Sunday, 1 November 2015

Electronica: The Time Machine

Two weeks ago French electronic pioneer, Jean-Michel Jarre, released his first album in 7 years. If you follow electronic music, synthesizer websites or the music press you may have noticed this fact as Jarre has undertaken extensive PR to promote the album. The album is unique in his catalogue of work in at least one respect: every song is a collaboration with someone else in electronic music who he regards as having influenced him or as an influence in general. And so he has worked with people such as Tangerine Dream (including Edgar Froese shortly before he sadly died at the start of this year), Vince Clarke, John Carpenter, Moby, Pete Townshend, Air and many others. In fact, he has worked with so many people there will be a second album of collaboration coming in spring next year to complete the project in which people like Gary Numan and Hans Zimmer will feature.

But this blog today is NOT about that album. Rather, its about an idea that this album inspires. I have been listening to Jarre's album - which has been impressively made in a custom studio using a vast swathe of instruments from the beginning right up to the present day of electronic music - with interest and it makes me ask myself a question: What would be my selection of artists who "have influenced me or who I regard as influences?" This is one of those pub type questions then where you argue with friends over who is better or which is the more important artist. Of course, its necessarily a personal list because each of our musical journeys is different. So I feel no urge to agree with people. Each journey has its own validity. What follows is my list of electronic musicians who have been important way markers in electronic music and with a few words as to why. I've also put the songs I chose into a You Tube playlist which is linked at the end.

1. Depeche Mode (New Life)

Depeche Mode is where it really all starts for me. They emerged just as I did from boyhood and, as I think about it, they really are the one electronic band that was there at the start and is still there now in relation to my own musical interests. At the beginning it was Vince Clarke (latterly of Yazoo and Erasure) who was the main song writer as in the song I choose here, their first proper hit, New Life. Of course, this sounds nothing like what Depeche Mode would become. But more about that later.

2. The Human League (The Things That Dreams Are Made of)

The Human League came just after Depeche Mode in my fledgling awareness. This is the revamped League and not the dour three man setup the trendies will prefer that made Travelogue and Reproduction. The album that made me aware of The Human League was Dare. Dare has a very distinct sound, one of the first records to ever use the Linn Drum, one of the first proper electronic drum machines. Indeed, I understand the machine had only just made it into the country when the album's producer, Martin Rushent, got hold of it and rapidly began programming it for the album. This was a momentous decision as to think of that instrument now is to think of Dare as an album. Dare and its lead single, Don't You Want Me, went down well in America too.

3. Cluster (James)

Cluster (formerly Kluster) were an electronic duo of Germans, Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius (RIP). They started out as abstract sound artists as can be heard on their first two albums from 1971 and 1972. If you want to know where ambient came from then listen to those records. If you think that Brian Eno invented ambient then note that Eno worked with these two guys throughout the Seventies and in the "supergroup" Harmonia with Michael Rother of Neu! But not only did Cluster invent ambient noise they also invented synthpop on their pioneering 1973 album, Zuckerzeit (Sugartime). A listen to this album reveals that someone got there before Kraftwerk. The only thing lacking was that Cluster didn't sing. The song James from this album is like a crazy ambient remix version of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" seventeen years before it existed. If you like electronic music then your education isn't complete without listening to Cluster.

4. Kraftwerk (Tour de France)

As with most things, I came to Kraftwerk late. Prior to the song I chose here, which to my mind is their best, I was only aware of "The Model". I had liked that but this one was much more 80s (which is what it was at the time). The Model had famously been tacked on to a single release from the 1981 album Computer Love as a B side but British DJs preferred to play The Model and so it went to number 1. Tour de France wasn't as popular but it showcased perfectly Kraftwerk's love of rhythmic patterns as well as their electronic sound, a sound that helped create Techno in Europe and America. No one will challenge my choice of Kraftwerk as an influence because anyone and everyone acknowledges that they are.

