Master Of The Universe
Joined: May 31, 2003
Location: in range
|Posted: Fri Aug 21, 2009 10:53 pm Post subject: Kings of the cosmos
|Great article by Simon Reynolds written a couple of years ago in The Guardian. Well worth reading....
|Kings of the cosmos
Some had beards. Many were German. But they all had synthesisers. Simon Reynolds tracks the history of electronica's Seventies pioneers whose influence stretches to infinity and beyond
Simon Reynolds Observer Music Monthly, Sunday 22 April 2007
Everything you know about electronic pop is wrong. Years before Gary Numan and his electric friends, before the chart-popping porno-disco of 'I Feel Love by sexbot diva Donna Summer and pulsating producer Giorgio Moroder, before even Kraftwerk's serene electra-glide down the Autobahn, the trailblazers of synthesisers in pop were a bunch of long-haired hippies and slumming classical composers. Pioneered by Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and Walter Carlos, then popularised by Tomita, Jean Michel Jarre, and Vangelis, this genre - space music, some call it, or analog-synth epics - has been almost completely written out of the history of electronica.
This neglect partly stems from the nature of the music, which doesn't fit either of the subsequently established images of electropop (catchy ditties in the early Eighties Depeche mould or beat-driven dance music in the techno/trance continuum). From its epic scale (compositions that often took up the whole side of an album) to its cosmic atmosphere (albums were typically inspired by outer space or natural grandeur, astrophysics or science fiction), the genre wasn't exactly poppy. But it was hugely popular all across the world during the Seventies: Tangerine Dream's albums regularly visited the UK top 10, Tomita's Debussy-goes-synth Snowflakes Are Dancing received Grammy nominations in four different categories, and Jarre's 'Oxygene (Part IV)' was a UK top five hit. The debonair Frenchman went on to stage massive outdoor spectaculars of music and lasers in cities across the world, performing to audiences that ran into millions. Jarre's music was as close as space music got to conventional pop, its brisk programmed drums and melodious synth-lines making it accessible and catchy. Mostly the genre was closer to ambient mood-music, designed to conjure eyelid-movies for the supine, sofa-bound and, more often than not, stoned. At its most abstract - solo albums by Klaus Schulze and by Tangerine Dream's leader Edgar Froese - these were clouds of sounds to lose yourself in, a Rorschach mindscreen for projecting fantasies onto. Yet unlike the hipster-credible Krautrock of Can, Faust and Neu!, or more esoteric (ie unsuccessful) Sixties electronic outfits like Silver Apples, the cosmic synth voyagers have never been named by contemporary bands as a cool reference point.
Until now, that is. In the past few years, bands have emerged who unabashedly cite Tangerine Dream as an influence. France's M83 take their name from the spiral galaxy Messier 83 and make 11-minute long tracks such as 'Lower Your Eyelids To Die With the Sun' that resemble the missing link between My Bloody Valentine's woozy shoegaze and Tangerine Dream's 1974 breakthrough album Phaedra. In New York, the ultra-hip DFA label released Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom's Days of Mars, an album whose four long instrumentals flashed listeners back to Klaus Schulze epics. Jim Jupp of Belbury Poly, whose second album The Owl's Map recently came out on supercool London label Ghost Box, names Walter Carlos, Schulze and Tangerine Dream as a major inspiration: 'I think it's the fact that they were exploring what must have been mind-blowing technology, and giving free rein to musical ideas that had no pre-existing language. There's also something supernatural in the sound of modular synths and mellotrons; they always seemed the natural soundtrack for a golden age of science fiction and that Erich von Daniken-era pop culture of ancient astronauts and earth mysteries.'
Even dance culture has taken a turn towards the kosmische, with the fad for 'space disco', a genre pioneered by Norwegian producers Hans-Peter Lindstrom and Prins Thomas who are obsessed with an obscure late Seventies scene in northern Italy where disco and space rock collided and Italian youth trance-danced all night long in an LSD-spiked daze.
