As part of our look back at our biggest stories from 2018, in October we spoke to David Stubbs, author of the excellent Mars By 1980: The Story of Electronic Music.
Do you know your Schaeffer from your Stockhausen? Understand the nuances of Russolo’s Art Of Noise manifesto? Or consider the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire to be up there with Autechre and Aphex Twin?
If, like us, at 909originals, the answer is likely ‘no’, a new book by David Stubbs, Mars By 1980, is essential reading for anyone interested in the origins of electronic music, from the sonic experiments of the early 20th century to the EDM-drenched pop maelstrom of today.
Covering everything from Kraftwerk to Miles Davis, and from Varèse to Skrillex, Stubbs has experience in this sort of narrative – he’s previously written books on the rise of Krautrock (Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany) and the ‘art’ of modern music (Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen).
Following the recent publication of Mars By 1980, 909originals caught up with Stubbs to get his take on the past, present, and future of electronic sounds.
Q. Near the start of the book, you recall the first time you heard I Feel Love (a time when Hot Chocolate were at Number One, and Pretty Vacant was about to go stratospheric). Do you think it is still possible for a single track to have such an impact on the future direction of pop music?
Simple answer; no. Pop and Top of the Pops were central to young people’s lives in 1977. We lived lives of pop-cultural scarcity.
At the same time, there was room, historically, for tremendous leaps forward in terms of technology or the attitude with which you made records. That sort of space isn’t really there any more. We live in an era of postmodern supersaturation. That is nobody’s fault, just a structural and historical inevitability.
Q. Space’s Magic Fly is mentioned quite a bit in the book, as is Popcorn by Hot Butter. In considering the history of electronic music, how do you class these – did they have a part to play in advancement of the genre, or are they mere window dressing?
They kind of did. Clearly, Daft Punk refer to Magic Fly, with the astronaut helmets and all, as part of their ironic, shrewd revisitation of 70s cheesiness.
But it was Kraftwerk who really advanced the genre, because unlike Space or Magic Fly, they had a deep, conceptual sense of the way electronics could reconfigure popular music, going back to Bauhaus theory. The trouble with synth music from the late 60s/70s was too often that it felt like a novelty, an add-on, or referring to a faraway future that left the guitar domination of the present undisturbed.
Q. Daft Punk have hidden behind the ‘masks’ for 20 years, and Kraftwerk have all but abandoned their media presence; I remember seeing a recent BBC interview with the ‘Ralf robot’. In the book you suggest that this helps both to be ‘preserved through pop time’. Is success in electronic music hinged on abandoning a degree of ‘humanity’?
Not so much ‘humanity’ but perhaps getting away from the idea of of the human face as iconic. You get that with Deadmau5 too.
I interviewed Daft Punk in 1997 in Los Angeles, then failed completely to recognise them when they introduced themselves to me at a do a few weeks later. That is reprised in the film Eden, in which, although famous, they turn up at a club and go unrecognised by the doorman who turns them away.
Yes, there is a subtle art of self preservation, I think, by removing your self from the pop fray and putting in its stead another, masked “self” – or even a robot doppelganger. It’s a clever way also of preserving privacy and perhaps sanity.
Kraftwerk were certainly influenced by the artists Gilbert & George, who put a representation of their selves at the centre of their art and yet, despite, or perhaps because of this, managed to retain the secrets of their private life.
Q. Elsewhere you sum up what for many is the fundamental difference between ‘analogue’ and ‘digital’, talking about the scratches and jumps in the Frank Zappa record you take home from the library. In striving for perfect quality recordings, have we taken out some of the soul of music, do you think?
Haha, an early version of glitch! I think ‘soul’ resides in human intentions realised in the decision making as they used mechanics. It could actually be achieved through the ‘perfection’ of a Beyonce album but also through a more chance-oriented approach. It all depends on the good faith of the artist, I think. And they should explain themselves.
Q. You talk about using Kontakte by Stockhausen as a ‘test’ for your friends, but what constitutes a ‘pass’ or a ‘fail’ in this context? Is there a sense of superiority about ‘getting’ a piece of music that sounds like nonsense to others?
I used to play things like Stockhausen and Sun Ra at college in contexts that were completely inappropriate, as in the ‘bopping’ room at parties. All that proved is that I was, at 19, a musically well-educated but socially maladroit and sad little man.
I was probably trying to establish a sense of superiority to compensate for the fact that I wasn’t fitting in socially. All that apart, I do believe that people who consider themselves cultured, who visit the Tate in large numbers and perhaps look in at the Rothko gallery are missing out if they do not undergo the equivalent – and in many respects, temporal and spatial but deeply rewarding – more challenging musical experiences,
I’m less bitter, forlorn and judgmental about that than I was in 1981 but do believe there is a needless block that people have about avant-garde music. For me, the basic crux is, as Ornette Coleman once said in so many words, you don’t have to decipher it, just be open to it.
