Saturday, 4 September 2010

Android Rock

The connection between science fiction and popular music isn't always a pretty one. For every Sun Ra or Parliament/ Funkadelic (and watch out for an Afro-Futurism post soon) there's Rush's 2112 or 'Cygnus X-1', not to mention the rather odd legacies of 'space rock' (Hawkwind and early Pink Floyd).

Much as I am a fan of Mike Moorcock, I don't really have that much interest in his involvement in Hawkwind (he wrote the lyrics for much of the classic album 'Space Ritual') except as an odd cul-de-sac in his career. I'm no fan of prog. I do, however, quite like psychedelia, and I very much like repetition. Circular, looping, hypnotic 'indie' rock of the 1980s - Spacemen 3, Loop - is very much my thing. But both these bands are clearly drawing as much upon the American garage tradition of The Stooges and the MC5, and the early electronic punk of Suicide, as they are upon English space rock.

Rather than rock or pop that explicitly has science fictional lyrical elements, I've been considering rock music that sounds 'futuristic' in some way, even if it was recorded in the 1970s. I don't mean the Beach Boys' use of the Theremin on 'Good Vibrations', nor Joe Meek's 'Telstar' (nor his 1960 concept album, 'I Hear A New World: an outer space music fantasy'!), but music that sounds out of its own time, and out of our own. Albums produced by Martin Hannett (Joy Division's 'Closer' and 'Unknown Pleasures', for instance) always have this feeling, to me; so do both Bowie's 1977 'Berlin' LPs, 'Low' and 'Heroes', produced by Brian Eno.

Clearly, Bowie and Eno had picked up on the developments on the 'motorik' sound of 1970s German rock, known now as 'Krautrock'. 'V-2 Schneider', from the instrumental second side of 'Heroes', is a tribute to Kraftwerk founder Florian Schneider, and throughout the two albums one can hear echoes of the repetitive, driving guitar sound of the group Neu! and their albums 'Neu!' and 'Neu! '75'. I'm listening again to the track 'Heroes' as I write, thinking of the opening of Chris Petit's 1979 black-and-white road movie Radio On, which uses the track in a very bold, minutes-long tracking shot through an empty London flat.

What makes this song 'futuristic?' There's a lot of atonality here, from Robert Fripp's endlessly-sustained guitar lines, to feedback, phasing effects, and electric organ sounds; and it has that steady motorik rhythm that Kraftwerk used on 'Autobahn', which celebrates the rhythm of driving down the A555 (the first autobahn) between Koln and Bonn. Driving is crucial to Krautrock, and to the Berlin albums: one of my favourites tracks on 'Low' is 'Always Crashing The Same Car', which has strong Ballardian overtones. (U2's Zooropa album, which has a similarly 'futuristic' feel - much more so than Achtung Baby, which was partially recorded in the same Hansa Berlin studios in which Bowie recorded the 1977 albums - has a track called 'Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car'. No coincidence.)

And now I come to the most futuristic of 1980s electro/synth-pop artists, and one about whom people remain quite sniffy: Gary Numan. Watching a video of a live performance of 'Are Friends Electric?' on the Old Grey Whistle Test, it's quite clear where Numan is coming from: Bowie intonations and mannerisms, motorik rhythms, repetition/ circularity, analogue synths and overdriven guitars. It's also clearly sf, sf about alienation, urban ennui, and the android. It's overtly influenced by Philip K. Dick and comes from a 1979 album called Replicas. This album is itself a kind of dystopian concept-album but what strikes you is the cover: Numan stands stiffly in an empty room with a bare light bulb, dressed in black with bleached hair, next to a darkened sash window (complete with nen sign of what seems to be a nightclub: 'The Dark'). His sightlines are off: he does not look out of the window but to one side in a kind of attention-vacuum, as though on some kind of regressive programming loop or shutdown. His reflection in the window is also non-natural, the alignment altered so it appears to be looking in to the room. The theme of the double, the replicant, is suggested visually on the album cover.

And this was 1979: three years before Blade Runner.

Numan's most famous track is, of course, 'Cars'. This is the epitome of android rock, fusing synth-pop sequencing (of the Minimoog and Polymoog synthesisers, largely) with live (acoustic) drumming and an iconic video. The lyrics are again about alienation, being trapped in the car, feeling isolation as well as security. The arpeggiated sequences are wonderfully catchy and uplifting, but there's still a blankness there. On the cover of the album The Pleasure Principle, which features 'Cars', Numan sits alone at an onyx table, dressed in charcoal double-breasted suit (and with heavy application of dark eye make-up), staring somewhat cautiously at a small glowing red pyramid on the table-top. The cover of the single of 'Cars' is even more arresting: Numan is framed to the right of the sleev, arms rigidly out to grasp an imaginary steering-wheel, his eyeline way up out of the top of the picture. The effect of both is businessman-as-mannequin or android, an sf parody of the sharp '80s business suits (symbolising right-wing entrepreneurship) that are the focus of a different kind of satire on the cover of Heaven 17's Penthouse and Pavement.

Numan seems to be suggesting here that the icon (or ideal) of the businessman in the 1980s is non-human: alienated, decorticated, a literal machine.

Of course, most of these artists and tracks are machine music, of a kind, using the newly-developing electronic instruments produced by Bob Moog and others to give a texture quite unlike the music of the 1960s (or the later 1980s, come to that). In the connections between driving, the machine, urban alienation, reeptition, and the emotional blankness of the 'android', we find that motorik music is intensely Ballardian, a kind of iteration of the kinds of social and cultural formations that Ballard was investigating from the late 1960s.

The strange thing is is that this music still sounds like the future. How can this be? I think it is because the sounds of analogue synthesizers bear little relation to the tonal qualities of 'real world' sounds, and the history of the synthesizer is one of increasing timbral complexity and approximation (and ultimately sampling and re-sampling) of 'real' sounds and instruments. When 1980s electronic-pop artists started to use the Fairlight and the Emulator, there was a move away from the kind of sounds produced by the Minimoog and ARP: sounds produced electronically, by oscillators making a sine, or saw-tooth, or square wave and processed through a rack of different filters and modulators. Despite this multiple processing, these sounds are still machine sounds, and I think we hear them differently (even now) than we do organic, 'natural' waveforms.

There's a kind of purity about 'Cars' (or Depeche Mode's 'New Life', another wonderful arpeggiated synth-pop track, where even the 'real' drums are replaced by a drum machine, the snare drum by processed white noise) that's produced by the technology used in creating it: Numan's trick is (like Kraftwerk's) to implicate the human 'pop star' into the new machinic assemblage of synthesizer and drum machine. Android rock is where machinic reality, in Ballard's words, 'beckons' to us from outside the window.

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