It felt as if electronic music had landed from a distant planet at some point in the closing decades of the 20th century, rolling through Detroit, Chicago, Berlin and Ibiza via Dusseldorf, New York, and London. But this is only half the story – the origins of a culture that has come to define our age goes far deeper than that.
A new exhibition, based on Philharmonie de Paris’ Electro: From Kraftwerk to Daft Punk, The Design Museum version adds a whole new aesthetic layer to the history of this monster genre.
Now, using eight pieces from the show, we’re going to attempt to explain all of this to you. Easy…
1. Trautonium ELA T42 (1934)
It’s not only recently that Berlin has been at the forefront of electronica. Weimar Berlin gave rise to a lot of artistic and technological experimentation. The first Trautoniums were marketed from 1933 until 1935 (200 were made), and performances were given at the Berliner Musikhochschule Hall called “Neue Musik Berlin 1930” – which, let’s face it, could be the title of a Kraftwerk album.
2. Oramics Machine (1957)
The composer Daphne Oram (1925–2003) devoted her life to making the Oramics machine, which converted her drawn wave images into electronic sounds. She was one of the founders of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958. A true pioneer, she is probably best known as the creator of the ‘Doctor Who’ theme.
3. Minimoog (1970)
A more commercial version of The Moog, the Minimoog was a gamechanger, taking the synthesiser out of the studio and on the road. It can be heard in the work of countless 70s acts, including Stevie Wonder, ABBA, Tangerine Dream, and two acts that would move electronic music into new realms – Giorgio Moroder, and Kraftwerk.
4. Kraftwerk – ‘Autobahn’ (1974)
It cannot be underestimated how big-a-part Kraftwerk played in the development of electronic music on the world stage. “They turned what might have been a boring performance into a total sensory experience”, says Justin McGuirk, Chief Curator of The Design Museum. “The record cover graphic is kind of the gateway drug to their world”
Detroit is considered the birthplace of techno music. Initially similar to the house music of Chicago, with influences from funk and European synth pop, techno music emerged in the mid 1980s in a city hit hard by the collapse of the automobile industry. This then manifested in cities of a similar nature, particularly Manchester.
5. The Halluçienda Poster, Peter Saville (1989)
At the height of its success in the late 1980s, Factory Records’ identity and design style was internationally admired and emulated.
Factory’s tradition for using unusual techniques, high concept, and non-standard materials peaked with the record sleeve design for FAC73, New Order’s “Blue Monday”. The Saville design, inspired by a then-cutting edge floppy disc, famously cost £1.10 to make… and sold for £1 in shops. Nobody at Factory expected it to sell; it ended up going platinum in the UK.
The period of 1987–9 was called the ‘Second Summer of Love’, democratised dance culture, mixed social classes and became a liberating reaction to the economic policies of the Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. It was also the dawn of a new era of positivity and togetherness – the Cold War was ending, and a reunified Berlin was about to become an electronic mecca.
6. Ibiza Arrivals, Mark Farrow Cream, (1999)
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was passed in 1994, curbing illegal raves and free parties. Dance music started to be commoditised, with DJs and revellers finding homes at the likes of Gatecrasher, Ministry of Sound and, later on, Fabric. Cream started in Liverpool in 1992, expanding into an internationally recognised brand – the logo as recognisable as the Nike Swoosh. The late 90s was when dance music truly broke through to the mainstream, with Ibiza becoming a rite of passage for scores of teenagers.
7. ‘I’ve Never Been to Berghain’, Philip Topolovac (2018)
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Berlin has held a distinct place in electronic music culture. It became the symbolic modern capital of techno thanks to legendary nightclubs like Tresor, Watergate or the infamous Berghain, and an international community of musicians, DJs and artists making up almost one tenth of its population.
This model by Philip Topolovac captures Berghain in all its glory. Head to his site for more of his stuff.
8. Chemical Brothers: ‘Got to Keep On’ costumes, Kate Tabor (2019)
Having immersed themselves in the early ‘90s Manchester scene, Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons, alias The Chemical Brothers, were pioneers in bringing Big Beat to the masses. They have also made spectacular developments in concert staging, with the ‘live audiovisual’ allowing electronic musicians to compensate for the absence of instrumental gestures by staging multi-sensory, multi-platform, and totally immersive experiences, building on what Kraftwerk started. And the beat goes on.