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Machine Soul: A History of Techno (1993)
"Oooh oooh Techno city
Hope you enjoy your stay
Welcome to Techno city
You will never want to go away"
--Cybotron, "Techno City" (1984)
"The 'soul' of the machines has always been a part of our music. Trance always belongs to repetition, and everybody is looking for trance in life... in sex, in the emotional, in pleasure, in anything... so, the machines produce an absolutely perfect trance."
--Ralf Hutter, 1991, quoted in Kraftwerk: Man Machine and Music, Pascal Bussy
"It's like a cry for survival," a panicked male voice calls out. The beat pauses, but the dancers do not. Then Orbital throw us back into the maelstrom: into a blasting Terry Riley sample, into the relentless machine rhythm, into a total environment of light and sound. We forget about the fact that we're tired, that the person in front of us is invading our space with his flailing arms. Then, suddenly, we're there: locked into the trance, the higher energy. It does happen, just like everybody always says: along with thousands of others, we lift off.
The Brixton Academy is a 3500-capacity venue in South London. Built at the turn of the century in the style of a Moorish temple, it may look beautiful but it's hard to enliven: groups as diverse as the Beastie Boys and Pavement have disappeared into its dark, grimy corners. Tonight, however, it is full of white light and movement: the whole stage is a mass of projections, strobes and dry ice, in front of which a raised dance floor has been put in. Above us is stretched white cloth: at the sides of the building, the alcoves are lit up and flanked by projections of pulsating globules.
The whole scene reminds me of the place I wanted to be when I was 18, the same age as most of this audience: the Avalon Ballroom. Never mind that most of the dancers were born long after the San Francisco scene had passed: they're busy chasing that everlasting present. The sound is techno but psychedelic references abound: in the light shows, the fashions (everything ranging form beatnik to short-hair to late '60s long-hair), the T-shirts that read "Feed Your Head" (that climactic line from Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"), the polydrug use that is going on all around us.
This event is called Midi Circus: an ambitious attempt by the London promoters Megadog to make dance music performance work. It's obvious from the lightness of the atmosphere that time and energy have been spent on the staging. The acts selected - the Orb, Orbital, the Aphex Twin - are the most interesting working in the techno/psych crossover that has moved into areas formerly associated with rock: large public events, raves, festivals. It's here you will find the millenarian subculture of techno primitives, half in electronic noise, half in earth-centered paganism.
Orbital's name is taken from the M25 Orbital motorway that circles London; it comes from the period, three years ago, when huge raves were held around the capital's outer limits. They've had a couple of hits, and have just released a fine second LP (due out in the U.S. next month). Tonight, they stand behind their synths wearing helmets with two beams roughly where their eyes would be. When the dry ice and the strobes are in full effect, they look like trolls from Star Wars, or, perhaps more unsettling, coal miners. And then, as machine noise swirls around us, it hits me. This is industrial displacement. Now that England has lost most of its heavy industry, its children are simulating an industrial experience for their entertainment and transcendence.
"At first the art of music sought and achieved purity, limpidity and sweetness of sound. Then different sounds were amalgamated, care being taken, however, to caress the ear with gentle harmonies. Today music, as it becomes continually more complicated, strives to amalgamate the most dissonant, strange and harsh sounds. In this way we come ever closer to noise-sound."
--Luigi Russolo: "The Art of Noises" (1913)
"Punk rock, new wave, and soul
Pop music, salsa, rock & roll
Calypso, reggae, rhythm and blues
Master mix those number one blues."
--G.L.O.B.E. and Whiz Kid: "Play That Beat Mr. DJ" (1983)
Techno is everywhere in England this year. Beginning as a term applying to a specific form of dance music - the minimal, electronic cuts that Detroiters like Derrick May, Juan Atkins, and Kevin Saunderson were making in the mid '80s - techno has become a catchall pop buzzword: this year's grunge. When an unabashed Europop record like 2 Unlimited's "No Limit" - think Snap, think Black Box - blithely includes a rap that goes "Techno techno techno techno," you know that you're living within a major pop phenomenon.
My experience of it has been colored by my recent circumstances: frequent travel, usually by car. Techno is the perfect travelling music, being all about speed: its repetitive rhythms, minimal melodies, and textural modulations are perfect for the constantly shifting perspectives offered by high-speed travel. Alternatively, the fizzing electronic sounds all too accurately reproduce the snap of synapses forced to process a relentless, swelling flood of electronic information.
