THE FINAL FRONTIER: The Analogue Synth Gods of the 1970s
by Simon Reynolds
Ask people about synthesisers in pop music, and the first names to trip off most lips will be The Human League or Depeche Mode. The more techno-savvy and dance-music attuned will nominate Kraftwerk as the Source or mention Giorgio Moroder’s Eurodisco productions such as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. The chances are pretty slim, however, that names like Isao Tomita and Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou will come up, and not just because they’re tough to pronounce. The fact is that an entire swathe of 1970s synthesiser-based music--pioneered by Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and Wendy Carlos, popularized by Tomita, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Vangelis (that’s the aforementioned Mr Papathanassiou) has been pretty much written out of the history of electronica.
This neglect partly stems from the nature of the music, which doesn’t fit either of the subsequently established images of electropop (catchy ditties in the early 80s Depeche mold or beat-driven dance music in the techno/trance continuum). From its epic scale (compositions that often took up the whole side of an album) to its cosmic atmosphere (albums were typically inspired by outer space or natural grandeur, astrophysics or science fiction), the genre wasn’t exactly poppy. But it was hugely popular all across the world during the Seventies: Tangerine Dream’s 1974 breakthrough album Phaedra went gold in seven territories, while Tomita’s Debussy-goes-synth Snowflakes Are Dancing received Grammy nominations in four different categories. After his world-wide hit single “Oxygene Part IV”, Jean-Michel Jarre embarked upon a career that has sold over sixty million albums to date, with the debonair Frenchman also staging ever more grandiose outdoor spectaculars of music and lazers in cities across the world watched by audiences that ran into the millions.
Jarre’s music was as close as the space music genre got to conventional pop, its brisk programmed drums and melodious synth-lines making it accessible and catchy. Mostly the genre was closer to ambient mood-music. Replacing pop’s driving backbeat with placid pulse-rhythms or amorphous swathes of texture, it was designed to conjure eyelid-movies for the supine, sofa-bound, and more often than not, stoned. At its most abstract--solo albums by Klaus Schulze and by Tangerine Dream’s leader Edgar Froese--these were clouds of sounds to lose yourself in, a Rorschach mindscreen for projecting fantasies onto. Yet unlike the kosmische rock of their German contemporaries Can, Faust and Neu!, which has been credible with hipsters ever since those groups were first active, and unlike the more esoteric (i.e. unsuccessful) Sixties electronic outfits like Silver Apples, the cosmic synth voyagers have rarely been namedropped by contemporary bands as a cool reference point.
Until now, that is. In the last few years bands have emerged who have unabashedly cited Tangerine Dream as an influence. France’s M83 take their name from the spiral galaxy Messier 83 and make eleven minute long tracks like “Lower Your Eyelids To Die With the Sun” that resemble the missing link between My Bloody Valentine’s woozy shoegaze and Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra. In New York, the ultra-hip DFA label released Julia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom’s The Days of Mars, an album whose four long instrumentals flashed listeners back to Klaus Schulze epics like “Floating” and “Mindphaser”. Jim Jupp of Belbury Poly, whose second album The Owl’s Map came out late in 2006 on supercool London label Ghost Box, identifies Walter Carlos, Schulze and Tangerine Dream as a major inspiration: “I think it’s the fact that they were exploring what must have been mind-blowing technology, and giving free reign to musical ideas that had no pre-existing language,” Jupp explains. “There's also something supernatural in the sound of modular synths and mellotrons, they always seemed the natural soundtrack for a golden age of science fiction and that Erich Von Däniken era pop culture of ancient astronauts and earth mysteries.”
Dance culture too has recently taken a turn towards the kosmische, with the fad for “space disco”, as pioneered by Norwegian producers Hans-Peter Lindstrom and Prins Thomas. Lindstrom made a track called “I Feel Space” and Thomas named a tune “Goettsching” in homage to cosmic-rocker-turned-techno pioneer Manuel Gottsching, who collaborated with Klaus Schulze. These producers are obsessed with an obscure late Seventies scene in Northern Italy where disco and space rock collided. At the lakeside club Cosmic, DJ Daniel Baldelli layered rippling and wafting electronic and heavily-processed guitar textures taken from records by Gottsching, Schulze, and other German kosmonauts, over disco instrumentals and African percussion records, blowing the minds of Italian youth who trance-danced all night long in an LSD-spiked daze.
The Seventies cosmic synth genre was very much an extension of psychedelia and that whole late Sixties mindset of “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to” (the catchphrase of a much later band, the UK late Eighties trance-rock outfit Spacemen 3). The first deployments of electronic sound in rock came from acid-rock bands like United States of America, White Noise, and Gong who were looking for ever more otherworldly textures. The Beatles were also interested in musique concrete and avant-garde classical composers who used electronics: Paul McCartney recorded a fifteen minute Stockhausen-influenced track called “Carnival of Light” (never officially released) while George Harrison recorded a whole album of Moog synth doodlings titled Electronic Sound, released in 1969 via Apple’s experimental side label Zapple.
“When the synthesiser arrived, it was clearly going to be a major new weapon in the psychedelic arsenal,” says Steve Hillage, who spent the early Seventies playing guitar in Gong alongside British synth pioneer Tim Blake, before embarking on a solo career dedicated to “the mixture of guitar and electronics” in partnership with his synth-twiddling lover Miquette Giraudy. Hillage cites the pioneering all-electronic album Zero Time by an American outfit called Tonto’s Expanding Headband as the record that “blew my mind” and woke him up to the synth’s potential. He eventually tracked down Malcolm Cecil, the designer of the TONTO synthesiser, to produce his 1977 album Motivation Radio, which has just been re-released as part of an extensive Hillage reissue program.
