Monday, 26 January 2015

Tangerine Dream: Oscillators to Full


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 mystery and beyond, and for that I am thankful 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.

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. Thus the bearded hippies were shockingly new in their day, and shockingly out-of-date just a few years later.

In the 1970s modernism ceased to be the dominant art movement. 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 straddled 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 ignores 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. 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. A band was hired only when he played live, and the same was true of Meatloaf, Cher, and nowadays of course all pop music is created with VST plugins. Lots of orchestral film scores are created in the same way. 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 wasn't synthesiser music; it was "ambient music", nobody really cared how it had been made. The UK garage and grime and electroclash of my youth were all fundamentally electronic music styles, but the medium was transparent. 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 the future dreams of my generation were far more pragmatic and perhaps more narrow than those of the primitive people of 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 to think about the future. 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 and poetry - ancient forms - had been new once. But 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, and the struggle makes us strong, but what became of the Spartans? They spent their days struggling and had no time to leave behind much of a legacy, and now all that remains is a cartoon.

A lot of synth music was rubbish; people listened to it because it was new. I imagine that some people listened to Tangerine Dream's music 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 tightening up their compositions and incorporating conventional melodies - notably Kraftwerk, who were a rotten Krautrock band but hit their stride when they discovered beats and tunes - 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.


Tangerine Dream's Hollywood high water mark was Ridley Scott's 1985 fantasy epic Legend, which starred Tom Cruise as a weedy shepherd or something and there was a unicorn and the devil was played by Tim Curry in a giant plastic suit and the set burned down and it cost a fortune and was a flop and Mia Sara looked nice in black lipstick, yes children they did have goths in 1985, and no it wasn't the one with David Bowie, that was Labyrinth. But therein lies a tale. Scott originally commissioned Jerry Goldsmith to write music for the film. The pair had worked before, on Alien. They didn't get on, but money.

At the time Goldsmith was one of Hollywood's most respected film score composers. He had been around since the 1960s, initially working in television, before graduating to movie scores; he could write orchestral music as well as anyone, but he was willing to push himself, notably with the percussion-heavy, jarring Planet of the Apes, but also the more conventional Patton, which deftly managed to express a mixture of militarism and spirituality with such aplomb that the Academy decided to give the Oscar to Love Story instead. Orchestral soundtracks fell out of fashion in the 1970s but returned with Star Wars, and whenever John Williams was too busy the studios called on Jerry Goldsmith instead, and then James Horner and John Barry respectively. Goldsmith wrote the score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was wonderful - the score was wonderful - and it had a really cool bwaaang noise, remember? He also wrote the music for Alien, which coincidentally sounded like early Tangerine Dream, sick angel strings and devil woodwind, although as far as I can tell Goldsmith and Froese never met or interacted in any way.

Alas Jerry Goldsmith wasn't good enough for the producers of Legend. The original European release of the film had Goldsmith's score, but for the American release the producers - sensing commercial disaster - had the film trimmed down, and commissioned a new score from enter stage left Tangerine Dream. The band apparently had three weeks to record it. The edited, Tangerine Dream version of the film was most prevalent on television when I was young; it's the one I grew up with.

Tangerine Dream's score is mostly atmosphere, with a couple of pop songs and one really strong romantic theme that is repeated several times. The producers wanted a "songtrack", and so they brought in Bryan Ferry and Jon Anderson to sing a couple of numbers. The music has lots of electronic pan pipe noodling, plus the very same Emulator shakuhachi sample that went on to be a cliché later in the decade, but would have been forgiveable in 1985, and to be fair Tangerine Dream don't overuse it.

Goldsmith's score, on the other hand, is conventionally orchestral, although because he kept up to date with the latest trends it has quite a lot of synthesiser as well; unfortunately he picked an irritating electronic noise as a leitmotif for the film's villains, which was supposed to be irritating but it's still irritating. In the same year he wrote the synth-heavy, contemporary music for Rambo: First Blood Part II, and he went on to score Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Air Force One, Mulan, LA Confidential, The Mummy, the list is quite literally finite, because he died in 2004. There was a ritual whereby each year the Academy would nominate him for an Oscar, and he would turn up and watch while someone else won it, and a single calcified tear flowed from his eye. Many years from now, when Leonardo DiCapro dies and goes to heaven, Jerry Goldsmith will welcome him, and they will sit and share a drink, and cry. To be fair, those films were popular and/or good, but I can't actually remember how the music went. Perhaps in his later years Jerry Goldsmith needed some money to renovate his house, or perhaps he had lots of daughters, I don't know. Daughters are expensive.

