The sun rises, the sun sets, and when it rises again some of us have gone. We go on. Edgar Froese has died. He was 70. He was the driving force behind Tangerine Dream, a rock band about which it is difficult to write because every facet of their being is totally at variance with the modern world.
Froese was a big, burly, bearded German man who kept the money coming in; Tangerine Dream was essentially his family business, literally so in its later days. Some people choose to spend their lives making shoes, or selling cuts of meat; Edgar Froese chose to create vast oceans of sound, and latterly weak synthesiser pop, and then muzak, and then he died. As time goes on Tangerine Dream's career will be forgotten backwards, starting with their most recent work and ending with some of their earliest, which will linger in the collective memory for a while longer. There's a lot to be said for dying young.
Tangerine Dream's latter-day music was no good, but it acted as a gateway drug for their earlier stuff, and adventuresome listeners such as you and I progressed beyond Tangerine Dream to the music of Can and Amon Duul and thence into the realms of awesome mystery and beyond, and for that I am thankful that Tangerine Dream existed.
This is an awesome photograph. Monika Froese was an avid photographer and seems to have had a camera in her hand all the time.
"Before Eno, before Ultravox, before Eurythmics, there was Tangerine Dream", according to a feature in the July 1986 edition of Spin magazine. Here in the UK the stereotype is that is mainstream America never got electronic music, and although some of the most influential modern electronic music came from the United States, Mr and Mrs America were unaware of it. With the exception of Moby, rave was almost exclusively European, and while America was giving us Garth Brooks and Hootie and the Blowfish we had LTJ Bukem and Aphex Twin, there was no contest.
Electronic music has been around ever since the introduction of magnetic tape and oscillators in the early part of the 20th century, but it wasn't until the 1960s that electronic music started to impinge on the popular consciousness, and it wasn't until Bob Moog's Minimoog of 1970 that musicians had a compact, keyboard synthesiser that they could take on tour.
Along with Leo Fender, Bob Moog was was a non-musician who became a pivotal figure in popular music; he lived to see his inventions used in surprising and unexpected ways, and we are all his children now. At first synthesisers were advertised as electronic instruments that could duplicate the sounds of an orchestra, and so Wendy Carlos took this idea and created Switched-On Bach, an album of Bach tunes laboriously multi-tracked with a monophonic modular Moog. But the cold electronic sound of the synthesiser had a stark beauty which excited the imagination of progressive musicians, who used their synthesisers as launchpads into outer space or portals into the far future. Inspired by 2001 and drugs and the anything-goes attitude of the 1970s, these young men - they were mostly young men - these young, middle class Europeans from wealthy families gave fey, withdrawn science fiction fans something to listen to during those periods when Pink Floyd did not have an album out.
Edgar Froese was born in 1944 in a part of Germany that now belongs to Russia, on account of the late unpleasantness between those two countries. German kids of the 1960s were not on the whole nostalgic for the 1940s, and Froese's generation wanted to build a new world in the wreckage of the old. From my point of view the problem with Froese's generation is that they built a new world that immediately collapsed, and was replaced by a newer world built by the punks a few years later, who were in turn absorbed by the postmodernists; and so the hippie communes and space-rockers and roots rockers and blues rockers and proto-new age cultists of the 1970s were like a dose of drain unblocker, they broke through the blockage but were washed away when the pipe became unblocked. That's an evocative metaphor. As a consequence Tangerine Dream's generation puts me in mind of Cassius, who killed Caligula and was sentenced to death for it, even though everybody wanted Caligula dead; he was useful in war but could not survive in peace.