If there is one central idea in techno, it is of the harmony between man and machine. As Juan Atkins puts it: "You gotta look at it like, techno is technological. It's an attitude to making music that sounds futuristic: something that hasn't been done before." This idea is commonplace throughout much of avant-garde 20th-century art - early musical examples include Russolo's 1913 Art of Noises manifesto and '20s ballets by Erik Satie ("Relache") and George Antheil ("Ballet mechanique"). Many of Russolo's ideas prefigure today's techno in everything but the available hardware, like the use of nonmusical instruments in his 1914 composition, Awakening of a City.
Postwar pop culture is predicated on technology, and its use in mass production and consumption. Today's music technology inevitably favors unlimited mass reproduction, which is one of the reasons why the music industry, using the weapon of copyright, is always fighting a rearguard battle against its free availability. Just think of those "Home Taping Is Killing Music" stickers, the restrictive prices placed on every new Playback/Record facility (the twin tape deck, the DAT), the legal battles between samplers and copyright holders.
There are obviously ethical considerations here - it's easy to understand James Brown's outrage as his uncredited beats and screams underpin much of today's black music - but at its best, today's new digital, or integrated analog and digital, technology can encourage a free interplay of ideas, a real exchange of information. Most recording studios in the U.S. and Europe will have a sampler and a rack of CDs: a basic electronic library of Kraftwerk, James Brown, Led Zeppelin - today's Sound Bank.
Rap is where you first heard it - Grandmaster Flash's 1981 "Wheels of Steel," which scratched together Queen, Blondie, the Sugarhill Gang, the Furious Five, Sequence, and Spoonie Gee - but what is sampling if not digitized scratching? If rap is more an American phenomenon, techno is where it all comes together in Europe as producers and musicians engage in a dialogue of dazzling speed.
"Synthetic electronic sounds
Industrial rhythms all around
--Kraftwerk: "Techno Pop" (1986)
Kraftwerk stand at the bridge between the old, European avant-garde and today's Euro-American pop culture. Like many others of their generation, Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter were presented with a blank slate in postwar Germany: as Hutter explains, "When we started, it was like shock, silence. Where do we stand? Nothing. We had no father figures, no continuous tradition of entertainment. Through the '50s and '60s, everything was Americanized, directed toward consumer behavior. We were part of this 1968 movement, where suddenly there were possibilities, then we started to establish some form of German industrial sound."
In the late '60s, there was a concerted attempt to create a distinctively German popular music. Liberated by the influence of Fluxus (LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad were frequent visitors to Germany during this period) and Anglo-American psychedelia, groups like Can and Amon Duul began to sing in German - the first step in countering pop's Anglo-American centrism. Another element in the mix was particularly European: electronic composers like Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who, like Fluxus, continued Russolo's fascination with the use of nonmusical instruments.
Classically trained, Hutter and Schneider avoided the excesses of their contemporaries, along with the guitar/bass/drums format. Their early records are full of long, moody electronic pieces, using noise and industrial elements - music being indivisible from everyday sounds. Allied to this was a strong sense of presentation (the group logo for their first three records was a traffic cone) which was part of a general move toward control over every aspect of the music and image-making process: in 1973-74, the group built their own studio in Dusseldorf, Kling Klang.
At the same time, Kraftwerk bought a Moog synthesizer, which enabled them to harness their long electronic pieces to a drum machine. The first fruit of this was "Autobahn," a 22-minute motorway journey, from the noises of a car starting up to the hum of cooling machinery. In 1975, an edited version of "Autobahn" was a top 10 hit. It wasn't the first synth hit - that honor belongs to Gershon Kingsley's hissing "Popcorn," performed by studio group Hot Butter - but it wasn't a pure novelty either.
The breakthrough came with 1977's Trans-Europe Express: again, the concentration on speed, travel, pan-Europeanism. The album's center is the 13-minute sequence that simulates a rail journey: the click-clack of metal wheels on metal rails, the rise and fade of a whistle as the train passes, the creaking of coach bodies, the final screech of metal on metal as the train stops. If this wasn't astounding enough, 1978's Man Machine further developed ideas of an international language, of the synthesis between man and machine.
