bluffers guide: 808,909,303
This piece originally featured in Jockey Slut magazine as a lay man's primer to the old Japanese technology that almost all house and techno was founded on. Next stop Tomorrow's World for me....
|Techno: A Bluffer’s Guide
John McCready, The Face, 1989
TECHNO HAS turned ordinary record buyers into badly-informed technology obsessives.
Techno, in case you hadn’t noticed, has got fuck all to do with technology. The original sounds of Detroit, which spotters are still trying to carbon copy ten years down the line, was made with cheap boxes with less wires in them than the average pocket calculator. Detroit’s Derrick May, and his Gary Numan obsessed mates couldn’t afford anything else at the time. Yet over zealous fan boys insist on making simple music signifying a vague futurist agenda [little to do with the twisted disco that emerged] into an ideology.
Little wonder then that the now antiquated and outmoded equipment used by the early pioneers of techno (and house too) has become over-valued, over-priced and over-worked in back bedrooms and studios across the land.
Can’t keep up with the counter-bores at your local specialist record store? Find yourself wondering just what knobs the Chemical Brothers are twisting so furiously during those apocalyptic drum roles? Feel like a girl when the lads are talking techno-twaddle? Then read on for an instant guide to the machines they all want for Christmas.
The History Lesson
If you need a reason why you can’t have a decent conversation with any DJ who has been inside a twenty mile radius of a recording studio, then you need to speak to Roland. Not Roland with the glasses on from Grange Hill, but a Japanese electronic musical instrument manufacturer who, opening business in 1972, couldn’t have foreseen the influence it’s percussive gadgets would have on a whole genre of music. Roland’s first products were square-bear synthesisers and pianos. Sales of their cheap and cheerful Dr Rhythm Drum Machine in 1979 convinced them, however, that there was a demand for unrealistic bongs, clicks and clonks. Before the DR55, drum machines had looked like dressing tables with flashing lights and sounded like the entire contents of a knife drawer being thrown down the stairs. And you couldn’t programme them, either. Roland technology had invented the future. Oh, dear. Next stop, Depeche Mode.
If the DR55 was a rhythmic Lada, the TR 808 was recognised as a percussive Rolls Royce of its day. By the time it had really started to make its mark around 1987, it was almost a decade old and the cabaret pianist who had originally bought it had forgotten about it. It’s sad to say that despite it’s quaint charms, the 808’s familiarity has bred contempt. Although it can be heard used in an almost inspirational manner on Rhythm Is Rhythm’s ‘It Is What It Is’ and its distinctive bass drum boom is still sworn by, it never really had the punch to powerhouse like the TR 909. Still, Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ is built around it and many mid-80’s soul records would be largely empty, had it not been made available. Add to this the fact that, even now, you can’t make an electro record without sampling the endearingly crap cowbell sound, and it’s clear that the TR 808 will go down in rhythmic history.
So Where Would We Be Without The 909?
As a House Nation, probably a little bit closer to the concept of originality. The cream coloured horror box referred to as the TR 909 might have gone down in history too had a load of UK dead heads with ideas buzzing around their empty heads like lonely wasps not got their hands on this now creatively unsalvageable machine. It got off to a good start in the hands of Farley Armando, Mike Dunn and Steve Poindexter as the essential jacking box. The 909 was house music and we loved it dearly until some English berk found out you could multiply the snare drum sound until it became a kind of sonic blur, ever increasing in volume. Hey, Presto! A house DJ with the musical intelligence of a Toto fan had invented the infamous drum roll Saturday night nightmare of ever discerning dancer. Now its sad subtlety-free thump plots the course of a million double-pack remixes and, as a result of its popularity with the under-educated, should you want to buy one, you won’t get much change from a grand. Cheaper say, to sample yourself running the stick along the school railings and far more original. If you still have a 909 and are feeling a bit of a herb by now, why not, like Derrick May and Aphex Twin, pretend to your mates that you have taken the top off yours and fiddle around with it to make it sound better than everyone else’s.
The 303, Acid House, Higher States Of Consciousness And Lowest Common Denominators
The Roland TR 303, smallest and most influential box of them all, began life as a impenetrable automated bass player. Only people with heads like Bryan Eno could figure out how to work the 303. A commercial flop for Roland until...
The great Marshall Jefferson once told me that nobody in Chicago could get anything out of this silver machine so someone came up with the solution of taking the batteries out, putting them back in, switching 303 on and seeing what happened. That could explain a lot of the nonsensical, impossible genius of early acid. The batteries story is probably bollocks but, then again, pre-1987 you’d have died of shock had you heard someone strolling down the street whistling ‘Acid Tracks’. As a result of records like this the 303 became known as the acid machine. Acid, put simply, is the sound made by a constantly repeating pattern modulated with the little knobs on the top of the machine so it becomes more bassy, then extreme or squelchy and distorted. Most of the great acid records consist of a drum pattern and someone twisting these knobs round for an hour or two. Boring now, I know, but it sounded like all hell was being let loose back then. The fact that the 303 died a creative death several years back did not however stop Josh Win from making a career out of shaking his fake dreads around, hunched over a 303 treating us to the house equivalent of a sad metal guitar solo. Add to this the fact that lads with no shirts on, in the time-honoured fashion of air guitarists at rawk shows across middle America, now twist their thumbs and fingers around in mid-air during the acid sections of progressive house records, and it’s clear much damage has been done.
So Where Next Then?
The simple aims of the faceless men from Osaka to provide the drummer-less with drums; the bass-less with bass, have inadvertently provided us with a lot of great music. Even so, the great house/techno dustbin is so full of mindless nonsense, I suggest that, rather than joining in when the lads start talking Roland numbers, you should declare the conversation bollocks and start talking about Moogs and Theremins like the proper trip-hopper I know you are.
© John McCready, 1989
Citation (Harvard format)
links coming soon........