How much do we notice sonic texture or particularity when we listen to popular music? Some technologies impinge, snagging the mind and ear for better or worse. The wah-wah pedal in 1960s psychedelia and 1970s funk. The electronic (but manually played) Syndrum that pinged away in the background of certain disco records in the late 1970s, and was used to sinister effect by Joy Division on ‘She’s Lost Control’. The squawk of the cheap bass synth on house and techno records a decade later. Autotune on everything for the past twenty years: an inhuman enhancement becomes, in the right hands, potentially heartbreaking. But technology doesn’t exhaust style, even in styles of music that are all technology. We hear everything all at once, and only the most obsessional ‘gearhead’ would imagine the sound of a Jimi Hendrix record to reside in the guitar and amp settings, say, or the precise chain of effects, or the ambience and wiring of a studio.
The early 1980s was the era of synth pop, and as the decade continued these new sounds met with more conventional rock elements. We went from the amateur futurism of Depeche Mode and The Human League to a pop landscape in which even the venerable likes of Yes and Genesis partly aspired to a machined modernity, adding drum machines and sampled instruments to their records. By 1985, the year of Live Aid, the extant generations of post-1950s pop had been flattened to a single plane of bright and brittle-sounding production, governed by thunderous drumming, real or not. As always, this story is pure cliché, and polishes a vexed and knotty history to a series of smooth transitions, solid outlines of period or genre. But forty years on I think, or feel, that something really did change, some shift in the aural landscape of pop. It seemed then that a force both vast and breakable had taken over from the more sci-fi but home-made forms of early-80s synth pop. Lofty, fragile, sublime and ecstatic, this new aesthetic taught us about the emotional weight of artifice. Despite its heartless, glacial advance over the music of the mid-decade (which for a time was all that mattered to me), it was consoling as well as estranging.
How to describe this sound? It had partly to do with drum machines, and in particular with the Linn LM-1 that Prince, one of its most imaginative users, deployed on Purple Rain (it is the detuned knocking sound you hear on ‘When Doves Cry’) and continued putting on his records after everybody else had moved on to newer technology, or simply adopted cheaper alternatives. Among the last superlative uses of the Linn (before its sounds seemed fully antique, and appealing only as retro samples) was on ‘Mia Bocca’, released in the spring of 1987 by Prince-associate Jill Jones. The song starts with four naked bars of Linn percussion: a slow bass-drum stutter punctuated by a noisy knock-on-wood sound. Where a snare drum ought to snap, instead there is something muffled and prolonged, not so much arriving on time, twice in the bar, as swallowing the rhythm whole, digging a void underneath.
As Dan LeRoy notes in his recent book Dancing to the Drum Machine: How Electronic Percussion Conquered the World, the drum machines of the 1980s – and therefore also the texture of music today, which so frequently harks back to that time – were indirect products of urges and experiments that emerged almost a century ago. The declared ambition was for a technology that would keep reliable time, while obviating the need for a human player, but it is possible that a more secret impulse was at work: a desire for the inhuman itself. In 1930 the American composer Henry Cowell wrote: ‘It is highly probable that an instrument could be devised which would mechanically produce a rhythmic ratio, but which would be controlled by hand and would therefore not be over-mechanical.’ Examples of the Rhythmicon still exist, and you can watch demonstrations on YouTube, the bristling metal contraption chirping away, from one note per beat up to sixteen. The machine’s output is surprisingly adaptable: a polyphonic keyboard will combine different note clusters to form complex patterns that sound more insectoid than robotic.
For much of drum machine history, programmability – to be able to build a rhythm out of discrete percussive sounds – was the dream, rather than simply pressing a button and having preset combinations emerge at fixed or variable tempo. In the late 1950s, the organ manufacturer Wurlitzer brought out the Side Man, a table-height wooden cabinet with an inset control panel. Its name points to the role filled by drum machines for the next quarter-century: adjunct to a keyboard, allowing a solo performer to augment his sound – Now you can be a combo all by yourself. The first records to feature such instruments were the three volumes of Raymond Scott’s Soothing Sounds for Baby, released in 1962. Scott, a popular innovator in electronic music, whose compositions were used in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies (and later in The Simpsons), was also the inventor of a number of drum machines. Even he seems to have thought of them as fundamentally unserious; in 1960 he named his new iteration Bandito the Bongo Artist.
Such inventions could not exist for long without being creatively misused. Fixed-rhythm drum machines provided, or augmented, percussion on several songs by Sly and the Family Stone, notably ‘Everyday People’, where the electronic rhythm proceeds calmly and precisely beneath the looser funk of a real drummer. At another extreme, in the mid-1970s the New York avant-garde duo Suicide repurposed lounge-music instrumentation and rockabilly vocals to primitive, spectral ends, drowning the output of their $30 rhythm box in effects and distortion until it sounded like nothing on Earth. In Osaka, Japan, Ace Electronic Industries, which had been selling fixed-rhythm drum machines for over a decade, renamed itself Roland and launched a new line of devices that combined presets with minimal programmability. These are the drum machines that made turn-of-the-decade sounds for the diverse likes of Roxy Music, Blondie, OMD, Throbbing Gristle and Visage. (Also Phil Collins, who is never far away in this story, though it would have pained me as a teenager to acknowledge his prescience, so much did he seem a relic of the 1970s.) Roland drum machines sounded like the future, which means they were not quite the immediate future – not yet.
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