History of Electronic Music Since 1970

One of the major innovations in music since the late 20th century has been the advent of a new type of music, called “electronic music”. Electronic music developed parallel to other genres of music in the past, especially rock and hip hop, but had a much smaller impact before the 1970s.

Over time, with further advances in technology (especially computer software), electronic music has been slowly dominating many aspects of modern music and proving somewhat ubiquitous in the modern music scene. Though not necessarily in direct competition with other types of music, it has proven itself as a genre worthy of great acclaim and lucrative potential.

By definition, electronic music is “music that requires knowledge or use of electronic devices that produce or manipulate sound during its composition and performance.” (Funk & Wagnalls).

Although electronic music had its first significant origins in the musique concrete created in Paris back in the 1940s, its techniques found implementation in popular music in the 1970s. (Funk & Wagnalls)

One of the technological advances that contributed to the consequential growth of electronic music’s popularity in the 1970s was the Mini-Moog synthesizer created by Robert Moog. “Bob Moog didn’t invent the instrument, his Minimoog wasn’t even his first creation or the most powerful. But the Minimoog found its way into the studio, where session players wanted a compact synth to use on dates.” (NewsBay Media LLC).

Four of the most significant electronic artists of the 1970s were Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, and King Tubby. Each of these artists laid the foundation for later electronic music artists.

One of the four, the German band Kraftwerk, was one of the most significant artists in the history of electronic music. They “established the blueprint followed by an extraordinary number of artists in the decades to come.” (Ankeny, Allmusic). Their music was described as “robot pop” and was produced solely by electronic means. They made heavy use of the aforementioned Moog synthesizer and their major works include their albums “Autobahn” and “Trans-Europe Express”. Their influence can be felt in every proceeding electronic artist. (Ankeny, Allmusic)

The next major electronic artist of the 1970s was Brian Eno. Eno took inspiration from minimalist painting and applied it to music lessons taken while at Colchester Institute. (Walker Art Center). He first became a notable musician as the synthesizer player for Roxy Music and went on to become a pioneer of many experimental musical styles, including – most notably – ambient and generative music (music that is created by a system and is ever-changing, natural, or man-made). He was a pioneer in almost every major electronic style and his collaborations include such notable artists as David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2, and Coldplay. (Walker Art Center)

Tangerine Dream were early practitioners of “krautrock”, which is a mixture of rock and electronic music that developed in Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Their first two periods of music can be divided into the “Pink Years” and the “Virgin Years”. The “Pink Years” helped develop the before mentioned “krautrock”, and the “Virgin Years” helped define what became known as the Berlin School of Electronic Music. This later period, as well as their consecutive albums, helped create “electronic dance music” and “new wave” music. (Answers)

King Tubby is cited as the inventor of the remix and has received wide acclaim for his innovative studio work as a mixing engineer. Through his work producing and reengineering ska, rocksteady, and reggae tracks, he helped to create the style known as dub, which is the early antecedent of dubstep. Originally from Kingston, Jamaica – King Tubby started as a repairman for sound systems but found his niche when he started working as a disk cutter at Treasure Isle studio. (Green, Allmusic) “It was here that he started deconstructing and reconstructing music in the same way as he had sound systems, but these early efforts were really remixes, an already old skill in Jamaica.” (Green, Allmusic)

The 80s went on to prove an even more dynamic decade for electronic music. Synthpop came into prominence with artists such as New Order, house music saw its prototypical inklings with the work of Frankie Knuckles, the early hip hop sounds appeared in the early eighties with Africa Bambaataa, and electronic pop came into fruition with Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys. “Rising from the ashes of the legendary British post-punk unit Joy Division, the enigmatic New Order triumphed over tragedy to emerge as one of the most influential and acclaimed bands of the 1980s,” (Ankeny, Allmusic). The origins of New Order date back to 1976 when guitarist Bernard Sumner and bassist Peter Hook recruited singer Ian Curtis and drummer Stephen Morris and started the band Joy Division. Joy Division released the landmark debut album “Unknown Pleasure” in 1979, but Ian Curtis hung himself before they finished their sophomore effort. New Order debuted in 1981 with the single “Ceremony,” which was initially composed for use by Joy Division, and issued a subsequent LP named “Movement”. New Order went on to create a hybrid of both new wave and dance music, thus creating synth-pop. (Ankeny, Allmusic)

“Nobody can agree on who invented the blues or birthed rock & roll, but there is no question that house music came from Frankie Knuckles.” (Matos, Rolling Stone) A Bronx native, Frankie Knuckles began hitting popular New York after-hours spots as a teenager and began DJ’ing at two of the most important early discos, the Gallery and Continental Baths. By 1977, he opened his club, which he named the Warehouse. (Matos, Rolling Stone) “His melange of disco classics, weird indie-label soul curiosities, the occasional rock track, European synth-disco, and all manner of rarities would eventually be codified as “House Music” – short, of course, for the Warehouse.” (Matos, Rolling Stone).

