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    Roots of Electronica: Video Game Scores

    Many important strides in electronica have been informed by a commercial purpose. The BBC Radiophonic Workshop, for instance, an institution responsible for some of the most enduring and innovative electronic compositions of its age, was not primarily designed as an artistic powerhouse, but rather as a simple factory for sound-effects and television jingles. Since electronic music has always been largely instrumental, flexible, and simple to produce, its efficacy as a functional sonic tool has meant that many great electronic compositions have been created for filmic or corporate purposes.

    Video game music is probably the best modern example of pioneering electronica fueled by a commercial imperative. The core reason for the existence of video game scores is simply to add coloring and atmosphere to the gameplay, but obviously the ingenuity of the best known video game composers has elevated some of this music into a culturally significant force. The modern popularity of 8-bit remixes and the use of Nintendo accents in genres like vaporwave have shown that functional game soundtracks have transcended their humble origins to become guiding factors in much of modern electronic music.

    Early game scores were typically monophonic and highly repetitive. The sonic limitations of early gaming systems and the general simplicity of most video games meant that the scores accompanying them had few dynamics and little melody. Tomohiro Nishikado’s 1978 Space Invaders theme, for instance, is incredibly basic, comprised of four repeating notes that vary only in speed as the difficulty increases. It’s one of the simplest pieces of music that can claim iconicity, with an influence that entirely transcends its basic construction.

    Despite its superficial crudeness, the Space Invaders theme endures on merit of its unique sense of atmosphere. As the first continuous video game score, the Space Invaders theme introduced two important ideas into the field of gaming: 1.) that music could play a role in enhancing the engrossing experience of the gameplay, and 2.) that the flat, minimal sounds of chiptune music were unique and desirable. The concept of the hummable, repetitive theme became a staple of many early arcade games, and the distinctive analog sound of the arcade score found its way into popular music, through songs like The Pretender’s “Space Invader” and Buckner & Garcia’s “Pac Man Fever”. Even today, the Space Invaders sound remains archetypal, and fashionable as a stylistic reference for electronic and pop musicians from Beck to Skrillex.

    Through the 1980’s, as video games gained narrative complexity and visual sophistication, the music followed suit. The most celebrated of the 8-bit video game soundtracks is Koji Kondo’s 1985 score for Super Mario Bros. Comprised of six distinct themes, Kondo’s soundtrack was a marked departure from the functional flatness of the works that had preceded it, and it imbued the Super Mario Bros. gameplay with surprising variance in mood and atmosphere. Kondo was aware that gaming scores were not simply wallpaper, and expressedly set out to make music that would “convey an unambiguous sonic image of the game world” and “enhance the emotional and physical experience of the gamer”.

    The salsa-tinged, maddeningly catchy Super Mario Bros. theme remains an iconic piece of music, recognizable even to those who have never played the game. Unlike the minimal Space Invaders phrase, the Super Mario Bros. theme feels like a full, fleshed-out composition, and the songs that accompany it on the game soundtrack each have the ability to recall a specific image and feeling. Despite remaining confined to the chippy 8-bit sound of classic arcade games, the Super Mario Bros. score proved that gaming soundtracks were capable of transporting people into aural fantasy worlds, tinged with legitimate emotions. Koji Kondo would go on to expand on the idea of “video game music as emotional composition” with increasingly complex musical pieces like the score to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a collection of songs majestic and moving enough to warrant classical tributes and critical appraisal. The influence of Kondo’s work remains massive not only in video game composition, but also in the popular consciousness, where his dreamy, pop-tinged moods have inspired artists from Grimes to Jonwayne.

    At the dawn of the 1990’s, video game scores had grown not only more emotionally complex but also more sonically sophisticated. Thanks to technological advances in gaming systems and the introduction of digital synthesizers, scores grew more textured and musical, with a closer comparability to “real life” electronic music. Probably the most acclaimed soundtracks from this 16-bit era are Yuzo Koshiro’s scores for Streets of Rage 1 and 2. Influenced by breakbeat and house music, Koshiro painstakingly crafted some legitimately visceral songs whose rhythms contained the true warmth and power of 808 drum machines and eschewed the 2D shallowness of earlier compositions. Were it not for the trademark buzz of the video game synthesizer underlying some of the music, the Streets of Rage soundtracks sound like they could have been real dance records, and in fact, a retrospective review of Streets of Rage 2 on Vice published last year drew critical comparisons between Koshiro’s score and music scenes like acid house, PC music, and Detroit techno.

