Electronic music history pre-dates the rock and roll era by decades. Most of us were not even on this planet when it began its often obscure, under-appreciated and misunderstood development. Today, this ‘other worldly’ body of sound which began close to a century ago, may no longer appear strange and unique as new generations have accepted much of it as mainstream, but it’s had a bumpy road and, in finding mass audience acceptance, a slow one.
Many musicians – the modern proponents of electronic music – developed a passion for analogue synthesizers in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s with signature songs like Gary Numan’s breakthrough, ‘Are Friends Electric?’. It was in this era that these devices became smaller, more accessible, more user friendly and more affordable for many of us. In this article I will attempt to trace this history in easily digestible chapters and offer examples of today’s best modern proponents.
To my mind, this was the beginning of a new epoch. To create electronic music, it was no longer necessary to have access to a roomful of technology in a studio or live. Hitherto, this was solely the domain of artists the likes of Kraftwerk, whose arsenal of electronic instruments and custom built gadgetry the rest of us could only have dreamed of, even if we could understand the logistics of their functioning. Having said this, at the time I was growing up in the 60’s & 70’s, I nevertheless had little knowledge of the complexity of work that had set a standard in previous decades to arrive at this point.
The history of electronic music owes much to Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007). Stockhausen was a German Avante Garde composer and a pioneering figurehead in electronic music from the 1950’s onwards, influencing a movement that would eventually have a powerful impact upon names such as Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Brain Eno, Cabaret Voltaire, Depeche Mode, not to mention the experimental work of the Beatles’ and others in the 1960’s. His face is seen on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, the Beatles’ 1967 master Opus. Let’s start, however, by traveling a little further back in time.
The Turn of the 20th Century
Time stood still for this stargazer when I originally discovered that the first documented, exclusively electronic, concerts were not in the 1970’s or 1980’s but in the 1920’s!
The first purely electronic instrument, the Theremin, which is played without touch, was invented by Russian scientist and cellist, Lev Termen (1896-1993), circa 1919.
In 1924, the Theremin made its concert debut with the Leningrad Philharmonic. Interest generated by the theremin drew audiences to concerts staged across Europe and Britain. In 1930, the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York, experienced a performance of classical music using nothing but a series of ten theremins. Watching a number of skilled musicians playing this eerie sounding instrument by waving their hands around its antennae must have been so exhilarating, surreal and alien for a pre-tech audience!
For those interested, check out the recordings of Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore (1911-1998). Lithuanian born Rockmore (Reisenberg) worked with its inventor in New York to perfect the instrument during its early years and became its most acclaimed, brilliant and recognized performer and representative throughout her life.
In retrospect Clara, was the first celebrated ‘star’ of genuine electronic music. You are unlikely to find more eerie, yet beautiful performances of classical music on the Theremin. She’s definitely a favorite of mine!
Electronic Music in Sci-Fi, Cinema and Television
Unfortunately, and due mainly to difficulty in skill mastering, the Theremin’s future as a musical instrument was short lived. Eventually, it found a niche in 1950’s Sci-Fi films. The 1951 cinema classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, with a soundtrack by influential American film music composer Bernard Hermann (known for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, etc.), is rich with an ‘extraterrestrial’ score using two Theremins and other electronic devices melded with acoustic instrumentation.
Using the vacuum-tube oscillator technology of the Theremin, French cellist and radio telegraphist, Maurice Martenot (1898-1980), began developing the Ondes Martenot (in French, known as the Martenot Wave) in 1928.
Employing a standard and familiar keyboard which could be more easily mastered by a musician, Martenot’s instrument succeeded where the Theremin failed in being user-friendly. In fact, it became the first successful electronic instrument to be used by composers and orchestras of its period until the present day.
It is featured on the theme to the original 1960’s TV series “Star Trek”, and can be heard on contemporary recordings by the likes of Radiohead and Brian Ferry.
The expressive multi-timbral Ondes Martenot, although monophonic, is the closest instrument of its generation I have heard which approaches the sound of modern synthesis.
“Forbidden Planet”, released in 1956, was the first major commercial studio film to feature an exclusively electronic soundtrack… aside from introducing Robbie the Robot and the stunning Anne Francis! The ground-breaking score was produced by husband and wife team Louis and Bebe Barron who, in the late 1940’s, established the first privately owned recording studio in the USA recording electronic experimental artists such as the iconic John Cage (whose own Avante Garde work challenged the definition of music itself!).