The influence of these two records - and 1981's Computer World, with its concentration on emerging computer technology - was immense. In England, a new generation of synth groups emerged from the entrails of punk: Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, the Normal all began as brutalist noise groups, for whom entropy and destruction were as important a part of technology as progress, but all of them were moving toward industrial dance rhythms by 1976-79.
The idea of electronic dance music was in the air from 1977 on. Released as disco 12" records in the U.S., cuts like "Trans-Europe Express" and "The Robots" coincided with Giorgio Moroder's electronic productions for Donna Summer, especially "I Feel Love." This in turn had a huge influence on Patrick Cowley's late '70s productions for Sylvester: synth cuts like "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real" and "Stars" were the start of gay disco. Before he died in 1982, Cowley made his own synthetic disco record, the dystopian "Mind Warp."
More surprisingly, Kraftwerk had an immediate impact on black dance music: as Afrika Bambaataa says in David Toop's Rap Attack, "I don't think they even knew how big they were among the black masses back in '77 when they came out with 'Trans-Europe Express.' When that came out, I thought that was one of the best and weirdest records I ever heard in my life." In 1981, Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, together with producer Arthur Baker, paid tribute with "Planet Rock," which used the melody from "Trans-Europe Express" over the rhythm from "Numbers." In the process they created electro and moved rap out of the Sugarhill age.
"The Techno Rebels are, whether they recognize it or not, agents of the Third Wave. They will not vanish but multiply in the years ahead. For they are as much part of the advance to a new stage of civilisation as our missions to Venus, our amazing computers, our biological discoveries, or our explorations of the oceanic depths."
--Alvin Toffler: The Third Wave (1980)
"Music is prophecy: its styles and economic organisation are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible."
--Jacques Atalli: Noise (1977)
In the inevitable movement of musical ideas from the avant-garde to pop, from black to white and back again, it's easy to forget that blacks - who to many people in England must be the repository of qualities like soul and authenticity - are equally as capable, if not more, of being technological and futuristic as whites. A veiled racism is at work here. If you want black concepts and black futurism, you need go no further than the mid-'70s Parliafunkadelicment Thang, with its P-Funk language and extraterrestrial visitations.
Derrick May once described techno as "just like Detroit, a complete mistake. It's like George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator." "I've always been a music lover," says Juan Atkins. "Everything has a subconscious effect on what I do. In the 1970s I was into Parliament, Funkadelic; as far back as '69 they were making records like Maggot Brain, America Eats Its Young. But if you want the reason why that happened in Detroit, you have to look at a DJ called Electrifying Mojo: he had five hours every night, with no format restrictions. It was on his show that I first heard Kraftwerk."
In 1981, Atkins teamed up with a fellow Washtenaw Community College student, Vietnam veteran Richard Davies, who had decided to simply call himself 3070. "He was very isolated," Atkins says; "He had one of the first Roland sequencers, a Roland MSK-100. I was around when you had to get a bass player, a guitarist, a drummer to make records: you had all these egos flying around, it was hard to get a consistent thought. I wanted to make electronic music but thought you had to be a computer programmer to do it. I found out it wasn't as complicated as I thought. Our first record was 'Alleys of Your Mind.' It sold about 15,000 locally."
Atkins and 3070 called themselves Cybotron, a futuristic name in line with the ideas they had taken from science fiction, P-Funk, Kraftwerk, and Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave. "We had always been into futurism. We had a whole load of concepts for Cybotron: a whole techno-speak dictionary, an overall idea which we called the Grid. It was like a video game which you entered on different levels." By 1984-85, they had racked up some of the finest electronic records ever, produced in their home studio in Ypsilanti: tough, otherworldly yet warm cuts like "Clear," "R-9", and the song that launched the style, "Techno City."
Like Kraftwerk, Cybotron celebrated the romance of technology, of the city, of speed, using purely electronic instruments and sounds. One of their last records, "Night Drive," features a disembodied voice whispering details of rapid, nocturnal transit in an intimate, seductive tone - this set against a background of terminal industrial decay. After the riots of June 1967, Detroit went, as Ze'ev Chafets writes in Devil's Night, "in one generation from a wealthy white industrial giant to a poverty - stricken black metropolis." Starved of resources while the wealth remains in rich, white suburbs, the inner city has, largely, been left to rot.