    Obviously many great video game scores have continued to be produced since Streets of Rage, but the removal of most significant sonic limitations means that there is no longer any real difference between gaming scores and real-world music. While scores are certainly more able to be realized in their full complexity today, the signature sound associated with video game music will probably always be based in the 8 and 16 bit eras of the past. The uncanny blend of sophisticated ideas and crude electronics remains influential to many modern artists, and certain segments of remix culture retain a fascination with the tinny nostalgia evoked by old gaming consoles. Of course, these scores are also greatly enhanced by an association with the games they represent. In an interesting way, with memorable enough scores, video games can sometimes play like prototypical music videos: imaginative visual accompaniments that fuse with unique electronic music to create a full-fledged artistic experience. Video game scores may have started out as crude commercial necessities, but through the ingenuity of some groundbreaking composers, they have transcended their roots to become a major influence on modern culture, an electronic facsimile of “real” music that was often more interesting than what it attempted to imitate.

     

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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: ESG

    In many ways, ESG are like The Ramones of proto-electronica. Upon first listen their music seems intensely, almost humorously simple, repetitive to the point of near-parody. But still undeniably “fun”, in an essential, flesh-less way that couldn’t easily be replicated. Even if anybody could play it.

    ESG was formed in the late 70’s by four sisters, Renee, Valerie, Deborah, and Marie Scroggins, along with their friend Tito Libran. The band’s genesis has an interesting, much-retold origin story. Apparently in an effort to keep the Scroggins girls off the dangerous streets of the South Bronx, their mother bought them all instruments and instructed them to play. Inspired by the local sounds of Latin conga music and the spare break-beats of James Brown, the Scroggins girls began performing a skeletal, almost totally a-melodic form of dance music. It quickly attracted the attention of major figures like the legendary Tony Wilson, owner of Factory Records. He offered the girls a record deal.

    Under the purview of producer Martin Hannett (best known for his work with Joy Division), ESG cut a slew of now legendary tracks. This includes the iconic “UFO”. A track which has since gone on to become one of the most sampled songs in music history.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BsS-QQ99aQ

    ESG’s 80’s output has the perfect kind of “everything and nothing” feel that all great minimalist music exudes. All their songs rely on essentially the exact same drum beat: a bare, danceable hypno-rhythm that drives forth a subtle dressing of guitar blips and playground chants. It’s hardly surprising that tracks like “UFO” have become sample-fodder. Not only does the simplicity of ESG’s music lend itself well to reuse, but the basic, natural beats the Scroggins sisters crafted have an irresistible pull. It’s a pull that drives listeners to dance and to notice. Most interestingly, to hear strains of their own variations in the negative space that the tracks leave wide open.

    The starkness of ESG’s music was partially a product of the group’s amateurism. Yet, it was also an intentional embrace of the power of proudly unpretentious rhythm. In an interview with The Quietus, Renee Scroggins described the impetus of the band’s bare-bones approach:

    “Well, when James Brown took it to the bridge he cut all the horns, it was just that giant bass and the drums and letting it rip for that instant. Maybe he’d still have the keyboards, but it would just have that funk and that drive. So I said, man, if you could just take a song and make it just the bridge, wouldn’t that be hot!”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCGdZnPzX8E

    It’s not hard to draw a line between the “take it to the bridge” approach that ESG perfected and the structure of modern dance and electronic music. Most obviously, ESG’s actual music is modern music. In the sense that it’s been sampled so frequently by artists from J Dilla to Q Tip and Elle Varner. It becomes nearly impossible to not have heard the strains of an ESG beat. Even if you’ve never actually heard the band.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j35s_55mZhc

    But beyond this, the ethic and style of ESG’s brand of dance is incredibly similar to today’s trance and EDM. Melodically simple, highly repetitive music built around a powerful nucleic beat. Devoid of unnecessary frills in the service of a divinely linear physical liberation. Artists from LCD Soundsystem to DJ Koze have clearly taken up ESG’s torch and run with it. All helping shape a futuristic landscape of stripped down anti-disco that plays proudly at the altar of simplicity. Modern music no longer favors the basic, pounding beat out of pointed amateurism, but it certainly shares an affinity with ESG and their ilk for the eternal reality of dance-able rhythm. Music makes you move best when it makes you overthink least.