Tonto’s Expanding Headband were a duo, Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff. The name Tonto was short for The New Timbral Orchestra, which was not so much an all-new invention by Cecil as the adaption and customization of Robert Moog’s Moog Series 3 synthesisers to create a warmer and polyphonic sound (synthesizers at that point being monophonic, incapable of playing chords). Cecil and Margouleff ended up providing technical assistance for Stevie Wonder, whose pioneering role with introducing synthesizers to R&B is seldom acknowledged. The history of electronics in black music is a story beyond the remit of the present article, but we should note in passing the presence of exotic and otherwordly synth textures in the jazz-fusion of the period (Herbie Hancock’s Sextant, featuring ARP synth played by Dr. Patrick Gleeson; the spacey and asbract synth-daubings of Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul, and so forth) as well as the electronic keyboard work of Bernie Worrell in Parliament-Funkadelic.
The general public mostly first encountered electronic music not through pop music, however, but through the fad for Moog-ified versions of themes by the great composers that rampaged through the world of popular classical music in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The craze was kickstarted by American composer Walter Carlos—later to change his gender and become Wendy Carlos—with the 1968 million-selling album Switched On Bach. In the early part of the Sixties, Carlos had been an avant-garde composer, working at the famous Columbia-Princeton Electronics Center under Vladimir Ussachevsky. After forming a connection with synthesizer inventor Robert Moog, Carlos launched the company Trans-Electronic Music Productions and applied himself to converting Bach’s baroque compositions for the Moog. Trans-Electronic Music Productions, Inc. Presents: Switched On Bach—to give the album its full title—was a huge success, and was swiftly followed by The Well-Tempered Synthesiser (a play on Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier). Carlos then set to working on a double album of original compositions, 1972’s Sonic Seasonings. Each of the four long-player sides evoked one of the four seasons. The music’s placid atmospheric textures and use of environmental found sounds arguably pre-empts Brian Eno as inventor of ambient music. That same year Carlos recorded the score for Stanley Kubrick’s controversial movie A Clockwork Orange, mixing classical adaptions with original compositions like “Timesteps” and “Country Lane”.
Around this time a Carlos-inspired TV and film theme composer in Japan called Isao Tomita was deeply immersed in recording his own debut album of electronicized classical music. After hearing Switched On Bach, Tomita bought a Moog III synth, created a home studio, and started his own company, Plasma Music, modeled on Trans-Electronic Music Productions, Inc. and dedicated to creating “music by electronic means.” Released in 1974, Snowflakes Are Dancing’s otherworldly translations of Debussy made the album a world-wide success. The album is notable for the calligraphic delicacy of detail and the vivid verging on garish palette of electronic tone-colors, while the sly wit and playfulness of Tomita’s approach contrasted with the more somber and portentous atmosphere of Carlos’ electro-classical work. In a gesture that would become typical for the synth epic genre, Tomita included a long list of all the equipment used in the making of the record on its back sleeve (including every single component of his moog and the number of each that he possessed: “extended range fixed filter bank -- 1; envelope generator—4; bode ring modulator -- 1; sequential controller – 2…” etc). Also a defining element of the genre’s iconography was the back cover photograph of the maestro in front of a bank of dials, knobs, potentiometers and cables. Further albums grappled with Moussorgsky and Stravinsky, and the arc of Tomita’s career peaked creatively and commercially with 1977’s version of Gustav Holst’s symphony The Planets. This was Tomita’s most artful translation of classical music for the space age, the glistening otherwordly tones of the synths suiting the extraterrestrial evocations of Holst’s music. The update is full of exquisite touches, like the use of stereo panning on the Mercury suite to accentuate the darting, quicksilver spirit of the messenger god.
By this point, though, a certain grandiosity had taken over in Tomita Land. On the front cover of the vinyl album and its spine the title actually reads “The Tomita Planets”. Holst’s name only appears on the back cover, in tiny, barely legible blue-on-black letters above the “The” in “The Planets”, with the font used being much smaller than the one used for the prominent statement “electronically created by Isao Tomita”. This apparent assertion of co-authorship is affirmed even more baldly with a further note that reads “this album was produced, arranged, programmed for synthesizers, performed, recorded and mixed down by Isao Tomita.” Clearly somebody’s ego was in danger of going supernova!
Talking of egomania, in rock music during the first half of the Seventies synthesizers became widespread but tended to be little more than an expensive toy for exhibitionist rock stars. Typically they served as an exotic embellishment to established styles, as opposed to instigating a radical overhaul of the way the music moved and was structured. Performers like Keith Emerson of ELP and Yes-man Rick Wakeman played their synths like glorified organs, all grandstanding bombast and arpeggiated folderol. Apart from Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, the first group to go all the way into a radically all-electronic and un-rock sound was Tangerine Dream. The group originally spawned out of Berlin’s Zodiak Free Arts Lab, a club started by Hans-Joachim Roedelius (later of Cluster and Harmonia) and Conrad Schnitzler, who would go on to make a series of experimental and forbiddingly dissonant electronic albums now highly-prized by hipsters.
“Zodiak was an avantgarde club during the late Sixties, a large white-and-black room where various concerts and happenings took place,” says Edgar Froese, who had first moved to Berlin as an art student, doing sculpture and also spending a period of time in 1967 with Salvador Dali (“it was a fantastic experience having had the chance being for some weeks in his auratic atmosphere and playing for him at his surrealistic garden parties in Cadaques,” Froese recalls). The spirit of Zodiak was totally Sixties, all multi-media based “total art” and anything-goes extremism: “In the absurd often lies what is artistically possible,” as Froese put it in one interview. It was at the Zodiak that Froese met Klaus Schulze, who had been drumming in a freak-rock band called Psy Free. Together with Schnitzler they formed Tangerine Dream and started a residency at the Zodiak, their freeform performances often lasting for five or six hours.