The Barrons are generally credited for having widening the application of electronic music in cinema. A soldering iron in one hand, Louis built circuitry which he manipulated to create a plethora of bizarre, ‘unearthly’ effects and motifs for the movie. Once performed, these sounds could not be replicated as the circuit would purposely overload, smoke and burn out to produce the desired sound result.
Consequently, they were all recorded to tape and Bebe sifted through hours of reels edited what was deemed usable, then re-manipulated these with delay and reverberation and creatively dubbed the end product using multiple tape decks.
In addition to this laborious work method, I feel compelled to include that which is, arguably, the most enduring and influential electronic Television signature ever: the theme to the long running 1963 British Sci-Fi adventure series, “Dr. Who”. It was the first time a Television series featured a solely electronic theme. The theme to “Dr. Who” was created at the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop using tape loops and test oscillators to run through effects, record these to tape, then were re-manipulated and edited by another Electro pioneer, Delia Derbyshire, interpreting the composition of Ron Grainer.
As you can see, electronic music’s prevalent usage in vintage Sci-Fi was the principle source of the general public’s perception of this music as being ‘other worldly’ and ‘alien-bizarre sounding’. This remained the case till at least 1968 with the release of the hit album “Switched-On Bach” performed entirely on a Moog modular synthesizer by Walter Carlos (who, with a few surgical nips and tucks, subsequently became Wendy Carlos).
The 1970’s expanded electronic music’s profile with the break through of bands like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, and especially the 1980’s when it found more mainstream acceptance.
The Mid 1900’s: Musique Concrete
In its development through the 1900’s, electronic music was not solely confined to electronic circuitry being manipulated to produce sound. Back in the 1940’s, a relatively new German invention – the reel-to-reel tape recorder developed in the 1930’s – became the subject of interest to a number of Avante Garde European composers, most notably the French radio broadcaster and composer Pierre Schaeffer (1910-1995) who developed a montage technique he called Musique Concrete.
Musique Concrete (meaning ‘real world’ existing sounds as opposed to artificial or acoustic ones produced by musical instruments) broadly involved the splicing together of recorded segments of tape containing ‘found’ sounds – natural, environmental, industrial and human – and manipulating these with effects such as delay, reverb, distortion, speeding up or slowing down of tape-speed (varispeed), reversing, etc.
Stockhausen actually held concerts utilizing his Musique Concrete works as backing tapes (by this stage electronic as well as ‘real world’ sounds were used on the recordings) on top of which live instruments would be performed by classical players responding to the mood and motifs they were hearing!
Musique Concrete had a wide impact not only on Avante Garde and effects libraries, but also on the contemporary music of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Important works to check are the Beatles’ use of this method in ground-breaking tracks like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, ‘Revolution No. 9’ and ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’, as well as Pink Floyd albums “Umma Gumma”, “Dark Side of the Moon” and Frank Zappa’s “Lumpy Gravy”. All used tape cut-ups and home-made tape loops often fed live into the main mixdown.
Today this can be performed with simplicity using digital sampling, but yesterday’s heroes labored hours, days and even weeks to perhaps complete a four minute piece! For those of us who are contemporary musicians, understanding the history of electronic music helps in appreciating the quantum leap technology has taken in the recent period. But these early innovators, these pioneers – of which there are many more down the line – and the important figures they influenced that came before us, created the revolutionary groundwork that has become our electronic musical heritage today and for this I pay them homage!
1950’s: The First Computer and Synth Play Music
Moving forward a few years to 1957 and enter the first computer into the electronic mix. As you can imagine, it wasn’t exactly a portable laptop device but consumed a whole room and user friendly wasn’t even a concept. Nonetheless creative people kept pushing the boundaries. One of these was Max Mathews (1926 -) from Bell Telephone Laboratories, New Jersey, who developed Music 1, the original music program for computers upon which all subsequent digital synthesis has its roots based. Mathews, dubbed the ‘Father of Computer Music’, using a digital IBM Mainframe, was the first to synthesize music on a computer.
In the climax of Stanley Kubrik’s 1968 movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, use is made of a 1961 Mathews’ electronic rendition of the late 1800’s song ‘Daisy Bell’. Here the musical accompaniment is performed by his programmed mainframe together with a computer-synthesized human ‘singing’ voice technique pioneered in the early 60’s. In the movie, as HAL the computer regresses, ‘he’ reverts to this song, an homage to ‘his’ own origins.
1957 also witnessed the first advanced synth, the RCA Mk II Sound Synthesizer (an improvement on the 1955 original). It also featured an electronic sequencer to program music performance playback. This massive RCA Synth was installed, and still remains, at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, New York, where the legendary Robert Moog worked for a while. Universities and Tech laboratories were the main home for synth and computer music experimentation in that early era.