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    Roots of Electronica: “Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka”

    Brian Jones, Rolling Stones founder and inaugural member of the 27 Club, was famously incapable of writing songs.

    Described by Mick Jagger as having “no talent” for songwriting, Jones, the former alpha-dog in the world’s greatest rock and roll band, found himself gradually phased out of his leadership position when the Mick Jagger/Keith Richards partnership revealed itself to be a hit-machine. Despite being a talented, virtuoso musician, capable of playing a variety of instruments from the sitar to the saxophone, Brian Jones could never get over the creative shortcoming that cost him his singular spotlight, and his insecurities, compounded by drug abuse and general despondency, eventually led to his being fired by the band.

    The musical legacy of Brian Jones is slight but fascinating nonetheless. His tendency to incorporate unconventional instruments into Stones songs made their mid-60’s output quite distinctive, and highly influential in the popularization of “world music”. His appetite for novel sounds was the largest of anyone else in the band, and though the commonly recognized Golden Period for the Stones took place after his death, the era of the band that he defined was doubtlessly their must forward-thinking and experimental.

    Outside of the Stones, Brian Jones left behind a single musical document that more than makes up for whatever songs he never penned within the band. “Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka” is, in many ways, Jones’ artistic high-point, a breathtaking, chaotic document of a mysterious Moroccan subculture that helped shed light not only on world music but on the possibilities of electronic production as well.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwEoDGeNyrE

    The trail to “Pipes of Pan” began with writer Brion Gysin who, on an excursion through Morocco in the 1950’s, happened upon a ritualistic festival in the village of Joujouka known as “Aid el-Kebir”. The centerpiece of the festival revolved around a chaotic, frenzied music that accompanied a young boy dressed as a “Goat God” running wildly through the village. Gysin believed the Goat God to be something of an exotic interpretation of the Greek God Pan (god of nature and, to a degree, sex). In 1968, Gysin took Brian Jones to see the festival, which captivated him so much that he decided to create an album showcasing the strange music of Joujouka, colored by some appropriately bizarre electronic production to enhance the sounds of the players.

    Purists might have balked at calling the Moroccan Goat God “Pan”, Jones’ inclusion of his own name in the album’s title, and the electronic manipulation of the music, but the alterations made to the wild flute and drum phrases of the Joujouka players feels oddly appropriate, given the unhinged quality of the music. In a sense, electronics helped bring out the latent other-worldliness that might have been missed by consuming the music on record, rather than in person. The excessive phasing employed by Jones and the odd cut-and-paste formatting of the tracks (which fade into sections of one another rather than stopping and starting traditionally) creates an unsteady atmosphere that draws an already insane musical script even deeper into the atmosphere.

    Brian Jones with a sitar

    Jones’ production demonstrated an advanced understanding of the possibilities of world music within Western culture. Jones was unafraid to presume that this music was weird because it was weird, not because it was exotic, and he used unconventional sonic techniques to refine and amplify the compelling strangeness that defined the songs. The way the flutes and drums seem to flutter by one’s ears, or drown in a fluid mess of wobbly flange, makes the music visceral in a way that feels complete and natural: effects as an extension of the unseen ritual.

    Conceptually, Jones’ use of his own name and his erratic sequencing of the music is also of interest. In a weird way, “Pipes of Pan” is like a primitive mixtape: a collection of obscure music by other people compiled and sequenced and interpreted electronically by a single individual. It doesn’t seem strange at all for Soundcloud mixes to be presented beneath the name of a single DJ, but for 1968, the concept was relatively novel.