The Seventies cosmic synth genre was very much an extension of psychedelia and that whole late Sixties mindset of 'taking drugs to make music to take drugs to' (the catchphrase of a much later band, Spacemen 3). The first deployments of electronic sound in rock came from acid-rock bands like United States of America, White Noise, and Gong who were looking for ever more otherworldly textures. 'It was a major new weapon in the psychedelic arsenal,' says Steve Hillage, who spent the early Seventies playing guitar in Gong alongside British synth pioneer Tim Blake, then embarked on a solo career dedicated to 'the mixture of guitar and electronics' in partnership with his synth-twiddling lover Miquette Giraudy. Hillage cites the pioneering all-electronic album Zero Time by American outfit Tonto's Expanding Headband as the record that 'blew my mind' and woke him up to the synth's potential. He eventually tracked down Malcolm Cecil, the designer of the Tonto synthesiser, to produce his recently re-released 1977 album Motivation Radio
For the most part, in the early Seventies synths were an expensive plaything for rock superstars and were typically used as an exotic embellishment to established styles. Keith Emerson of ELP and Yes-man Rick Wakeman played their synths like glorified organs, all bombast and folderol. Apart from Tonto's Expanding Head Band, the first group to go all the way into a radically all-electronic and un-rock sound was Tangerine Dream. The group originally spawned out of Berlin's Zodiak Free Arts Lab. 'It was an avant-garde club during the late Sixties, a large white-and-black room where various concerts and happenings took place,' says Edgar Froese. It was at the Zodiak that Froese met Klaus Schulze, who had been drumming in a freak-rock band called Psy Free, and Conrad Schnitzler, later to make a series of experimental electronic albums now highly prized by hipsters. The trio formed Tangerine Dream and, initially, their sound was guitar-dominated, bearing the heavy imprint of Pink Floyd's A Saucerful of Secrets. But with the arrival of Chris Franke, who had worked with synths in his previous band Agitation Free, Tangerine Dream's sound gradually became keyboards-dominated.
Soon they were a cult band in the UK. Atem, their third album, was hailed by John Peel as his favourite record of 1973. Virgin Records, in those days a mail-order company specialising in import albums from Europe, shifted more than 15,000 Tangerine Dream albums through the post. Richard Branson realised the band were perfect candidates to launch his record label and shape a distinct identity for it. Froese recalls Simon Draper, Virgin's A&R chief and aesthetic helmsman, 'ringing me in Berlin to say this BBC radio guy Peel was playing Atem to death. Two days later I sat with Branson on the stairs of his Notting Hill Gate record store and signed a contract which was in power from 1973 to 1983. Ten years of rollercoaster experiences began!' Phaedra, Tangerine Dream's debut for Virgin and their first fully electronic album, crashed into the top 10 and by the time the group made their debut tour of Britain in the autumn of 1974 the record's hypnotic pulsations had sold 100,000 copies. 'We did tours all over the world and received gold status in seven countries. Not bad for some "strange knob switchers from Germany", as the UK music papers called us!' Phaedra was followed by the equally successful Rubycon and Ricochet, the latter a live document of a tour of European cathedrals.
In those days, touring with synthesisers was a major headache. The machines were bulky and heavy, but also fragile and temperamental. 'Transportation was horrifying - we spent 30 per cent of our income for insurances and repair of instruments,' recalls Froese. 'Voltage controlled oscillators and other devices were completely unstable,' he adds, because their extreme sensitivity to room temperature meant that 'any given tuning of the oscillator stayed 'in tune' for maybe 10 minutes.' One reason Steve Hillage had three synth-players in his live band during the mid-Seventies was to 'guarantee we could deliver the goods sonically!' Klaus Schulze - who, like Hillage, signed to Virgin as a solo artist in the wake of Tangerine Dream - recalls how the settings on his synthesisers would constantly drift. 'Nobody could make the same sound two days in a row. With my big Moog, when the spotlights went on, the heat affected the tuning. At the same time, the Moog needed two hours just to warm up; you had to plug it in as soon as you lugged it into the hall.'
Schulze's version of electronic space music was darker and even more abstract than Tangerine Dream's. And where Tangerine Dream averaged four long tracks per album, a Schulze LP typically featured just two side-long compositions that stretched the sound-fidelity limitations of the vinyl album by running to 25 or even 30 minutes. These long tracks were typically recorded in a single take. 'I would play until the tape ran out,' Schulze recalls. 'I was recording in my living room, or perhaps it would be better to say, living in my studio!'
