as opposed to funny.

The crucial transition was the effect Brit/Euro Electropop had on the dancefloors of America. Music like Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ and the work of producers like Arthur Baker ushered in a style known as ‘Electro’. No-one really knows what it was, beyond a hybrid of rap and primitive synth arrangements against the clatter of TR 808 drum machines.

Over in Detroit in the mid-’80s, stranger things were afoot. Detroit then (and now) was a city in collapse. Its motor industry, which had fuelled ’60s prosperity and the youthful dynamism of Tamla Motown, was declining and its buildings disintegrating. To young Detroit, escape into the future made perfect sense.

Around the central triumvirate of Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Juan Atkins and their various aliases (Model 500, Reese, Rhythim Is Rhythim, Mayday, etc) a scene emerged whose music was a perplexing, esoteric blend of Euro-classicism and black dance.

‘No UFOs’, ‘Big Fun’, ‘When We Used To Play’, ‘Nude Photo’, ‘Goodbye Kiss’; the records embodied the new sound of Detroit, a sound synonymous with the new labels Transmat and Metroplex; insistently rhythmic, hypnotic, sparse and often strangely other-worldly. In ‘Strings Of Life’, we have something of an anthem; a haunting mantra for House piano and synthetic strings. Inner City, the most human face of the Detroit scene, even managed a clutch of hit singles. In order to be a real purist, you have to be a devotee of Detroit Techno and regard it as a sacred, inspirational thing. Network records’ excellent Retro Techno compilation is essential here. Tag-Heuer also make splendid watches. As do Rolex.

Since then, a whole lot of things have gone on. Belgium, usually known for its lack of pre-eminence in all fields of human endeavour, has taken up the Techno baton with a vengeance.

‘Hardcore’, basically frantic, speeded-up Techno, has become the backbone of the rave scene and, via homegrown acts like Altern 8, Bizarre Inc and The Prodigy who’ve added an attractive pop gloss, a permanent resident in the UK Top 40. And now over to someone who’s going to go quite mad with excitement about Techno today!

© Stuart MaconieNew Musical Express, 18 January 1992

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