Tangerine Dream recorded their debut album Electronic Meditation for Germany’s leading psychedelic rock label Ohr. Despite the “electronic” in the title, the group were not yet synthetic; the sound-palette included organ, drums, guitar, cello and flute, and the overall vision bore the heavy imprint of Pink Floyd. Although the group’s new album Madcap's Flaming Duty, set for release in April 2007, is dedicated to the memory of the late Syd Barrett, the early Tangerine Dream sound really drew more on the post-Barrett Floyd of 1968’s A Saucerful of Secrets, with its extended trance-rock tracks based around guitar glissandi, hypno-drone basslines and Rick Wright’s spacey Farfisa keyboards. Gradually, Tangerine Dream’s sound became more electronic, eerie and abstract, especially after Chris Franke joined and the band recorded their second album, 1971’s Alpha Centauri. An avant-garde music fan who admired Ligeti and Stockhausen, Franke had used synthesizers in his previous band Agitation Free. On the title track “Alpha Centauri”, a beatific flute insinuates its sinuous melody between unsettling drones and electronic whooshes (the famous EMS VCS3 Synthi, as also used by Brian Eno in Roxy Music) conjuring the scenario of an idyllic forest glade that has suddenly become the landing strip for a flotilla of flying saucers.
When Peter Baumann joined for 1972’s Zeit, Tangerine Dream stabilized as a trio. The album, a double, was their most formless and disorienting yet, the missing link between Floyd’s Ummagumma and Brian Eno’s On Land, the sound woven out of spacey whispers, low humming bass-drones, clouds of cymbal spray and bubbling Moog-ripples. 1973’s Atem added a mellotron to the group’s armory. A sort of primitive sampler popular with prog rockers like the Moody Blues, the mellotron contained swatches of pre-recorded tape that enabled rock bands, especially in the live context, to imitate the sounds of string sections and symphony orchestras.
This first avant-garde freeform phase of Tangerine Dream’s music is known by fans as the "Pink Years", because the Ohr logo was a pink ear. The era came to an end in part because John Peel, the BBC’s token hippy who championed the music of the Underground (ie. post-psychedelic and progressive bands) on his Radio One late night show Top Gear, was a huge supporter of Atem, hailing it as his Import of the Year. This endorsement helped to turn Tangerine Dream into a major cult band in the UK, such that Virgin Records, in those days a mail-order company specializing in import albums from Europe, noticed that they’d shifted over 15 thousand Tangerine Dream albums in Britain purely through the post. Richard Branson, the boss of Virgin, was looking to start his own record company and decided Tangerine Dream, along with another German experimental outfit, Faust, were perfect candidates to launch Virgin Records and shape a distinct identity that set the label apart from others catering to the long-hair underground, such as Island, Charisma, Vertigo and UA.
Edgar Froese recalls Simon Draper, Virgin’s A&R chief and aesthetic helmsman as well as Branson’s cousin, “telephoning me in Berlin to say this radio guy Peel was playing Atem to death on his program. Two days later I sat with Branson on the stairs of his record store in Notting Hill Gate, London, and signed a contract which was in power from 1973 to 1983. Ten years of rollercoaster experiences began!”
The shift from Ohr to Virgin coincided with a change of sound that brought the Pink Years to an end. Tangerine Dream wholeheartedly embraced electronic technology, developing a new sound underpinned by throbbing and shimmering sequencer patterns. These were programmed by Franke, who became the group’s expert at sequencing.
Prior to starting their debut album for Virgin, Froese and Franke (Baumann had gone on a prolonged vacation in India) conducted a kind of experimental probe in the form of Green Desert, an album that wasn’t released until 1986 but which saw the group getting to grips with programmed rhythm (specifically the PRX rhythm controller, an early drum machine manufactured in Italy). These sessions were a dry run for Phaedra, Tangerine Dream’s debut for Virgin and their first fully electronic album, propelled by Moog-bass pulsations and laced with washes of VCS3 and Mellotron.
“No one as far as I know had made use of the big Moog synth as the first sequencer,” recalls Froese. “That became Tangerine Dream’s trademark. It was associated to Bach’s idea of a basso continuum.” As well as Bach, another influence was the minimalist aesthetic of American composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley (whose partly electric keyboard-driven A Rainbow in Curved Air had been a big hit with the “heads” of the hippie counterculture). Their use of hypnotic repetition, their cellular approach of multiple ultra-simple pulses and refrains interlocking to create complexity, their bright timbres and embrace of tonality and consonance after years of avant-classical atonality and dissonance, their music’s paradoxical mood of tense serenity and influence from Eastern spirituality--all these shifts gave birth to a new approach in modern classical music, the genre known variously as “new music” or “systems music”, as popularised by Philip Glass (who was signed to Virgin for a period) and Michael Nyman, especially through their work for movie soundtracks like Koyanaquatsi and The Draughtsman’s Contract. “Terry Riley and Steve Reich, the founders of minimal music, had discovered a new way of describing the world with sounds and playing techniques, a kind of “atomic structure” in music,” argues Froese. “What seemed to be an endless repeating structure of single notes could be discovered as a floating, always changing pool of sound molecules--very hypnotic and fascinating if you could concentrate yourself on the deeper meaning of it.” The applications of the Reich/Riley “maxi-minimalist” ethos both to the space synth genre and to techno/trance/electronica are obvious.