In my opinion both scores work, and if anything Tangerine Dream's music fits the material better. It's unsubtle and bold, just like the film. I pooh-pooh the band throughout this post, but their music for Legend works in the context of the film. Scott's movie was a fairy story closer in spirit to the Brothers Grimm than Tolkien; it was shot in a studio and has an unreal, deliberately fake look, and in that respect Tangerine Dream's music complements Scott's aesthetic. I don't apologise for using semi-colons so often. My heart is fine, I'm just like this. Besides, it's a very efficient way of juxtaposing two ideas quickly. "Complements Scott's aesthetic" is really clipped and aggressive, isn't it? The kind of thing a Klingon might say. (pause). Goldsmith's score, on the other hand, is surprisingly bland and anonymous.

My theory is that Goldsmith wasn't inspired by the material, and so despite having more time and an orchestra he produced something unmemorable, whereas Tangerine Dream was having a good day. I mean, we're supposed to rate Goldsmith's score, because he was a proper composer and the studio spat on his work, but I simply can't warm to it. Tangerine Dream's "unicorn theme", for example, is syrupy, sentimental, crude, simplistic, emotionally manipulative... and it's fantastic, because all of those qualities work in the context of the film (Goldsmith's score for the same sequence is just dull). I have no doubt that Jerry Goldsmith could have destroyed Tangerine Dream on any other day, in any other arena. Post-Legend the band declined into television work, I suspect because Legend was a fiasco. Ridley Scott's career basically tanked until Thelma and Louise, six years later; Mia Sara's career was obliterated just as it began. Tom Cruise immediately went on to enormous stardom, perhaps because people completely forgot that he was in Legend. I have seen the film several times and I can't remember his performance; I remember Tim Curry, I remember the sets and the music, I can't remember a single thing about Tom Cruise in Legend. Not a single line of dialogue or... I mean, wasn't Mia Sara essentially the driving force of the plot? I'm digressing here. It would be so easy for this tiny throwaway paragraph about Legend to grow so big that it eventually takes up one-quarter of the entire post, I must trim it down.

I think the fundamental problem with Tangerine Dream's soundtrack career is that Froese had no formal musical training, and like most autodidacts he was never forced to jump the groove or write an essay explaining why his last album sucked. He trained as a sculptor, and Tangerine Dream's music has an engineered quality to it, as if a sensible craftsman had set himself the task of constructing sonic collages 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 romantic classical music, and the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen continued this in heavy metal during the 1980s. I have no idea why rock musicians decided to mimic romantic classical music and not, for example, the interesting modern classical music of the twentieth century. Tangerine Dream was almost unique in that their music actually did resemble the stark, alienating sound of modern classical, but because they didn't have any conceptual depth they couldn't progress, and so their career boils down to three or four solid but disconnected ideas run into the ground. On a tangent, I've always found it strange that The Beatles - a trivial silly yeah-yeah pop band - experimented with musique concrète ("Revolution #9" and parts of the Magical Mystery Tour soundtrack) and sampling ("Tomorrow Never Knows", "Walrus", "All You Need is Love" etc), whereas supposedly more hardcore rock bands of the prog era wanted to channel Beethoven, and that was supposed to be progress. What was up with that?

~

There's 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 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, 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 mysterious, 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 popular 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 it didn't lead to anything, and so now it's just a kind of dead end. Imagine if Thomas Koner had gone on to become a dance music DJ and you have a mental portrait of Tangerine Dream's unusually binary history.

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 extensively. They didn't sell enough records to dominate the media, but 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 Edgar Froese were bearded middle-aged men who did not look good whatever clothes they wore. Human beings are shallow, visual creatures, fascinated by looks and surface, and there is something universally appealing about the young punks of the late 1970s that will live on after the supposedly more substantial work of progressive rock has gone.

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, and it was essentially the pinnacle of early Tangerine Dream. The point at which they got krautrock out of their system. 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 the barrier had closed behind him.

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 being influenced by or even working with James Brown is unthinkable, 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 very concept of 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 academic respect they had earned; and why is academic respect so important, anyway? There was nothing stopping Jean-Michel Jarre from writing at length about music. I just worry that the conventional historical narrative has 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 a voluptuous pleasure to be 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 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. Zeit is like a cancerous atom drifting through space, unimpressed with its surroundings.

