Friday, 23 September 2016

Strings of life.

I like the ICA. I've watched Jodorowsky films in the cinema there, picked up copies of the Wire and shamelessly skim read Bataille in the bookshop, and sank the odd Saxon lager in the bar too.

So, as a fan of the music, their Detroit:Techno City exhibition was a no brainer. It was in one of their smallest rooms and was low on artefacts yet it told a story of a music, that along with Chicago house, reverberated around the world and changed the way most of us listen.

Amongst the vinyl, photo montages, and clips of film you can feast your eyes on some of the famous Roland equipment. From bottom to top we've got the 303 (a bass synth with built in sequencer originally marketed to guitarists in need of bass accompaniment for practice sessions), the 909, and the 808 (the latter two both, essentially, drum machines - though, in many ways, so much more than that).

The story stretches across the best part of two decades. Early 70s Detroit denizens were dancing in clubs like Studio 54, The Pink Poodle, and Wash's Flamingo. Parliament/Funkadelic were on the rise and the Seventh City was, correctly, proud. The p-funk sound begat electro-funk and the electro-funk begat disco.

DJ Ken Collier started a disco club, Chessmate, where black, white, gay, and straight crowds danced to the new electronic sounds. Stacey 'Hotwaxx' Hale was another early influence. She not only DJ'ed to crowds on a night out but took it to local radio stations like WLBS, WHYT, and WJLB. Felton Howard added gospel and house to the mix. He started DJ'ing 4 nights a week - at different venues - which was a novelty at the time. Soon he was playing 12 hour sets to crowds of over 1,500 at the Climax+ club.

Dr Charles Johnson, better known as The Electrifying Mojo, had a five hour long late night radio show on WGPR. As well as p-funk he played The B-52s, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and Depeche Mode. Cliff Thomas's Buy Rite Records stocked the few techno sides so far released alongside the rap and house records.

The music itself reflected Detroit's economic decline, the city had relied far too long on one industry, automotive production, and due to an economic recession and cheaper imported cars was suffering. From the studios of Gratiol Avenue, fast becoming the hub of the scene, came an electronic music that reproduced the robotic, soulless sounds of the car factories. It somehow managed to both condemn and glorify both the industrialisation and the decline of Michigan's largest city.

Labels were formed. Among them Deep Space, KMS, Transmat, and Metroplex. Behind the founding of these labels were three legendary musicians. Juan Atkins (the originator) had released his debut album in '82. Derrick May (the innovator) was responsible for Strings of Life which first created international interest in the genre. Kevin Saunderson (the elevator) moved to Detroit from NYC, aged 9, and with Inner City became a serious transatlantic chart botherer. I can remember hearing, and enjoying, Good Life in Basingstoke back in 1988.

These three men became known as the Belleville Three. Named after the city on the south-western suburbs of Detroit where they all lived. Derrick May described their sound as 'George Clinton meeting Kraftwerk in an elevator'. It may still stand as the best description of techno yet given.

In 1988 the British ex-Northern Soul DJ and producer Neil Rushton visited Detroit and put together a compilation Techno! The New Sound of Detroit. Eddie 'Flashin' Fowlkes, Blake Baxter, and the other leading lights all featured. Juan Atkins persuaded Rushton to use the word techno in the album's title, Rushton having initially preferred The House Sound of Detroit. Atkins had been inspired by Alvin Toffler's book The Third Wave which told of a dystopian vision of a post-industrial city characterised by scientific and technological reinvention. The book had come out in 1980 and featured characters named the Techno Rebels. Atkins' act Cybotron had already, back in 1983, released a track with the title Techno City. Also that year The Face ran a feature with the title Motor City Techno which helped cement the term.

As we've established techno had been brewing for a decade or more but 1988 looks very much like the year techno broke. Album releases and Face features probably weren't as important to those on the ground as that year's opening of the Music Institute. The first club in the world devoted to playing techno. Every Friday and Saturday for three years in Detroit people danced from midnight to 9am. Both alcohol and drugs were prohibited as the promoters sought to emphasise techno's positive message.

It's debatable how well that worked but the music, as we all know, spread further and further. The second wave redefined the boundaries of Detroit techno. Whilst still relatively unknown in the USA the music's tendrils had truly wrapped themselves around the dance music scenes of the UK, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. Often appealing to those previously uninterested in electronic or black music.

Berlin, then as post-industrial as Detroit itself, particularly embraced the new sounds. Tresor invited DJs from Detroit to play in their club:an underground vault of an abandoned department store. In the UK Neil Rushton put out a follow up. Techno 2:The Next Generation which, as its title suggest, placed focus on the second wave of Detroit artists.

Richie Hawtin had been born in Banbury, Oxfordshire but grown up in a part of Canada that was within commuting distance of Detroit. His hard edged tunes like Plastikman pushed the music into more aggressive directions. Stacey Pullen, Claude Young, Kenny Larkin (who'd been serving in the US Air Force during the Belleville Three's ascent), Anthony 'Shake' Shakir, and Carl Craig also featured in the second wave if not, necssarily, on Rushton's album.

Craig was behind the label Planet E which along with Hardwax and Plus 8 were either modifying or streamlining the sound. Kelli Hand started to use the alias K-Hand to challenge gender stereotypes. In a scene that was highly indebted to the black and gay experience it's good to know that women, too, were welcomed. Eventually.

The apparent lack of superstar egos aided and abetted this. If you were dancing to this music you were as much of a star as those playing/making it. At least in the early days. That all changed as we know too well.

Aims noble enough for sure but Underground Resistance went further. Jeff Mills, Robert Hood, and 'Mad' Mike Banks (who'd played with Parliament in the past and, by some accounts, actually was borderline crazy) wanted change by sonic revolution. They felt mediocre audio and visual programming was stagnating the minds of Earth's inhabitants, building walls between people (what sort of nutter would propose such a thing?), and preventing world peace. They felt music and dance were the keys to the universe and called on brothers and sisters to create and transmit tones that would knock down these walls and wreak havoc on the programmers.

Counterintuitively they also sought to redress the global influence on techno and reinstate Detroit's primacy. Of course none of this worked but I admire much in their idealistic methodology and, if nothing else, they pumped out some serious bangers to illustrate their point.

Drexciya are fascinating. Where rock artists may contrive back stories to sell records or pump up their own image Drexciya wove a complex fiction that sought only to highlight historical transgressions and horrors. The Drexciyans were said to be a race of underwater dwellers that descended from pregnant slaves thrown overboard ships on transatlantic crossings.

It's a magical realist premise worthy of the very greatest historical fiction. Yet the story of techno itself is worthy of the very greatest historical fact. The ICA's may be a small show but it's one that shines a light, a strobe I like to think, on to an important musical, American, black, gay, and eventually global phenomenon. Clearly the best way to experience it is to listen to the music but it's worth an hour of your time, surely, to hear the story of those who made it and why they did.

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