The CD series ‘Welcome To The Robots’ offers a comprehensive survey of the electronic club music of the early 1980s – an era when the DJ was not a star, and computers and synthesizers were still a relatively novel phenomenon and hadn’t replaced producers. Every style of electronic music to have emerged since then builds on this original sound.
Many of these tracks came out initially on vinyl released specifically for the club scene. So any guests who got their hands on one of the rare bootlegged cassette recordings of a DJ-set were lucky indeed. Kids who identified with the New Wave, Popper, New Romantic and Blitz scenes dealt in this hot property, and saw it as definitive proof of being ‘in’ and ‘where it’s at’.
Each CD compilation is a vibrant non-stop mix. Most of the tracks featured have never before been released in digital form. In the tradition of sleeve notes, the brochure provides all the background on the music and its historical context.
The first edition of the CD series WELCOME TO THE ROBOTS holds a selection of “Electro-Pioneers” on 2 CDS. These Electro-Pioneer productions were not about verses and classical arrangements, but rather instrumental pieces with voices and samples, which were used as sound effects. Putting surreal—and oftentimes melodious—computer sounds together in danceable rhythms was the main focus of the Electro-Pioneers.
The ‘Welcome To The Robots’ slogan pays tribute to an era when electronics in the form of computers and synthesizers took club music by storm. As a rule, music is meant to speak for itself, so any written explanations may at times serve only to rob a vivid (and in my case, personal) past experience of music of all its mystery. In fact, Frank Zappa claimed that ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture’. In other words, the professional analysis I have lined up here may put a damper on trips down memory lane –but anyone with a genuine interest in background info is cordially invited to read on.
It is after all, highly likely that you bought this CD because you are interested in the history of early-80s electronic dance music, or have a clear opinion of the thousands of ’80s-hit-hybrids currently in electronics stores all over the globe. But whether you personally lived through the original era or are simply curious about the origins of the club music known today as ‘Electro’ or ‘House’ (and later, in the 90s, as ‘Techno’ or ‘Trance’), then ‘Welcome To The Robots’, although by no means exhaustive, does offer a fine spot of time travel with an astoundingly contemporary sound.
The basic idea behind the ‘Welcome To The Robots’ phenomenon and this CD is to pin down the part of the post-punk era that best captured the spirit of its music, fashion and subcultures. A special focus is the particularly striking individualism of the years 1979 to 1986: the DJ was not yet a pop star, and cliques consciously distinguished themselves from one another, by honing authentic, subtly nuanced styles.
In musical terms, ‘Welcome To The Robots’ is very specifically about electronic, club-oriented dance music and the pioneering spirit of early, essentially non-commercial music projects of the ‘Electro’, ‘Italian’, ‘New Wave’, ‘New Romantic’ or ‘Synth Pop’ variety, through to the roots of ‘Chicago House’. It is very specifically not about the hits of the day, which were either given airtime enough to drive us all up the wall, or made sheer misery of holidaymakers’ disco nights in Rimini or Lloret de Mar. The compilation is not so much a scientific survey as an anthology of quotations. The musical samples speak for themselves – there is no dogma, no ‘hidden message’, just plenty of room for surprises and excitement. Music here expresses a clear attitude to life and a confident consciousness of ‘being where it’s at’, namely on the crest of a new horizon: post ‘Disco’ and ‘Punk’, and at the forefront of ‘EBM’ (‘Electronic Body Music’), ‘Acid’, ‘Manchester Rave’, ‘Berlin Techno’ and ‘Trance’.
‘Welcome To The Robots’ is therefore not about electronic music in general – not even about those pioneering German electronic music productions the Anglo-American world mostly describes simply as ‘Krautrock’. Their undeniable influence on modern synthesizer and computer-based music can be traced probably, to the fact that a strong musical identity was lacking in Germany, after World War II. There was little happening then, apart from popular songs and classical music, and the German spirit of inventiveness was impatient to try something new. The names to be named in this respect are Karlheinz Stockhausen, first and foremost, and then everyone involved in the ‘Zodiak Arts Lab’ in Berlin (notably Conrad Schnitzler and Klaus Schulze), the bands ‘Can’, ‘Tangerine Dream’, ‘Amon Duul’, ‘NEU!’ and last but not least, two projects launched by Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Michael Rother, ‘Cluster’ and ‘Harmonia’. This scene’s experimental though not yet by any means dance- or club-oriented music had a huge influence on projects such as ‘Kraftwerk’, which in turn for example inspired ‘Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’ to do all that which ultimately assured the band fame and fortune. ‘Kraftwerk’ and ‘OMD’ in turn evidently incubated or at least deeply inspired ‘Depeche Mode’ and countless other non-classical music-making combos and projects. To trace the whole musical family tree would take too long, and so I won’t. There are better music documentaries available on the topic, in any case and, besides, all this has relatively little to do with music that speaks for itself. Yet, if only for the benefit of those who imagine electronic music was a German invention, or that the ‘electronic movement’ began in the 80s or even the 90s, I must quote the musician John Cage, who said, ‘...the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the aid of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard’. The quote dates, no, not from the 70s – but from 1937!