Q. There’s a fantastic quote by Stockhausen about Plastikman, describing the latter’s music as mere fodder for “the public that like to dream away with such repetitions”. In putting together the book, did you ever work out why the ‘old masters’ of electronic music were so reticent to embracing the new?
Stockhausen detested repetition. Pierre Schaeffer, credited as founder of musique concrète, regarded all modern rock and pop as a mere blare, which emanated from his daughter’s bedroom.
Rock’n’roll etc did not seem so formally ‘new’ either to people like Charlie Parker in jazz or the radical postwar composers who contemplated huge leaps of departure from tonality, conventional populism, borne out of a sense that music could show how humanity could exceed itself drastically, either politically or in some evolutionary way.
Such were the hopes and visions of composers such as the Communist Nono or the cosmic visionary Stockhausen. Maybe they were deluded but their hopes/disappointments cast a reproachful shadow over the way electronic music did pan out in the late 20th century.
Q. You mention Delia Derbyshire talking about a piece in her archive – ‘forget about this, it’s for interest only’ – which sounds like some obscure gem on Warp Records. Do you think that beyond the use of electronics, there’s a musical thread that links what Luigi Russolo (early 20th century composer) was doing with what, say, Squarepusher does now?
There’s definitely a connection – expanding the mode of expression using means beyond the conventional acoustic instrumental palette. But it’s not exactly a continuum – and the fact that Delia Derbyshire didn’t recognise the potential of that bit of music is testimony to that.
Electronic music developed as a result of different local/historical sensibilities. It wasn’t always a case of standing on the shoulders of giants – sometimes the relationship was indirect, or unknown. Aphex Twin never saw himself as an heir to Stockhausen. He said he got his inspiration from Space Invader machines.
Q. Throughout the book, there are references to artists creating music out of their surroundings – Kraftwerk had no musical tradition to work with and ‘had to make it up’, Joy Division echoed the cleared slums of Manchester in the late 70s. As cities, cultures become more homogenised, do you think the opportunity for similar inspiration is lacking?
Yes, music has become so mechanised that the opportunities for that sort of appropriation/simulation are a bit played out. Take Sheffield. What’s taken over there is the city as part heritage, part Hallam university. What music might that inspire?
That said, Richard H Kirk of Sheffield’s Cabaret Voltaire said that he did not regard Sheffield’s 70s steel industry as something to be simulated but escaped from – the Cabs’s realm was one of the imagination. It wasn’t so much about environmental determinism. So if imagination is the key, well, that’s open to all.
Q. You mention Ladytron’s Playgirl as an example of the revival of electro-pop (I always preferred Fischerspooner’s Emerge myself!) but note that the band were fully aware that all they were doing was creating ‘retro pastiche’. Is there any room for originality in ‘electronic pop music’?
Yes, there is. I understand and value retro pastiche as a reminder, in this ubiquitous electronically driven age of an era of when synth was over (hence Ladytron, reminders of early Roxy, Eno’s zig-zag interventions of electronics on Virginia Plain, etc).
But here’s thing thing. There will be future rock, jazz, classical records made and many of them will be good. However, at various late points in the 20th century the developmental narratives of jazz, rock, classical reached a terminus, a white wall, a point of abstraction. Electronic music by virtue of its open, intrinsic, infinite nature has a future. One I can’t predict, but a future.
Q. I’m sure you’re aware of the Justin Bieber clip slowed down by 800%, which turns it into an ambient masterpiece. Is this something that’s not really discussed when people talk about ambient; that like pop, it’s all down to catchy, uplifting chord progressions?
To be honest, everything slowed down 800% sounds great, including Black Lace’s Agadoo..!
Q. There’s an interesting part in the book where you talk about academics at Warwick University seeing in drum and bass the concept of ‘accelerationism – the soundtrack to capitalism hastening its own demise’. Taking that into account, does the rise of EDM mean that judgement day is just around the corner?
I don’t think the rise/fall of EDM correlates to actual existing economic conditions and circumstances (any more than D&B did). The ‘no-deal Brexit’ dialogue appears to imply calamity but that comes from other forces – the opportunity via referendum of revenge of angry white elders on a society they have never come to terms with.
Electronic music might have some future, galvanising role if social conditions become more onerous and music isn’t merely the blare of a hedonistic zone, but I would be a fool to predict what form that might take, if at all.
Q. You close the book by talking about Laurie Anderson’s O Superman – was this the high water mark for pop music’s embrace of the more avant-garde side of electronica, do you think?
Yes, this and The Model by Kraftwerk at Number One. A paradigm of conceptualism as pop, of electronics as valid and as women as auteurs of this.
What’s alarming is that pop as currently configured doesn’t seem open to a possibility like this. But I don’t believe music is in a Fallen State. My generation was a lot cleverer than our predecessors and this generation is a lot clover than mine and by whatever means, in which I suspect electronic music will play a key role. they will prove it.