Phaedra was a gold record in seven countries, doing particularly well in France and in Britain, where it fulfilled Virgin’s hopes by crashing into the Top 10. Tangerine Dream followed it with the equally successful Rubycon and Ricochet, the latter a live document of a tour of European cathedrals. In this pre-punk golden era for Tangerine Dream, Virgin also put out in swift succession three solo albums by Edgar Froese, 1974’s Aqua, 1975’s Epsilon in Malaysian Pale, and 1976’s Macula Transfer. Aqua was notable for its use of Manfred Schunke's "Kunstkopf" or “artificial head” recording system, at a time when the record industry (post-Dark Side of the Moon’s mega-success) was obsessed with the idea of surround-sound and trying unsuccessfully to launch quadraphonic sound as the ultimate listening experience. “Kunstkopf was a recording technique using a human dummy with an inbuilt microphone system,” recalls Froese. “Listening back to the recording, you have got the natural impression listening with your human system to a 360 degree audio signal. It did not become very commercial, however, because it did not work properly with a normal stereo speaker system.” Epsilon In Malaysian Pale was largely based around mellotron textures and won admiration from someone high up in the rock star aristocracy: David Bowie. A fan of Kraftwerk, Cluster, Harmonia and Neu!, Bowie described Froese’s album as “the most beautiful, enchanting, poignant work… That used to be the background music to my life when I was living in Berlin.” All the German electronic and un-rock sounds of the day informed the famous trilogy of albums--Low, Heroes, Lodger--Bowie recorded in Berlin with Brian Eno as his principal accomplice. “In a way, it was great that I found those bands, because I didn't feel any of the essence of punk at all in that period, I just totally by-passed it.” Listening to records like Epsilon and Neu!’s debut, Bowie “had absolutely no doubts where the future of music was going, and for me it was coming out of Germany at that time.”
Of all the German groups of the era, Tangerine Dream had the biggest worldwide impact. “We did tours all over the globe and received gold status in seven countries,” recalls Froese. “Not bad for some ‘strange knob switchers from Germany’, as the UK music papers called us!” In those days, touring with synthesizers was a major headache. The machines--which now included an Arp synth and an Elka organ as well as a number of Moogs and VCS3s plus the Mellotron--were bulky and heavy, but also fragile and temperamental. They could even be dangerous: a travel-damaged Moog gave Franke a severe electric shock at one gig in Australia. “Transportation was horrifying, we spent 30% of our income for insurances and repair of instruments,” recalls Froese. “Voltage controlled oscillators and other devices were completely unstable,” he adds, because their extreme sensitivity to room temperature meant that “any given tuning of the oscillator stayed ‘in tune’ for maybe 10 minutes.”
This was problem shared by all progressive musicians using electronics. One reason Steve Hillage had three synth-players in his live band during the mid-Seventies was to “guarantee we could deliver the goods sonically!” Klaus Schulze--who, like Hillage, signed to Virgin as a solo artist in the wake of Tangerine Dream--recalls how the settings on his synthesisers would constantly drift. “Nobody could make the same sound two days in a row. With my big Moog, when the spotlights went on, the heat affected the tuning. At the same time, the moog needed two hours just to warm up, you had to plug it in as soon as you lugged it into the hall.”
Schulze’s version of electronic space music was darker and even more abstract than
than Tangerine Dream’s, his pre-Virgin albums Irrlicht and Cyborg often conjuring images of barren moonscapes and fog-shrouded alien planets. One of Irrlicht’s sides is actually “totally backwards,” laughs Schulze. “It was an accident. I forgot to rewind the tape and played it, thought ‘that sounds strange’, and it was the delays going backwards. So that’s how I kept it.!” Where Tangerine Dream averaged four long tracks per album, a Schulze LP typically featured just two side-long compositions that stretched the sound-fidelity limitations of the vinyl album by running to 25 or even 30 minutes. These epic tracks were typically recorded in a single take. “I would play until the tape ran out,” Schulze recalls. “I was recording in my living room, or perhaps it would be better to say, living in my studio!”
According to Schulze, the impulse to do extended compositions originally came out of Sixties drug culture. “We were all smoking and drifting into long-term moods. Four minute songs were over too quick, it wasn’t relaxing music, not like a dream. We wanted to do music that was like a classical piece, with leitmotifs, codas.” The title of his 1973 album Picture Music pinpoints the genre’s aspirations to be an inner space version of program music. “It’s for short movie clips in your head,” says Schulze. “The music doesn’t entertain you so much as it’s forcing you to use your imagination to make it complete. It’s not really ‘entertainment’, because the listener has to complete the music and, if you’re not willing to add some of your own fantasy, it’s quite boring!”
“Boring” and “soporific” were epithets frequently hurled by hostile rock critics at the cosmic synth artists, especially in the live context, where Tangerine Dream’s shows were so lacking in showiness (the group motionless behind their banks of synths) that audiences (the reviewers claimed, anyway) were in danger of falling asleep. In a 1974 interview, Peter Baumann retorted, “Exactly--we play as a group but the distinction between us and a rock band is that they put on a show – we put on a mind show.”
The sort of rock critic who spent the entire 1970-75 period waiting for punk to happen--like Lester Bangs, who famously and hilariously slagged off a Tangerine Dream concert--may have hated the electronic mindscape groups, but during the mid-Seventies, this sort of music had a massive worldwide following. Indeed 1976-77, supposedly the years of punk, were actually the peak of space music’s popularity. In 1977, Schulze played at the Planetarium in London, showcasing Mirage, probably his all-time masterpiece and also his first release for Island Records (an association that began through his participation in that label’s supergroup Go, alongside Steve Winwood, Al Di Meola and Stomu Yamash'ta). “That was the first time a concert was given in a planetarium,” Schulze says, audibly beaming with pride down the phone line. “But I don’t know if a planetarium is really the ideal place for music, because its hemisphere shapes creates echoes and sound reflections from all sides.”
