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    Roots of Electronica: Joy Division

    Even if you have never listened to Joy Division’s 1979 debut Unknown Pleasures, you’re probably still familiar with its iconic cover art: a column of white CP Pulsar 1919 radio waves resembling stylized mountain peaks drifting quietly in the center of a barren black backdrop. Mysterious, bold, sinister, and cool, the pulsar mountains still look, nearly four decades after they were first seen like they’ve been beamed back from some chilly dystopic future where the state of human music has become really, really strange.

    Though Joy Division was not the first rock band whose shtick was “futurism”, they remain one of the most iconic, enduring examples of the concept. Whereas other “futuristic” bands from the past often come off as kitschy and flamboyant, Joy Division managed to pare down its science fiction undertones into something deadly serious and minimal, positing a future-music steeped in the grim realism of the industrial present rather than a sexy speculative utopia. Like the album art that defined their image, Joy Division’s sound was an exercise in brooding mystery, and such mysteries have a tendency to endure.

    Joy Division was first formed in Salford, Greater Manchester in 1976, under the name “Warsaw”. Like many of the other experimental bands produced from the Manchester area, Joy Division was influenced by the highly industrial, modernistic atmosphere around them. The aggressive urbanity of their stomping grounds generated an interest in unnatural, mechanical elements and themes which found their way into much of the band’s music. Frontman Ian Curtis drew lyrical inspiration from dark sci-fi writers like JG Ballard and William Burroughs and complimented his songs with atmospheric soundscapes that contained as much of an emphasis on electronic manipulation as they did straightforward rock.

    Much of the electronic edge found in Joy Division’s music was thanks to producer Martin Hannett, who saw in the cool simplicity and future-mindedness of the band an opportunity to introduce sonic experimentation into the conservative world of punk rock. Eschewing warmth and naturalism, Hannett drenched the band’s songs in deep reverb and colored them with angular synthetic flourishes and bizarre sound effects sourced from everyday objects (for instance, on the sinister “She’s Lost Control”, an aerosol spray can is fused into the drum sequence to simulate a crisp cymbal).

    Probably the most famous innovation used by Hannett is his unique recording of drums. In several songs, Hannett recorded each drum sound separately to avoid bleed and then fashioned the individual parts into a whole, creating something of an organic drum machine. Combined with his unusual effects and aggressive spatiality, the end result was live music that didn’t sound live at all: rock and roll transmitted from an unknown place, stripped of conventional grace by cold machinery. On top of this, the manipulated drums pushed all the swirling weirdness into bouncier areas, and pushed the band, at times, past the edges of conventional rock and into the realm of primitive electronic dance music. A cursory listen to “Isolation” (off 1980’s Closer) hardly sounds like “rock”; it’s jittery beat and loud synths suggest a far more modern category.

    Like the Velvet Underground before them, the aesthetic influence of Joy Division extends far beyond the actual popularity of the band. Sonically important as they were, the very concept of Joy Division has probably meant the most in the long term; the concept being a band fully embracing the unnatural ambiance of electronica in order to produce something dark and otherworldly. The clichéd “problem” of electronic music for years has been that music manipulated by machines is inherently “inhuman” and “soulless”. Joy Division managed to solve this problem by paradoxically refusing to address it: rather than trying to make electronic ambiance feel natural and humanistic, they intentionally made it sharp, unnatural, and cold. They knew that music was soul enough and that the uncanniness of mechanical music was something to be embraced as a dramatic accessory, rather than avoided as a corny nuisance.

    In the modern era, moodier outfits from Crystal Castles to Nine Inch Nails owe Joy Division a heavy artistic debt; one could even argue that the genres of post-punk and industrial both begin in full with Unknown Pleasures. Joy Division brought a new type of electronic influence to rock and a new type of aesthetic influence to electronica; in an era when snappier, brighter outfits like Kraftwerk defined the electronic world, Joy Division was boldly black-hearted, confident in the idea that synthetic, danceable tunes weren’t solely the domain of the optimistic. Manchester dance records remained loyal to this code for years after; iconic house cuts like A Guy Called Gerald’s “Voodoo Ray” managed to evoke echoes of the “classical gothic” aspects of Joy Division in the minds of British music journalists nearly a decade after Unknown Pleasures debuted.

    Perhaps the most obvious extension of Joy Division’s influence is New Order, the band formed by the surviving members of Joy Division after frontman Ian Curtis hanged himself at the age of 23. New Order is recognized today as one of the most important dance-rock bands ever; their famed single “Blue Monday” was the best selling 12″ single ever, and remains a potent gateway drug into the world of house and synthpop, as well as an endlessly revisited template for remixes. Though New Order’s sound is far brighter than Joy Division’s, the rudimentary elements are the same: angular beats and sparse arrangements caught between the worlds of rock and dance and electronica, run undisguised through machine-manipulation.

    Most musical icons are united by their ability to be many things to many people, and Joy Division fit this description well. With elements drawn from a myriad of unrelated genres and as much of an ear for doomy atmosphere as for chippy electro-dance rhythms, they forged a new road for willing experimenters interested in further exploding conventional notions of mood and production, and helped bring rock out of its conservative shell and into the boundless world of electronic dance.

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    Roots of Electronica: Joe Meek

    It’s difficult to listen to Joe Meek’s “I Hear A New World” without a certain thrill of eeriness. Against an intentionally spacey background, warped voices croon about transmissions from a foreign planet (or maybe a foreign plane of thought) and cryptic lines musing, “how can I tell them/what’s in store for me?” tease and fray the edges of the unsteady fantasy. The song’s missed attempts at cheekiness amplify its overwhelming “something’s off” quality. But what is off, exactly?

