I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

History of Electronica: Elisha Gray to The Pet Shop Boys via William S. Burroughs

by James Keith
Feb. 15, 2016

In 1930 Igor Stravinsky stated in the revue 'Kultur und Schalplatte' that "there will be a greater interest in creating music in a way that will be peculiar to the gramophone record." The following year, 1931, Boris de Schloezer also expressed the opinion that "one could write for the gramophone or for the wireless just as one can for the piano or the violin" (Battier 2007, 190). Similarly, one could go even further by citing Russian inventor Leon Termin and his creation the Theremin as the birth of electronic music or -- further still -- with Elisha Gray's invention of the Musical Telegraph in 1876 which used steel reeds whose oscillations were created by electromagnets and transmitted over a telegraph wire, creating a basic single note. Still, while all these revelations and inventions would play crucial parts in the eureka moment of Robert Moogin the 60's, it would take a gradual process of about twenty years before the idea of electronic music became fully realised --at least beyond the realms of science fair expos and novelty devices.

The first rumblings of electronic music in the world of pop would come from the avante-garde music scene in late-60's Germany with bands like Can, Faust, Neu!, Tangerine Dream and, of course, Kraftwerk. These bands would form a hugely important movement that would take the advances of musique conrete into the realms of popular music. The krautrock movement would run parallel with the burgeoning punk scene, rejecting the stale homogeny of pop music at the time. Most of the equipment used by these bands was home-made, wildly unpredictable and could usually only be played by its builder. This gave each band its own unique sound, inimitable and wholly original. The gargantuan modular synths of the seventies would also be incorporated by some, particularly Tangerine Dream who bought their first synths from a frustrated Mick Jagger who was unable to coax a single sound from it.

However, by the late 70's bands like King Crimson, ELP and Yes were all well-versed in modular synthesizers and had already integrated them into their performances, leading to now-infamous footage of Rick Wakeman surrounded by a vast sea of synthesizers and keyboards. Electronica in this era was wildly experimental and avante garde, utilising complex walls of machinery known as modular synthesizers. These goliaths required more than a rudimentary knowledge of A-level physics and engineering. Wires were used to connect the different modules, passing soundwaves through different effects such as VCA's to adjust amplitudes, VCO's to adjust pitch, a sequencer to produce a series of musical notes in a loop and a series of interfaces to coordinate inputs. Up until this point, such equipment was reserved for prog rock bands with large bank balances and larger studios capable of storing them. Later, Bernard Sumner of Joy Division and New Order would build his own Transcendent 2000 using components he had bought because the £200 price tag was beyond his finances.

One artist who is often forgotten by the historians of modern electronic music is William S. Burroughs. Along with cyber-punk prose of JG Ballard, his approach to writing completely obliterated any preconceived notions of form and structure, particularly in poetry, using cut-up techniques to randomly reassemble words and a distinctive repetitive style would prove hugely inspirational to artists such as Clock DVA and The Normal in the UK's burgeoning industrial scene. To take the process full-circle, Burroughs and other poets and artists would travel to Chicago to collaborate and perform alongside industrial acts like Ministry in the local rock clubs.

But it was Burroughs' mark on the UK's industrial bands of the 70's that was most crucial. Cabaret Voltaire sought to recreate the deafening rhythms of the drop forges and steam hammers in response to the bleak futurism of Dr. Who and Quatermass. Meanwhile, Throbbing Gristle would develop their own harsh soundscapes to mimic their grim surroundings in 1970's Hackney, using homemade synthesizers to further separate themselves from their contemporaries. This crossover period between Krautrock and synth-pop where experimentation was rife - particularly in Germany where artists like Einsturzende Neubauten were revisiting the sonic textures explored by Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle - remains one of the most exciting periods in the development of electronic music.

Of course, there were a number of artists who chose to experiment with electronics beyond the constraints of movements, genres or aesthetics such as David Bowie, Lou Reed, David Sylvian, John Cage, Stevie Wonder and Laurie Anderson. The latter invented her own version of the violin which produced sound based on the effects magnetic strips had on one another. One must also be careful not to dismiss the rest of the music world out of hand is being outside of this hive of experimentation, Giorgio Moroder's classic disco hit with Donna Summer 'I Feel Love' remains a prime example of synthesizers being used to create beautiful electronic music years before the Pet Shop Boys and the Eurythmics would popularize the sound. Each one of these artists would play a huge role in bridging the gap between prog-rock, krautrock, industrial and synth-pop.

Before long another key moment in the history of electronica would reveal itself - the advent of the modern keyboard, assimilating the cumbersome modules of the krautrock era into a single piece of hardware which was absolutely fantastic at making you look like a cyborg assassin from a J.G. Ballard-esque dystopia. While this made it incredibly easy for bands such as The Human League and Orchestral Manouvres In The Dark to create the dystopian music of their industrial heroes without paying huge sums of money. OMD famously boasted that their first two albums were recorded using the very basic Korg micro-preset. Tony Wilson remarked that the band were "the future pop", much to their horror. However, Wilson would soon be proved right (to the chagrin of the rest of the world). Just as some would accuse the internet of saturating electronic music today, so too the synthesizer keyboard was accused of saturating electronic music of the 80's by making the composition and production a much more manageable task. Before long the keyboard became the instrument of choice for such musical abominations as Stock Aitken Waterman, Duran Duran, Bros and countless more.

James Keith is editor of Kick Out The Jam and an idiot man-child masquerading as a writer. He also claims to be a 'jam facist and Motown revolutionary', whatever that is.  http://kickoutthejam.net