Electronic music is music that employs electronic musical instruments, digital instruments and circuitry-based music technology. Pure electronic instruments do not have vibrating strings, hammers, or other sound-producing mechanisms. Devices such as the theremin, synthesizer, and computer can produce electronic sounds.
In the 1960s, live electronics were pioneered in America and Europe, Japanese electronic musical instruments began having an impact on the music industry, and Jamaican dub music emerged as a form of popular electronic music. In the early 1970s, the monophonic Minimoog synthesizer and Japanese drum machines helped popularize synthesized electronic music. In the 1970s, electronic music began having a significant influence on popular music, with the adoption of polyphonic synthesizers, electronic drums, drum machines, and turntables, through the emergence of genres such as disco, krautrock, new wave, synth-pop, hip hop and EDM. In the 1980s, electronic music became more dominant in popular music, with a greater reliance on synthesizers, and the adoption of programmable drum machines such as the Roland TR-808 and bass synthesizers such as the TB-303.
Electronically produced music became prevalent in the popular domain by the 1990s, because of the advent of affordable music technology. Contemporary electronic music includes many varieties and ranges from experimental art music to popular forms such as electronic dance music.
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Links To Peel
Propelled forward by technological innovations, electronic music continued to offer Peel “stuff I haven't heard before”, while falling equipment prices and lower technical barriers opened the field to outsiders without conventional musical skills, challenging the perceived domination of “white boys with guitars”. Phil Oakey of Human League recalled:
“We were laughing at the bands that learned to play guitars, because they bothered learning three chords. We didn't even do that. We used one finger.”
Although electronic sounds sometimes provoked opposition from critics as not “real music”, Peel was happy to put "machine music" up against more standard fare, including electronic cover versions of rock and roll classics by Silicon Teens and outlandish interpretations of 'I Left My Heart In San Francisco' by artists on the Ralph label of the Residents. The 2000 Festive Fifty featured 'The Light 3000', a futuristic re-imagining of the Smiths' 'There Is a Light That Never Goes Out' by German electronic combination Schneider TM vs KPT.Michi.Gan.
After the DJ's death, the Channel 4 documentary John Peel's Record Box revealed that his most-treasured singles included 'Aquarius / Chinook' by Boards Of Canada (also a Peelenium 1998 choice) and 'O Superman / Walk The Dog' by Laurie Anderson.
From the very start of his British DJ career, Peel played records which included elements of electronic music. Some groups who emerged in the mid-1960s, like the Yardbirds and the Who, utilised "unmusical" sounds created by amplified instruments, such as feedback and distortion, in their work, while the Beatles' records increasingly exploited the possibilities of the recording studio on tracks such as 'Tomorrow Never Knows' and 'Strawberry Fields Forever', eventually producing a purely electronic composition, 'Revolution No. 9', on their 1968 "White Album", The Beatles.
Of the artists Peel featured on the Perfumed Garden and on his early BBC shows, the Velvet Underground, Mothers of Invention and Pink Floyd were all influenced by developments in electronic music in the classical music world, which had been gathering momentum in the 1950s and 1960s. His 1967 favourite Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds has been seen as one of the first electronic pop albums, thanks to the contributions of Paul Beaver and Mort Garson. Other groups such as White Noise (who included Delia Derbyshire from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and the United States Of America made more extensive use of electronics, using early synthesisers and similar instruments in place of conventional guitars, keyboards or orchestras. Peel sometimes played them on Night Ride, alongside pieces by "serious" electronic composers such as Terry Riley, Tod Dockstader, Les Structures Sonores Lasry-Baschet and Morton Subotnick.
By the early 1970s electronic composers and avant-garde pop musicians were aware of each other's work. Peel had mentioned Karlheinz Stockhausen on the Perfumed Garden, as one of the the famous people selected by the Beatles for the cover of the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band LP. Stockhausen also inspired many krautrock artists such as Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk. German and other European bands like these sometimes used exclusively electronic instruments, and Peel was enthusiastic enough to encourage the movement by playing their records on his shows.
