MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2015
WEEK 36: TECHNO
For a city with such a long and illustrious history, musically and physically Detroit in the eighties was a barren wasteland of nothingness. Ravaged by staggering levels of decay and destruction, the re-modelling of the motor industry had turned the centre into a post urban ghost town. Yet in the wealthier, executive, suburbs of greater Detroit, most families remained tied to the industry. Consequently, to the eighties generation of arty, suburban, black teenagers raised on their parents stories about the benefits of automation, technology became an omnipresent, almost mythological ideology that resonated perfectly with the robotic rigor and glacial grandeur of Kraftwerk and early electronica.
Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson were three such teenagers from the rural suburb of Belleville. Natural loners, they teamed up to explore the primitive synthesisers of the day, play records at exclusive, private parties and check out the early house records bringing down the walls of Chicago. The oldest by a year, Juan Atkins was the first to break out of Belleville, joining up with fellow college student Richard Davies to form Cybotron, a name inspired by the writings of Alvin Toffler.
Like Kraftwerk, they were intent on celebrating the romance of all things technological and urban, the intransigent link between man and machine.
In the early mid-eighties Cybotron released some of the most uncompromising, seminal electronic records to come out of America while on his next project Model 500, Juan Atkin’s chose to push the boundaries even further, pursuing a harder, faster path with a desolate motorik and indecipherable vocals. Yet while Cybotron and Model 500 were certainly innovative, they were still largely the creation of one man. The catalyst for a techno future only became a possibility when Juan Atkins reconnected with his old Belleville friends and give them the confidence they needed to do their own thing.
Juan Atkins certainly laid the foundations but it was Derrick May who designed techno’s final template. All but stripped of electro, tracks like ‘Nude Photo’ and ‘Strings Of Life’ focused on hypnotic, pulsing beats that ebbed and flowed via slow and subtle changes more akin to classical music. He also introduced the wistful string-like pads outlining minor seventh chords that became a staple of the genre, forgoing aggression for a haunting sadness that was clearly the sound of a man trying to escape the world without leaving his bedroom. That left Kevin Saunderson, the youngest and the last of the three to record. Releasing his earliest tracks under a variety of aliases, incredibly he too offered his own unique twist by hitching a dark funk sensibility to techno’s more regular chill of modernity.
In the late eighties, to the world outside the American mid-west, house was an all-encompassing term so Detroit techno was treated as nothing more than a subset. However, by the spring of 1988, techno was already challenging and outselling house’s primacy and being recognised as a distinctive genre with its own agenda. Over the next 18 months, while Detroit was vibrant and pumping, techno became even more popular on the flourishing European rave scene where a re-release of ‘Strings Of Life’ rightfully gained anthemic status.
Then, just as suddenly as it had arrived, techno’s first wave crashed and burned; Kevin Saunderson opting to ride the naff R&B gravy train with Inner City; Juan Atkins transferring his album orientated ambitions to Belgium; Derrick May giving up music making altogether, disillusioned with being ripped off at every turn. Without its mentors guiding hands techno was pushed back underground where younger, hungrier, more radicalised local producers seized the initiative. This second wave would soon be hailed as the future sound of Detroit, yet that was of little consequence to the original innovators whose moment in the spotlight had drawn to an ignominious close.
01 CYBOTRON ‘Techno City’ (A Side July 1984)
02 MODEL 500 ‘Night Drive (Thru’ Babylon) (A Side November 1985)
03 CHANNEL ONE ‘Technicolour [Radio Mix] (A Side March 1986)
04 EDDIE ‘FLASHIN’ FOWLKES ‘Goodbye Kiss’ (A Side June 1986)
05 X RAY ‘Let’s Go’ [A Mix] (A Side August 1986)
06 RHYTHIM IS RHYTHIM ‘Nude Photo’ (A Side April 1987)
07 SUBURBAN KNIGHT ‘The Groove’ [Hot Mix] (A Side June 1987)
08 BLAKE BAXTER ‘When We Used To Play’ (A Side June 1987)
09 REESE ‘Just Want Another Chance’ (A Side February 1988)
10 REESE & SANTONIO ‘Truth Of Self Evidence’ (A Side June 1988)
11 M-D-EMM ‘1666’ [Pyro Maniac Mix] (A Side October 1988)
12 K.OS FEAT. SIMIANNE ‘Definition Of Love’ [Techno Nition Mix] (A Side July 1989)
13 PSYCHE ‘Crackdown’ (A Side August 1989)
14 DIGITAL VAMP ‘You Can Take My Body’ [Vamp Dance Mix] (A Side October 1989)