    Fans of Meek know the answer. Joe Meek was a brilliant and innovative producer but his life was deeply troubled, marred by years of mental illness and substance abuse. This culminated in a horrifying end when, in February of 1967, Meek killed himself and his landlady with a shotgun borrowed off a member of his studio band. Meek’s untimely death now looms large over his work, whose formerly whimsical quality has been forever soured with a ghoulish sense of foreboding.

    It wouldn’t be telling the full story to say that Meek’s dark life had a fully negative impact on his oeuvre (on the contrary, his music is probably a lot more interesting than it might have been had he simply been a well-adjusted whiz kid). But it’s a shame when sordid stories cloud the real accomplishments and innovations that he gave to the world.

    Along with Phil Spector, Meek was one of the first and most significant “star producers”, a console maestro as creatively important as the acts whose sounds he shaped. Meek wrote much of the work performed under him, and enjoyed relative success on the back of his unique song-craft and sonic atmospheres. His most famous piece is the hit song “Telstar” (performed by The Tornadoes) which went to #1 in both the US and UK in late 1962. “Telstar”, an instrumental ode to the Telstar communications satellite, still stands as an effective encapsulation of the Meek aesthetic: rough, otherworldly, warped and greatly informed by a quasi-Utopian vision of “outer space”.

    It’s difficult to imagine what space must have meant to people in the era before a man on the moon. However, one gets a sense through listening to Meek’s work that it epitomized a spirit of sublimity that was equal parts glorious and unnerving. It was the perfect muse for Meek, a man obsessed with occult and outsider ideas, driven by a desire to discover unknown and often uncomfortable regions of perception- a desire that dominated both his music and his life. In the spirit of the space cowboy, Joe Meek was a fearless novelty seeker instinctively inclined towards unconventional techniques and sounds, which galvanized his many important studio innovations in areas like sampling and tape manipulation. This impulse also galvanized the eccentric fascinations that ultimately consumed him, such as his preoccupation with receiving and recording the voices of the dead.

    No genius is without madness but the balance is more tenuous in some than in others. Joe Meek was undoubtedly an individual with a poor handle on his own mind and his premature death closed the door on a huge score of the “projects that could have been”. But what work Meek did produce has an energy that could only have come from an uninhibited dreamer lost in visions that were too distant and unnatural to be accessed by the conventional thinker.

    Meek’s greatest work, the work which best channels his madcap energy, is I Hear A New World, his 1960 “outer space music fantasy”. Though the music is sometimes quaint and overly casual, its flourishes of bizarre sounds and spacy tonal suggestions keep it fresh and surreal decades later. Song titles like “Globb Waterfall” and “Valley of the Saroos” transport imaginative listeners to alien climes, and the tension between the grainy, old-timey sound quality and the future-minded experiments in tape-looping, echo, and fantasy effects maximize a sense of uncanniness.

    Joe Meek in his hay day, via The Woodstock Whisperer .

    The most noteworthy electronic trick used by Meek is his insistent warping of everyday noises (from bubbles being blown to radio static), which are pitched, carved out, drowned in reverb, and altogether twisted throughout the LP. I Hear A New World achieves something quite rare in the way it mutates organic sound: it manages to produce music that actually feels like it’s coming from another world. There are albums far more outrageous than I Hear A New World, but Meek wisely chose to include familiar elements in his brew (singing, domestic ambiance, quaint luau-friendly instrumentation), which makes the piece feel dreamlike in a real way: distorted but grounded in the known.

    When electronic music first began to take shape it was absent of aesthetic direction. Advances in recording technology and technique might have been impressive but oftentimes there was little understanding of what “artificial” music might mean to people, what feelings manipulated vocals and un-nameable effects would ignite in untrained listeners. Joe Meek inherently understood what few producers and engineers at the time did: electronica is weird. When something sounds alien it evokes alien feelings, and without a nod to this, the full results of using electronics can’t be realized. Today we take for granted an aesthetic association with electronica: Boards of Canada using warped children’s voices to conjure hazy nostalgia, Aphex Twin fusing his ambient soundscapes with the mythology of his “lucid dreams”, etc. But in the past, most electronica was either devoid of concept or sold as “functional music” (i.e. 1964’s Soothing Sounds for Baby, an album designed to lull children to sleep). Joe Meek’s gift to the genre was his introduction of “the musical fantasy”, an oddball coloring that was necessary to marshal novel sounds into appropriately novel realms.

    Courtesy of

    Joe Meek was burdened and blessed with a love of other worldliness. He saw existence as full of fantastical elements that were waiting to be uncovered; he had visions of a state beyond reality, he fixated on the stars, and he believed in life beyond life (legend has it that Meek claimed to receive counsel from his deceased idol Buddy Holly). However poorly this obsession might have served him as a person, it certainly energized his life as an artist, granting him the power of multi-dimensional sight and aesthetic mastery. His peculiar mind saw new potential for everyday sound (the whirring at the opening of “Telstar”, for instance, is a toilet flushing backwards), new expressions for the human voice, and new ways that music could be played and received. Without any instrumental proficiency, Meek still managed to remake music in his own image and push electronica further into its inevitable uniform of outer-galactic weirdness. The artists of today, accustomed to the spaced out moods and purposeful uncanniness crafted by producers through the decades, owe Meek a great debt of gratitude