1960’s: The Dawning of The Age of Moog
The logistics and complexity of composing and even having access to what were, until then, musician unfriendly synthesizers, led to a demand for more portable playable instruments. One of the first to respond, and definitely the most successful, was Robert Moog (1934-2005). His playable synth employed the familiar piano style keyboard.
Moog’s bulky telephone-operators’ cable plug-in type of modular synth was not one to be transported and set up with any amount of ease or speed! But it received an enormous boost in popularity with the success of Walter Carlos, as previously mentioned, in 1968. His LP (Long Player) best seller record “Switched-On Bach” was unprecedented because it was the first time an album appeared of fully synthesized music, as opposed to experimental sound pieces.
The album was a complex classical music performance with various multi-tracks and overdubs necessary, as the synthesizer was only monophonic! Carlos also created the electronic score for “A Clockwork Orange”, Stanley Kubrik’s disturbing 1972 futuristic film.
From this point, the Moog synth is prevalent on a number of late 1960’s contemporary albums. In 1967 the Monkees’ “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd” became the first commercial pop album release to feature the modular Moog. In fact, singer/drummer Mickey Dolenz purchased one of the very first units sold.
It wasn’t until the early 1970’s, however, when the first Minimoog appeared that interest seriously developed amongst musicians. This portable little unit with a fat sound had a significant impact becoming part of live music kit for many touring musicians for years to come. Other companies such as Sequential Circuits, Roland and Korg began producing their own synths, giving birth to a music subculture.
I cannot close the chapter on the 1960’s, however, without reference to the Mellotron. This electronic-mechanical instrument is often viewed as the primitive precursor to the modern digital sampler.
Developed in early 1960’s Britain and based on the Chamberlin (a cumbersome US-designed instrument from the previous decade), the Mellotron keyboard triggered pre-recorded tapes, each key corresponding to the equivalent note and pitch of the pre-loaded acoustic instrument.
The Mellotron is legendary for its use on the Beatles’ 1966 song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. A flute tape-bank is used on the haunting introduction played by Paul McCartney.
The instrument’s popularity burgeoned and was used on many recordings of the era such as the immensely successful Moody Blues epic ‘Nights in White Satin’. The 1970’s saw it adopted more and more by progressive rock bands. Electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream featured it on their early albums.
With time and further advances in microchip technology though, this charming instrument became a relic of its period.
1970’s: The Birth of Vintage Electronic Bands
The early fluid albums of Tangerine Dream such as “Phaedra” from 1974 and Brian Eno’s work with his self-coined ‘ambient music’ and on David Bowie’s “Heroes” album, further drew interest in the synthesizer from both musicians and audience.
Kraftwerk, whose 1974 seminal album “Autobahn” achieved international commercial success, took the medium even further adding precision, pulsating electronic beats and rhythms and sublime synth melodies. Their minimalism suggested a cold, industrial and computerized-urban world. They often utilized vocoders and speech synthesis devices such as the gorgeously robotic ‘Speak and Spell’ voice emulator, the latter being a children’s learning aid!
While inspired by the experimental electronic works of Stockhausen, as artists, Kraftwerk were the first to successfully combine all the elements of electronically generated music and noise and produce an easily recognizable song format. The addition of vocals in many of their songs, both in their native German tongue and English, helped earn them universal acclaim becoming one of the most influential contemporary music pioneers and performers of the past half-century.
Kraftwerk’s 1978 gem ‘Das Modell’ hit the UK number one spot with a reissued English language version, ‘The Model’, in February 1982, making it one of the earliest Electro chart toppers!
Ironically, though, it took a movement that had no association with EM (Electronic Music) to facilitate its broader mainstream acceptance. The mid 1970’s punk movement, primarily in Britain, brought with it a unique new attitude: one that gave priority to self-expression rather than performance dexterity and formal training, as embodied by contemporary progressive rock musicians. The initial aggression of metallic punk transformed into a less abrasive form during the late 1970’s: New Wave. This, mixed with the comparative affordability of many small, easy to use synthesizers, led to the commercial synth explosion of the early 1980’s.
A new generation of young people began to explore the potential of these instruments and began to create soundscapes challenging the prevailing perspective of contemporary music. This didn’t arrive without battle scars though. The music industry establishment, especially in its media, often derided this new form of expression and presentation and was anxious to consign it to the dustbin of history.
1980’s: The First Golden Era of Electronic Music for the Masses
Gary Numan became arguably the first commercial synth megastar with the 1979 “Tubeway Army” hit ‘Are Friends Electric?’. The Sci-Fi element is not too far away once again. Some of the imagery is drawn from the Science Fiction classic, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. The 1982 hit film “Blade Runner” was also based on the same book.