According to Schulze, the impulse to do extended compositions originally came out of Sixties drug culture. 'We were all smoking and drifting into long-term moods. Four-minute songs were over too quick, it wasn't relaxing music, not like a dream. We wanted to do music that was like a classical piece, with leitmotifs, codas.' The title of his 1973 album Picture Music pinpoints the genre's aspirations to be an inner space version of programme music. 'It's for short movie clips in your head,' says Schulze. 'The music doesn't entertain you so much as it's forcing you to use your imagination to make it complete. It's not really 'entertainment', because the listener has to complete the music and, if you're not willing to add some of your own fantasy, it's quite boring!'
'Boring' and 'soporific' were epithets frequently hurled by hostile rock critics at the cosmic synth artists, especially in the live context, where Tangerine Dream's shows were so lacking in showiness (the group motionless behind their banks of synths) that audiences (the reviewers claimed, anyway) were in danger of falling asleep. In a 1974 interview, the group's Peter Baumann retorted: 'Exactly - we play as a group but the distinction between us and a rock band is that they put on a show - we put on a mind show.'
The sort of rock critic who spent the entire early Seventies waiting for punk to happen - like Lester Bangs, whose hilarious slagging off of a Tangerine Dream concert is reprinted below - hated the electronic mindscape groups, but even 1976-77, supposedly the years of punk, were actually the peak of space music's popularity. In 1977, Schulze played at the Planetarium in London, showcasing Mirage, probably his masterpiece). 'That was the first time a concert was given in a planetarium,' Schulze says, audibly beaming with pride down the phone line. 'But I don't know if a planetarium is really the ideal place for music, because its hemisphere shapes creates echoes and sound reflections from all sides.' That same year Tangerine Dream embarked on their debut traipse across America, performing to sold-out crowds with a surprisingly multi-racial aspect - black youth being as wowed by the group's alien synth sound as they were by the similarly futuristic noises made by Kraftwerk on 1977's Trans Europe Express. The year also saw Tangerine Dream recording a high-profile soundtrack for the movie Sorcerer, made by Exorcist-director William Friedkin, while Tomita had a hit with The Planets, his electronic rendition of Holst's symphony.
The commercial high profile of synthesiser music and its associations with long-haired 'progressives' were why most punk rockers regarded keyboards as a no-no. 'Technoflash' was NME's sneering designation for the genre, the flash referring both to the ostentatious display of nimble-fingered virtuosity and to the over-the-top stage costumes and expensive lighting. When Wire's second album Chairs Missing appeared in 1978, the presence of synths led one reviewer to complain that they'd gone from Pink Flag to Pink Floyd in less than a year. Around that time, a spate of synthesiser based singles emerged from the post-punk do-it-yourself underground - the Human League's 'Being Boiled', the Normal's 'Warm Leatherette', Throbbing Gristle's 'United' - but these artists were at pains to differentiate themselves from the cosmic synth bands. The Normal - aka Daniel Miller, founder of Mute Records - complained that the trouble with most synth-players was that they were musicians who played the synth pianistically rather than treating it as a noise-generating machine. Yet only a few years earlier Miller had been a huge Klaus Schulze fan. Even the Human League had been recording 97-minute electronic soundscapes like 'Last Man of Earth' only a few months before shifting in a pop direction with 'Being Boiled'. In 1978, though, it was crucial to avoid any taint of hippie. So Trans Europe Express and 'I Feel Love' were cited as revelations, but no one gave the nod to Jean Michel Jarre's 'Oxygene (Part IV)', a UK chart smash only a few weeks after 'I Feel Love' hit number one in late 1977.
Jarre's homeland France was the European country that most ardently embraced the new electronic rock. Kraftwerk were bigger there than in Germany, while Klaus Schulze's Moondawn sold a quarter of million copies in 1976 and planted itself in the Top 5 just behind Pink Floyd. Although Jarre came from an avant-garde background, having studied under the direction of musique concrete pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, his work aimed straight for the middlebrow jugular, fusing 19th-century classical melodiousness and scale with electronic textures.