“Bambaataa became a popular DJ on the nascent South Bronx rap scene, where his encyclopedic knowledge of funk grooves earned him the nickname ‘Master of Records.'” (Simon & Schuster, Rolling Stone) Before his recording career, Bambaataa had already gained esteem as DJ, organizer, and promoter for several block parties. (Bush, Allmusic) “Afrika Bambaataa ascended to godfather status with Planet Rock, the 1982 hip-hop classic which blended the beats of hip hop with techno-pop futurism inspired by German pioneers Kraftwerk.” (Bush, Allmusic)

Depeche Mode was initially a product of Britain’s new romantic movement, then went on to become the quintessential electro-pop band of the 1980s. They were one of the first acts to base their musical identity completely on the use of synthesizers. They made their debut in 1980 with “Photographic,” a track that was included on the “Some Bizarre Album” label compilation. “After signing to Mute records, they issued “Dreaming of Me” in early 1981; while neither this track nor the follow up, “New Life” caused much of a stir, their third effort, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” became a Top Ten U.K. Hit” (Ankeny, Allmusic) “After 33 years and 13 albums, the pioneering Basildon electro trio are masters of this sci fi synth rock blend. The swells and shudders may be closer at times to techno but this is not dance music, unless you favor fist-pumping and robot boxing.” (McCormick, Telegraph Online) Pet Shop Boys have been described as “Post-modern ironists cloaked behind a wall of buoyantly melodic and lushly romantic synth pop confections.” (Ankeny, Allmusic). Pet Shop Boys navigated the entirety of 80’s dance pop, shifting between disco, house, and techno. Pet Shop Boys signed to EMI in 1985, but their first single “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)” failed to attract any attention. Their second single “West End Girls” became an international chart-topper, which helped their subsequent 1986 debut LP “Please” make it into the top ten, along with “Disco”, which was a collection of dance remixes. They resurfaced in 1987 with their LP “Actually”, which generated two more top ten hits – “It’s a Sin” and “What Have I Done to Deserve This”. (Ankeny, Allmusic)

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Four significant electronic artists of the 1990s were Aphex Twin, The Prodigy, Portishead, and Nine Inch Nails.

Aphex Twin has been credited for “creating the most interesting music ever created with a keyboard and a computer.” (Warsmiami.com) One of the most prolific and eclectic electronic artists of the 90’s – Aphex Twin’s early work focused on the ambient sounds first ushered in by Brian Eno, as best showcased by his album “Selected Ambient Works 85-92”. During the mid-to-late 90s, he went on to innovate upon almost every experimental electronic style of the day, including IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) and the ambient techno of the 90s. He later went on to include abstract subgenres such as glitch and jungle in his works. “Aphex Twin’s music may be described simply as fusing highly imaginative, emotional electronic music with a decidedly experimental edge, but this only begins to describe it. Aphex Twin is one of the great unheralded geniuses of our time, easily as important to electronica/techno as the Beatles are to rock, as Miles Davis and John Coltrane are to Jazz, and as Mozart and Stravinsky are to classical.” (Lackey)

“The Prodigy navigated the high wire, balancing artistic merit and mainstream visibility with more flair than any electronica act in the 1990’s” (Bush, Allmusic) The Prodigy have been credited as the pioneers of the big beat genre, while their music also explores the electronic styles of electronic rock, rave, hardcore techno, industrial, jungle, and breakbeat. The group broke into the U.S. with the single “Firestarter” in 1996 and followed it with their album The Fat of the Land in 1997, which charted at number one on both the U.K. and U.S. charts. (Stylus) “When, earlier this year, MTV announced its intention to program more electronica and started a show, Amp, to promote the genre, The Prodigy, thanks to its anthemic song, Firestarter, became the techno band of the moment.” (Farley)

With the release of their 1994 album, Dummy, Portishead became one of the first major practitioners of the style that came to be known as trip-hop. Portishead’s music was initially praised as “Gothic Hip Hop” and their sound is described as an “atmospheric, nearly narcotic sound, mixing hip-hop beats with the down-tempo undertow of deb reggae, oddly skewed samples, and the studio experimentation of electronic music.” (Simon & Schuster, Rolling Stone) Trip-hop is defined as “a type of music that has a slow beat, and is intended to create a relaxed mood. It is a mixture of hip-hop and reggae”. (Cambridge Dictionary) 

During the nineties, Nine Inch Nails was one of the main proponents of the electronic genre known as industrial, and they were led by Trent Reznor as the only permanent member. While their 1989 album “Pretty Hate Machine” had heavy synth-pop influences, their sound underwent many changes over the nineties. Their 1992 EP Broken took many influences from industrial bands Ministry and Godflesh, while their 1994 album The Downward Spiral explored elements of techno and heavy metal. Their 1999 album The Fragile went on to be certified double platinum and experimented with soundscapes, electronic beats, ambient noise, and rock-laden guitar. (Pareles, New York Times)”The Downward Spiral positioned Trent Reznor as industrial’s own Phil Spector, painting detailed, layered soundscapes from a wide tonal palette” (Huey, Allmusic) Industrial music is dissonant electronic music that arose in the late 1970s in response to punk rock. (Encyclopedia Brittanica)

Electronic music was led in the ’00s by Radiohead and Daft Punk. Radiohead was already a successful experimental rock band but met even greater acclaim when they ventured into electronica. On the other hand, Daft Punk greatly defined the French house movement early on in their career and met even greater success when they added synthpop elements. (Cooper, Allmusic)

Radiohead initially began their career in the early ’90s as a guitar rock outfit with their first two albums Pablo Honey and The Bends but started to incorporate electronic elements with their third album, OK Computer. 