In the 1970s modernism ceased to be the dominant art movement, and it increasingly came to be seen as a sad sick joke, because the future it anticipated did not materialise. Progressive rock and Krautrock were fundamentally modernist art movements, and perhaps because of this they fell out of fashion within a few years and became ridiculous in the wake of punk; the sheer sonic majesty of Krautrock eventually fell back into fashion, although progressive rock has not yet followed it, and probably never will. Tangerine Dream stradded the two worlds uneasily. Although the likes of Can and Faust are nowadays mentionable in polite company, Tangerine Dream has not yet been rehabilitated. The band suffers from being too successful and well-known to champion as a forgotten underdog (Julian Cope's Krautrocksampler mostly ignored them), yet too obscure to have aroused the attention of the general public. The band charted and most music fans know the name, indeed I suspect that a lot of the mainstream only knows the name but none of the music. It's a good name, instantly recognisable, presumably borrowed from the 1967 psychedelic album by Kaleidoscope. Why Tangerine Dream? My hunch is that people in the 1960s were dazzled by tangerines, because rationing was still around and they had never seen tangerines before, and of course they didn't have colours back then, but you can't call a band just "Tangerine", and "Tangerine Cream" sounds silly and besides which there was already a band called Cream next paragraph NEXT PARAGRAPH
In the 1970s there existed musicians whose unique selling point was that they used synthesisers, and there was an audience sufficiently intrigued with this new electronic sound to put synthesiser music in the charts. The likes of Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk bridged the gap, sales-wise, between a cult and a fully-fledged religion, but of course synthesisers eventually became so common that synthesiser music as a distinct genre died off. I remember being shocked, as a kid, to learn that the newest Bryan Adams album had been mostly created with drum machines and samplers. Bryan Adams of "Everything I Do" fame, not Ryan Adams. Bryan Adams' music was conventional guitar pop, but the guitars and drums and the rest of the arrangements were actually sequenced and performed with samplers, with a band hired only when he played live; the same was true of Meatloaf, Cher, and nowadays of course all pop music is created with synthesisers. I knew then - this would have been the 1990s - that synthesiser music was dead. If even Bryan Adams relied on synthesisers, they were no longer special.
I want to draw a distinction between synthesiser music - the synthesiser music of the 1970s - and later musical movements that relied on electronic instruments and indeed used them exclusively. Ambient music of the 1990s was entirely synthesiser and sample-based, but it was not synthesiser music; it was "ambient music". The UK garage and grime and electroclash of my youth were all fundamentally electronic music styles, but the audience didn't really care how they were made. The musicians might have been proud of their dual G4 Power Macintoshes and Nord Leads and multi-monitor Ableton setups and their stash of antique MC-202s and Juno 106s, but nobody listened to the music simply because it had been created with electronic instruments. People listened to the music because it had a good beat and it sounded good in the car and you could code to it etc.
And some of it sounded new and different and unlike all that had preceded it, but as I have written before the future dreams of my generation were far more pragmatic and perhaps more narrow than those of the primitive people from the 1970s, who really did believe that humanity was about to break through into a new age. Instead, my generation believed that aliens were going to breed us like cattle, except that we didn't really believe it, it was just a joke; and post-9/11 it was hard to entertain dreams about the future any more. It was best not think about the future and instead concentrate on the here and now. My generation lived for today, bought more shoes, got what we deserved.
You know, there was a time when googling for "you are the generation that bought more shoes and you get what you deserve" might have thrown up something good about that song. An article or blog post about it. Instead there are thousands of robo-generated shopping links and uploads of the song to file sharing sites like Soundcloud. Back when I worked as a writer it struck me that the internet would be the death of writing; but on further reflection it came to me that writing had always been engaged in a process of death and rebirth, and that the thing I thought of as writing was merely the tail end of the previous dominant form, and that even novels had been new once. Even so, it will be a bleak future when the internet is dominated by the likes of Imgur, which isn't even a primary aggregator. It's an aggregator of an aggregator, with a comments section deliberately designed to stifle expression by limiting commentary to a few characters. Writing has always had to struggle, writers have always had to struggle, everybody has to struggle, all of life is a struggle against a hostile environment.
A lot of synth music was rubbish; people listened to it because it was different. No doubt some people listened to Tangerine Dream without really liking it; they listened to it because the music had whizzy space noises and you couldn't get 2001 on VHS because VHS didn't exist yet and if you wanted to journey into space in the privacy of your own bedroom you didn't have many options in the 1970s beyond smoking a joint and listening to Rubycon. The first generation of synthesiser musicians generally solved the problem of technological irrelevance by incorporating elements of synthpop - notably Kraftwerk, who were a rotten Krautrock band but became one of the biggest influences on early hip-hop and electro - or by transitioning to film soundtracks, which was Tangerine Dream's solution. As a soundtrack band they benefited from great timing, which is a polite way of saying that they had a very limited range. Within that range their music was effective but it has to be said that both Vangelis and Jan Hammer trounced them; outside their narrow range they had neither musical training nor much of a desire to stretch their sound. And yet their adaptation of Thomas Tallis' "Puer Narus Est Norbis" for the soundtrack of The Keep is astonishing and unlike the rest of their work, so they could push themselves when they wanted. Irritatingly, The Keep had never a proper release, and the film soundtrack has a more aggressive mix than the various bootleg releases.