There was little comparable British music heard on Top Gear, apart from the work of Ron Geesin, while American music on Peel's shows in this period was generally played on conventional instruments, with exceptions including Beaver and Krause (who recorded a Guide To Electronic Music for Elektra's subsidiary label Nonesuch, issued in 1968, before making two LPs for Atlantic) and Tonto's Expanding Head Band. But in the meantime, synthesisers and other electronic instruments, such as the mellotron, were becoming cheaper and easier to obtain. They began to be featured not just in the line-ups of avant-garde influenced groups like Roxy Music but were also widely used by keyboard players in progressive rock bands, not always to Peel's taste; he was critical of the showmanship and (for him) extravagant displays of technique by musicians such as Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Rick Wakeman of Yes. However, synthesisers were used in many other pop styles, from commercial pop singles to disco and jazz-rock, as well as playing a role in the elaborate studio productions typical of the era. By the mid-'70s, electronic sounds had become part of mainstream pop.
Meanwhile, in Jamaica, the development of dub reggae from the late 1960s, with producers such as King Tubby and Lee Perry utilizing the studio as an instrument for remixing and effects, would continue to influence artists played by Peel across a wide range of genres in later decades.
While punk stuck largely to basic guitar-based lineups, with electronic alternatives such as Suicide given a rough reception by UK live audiences, the overturning of the musical old guard opened up a space in which different types of electronic music were heard more often on Peel's show, helped by the unexpected commercial breakthrough of session veteran Gary Numan in 1979. Even at the height of punk, Peel session bands such as Ultravox were introducing more electronic elements into a rock format, influenced by earlier German outfits, while the “Berlin” albums of David Bowie and Eno provided an icy European template for post-punk session bands such as Magazine, Simple Minds and Joy Division. Early incarnations of outfits such as Echo & The Bunnymen and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark deployed drum machines for live performances.
The DJ was keen to support independent labels that focused on electronic music, such as Industrial, Mute and Some Bizzare, including leftfield offerings from the likes of Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten and Cabaret Voltaire. In the UK national charts, a string of former Peel session artists followed Numan to success with variations of post-Kraftwerk synthpop, such as Blancmange, Black, China Crisis, Depeche Mode, Heaven 17, Human League, OMD, Ultravox and Yazoo. Over in continental Europe, electronic body music (EBM) often came with a darker edge, from session outfits including DAF (Germany) and Front 242 (Belgium). On Top Of The Pops, Peel found himself introducing unlikely former session artists given high-end 80s production makeovers, including Dead Or Alive and Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Pump Up The Volume
Incorporating elements from New York dance music, New Order pointed a new way forward for UK electronic music and the Peel radio show with the release of 'Blue Monday', which reached #1 in the 1983 Festive Fifty. The DJ also gave extensive airtime to the studio skills of dub producer Adrian Sherwood, who mixed the sounds of Jamaica, New York, and post-punk Britain to create “atmospheres that vary from the liberating … to the claustrophobic,” with groupings such as Tackhead and African Head Charge.
Meanwhile, U.S. innovations from hip-hop, techno and house proved increasingly influential as a wide range of electronic dance music found a regular home on Peel's programmes. In a Peel listeners' annual poll dominated by the disbanded Smiths, M/A/R/R/S reached #46 in the 1987 Festive Fifty with national chart smash 'Pump Up The Volume', released on indie label 4AD. The 1988 Peelenium would later include pioneering acid house track 'Stakker Humanoid' by Humanoid, who recorded a session.
Despite official moves against music "characterised by a succession of repetitive beats,” signs of changing times on the Peel show included sessions and Festive Fifty entries for 808 State, A Guy Called Gerald, Coldcut, Future Sound Of London and Orbital, alongside more abstract electronic offerings from artists such as Aphex Twin and Orb, early outings from future chart acts including Daft Punk, Moby and Underworld, “electronic dub” by outfits such as Dreadzone and Zion Train, as well as Strange Fruit sessions compilations of artists on Nation Records (Loop Guru, Transglobal Underground) and Planet Dog (Banco De Gaia, Eat Static), plus blasts of drum and bass, jungle and related sub-genres emerging in the UK in the wake of pioneering session artists such as Ragga Twins. Peel's wife Sheila later described the work of Luke Vibert (aka Wagon Christ, etc) as the DJ's big introduction to dance music in the 1990s.