The concept for the ‘Welcome To The Robots’ series is very much shaped by my personal experience and my sense of that period as a ‘movement’ of which I was part. It was an era when opinions and tastes were not yet determined by Facebook and search engine algorithms. The outcome of a search for identity was, to my mind, still a much more passionate, emotional and above all, authentic affair – especially in musical terms. It was an era when the state of being permanently distracted by superfluous information and the inflationary, instant availability of all things conceivable had not yet attuned us completely to the superficial mainstream. The spirit of discovery pursued an analogue path and led necessarily to a more independent – and credibly justifiable – identification with ‘one’s own’ music. Personal tastes emerged from real world, real-life experience. Nowadays, ‘iTunes’ Genius’ and Amazon seem to know what we want to hear in the future, even before we do.
In 1983 people tended still to draw heavily on music, fashion and hairstyles to create their own distinct profile and display a clear-cut attitude to life. ‘New Wavers’, ‘New Romantics’ or ‘Blitz Kids’ felt a common bond however, for they all identified strongly with pure electronic music. It was virtually never heard on radio, nor seen on video on the German programme ‘Formel 1’ or on MTV, which at the time was still an exclusively American phenomenon. Electronic music was acquired therefore on tape, by swapping or selling cassettes on school playgrounds, in highly conspiratorial deals. Only those ‘in the know’ could reliably say what was ‘in’ or ‘out’. Accordingly, one was challenged to invest a lot of time, interest and passion in becoming ‘in’ and ‘authentic’. The rules were not something you could just download as a zip file – certainly not when it came to music. The decisive factor therefore, was multipliers in the form of people who knew everything and had everything just a little bit earlier than anyone else did. All else was condemned as ‘green’, ‘punk’ or at the least, as ‘stink normal’ or ‘deadly boring’. There was little overlap between cliques.
My current work as part of the Electro DJ duo ‘The Disco Boys’ derives more or less directly from that past. I adamantly refute the idea that the 1980s were characterized by embarrassing faux pas in music, fashion and cultural life. On the contrary, given that I knew the 80s scene like the back of my hand, and am still successfully playing the club scene today, I feel in a position to judge how the spirit of optimism and adventure in 80s electronic music has influenced today’s dance music. In commercial terms, ‘Punk’ was probably the last musical revolution, and its message was: ‘Everything was crap until now!’ Then electronics triggered a first creative wave – and ever since, we have been living in the purely retro realm. There is virtually nothing around in dance music that we haven’t heard before. Everything is a quote or a sample. Initially, the synthesizer and computer were hard to master and yet useful tools for realizing one’s own ideas. One no longer needed be a real musician, at least, and their sound was the sound of the future. Today, the pre-sets delivered by music software predetermine so much that people not only secretly imagine they might get away with pushing old and tired song ideas – turning on the radio proves they actually get away with it for real! I don’t plan to pass judgement on this development for it is, after all, partly my bread and butter. But ‘Welcome To The Robots’ is meant either to catapult the listener back into what was, in certain respects, a more happy-go-lucky, creative period, or to definitively explain its amazing affinity with contemporary club music. In any case, whether you are an 80s ‘New Waver’ or a club-goer of today, the main thing is to enjoy whatever you are listening to, without having to explain what this or that track is trying to say.
The retrospective ‘Welcome To The Robots’ compilation series is divided into various volumes focussed on specific themes. It is not a potpourri of a particular era, with a little of everything that was around at the time, but is designed instead for listening to music from way back when, volume by volume, in a whole range of situations – a night out clubbing, a special radio broadcast with the latest maxis, or the best remixes and B-sides of trendy ‘New Wave’ bands.