That same year Tangerine Dream embarked on its debut traipse across America, performing to sold-out crowds with a surprisingly multi-racial aspect--black youth being as wowed by the group’s alien synth sound as they were by the similarly futuristic noises made by Kraftwerk on 1977’s Trans Europe Express. “I always had my focus on black music and black people’s culture,” says Froese. “I believe that, by talking to a lot of black fans in the US, it is the pulsating deep rhythm which did attract them in a first place. They also told me that not using words gives them a huge span of emotional freedom to experience themselves in a different way than happens with other music. At least it’s all soul music, isn’t it?”
Electronic space music’s non-verbal nature is crucial, helping to explain one of the most striking aspects of the genre: this was a style of music led by, even dominated by, Europeans. Pop music in the 1970s was an Anglo-American hegemony (the only thing that’s changed since is that the Anglo bit’s dropped off!). There was a strong sense that rock especially was innately Anglophone, and this created a huge disadvantage in the international market for bands for whom English was either a second-language or who chose to sing in their native tongue. The space synth genre, being instrumental, levelled the playing field and allowed European--above all German and French artists--to make serious inroads into the rock markets of the UK, USA, Canada and Australia.
Tangerine Dream’s 1977 American tour was documented on the double album Encore.
That year also saw Tangerine Dream recording a high-profile soundtrack for the movie Sorcerer, made by Exorcist-director William Friedkin. Noting the boom of instrumental long-form works by these artists and others like Virgin’s superstar Mike Oldfield, the record companies went on a cheque book spree, signing up synth-twiddlers like Michael Hoenig (a latterday member of Tangerine Dream), Bo Hanson, Clearlight, Synergy, and Vangelis.
The commercial high profile of synthesizer music and its associations with long-haired “progressives” were why most punk rockers regarded keyboards as a no-no. “Technoflash” was NME’s sneering designation for the genre, the flash referring both to the ostentatious display of nimble-fingered virtuosity and to the over-the-top stage costumes and expensive lighting that prog rockers like Rick Wakeman often opted for. When Wire’s second album Chairs Missing appeared in 1978, the presence of synths led one reviewer to complain that they’d gone from Pink Flag to Pink Floyd in less than a year. Around that time, a spate of synthesizer based singles emerged from the post-punk do-it-yourself underground--the Human League’s “Being Boiled”, The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette”, Throbbing Gristle’s “United”--but these artists were at pains to differentiate themselves from the cosmic synth bands. The Normal--aka Daniel Miller, founder of Mute Records--complained that the trouble with most synth-players was that they were musicians who played the synth pianistically rather than treating it as a noise-generating machine. Yet only a few years earlier Miller had been a huge Klaus Schulze fan. Even the Human League had been recording 97 minute electronic soundscapes like “Last Man of Earth” only a few months before shifting in a pop direction with “Being Boiled”. In 1978, though, it was crucial to avoid any taint of hippie. So “Trans Europe Express” and “I Feel Love” were cited as revelations, but no one gave the nod to Jean-Michel Jarres “Oxygene IV”, a huge hit globally around the same time that “I Feel In Love” was a worldwide number one smash.
Jarre’s homeland France was the European country that most ardently embraced the new electronic rock. Kraftwerk were bigger there than in Germany, while Klaus Schulze achieved a mainstream prominence way beyond the cult figure status he enjoyed elsewhere. 1975’s Timewind won a Grand Prix de Disque award in the “contemporary music” category and the following year’s Moondawn sold a quarter of million copies and planted itself in the Top 5 just behind Pink Floyd. There were numerous homegrown French electronic rockers, outfits like Clearlight and Heldon, but none of them had the mass impact of Jean-Michel Jarre. Although he originally came from an avant-garde background, having studied under the direction of musique concrete pioneer Pierre Schaeffer at the Groupe de Recherche Musicale (GRM), Jarre’s work aimed straight for the middlebrow jugular, fusing 19th Century classical melodiousness and scale (Oxygene the album consisted of six movements, “Oxygene I” to “VI”) with electronic textures and sequenced rhythms.
All the principles on which Jarre’s music was organised--theme, variation, harmony, euphony, codas and counterpoint--harked back to the era before twelve-tone serialism, atonality, Varese, and the rest of the 20th Century modernist vanguard. His monstrous success in large part stemmed from the deftness with which he applied a borderline kitschy space-age patina to what was essentially the musical fare of his parents’ generation (literally, in the sense that his father, Maurice Jarre, had been a famous composer of stirring and stately movie scores for epic films like Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago). Yet like Kraftwerk’s equally euphonious hymns to the modern world (Autobahn, Trans-Europe Express, Computer World and the rest) Jarre’s music had an undeniable appeal, brimming with a wide-eyed optimism and excitement about technology, space exploration, and all things futuristic. This naïve anticipation for tomorrow’s world was already looking slightly dated and kitschy by the mid-Seventies, but it was very much part of popular culture, from the success of science magazines like Omni, futurologists and popular science writers like Alvin Toffler and Carl Sagan, and the pseudo-science/paranormal fringe of UFO-oligsts like Erich Von Däniken.
