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)

57. SUICIDE – A WAY OF LIFE (1988)

Electronic, Post-Punk

The One That Went AWOL

When Suicide’s long overdue third album finally appeared, one could have been forgiven for thinking that nothing much had changed since 1980. Elsewhere, time had seemed to catapult itself forward relentlessly from 1977 to the end of the 1980s, a decade which oversaw a restlessly transient musical landscape, whose fluctuating cultural shifts were not incomparable to the seismic ones experienced during the swinging 1960s and the schizophrenic 1970s. In music, it had begun with a superabundance of post-punk inventiveness, but had given way to the shallow superficial sheen of the new romantics – their vacuous synth pop all artifice, little substance. As the decade neared its close, the thriving independent music scenes in the UK and the US, had gloried in the ebullient resurrection of guitar-based music. The decade that had begun with Closer and Remain In Light had survived its asinine brush with meaninglessness, and was ending its journey on a high with a similarly inspirational torrent of creativity, bringing us the likes of Daydream Nation, Spirit Of Eden and Isn’t Anything. By the time ‘A Way Of Life’ appeared in late 1988, somehow, despite the absence of guitars (they rarely used them) and having remained virtually silent during this period, Suicide’s cachet had remained pretty high, perhaps in part because they were one of the few acts who successfully managed to transcend this shift in styles, their two chord punk primitivism and pioneering electro sound appeasing both the indie/alternative fraternity and those brought up on a diet of Depeche Mode, The Human League and Soft Cell.

‘A Way Of Life’ arrived eight years after ‘Alan Vega / Martin Rev / Suicide’ and while it featured the original line-up – there were only ever two members – it somehow felt like a ‘reunion’ album or even a brand new incarnation. An eight year musical hiatus was comparatively rare then. However, Suicide had never really ‘split up’, despite Vega and Rev pursuing their own impressive solo ventures (check out ‘Saturn Strip’ and ‘Clouds Of Glory’) in the meantime. Alongside the new noisemeisters of guitar, a new generation of artists had built upon Suicide’s groundbreaking originality to create a sub-genre of music, sometimes called ’electronic body music’/ ‘industrial’ / ‘New Beat’, for the most part a hideous amalgam of goth fashion and automated electronic noise. For me, those bands, in addition to omitting to embellish their music with the occasional melody, also missed the point attitudinally. Suicide stood apart from them, having more in common with proto-punk icons The Stooges and The Velvet Underground (two, three chords tops), and with Krautrock pioneers Kraftwerk and Neu! (minimalist electronic pulse), than with those later groups such as Front 242 and Skinny Puppy, who utilised their machinery like a soulless bulldozer. By contrast to their pulverising racket, Suicide were impossible romantics, with a penchant for 1950s doo-wop and rockabilly. Often, the songs they wrote were love songs. Or at least, love songs buried under an aesthetic of art trash brutalism.

The band had developed a cult following from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. Inspired by the street trash image of their NYC ancestors Lou Reed and The New York Dolls, the band trawled through junk stores to acquire some electronic flotsam and jetsam (including a battered old farfisa organ), donned some leather jackets and cultivated an impossibly cool NYC street image, alongside a completely uncompromising musical style. Their debut album ‘Suicide’ – the one with the blood smeared sleeve and subtle Communist iconography – seemed out of step with the ’77 zeitgeist, and yet reputedly it had been Suicide who had first coined the term ‘punk’. Certainly their concert posters from the early 1970s were often emblazoned with an invitation to a ‘Punk Mass’. Having said that, the punk masses almost to a man, abhorred them. People attacked them in the street and threw bottles at them on stage. Once, while supporting The Clash, Vega famously even had to dodge a tomahawk! I often wonder if this incident took place during a rendition of ‘Frankie Teardrop’ a deranged ten minute purgatorial endurance test, telling the story of an impoverished factory worker who resorts to suicide, which is punctuated with Vega’s hysterical screams. Perhaps that audience was more afraid of him, than he them?