I think the fundamental problem with Tangerine Dream is that Froese was essentially a non-musician, like Bob Moog. He trained as a sculptor, and Tangerine Dream's music has an academic quality to it, as if a sensible craftsman had set himself the task of constructing a sonic collage from technology and a pool of musical ideas. The synthesiser and progressive rock boom of the 1970s coincided with a period in which it was fashionable for musicians to adopt elements of European classical music, and the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen continued this in heavy metal during the 1980s, but in general this has dated extremely badly; Tangerine Dream largely avoided it, because their music wasn't conventionally melodic and they weren't trying to show off their classical musical knowledge (they had none), but the frustrating thing is that the band might really have benefited from some conventional musical training. Throughout their catalogue there's a dearth of melody and rhythmic novelty, their later music is all chords, and tunes that simply follow the chords. On a musical level Tangerine Dream's sound has something of Richard Wagner about it, in that it's technically complex but, boiled down to its essence, musically quite simple. But Wagner used his music to illustrate stories, whereas for Tangerine Dream the music was the sole focus.
There is a pervasive whiteness to mid-1970s synthesiser music that is very much of its time. Tangerine Dream's music is almost stereotypically white person's music, stiff and cold and grandiose, so that even though the band avoided classical stylings the very form of their sound has a classical air. The mid-70s line-up of Edgar Froese, Christopher Franke and Peter Baumann could be used as a teaching aid for non-white people in order to point out the characteristics of the white race; Froese was burly verging on overweight, Franke had stringy hair and looked as if he spent his days asleep and his nights playing Dungeons and Dragons, Peter Baumann was a stealth geek who was conventionally handsome in an effeminate way, which is creepy because you have to wonder why such a pretty man was hanging around with geeks. Was he mentally ill? Tangerine Dream's music was technically interesting and emotionless, and was aimed squarely at young white men, although the band's enveloping, formless soundscapes had a feminine quality; Phaedra and Zeit and so forth are amorphous swamps of sound, and in that respect they are aural expressions of the classical stereotype of women as chaotic, clinging harpies whose bottomless vaginas consume the innocent flesh of young virgins. I'm not sure if a feminist reading of Tangerine Dream's music is the right way of approaching the problem of writing about the band, although I suspect it would be an entertaining journey. Phaedra was of course an adulteress who, in order to conceal her adultery, was prepared to condemn an innocent man to death. It might be that the band simply picked the name at random because it sounded spacey, but come on (rolls eyes).
Notice how the photographs - taken by a woman - are divided into masculine squares. HAVE BEEN divided, deliberately.
Yes, but what of Tangerine Dream? Their legacy rests on a string of albums they released in the 1970s, running roughly from 1974's Phaedra to 1977's live double album Encore, although the cut-off is gradual. Debut album Electronic Meditation is a mess; their next three albums were recorded for German experimental label Ohr, and have an ambient sound that predates Brian Eno's ambient albums by several years. 1971's Zeit, in particular, is a double album of menacing drones, the kind of thing that might play on the tannoy of Hell's airport. It's difficult to write about Tangerine Dream's early music. It's formless and there are no lyrics and because no-one else has written about it I'm not sure what opinion I am supposed to have of it, and I'm not willing to be the first. I'm worried that I might say something embarrassing that will cause me to be disbarred from all the literary luncheons that I go to.
I want to stress that I'm not a fan of Tangerine Dream, oh God no. I ponder the band as an entomologist might ponder an extinct species of proto-cockroach. I grew up listening to the most fashionable music imaginable, and Tangerine Dream's music sounds... it sounds like something that was daring and new once, but that didn't lead to anything, and so now it's just a kind of dead end.
Think of all the people who won the Turner Prize before 1993, before Brit Art got into gear. You've heard of Gilbert and George, but what about Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon? What of their work? It just doesn't mean anything today because there isn't a framework to give it meaning. We all know Damien Hirst, even if we know none of his art, but who was Tony Cragg? The same is true of Tangerine Dream's music. The music of The Beatles has meaning, because there is a framework; there are books about The Beatles, we are all familiar with their story, there are films about them, their albums are still rated, they are still written about. Tangerine Dream, on the other hand, were never written about. They didn't sell enough records to dominate the media, and even huge record sales are not enough to guarantee the existence of a meaningful framework. The Electric Light Orchestra sold a huge amount of records during Tangerine Dream's heyday, but they are just as meaningless today; beyond "Wild West Hero" and the notion that they were loud and pompous, nothing remains. In contrast people still write about Richard Hell and the regulars of New York's CBGB club, because those things have a framework of meaning (and perhaps it's simply because they were good-looking and looked good in timeless leather jackets, whereas Jeff Lynne and indeed Edgar Froese were bearded middle-aged men who did not look good whatever clothes they wore).