Much has been made of Detroit's blasted state - and indeed, analogous environments can be found in England, in parts of London, Manchester, Sheffield, which may well account for techno's popularity there - but Atkins remains optimistic. "You can look at the state of Detroit as a plus," says Atkins. "All right, you only take 15 minutes to get from one side of the city center to the other, and the main department store is boarded up, but we're at the forefront here. When the new technology came in, Detroit collapsed as an industrial city, but Detroit is techno city. It's getting better, it's coming back around."
By 1985, 3070 was gone, permanently damaged by Vietnam. Atkins hooked up with fellow Belleville High alumni Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. The three of them began recording together and separately, under various names: Model 500 (Atkins), Reese (Saunderson), Mayday, R-Tyme, and Rhythim is Rhythim (May). All shared an attitude toward making records - using the latest in computer technology without letting machines do everything - and a determination to overcome their environment; like May has said, "We can do nothing but look forward."
The trio put out a stream of records in the Detroit area on the Transmat and KMS labels: many of these, like "No UFO's," "Strings of Life," "Rock to the Beat," and "When He Used To Play," have the same tempo, about 120 bpm, and feature blank, otherworldly voices - which, paradoxically, communicate intense emotion. These records - now re-released in Europe on compilations like Retro Techno Detroit Definitive (Network U.K.) or Model 500: Classics (R&S Belgium) - were as good, if not better, as anything coming out of New York or even Chicago, but because of Detroit's isolation few people in the U.S. heard them at the time. It took English entrepreneurs to give them their correct place in the mainstream of dance culture.
Like many others, Neil Rushton was galvanized by the electronic music coming out of Chicago mid-decade, which was successfully codified in the English market under the trade name "house." A similar thing happened in Chicago as in Detroit: away from the musical mainstream on both coasts, DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Marshall Jefferson had revived a forgotten musical form, disco, and adapted it to the environment of gay clubs like the Warehouse. The result was a spacey, electronic sound, released on local labels like Trax and DJ International: funkier and more soulful than techno, but futuristic. As soon as it was marketed in the U.K. as house in early 1987, it became a national obsession with No. 1 hits like "Love Can't Turn Around" and "Jack Your Body."
House irrevocably turned around English pop music. After the successes of these early records by Steve "Silk" Hurley and Farley "Jackmaster" Funk (with disco diva Darryl Pandy), pop music was dance music, and, more often than not, futuristic black dance music at that. The apparent simplicity of these records coincided with the coming onstream of digital technology whereby, in Atkins's words, "you have the capability of storing a vast amount of information in a smaller place." The success of the original house records opened up more trends: acid house - featuring the Roland 303 - was followed by Italian house, and later, Belgian New Beat's slower, more industrial dance rhythms.
"The U.K. likes discovering trends," Rushton says. "Because of the way that the media works, dance culture happens very quickly. It's not hard to hype something up." House slotted right into the mainstream English pop taste for fast, four-on-the-floor black dance music that began with Tamla in the early '60s (for many English people the first black music they heard). In the '70s, obscure mid-'60s Detroit area records had been turned into a way of life, a religion even, in the style called "Northern Soul" by dance writer Dave Godin.
"I was always a Northern Soul freak," says Rushton. "When the first techno records came in, the early Model 500, Reese, and Derrick May material, I wanted to follow up the Detroit connection. I took a flyer and called up Transmat; I got Derrick May and we started to release his records in England. At that time, Derrick was recording on very primitive analog equipment: 'Nude Photo,' for instance, was done straight onto cassette, and that was the master. When you're using that equipment, you must keep the mixes very simple. You can't overdub, or drop too many things in; that's why it's so sparse.
"Derrick came over with a bag of tapes, some of which didn't have any name: tracks which are now classics, like 'Sinister' and 'Strings of Life.' Derrick then introduced us to Kevin Saunderson, and we quickly realized that there was a cohesive sound of these records, and that we could do a really good compilation album. We got backing from Virgin Records and flew to Detroit. We met Derrick, Kevin, and Juan and went out to dinner, trying to think of a name.