    It’s a shame to think that Jones was tortured by a lack of conventional songwriting abilities, because his taste, willingness to experiment, and knack for discovering unknown sounds would have made him right at home in today’s era of remixes, dubs, and dance compilations. Jones, seen the right way, is the natural predecessor to producers like Diplo and Madlib: a compulsive collector for exotic influences capable of turning those influences into interesting new expressions of music through the magic of electronics. As it is, he remains a largely unrecognized pioneer in the field, but one, at least, with a historic, wild proto-mixtape to his name.

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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?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pehihWNMgMY

    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”.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryrEPzsx1gQ

    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 joemeekdoc.com.

    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

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    Roots of Electronica: The Monkees

    Arguments over whether or not The Monkees were a “real” band have pretty much died down by this point, with most retrospective commentators praising the group as a set of talented, ambitious musicians who transcended their artificial roots to become a legitimate act. Tired of being condescended to, Monkees fans have done a lot over the years to highlight facts about song authorship and instrumental proficiency in the group and elevate the band’s reputation above the TV novelty act that it was believed to be for most of its six year run.

    On the one hand, it’s nice to see The Monkees being given due credit for their musicianship; certainly the group was much more than a prefab cartoon, and however facile some of their songs seem now, their string of classic hits (“Daydream Believer”, “Valleri”, “I’m A Believer”) continues to resonate as some of the best work to come out of the late 60’s. But I contend that ignoring the inherent artificiality of the band dilutes a lot of what made them so weird, and clouds the interesting motivations that led to their studio experimentation (the bulk of which was, if you haven’t guessed, electronic).

    For the non-fans of the band, a quick history: The Monkees were originally assembled in 1965 from a mix of musicians (Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith) and musician/actors (Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones) to be a part of a TV show about the misadventures of a struggling rock-band in the style of A Hard Day’s Night. Much of their early work was written by professional songwriters and performed by studio musicians, but as time went by, the band became increasingly fixated on creative autonomy and engaged in frequent struggles with their management to become a “real group”. A slew of critically regarded (now) albums including Headquarters and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones Ltd. were produced by the band once they were granted semi-independence, but the internally controlled version of The Monkees was short-lived, and the band split in the early 70’s.

    Critical respect was hard to come by for the group during their heyday (Jimi Hendrix, who once actually opened for them, described their work as “dishwater”), but The Monkees were a formidable commercial force: according to Rolling Stone the band actually managed to outsell the Beatles in 1967. What people now laud the band for is how they gambled with their fame and success in the name of artistic integrity, first by becoming an independent entity and next by introducing the world to some strange, and groundbreaking music. Their willingness to experiment artistically combined with their worldwide popularity helped shape the modern music landscape on an impressive scale.

    For the electronic music connoisseur, the primary innovation of interest within the Monkees was their use of the Moog synthesizer on several of their songs in 1967. Though not technically the first group to use the instrument, The Monkees were decidedly the most popular outfit to explore it, and as such, were largely responsible for turning the world onto the novel, alien sounds of the groundbreaking machine.

    The two synth-heavy songs of interest are “Daily Nightly” and “Star Collector”, both off The Monkees’ fourth album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn, & Jones Ltd. “Daily Nightly” in particular demonstrates an impressive aesthetic understanding of the instrument; the Moog is used to its full potential as a generator of wild, atmospheric space-sounds, the perfect psychedelic coloring for a song with lines like “darkened, rolling figures move through prisms of no color”. Electronics had been used before in pop-rock music, but the electronic flourishes of groups like The Beatles were still produced by tape manipulation, not actual synthesizers. As such, the electro-rock of The Monkees was pure space in comparison to what had come before, totally untainted by any trace of organic noise. Post Pisces, the Moog would be everywhere and the synthesizer would take its place at the heart of pop music, usurping the electric guitar as the dominant emblem of sonic innovation. Without the early forward-thinking of The Monkees and their ushering of synthetic sounds into the mainstream, the astral textures of prog-rock and their eventual expansion into pure electronica might have been quite different.