Zeit is one of my favourite albums. It's bleak and alien, even compared to the ambient music of the 1990s. It's uncompromisingly dedicated to its concept, to the exclusion of commercial considerations, and was essentially the pinnacle of early Tangerine Dream. The point at which that particular tide reached its high point. The synthesiser musicians of the 1970s used some of the same technology, worked in the same field, and were occasionally indistinguishable from the high art of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, but there was a solid metal barrier separating them. Jean-Michel Jarre studied at the Conservatoire de Paris and was briefly a member of the GRM. He had an electronic opera performed at the Paris Opera, and until 1973 or so was in theory on their side of the barrier; but he rejected theory in favour of practice, and by the time of his international breakthrough with Oxygene he was no longer part of their gang.
There is an irony here; the music theorists of the mid-century produced a lot of ideas that died with them, whereas popular music of the 1960s and 1970s had a measurable and direct influence on music that followed it - not just popular music, but modern classical music, because the barrier between high and low art evaporated with postmodernism. Put another way, the idea of Stockhausen drawing influence from his contemporary James Brown seems absurd, because with the exception of jazz, black music was despised as trivial folk art during the modernist period. Nowadays however modern classical musicians metaphorically crave black cock; they are gagging for it, desperate to be associated with hip-hop, and the idea that there is even such a thing as modern classical music increasingly seems out of step with prevailing fashion. Again, this is another instance where the subject has a framework of meaning. John Cage was a terrific writer who worked hard to explain his ideas, and I don't want to suggest that I believe the likes of Klaus Schulze or Ash Ra Temple were cruelly deprived of the respect they had earned. I just worry that the conventional historical narrative had blind spots, that's all.
The band remains influential to this day
On a superficial level Zeit resembles modernist classical music. It comes across as an experiment to be admired and pondered rather than enjoyed, a collection of static blocks of sound to be gazed upon as if they were exhibits in a gallery. On the other hand it has no theoretical substance, and it has a number of compromises (part three almost has a melody) that disqualify it from consideration as a work of serious art. The band wanted to fill a double album with drones, and they did so; then they moved on. Nonetheless I love it, and there's nothing quite like it. Brian Eno's ambient music was supposed to be soothing, and the ambient musicians of the 1990s were compromised by their desire to sell a lot of records, and "illbiet" music is too affected. The Ohr label was destroyed by a mixture of drugs and lawsuits, and Tangerine Dream then signed to Britain's new Virgin label. Virgin was at least initially a progressive label for heads, but unlike Ohr it was prepared nay eager to sell a lot of records. It was professionally run by Richard Branson, a normal man. Phaedra was the label's thirteenth album, and reached number 15 in the UK album charts, striking for a collection of instrumental electronic tunes. Their next album, Rubycon, reached number twelve, and the band continued to chart until the mid-1980s.
Phaedra introduced Tangerine Dream's new sound. You know it already. A sequencer playing a simple dum-dum-dum pattern put through a delay line synched so that the sequence goes dum-dum-a-dum-a-dum-a-dum, with swooshy noises on top. Interspersed with formless jams so that the band could set up their instruments. Judging by bootlegs Tangerine Dream bought a sequencer some time in 1974 and quickly incorporated it into their live show. In those days sequencers could generally play a single, 16-step pattern; it wasn't until the 1980s that microprocessor-controlled, pattern-based sequencers became available, and as a consequence sequencing was awkward in the 1970s and of limited utility. Tangerine Dream quickly hit upon a neat way of using the sequencer to create an evolving rhythm track, and this new sound became known as the "Berlin School".
The sound became a cliché because it was so limited - it's hard to build an entire genre on a single technical trick - and in fact the band essentially took it as far as it could go on Phaedra, and everything after that was a mixture of refinement and laziness. Rubycon is a smoother, more polished repeat of Phaedra, and from that point onwards the sequencer sound started to become repetitive. Nonetheless the band was firing on all cylinders at this point, and the run of Phaedra-Rubycon-Ricochet-Encore and the soundtrack for Sorcerer forms the bulk of their legacy. Although Phaedra was the big hit my experience of ordinary people is that they tend to have Stratosfear or Force Majeure in their record collections; two albums that had a mixture of majestic spacey ambient music and relatively conventional tunes. By Tangram (1980) the band was starting to churn out muzak, although again the cut-off is difficult to place. The likes of White Eagle and Logos (both 1982) suffer from terrible early-80s drum machines and a very dated sound. Chris Franke was apparently a competent drummer, and his drumming on 1973's Atem is one of that album's high points; the band's mid-70s albums didn't have drums, and for whatever reason it seems that 1980s Tangerine Dream was utterly uninterested in percussion, because they albums have perfunctory four-four drum machine patterns that sound like temporary tracks. Tangerine Dream did not dance.
