Machine Soul: A History Of Techno

Machine Soul: A History Of Techno


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 in to 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. Coincidental 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 {ln: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 {ln:Kraftwerk ‘Ralf Hütter}; “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.”

by Jon Savage

[This article originally appeared in The Village Voice Summer 1993 “Rock & Roll Quarterly” insert.]

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