Post-Zeit the Ohr label was destroyed by a mixture of drugs and lawsuits, and so Tangerine Dream signed to Britain's new Virgin label. Virgin was at least initially a progressive label for heads, but unlike Ohr it was eager to sell a lot of records. It was professionally run by Richard Branson, a normal man. Phaedra was one of the label's first dozen or so records, and reached number 15 in the UK album charts, impressive for a collection of stark electronic textures. 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 synced 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. 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 the slightly post-peak 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's drumming on the Ohr-era Atem (1973) is one of that album's high points, but the band's mid-70s albums didn't have drums, and 1980s Tangerine Dream was utterly uninterested in percussion, because the 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 those 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 clean, thin sound that hasn't dated very well. As a live band digital pattern sequencers essentially turned them into travelling light show with musical accompaniment. To be fair, a lot of the improvised 70s-heyday live stuff on their bootleg box sets is dross that sounds as if they were simply trying to cover up for broken equipment, 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. At their most extreme they were more extreme than Pink Floyd, but conversely when the two bands were down, Pink Floyd had more taste. Roger Waters had more taste. I suppose the modern equivalent would be someone like the Aphex Twin, or... is there a modern equivalent? Richard James just slowed down, he didn't start copying Sash. Remember Sash? "Ecuador"? Ask your parents. Modern bands have one advantage that Tangerine Dream didn't have, which is that 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 with age, 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 and huge chunks of the rave and electronic music I grew up with; on the whole the band let their music speak for itself, and like a firework display or a football match the music excited the spectators and then it was over. 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 rubbish; 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, tunes, sound. 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. I mean, literally, nobody has heard of him since then. The sun rises, the sun sets.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Mamiya 65mm f/3.5


Today we're going to have a look at the Mamiya 65mm f/3.5, one of the two wide-angle lenses for the Mamiya twin-lens reflex system. The other was a 55mm f/4.5 that I've never used; the focal length seems very similar to the 65mm, and it's slow, and it doesn't appeal to me.



But then again lasagne never appealed to me when I was very young, and now I... I don't love it, but I can eat it. But the point still stands; I can change. I have learned to love lasagne, perhaps in time I might learn to love the Mamiya 55mm f/4.5.



In 35mm terms, a 65mm 6x6 lens is roughly equivalent to a 35mm, but taller, and the depth of field is about a stop depthier, so imagine that it's a curiously slow 35mm f/2.8 but you don't mind because you can hand-hold at 1/15th because the shutter - which is built into the lens - just goes snick and the camera weighs 2kg and you have to cradle it in your hands as if... which is good form if you ever have to lift things, because you're supposed to keep objects within your centre of gravity, and this is also why women don't have wombs on top of their heads - pregnant women would be unable to escape from predators because they would tip over, because their centre of gravity would be all over the place. Good job, evolution!



Mamiya TLRs have bellows focus, so the 65mm is actually a kind of 35mm f/2.8 Macro, because it can reproduce bugs and things at or near life size. This is surprisingly addictive:



The 65mm f/3.5 was one of the first lenses for the Mamiya TLR system. It was launched in the early 1960s, and originally had a shutter speed range that topped out at 1/400; mine is a slightly later model that goes up to 1/500. The lenses were overhauled at the end of the 1960s and given updated bodies - the levers on my model resemble something from the pre-war years - and as far as I can tell production continued right up until the mid-1990s.

Perspective makes the TLR seem vast compared to the already-quite-chunky Pentax Spotmatic; the C3 is metal but mostly hollow, the biggest problem is finding a comfortable way to carry it.

The TLR range was discontinued in 1994, by which time it was an anachronism but still popular, because it was the cheapest way to get good-quality medium format with several lenses and macro. Popular Photography had a short requiem for the camera in its October 1994 issue:

Put another way, the C330 remained in production right up until Take That's "Everything Changes". I find it hard to imagine those two things coexisting. As the article points out, 645 was popular at the time, but if you wanted professional 6x6 the other options were either expensive (Bronica SQ) or astronomically expensive (Hasselblad). Or the Kiev/Pentacon models, if you were handy with a spanner.


Charlotte Colbert's "In and Out of Space", which is really good and appears to have been shot on 5x4

On a personal level I love 6x6. The square frame size forces you to think about composition; if you shoot square as you would shoot standard 35mm, you end up with pictures that seem to be empty at the top. Square format fell out of favour in the 1990s, and ironically it is now such a cliché of Instagram that it is in danger of falling out of favour again, although I still love it. Damn the rest of the world.