"At the time, everything was house, house house. We thought of Motor City House Music, that kind of thing, but Derrick, Kevin, and Juan kept on using the word techno. They had it in their heads without articulating it; it was already part of their language." Rushton's team returned to England with 12 tracks, which were released on an album called Techno! The New Dance School of Detroit, with a picture of the Detroit waterfront at night. At the time, it seemed like just another hype, but within a couple of months Kevin Saunderson had a huge U.K. hit with Inner City's pop oriented "Big Fun," and techno entered the language.
"In the future, all pop music will bring everyone a little closer together - gay or straight, black or white, one nation under a groove."
--LFO: "Intro" (1991)
The sheer exponential expansion of dance music in Europe since house is attributable to several factors. First, the sheer quality of the records coming out of the U.S., whether swingbeat, rap, New York garage, house or techno. Secondly acid house - acid being a Chicago term for the wobbly bassline and trancey sounds that started to come in from 1987 on - coincided with the widespread European use of the psychedelic Ecstasy. In Europe, acid house meant psychedelic house, and this drug-derived subculture has become the single largest fashion in England and across the continent; gatherings of up to 5000 people were common after 1988 and have become an important circuit for breaking hits.
Thirdly, the deceptively simple sound of the Detroit and Chicago records, together with the spread of digital technology like the Roland 808 sequencer [sic.], encouraged Europeans to make their own records cheaply, often in their own home studios, from the mid decade. The long delay between Kraftwerk's 1981 Computer World and 1986 Electric Cafe occurred in part because the group was converting its Kling Klang studio from analog to digital. The result is greater flexibility, more storage space, and more sonic possibilities - vital in an area of music as fast-moving and competitive as the dance economy.
The big English breakthrough came in 1988 with S'Express's no. 1 hit "Theme From S'Express" - a playful reworking of that old travel motif, with Karen Finley and hairspray samples for percussion. The acid sound development from the Roland 808 explorations of Phuture's "Acid Tracks" - the sound of buzzing bees discovered by accident from a synthesizer straight out of the shop. Squeezed, bent, oscillated, this buzz became the staple of the 1988-89 acid boom; you can hear an early English version on Baby Ford's proto-hardcore "Ooochy Koochy Fuck You Baby Yeah Yeah."
By 1990, the relentless demand for new dance music was such that, in Neil Rushton's words, "The Detroit innovators couldn't take it to the next stage. What did was that kids in the U.K. and Europe started learning how to make those techno records. They weren't as well-made, but they had the same energy. And, by 1990-91, things became more interesting, because instead of three people in Detroit, you suddenly had 23 people making techno, in Belgium, in Sheffield."
Beltram's "Energy Flash" released on the Belgian R&S Records in early 1991, defined the new mood. Inherent in the man/machine aesthetic is a certain brutality that goes right back to the macho posturings of the Futurist F.T. Marinetti: even in records as soulful as those made by Model 500, you'll find titles like "Off to Battle." With its in-your-face bass, speeded up industrial rhythms and whispered chants of "Ecstasy," "Energy Flash" caught the transition from Detroit techno to today's hardcore - the aesthetic laid out for all time on Human Resource's "Dominator:" "I'm bigger and bolder and rougher and tougher / In other words, sucker, there is no other / I wanna kiss myself."
"In Belgium we had all the influences," says R&S label owner Renaat Vandepapeliere. "We had new beat, which was slowed-down industrial music. Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle were very big in Belgium. Detroit techno and acid house came in and everything got mixed up together." Other Beltram cuts like "Sub-Bass Experience," with its sensuous psychedelic textures and rock samples, pointed the way forward to other R&S releases like the Aphex Twin's "Analogue Bubblebath," which spun techno off into yet another direction.
In England, the techno take-up came not in London or Manchester (which by then was busy with rock/dance groups like the Happy Mondays), but in Sheffield, an industrial city about 200 miles away from London, on the other side of the Pennine Hills from Manchester, which in the late '70s spawned its own electronic scene with Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League. "There are no live venues here in Sheffield," says WARP Records co-owner Rob Mitchell. "The only way to be in a band and be successful is to make dance records."
