The Black Library
100Cyborgs: 21-30


Drum MachineAlmost all human music is made by cyborgs – from the pipes and drums of the Stone Age to electronic music today, the compositions we are engaging with are facilitated, created, and distributed through technological networks. Techno was among the first genres of music to arise specifically from digital computer technology, and as with most twentieth century innovations in music, it grew out of Black urban culture. The Belleville Three pioneered a new Detroit sound that they described as “like George Clinton and Kraftwerk were stuck in an elevator.” Along with the house and electro styles it inspired, techno spread thanks to the inexpensive music robots like the the Roland TR-808 programmable drum machine that opened the door to a more intimate relationship between musician and machine.

Techno and its brethren grew in power in part because the British rave scene, fuelled by widespread availability of the illegal drug Ecstasy, made it the centre of their culture. As a teenager in the 1980s, I loathed the roughshod electronic dance music that seemed inescapable on the club scene that I felt honour bound to attend each week. But nostalgia wins you over eventually, and now I remember fondly what was once an audio ordeal, no doubt helped by an ever growing love for electronic music that began with The Orb’s Little Fluffy Clouds and never ended. Like my love for electronica, Techno never went away: it is now so ubiquitous on the Balearic island of Ibiza that people complain about the scene having been diluted to the point of being “over-exposed.”

To ask about the cybervirtue of Techno is to enquire about the positive and negative effects of the network of beings and things it connects. And what a network! Detroit musicians, a Japanese electronics company, British ravers, illegal European drugs labs, radio stations (both legitimate and pirate), media corporations, privately owned clubs, DJ’s with lifelong careers and vast collections of vinyl records... Techno has fostered a global network that successfully brings communities together. If those groups of people are less tightly knit than churches in preceding centuries, they still share with these older communities a striving for authentic communal experience and a desire for transcendence.

There are dark corners, too – deaths from misused or mismanufactured Ecstasy, brains burned out on too much of a good thing, people reduced to ‘living for the weekender’ – yet compared to any other cybernetic network of this scale, the negative impact is rather less than tabloid sensationalism would have you believe. The Techno cyborgs created something that has lasted because the good outweighs the bad, and the music ultimately means more than the drug-taking it attracted. Considering my teenage animosity for this bastard child of Parliament-Funkadelic and kosmiche (itself born of the musician-computer cyborg), I find today I hold Techno in great respect for what it achieved outside of the strictures of governments and corporations.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #35


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the gatherings were one thing but just listening to that stuff in the car or the like seems like another.

It was indeed timely to see an analysis of Techno, and by extension the whole acid house phenomenon, from your good self Chris. Thirty years on from the apocryphal birth of rave, and its continuing influence on culture certainly still bears some consideration. I might draw attention to the fact that 1988 wasn’t really the starting point of house music club culture, having been born again on the dance floors of Manchester in the late 1980’s I can attest to the fact that many parts of the world were shaking to that alien beat some time before the UK style magazines codified and packaged it up. But 88 was certainly the year that gave it its shape as a bona fide youth movement; one worthy of questions in parliament and legislation to curb the fun. This might be a handy place to start trying to tease out some philosophical elements lurking in the strobe lights.

Acid House’s great success and the key to it’s appeal lay in the ancient ritual of collective celebration. Coming out of a decade of selfish individualism, where greed was exulted and ideas of community were being eroded, acid house provided the perfect answer to this withered way of being. In Nietzschean terms, the Dionysian urges were let loose, tapping into a tradition going back to the dawn of time, from harvest festivals to the wild, hypnotic ecstasy of carnival. I think Barbara Ehrenreich describes that story beautifully in ‘Dancing in the streets’, though she stops short of rave culture, her observations hold true for acid house culture.

Which segues nicely into another question the birth of rave throws up. The late great Anthony Wilson held a very Hegelian (or perhaps Kuhnian) view, that youth cultures worked in cycles, with a new musical revolutions sweeping away the old ways every decade or so. Rock n roll in the late 1950’s, the flower power movement of the late 1960’s, Punk in the 70’s and acid house in the 80’s, these neat motors of history replace the old paradigms, to create new modes and new situations. Empirical evidence since 1988, suggests he was wrong, though elegantly so. Sadly, the motors of history are clogged with the messy gunk of reality. Each new musical revolution is in fact reliant on its own lineage and the breaks from the past are by no means clean or even that revolutionary. Rock n Roll could be characterized as capitalism co-opting the blues, and punk was in many ways a conservative cry to return to the roots of Rock n roll, it was only when musicians saw the potential for carefree experimentation that it became interesting, post punk as it were. That involved a cross fertilization of punk, reggae and disco. Disco being the root of acid house. Nothing is neat, King Tubby, Sly and Robbie, Stockhausen and the New York Dolls, Arthur Russell and Larry Levan, one punky reggae disco party.

The thing that is interesting about these moments of change, is the use or misuse of emerging technologies, that accompany them, from the electric guitar to the space echo, it's the application of tools that changes the possibilities of the situation, and its by no means a predictable process. The birth of acid house, and by that I don’t mean the machine approximation to disco, but the endlessly weird, alien sounds of Acid Trax or Detroit techno, is a perfect example of the confluence of chance and drugs. History, is not a neat set of events, though many things can be predicted, and subsequently understood, unforeseen happenings and staggering leaps of imagination can send history spiraling into a bewildering web of possibilities. The fact that Dj Pierre and Spanky got hold of a cheap bass line machine and misused it to such great effect, is what produced a radical new art form. If they had never done so, or had been more proficient in its use, then perhaps we wouldn’t be discussing this now? Certainly all the elements existed before, and electronic dance music was not new either, but it was the chance combination of a mood enhancing narcotic and an abused piece of machinery that made the magic. Every time a new piece of software or modular synth comes on the market, you can hear the kids teasing the wonder hidden within them. Instructions manuals belong in the bin. The chaos continues.

At the beginning of our machine age, just before we were all turfed out of work by algorithms, these innovators were combining with machines to make truly human expressions of our animal selves. As we blunder into the 21st century convinced of our similarity to computers we might take time to pause and analyze that relationship again. Chris, you have been delving into this with great insight over the years and I think that Techno, rave, electronica or whatever you want to call it, is the perfect example of cyber conviviality (to quote Ivan Illich), machines used to enhance our world, machines used, not as they were designed, but as repurposed tools for communal expressions of joy.

Hey dmf,
Thanks for another weird and wonderful link! You certainly have your fingers in some interesting internet pies!


Hey Justin,
"Every time a new piece of software or modular synth comes on the market, you can hear the kids teasing the wonder hidden within them. Instructions manuals belong in the bin. The chaos continues."
This is such a wonderful reflection on this topic, many thanks for stopping by and writing such a lengthy comment, Justin! I had put this into the list of pieces to write about a while back, in part as a result of conversations we had had previously, and writing it was particularly satisfying since so many of these A Hundred Cyborgs pieces end up downbeat, and this one (if you'll excuse the pun) danced around the issues more joyously.

I'm wary of being too positive about the details about the electronic music scene, but at the same time I do find Illich's conviviality amongst this network of beings and things, and think it a context where we can still find some hope in our relationship with robots.

Hope life is treating you well, and vice versa,


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