At its best, Tangerine Dream's music was a mixture of brittle beauty and brute force, but the new digital synthesisers of the 1980s tended to undermine both of these qualities, and although the band had solid practical reasons for abandoning their unreliable Mellotrons and Moog Modulars it's as if they were enamoured of the theory of digital sound without pausing to listen to it critically. Their early-1980s albums have a thin, clean sound that sounds weak and hasn't dated very well. As a live band the digital sequencers of the 1980s essentially turned them into travelling light show with musical accompaniment. To be fair, a lot of the 70s-heyday live stuff on their bootleg box sets is dross that sounds as if they were simply trying to fill time, and on the whole Tangerine Dream are a frustrating band. They were one of several experimental bands of the late 1960s, early 1970s that successfully managed to update and mutate their sound while remaining distinctive - Pink Floyd were probably the most successful - and they had a longer run than most, but by the 1980s they had lost their way. I suppose the modern equivalent would be someone like the Aphex Twin, or... is there a modern equivalent? Modern bands have one advantage that Tangerine Dream didn't have. They got to see Tangerine Dream grow old, whereas Tangerine Dream had no role models to copy. In the worlds of jazz and classical music composers typically get better as they grow old, not worse, perhaps Froese and his chums assumed that the same would happen to them.
What will history make of Tangerine Dream? Their early music resembles the cosmic soundscapes of 2001, and the band has always been ghettoised as a nerdy act for sci-fi nerds. Lester Bangs wrote a piece about them, but he was more interested in their light show rather than the music. And what is there to say about Alpha Centauri, or their landmark gigs at the Royal Albert Hall in 1975 or their concert at Reims cathedral in 1974, which ended with hundreds of stoned hippies emptying their bladders against the stonework? Beyond the drama of peeing in a cathedral what is there to say about music that was mostly a formless wash, without even any musical theory behind it? Eno understood that people crave meaning, and so he accompanied his tape loops and drones with exposition, and rock music writers lapped it up. Tangerine Dream have the same problem as Autechre, Squarepusher, huge chunks of the rave and electronic music I grew up with; on the whole the band let their music speak for itself. Their album art was abstract and their song titles were essentially Engrish, or Englisch given that they were German. "Fly and Collision of Comas Sola", "Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmares" - did they mean "assembly"? - "Rising Runner Missed by Endless Sender" all have the form of English sentences but the style is wrong.
"Runner" was one of the band's few vocal songs, from the 1978 album Cyclone, which was a conventional hard rock album with drums and singing. I don't know why they did that. The lyrics... I mean, 1978 was late for a German prog rock album with a long instrumental track on the second side. Yes, 1980s heavy metal had room for long instrumental songs, but Froese never had the chops for 1980s metal. If we're being honest, dear reader, he wasn't a very good guitar player. Live bootlegs of the 1970s are full of his guitar solos, but he was just filling space; the solos sound like StSander's "Shreds" videos.
History, Tangerine Dream. Jean-Michel Jarre sold many more records than Tangerine Dream, and was generally pegged as a lightweight in comparison. He suffered from the same mixture of meaninglessness and critical indifference, which is faintly tragic given that he had a genuine academic background and might have been able to supply meaning if he had been so inclined, and he is now in the same position as... but the same is true of Elton John and Paul McCartney, isn't it? Remove their private lives and they would be forgotten men. Nobody listens to their new music. Perhaps it's not so much that Froese and his ilk failed to give the historians something to write about, it's simply that writers and the media in general aren't interested in music. Writers are interested in the music industry, or the private lives of musicians, but not music. For writers, music is just a noise that happens in the background while they are typing away on their keyboards, just as I am currently listening to Tetsu Inoue's Yolo, or if not listening to it then at least playing it in the background.
Yolo probably means something else in Japanese, you can't blame him for that. Inoue's last album was released in 2007, and he seems to have vanished since then, or perhaps he assumed his final form. The sun rises, the sun sets.