"All these industrial places influence the music that you make. Electronic music is relevant because of the subliminal influence of industrial sounds. You go around Sheffield and it's full of crap concrete architecture built in the '60's; you go down into an area called the Canyon and you have these massive black factories belching out smoke, banging away. They don't sound a lot different from the music." You can hear this in early industrial cuts by Cabaret Voltaire, like 1978's "The Set Up," with its deep throbbing pulse.
In 1989, CV's Richard Kirk was looking for a new way to operate. "Cabaret Voltaire had just finished a period on a major label, EMI, and we weren't working together. I spent a lot of time going to clubs, and working in the studio with Parrot, a DJ who ran the city's main club night, Jive Turkey. We made a record, as Sweet Exorcist, called 'Test One,' which we made to play in the club. It was very, very minimal. WARP was a shop where everyone bought American imports, and they put it out. We started to move seriously in that direction."
WARP released "Test One" in mid 1990. By the end of the year they had two top 20 hits with LFO and Tricky Disco, both with eponymous dance cuts. The WARP material is less brutal than the Belgian techno: still using crunch industrial sounds, but more minimal, more playful. And then another change occurred as techno went hardcore in 1991. "I didn't like the hardcore stuff," says Mitchell. "It was too simplistic, crude and aggressive. We were getting sent lots of tracks that we couldn't sell on singles, so we thought, 'Let's just do an LP.' We got the title, Artificial Intelligence, and a concept: 'Electronic music for the mind created by trans-global electronic innovators who prove music is the one true universal language.'"
The cover of Artificial Intelligence is a computer-generated image: a robot lies back in an armchair, relaxing after a Sapporo and what looks like a joint. On the floor surrounding him are album sleeves: the first WARP compilation, featuring LFO and Sweet Exorcist among others, Kraftwerk's Autobahn, and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. The music inside has slower beats, and is a ways away from the minimal funkiness of Detroit techno; cuts by the Dice Man, the Orb, and Musicology are nothing other than a modern, dance-oriented psychedelia.
Featured on the album was the then 17-year-old Richard James, who, under his most familiar pseudonym Aphex Twin, has become the star of what most people now call ambient techno - although it doesn't quite have a name yet. Coincidentally to the Artificial Intelligence compilation, R&S released the Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92, which developed a huge underground reputation at the end of last year. With its minimal, archetypal graphics - a mutated boomerang shape on the sleeve - the Ambient Works album trashed the boundaries between acid, techno, ambient, and psychedelic. It defined a new techno primitive romanticism.
When Richard James was finally found and interviewed, he came up with a story that has already become myth: how the by-now 19-year-old student from Cornwall (a remote part of the U.K.) recorded under a bewildering variety of pseudonyms - the Aphex Twin, Polygon Window, Dice Man, and Caustic Window, to name but a few - how he built his own electronic machines to make the speaker-shredding noises you hear on his records; how he already has 20 albums recorded and ready to go. WARP plans to release his next ambient collection as a triple-CD set with a graphic novel.
The Aphex Twin's success comes at a moment when, in England and on the continent, one wing of techno is going toward ambience. The slowing pace is partly in response to the still-popular working class fashion of hardcore, which regularly throws up generic chart hits like those by Altern-8 and the Prodigy. At the same time as the drug supply in clubland has changed from Ecstasy to amphetamines, hardcore has gone far beyond the linear brutalities of "The Dominator" into a seamless dystopia of speeded up breakbeats, horror lyrics, and ur-punk vocal chants. Like gangsta rap, it's scary, and it's meant to be.
"Ninety per cent of the techno records you hear now are made for a fucked-up dance floor," says Renaat Vandepapeliere. "That's what I see now in a lot of clubs: no vibe, no motivation, aggression - the drugs have taken over. The majority don't understand it yet, but most of the guys who are really good, like Derrick May, don't take drugs. Techno was a sound but it is now an attitude, and that's to make records for drug-oriented people. There is another category, where people are making music for you to pay attention with your full mind, and we're trying to make something now that will last."
"I believe that the '70s are parallel for what's going on in the '90s," says WARP's Rob Mitchell. "Musical moods tend to be a reaction against what has just gone on; we've just had a very aggressive period. The original Detroit techno is very sophisticated. What we're putting out now - Wild Planet, F.U.S.E. - has a similar level of sophistication. The real change for us since we started is the fact that this music is 99 per cent white, but the idea of raising techno to an artier level is really exciting."
