Over the space of 5 years in the 70’s, the synthesiser transformed itself from being something of a novelty instrument. In the early 70’s it was a case, to misquote Samuel Johnson, that playing a synthesiser was not about doing it well but being surprised it could be done at all. It’s unlikely that many of us thought that Switched on Bach was better that the great composer himself but there was a certain novelty at hearing a Moog parping its way though the Brandenburg Concerto.
One of my favourite syth instrumentals make full use of the ridiculous noise of the Moog. Originally by long forgotten band Hot Butter, Popcorn is the cheesiest of cheesy tunes, its been covered by the Muppets and Crazy Frog which must give some indication of the tune’s fan base. Its very much anovelty record , at this point electronic percussion was in its infancy so it features real drums. Sounds were developing fast, in a couple of years this would be unredeemably dated but in 1972 it was great.
Around the same period,Tangerine Dream actually used to come and play Norwich, I managed to resist, huge slabs of synths just weren’t my thing and the general public at large seemed to agree with but they were hugely significant as a band pointing a way forward. A bigger break through was just around the corner though. Sequencers were now becoming available giving a constant stream of notes which could makeup for the lack of a decent drum beat. Its all over the Who’s Baba O’Riley of course although strictly speaking that’s not a sequencer at work although the affect is the same. The big breakthrough was ‘I feel Love by Donna Summer’ featuring a sequencer but also white noise for the hi hats, the bass drum was the only instrument that couldn’t be created electronically.
This opened the floodgates for electronic music, the backing was so good not every track needed a Donna on it. 1977 was the year, it was as if everyone had had a synthesiser for Christmas. Or perhaps it was just everyone on the continent, in England we were still keen on our electric guitars but in France, Germany, Italy, even Greece the electronic sound was featuring heavily.. Kraftwerk were becoming extremely influential, but they lacked the popular touch to get hits, at least in 1977.
Until Vangellis got his act together it was the French who proved adept at popular electronic instrumentals. There were Magic Fly with Space and Cerrone with Supernature. Cerronein particular had the knack of the letting the sequencer do its own thing once that and the drums were worked out the song almost wrote itself. Cerrone was, in fact a drummer by trade who was able to master the evolving technology quickly enough to capture the moment. Supernature has lyrics (written by Lene Lovich) but they’re not really necessary the instrument version was just as good. It wouldn’t be long before established artists began to release extended remixes of their records utilising the same techniques for release on 12 inch singles. By the start of the 80’s the sequencer was everywhere.
It was another Frenchman who really made it really big with electronic music however. Quite why Jean Michelle Jarremade sold truckloads of records and Tangerine Dream didn’t remains something of a mystery. He never seemed to be taken seriously by the music critics and I always assumed that his records (lets be honest it was always Oxygene) were owned by the people who drove ford cortinas with their suits hanging in the back. As usual I was wrong, his music’s stood the test of time very well. The melodies are pretty basic, but the textures are amazing. Not that Jarre would care, he’s hugely talented in music and art and he was married to Charlotte Rampling , that s enough for anyone especially as Oxygene has sold over 12 million copies.
The gap between Hot Butter’s ‘Popcorn’ and Jean Michelle Jarre’s ‘Oxygene’ was around 4 years synths were developing at an incredible rate, the next development was bringing the costs down, it took until the late 70’s before your average working musician could afford one but as soon as they could there was another wave of electronic music which thanks to the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League was largely happening in the UK .