From a formal point of view, many tracks from the seventies and eighties herald the coming of techno. Through their approach to rhythm, their use of sampling, and their industrial-mechanical imaginative world, one could already discern the extent to which the pop music of the future was heading towards rhythmic, dance, minimalist and indeed austere forms. For Mathieu Guillien, author of La Techno Minimale (Editions Aedam Musicae, 2014), certain tracks are precursors to techno because they ‘repeat themes that disappear over time’. The same energy, trance-inducing effect and ritualistic recitation of words characterize tracks by rock, electronic and disco musicians of the seventies.
Consider, for example, in Germany, the incantations of ‘Super’ (1973), composed by Neu!, or the eurhythmy of Harmonia’s ‘Veterano’ (1974)—two artists whose style of krautrock has sometimes been described as ‘motorik’—or the interweaving of guitar loops in ‘Echo Waves’ (1975) by Manuel Göttsching (followed in 1984 by his more famous ‘E2-E4’). Among their fellow Germans, one can also mention the hypnotic twenty-two minutes of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’ (1974) or the variations of ‘Zug’ (1978) by Conrad Schnitzler. The latter evokes, of course, the same railway theme that Kraftwerk used one year earlier in their legendary ‘Trans Europe Express’.
Giorgio Moroder, working in Germany and the USA, contributed even more to the popularization of this art of hypnotic rhythm, with the seventeen-minute disco-synth ‘Love to Love You Baby’ (1975), created with Donna Summer and Peter Belotte, or the epileptic eight-minute ‘Chase’(1978), written for the soundtrack of Midnight Express. ‘Tracks so drawn out’, writes Mathieu Guillien, ‘that you’re no longer sure whether you’re at the verse, the chorus, the bridge—or a mix of all three’.
At the beginning of the 1980s, in the clubs, the rhythms and tones of disco, freed from the ornaments of strings and horns that had made the genre so popular in its golden age, became more powerful, synth-based and incisive with the resolutely gay-friendly sub-genre of Hi-NRG, dominated by a handful of British and American producers: Patrick Cowley, Bobby Orlando, Harvey Fuqua, Denis LePage and Ian Levine.
Didier Lestrade, pioneer gay journalist, activist and essayist, wrote in 1991: One would think the producers of the time had calculated by computer the sounds, words and rhythms that homosexuals enjoyed. Patrick Cowley, with his ethereal intros ripped off from kraurock, his robotic pieces and his repetitive, pulsating rhythms, created a miraculous hybrid of genres. Hi-NRJ is a totally masculine disco, made to go with drugs, especially those one finds in gay milieux: poppers, mescaline, acid, angel dust, cocaine, etc. There is something in the pneumatic bass of Cowley’s famous remix of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ that strangely recalls the reverb effect of poppers, while Cowley’s drum claps sound more like whip lashes than percussion.
Italo-disco testifies to a similar evolution. Indeed, in a dynamic at once pop and dance—but even more minimalist—it places synth and drum machine melodies upfront. This short-lived Italian sub-genre, just like the big pop and synth hits of the eighties in Britain, would come to have a considerable influence on the future musicians of Detroit techno who, adolescent at the time, would discover it during private parties and would find it both exotic and futuristic.
During the same period, Black American music also fell under the spell of drum machines, the new sounds of synthesizers, and a condensed rhythmic formula. Between 1982 and 1984, hip-hop, born a decade earlier, took on the colours of a sub-genre that came to be called electro, electro-funk or freestyle (in its Latin version) via the success of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rock It’, the Jonzun Crew album Lost in Space, Time Zone’s ‘The Wildstyle’ and Cybotron’s ‘Clear’.
Electro is characterized by minimalist synth chords, the practice of scratching, the use of the vocoder, but even more by the incisive sounds of its synthetic percussion and its syncopated drum machine rhythms over which, sometimes, rappers lay down their flow. The genre draws its essence from the rhythmic élan of funk (to which it gives a radical, futurist turn) and from the sonic innovations of Kraftwerk (many of whose melodies and programmed rhythms—from, for example, ‘Trans Europe Express’, ‘Numbers’ or ‘Tour de France’—have been taken up by Black American musicians).
British production, riding the momentum of the punk revolution, shows the same form of radicalization with ‘Being Boiled’ (1978) and ‘The Dignity of Labour (1979) by the Human League, ‘Silent Command’ (1979) by Cabaret Voltaire or the album Heartbeat (1981) Chris & Cosey. These are all electro tracks with a funereal tempo, in tones of gravitas, with melodies tending to the toxic. There’s not a trace of groove in the percussion, which may evoke anxiety about the future, a Cold War atmosphere where feelings have no place, or, in the case of Chris & Cosey, the theme of desire and its perversions.