Oygene was followed by 1978’s Equinoxe, a more rhythmically propulsive album that made heavy use of sequenced basslines and made the charts in 35 countries, and then The Magnetic Fields, a Top Ten album in every country in Europe. Playing purely instrumental music, Jean-Michel Jarre had become one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Perhaps inflated by his world-wide success (and marriage to movie star beauty Charlotte Rampling), the hallmark of Jarre’s career became a gigantism verging on shlocky overkill. Starting with a 1979 Paris concert that drew one million fans to the Place de la Concorde, Jarre staged a series of increasingly spectacular hi-tech extravaganzas. He became the first Western pop musician to perform in the People’s Republic of China, played at NASA’s 25th Anniversary celebration in Houston, threw a huge 1988 event in London called Destination Docklands, and drew 2.5 million to Paris’ La Defense district in 1990. This run of Guinness record-breaking mega-concerts peaked with his performance in front of 3.5 million Russians at Moscow’s 850th anniversary celebrations. Jarre also received an honour to make the other spacetronica pioneers green with envy--having an actual heavenly body named after him, the asteroid 4422 Jarre.
With the exception of Tangerine Dream, the major figures in the analog synth epic genre were solo artists like Jarre. Something about the tableau of the solitary composer flanked, on stage or in the studio, by banks of electronic gear seems to go to the core of the genre, conjuring an aura of “Great Man, Alone” grandiosity. Vangelis is a supreme example of this syndrome. He started out in the Greek prog-rock band Aphrodite’s Child and was later offered the chance to become Yes’s keyboard player. But Vangelis turned it down, feeling that the compromises involved in the group situation would constrain his vision. Instead he built a recording studio in the center of London, near Marble Arch, filling it with statues, figurines and exotica to create an inspirational atmosphere, and calling it Nemo because, he says now, “it was sort of cut off from the conventional studios in London and quite different. It looked a little bit like Captain Nemo’s submarine in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.” Here Vangelis composed his music on the spot, surrounded by a huge array of keyboards, improvising straight to tape.
Signing to RCA, Vangelis released a stream of solo albums from the mid-Seventies onwards, along with a series of collaborations with Yes vocalist Jon Anderson. Most of the Vangelis solo LPs—Spiral, Albedo 0.39, China—showcased his gift for melody and his trademark synth-palette of limpid and numinous tones. One exception was 1978’s Beaubourg, a sinister, atonal affair named after the building that houses the Centre Pompidou, and which Vangelis characterizes as a kind of prank. “At the time I was doing something I considered totally absurd, and I borrowed the name Beaubourg from the Paris so-called museum. I felt that if it had a voice it would sound like this.”
RCA’s hope for a Tubular Bells-scale smash from Vangelis didn’t materialize but his work began to appear in movies and TV themes, where the music’s aura of majesty and scale lent itself to things like Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos or Costa Gavras’ film about the Grand Canyon. Then the breakthrough came with his 1981 Oscar-winning score for Chariots of Fire, followed a few years later by Vangelis masterpiece, the score for Blade Runner, where his synth-tones possess the quality of glistening gas settling on the horizon’s rim. Amazingly the full score wasn’t released until the Nineties.
While some went into the New Age genre, movie soundtracks is the area where most of the cosmic synth artists really came into their own. Here was a field in which their lack of onstage showiness or pop charisma was not a drawback. Composing scores allowed them to give up the unprofitable and wearisome routine of touring in support of albums. After doing the Sorcerer O/S/T, Tangerine Dream went on to compose over thirty more movie scores. “It gave us the freedom to do what we wanted to do without being suppressed by a record company,” says Froese. “Plus there was the chance to work in one of the most bizarre art forms one could think of.” Alternating between movie soundtracks and his own solo albums, Vangelis abandoned Nemo for a new studio, the Epsilon Laboratory, built almost entirely from glass and situated on the top of a tall building in Paris. But soon he abandoned it for a peripatetic existence, enabled by the increasingly portable nature of synthesiser technology.
The soundtrack direction was something of a saviour, for the Eighties were wilderness years for many of the synth epic pioneers. The increasing ubiquity of electronic sounds and rhythms in pop music diminished the future-shock aura of their own work. A hardcore of fans kept the faith during the Eighties, many of them becoming cult artists in their own right, such as Steve Roach. Although Tangerine Dream and others remained popular in Germany, in the rest of the world these artists’ profile slipped dramatically. But the faith was kept by an organization called Ultimate Thule, a record store and mail order company based in Leicester, England, and founded by two brothers, Steven and Alan Freeman. The name “Ultima Thule” came from a Tangerine Dream single from the Pink Years. The Freeman brothers also put out Audion, a magazine dedicated to all things kosmik and European. As well as the omnipresence of synthesizers in Eighties music, the synth gods own shift from analog technology to digital keyboards, Fairlight samplers, sequencers and MIDI technology was an uneasy transition, with the results often sounding clinical and standardized compared to their classic analog work in terms of its sonic palette of textures. Jean-Michel Jarre disrupted his run of monstrous success in 1984 with Zoolook, an album that heavily deployed the Fairlight sampler with very mixed results, and never quite recovered as a recording artist, although he continued to stage ever more massive live events.
