Culture  /  Origin Story

Machine Soul

A history of techno.

In the late '60s, there was a concerted attempt to create a distinctively German popular music. Liberated by the influence of Fluxus (LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad were frequent visitors to Germany during this period) and Anglo-American psychedelia, groups like Can and Amon Düül began to sing in German --the first step in countering pop's Anglo-American centrism. Another element in the mix was particularly European: electronic composers like Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen, who, like Fluxus, continued Russolo's fascination with the use of nonmusical instruments.

Classically trained, Hütter and Schneider avoided the excesses of their contemporaries, along with the guitar/bass/drums format. Their early records are full of long, moody electronic pieces, using noise and industrial elements --music being indivisible from everyday sounds. Allied to this was a strong sense of presentation (the group logo for their first three records was a traffic cone) which was part of a general move toward control over every aspect of the music and image-making process: in 1973-74, the group built their own studio in Düsseldorf, Kling Klang.

At the same time, Kraftwerk bought a Moog synthesizer, which enabled them to harness their long electronic pieces to a drum machine. The first fruit of this was "Autobahn," a 22-minute motorway journey, from the noises of a car starting up to the hum of cooling machinery. In 1975, an edited version of "Autobahn" was a top 10 hit. It wasn't the first synth hit --that honor belongs to Gershon Kingsley's hissing "Popcorn," performed by studio group Hot Butter-- but it wasn't a pure novelty either.

The breakthrough came with 1977's Trans-Europe Express: again, the concentration on speed, travel, pan-Europeanism. The album's center is the 13-minute sequence that simulates a rail journey: the click-clack of metal wheels on metal rails, the rise and fade of a whistle as the train passes, the creaking of coach bodies, the final screech of metal on metal as the train stops. If this wasn't astounding enough, 1978's Man Machine further developed ideas of an international language, of the synthesis between man and machine.

The influence of these two records --and 1981's Computer World, with its concentration on emerging computer technology --was immense. In England, a new generation of synth groups emerged from the entrails of punk: Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, the Normal all began as brutalist noise groups, for whom entropy and destruction were as important a part of technology as progress, but all of them were moving toward industrial dance rhythms by 1976-79.

The idea of electronic dance music was in the air from 1977 on. Released as disco 12" records in the U.S., cuts like "Trans-Europe Express" and "The Robots" coincided with Giorgio Moroder's electronic productions for Donna Summer, especially "I Feel Love." This in turn had a huge influence on Patrick Cowley's late '70s productions for Sylvester: synth cuts like "You Make Me Feel Mighty Real" and "Stars" were the start of gay disco. Before he died in 1982, Cowley made his own synthetic disco record, the dystopian "Mind Warp."