    Part of what makes The Monkees early relationship with synthesizers and electronic textures so interesting is that at the time of their most out-there work, they would have seemed like the least likely outfit to contribute to the greater evolution of music. Occasional critical intrigue aside, The Monkees weren’t seen as a legitimate act, damned as they were by their roots in television. “Serious” music fans saw The Monkees as the ultimate pop construction: borne of corporate cynicism for no greater purpose than making money. And in a sense, they were right, but right in the wrong way; The Monkees were fake, they weren’t “real musicians”, and that was made their music so great.

    Micky Dolenz, the comic heart of the band, was the one who brought the Moog synthesizer to the studio (Dolenz was actually the third person to ever own one). Dolenz was ostensibly the “drummer”, but his lack of interest and proficiency in drumming led him to experiment with other instruments and musical avenues. His introduction to music through the fringes of constructed entertainment meant that staid technical rules were alien to him: genre-less and fueled more by the psychedelic anarchy of the times than by serious musicianship, Dolenz’s was the kind of open mind that naturally drifted towards the untried.

    The Monkees as a unit functioned under such a spirit. Constrained as they were by corporate machinations, they were musically quite free, unchained to any specific sound. Considering that decades later, rock bands were still expressing an ethical aversion to electronics (in the mid-80’s, Charlie Benante of Anthrax claimed that using keyboards was “gay”), it’s impressive that The Monkees were able to be so explorative so early. Electronics have had a long journey to the center of pop music, and the most consistent obstacle preventing the EDM renaissance that we’re currently living in has been the idea that electronic music is “not real”. “Real” music is supposed to be played, not programmed, “real” music comes from simple tools, not machines, and “real” music is supposed to sound human, not alien. These clichés are durable, and persist even now. It’s a great display of poetic justice that it took an “unreal” band to bring “unreal” music into beautiful, bizarre reality. If there’s an unheralded band that truly helped instigate the shift in music from emphasizing formal technique to emphasizing textural experimentation, it’s these synthetic superstars.

     

     

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    Roots Of Electronica Vol. 1 – Les Paul

    In the “Roots of Electronica” series, we will be exploring pioneering figures in electronic music, detailing their accomplishments, and providing notes on how their influence, both conceptual and technical, has touched the artists of today. This week, we look at recording legend Les Paul and his groundbreaking single “Lover”.

     

    https://youtu.be/nl2s7m6sKKI

     

    A cursory listen to Les Paul’s 1948 guitar instrumental “Lover” yields little initial interest, especially for the modern EDM consumer. Les Paul’s playing is quick and appealingly flashy, but heard without due diligence,

    “Lover” comes off as a standard, old-timey jazz jaunt: sepia-hued documentary soundtrack material.

    Listening to the song more closely, however, strange qualities begin to reveal themselves. The phrases bend and squeak in unnatural ways and the playing is a bit too fast and synchronized. Some of the time, the guitar parts sound curiously un-guitar-like; notes stretch too high, or strike too flatly, as if the strings have lost their resonance. “Lover” may not be an obviously weird or “electronic” song, but there is something undeniably inorganic about it, something that feels, in simplest terms, off.

    In fact, “Lover” is one of the first popular songs to take full advantage of electronics in its composition and production, and slight and breezy as it might seem, it’s one of the few tracks without which modern electronic music could not exist in its current form.

    To understand how “Lover” came to be, one must peer into the fruitful and fascinating life of its principal arranger. Les Paul, born Lester William Polsfuss, is probably best known today as a virtuoso guitarist and the namesake for Gibson’s iconic guitar model (sported by legends from Keith Richards to Slash), but his true legacy extends much further than a single instrument.
    Outside of Phil Spector, Les Paul might actually be the most important individual in 20th century sound engineering, thanks to a staggering variety of technical breakthroughs in areas like overdubbing, phasing, reverb, pitch-shifting and recording technology. Even that “single instrument” has been more deeply affected by Les Paul than might be commonly known; the name attached to the Gibson Les Paul Standard is far more than a nod to him as a player, it’s an accreditation to him as the inventor who, in the early 1940’s, developed “the Log”, one of the first solid-body electric guitars ever made.

