How Indie Kids in Glasgow embraced the Future Sound of Detroit
There are no musical boundaries in TNPC. If our goal was to set out a ‘lively well-balanced collection of all that’s best in rock music’, then we aim both to ensure genuine inclusivity and to redefine the word ‘rock’ a little – or at least strip it of it’s antiquated associations. [Hair, guitars, Kerrang!] For if you are a regular visitor to TNPC you will surely know that’s not what we mean. I have misgivings about replacing ‘rock’ with the word ‘popular’ too. An equally unsatisfactory adjective. Nevertheless, whatever label or title may be most appropriate, for many there is often a musical line they decline to cross. But I make no apology for the inclusion of the following two EPs, created during one of the most fertile periods in Detroit’s illustrious musical history; an era when there was an almost inexhaustible stream of high quality records produced in the basements, bedrooms and garages of the Motor City.
We are not here to chart the historical development or the evolution of popular music, but in this regard, context is everything, both for performer and listener. As a socio-cultural phenomenon, techno grew out of frequently disenfranchised black communities who found – as they did with hip-hop – an affordable way to produce music whose exhuberance and lift was often at odds with the rhyhmic mechanistic facelessness of their urban habitats – in this case the bruised industrial heartland of Detroit, where the glory days of the automobile industry were fading fast, the city in steep economic decline. Like the proliferation of R&B performers Detroit produced in the mid-1960s, many captured fleetingly on rare Northern Soul 45s, the city was at it again twenty years later.
The earliest Detroit pioneers, often referred to as The Belleville Three, Derrick May (Rhythim Is Rhythim), Juan Atkins (Model 500) and Kevin Saunderson (Inner City) developed a new, instantly recognisable sound which both reflected the metronomic pulse of Detroit’s huge car plants and forged a twitchy new futurism. It emerged as a visionary underground music, an accidental collision between two distinct cultures (Detroit and Dussledorf); as the saying goes like ‘George Clinton and Kraftwerk, trapped in an elevator with only a sequencer for company.’
The early records sold well locally, and it was not long before there was an explosion in the growth of techno music. Fused with European influences and Chicago-based house music, it become the global ‘dance music’ phenomenon, which peaked in popularity between 1988 and 1994. By that time, the second wave of Detroit producers was in full flow.
Times were changing and techno’s audience expanding. As a youthful indie kid, I was initially very sceptical of it all, but like many young music lovers in the wasteland of the early 1990s, I had become disillusioned with the indie scene. If ‘Seattle had eaten the world’ then the response from across the Atlantic was deafening in its silence. By the time Britpop had taken it’s dubious hold, I like thousands of others, had willingly succumbed to the thrilling excitement of the new house, techno and electronic music, which by this time had spread successfully across the Atlantic into Europe and the UK’s club scene.
Of course, in the UK, club culture was bound up inextricably with the drug culture. And the drugs were changing too. Paradoxically, most of Detroit’s techno producers eschewed drug use. Indeed, the message was often to escape the dope culture of the ghetto. Instead in Detroit, by 1991, it seemed the objective was to venture fearlessly into the future with the most innovative sounds imaginable. Label and artist names (sometimes interchangeable) began to reflect this preoccupation: Red Planet; Transmat, +8, Metroplex. Amongst the most outstanding of this second wave of producers, were Carl Craig and the musical collective known as Underground Resistance.
UR adopted the role of urban guerrillas, wearing militaristic garb, (masks / facial scarves) and presented as a kind of techno version of Public Enemy. There were coded political messages but little information about their releases. Led by Jeff Mills and ‘Mad’ Mike Banks but featuring dozens of other contributors, their music was truly ‘out there’, wilfully uncompromising, and despite the rejection of any commercialisation of their sound, they developed a huge following amongst poorer African-Americans whom they aimed to inspire to escape the cycle of poverty. In Europe, UR became a byword for quality and cool. In the early 1990s some of the records were very hard to acquire and fans competed against one another to complete the set. They are highly respected by other electronic artists, upon whom their influence has been incalculable. Since 2000, even Kraftwerk use their remixes during live shows.
