From Gary Numan and Afrika Bambaataa to Cybotron and The Yellow Magic Orchestra, the early 80s ran to the sound of electro, writes Oliver Clasper.
Kraftwerk was not the origin, but delve into the history of electronic music and you’ll find that most roads lead to the German pioneers. Dan Sicko, in his book Techno Rebels: The Renegades of Electronic Funk, even goes so far as to say that they ‘single-handedly moved electronic instrumentation out of the cloistered workspaces of inventors and theoreticians and into the bloodstream of popular music.’ Detroit luminary Derrick May also claims that Techno was the result of an imagined collaboration between Kraftwerk and the P-funk king George Clinton. But while Kraftwerk weren’t the first musicians to use synthesized drum sounds in popular music – Sly and the Family Stone and Pink Floyd among others had done that as early as the 1960s – by the middle of the following decade they were one of a only a handful of musicians producing entire albums made by machines, as well as about them.
By 1980 numerous artists had taken Kraftwerk’s lead and run with it, making electronic-based music with as much, if not more, depth and soul than the men from Dusseldorf. That also happened to be the same year the Roland TR-808 drum machine was made available for the mass market, removing many of the obstacles in music production and changing the game irrevocably. From this point on, music could be made cheaply, and at home, rather than in an expensive studio, in turn transferring all creative control to a single – potentially ‘amateur’ – individual with a singular vision. If groups or bands had made popular music up to the 70s, then the 80s became the decade of the solo artist and producer. With a drum machine and a synthesizer you can do anything you want.
Just as important as its use as a studio instrument was its significance inside the club. Beyond being a tool to shape and structure new recorded songs, drum machines began to be utilised by some of the best DJs in legendary spots such as Paradise Garage in New York, the Warehouse in Chicago, and the Music Institute in Detroit (as well as myriad clubs across Europe). Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, two giants of the disco, post-disco, and proto-house scene, saw the potential for making incredible tracks that went deeper, harder, and louder. When these were cut up, looped, sped up, and supplemented with extra kick drums, snares, and hats from the Roland 808 club music as we know it today was born – and this was back in the halcyon days of the late 70s.
For argument’s sake the ‘classic electro’ period, in its most concentrated form, ran between 1980 and 1984. This was a period of intense production coming out of the US, Europe, and Japan, and while most artists took their cues from funk and disco, as well as the ‘machine music’ of Kraftwerk, to make synth-pop, electro-funk, and new wave, Detroit, in particular, was influenced by Afro-futurism and the automobile industry – out of which their own brand of electro and Techno was born. Every location was different, and the sound changed accordingly, but the common bond was the use of synthesized sounds in place of real musical instruments.
Around the same time hip-hop exploded out the Bronx in New York, and one of the first key tracks was Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force’s ‘Planet Rock’, a futuristic mix of funk, rap, and disco. It’s also widely regarded a seminal electro track – such was its crossover effect. It was all of these elements rolled together, and it became one of the biggest songs in the history of contemporary dance music.
The use of the vocoder to distort vocals and make them sound more futuristic was also a significant component in many (but not all) early electro tracks.
Across the Atlantic, Joy Division, who had experimented with drum machines in the late 70s, renamed themselves New Order after the death of lead singer Ian Curtis and produced a string of singles in the early 80s that many consider to be electro while Gary Numan scored a hit with ‘Cars’ in 1980. Meanwhile, over in Italy disco was being re-imagined by a host of artists, including Klein & MBO, Giorgio Moroder, Claudio Simonetti, and Kano. More important still was what was happening in Japan, especially with the Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO). Their three core members, one of who is the legendary multi-instrumentalist Ryuichi Sakamoto, released a self-titled debut album in 1978, featuring a whole range of electronic instruments. Sakamoto also released his own single, 1980’s ‘Riot in Lagos’, that sounds like some of the best computer games from the late 80s and early 90s (many of which were produced by Japanese artists). It’s a strange and otherworldly song, with a hint of funk in the bassline. It also has evident shades of Kraftwerk.
In terms of electro’s direct influence on Techno, two producers from Detroit, Michigan – Rik Davis and Juan Atkins, working as Cybotron – began releasing records around the same period, again taking the sound beyond that of their predecessors. ‘Alleys of the Mind’, one of electronic music’s most important tracks, was released in 1981, with ‘Cosmic Cars’ following soon after. Atkins and his contemporaries were particularly well versed in the Futurist ideas of Alvin Toffler, in particular the notion of ‘techno rebels’, and for Atkins the term fit perfectly with the music he was making. Cybotron’s early releases are electro through and through, but it wasn’t long before they morphed into what we now know as Techno.
Electro, like many genres of contemporary music, is not only a combination of other styles but can easily be found within other genres. Throughout this short period the sounds of electro were imbedded in new wave (Talking Heads), jazz (Miles Davis), funk (Parliament), synth-pop (Human League), proto-Techno (Cybotron), and early hip-hop (Bambaataa), thus defying easy classification as well as being instantly recognisable. It was the sound of the future rushing in. And while many music historians are quick to claim disco as the father of all modern dance music, it may well be that those first few years of electro in the early 80s became the truly significant turning point.