76 – 79

by stephenpalmersf

They were such special years for electronic music.

Some concatenation of new keyboards and new visions in a new audio milieu propelled Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Jean Michel Jarre and Michael Hoenig to create some of the loveliest and most extraordinary electronic music ever recorded.

Though their LP Stratosfear was wonderful, Tangerine Dream first represented the particular qualities of this magical period with Encore – still one of my favourites of their albums, for all that it was a studio lash-up created as a parting gift to the group by Peter Baumann – with its shimmering strings sounds and eerie, sometimes gothic atmospheres. There is a brightness about it, especially on the opening track, and a confidence too. That confidence is even stronger when we get to Cyclone and Force Majeure, two albums which manage to merge progressive and electronic music in a way rarely achieved since. These two albums have at their heart the joy of discovering new musical forms: new collaborations, directions, structures, possibilities. The sound world is open, European, direct, engaging. New territory has been explored and new creativity discovered as a consequence. I listen to all three of these albums now, forty years after I first heard them, and they retain their capacity to delight and to enchant.

Klaus Schulze meanwhile was producing the greatest albums of his analogue years. Having broken new ground that not even Tangerine Dream had covered, working with Moog sequences and the brilliant drummer Harald Grosskopf to create the spellbinding work of genius Moondawn, he went on to create two of the most extraordinary albums of electronic music ever released, to this day revered as masterpieces: Mirage and “X.” The former was a work of sublime beauty inspired in part by the death of his brother, an album of dense, incredibly atmospheric synth washes, one half full of winter weather, the other, built around mesmerising sequences, full of ice. The latter album though was his finest achievement, ranking alongside Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon for sheer range and vision. “X” is an album of unique complexity, range and depth, its opening track one of the most extraordinary achievements in all music, not just electronic music, with its evocation of the power, the joy, and the rushing, headlong sensation of movement. The other long tracks were hardly less ground-breaking, including through the use of a string orchestra.

More commercially-minded perhaps, but no less trailblazing were Jean Michel Jarre’s first two albums, especially the gorgeous Oxygene, still loved today, 45 years later, as one of the most beautiful uses of analogue synthesizers. Jarre’s sense of melody combined with the technical state of the synthesizers he used, creating an album that seemed to come from nowhere. Even in the context of European electronic music it stands alone – not so dense as Schulze, less wedded to sequencing than Tangerine Dream, with an airy, bright, in places simple, almost crystalline feel to it. Equinox meanwhile continued the journey into melody and sonic luminosity with more complex, considered compositions.

Yet the beating heart of this brief period of electronic music is perhaps Michael Hoenig’s beloved album Departure From The Northern Wasteland. I can listen to this work and still be awed by it. In fact, today I did – in the car driving to the day job. Hoenig had a gift like no other electronic musician of the period for weaving together synth lines and ostinatos, creating a hypnotic tapestry of music. Not even Chris Franke could beat that, live or in the studio, though he came close on side one of Rubycon. Created during 1976 and the following year, Hoenig’s solitary offering to the Berlin School is one of its towering achievements, its merging of repetition through sequencing and the overlaying of multiple keyboard lines unparalleled since its release in 1978. Alas, it was a solitary work of genius.

There were other outstanding musicians working in this field at this time, though their names are not quite so well known. In a small studio in Germany for instance one Robert Schroeder-Trebor was creating (and trying to have released) one the best albums of the period, and one of its greatest debuts, the gorgeous Harmonic Ascendant. Recorded and released with the assistance of Klaus Schulze, to whom Schroeder had written on various occasions about his home-made synthesizers, its use of sequences, unique synth sounds, vocoder, acoustic guitar and even a few New Age tropes led to a truly wonderful album, followed a year later by the equally remarkable Floating Music. This latter album, released in 1980, was one of the first LPs I bought at the Virgin Music Store in Oxford Street, London. Attracted by its cover and the description on the back, I loved it from first listen, and it, and Schroeder’s debut, stand up today as works worthy of mention in the company above.

All these albums were discovered by me at that period in my life when music makes an indelible impact. I remember something Don Falcone said in the Mooch documentary Twenty Year Trip. The music we listen to in our teen years and a little beyond is somehow different, he said. We don’t know how it is made, though later, if we become musicians, we find out. But when we mature, especially if we get involved with recording and mixing music, that innocent, bright-eyed wonder is lost, never to be recaptured. Knowledge erases some of the wonder of music. Perhaps this is why the music we musicians and music-lovers listen to in our teenage years and into our twenties has such resonance through our lives. I was born in the 1960s and am therefore a musical child of the later 1970s. Perhaps this is why the period 1976 to 1979 is such a special one for me.

Yet to my mind the electronic music produced in those three or so years does have a special quality – of the joy of exploration, of confidence, of the love of using new machines to make new sounds, of the merging of melody, sound, rhythm and noise into works of great and progressive beauty. These are not just albums on the frontier of electronic music, they are a unique, never to be repeated collection of creations inspired by a one-off musical and social milieu. In 1977 ten years had passed since Sgt. Pepper. The album was paramount. There was still time to break ground, to blaze a trail. None of that could be done in years following because the territory was already covered and because synth technology made making music easier. No struggle, no effort: no magic. The early Mooch albums sound so different precisely because I had no synths and had to use other sound sources for sonic texture. Obstacles made me struggle, yet all the time I had my mind set on a goal: progression, exploration, discovery, beauty, music, album. These are the watchwords of all the works mentioned above.

It does matter when you make and release music. You have to get in first. You have to be lucky. Most musicians aren’t. I wasn’t.

Those were indeed special years for electronic music.