Back once again with the renegade master

I never understood what he was singing. "Back once again with the renegade master / D4 damage with the ill behaviour", was it a reference to the four-sided dice in role-playing games? Well, dammit, I need to know. Let's do some research (checks Discogs, YouTube). The track samples "One For the Trouble", a 1994 hip-hop tune by ADOR. ADOR was actually a man called Eddie Castellanos, and ADOR stood for either Another Dimension of Rhythm or A Declaration Of Revolution presumably depending on how high he was. The lyrics of "One for the Trouble" go "back once again with the ill behave-ya, can you feel it / nothin' can save ya / 'cos the A for Allah / D for Damager / O for Outta Here / R for the Renegade / Master". Which spells out ADOR. Later on he wishes for power to the people. Now I can finally die, my mind is at rest.

The Mamiya TLR lens range majored on short telephotos, because it was aimed at wedding and portrait photographers. This is unfortunate nowadays - the telephotos are too specialised unless you really do plan to take lots of portraits with your TLR, which you'll probably only do once in a blue moon. With 6x6 I find that 65mm is basically a perfect walkabout lens, although the format is such that even 80mm feels a little bit wide. One for the trouble, two for hard times.




The focal length and aperture work against the typical medium / large format "3D look" - it's still there, but subtler

I used Fuji Superia. It was a cold day, and my lens had a peculiar thing where the shutter sounded as if it wasn't working properly, but in practice it was, perhaps because it was starting to gum up. My lens is half a century old, and probably hasn't been serviced ever. Despite this the speeds all seem accurate enough. Seiko obviously knew how to make shutters.




And that's the 65mm. You really have to want to carry around 2kg of camera; a Yashica Mat is much lighter and, by coincidence, a Holga has the same focal length, although you need a Mamiya TLR if you want 6x6 medium format and fine control and wideangle without spending a fortune.

Apropos of nothing, the actor and multi-talented modern cultural icon John Malkovich has recreated a bunch of classic portrait photographs, and yes you can see his bottom. The exhibition is called "Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich", and malkovich malkovich, malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich. Malkovich malkovich malkovich, malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich. Malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich-malkovich multipass malkovich.



Malkovich malkovich malkovich malkovich.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Diana: Rand


Let's do this. Let's do this. Sunshine and showers. Sunshine and showers. "There's a bit of magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out". Lou Reed wasn't a sentimental man, but he wasn't relentlessly downbeat either; he understood that life is complicated and multi-hued. He was driven by anger, arrogance, disappointment, he was an elitist, and he was a gigantic asshole. In fact if you search Google for "lou reed is an asshole" with quotes, you get 29 results, and only a couple of them are duplicates. "lou reed was an asshole" returns about ten more. In contrast there are no results for "david attenborough is an asshole" and only seven for "adolf hitler was an asshole", so basically Lou Reed was four times more of an asshole than Hitler. Google proves it.

"Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I'll piss on 'em / your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death". Some popular artists have an overwhelming urge to be loved by the public, but others imagine themselves standing atop a high mountain pissing on everybody beneath them, because if you're really good at something most people aren't as good as you; and there comes a point when you come to detest the laziness and stupidity of the common man. Some artists try to mask this, they put on a mask and pretend to be your friend, which if anything makes them even bigger assholes. Lou Reed's asshole wasn't hidden behind a mask. It was right there, in the middle of his face. His naked asshole.


Today we're going to have a look at Diana, except that mine isn't a Diana, it's a Rand. There were lots of different names. Anny, Diana, Clicker, Lina, Revue, Panax, Rand, loads. Why Rand? Diana emerged from Hong Kong in the 1960s and perhaps someone in Hong Kong had read about the RAND Corporation, and perhaps they hoped that Robert McNamara would buy millions of them so that he could take photographs of ICBM installations with them, because it was called Rand.


Eighteen million years ago I wrote about the Holga, a hipster camera that was popular with hipsters in the 1990s. The Holga is essentially a simplified clone of the Diana. In the 1970s the market for roll-film cameras in the West-o-sphere died out, and the Diana gradually faded away, but the people behind the Holga were convinced that they could sell a cheaper clone in the Far East and Asian markets.

As it turned out they underestimated the appeal of 35mm and Instamatic, but within a few years the Holga was adopted by hipsters in the West and it became an unlikely success but that's another story, frankie teardrop bedside manner.

Unlike the Holga, The Diana's viewfinder is mounted centrally, and it has three aperture settings instead of just one. Modern Holgas have a tripod mount and a second aperture. The Diana's film loading is awkward, with little flip-down tabs; the film has to be shoved underneath the top plate, whereas the Holga is a lot simpler to load.