Although ‘Are Friends Electric?’ featured conventional drum and bass backing, its dominant use of Polymoogs gives the song its very distinctive sound. The recording was the first synth-based release to achieve number one chart status in the UK during the post-punk years and helped usher in a new genre. No longer was electronic and/or synthesizer music consigned to the mainstream sidelines. Exciting!
Further developments in affordable electronic technology placed electronic squarely in the hands of young creators and began to transform professional studios.
Designed in Australia in 1978, the Fairlight Sampler CMI became the first commercially available polyphonic digital sampling instrument but its prohibitive cost saw it solely in use by the likes of Trevor Horn, Stevie Wonder and Peter Gabriel. By mid-decade, however, smaller, cheaper instruments entered the market such as the ubiquitous Akai and Emulator Samplers often used by musicians live to replicate their studio-recorded sounds. The Sampler revolutionized the production of music from this point on.
In most major markets, with the qualified exception of the US, the early 1980’s was commercially drawn to electro-influenced artists. This was an exciting era for many of us, myself included. I know I wasn’t alone in closeting the distorted guitar and amps and immersing myself into a new universe of musical expression – a sound world of the abstract and non traditional.
At home, Australian synth based bands Real Life (‘Send Me An Angel’, “Heartland” album), Icehouse (‘Hey Little Girl’) and Pseudo Echo (‘Funky Town’) began to chart internationally, and more experimental electronic outfits like Severed Heads and SPK also developed cult followings overseas.
But by mid-decade the first global electronic wave lost its momentum amidst resistance fomented by an unrelenting old school music media. Most of the artists that began the decade as predominantly electro-based either disintegrated or heavily hybrid their sound with traditional rock instrumentation.
The USA, the largest world market in every sense, remained in the conservative music wings for much of the 1980’s. Although synth-based records did hit the American charts, the first being Human League’s 1982 US chart topper ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby?’, on the whole it was to be a few more years before the American mainstream embraced electronic music, at which point it consolidated itself as a dominant genre for musicians and audiences alike, worldwide.
1988 was somewhat of a watershed year for electronic music in the US. Often maligned in the press in their early years, it was Depeche Mode that unintentionally – and mostly unaware – spearheaded this new assault. From cult status in America for much of the decade, their new high-play rotation on what was now termed Modern Rock radio resulted in mega stadium performances. An Electro act playing sold out arenas was not common fare in the USA at that time!
In 1990, fan pandemonium in New York to greet the members at a central record shop made TV news, and their “Violator” album outselling Madonna and Prince in the same year made them a US household name. Electronic music was here to stay, without a doubt!
1990’s Onward: The Second Golden Era of Electronic Music for the Masses
Before our ‘star music’ secured its hold on the US mainstream, and while it was losing commercial ground elsewhere throughout much of the mid 1980’s, Detroit and Chicago became unassuming laboratories for an explosion of Electronic Music which would see out much of the 1990’s and onwards. Enter Techno and House.
Detroit in the 1980’s, a post-Fordism US industrial wasteland, produced the harder European influenced Techno. In the early to mid 80’s, Detroiter Juan Atkins, an obsessive Kraftwerk fan, together with Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson – using primitive, often borrowed equipment – formed the backbone of what would become, together with House, the predominant music club-culture throughout the world. Heavily referenced artists that informed early Techno development were European pioneers such as the aforementioned Kraftwerk, as well as Yello and British Electro acts the likes of Depeche Mode, Human League, Heaven 17, New Order and Cabaret Voltaire.
Chicago, a four-hour drive away, simultaneously saw the development of House. The name is generally considered to be derived from “The Warehouse” where various DJ-Producers featured this new music amalgam. House has its roots in 1970’s disco and, unlike Techno, usually has some form of vocal. I think Giorgio Moroder’s work in the mid 70’s with Donna Summer, especially the song ‘I Feel Love’, is pivotal in appreciating the 70’s disco influences upon burgeoning Chicago House.
A myriad of variants and sub genres have developed since – crossing the Atlantic, reworked and back again – but in many ways the popular success of these two core forms revitalized the entire Electronic landscape and its associated social culture. Techno and House helped to profoundly challenge mainstream and Alternative Rock as the preferred listening choice for a new generation: a generation who has grown up with electronic music and accepts it as a given. For them, it is music that has always been.
The history of electronic music continues to be written as technology advances and people’s expectations of where music can go continues to push it forward, increasing its vocabulary and lexicon.
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