Their second album, confusingly also entitled ‘Suicide’, had a slightly more polished sound but was equally brilliant, a fluid and dazzling display of glam electro-minimalism. We know and acknowledge these albums as classics, but their third album is often ignored, and unfairly so. Musically it bears a closer resemblance to the second album, than the second does the first. But then Suicide were not a band to surprise their audience by dropping a reggae number into their set (like Patti Smith) or to indulge in a bit of genre-hopping by going acoustic or adding some orchestral accompaniment. Rather the surprises lay in their capacity to continually distil their sound to its very essence. As the ultimate purists, they bore all the hallmarks of musical sclerosis, adhering to a template from which they stubbornly refused to deviate. Indeed, Suicide songs generally follow one of four archetypes: the gorgeously ethereal atmospheric drone (eg. ‘Cheree’), the uptempo robotically pulsing drone (see ‘Ghost Rider’) the menacing hypnotic amorphous drone (try ‘Harlem’) and the jaunty electrobilly beat (eg. ‘Johnny’). In other words, a lot of drone. Vega’s nervy croon, deliriously erotic at times, sounds like Elvis had he been abandoned, petrified, in a haunted house. Rev’s drum machine punches out patterns which perform a function similar to Tommy Hall’s jug in the Elevators, while as one man band he creates a range of extraordinarily dissonant keyboard sounds.

‘A Way Of Life’ was recorded in one session on one day in December 1987. Apparently, billed producer Ric Ocasek arrived immediately after the recording session finished, stunned to find the album had already been completed. Nevertheless, he retains production credits on an album which features some of Sucide’s most memorable songs, not least the opener ‘Wild In Blue’ where Vega’s echo-laden gnarling vocals over an eerily locked robotic funk groove, inculcate an air of menace. On ‘Rain Of Ruin’ one of their most danceable rhythms is buried underneath a buzz of mechanistic beats, which sounds like a relentlessly rushing great electronic river – like Metal Machine Music played by Ralf and Florian. The Lou Reed fixation is taken to the outer limits on ‘Love So Lovely’, the last half of which has a rhythmic intensity of phrasing that recalls the maniacal finale to The Velvets’ ‘Murder Mystery’. Then there is the gorgeous ballad ‘Surrender’, where Elvis meets Angelo Badalamenti at the High School Prom, 1958. ‘Jukebox Baby 96’ is archetype #4 (see above), the obligatory flirtation with rockabilly, while ‘Dominic Christ’ funky and frightening at the same time, presents the band at their despairing best, bristling with dark energy.

These songs – the ones that went AWOL – are worthy successors to those on Suicide’s first two universally hailed masterpieces and deserve greater recognition. There is a temptation to write the band off as a creative force after 1980, but they have continued to make new music since ‘A Way Of Life’, and even if subsequently they have not recaptured that original vitality, their legacy is secure with an impressive list of disciples including The Jesus & Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 and Primal Scream, not to mention many notable creators of electronic music from 1978 onwards. While our sense of time and place can indeed conspire to deceive us, listening to the music of Suicide means we can stand outside of that; it is original, unique, groundbreaking, and ultimately, ageless. (JJ)

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)

Kraftwerk- Autobahn

4. KRAFTWERK – AUTOBAHN (1974)

Electronic, Krautrock

kraftwerk

Bournemouth, July 1982. A church fete during a holiday. Amid the ketchup bottles and the jettisoned Hammond Innes paperbacks, this seemed to be the only record on sale. But it couldn’t be for sale- why was a Kraftwerk album being so blithely discarded not even six months after they’d been at number one? “Is it being sold?” I demanded incredulously with an edge of panic, clutching it covetously in its Highway Code-themed sleeve. “50p please” was the wonderful reply. Only much later did I figure out the likely chain of events – somebody had been seduced by The Model’s future-now charms and was eager to discover more but, confronted with a 22-and-a-half minute distillation of a gruelling drive which sounds like it’s being undertaken out of necessity, thought: naah. Whoever you were, es ist deine Sache and this is where I came in. To everyone else: never let yourself be fobbed off with the single version of the title track; it would be like passing off the Q volume of Encylopaedia Britannica as the whole thing. From the sun-dappled valley to the frustration of swelling traffic to the closing lullaby for the passengers asleep in the back  every one of its 1350 seconds is essential. And don’t overlook the supporting cast of jiving comets, babbling brooks and squelching but still sinister bats on the former side two. (PG)