Fenner Pearson's bottled history of electronic music in one playlist, featuring Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Jean-Michel Jarre, Donna Summer, Bowie, Japan, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode. And Karlheinze Stockhausen! Your city commute will never be the same again.
Words, curation and playlist concept by Fenner Pearson. Cover art by Mick Clarke, as ever.
The past, friends, is a vast collection of actions and events. The job of any worthwhile historian is to evaluate these actions and events, decide which have some significance to the story they want to tell, and then weave them together to tell it. Of course, different historians can tell the same story in many different ways. What follows is my take on the history of electronic music from its earliest days in the 1950s through to 1983, when digital synthesisers became prevalent in the form of the Yamaha DX7. When we get to Electronic Ears Vol. 2, we’ll me more into the swing of everything the scene has to offer since 1983.
We will start with Karlheinze Stockhausen who in 1953, at the age of 25, turned his attention to electronic music, composing ‘Studie Nr 2’ in 1954. That is what kicks off our playlist. The subsequent rise of electronic music over the next two decades was dominated by three women: Daphne Oram, who was there at the opening of the Radiophonic Workshop; Delia Derbyshire, who worked there and produced the legendary theme for ‘Doctor Who; and Wendy Carlos, whose ‘Switched-On Bach’, might have the appearance of a novelty record, but actually pioneered the use of electronic sounds in classical pieces.
At that stage, electronic music was still some way away from the world of pop. Morton Subotnick’s ‘Silver Apples Of The Moon Part 1’, released in 1968, is widely regarded as the first electronic pop single although, frankly, you couldn’t dance to it. The following year, White Noise, featuring Delia Derbyshire, released their seminal album An Electric Storm, highly regarded to this day, but again, doing little to attract the attention of pop pickers of the late sixties. Incidentally, this same year saw a Moog synthesiser appear on The Beatles’ ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ but this was unrequited flirtation between electronics and pop: just eyes across a crowded room.
We are, of course, slowly edging our way forward to the revolution brought about by a fresh faced quartet from Düsseldorf, but one important stepping stone on the way to that side of the river was the release of Zero Time by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band (Tonto refers not to the Lone Ranger’s side-kick but to The Original New Timbral Orchestra, still reckoned to be the largest ever Moog synthesiser.) It is ‘Jetsex’ from this album that I suspect caught the ear of the young Ralf Hütter.
And so it was in 1974 – just as Suzanne Ciani began to make a living recording advertising jingles using electronic instruments – that Kraftwerk released ‘Autobahn’. While Eno’s debut on Top of the Pops with Roxy Music had laid down the idea of the geeky synthesiser boffin, Kraftwerk manifested in a far more sober form (influenced in fact by a Gilbert and George exhibition). It’s impossible to underestimate the cultural impact of their twenty-three minute long behemoth, which blew away the electronic noodlings of those who’d come before. Despite its proggy length, its tongue in cheek appropriation of the Beach Boys’ harmonies and neat structures places the song squarely in the world of pop.
Despite the sneering racist reception that ‘Krautrock’ was given in the UK’s music press, the song bridged the channel for other European acts, including Tangerine Dream and, famously, Jean-Michel Jarre’s ‘Oxygene Pt IV’. Arguably, though, it was the already iconic David Bowie that delivered electronic music firmly into the mainstream with his Low album. Indeed, he lays his influences bare on its follow up, Heroes, which contains a track called ‘V2 Scheider’, named for a member of Kraftwerk. However, one must be careful not to miss Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s exuberant ‘I Feel Love’, which bypassed the brain to deliver electronic music directly (and irreversibly) to the world’s feet.
It was Bowie’s output the grabbed the attention of the serious young men of the United Kingdom, first in the form of John Foxx’s Ultravox!, who in turn influenced the young Gary Webb, who, refashioned as Gary Numan and with his band Tubeway Army, smashed the charts with 1979’s unforgettable ‘Are Friends Electric?’. This in turn, paved the way onto the radio for bands such as The Human League, Fad Gadget, Japan, and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark.
And this brings us to 1981, the year when electronic music fully colonised the British charts, starting with Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’, and followed in that same year by Duran Duran, Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, The Human League, Kraftwerk (and rightly so!), OMD and Thomas Dolby. A second wave the following year brought hits from, amongst others, Blancmange, Yazoo, and, of course, New Order’s electro-pop classic ‘Blue Monday’. Electronic music was established.
I’ve selected ‘The Walk’ by The Cure as a personal favourite from a host of contenders that all demonstrate how groups could, by that time, release what amounted to electronic singles without being considered synthesiser bands although, of course, there were more purely electronic bands to come, such as the Eurythmics and Pet Shops Boys. I’ve closed the playlist with Depeche Mode and their single which was to cross the Atlantic and have a resounding impact on American dance music.
And there you have it, those early analogue tributaries all combining over time to form an irresistible torrent in the late seventies and early eighties, which then disseminated into an electronic delta that irrigated so much of the musical landscape that was to follow that its identity as a distinct genre would disappear for almost thirty years.
Fenner Pearson is presenter of Electronic Ears. Catch the broadcast programme every Sunday at 8pm on Cando FM
Afterword: Aha! At last, we persuaded Fen to expand his wonderful Electronic Ears brand into the Song Sommelier as a playlist series. There is a lot to look forward to here, as one of the UK’s (and possibly the world’s) greatest authorities on all things electronic + music lets rip. Now we can all begin to appreciate this expansive genre just that little bit more. This first ‘episode’ sets the context with this little history lesson, and subsequent volumes will take us wherever they may take us! Perhaps even including Aha! I recommend listening on your work commute, late at night, or if you need a lift during working hours. And if you catch the bug, check out Fen’s Sunday evening broadcasts on the link above.
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