Perhaps inflated by his worldwide success (and marriage to Charlotte Rampling), the hallmark of Jarre's career became a gigantism verging on shlocky overkill. Starting with a 1979 Paris concert that drew one million fans to the Place de la Concorde, he threw a series of increasingly spectacular high-tech extravaganzas. He became the first Western pop musician to perform in the People's Republic of China, played at Nasa's 25th anniversary celebration in Houston, threw a huge 1988 event in London called Destination Docklands, and drew 2.5 million to Paris's La Defense district in 1990. This run of Guinness record-breaking mega-concerts peaked with his performance in front of 3.5 million Russians at Moscow's 850th anniversary celebrations. Jarre also received an honour to make the other spacetronica pioneers green with envy - having an actual heavenly body named after him, the asteroid 4422 Jarre.
Apart from Tangerine Dream, the major figures in the analog synth epic genre were solo artists. Something about the tableau of the solitary composer flanked, on stage or in the studio, by banks of electronic gear seems to go to the core of the genre, conjuring an aura of 'Great Man, Alone' grandiosity. Vangelis is a supreme example. He started out in the Greek prog-rock band Aphrodite's Child and was later offered the chance to become Yes's keyboard player. But Vangelis turned it down, feeling that it would constrain his vision. Instead he built a recording studio in the centre of London, near Marble Arch, filling it with statues, figurines and exotica to create an inspirational atmosphere, and calling it Nemo because, he says, 'it was sort of cut off from the conventional studios in London and quite different. It looked a little bit like Captain Nemo's submarine in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.' Here Vangelis composed his music on the spot, surrounded by a huge array of keyboards, improvising straight to tape.
Vangelis released a stream of solo albums showcasing his gift for melody, along with a series of collaborations with Yes vocalist Jon Anderson. His label RCA's hope for a Tubular Bells-scale smash from Vangelis didn't materialise but his work began to appear in movies and TV themes, where the music's aura of majesty and scale lent itself to things like Carl Sagan's TV series Cosmos. Then the breakthrough came with his 1981 Oscar-winning score for Chariots of Fire, followed by his masterpiece, the score for Blade Runner, where his synth-tones possess the quality of glistening gas settling on the horizon's rim. Amazingly, the full score wasn't released until the Nineties.
Movie soundtracks are where most of the cosmic synth artists really came into their own. Here was a field in which their lack of onstage showiness or pop charisma was not a drawback. Composing scores allowed them to give up the unprofitable and wearisome routine of touring in support of albums. After doing the Sorcerer, Tangerine Dream went on to compose over 30 more movie scores. 'It gave us the freedom to do what we wanted to do without being suppressed by a record company,' says Froese. 'Plus, there was the chance to work in one of the most bizarre art forms one could think of.' Alternating between movie soundtracks and his own solo albums, Vangelis abandoned Nemo for a new studio, the Epsilon Laboratory, built almost entirely from glass and situated on the top of a tall building in Paris. But soon he left it for a peripatetic existence, enabled by the increasingly portable nature of synthesiser technology.
The soundtrack direction was something of a saviour, for the Eighties were wilderness years for many of the synth epic pioneers. The increasing ubiquity of electronic sounds and rhythms in pop music diminished the future-shock aura of their own work. A hardcore of fans kept the faith during the Eighties, many of them becoming cult artists in their own right, such as Steve Roach. The classic-era Seventies music was kept alive by Ultima Thule, a record store and mail order company based in Leicester and founded by two brothers, Steven and Alan Freeman, who also put out Audion, a magazine dedicated to all things kosmik and European.
In 1989, however, the legacy of the Seventies synth gods surfaced in a most unlikely place: London's dance scene. A DJ called Dr Alex Paterson was operating the pioneering chill out zone Land of Oz, a sanctuary to which acid (house) fried ravers from Paul Oakenfold's famous Spectrum club could retreat and get their synapses soothed by ambient music - things like Steve Hillage's Rainbow Dome Musick, which was recorded for a 1979 new age festival. 'The first time I went down to Oz, Alex was playing Rainbow but he was mixing it over beats,' recalls Hillage. Another Paterson favourite was E2-E4, an album recorded in 1981 by Ash Ra Tempel's Manuel Gottsching just after he'd come off a tour with Klaus Schulze. One long 60-minute track of softly pittering electronic beats and fluttering synths, E2-E4's gentle euphoria fitted the ecstasy mood perfectly, and in 1989 a house-ified version of the track entitled 'Sueno Latino' became an anthem on the rave scene.
