Edgar Froese, an art student in Berlin, had been playing guitar since 1965, in a rock band called “The Ones.” In 1966 he became a disciple of Salvador Dali, visiting the artist in Spain. Froese became influenced heavily by the ideas of surrealism. As quoted in Julian Cope’s Krautrocksampler, Froese wanted to create surrealistic sound pictures: “…I would do the same thing as he [Dali] did, in painting, in music” He returned to Berlin and investigated more avant-garde music. In the fashion of the times, The Ones moved towards psychedelic rock and pop, but eventually broke up.
Edgar Froese, now without a band, moved to form a new group in late 1967 that was more in line with the experimental music he was increasingly interested at the time. The new group would settle on the name Tangerine Dream. They began performing largely improvised psychedelic rock in the vein of early Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. In fact, they sometimes covered “Interstellar Overdrive” at concerts.
Their first record, Electronic Meditation, was released in 1970. It was a very harsh, intense, atonal jam session… mostly a raw recording with a few overdubs. Cope wittily notes that “it is really neither electronic, or meditative.” They mellowed out their sound over the next few records and got more atmospheric in nature.
Alpha Centauri, in 1971 was much more “spacey” rock – both in form and thematic content. Notably, it was the first Tangerine Dream album to feature synthesizers.
1972’s Zeit (translates to “time”) was an experiment in slow, drone-based music and featuring orchestral instruments. Froese reportedly considers it the worst of his early records, but work ranging from Steve Roach to Sunn O))) might disagree.
Atem from 1973, combines the rock and drone elements of the previous two albums, along with the greater emergence of synths and Mellotron as lead instruments. BBC DJ John Peel’s airplay of this record got them attention in England, and up-and-coming record label executive Richard Branson took notice of them.
By this point, the band lineup had now solidified as such:
- Edgar Froese – Mellotron, guitar, additional synths
- Chris Franke – Moog synthesizer and sequencer, additional synths
- Peter Baumann – Organ, electric piano, flute, additional synths
They were signed to Richard Branson’s Virgin records at the end of 1973. This time to 1977 is considered by many to be the peak era of the group… it certainly was in terms of commercial success and exposure to the public at large.
PhaedraTheir first record with Virgin was Phaedra, which became a major hit in Europe and the US. The importance of a record like Phaedra comes from the fact that no one had managed to make a truly atmospheric and “spacey” record using electronics almost exclusively, and to make it have broad commercial appeal as well. (Artists like Bruce Haack and Silver Apples had only small cult followings; most would discover them decades later. Better known artists like Wendy Carlos and Isao Tomita could tend to drift towards sound-effects novelty in their albums.) In that regard and others, this is a singular release in the world of electronic music.
The album’s true star may be the ominous sequencer rhythms provided by the Moog synthesizer. These pulsing sounds drive the songs of Phaedra, especially the dark and introspective title track. In a parallel with their earlier work, it was composed using a mix of improvisations and overdubbing. It starts with a low drone, with a slowly building rhythm. The main melody enters hastily, with an angular motion that complements the piece’s driving pace. It almost feels like the soundtrack to some kind of futuristic action film; not surprisingly, the band later went on to do copious soundtrack work in the 1980s. One can easily see the connections between the “feel” of a track like this and latter-day trance music.
Other tracks include "Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares," which merges a beautifully Gothic string synth with sweeping white-noise wave effects, making for one of the most moving compositions the group ever recorded; “Movements of a Visionary,” which adds synthetic percussion to the array of timbres used. Those two pieces are notable for being the closest things to actual traditional “songs” that Tangerine Dream had released in their history… it was the slow start to their eventual move to a more commercial direction.
Closing out the album is “Sequent C,” a short piece of multi-layered overdubbed flute playing by Peter Baumann that overlaps and repeats. Tracks like these can be seen to have a direct influence on what would later be known as “ambient” music: the tape loop effect of the track is similar to what Eno would be doing on Discreet Music in 1975.
Not all were pleased with the new musical direction: Julian Cope, a huge fan of the early Tangerine Dream records, would describe Phaedra and the records that came after it as “an unforgivable tragedy”… “programmed pre-New Age sequenced automaton synthesizer music.” For him, the sense of adventure had been lost. This author believes there’s at least another half-decade or so worth of music worth considering:
The next release was another sequencer-driven record, Rubycon (1975). Any rough edges from Phaedra were gone; this is one of the purest and most organic sounding electronic record of the era. There was still some avant leanings, with “Rubycon, Part 2” leading off with fairly atonal piano, gongs, and wailing Mellotron vocal samples, drenched in reverb.
Their live shows at the time were mostly improvised; a good example is the 1975 Coventry Cathedral show featured in this Network Awesome program. Also, this kind of material was captured on the 1975 live album Ricochet. Numerous bootleg audio recordings of live concerts exist from this time period, and one can decend into collecting, cataloging, and ranking performances as well as any Deadhead ever did.
Their next record, 1976’s Stratosfear, marked a return to more acoustic instruments and an increasingly more melodic song structure. Peter Baumann left at the end of 1977, leaving the group as a duo.
1977 was the year Tangerine Dream entered into the world of movie soundtracks with their score to the William Friedkin film “Sorcerer.” Movie soundtrack work would take up much of their time in the decade to come.
In late 1979/early 1980 classically trained organist Johannes Schmoelling joined. He would be there at their January 1980 concert in East Berlin, the first time a western musical group had been officially allowed to play in the Soviet Bloc.
Their first studio record together, 1980’s Tangram, was less rhythmic and more melodic… the kind of proto-New Age that Cope had complained about arriving in 1973 was much more in full force here…though it hadn’t quite congealed yet.
Finally, 1981’s Exit was just that, a departure point. It was their first record to feature mainly short, more “song”-like compositions (most of the tracks were under 6 minutes) and it also marked the start of the use of digital synths. Additionally, from this point onward in live concerts, they rarely improvised any more. In this author’s opinion, that is just as important a signifier as the record itself, if not more so. The last vestiges of the totally free music of Electronic Meditation had faded.
Tangerine Dream continued to produce music for the next 30-plus years, and continues to release albums to this day (Most recently of note, they provided portions of the cinematic-style underscore to Grand Theft Auto V).
They’ve undergone a variety of personnel and stylistic changes – the characteristics that remain are the use of electronic instruments, and (at their best) a sense of the unknown. Still, even fans of their newer material (I’m a defender and/or apologist for some of it – but that’s another article) would likely admit they never have been quite as spacey as those Kosmische years of the 70s.
“30 Years Of Dreaming: Tangerine Dream 1967 to 1997” – A critical history of the group
“Voices in the Net” – A very extensive Tangerine Dream discography resource
Tangerine Dream Official Website, with a focus on current releases
“Krautrocksampler” by Julian Cope
“Guide to Progressive Music” by Bradley Smith