If the '70s are back, then it's the early part of the decade: you can see 1970-71 in the long hair and loose clothes of R&S/WARP acts like the Aphex Twin, Source, C.J. Bolland; you can read it in their titles ("Neuromancer," "Aquadrive," "Hedphelym"); you can hear the hints of Terry Riley, German romanticists Cluster and Klaus Schulze, even Jean-Michel Jarre. The very idea of boy keyboard wizards goes back to that moment in the early '70s when Kraftwerk began their electronic experiments, when rock went progressive. Techno has moved into psychedelia with groups like Orbital; now it's gone prog.
It's hard to avoid the impression that ambient has come as a godsend to the music industry. The very success of the dance-music economy has thrown up problems, as Rob Mitchell explains: "There is virtually no artist loyalty in dance music; the record is more important than the artist. Dance is incredibly fast moving, which is good, but very difficult to build careers in." With ambient acts like the Aphex Twin, the music industry has something it recognizes and knows how to promote: the definable white rock artists, as opposed to the anonymous, often black, record. And ambient techno also slots directly into the music industry's most profitable form of hardware: the CD.
The term ambient was popularized by Brian Eno in the late '70s. The percussionless, subtle tonalities of records like Music for Airports were perfect for the CD format when it came onstream in the mid '80s. Ambient techno and its kitsch associate, New Age, are the modern equivalent of the exotic sound experience that developed to fit the technologies of the '50s. Just as mass distribution of the LP and the home hi-fi gave us film soundtracks and Martin Denny, the CD and the Discman have given us ambient techno.
Ambient could go horribly wrong, but hasn't yet. A cyberpunk/computer games aesthetic is always patched somewhere into the screen, but is not obtrusive. Inherent in the genre is a lightness of touch, and a rhythmic discipline that comes from its Detroit source. The best material, like Biosphere's Microgravity and Sandoz's Digital Lifeforms, also has a holistic spirituality that goes back to the Detroit records. As Sandoz's Richard Kirk says, "I've been making music for a long time. Much of it has been very cold, very aggressive, very stark. It's time to do something that makes you feel good, that makes you feel warm."
Recorded by a 27-year-old from Norway, Geir Jennsen (a/k/a Biosphere), Microgravity stands at the apex of ambient. Its nine cuts (sample title: "Cloudwater II") form a perfectly segued 45-minute whole that balances the utopian/dystopian pull inherent in the machine aesthetic. Their ebb and flow, between fast and slow, between playful and awful, between moon and sun, holds some of the queasy balance within which we live. At the end, a resolution: "Biosphere" merges the sound of technology - the thrum of heavy industry, an electric alarm - into a bass pulse and atmospheric effects, warning but enclosing. The last sound is wind.
"There's something in the air called objectivity.
There's something in the air like electricity.
There's something in the air, and it's in the air, the air.
There's something in the air that's pure silliness.
There's something in the air that you can't resist.
There's something in the air, and it's in the air,
And you can't get it out of the air."
--Theme song, Schiffer-Spoliansky revue: "Es Liegt in der Luft" (There's something in the air) (1928)
Techno, how far can you go? "A lot of it was kind of as we planned," says Juan Atkins, "but nobody knew it would be a global thing as it is now, from little Detroit." "We have played and been understood in Detroit and Japan," says Ralf Hutter; "That's the most fascinating thing that could happen. Electronic music is a kind of world music. It may be a couple of generations yet, but I think that the global village is coming."
The computer virus is loose. Right now, techno presents itself as a paradox of possibilities (and limitations, the most glaring being gender: where are the women in this boys' world?). In its many forms, techno shows that within technology there is emotion, that within information access there is overload, that within speed lies entropy, that within progress lies destruction, that within the materiality of inanimate objects can lie spirituality.
These tensions have been programmed into our art and culture since the turn of the century, and it is fitting that at the century's end, a form has come along which can synthesize the encroaching vortex of the millennium. You can do anything with techno, and people will. As our past, present, and future start to spin before our eyes, and our feet start to slip, the positivism inherent in techno remains a guide: like Juan Atkins says, "I'm very optimistic. This is a very good time to be alive right now."
© 1993 Jon Savage (The Village Voice, 1993)