BACK TO THE FUTURE
Every time we tell a story about music, we are tapping back into the cultural continuum and finding yet again that there is hardly a point in time that doesn’t give us a glimpse into the hearts and souls of our past, present and future. Whether we look at the origin story of hip hop, with its burnt out Bronx landscapes, turntables, and street lights, or punk’s explosion in Thatcher’s dismal housing estates, these political and economic conditions seem to give rise to the original sights and sounds that feed culture; the bread and butter we psychically survive on.
So when we talk about electronica, another genre born of the greed is good just say no hypocrisy that defined the 1980’s, it's interesting to look at its pure techno origins and find they lead to yet another story of economic and political displacement. This time, though, the kids from suburban Detroit who dreamed up techno were well aware of philosophical and economic theories and used them to create a techno futurist movement which spread to Europe, the U.K. and then back across America, keeping the pulse of hipster youth for decades. Yet for all its popularity, techno, with its unlikely suburban Michigan roots, remains enigmatic and difficult to pin down.
“It’s curious that bewilderment is a goal of techno. Even the drugs of choice in popular nightclubs, like Berlin’s Berghain, tend to be dissociative. Tranquilizers like ketamine sedate dancers, while psychedelic compounds encourage a voyage through the unconscious. To the uninitiated, this is a puzzling departure from rationality. Why spend that much time and money on an experience that is notable for its elimination of sensation? Millennials suck at being hedonists.”
It's tribal, and as Adam De Gree describes in his new piece, “there’s more to it than pleasure. The feeling that a good techno set evinces is best summed up as “groundless floating.” Interestingly enough, that’s how the German philosopher Heidegger described modern life. According to Heidegger, the rapid succession of enticing experiences offered by the urban environment makes it easy to drift from one day to the next, accepting the world at face value. Only in rare moments do we pull back from life and appreciate the uncanny nature of all we hold dear.” Read Rage Against the Machine.
So with all of this floating, what aesthetically feels very European to our present day ears was completely American, created by three black teenagers in a suburb outside of Detroit, known as the Belleville Three. Techno was always tethered to the most American of stories, it just took another decade to come back from its trip abroad and be reclaimed by its native land. Eventually, the genre found a home in the abandoned warehouses that ring Motor City.
But while other musicians used high-tech recording equipment to create organic sounds, the Belleville Three embraced synthetic noises from the get-go. They had been friends since elementary school and bonded while listening to an eclectic mix of new music like Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk, Prince, Depeche Mode, and the B-52's.
They dreamed of a world in the great tradition of the Afrofuturists, one free from the definitions of race and class we have come to accept. They believed they were providing the soundtrack to an alternative future—where the people reclaimed technology for the benefit of the community. “A kind of hi-tech soul" is the name Derrick May, one of the Belleville Three, gave it, tipping his hat to Detroit’s Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin.
Interestingly enough, these kids were not only soaking in the sounds of the new alternative, electronic, and experimental groups, they were also reading a lot of futurist Alvin Toffler and his theories of second and third wave societies. "The second wave society is industrial and based on mass production, mass distribution, mass consumption, mass media, mass entertainment, and weapons of mass destruction." The third wave, which encompasses techno futurism, describes a better world that is completely decentralized, and as a result, levels the playing field for all.
Yet as we experience the information age for ourselves, sadly, that information, wanting to be free, has itself become nothing more than a new form of currency and inequality in many ways has reached a point of no return. So as today’s techno futurists revel in their dreamy tribal ritualistic dance parties all over the world, their afro futurist roots might be lost to a new kind of destructive hedonism. “A knowing observer sees its influence everywhere, welling up from the underground to inflect popular genres with a mechanized timbre. From Detroit to Tokyo, artists have proved that this generation revels in industrial sound – electric guitars are for the Baby Boomers.” Oh, you think so?
If you want to argue that electric guitars are for the Boomers, then you might say no other legendary Boomer conquered the instrument quite like Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page. He was always experimenting and pushing the limits of what the electric guitar could do and certainly what it could sound like. One unusual and unsung example of this can be detected in their song Carouselambra. Featured on the band's final studio album, In Through the Door, it has probably received some of the least amount of air time and harshest critique of anything in their extensively impressive catalog.
But what is so important about this song isn’t its popularity, or lack thereof, it's the song's eerie foreshadowing of what could have been if only their drummer, John Bonham, hadn't died accidentally and the band had stayed working together. In retrospect, Page, in an awkwardly beautiful set of riffs, has his own personal version of Dylan's "going electric" moment, where you can hear him experimenting with new, sort of pseudo-techno sounds. That is, if you can make it through the more than 10 minutes it takes to get there. What a song.
Recorded in 1978, Carouselambra feels like a prediction for the next wave of synth and electronica that would soon take over pop music throughout the 80's and beyond. Page used a device called a Gizmotron (even the name sounds futuristic) that created strange harmonics and allows the guitar to sound, well, not like a guitar. Page’s guitar and Gizmotron combined with John Paul Jones' synthesizers created a sound that one might hear closer to 2018. We all kind of mourn the loss of these pioneers, and dream about what Page and Led Zeppelin could’ve done together had they not called it quits. It makes you wonder...