Other developments included shows from Tribal Gathering events, annual trips to the Sonar festival in Barcelona, live Maida Vale sessions by DJs including Jeff Mills, Richie Hawtin and Si Begg, DMC World DJ Championships UK finalists specials, sample-heavy exclusives from Cowcube and Cuban Boys, and an outbreak of happy hardcore. Guitar-based session bands such as Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine even received dance remixes from producer Andrew Weatherall (Sabres Of Paradise, Two Lone Swordsmen), while Peel show regulars Stereolab revived vintage electronic sounds from the krautrock of an earlier era and grindcore label Earache Records signed "extreme techno" outfit Ultraviolence, who recorded a session. In 1996, the DJ included Archive One by "baron of techno" Dave Clarke in an all-time Top 20 Albums list for The Guardian.
In June 1998, the lineup of the Meltdown festival curated by Peel featured electronic music artists spanning the decades of his radio shows, from 60s pioneers Silver Apples (playing with members of Blur), American punk duo Suicide and a live special of artists on the Warp electronic dance label to sets from upcoming outfits such as Adventures In Stereo, Add N To (X), Propellerheads and XOL DOG 400. On 08 October 1998, a special live techno DJ night was arranged at Maida Vale to celebrate 100 releases on Berlin's Tresor label.
The following year, the 24 March 1999 show featured highlights of a Digital Hardcore label night at Queen Elizabeth Hall with live Peel sessions from artists including Atari Teenage Riot, mixing punk vocals and noise music with electronic genres such as breakbeat, techno, and drum and bass.
Cutting-edge club music continued to be part of the varied menu of electronica Peel offered his listeners into the 21st century, despite his frequent claim that he was “not a dancing man” himself. In 2002, the FabricLive.07 mix album of music from his live sets included electronic dance tracks from Elementz Of Noise, Sinthetix, Smith & Selway and Marc Smith vs Safe 'n' Sound, alongside the Fall and Undertones.
Elsewhere, best-selling rock band Radiohead started picking up surprise Peel plays after their music took a more experimental electronic turn with the release of Kid A (2000). Meanwhile, rolling back the years, electronic pop icons Gary Numan and Pet Shop Boys each recorded an unexpected late-period Peel session, in 2001 and 2002, respectively.
Away from the mainstream, Peel was an early fan of grime and also dubstep, later championed by Mary Anne Hobbs, including airtime for white labels from producers such as Digital Mystikz and Kode9. In sharp contrast, the haunted movie ballroom of The Shining provided an imaginary setting for eerie early releases by Caretaker. The DJ also delighted in the unpredictable "mashcore" of Shitmat.
The 2003 Festive Fifty, the last of the DJ's lifetime, featured at #8 'John Peel (Not Enough)', a plea from CLSM for more radio presenters to follow the example of the "beyond adventurous" Radio One veteran and play hard dance tracks of more than 150 beats per minute.
- Made In Sheffield: The Birth Of Electronic Pop
- Synth Britannia
- Record Boxes: Brian Eno
- Electronic: Alternative dance supergroup formed by New Order singer and guitarist Bernard Sumner and ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.
- Wikipedia: Electronic Music
- Wikipedia: Electronica
- Wikipedia: List of electronic music genres
- FACT: The greatest electronic albums of the 1950s and 1960s
- 1977 TV Synthesizer Special: YouTube compilation of UK electronic chart hits of 1977 from Top Of The Pops, featuring Jean Michel Jarre, Space, Donna Summer, etc
- Synth Britannia (BBC TV doc), via YouTube: TV documentary on emergence of electronic music in the UK until the mid-1980s.
- Punp Up The Volume, via YouTube: TV documentary series on the development of House and Techno, from Chicago and Detroit to Britain and Europe.