5. Jean-Michel Jarre (Fourth Rendez-Vous)

I became aware of Jean-Michel Jarre openly in 1986. This was the time of his world record breaking concert to 1.3 million people in Houston, Texas, in which the city was used as a gigantic backdrop for his music. There was a report about it on British TV and how the concert was being set up and organised and this caught my attention. I remember asking myself what kind of music could possibly be the soundtrack for a whole city? The concept seemed quite ambitious to me and the answer was his album Rendez-Vous. Subsequently, of course, I became aware of his previous work, particularly the sublime and enduring Oxygene which is one of the most atmospheric electronic records ever made. I recommend the "new master recording" from 2007 whole heartedly. If anyone has made electronic music widely known to masses of people then it is Jarre. Who else has repeatedly performed to crowds of over 1 million people with playing synthesizers as the attraction?

6. Man Parrish (Hip Hop Be Bop)

This is an artist I don't actually know that much about. But I know this tune and I know that he pioneered the electro sound of the 80s, a sound that took up the electronic dance music torch but was subsequently outshone by Techno and House. We can hear in records like Hip Hop Be Bop that even by 1983 Kraftwerk were being surpassed and left behind by those they had influenced and newer, younger, more American kids had got to grips with new, mass marketed, programmable instruments to make a sound that had never been heard before. Hip Hop Be Bop packs as much of a punch today as it did in '83. Its a seminal track.

7. Autechre (Basscadet)

Many people have never heard of Autechre, now a couple of middle-aged blokes from near Manchester, England. To describe the kind of music they make is complicated. They were, and still are, fans of electro music such as that from Man Parrish I just showcased. But they are also some of those who grew up just as home computing got off the ground and this love for computers has become integral to their music-making process. Its easiest to say that they developed into people who make music that no one could ever play in conventional, human ways and they have fully embraced the possibilities of making a music that only machines could ever make. As such, they are pioneers and standard-bearers for all the kids who ever got a computer and made music with it.

8. Boards of Canada (Amo Bishop Roden)

Boards of Canada are not so much a musical act or a style as they are a huge dose of nostalgia injected straight into the main vein. They do things with electronic music that no one else, I think, has ever done before and no one has yet surpassed. To listen to their tracks is to be taken away into a past, safe world of childhood where the sun always shines and familiar things are always to hand. Their music is like being wrapped in a soft blanket and snuggled. This is a group about which you don't care how they do it. You just enjoy the fact that they do.

9. Nine Inch Nails (Corona Radiata)

Trent Reznor is another guy I became aware of a long time after everyone else probably did. Almost 20 years after probably. But that's because, to me, Reznor has got more interesting the longer he has been active. By around 2010 he had become a film score composer and was also dabbling in working in different ways. The loud, depressed, alternative rock guy who had passed me by had become the mature, reflective thinker whose words on things musical I always like to think about myself. We need more people like Reznor who view sound itself as a communicative language. The Nine Inch Nails of Ghosts or The Slip or Hesitation Marks are, to me, infinitely more interesting than the one of The Downward Spiral, an album I can never listen through to the end of. But the latter came from the former and Reznor's musical journey keeps on getting more and more interesting. And influential.

10. Gary Numan (Are Friends Electric?)

One of those who influenced Reznor (because, as in everything, its all about networks of relations here) was Gary Numan, the London punk who popped up in 1979 and stole the electronic thunder from all the arty college boys who thought that they were the vanguard of British electronic music. The story goes that Numan one day found a Minimoog Model D in the studio he was in and, never having heard of it before, played it and liked it. The rest is history. Numan is an influence because so many 90s and and 00s electronic musicians say he is. He got in there first with a slightly punky, slightly alternative take on synths and had a few big hits. And people tend to remember stuff like that. His music was ripe to be mined and built upon by alternative rockers in the 90s and beyond. And it was. (Check out the video to this that I linked to. Its a live performance that features Billie Currie of Ultravox on an Arp Odyssey.)

