Machine Soul: A History Of Techno

Machine Soul: A History Of Techno

Synthetic electronic sounds
Industrial rhythms all around
Musique nonstop
Techno pop

–Kraftwerk: “Techno Pop” (1986)

{ln: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 Hütter were presented with a blank slate in postwar Germany: as Hütter 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 Düül 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 {ln:Pierre Schaeffer & Pierre Henry : Musique ‘Pierre Schaeffer} and {ln:Karlheinz Stockhausen: Electronic Music’s Enfant Terrible ‘Karlheinz Stockhausen}, who, like Fluxus, continued Russolo’s fascination with the use of nonmusical instruments.

Classically trained, Hütter 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 Düsseldorf, 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 {ln:The A-Z Of Electro ‘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 forefron 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.”

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