Happening in London at exactly the same time as acieeed at Shoom, Spectrum et al: a festival for fans of a completely different sort of electronic music. (This ad from a 1988 issue of Audion)
In 1989, the legacy of the Seventies synth gods surfaced in a most unlikely place: London’s dance scene. A deejay called Dr. Alex Paterson was operating the pioneering chill-out zone Land of Oz, a sanctuary to which acid (house) fried ravers from Paul Oakenfold’s famous Spectrum club could retreat and get their synapses soothed by ambient music-- things like Steve Hillage’s Rainbow Dome Musick, which was originally recorded for a 1979 New Age festival. “The first time I went down to Oz, Alex was playing Rainbow but he was mixing it over beats,” recalls Hillage. Another Paterson favorite was e2-e4, an album recorded in 1981 by Ash Ra Tempel’s Manuel Gottsching just after he’d come off a tour playing with Klaus Schulze, and originally released a few years later on Schulze’s Inteam Records label. One long sixty minute track of softly pittering electronic beats and fluttering synths, e2-e4’s gentle euphoria fit the Ecstasy mood perfectly, and in 1989 a house-ified version of the track entitled “Sueno Latino” became an anthem on the rave scene.
Rainbow Dome Musick and e2-e4 bridged the gap between the Seventies synth gods and the post-acid house culture of chill out zones and “electronic listening music” that flourished in the early Nineties. A new breed of artists emerged—Mixmaster Morris, Sven Vath, Biosphere, The Future Sound of London, Pete Namlook, and above all Alex Paterson’s own group The Orb—who were audibly indebted to Schulze, Tangerine Dream and the rest, inheriting not only their textures but their love of concept albums and long tracks, their grandiose ambition and tendency towards mystic kitsch. After hearing his electronic tapestries layered over kicking beats at Land of Oz, a lightbulb went off above Hillage’s head, and with partner Giraudy he plunged into the techno fray with a new outfit called System 7. Schulze worked with Pete Namlook, who in the Eighties had played in the electronic New Age/jazz-fusion outfit Romantic Warrior before becoming a techno deejay. The duo recorded a series of Pink Floyd-homaging albums released via Namlook’s Frankfurt-based label Fax under the title Dark Side of the Moog. “Suddenly I was the godfather of trance and ambient, or the Pope,” recalls Schulze. “I was honored.” Although the chill-out boom faded after a few years, the influence of the Seventies synth gods continued in trance, where musicians like Cosmic Baby cited their debts to and love for Tangerine Dream. Chris Franke contributed to the global dance culture in a quite different way, leaving Tangerine Dream in the late Eighties to work with the electronic company Steinberg and helping to create the CUBASE virtual studio technology, one of the most significant forces in electronic music-making during the Nineties.
Being embraced and validated by a young generation of drug-addled technophiles gave the Seventies survivors a fresh lease of life, and this galvanizing boost has yet to fade. Most of them remain active in music. Hillage and Giraudy still record under the names System 7 and Mirror System. Tangerine Dream continue to release a steady stream of records, following 2005’s Jeanne D’Arc with this year’s 40th Anniversary of Tangerine Dream marking album Madcap's Flaming Duty, while Edgar Froese recently put out a solo record in homage to Salvador Dali and has just completed the final instalment of a three part project inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Vangelis sporadically records movie scores and his entire oeuvre is undergoing a massive reissue program. Jean-Michel Jarre regularly stages his mega-concerts, albeit on a reduced scale (relative to his own past exploits, anyway), most recently playing to a hundred thousand Poles for the 25th anniversary celebration of Solidarity, an event staged at the Gdansk shipyard where the movement first started. As for Klaus Schulze, he recently released Moonlake—his 101st album. Size--of individual opus and entire oeuvre--clearly remains the hallmark of the synth epic genre!
TOP 13 ANALOG SYNTH CLASSICS
Klaus Schulze, Irrlicht (1972, Ohr)
Bombastic electric organ music weirded out with head-deranging stereo delay effects, this is one of Schulze’s most abstract and sinister works
Wendy Carlos, Sonic Seasonings (1972, Columbia)
A musical suite of four contrasting movements celebrating the seasons, this is the missing link between classical’s landscape-evoking program music and the sonic geography of Brian Eno’s ambient series, especially the ultra-abstract On Land. Carlos and partner Rachel Elkind “electronically orchestrate” as many as 48 natural sounds (recorded quadrophonically) into a shimmering tapestry of unsourceable sonorities.
Klaus Schulze, Cyborg (1973, Ohr)
A double album merging electronic sounds (Farfisa, VCS3 synth) and classical textures (a “cosmic orchestra” of 45 string players and 4 flautists), Cyborg is alternately dissonant, Gothic, and melancholy.
Tangerine Dream, Phaedra (Virgin, 1974)
Disorienting and ominous, this thick web of pulsations, sound-sweeps, and eerie synth-cries is the missing link between Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon synth-strumental “On the Run” and Phuture’s “Acid Tracks”
Klaus Schulze, Picture Music (1974, Brain)
Placid yet propulsive, the first Schulze record with a definite backbeat moves as serenely as a monorail carrying suburban commuters through misty early morning fields on their way to work in the city.
Edgar Froese, Aqua (Virgin, 1974)
Bridging the gap between the electronic mindscapes of Tangerine Dream and the progressive rock sub-genre of works based around environmental sounds, this is a warm and wombing sound-bath.
Jean-Michel Jarre, Oxygene (Disques Dreyfus, 1976)
With its intricate arpeggiations and clear melodic lines, Jarre’s work is far more conventional than Tangerine Dream’s or Schulze’s. But the gleaming textures and streamlined propulsion of the music evokes an already-passed era of technological utopianism almost as effectively as Kraftwerk did.
Tangerine Dream, Encore (Virgin, 1977)
Recorded during their 1977 American tour, this double album is an impressive document of the sheer sonic might of Tangerine Dream live and demonstrates the degree of improvisation involved in their stage performances.
Tomita, The Planets (RCA Red Seal, 1977)
If some of Tomita’s early synth adaptions of classical music verge on space-kitsch, here the vivid extraterrestrial hues with which he renders Holst’s symphony feel totally right. Indeed listening to a conventional orchestral version of The Planets will always feels drab once you’ve heard Tomita’s interpretation.