- treblezine.com: The Top 50 Electronic Albums of the ’90s
- Pitchfork: The 50 Best IDM Albums of All Time
- ↑ A frequent refrain of Peel was that he was “interested in hearing stuff I've not heard before" (see Diesel-U-Music Awards).
- ↑ Peel first bemoaned the dominance of “white boys with guitars,” to the exclusion of other types of music in the annual Festive Fifty, on 28 December 1988.
- ↑ After the original 'O Superman' entered both the 1981 Festive Fifty and 1982 Festive Fifty, a remixed version reached #28 in the 2004 Festive Fifty.
- ↑ In May 1969, Beatles guitarist George Harrison released "Electronic Sound," an experimental solo LP created on his newly acquired Moog synthesizer. Long after the band's dissolution, Paul McCartney experimented with synthesizers and other electronic sounds on the "McCartney II" album (1980) and the later Firemen project with Youth from Killing Joke.
- ↑ The mellotron became popular with groups such as the Moody Blues, King Crimson and Barclay James Harvest. It was also featured on David Bowie's single "Space Oddity", played by Rick Wakeman on the recording session.
- ↑ See related Guardian article. Peel was a huge fan of dub pioneer Lee Perry, describing him as the Kenny Dalglish of reggae. In the 2011 BBC TV documentary 'Reggae Britannia', Dennis Bovell made the unexpected choice of 'Third Stone From The Sun' from the 1967 debut LP of Peel session artist Jimi Hendrix as the first track he heard that used dub.
- ↑ Billy Currie of Ultravox later played with Tubeway Army on Old Grey Whistle Test and on early Gary Numan solo material.
- ↑ Established Peel session artists who later came to embrace electronic sounds include musicians from Wire and Bill Nelson of Be Bop Deluxe.
- ↑ Session band Sisters Of Mercy took the reverse route, switching to lineups without a human drummer after their first single.
- ↑ Early experimental recordings by Cabaret Voltaire were first released on the Industrial Records cassette 1974-1976 (1980), then later on the triple album CD set Methodology '74/'78: The Attic Tapes (Mute 2002).
- ↑ At the hands of tech-savvy producers Stock, Aitken & Waterman (also Kylie Minogue, etc), and Trevor Horn (ABC, Art Of Noise), respectively. Elsewhere, electronic disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder (Donna Summer) worked with Peel-played artists including Blondie, David Bowie and Human League.
- ↑ John Peel: ‘Hubble, bubble dub on the double’ Observer, 1988-11-20, accessed via Guardian and Observer Digital Archive.
- ↑ Ken Garner notes: "Increasing numbers of sessions in the late 1980s were based on drum machines, sequences and sampling, with acts effectively remixing from their pre-programmed digital tracks." (The Peel Sessions, p133).
- ↑ As noted by Sheila Ravenscroft in Z is for... Zion Train.
- ↑ See her introduction to the John Peel Archive video W is for... Wagon Christ.
- ↑ Former session musicians Norman Cook (Housemartins) and Bill Drummond (Big In Japan) broke into the national charts after electronic dance makeovers, with Fatboy Slim and KLF respectively, as did revamped long-time session bands including Shamen, Happy Mondays and the Farm, as well as Everything But The Girl. Elsewhere, Tom Withers of hardcore punk outfit the Stupids became drum and bass producer and DJ Klute.
- ↑ Mick Harris of Earache mainstays Napalm Death had already turned to electronic sounds with Peel session band Scorn (2).
- ↑ Bernard Sumner discusses writing the song with equipment found in Cargo Studio in Synth Britainnia (via YouTube) (from around 27.35), after the synth he built at home from a kit failed to work.
- ↑ See Glossary: D.
- ↑ Different versions of the track reached #33 in the 2005 Festive Fifty and #1 in the 2014 Festive Fifty. Similarly, Listen With Sarah used Peel samples for "Another Nice Mix," which reached #13 in the 2005 Festive Fifty. Among other tributes, Tangerine Dream founder and electronic music pioneer Edgar Froese released the track 'Machu Picchu' in 2012 (see band page).