The same hipsters were fans of the Diana as well, but the Diana was only available on the second-hand market, where prices were high because most of the cameras had been thrown away. They were novelty toys. Here's an article from the April 1982 Popular Photography in which a hipster - in New York, natural home of hipsters - uses his Diana to persuade people including women to take off their clothes:

Howard Chapnick died in 1996. Page eleven of the magazine has a short feature on David Em, a computer graphics pioneer of the 1970s.

Gary Schoichet has a website that was last updated ten years ago. Judging by his portraits he had no style, no skill or artistic vision, no ideas, and it appears he knew this; he gravitated to the public sector, photographing uncontroversial groups of boring people marching in support of public jobs. There are no petrol bombs in his photographs, no blood or corpses, no AK-47s. The celebrities all wear clothes. There are no naked supermodels being devoured by crocodiles, and even on a technical level they're just boring.

He sought out easy subjects and photographed them in the most basic way. Just like me, but he was GARY SCHOICHET: PHOTOGRAPHER whereas I am just a man. He was photographer-as-camera-operator, the kind of photographer who was uninterested in photography, the visual arts, uninterested in people or life or anything, the worst kind of photographer. The more I think about him the more I hate him.

Presumably there were lots of Diana hipsters in the 1980s and 1990s, SX-70 hipsters, PixelVision hipsters, but history doesn't remember their works because they operated in the pre-internet period, and are lost. In the days of Sonic Youth, when Andy Warhol was still alive, the Diana and plastic cameras like it were a cliché of the New York arts scene, just as images of ruined Detroit are a cliché today.

Which means that thirty years later I am performing a ritual that no longer has any meaning, that does not summon spirits any more. See, some artists are just no good, so they try and find a gimmick that sets them apart, but they aren't alone, and eventually other artists use the same gimmick and it becomes obvious that it's a gimmick, at which point the grants dry up and the conversations grind to a halt and the invitations stop coming. If you whip out your Diana in sophisticated company in 2015 people will just groan and ignore you. Women will most definitely not offer to take off their clothes for you, and believe me I've tried. It's not 1983 any more, or 1973, or 1993. Or even 2013, because that was two years ago.

It's 2014.

2015.



Here's a demonstration of SHRDLU, a vintage block-stacking AI, which has nothing to do with the rest of this post except that I like blocks:


It's odd that something so cutting-edge should look like a relic of the 1920s. And it's scary to think that 1925 is as far away from 1970 as 1970 is from today. "I don't understand which pyramid you mean" was the future once.

The Diana uses 120 rollfilm, but shoots a 4x4cm negative rather than the more standard 6x6. 4x4 is the same format as 127, and I wonder if it was originally designed for 127, but they chose 120 because it was more popular. It reminds me of the Italian Bencini Koroll that I wrote about a while back, although the Koroll was made of solid metal and has a better lens.

The Diana takes sixteen shots a roll, and judging by the box you were expected to contact print the negatives:


In which case the simple plastic lens wasn't so much of a problem. The lens is decently sharp in the middle but distorted around the edges, with less vignetting than the Holga, presumably because the frame size is smaller. The Holga wasn't really designed for 6x6 anyway, the classic Holga look comes from using the camera without the internal mask.

The shot of the baby is optimistic. The camera only focuses down to four feet, and is no good in low light. The single shutter speed is anything from 1/60-1/100 depending on your camera, the apertures are f/11 - f/16 - f/22. My tip - shoot with HP5 wide open all the time and go outdoors. The women in the following photograph are mocking my penis, I can tell.



The blurry edges and sharp middle approximate the look of professional large and medium format photography, which must have been seductive in the 1980s because large format cameras were very expensive. The Holga's look is more extreme, however, and the Diana feels a bit Holga-lite, and so I didn't really warm to it. And professional medium format cameras are a lot more affordable nowadays, because film is dead, and they give you more control (although they're much heavier than the Diana).

Holga / Shanghai GP3

Mamiya C3 / 65mm f/3.5 / Portra 400

You know, I'm hyped up for the New Horizons probe. It's a spaceship. SPACESHIP! And it's going to Pluto! And it's almost there. I imagine it moving into orbit around Pluto, and Pluto will just tell it to buzz off because if you're not going to let me be a planet then to hell with you.

