Rough Trade, Rough Trade Shops Electronic 01
There have been many attempts to compile a history of electronic music, but most are either too focused on the esoteric, academic world where electronic and computer music got its start or on providing an outlet for discarded New Wave singles. In other words, there's something missing from these historiesÑnamely, that electronic music is a big concept that cannot be fully understood without bringing both the academic and the pop sides together. And that's exactly what England's Rough Trade Shops have done on Electronic 01. This is, quite simply, Electronic Music History 101.
The best part about this compilation is that the creators make absolutely no distinction between historically important electronic innovators like John Cage, Brian Eno, and Raymond Scott, or Prog/Kraut rockers like Can, Faust, and Kraftwerk, or pop acts like New Order, Depeche Mode, and The Human League, or modern electronic noodlers like Aphex Twin, Autechre, To Rococo Rot, and Pan Sonic. Selections from each of these artists are represented here, side by side, so that we, the listeners, can get a full and complete picture of these disparate voices in the electronic world.
This merging of so many electronic camps is accomplished, in large part, by the rather interesting musical selections offered here. Which Depeche Mode track do you think they'd choose? Well, you're wrong, whatever your answer was. They chose "Big Muff," a track from the Speak & Spell album (a track only my wife and other obsessed Mode fans would know). Why choose this track, not a more familiar one? Well, perhaps this was the only track Dave Gahan would give them. Or perhaps the track represents the more musical, more "experimental" side of their work (which it does, to a degree). Either way, the track is a fun addition to this work, if only because it is less well known than everything else by the band.
Other selections, both well-known and not, seek to paint a picture of where electronic music has been and where it's going. Hence, there are familiar tracks like Autechre's "Basscadet," Kraftwerk's "The Robots," I-F's "Space Invaders are Smoking Grass," To Rococo Rot's "Cars," and everyone's favorite New Wave classic, The Normal's "Warm Leatherette," and there are not so familiar tracks like LB's "Superbad" (a sampled reworking of James Brown), Pan Sonic's "Arivo," Fennesz's "01," John Cage's "Radio Music," and Oval's "Kardamom." Each of these works represent a side of electronic music's rich history; together, they effectively destroy all the preconceptions many have about electronic music's rigidity and lack of emotional punch. Heck, if you think all electronic music is soulless, then listen to SchneiderTM vs. Kpt. Michi. Gan's "The Light 3000," a reworking of the classic Smiths song, "There is a Light that Never Goes Out," complete with a vocoded chorus, nibbly bleeps where Johnny Marr's bass would normally go, and all of the passion, joy, sadness, and beauty of the original version intact.
For me, however, this compilation is important because of one song, Raymond Scott's "Bufferin: Memories." Who is Raymond Scott? He's one of the great pioneers of electronic music, a man who spent his entire life noodling around with electrical toys he'd invented, a man who was born rich, got richer inventing things like synthesizers and samplers, and recording music for commercials. He is one of the greatest innovators of 20th century music, but no one knows who he is because he refused to show anyone his inventions for fear that someone would copy them. His tune here is, in fact, an ad for Bufferin, and it's one of the coolest things on the compilation--eerie, funny, and unnerving all at the same time. It tells the story of a man's mind, complete with sound effects to highlight both the happy times (an afternoon with his family) and the bad times (a headache). The headache is cured by Bufferin, so the bad times were almost forgotten, save for the echoes of a memory vividly brought to life in the form of eerie noise. There are fewer works of electronic music that are as exciting, as imaginative, and as inventive as this little throwaway commercial by Raymond Scott.
The Scott track, along with tracks by John Cage and other innovators, are generally ignored by mainstream music listeners, just as academics usually ignore the important contribution of Depeche Mode and Autechre toward the development of music in the 20th century. However, at least on one compilation, all of these voices can be brought together, and we can all appreciate and celebrate the many wonderful sounds that artists from all over the world have managed to create using knobs, wires, and hard drives.
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