The Null Device

Cosmic electronica reappraised

Simon Reynolds digs up the history of the psychedelic space electronica of the 1970s, a genre of music too geeky or freaky, too redolent of science fiction, prog rock and rambling, stoned experimentalism, too sandal-wearingly, whale-huggingly New Agey, too inexcusably pre-punk or just too plain weird to have been afforded the hipster credibility that its shorter, sharper contemporaries, from Krautrock to new wave, have bathed in:
Everything you know about electronic pop is wrong. Years before Gary Numan and his electric friends, before the chart-popping porno-disco of 'I Feel Love by sexbot diva Donna Summer and pulsating producer Giorgio Moroder, before even Kraftwerk's serene electra-glide down the Autobahn, the trailblazers of synthesisers in pop were a bunch of long-haired hippies and slumming classical composers. Pioneered by Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and Walter Carlos, then popularised by Tomita, Jean Michel Jarre, and Vangelis, this genre - space music, some call it, or analog-synth epics - has been almost completely written out of the history of electronica.
The commercial high profile of synthesiser 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. 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 synthesiser 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 Jarre's 'Oxygene (Part IV)', a UK chart smash only a few weeks after 'I Feel Love' hit number one in late 1977.
Electronic psychedelia, not surprisingly, experienced a revival of sorts during the rave era (which Reynolds chronicled in Energy Flash), with bands like The Orb and the chill-out movement citing the likes of Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream as influences. (Whether the same could be said for Vangelis or Jean-Michel Jarre is another matter), and indeed the psy-trance genre (though perhaps this point is arguable; unlike cosmic electronic music, psy-trance, like most 4-on-the-floor, heavily quantised electronic dance music, is more strongly connected to a functional role, that of providing stimulus to dance to). One could probably make a convincing case for IDM ("intelligent dance music") owing a debt to the geeky, cerebral futurism of the synth pioneers of the 70s.

Now, Reynolds argues, the genre is getting somewhat of a reappraisal and being written back into its rightful place in musical history, with credible acts like M83 and DFA hipsters Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom citing these artists as reference points.

Which makes sense; perhaps the world is due for a reappraisal of this genre. A lot of the movements which followed (from shoegazer to IDM, which, incidentally, have both met a synthesis in the awkwardly named "nu-gazer" movement), and which have won critical acceptance (shoegazer's original incarnation was wiped aside by grunge, in much the way that punk poured petrol on prog and threw a lit match at it, though has since returned) are not too incompatible with it. Secondly, a reappraisal of prog electronica, in all its patchouli-scented naffness and beardy retro scifiisms, could tie in with the rise of antifolk (which, itself, may be a reaction to the commodification and commercialisation of post-punk ideas of cool; think anything that gets labelled "indie" in the UK press for an example); in other words, as the masses buy electroskull-covered clothing at Wal-Mart and listen to watered-down electroclash and heavily-promoted new-wave-art-rock-lite on commercial radio, the hipsters move on, differentiating themselves by growing beards and getting into things that, to the uninitiated, don't appear cool (case in point: the recent "antifolk" movement). And a revival of 70s prog/psychedelia may not be so far-fetched; there's more than a little Pink Floyd in the new Of Montreal album, for example.

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