Meanwhile NASA's Messenger probe has spent the last three years orbiting Mercury- only the second probe to visit that planet, and the first flew past it only briefly - and does anybody care? While the world eggs on Opportunity and waits to see whether New Horizons will find an alien artefact or a hyperspace portal, nobody cares about Messenger, even though it has sent back tonnes of pictures and spends half its time being blasted by the searing heat of the sun. "A good probe like they wanted"

It's probably wondering why it shouldn't just fire the thrusters and slam itself into Mercury. Or dive into the sun or something. It's too professional for that. Instead it will circle Mercury until... well, it's not going to run out of solar power, so perhaps it'll circle Mercury until long after the human race has died out, at which point it will charge up its batteries and drift off to explore the universe, having long forgotten the people that built it, just as we forgot it.

Edit: And just four months after writing that paragraph NASA did let Messenger slam into Mercury. I didn't realise at the time; I was thinking of the Apollo 12 LM, which was deliberately crashed into the moon as part of a seismic experiment. Messenger's propellant had run out so NASA let it crash. It saw things you wouldn't believe; traces of magnesium in Mercury's exosphere, heat that would kill a man in an instant. All those moments, transmitted to Earth like leaves on the solar wind. Time to die.


Friday, 9 January 2015

Agfa Vista 200


Today we're going to have a look at Agfa Vista Plus 200. It's a cheap film often sold in pound shops, where it costs a pound. Everything is a pound in pound shops. That's why they're called pound shops.

Yeah but shouldn't they be called half-a-kilogram shops because of the EU that joke wasn't funny the first time shut up die die die.

Not long ago Britain's eBay sellers cottoned on to the fact that they could buy entire boxes of the stuff from the local pound shop and sell it on eBay for two pounds a roll. And so it's quite possible that your local pound shop has a blank empty space where there was once some Agfa Vista, briefly, at 08:29, when the store opened.



The same people would probably have a hoard of .22 ammunition in their basement if they were allowed to buy .22 ammunition, which they are not because this is the UK, where you need a special permit which they do not have because they don't own their own lodgings and are thus not in a position to mount a secure ammunition storage box on a load-bearing inside wall.


Agfa went bust over a decade ago, and so I have always assumed that Vista Plus is another film put in Agfa boxes. Why bother? Does the Agfa brand still mean something in continental Europe? I have no idea.


A long time ago pound shop film tended to be Ferrania Solaris, which I tried a few times and liked; it was grainy but warm. Ferrania gave up on the film business a while back. Nowadays the other pound shop film is Kodak Colourplus, which I don't like at all. The colours tend to be washed-out, with purple shadows.

Vista, on the other hand, is really nice. My hunch is that it's Fuji Superia or something else by Fuji. It scans with a slightly green cast, which is a Fuji thing. The edge codes are Fuji-esque. I'm picking Fuji, diamond gel.

In my experience Fuji's print films have nice vivid colour with occasionally over-the-top greens and blues, otherwise it's neutral enough and has little enough grain that you can scan and Photoshop to your taste. For the most part I set the black level from the film border, which is handy for getting rid of colour casts, and then use "auto contrast" to spread out the rest of the levels.



It's a 200-speed film usually available in 24-shot rolls. My hunch, and I haven't tried this, is that you could shoot at ISO 100 and ISO 400 and process the results to look decent.

Last month I went off to Marrakech, and I took a roll of Agfa Vista just for the hell of it. In the end I appear to have loaded it in the Ben Youssef Madrasa and then finished it off at the Majorelle Gardens. With my half-frame Olympus Pen FT I got 48 shots a roll. I tried to photograph things that were all different colours (Marrakech is mostly the same shade as Half-Life 2 - sand, pink, beige and cyan-gray-blue).



The Majorelle Gardens are tiny, you can walk briskly around them in less than a couple of minutes. But they're a welcome cooling break from the sensory assault of Marrakech, and one of the few places you can get shade without attracting attention.

If you go outside and turn right and go to the end of the block and cross the road there's a semi-defunct shopping mall with a supermarket in the basement. Acima. If you're parched or hungry, it sells lemonade, fruit, and Pringles etc, and masses of tea, falling casual impact copier thin chair bidet frame.




So, Agfa Vista. It's really nice, currently the definitive British pound shop film. And to be fair to the eBay sellers it's only a pound if you have access to the pound shop, ideally if you can walk to it. You only get 24 shots, which means cheaper processing BUT you shoot more film BUT with half-frame that's less of a problem. So, yay for Agfa Vista and yay for half-frame and nay for Windows Vista, which was naff.