In the wake of this handful of innovative artists, British music entered the first half of the eighties in the guise of synth-pop, thanks to the advent of new, affordable synthesizers from Japan. Of the musicians who produced the greatest hits of the decade, Depeche Mode and New Order are among those who best caught the spirit of the times and embodied its immediate future. In 1981, with the release of Speak & Spell and its notable songs—‘New Life’, ‘Photographic’, ‘Nodisco’, ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’—Depeche Mode transformed the dark tones of post-punk into bright, mechanical pop. In 1983, New Order released their singles ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Confusion’ (to which one can add the Australian group Severed Heads’ ‘Dead Eyes Opened’), songs which largely abandon verse-chorus structure in favour of exploring continuous form and systematic pulse, close to the future dance music of the nineties.
Post-punk, more a vast current than a genre in itself, was not limited to its numerous hits nor, geographically, to the U.K. Indeed, during the same period the movement spread to Germany, France, Belgium and even Switzerland, a country that was host to Yello, one of the most singular groups of the era. Right from 1980 with ‘Bostisch’, followed up in 1983 with ‘I Love You’ and ‘You Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess’, Dieter Meier, Carlos Peron and Boris Blank invented a whimsical dance music, full of veiled references. A large part of its dynamic was based on the combination of Meier’s vocal alliterations and a powerful mix of percussion, timbres and sampling, resulting in a music that fascinated several generations of American producers and DJs.
The last progeny of the post-punk movement and the final sub-genre to develop before house music and techno rose to dominance in the nineties, EBM (Electronic Body Music), married the melodies and percussion of synth-pop to the abrasive sonorities of industrial music. Inspired by the latter’s themes and transgressions as well as by the nihilism of punk, the genre drew its initial impetus from Geography (1982), the first album of the Belgian group Front 242, and from the martial rhythms of the single ‘Los Niños del Parque’ (1981) by the Berlin group Liaisons Dangereuses. It was until 1986, however, that the genre really began to develop, notably in Belgium, the U.K. and North America, thanks to groups such as Nitzer Ebb, A Split Second, Skinny Puppy, Front Line Assembly and—still going strong—Front 242. The latter’s influence on the future strands of electronic music was once again evident, for example on groups like Code Industry and Final Cut (DJ Jeff Mills’ first group) in Detroit.
At the end of the 1980s, EBM had many points in common with the techno that was increasingly dominating the dance floors: predominance of synthesizers and drum machines, industrial timbres and sonorities, a taste for the mechanical and the rigid, and a remixing and dance floor culture. However, its gloom, its lingering aura of punk, its affinities with heavy metal, its stage antics and its haranguing of the audience anchored the genre in an aesthetic made definitively obsolete by the arrival, at the beginning of the 1990s, of the first classic tracks from Juan Atkins, Carl Craig, Richie Hawtin, Orbital and Aphex Twin.
Finally, to explain the essence of techno, one could say that it effected a synthesis of the music, themes and composition techniques of the seventies and eighties. Thanks to the development of electronic music-making devices and, a little later, the software that increased their possibilities, the techno DJs and producers brought together a sense of the ethereal atmosphere and melodies of the seventies, the industrial and technological imaginative world characteristic of the eighties, and the percussive techniques derived from disco (in particular the 4/4 beat, the bass drum, the sampled or synthesized claps and the hi-hats).
Shaking your body free from the bonds of the perishable, you regenerate time in the instant consumption of energy. Feel it! To a riffing synth you sculpt the air while backbeat clap and bass drum, open hat and snare, pulse your blood with syncopation. Look! White light pierces the blue, the void opens to infinity: Your hair pinned up, your long legs bare, you take me there. Marietta, this is how I love to love you, this is how you’ll remain in my memory: dancing to a drum in a circle of fire, your rapture restoring my animality.
Now there’s an acid bounce to the synth wash, an offbeat to the kick pattern. Feel it! Your arms become a shining glory of omni-dimensional moves, your pelvis a pivot for your legs and torso. Look! Red light pierces the green, the serpent enters Eden: Your hair concealing your eyes, your racerback revealing your flesh, you bite the apple and give me knowledge. Marietta, this is the pattern of repetition, this is the eternal return: This is our asylum.
Now the backbeat syncopation gives way to a steady four-on-the-floor; with exquisite sensuality you lock into the groove. Feel it! Your undulating body alternates profiles; in the pause from one to the other, you toss back your head and recover it in a caress. Look! Yellow light pierces the black, differentiating chaos into a cosmos: Your hair, flying loose as you go wild, bodies forth power. Marietta, I love your courage, I love your pride; I love the way you refuse to conform to what you are ascribed: Always you escape their ascriptions.
Now varying loops are making polyrhythms, a fabric of synths punctuated by bass and drums. As soon as you find a point of orientation, your body becomes a dynamo. Feel it! Dissolving the temporal in the eternal, you expand your being in a choreography of grace. Look! Orange light pierces the blue, the emblem of lust enters the absolute: Your hair—generous, dark, mysterious—is loose and impulsive. Marietta, as you cradle your flame, I safeguard your obscurity: You are inexhaustible, and everything is mine to learn.