By contrast, Carl Craig was relatively more successful and sought a wider commercial audience for his music, touring and DJing regularly throughout Europe. Nevertheless, his music, recorded under various pseudonyms (Psyche, 69, Innerzone Orchestra, PaperClip People amongst others) was at least as artistic and innovative as that of UR.
I could have selected dozens of other EPs which could have been equally worthy entries, but despite their differing ethics, both UR’s ‘World To World’ EP and Craig’s ‘Applied Rhythmic Technology 3’ (credited to BFC / Psyche) are brilliant examples of the second wave Detroit sound.
There are similarities too. Craig’s brilliant ‘Chicken Noodle Soup’ (attributed to BFC) is a spiritual companion to UR’s ‘Greater Than Yourself’. Both share a shuffling motoric beat, distorted dialogue and gorgeously simple but euphoric spaced out futurist synth lines. ‘Chicken Noodle Soup’ benefits too from a muffled but inspired hypnotic jazz scat vocal.
Psyche’s lengthy and much celebrated ‘Neurotic Behaviour’ (from ART 3) typifies the quintessentially classic Detroitian acid analog sound. Here the Kraut-Rock influence is transparent: in particular it contains the fingerprints of Cluster and Manuel Gottsching.
‘Amazon’ and ‘Jupiter Jazz’ from World 2 World are both superb. The bird sounds on the former sound like they come from a symphony by Rautavaara, but the portentous descending chord sequence has one anticipating Armageddon – it seems almost a relief when the cluttering beats arrive to arrest the descent into darkness. ‘Jupiter Jazz’ by contrast, reminds us that this is music made to dance to, even if we’re doing so on other planets. The staccato piano riff is super-funky, ably abetted by brilliant hi-hats and bass heavy pounding beats. Meanwhile, a bizarre interstellar freeform solo is played out on the synth. If Sun Ra had been born 50 years later, he would surely have been making music like this.
BFC’s ‘Sleep’ (aptly titled) is a kind of electronic opiate; beautiful, but the kind of track suited to the 5am comedown. Meanwhile, UR’s ‘Cosmic Traveller’ is an astonishingly heady brew of spacious futuristic rhythms, musique concrete and purist acid techno. Like much of the music on both of these EPs, it is emotionally draining but also works at a subconscious level, inducing an otherworldly euphoria. In other words, it takes you to those places…
Back in the day, everyone seemed to have purchased a pair of decks. Some went further, buying synths and sequencers (I was never very attuned to the technicalities of the equipment; all those numbers – 303s, 808s, 212s etc) and it is hard not to compare this phenomenon to the punk DIY ethic from 1977-1980. Some techno enthusiasts forsook their musical roots altogether, while others returned to their punk and indie records as the creative progression in electronic music slowed down and the scene became stagnant and flabby. The cult of the international DJ superstar may have been off-putting. The explosion of sub-genres (trance, hardcore, gabba!) seemed to undermine the quality somewhat. Or perhaps, simply the drugs didn’t work anymore? Many found their way back home to the music they had first loved. As a consequence, a lot of the very best music from the genre has been forgotten, disowned even, although dance music itself, survived, much to the consternation of the snipers who claimed it was ‘a flash in the pan’. The great techno and house LPs? Well, there aren’t many – only perhaps Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and one or two others have made genuinely enduring long players. Hip hop had greater success with the album format. As a consequence, because most dance/electronic music was based around the 12″ EP format, the best music is often unfairly overlooked when Greatest Albums lists are written. But to dismiss the genre entirely in TNPC would be foolish and unjust. There is ample room in the New Perfect Collection to celebrate all genres of music. Neither should we forget a time when those 13th Floor Elevators LPs and Orange Juice 45s were pushed aside for a while, and in Glasgow’s West End (as in towns and cities throughout the UK) a different sound was heard pumping from those tenement flats, at those post-Art School Disco parties. The future sound of Detroit. (JJ)