Klaus Schulze, Mirage (1977, Island)
These two long glistening tracks--tinkling and enchanted, “Crystal Lake” is almost thirty minutes in duration--conjure an idyllic, ice-bound wonderland tinged with melancholy.
Klaus Schulze, “X” (1978, Brain)
Grandiose in sound and size (it’s another Schulze double album) and as such totally suited to the subject matter. These “six musical biographies” pay homage to Great Men: Friedrich Nietzche, Georg Trakl, Ludwig II. Vony Bayer, Friedemann Bach, Heinrich von Kleist, and (stifle your giggle) Dune author Frank Herbert.
Manuel Gottsching, e2-e4 (recorded 1981; 1984, Inteam Records)
Not really as prophetic of techno as people like to claim--the delicate fluttery percussion hardly constitutes a driving beat. But the gorgeous flickers of electronics and Gottsching’s truly transcendental guitar-playing (he’s Germany’s own Jerry Garcia) certainly dance in the air, while the mood of e2-e4--a kind of tense serenity--make the album seem proto-Ecstasy if not actually proto-techno.
Vangelis, Blade Runner (rec. 1982; 1994, East West)
Woven from glistening and gauzy synth-textures, Vangelis’s score bypasses the clichés of science fiction movie soundtracks to conjure melancholy and romantic atmospheres perfect for director’s Ridley Scott’s tech-noir tomorrow.
TOP TEN OBSCURE GEMS OF ANALOG SYNTH ROCK
Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, Zero Time (1970, Atlantic)
Quaint and creaky as these early synth pieces sometimes seem, it’s not hard to recover a sense of how mind-blowingly alien they must have been to listeners at the time--especially “Jetsex”, whose stereo-panning sweeps and foreboding throbs anticipate the famous “tunnel” sequence of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn.”
Ralph Lundsten, Cosmic Love (rec. early Seventies; 1976, Harvest)
This Swedish composer operated at the intersection of classical music, progressive rock, and what would later be known as ambient music. Drawing on the albums he cut for the Swedish branch of the famous post-psychedelic progressive label Harvest, Cosmic Love showcases his playful wit, unusual foamy synth-tones, and love of animal and bird sounds.
Bo Hanson, Lord of the Rings (1972, Charisma)
Like Lundsten and Michael Hoenig, Hanson specialized in a kind of “fantasy electronica” (in this case inspired by J.R. Tolkien’s epic sword-and-sorcery tale, a book that was rediscovered by the hippies). His own sound, while beguiling, was more of a keyboard-heavy variant of instrumental progressive rock rather than full-blown analog space music.
White Noise, White Noise 2 (1975, Virgin)
The first White Noise album, 1969’s An Electric Storm, is a cult classic of psychedelia, song-based but heavily daubed with electronics from David Vorhaus and Delia Derbyshire (renowned for her pioneering synth and musique concrete work in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop). White Noise 2 is a purer electronic statement: just Vorhaus and his self-invented synth the Kaleidophon creating a “Concerto for Synthesiser”.
Heldon, Agneta Nilsson (1976, Cuneiform)
The brainchild of French intellectual Richard Pinhas, Heldon made true synth-rock, full of attack and drive and menace. Although the electronic element is harsh, discordant and in-your-face, the stand-out instruments are actually the Robert Fripp-like guitar (played by Pinhas) and Coco Roussel’s tumultuous percussion.
Tim Blake, Crystal Machine (1977)
The Crystal Machine was Blake’s name for his customized and personalized EMS synth. This album--improvised synth-noodling recorded live, the bulk of it coming from his performance at hippy gathering the Seasalter Free Festival in 1976--is an extension of his spacey electronic work on Gong’s famous Virgin Records trilogy Flying Teapot/Angel’s Egg/You.
Michael Hoenig, Departure from the Northern Wasteland (1978, Warner Bros).
Formerly the keyboard player in Agitation Free and a latterday member of Tangerine Dream, Hoenig here creates a dreamy if slightly anodyne proto-trance travelogue that suddenly goes eerie with “Voices of Where”. Like many in this field he would go on to work in soundtracks, with exploits including the score for The Blob.
Conrad Schnitzler, Con (1978, Egg)
Densely detailed, hyper-spatialized (this album’s one for headphones), and utterly
a-melodic, Schnitzler’s forbidding take on the analogue synth style made him way ahead of his time. Con is just one gem from the insanely vast (and ongoing) discography created by this former member of Tangerine Dream and Kluster.
Bernard Szajner, Visions of Dune (1979, Initial Recording Company)
Before embarking on a music career, Szajner worked as a visuals designer and lazer expert for Gong, Magma, and Klaus Schulze. Paralleling Schulze’s obsession with Frank Herbert’s space fiction epic Dune, this album’s swirling clouds of synth-drones, buzzing tones, and ethereal melody-lines conjure atmospheres alternately seductively exotic and disturbingly unearthly. Check out also his Superficial Music album from 1981.
Steve Hillage, Rainbow Dome Musick (1979, Virgin)
Created by the ex-Gong guitar god and his keyboard-playing girlfriend Miquette Giraudy, this magical album’s two side-long tracks “Garden of Paradise” and “Four Ever Rainbow” were written for a Festival of New Age Culture in London, but anticipate the ambient techno that would soundtrack the early 90s post-rave chill-out culture. There’s a fair amount of guitar amid the wibbling and wafting electronic textures but it’s processed through effects to the point where it almost sounds like a synth.