“Radiohead’s creative breakthrough arrived when the band embraced electronica — which was nearly cliche by the end of the ’90s, when everyone from U2 to Rickie Lee Jones dabbled in trip-hop or techno” (Erlewine, Allmusic) “British rockers RADIOHEAD have dominated a new list by Pitchfork magazine to find the best albums from 1996 to 2011. Editors launched a readers’ survey to determine The People’s Top 200 from the 15 years since Pitchfork’s inception and counted almost 28,000 votes to compile the countdown. Radiohead proved to be a popular choice with their 1997 release OK Computer topping the list, while its follow-up, Kid A, came in at number two. They also scored the third entry at six with In Rainbows.” (World Entertainment News)

Daft Punk quickly won acclaim for their unique blend of first-wave acid house and techno with pop, indie rock, and hip hop. (Cooper, Allmusic) “Evolving from French house pioneers in the ’90s to 2000s tastemakers to mainstream successes in the 2010s, Daft Punk remained one of dance music’s most influential and iconic acts.” (Cooper, Allmusic) “Daft Punk had first broken big during the Nineties electronica boom, but the tour — a hallucinatory spectacle of pop stagecraft without precedent — made them several orders of magnitude more popular.” (Weiner, Rolling Stone)

Some modern innovators of electronic music are Deadmau5, Benga, Gorillaz, and Skrillex.

“Joel Zimmerman, under the moniker Deadmau5′ became one of the leading figures in dance music during the first decade of the 2000’s. His hits have included ‘Faxing Berlin’ and ‘The Veldt’, and he’s released albums like ‘4×4=12’ and ‘>album title goes here<‘.” (Biography) “Progressive house, techno, and electro are all terms that have been used to describe Deadmau5’s hard-driving brand of electronica. Under that “other” famous mouse head is Joel Zimmerman, a Toronto-based producer who doesn’t stop at creating, mixing, and mastering his music.” (Electronic Musician) 

Gorillaz was initially “conceived as the first virtual hip-hop group” (Phares, Allmusic) The band’s first release was their 2000 EP, named “Tomorrow Comes Today”, which they followed up in 2001 with their first full-length album “Gorillaz”, which reached platinum-level sales in the US. (Phares, Allmusic) Not easily categorized as just an electronic artist, the music of the Gorillaz incorporates elements of rock, hip hop, reggae, and pop, as well as the electronic genres of trip-hop, electronica, and dub. One of the biggest examples of technological innovation can be exemplified by their 2011 release, The Fall. “It was recorded almost entirely on an iPad during Gorillaz’s US tour last year. Perhaps it isn’t supposed to be seen as a proper album – like 2003’s Democrazy, a limited-edition collection of rough sketches recorded during Blur’s last US tour. But those songs were clearly not finished, and the 14 tracks on The Fall clearly are.” (Pedritis, Guardian)

“Not many can boast forefather status to one of the most prolific musical genres of recent years.” (Cunningham) Benga and Skream have both become figureheads for the style known as dubstep. (Cunningham) “One of the major names in the world of dubstep, Producer Benga was born in Beni Uthman in East London.” (Jeffries, Allmusic). “He first began making tracks on his Playstation game system, then graduated to the digital audio station Fruity Loops when his parents bought him a computer.” (Jeffries, Allmusic) Benga released his debut in late 2002, which was called “Skank”. He started his label – Benga Beats – in 2003 and released his first full-length album in 2006, named Newstep. In 2007 he moved to the Tempa label and issued the singles “Crunked Up” and “Night”. (Jeffries, Allmusic) In the room upstairs the young Skream and Benga were introduced to the basics of production, fostering their sound in the process. Their paths have since taken them in some unusual directions, while dubstep has become a globe conquering sound in the process.” (Murray, Clash Music)

“The record sees Skrillex delivering on his promise as a fully-fledged musician, taking the listener by the wrist for a celestial reconciliation with innocence, escape, passion, and love while pulling from every imaginable influence within and outside of electronic music.” (Internet Wire) Sonny Moore, known primarily by his stage name Skrillex, started as a frontman for the post-hardcore group From First to Last, but found club and mainstream stardom when he started the dancefloor-oriented project, Skrillex. In 2009 he moved into the studio, remixing the likes of Lady Gaga and Snoop Dogg, followed by the self-release of his digital-download EP “My Name Is Skrillex”. This release combined the Benny Benassi and Deadmau5 style of electro with the giant noises of acts like The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim. This EP was followed by the EP’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” in 2011, and “Bangarang” in 2012. (Jeffries, Allmusic)

Electronic music can be seen as one of the most exciting genres in modern music, with seemingly endless creative possibilities as well as ever-increasing subgenres. A lot of its innovations have correlated directly with advances in technology, so maybe its possibilities are as limitless as human’s creative potential.

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