60. CLUSTER – ZUCKERZEIT (1974)

Electronic, Krautrock

clusterThe subconscious mind is a powerful entity. When I listen to ‘Hollywood’ the opening track on Cluster’s ‘Zuckerzeit’ LP, I can envisage it serving as a fitting theme tune for the BBC TV series ‘Tomorrow’s World’, studio presenter Raymond Baxter enthusiastically leaning over Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, to point out the latest technical features of their electronic equipment with his trusty Parker pen. I am then reminded that this ‘vision’ was actualised by Kraftwerk on TW in 1975. I have little recollection of their appearance on the programme. I suspect it must be a vague memory buried deep inside my subconscious since childhood. Nevertheless, one can only imagine how far ahead of its time ‘Hollywood’, might have sounded in 1974. While it’s synthetic drum patterns deliver an irregular asthmatic beat (like Mylar punctured with a razor), those synth lines begin discretely, buried low in the mix, suddenly springing to life in darting oscillating arcs of sound – like aliens weeping. If it is one of Krautrock’s most perfectly realised moments, ‘Zuckerzeit’ as a whole is one of the genre’s least typical albums. Perhaps rather, it is the sound of aliens laughing.

There was often a gravitas about German rock music in the early 1970s. There were many reasons for this (for a greater insight, I would recommend David Stubbs’ brilliant ‘Future Days’ book). The ‘songs’ said nothing, their wordlessness articulated everything that needed to be said, or perhaps left unsaid. ‘Krautrock’ bands were reaching into the future to escape an unspeakable past. If 1968 was German rock’s Year Zero, it set in motion a revolutionary explosion of music which in the UK and US, at least initially, was often misunderstood, even lumped in with the progressive rock bands of the era. One of the distinguishing musical features of Krautrock, what set it apart from the UK/US rock tradition was the lack of conventional storytelling in the lyrics (if there were lyrics at all). Characterised by a patient repetitive minimalism, most bands eschewed any trace of blues and traditional rock’n’roll, far less the climactic guitar solo. While often rhythmic and sometimes danceable, there was nothing to resemble the ‘drop’ used today by contemporary DJs to ignite a club audience. A new Germany required a new musical language, and not through imitating American and British archetypes. As regards Moebius and Roedelius, the only concession to things ‘Western’ was the anglicisation of their name (Kluster became Cluster). But on ‘Zuckerzeit’, sandwiched between the two albums they made with Neu!’s Michael Rother [as Harmonia], they broke the mould completely.

There’s a clue in the title of course. ‘Zuckerzeit’ translated from German means ‘Sugar Time’. The sleeve too, with the title emblazoned in garish bubblegum neon, hints at a prankish spirit. The late Dieter Moebius in particular seemed to embrace this newfound playfulness. There is an air of mischievousness to his compositions. ‘Caramel’ has an effervescent circular bounce and frolicsome theremin-style synth noodling, while on ‘Rote Riki’ we could be hearing some other BBC TV characters (this time The Clangers) hard at work in an iron foundry or some wheezing radioactive industrial plant. ‘Caramba’ has the sort of twang and clang that could be construed as Moebius’ electronic reproduction of the sound of Duane Eddy tuning his broken Gretsch, while ‘Rotor’ sounds like his attempt to create music for primitive computer arcade games.

It is interesting to note that despite what sounds like an almost telepathic musical binary on the album, Moebius and Roedelius actually recorded their tracks in separate rooms in the recording studio. Roedelius’ tracks have a deftness and lightness of touch that suggest he was rather more accommodating of Rother’s influence – but this yielded some extraordinary results. ‘Marzipan’ is the antithesis of ‘Hollywood’ – we could be in a tropical garden or an aviary – while he carves out similar territory on ‘Rosa’ and ‘Fotschi Tong’ which, while more conventional, are incredibly evocative of time and place. ‘Rosa’ in particular reminds me of Boards of Canada (possibly something like Zoetrope) demonstrating that Roedelius has been as much an influence on the music of the Sandison brothers as anyone else. Eno too, would lift some of these sounds for the following year’s ‘Another Green World’. Rother’s influence is clearest on the irresistibly elastic closer ‘Heiße Lippen’ (Hot Lips). Clocking in at a mere 2:22, it’s wonderfully infectious Motorik rhythm and breezy minimalist keyboard line, has one reaching immediately to return the needle to the beginning.

‘Zuckerzeit’ represented a change of direction for Cluster. It sounds as if the doors to a nursery crammed full of toys had been thrown open to 5-year old boys. Until then, their music had been like much of Krautrock, a disorientating kosmische exploration, spacious, proto-ambient, experimental. ‘Zuckerzeit’ trims the fat: while as pioneering as their earlier work, it finds Moebius, Roedelius and producer Conny Plank mastering a new electronic language, and with this little packet of sonic Spangles, having lots of fun along the way. (JJ)

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48. CARL CRAIG – APPLIED RHYTHMIC TECHNOLOGY 3 EP (1993) / (A) UNDERGROUND RESISTANCE – WORLD 2 WORLD EP (1992)

Detroit Techno, Electronic

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.

car plant

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.

URUR 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.

carl craigBy 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)