11. Throbbing Gristle (Hot On The Heels of Love)

Not really a record very representative of Throbbing Gristle's output in the main, this track is, nevertheless, a standout one and representative of the fact that when Throbbing Gristle weren't making art to make a point (and they always were) they were actually musically very interesting. I've seen this track described elsewhere as one that deconstructs Moroder's "I Feel Love" riff and then smacks him back in the face with a stripped down version of it. But that's just pretentious music press bollocks and you won't find any of that here. The Gristles have an enduring appeal not just for their sound experiments (and everything they did was often an experiment, indeed, that was kind of the point of anything they did) but also for their attitude. Why make music if you have nothing to say?

12. Howard Jones (Hide and Seek)

It would have been easy for me to try and sublimate this choice and hide it away. There are trendier acts I could have chosen. But that would be to falsify the past. I was indeed a Howard Jones fan in the early 80s. Yes, time has not been kind to him and history doesn't make him one of the great names of the electronic past. But he was there and a few of his songs informed my teenage mind. So that counts as an influence on me. Jones was thoroughly conventional in pretty much every way but he did play synths - the Jupiter 8 being his signature instrument. When you're 13 or 14 just seeing someone playing a Jupiter 8 and wondering how it works and what it does is enough.

13. Daft Punk (Prime Time of Your Life)

Yes, they smacked it out of the park now with Random Access Memories. But I was there before that. Of course, I'd noted Da Funk. But the album of theirs that's really in my heart is the one everyone else passes over - Human After All. This is electronic music with a message. This music IS the message. The track I've chosen is an example in point. Listen to it and think. Because that's what they want you to do.

14. Underworld (Cowgirl)

Somehow Underworld seem to have emerged from the 90s dance craze and matured into electronic musicians par excellence. They largely got under my radar although Born Slippy was a track no one could ignore in 1996. Yet by 2012 they were working on projects like doing the music for the Olympics opening ceremony. They have a definitely British sound and are largely guys who get their heads down and just make music. A listen to their back catalogue is more than rewarding.

15. Leftfield (Open Up)

Leftfield's album Leftism is maybe the best album of the 1990s, a decade I often think of as a black hole in musical terms. For me the 70s and 80s is where all the invention comes from and everyone else after is just footnotes to what these people did. But some things from later still stand out and Leftism is one such thing. Its a masterpiece album of morphing electronic genres, always with a danceability that can't be shaken off. Open Up, which features the vocals of butter-selling ex punk, John Lydon, (ex The Sex Pistols) tears into your soul with its pounding rhythms and Lydon's unmistakable vocal tone.

16. Goldfrapp (Train)

Goldfrapp are a British delight. Formed by a blonde singer and the ex-saxophonist from Tears for Fears, they embarked with this century on a career of creating sonic masterpieces. On their first three albums this was expressly electronic and synthesized (the two had made an agreement that guitars could not be used at that time). What we got was the delicate album, Felt Mountain, and two glamrock, dancehall stompers, Black Cherry and Supernature. The Goldfrapp of these albums is by far my favourite. Later they would mellow and diversify but throughout they remained dedicated and skillful artistes who work with sound.

17. Depeche Mode (Enjoy the Silence)

There are, of course, at least two (and probably three or four) Depeche Modes. The first was Vince Clarke Depeche Mode. Now I pay homage to Martin Gore Depeche Mode. Violator is their highpoint as a band. Its the album that made them artists of worldwide renown. Personal Jesus and Enjoy the Silence are probably tied equally as my favourite singles of all time. As electronic musicians I can't actually think of another band who have stayed as popular and as at the forefront of music as Depeche Mode have. Most of the rest (including all the pioneers) faded away and died or retreated to some sonic backwater. And Depeche Mode have sold more albums than pretty much any other electronic artist too. That alone would make them "influencers". And so it is highly appropriate that perhaps the pre-eminent electronic band of my musical lifetime should bookend my choices.

You can listen to the songs I chose for my "time machine" HERE!!!

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