My journey through 60 years of electronic music
For me, a fascination with electronic music started early. My dad, a keen collector of jazz records, was probably looking for an excuse to go to one of his favourite record shops in Hove - Wicker, Kimber & Oakley (sadly, no longer there). On my sixth birthday, in Feb 1963, we went there, and he bought me my first single – Telstar by The Tornadoes. I loved the tune but more than that, it was the intro and outro of the record I really loved – some electronic sounds, not that far removed from what sounded like the recording of a coffee percolator, imagining the 1962 launch and transmission from the world’s first communications satellite, Telstar. The product of tortured genius Joe Meek, I remember picking up the needle and playing just the beginning and the end of the record again and again.
From that precocious start, in the early sixties it didn’t take long for my thirst for new sounds to be satisfied. Cue Dr Who, with its amazing theme music evoking perfectly the thrill and danger of travelling through space and time. Listening to that original version now, it still sounds like the future in a way that successive BBC versions of the theme music have totally failed to do. This was another tortured genius at work – Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. For the full story, I can strongly recommend the BBC Arena drama/doc Delia Derbyshire: the Myths and the Legendary Tapes, written, directed and starring Caroline Catz.
It was becoming clear that electronic music was ideally suited to science fiction and to movies. Jump to the seventies and early eighties for three more of my favourite pieces of electronic music. It’s clear that Stanley Kubrick treated the choice of music in his films as seriously as every other detail. The dissonance of hearing classical music throughout 2001: A Space Odyssey was of course striking, but what he did next made me purchase my first film soundtrack album. Wendy (then Walter) Carlos’s electronic versions of classical pieces in A Clockwork Orange lifted this already remarkable film (seen in the cinema, sneaked in as a 15-year-old) to another level entirely. How else could a speeded-up comic one-minute orgy be conveyed except by Carlos’s similarly speeded-up electronic version of the William Tell Overture? It was the brooding electronic collage of Timesteps which was the real highlight of the album though. A Carlos composition, it was only years later, when the Clockwork Orange Complete Original Score album by Carlos became available (although still not on YouTube or streaming) that the full amazing 13:50 length version saw the light of day – track it down if you can!
In 1977, I bought my second movie soundtrack album, Sorcerer by Tangerine Dream, although I only saw the movie relatively recently. A remake of The Wages of Fear, it was William Friedkin’s first movie following the smash hit of The Exorcist. Friedkin was given millions of studio dollars and months on location in the Dominican Republic, and all that time and money is visible on-screen. It was an expensive flop, but I reckon it’s fantastic, with the brooding, atmospheric, electronic score complementing the visuals perfectly. I love a fair bit of the rest of Tangerine Dream’s sprawling discography, with many of their best recordings being live – check out the Ricochet, Encore and Logos albums.
Next up, in 1982, was what remains probably my favourite movie, Blade Runner, with its haunting, understated electronic score by Vangelis. Again, the music and the images complement each other perfectly, and only an electronic score could match the still convincingly future-looking LA of the movie.
So, that’s electronic music as accompaniment to science fiction and to some great movies, a trend that has of course accelerated further in the last forty years.
Next up in my electronic music journey was the discovery of the godfathers of most strands of electronic music, Kraftwerk. Seeing them in 1975 play Autobahn on Tomorrow’s World was another great moment – they looked and sounded like nothing else. This clip probably spawned thousands of bedroom synth dreamers, many of whom sprang into life when affordable synths came along in the eighties.
When founder member Florian Schneider died in 2020, the outpouring of tributes made it plain that Kraftwerk’s influence is incalculable. From popularising Krautrock back in 1975 with Autobahn to helping to spawn Detroit Techno via Africa Bambaataa and others, Kraftwerk are acknowledged, quite rightly, as one of the most innovative and enduring electronic music acts. Their live shows, complete with stunning 3D visuals, keeps mining their stunning quartet of albums Autobahn, Trans Europe Express, The Man Machine and Computer World to great effect. If you see Kraftwerk coming to a festival near you, don’t miss it!
So, the ‘80s and the arrival of all those synth duos! A seemingly obligatory line-up: a geek at the back, stabbing at keys or twiddling various knobs, and a singer heating up proceedings with some surprisingly warm and emotional singing. This became a winning formula for Eurythmics, OMD, Tears for Fears, Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys and many, many others of the era. Perhaps the best example was Yazoo – Vince Clarke, serial geek with Depeche Mode and Erasure, at the back, and up front, Alison Moyet, the warmest, bluesiest voice, belting out “Don’t go!” It was synths that allowed a whole band to be packed into a duo, with only one of them playing an instrument. This formula, has, for me, been brought wonderfully up to date in the ‘90s right up to the present day by Underworld. There is so much more to them than Born Slippy, great though that is, including their sprawling 6-disc Drift project from 2020.
Underworld plant electronic music firmly on the dance floor, and that of course is another of its strongest facets. Electronic dance music year zero for me was 1977. Now, looking back, it is not punk but Giorgio Moroder’s I Feel Love, with Donna Summer that is that year’s most enduring musical artefact. Just like the Dr Who theme, it still sounds like the future.
What has followed is electronic music ubiquity, all available at the click of a Spotify playlist. Whether it’s ambient electronic music to work to (perfect for a self-isolating self-employed book editor to get lost in…), ever more atmospheric movie/TV soundtracks, or the insistent electronic beats in music great or awful from around the world, the sounds generated by electronic instruments are here to stay. But, as Kraftwerk have proved, it is only when wedding those sounds to indelible melodies that enduring art is created.