    From primitive “flanging” to the advent of “close-miking”, it would be an overwhelming task to try and list all of Les Paul’s innovations in a single article, seeing as the man never retired and began his dabbling in musical invention during childhood (legend tells that, as a young boy, Les Paul fashioned his own xylophone out of the balusters of his staircase). Suffice to say, the myriad of Les Paul’s breakthroughs can be seen as united under a single artistic mission: a mission to change sound, and to alter the way that traditional instruments appeared on record. Les Paul had a uniquely modern awareness that recorded music was its own medium, not simply a facsimile of live performance. His studio-trickery may not always come off as obvious with casual listeners today, but when played against his contemporaries, Les Paul’s records feel far more forward-thinking and unusual.

    By the late 40’s, Les Paul was established as a talented guitarist and arranger, but he knew that he had reached a ceiling within the parameters of traditional music. A remark from his mother that his playing was indistinguishable from the other guitarists on the radio prompted Les Paul to seek out a “new sound”, a sound that he would test first with the aforementioned “Lover” single.

    The construction of “Lover” is the first major innovation of the song, due to its pioneering use of multitracking. The multitrack recording schema, familiar to anyone who’s ever used Garageband, originated in an actual garage, where Les Paul recorded multiple guitar parts onto a variety of discs before manipulating certain sections through pitch-shifting and tape speeding. It’s almost impossible to imagine a time when such an approach would be considered experimental, but in 1948, live, untampered productions were still the norm, and the idea of a one-man electronic music storm was something of a novelty. WC Fields remarked that Les Paul’s multi-track songs sounded as though an “octopus” were playing them, due to the avalanche of individual parts running at once; one can only imagine how mind-blown he would have been at even the most disposable of modern electronic singles.

    The multitrack technique employed on “Lover” helped birth a whole new way of making music, and a whole new conception of “music” in general. A case could be made that, on “Lover”, Les Paul is something of a primitive DJ; a lone figure completely uninhibited by the technical limitations of “organic” music, driven as much by an interest in sound quality as melody, autonomous over every element of his composition, and free to explore any possibility of song-craft without regard for “talent” in a traditional sense. Anybody could recreate “Lover” with the right technology, so it’s appeal was not in the musicianship, but in the imagination behind the arrangement. Wrought in a playful frenzy of virtual experimentation, Les Paul conceived of an extra-dimensional version of music that was like nothing that had come before, a version of music that is still formally, if not aesthetically, the standard for all electronica today. Essentially, it was music to be built, rather than played; not music that was recorded but a recording that was music. Every bedroom composer, every isolate laptop odyssey, and every song incapable of existing in a “playable” form was birthed here.

    Sonically, “Lover” has a sense of excitement absent from your dusty Django Reinhardt records; its modulated ultra-fast playing has enough of a gimmicky attraction that it could impress a room of mildly open-minded people with the right explanation. The “song” itself is only OK, but the affected sections still sound pretty cool some 70 years after they were recorded. Before there was any material to vindicate his theory, Les Paul seemed to be aware that textural idiosyncrasies would age far better than “melodies”, and in this way, he precipitated modern musical trends by turning his ears towards the broader, more atmospheric elements of songs, elements that had previously been disregarded by fellow musicians. Les Paul also saw beyond the superficial limits of instruments, aware that the vessel for a particular sound was not necessarily confined to that sound; with the help of electronics, one instrument could be infinite. Considering the fact that the vast majority of electro-pop songs today have a hook built of a reshaped vocal fragment, a natural sound twisted into uncanny new shapes, it’s safe to say that the influence of his idea persists.

     

    https://youtu.be/pVy9mWKwmko

     

    If there is any overarching concept that unites electronic artists throughout history, it is the idea of making music out of music. An outfit like Nicolas Jaar’s Darkside uses traditional instruments like the guitar and piano, but the music is still electronic in nature because the original playing has been manipulated to produce new sounds. In electronica, the “song” is really a marriage between the “song proper” and the “sound”, the synthetic x-factor that makes the music virtual. Such a format is too broad and big to credit a single figure with, but were the task necessary, Les Paul just might be the appropriate one. If anything, his old-but-somehow-modern songs prove that however, wildly different the aesthetics of different musical eras might be, a conceptual kinship closely unites the forward-thinking figures.