Rainbow Dome Musick and E2-E4 bridged the gap between the Seventies synth gods and the post-acid house culture of chill out zones and 'electronic listening music' that flourished in the early Nineties. A new breed of artists emerged - Mixmaster Morris, Sven Vath, Biosphere, the Future Sound of London, Pete Namlook, and above all Alex Paterson's own group the Orb - who were audibly indebted to Schulze, Tangerine Dream and the rest, inheriting not only their textures but their love of concept albums and long tracks, their grandiose ambition and tendency towards mystic kitsch. After hearing his electronic tapestries layered over kicking beats at Land of Oz, a light bulb went off above Hillage's head, and with partner Giraudy he plunged into the techno fray with a new outfit called System 7. Schulze worked with Namlook, recording a Pink Floyd homaging collaboration for the latter's label Fax with the title Dark Side of the Moog. 'Suddenly I was the godfather of trance and ambient, or the Pope,' recalls Schulze. 'I was honoured.' Although the chill out boom faded, the influence of the Seventies synth gods continued in trance, especially the sub-genre known as psychedelic trance - the ruling sound on the currently resurgent underground rave scene.
Being embraced and validated by a young generation of drug-addled technophiles has galvanised the Seventies survivors. Most of them remain active in music. Hillage and Giraudy still record as System 7 and Mirror System. Tangerine Dream continue to release records, while Edgar Froese recently put out a solo record in homage to Salvador Dali (with whom he spent some time in 1967) and has just completed the final instalment of a three-part project inspired by Dante's The Divine Comedy. Vangelis sporadically records movie scores and his entire oeuvre is also being reissued at the moment. Jean Michel Jarre regularly stages his mega-concerts, albeit on a reduced scale (relative to his own exploits, anyway), most recently playing to 100,000 Poles for the 25th anniversary celebration of Solidarity, an event staged at the Gdansk shipyard where the movement first started. As for Klaus Schulze, he recently released Moonlake - his 101st album.
· Tangerine Dream's new album Madcap's Flaming Duty is out now on Voiceprint
Five synth classics
Tonto's Expanding Head Band - Zero Time
Quaint now, mind-blowingly alien at the time.
Wendy Carlos - Sonic Seasonings (gets played at Deep Space quite a bit)
Four movements celebrating the seasons.
Klaus Schulze - Cyborg
Electronics and a 'cosmic orchestra': dissonant, Gothic, and poignant.
Tangerine Dream - Phaedra
The bridge between Pink Floyd and acid house.
David Vorhaus - White Noise 2
'Concerto for synth' on the Kaleidophon.
'Urps, hissing and pings' - Lester Bangs on The Dream
I decided it would be a real fun idea to get fucked up on drugs and go see Tangerine Dream with Laserium. So I drank two bottles of cough syrup and subwayed up to Avery Fisher Hall.
This place is sold out. Everyone is stoned. The music begins. Three technological monoliths emitting urps, hissings, pings and swooshings in the dark. The men at the keyboards send out sonar blips through the congealing air. I close my eyes and settle into the ooze of my seat, feeling the power of the cough syrup building inside me.
I open my eyes again. The Laserium, which I had forgotten all about in my druggy meanderings, has begun to do its shtick on the screen above the synthesisers. Two pristine circles appear gyrating and rubber banding with a curiously restful freneticism. The synthesisers whisper to them as they bounce.
The Laserium begins to flash more violently, exploding in dots and points and lines that needle your retinae as the synthesisers suck you off and down. I close my eyes to check into home control, to see if any visions might be coagulating. Nothing. I open them. Flash, flash, flash - the intensity grows. I become bored and restless. I have seen God, and the advantage of having seen God is that you can look away. God don't care.
· Village Voice, 17 April 1977. Reprinted in 'Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung' (Serpent's Tail)