The women of electronic music
Words & curation by Fenner Pearson, artwork by Mick Clarke, as ever
It’s 1958, and in the depths of the BBC’s Maida Vale studios, the Radiophonic Workshop is being opened. The Studio Manager is one Daphne Oram, a fact that is almost certainly indicative of the steadfastly patriarchal BBC’s view on the future of electronic music. As it happens, though, over the next ten years, she and Delia Derbyshire — sound composer of the Doctor Who theme — will be the figures who leave the clearest imprint on the history of electronic music from this era (although we should also tip our hats to Wendy Carlos and her ‘Switched On Bach’ album). Later, when Kraftwerk first troubled the charts in 1974 with their breakthrough single ‘Autobahn’, the conservative British music press was dismissive of their synthesised sounds, deploying a casual xenophobia to put down the band and brush its music to one side.
Respect for electronic music and its possibilities would only come later via David Bowie’s ‘Low’. And that in turn led an explosion in electronic bands: Ultravox; Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark; Gary Numan; The Human League; Depeche Mode; Soft Cell; Fad Gadget; and so on and so male. And yet as Bowie’s album was making its slow but seismic changes to a relatively small audience, we should remember that it was Donna Summer’s ‘I FeelLove’ which took the dance floors by storm. Bowie alleges that when Eno first heard the track, he rushed into the studio where they were working on Heroes to announce that “This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years!”. Then, in 1979, two full years ahead of the year that synth pop unequivocally broke through into the UK charts, Blondie released ‘Heart Of Glass’, putting a new wave spin on Summer’s disco triumph. But while it would be the boys who dominated the electronic corner of the Top of the Pops studio for the early part of the eighties, an undeniably different and valuable dish was brought to the table by Alison Moyet in Yazoo and Annie Lennox in Eurythmics (both, it should be noted, songwriters within those bands).
But I’d argue that the most significant breakthrough was delivered in 1985 by none other than Tina Turner, whose cover of ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ was first and foremost a pop song and barely noted for its genre, which was clearly electronic. This was also true of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’, released later that same year, while Grace Jones effortlessly took ownership of Trevor Horn’s muscular ‘Slave To The Rhythm’. The next four tracks on the playlist follow this same model, running through Act’s‘ Absolutely Immune’, Siouxsie’s ‘Peek-A-Boo’, Claudia Brücken’s ‘Kiss Like Ether’, and Zoë’s‘ Sunshine On A Runny Day’, which all lead nicely into Suzanne Vega’s ‘99.9F°’, which seems to combine folk and electronica over a reggae-tinged groove.
We then take a break from 1993 until 2000, for me, years lost to the homogeneity of dance music. We take the leap from Björk’s joyous ‘Big Time Sensuality’ to land on Madonna’s ‘Music’, seven years later. Having worked with William Orbit to deliver a purely electronic album in the form of ‘Ray Of Light’, this lead single from its follow up makes three if not four clear nods to Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans Europa Express’. It would appear that Madonna characteristically had her finger on the pulse here, as other artists also started to look back to the dawn of electronic pop: Richard X used Tubeway Army’s ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and The Human League’s ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’ as the foundations for Sugarbabes’ ‘Freak Like Me’ and Kelis’s ‘Finest Dreams’ respectively, while Little Boots sang with Phil Oakey on her ‘Symmetry’. Which is not to say that period around the turn of the century was entirely retrospective, as demonstrated by Ms Dynamite’s breezy ‘Dy-Na-Mi-Tee’ and Goldfrapp’s irresistible ‘Strict Machine’.
I’ll take a moment here to mention two other tracks in this playlist from around this time. One is ‘Popabawa’ by Celine & Nite Wreckage, a band that include Martin Rushent, the producer of ‘Dare’, and Dave Ball from Soft Cell. The other is the wonderful Gazelle Twin whose ‘I Am Shell I Am Bone’ is representative of a branch of female electronica that I hope to explore with a subsequent playlist. And, actually, maybe Grimes’ ‘Genesis’ belongs over there, too, but it has a foot in both camps, so I’ve left it in this list.
But back to the mainstream and there has to be an argument that it was Britney Spears’ ‘Piece Of Me’ that led to the tracks I’ve included here by Purity Ring, Lorde, and Emika. (I rather think that ‘400 Lux’ is Lorde’s lost single.) All wonderful pop, all clearly electronic, not just as a backing but as an inherent part of the song. All that said, I suspect Christina and the Queens influence, if any, from this list must have been Madonna. We finish up with half a dozen tracks from the last four or five years: the sublime ‘Waterfall’ by Vök, by which I was tempted to sod chronology and use to finish the playlist; the wonderful Tiny Magnetic Pets’ ‘Here Comes The Noise (White)’; Jane Weaver’s ‘The Architect’, which surely nods to Visage’s ‘Fade To Grey’; kim ki o’s ‘Sanki Hiç Durmadi’; Jenn Vix’s ‘The Mask Of Charon’; and, a recent discovery, the lovely ‘Bought’ by Common Or Garden.
You know, I listen to a lot of electronic music, but I have to say that right now, and for the last few years, all the great pop is coming from the women.
Vive les femmes électroniques!