search for something...

search for something you might like...

An Electric Storm Matthew Collin's book 'Dream Machines' lays bare the innovative rise of electronic music in Britain

An Electric Storm

Matthew Collin's book 'Dream Machines' lays bare the innovative rise of electronic music in Britain

by Alan Rider, Contributing Editor
first published: May, 2024

approximate reading time: minutes

Collin starts the story with early innovators Tristram Cary, Daphne Oram and, later, Delia Derbyshire

Book CoverDream Machines: Electronic Music in Britain from Doctor Who to Acid House
Matthew Collin
(Omnibus Press)

Whenever I see a book that purports to encapsulate a huge swathe of musical history all in one, I usually expect it to be heavy going and an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink listing of every band the author can think of. They add nothing useful and there have been a few of those published on the history of electronic music, always with the same, predictable, cast list. Human League, Soft Cell, Ultravox, Suicide, Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra, and so on. To avert that risk, Matthew Collin has done something rather smart with ‘Dream Machines’ by focusing in on Britain, which has its own distinct history of innovation and achievement. That means no need to include Kraftwerk/Krautrock, or Suicide, freeing up space for the inclusion of UK innovators – although that meant other pioneers like American Wendy Carlos are not featured.

Innovation is very much the theme here, and electronic music generally has that quality and advantage over traditional guitar-based music. As Gary Numan said in a recent biog on Sky Arts, electronics and synthesizers offer infinite possibilities, and the creation of infinite new sounds that have never been heard before. Electronic music has also always favoured the outsider as well as the innovator. Sometimes that is the painfully shy/reclusive finding a creative voice and identity behind banks of knobs and wires, at other times it is someone with off the wall ideas, genre busting approaches, or convention breaking attitudes, finding their true voice away from the strictures of rock music.

Daphne OramDaphne Oram in particular was an absolute feminist icon, refusing to be put down by her male superiors, pulling overnighters from her day job as a studio engineer to create her own electronic compositions, dragging equipment out of separate offices and linking up multiple tape recorders, before returning them before their owners turned up for work next day.

That is where Collin starts the story, with early innovators Tristram Cary, Daphne Oram and, later, Delia Derbyshire. Those last two challenged the institutional misogyny that was baked in to the BBC in the '50s and early '60s. Oram in particular was an absolute feminist icon, refusing to be put down by her male superiors, pulling overnighters from her day job as a studio engineer to create her own electronic compositions, dragging equipment out of separate offices and linking up multiple tape recorders, before returning them before their owners turned up for work next day. She later went on to found the BBC Radiophonic Workshop which provided other worldly sounds for radio and TV, and later, after Oram left, employed Delia Derbyshire, who famously created the iconic Dr Who theme.  Also covered is an obscure, but pivotal , character, Peter Zinovieff, who invented the strange looking EMS synths that were later used/abused by Eno and others.

Subsequent chapters range over Space Rock/Space Pop and Psychedelia, including the ground breaking sound manipulations of The Beatles and Pink Floyd, Hawkwind’s stoned Space Rock, Gong, Roxy Music, and Eno’s move into ambient. Early Industrial and Post-Punk ‘futurism’ is well covered, with all the usual suspects (Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Human League, Gary Numan) present as well as John Foxx era Ultravox (well before ‘Vienna’), Robert Rental/Thomas Leer, Daniel Millar, Some Bizarre, and Blitz before diving into Synth Pop.  This is where it gets more predictable; Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, ‘Dare’ era Human League, Pet Shop Boys, New Order, etc, before returning to the more underground, non-commercial innovation driven by dub sound systems that eventually made it out of the basements of Handsworth and Notting Hill and into the charts via On-U-Sound, The Orb, Mark Stewart, Tackhead and Mad Professor.

UK Hip Hop is covered, with Cabaret Voltaire making another appearance, before returning underground to feature electronic experimentalists and noise artists such as painfully reclusive Bryn Jones’s Muslimgauze, former Throbbing Gristle members Chris and Cosey, sonic experimentalists Nurse With Wound, Bourbonese Qualk, and Nocturnal Emissions, and power electronics pioneers Whitehouse– an area and artists normally ignored by most popular musical history books.  We close with the rise of samplers and Hi-NRG (MARRS, S’Express, Frankie, Stock Aitken & Waterman), and Gay Disco, and a final chapter on House, Acid and Techno (KLF, 808 State, The Orb, Ambient House, bleep techno).  After that point, electronic music had been around long enough to become itself part of the establishment, with its own set of cliches and strictures, and creative development began to stall, with technology itself beginning to erode innovation rather than stimulate it, thanks to the endemic use of sample libraries and loops to create tracks. Mark Ayers, BBC Radiophonic Workshop archivist, commented as far back as 2013 that "a lot of people think that electronic music now is just a kit of parts, which is incredibly depressing as it’s a kit of other people's parts.  All you're doing is assembling them in a different order".  It’s gotten a lot worse now, if anything, which is why it is worth reminding ourselves where it all started.

DeliaWith the Theremin being created in Russia in 1919 and a few strange, but impractical, devices before that, going back as far as the 19th Century, synths themselves have actually been around a while longer than you may think. Musique Concrete has existed since the late 1940s. but it was only with the advent of more widely available tape recording technology in the 1950s and 60’s that electronic music began to find its feet.

Collins’ book does an admirable job of charting this growth in Britain, navigating its many intertwining roots and parallel branches.  It is immaculately researched and sympathetically written, steering clear of the predictable and lazy cliches many other books attempting to cover this area resort to, which marks Collins out as someone who actually gets this, rather than someone who just writes about it.  It’s a chunky 380 pages, but is well worth the investment and is a welcome addition to my bookshelf, as it should be yours.


Essential Information
Dream Machines is out now and available from booksellers and Amazon

Alan Rider
Contributing Editor

Alan Rider is a Norfolk based writer and electronic musician from Coventry, who splits his time between excavating his own musical past and feeding his growing band of hedgehogs, usually ending up combining the two. Alan also performs in Dark Electronic act Senestra and manages the indie label Adventures in Reality.


about Alan Rider »»

RECENT STORIES

RANDOM READS

All About and Contributors

HELP OUTSIDELEFT

Outsideleft exists on a precarious no budget budget. We are interested in hearing from deep and deeper pocket types willing to underwrite our cultural vulture activity. We're not so interested in plastering your product all over our stories, but something more subtle and dignified for all parties concerned. Contact us and let's talk. [HELP OUTSIDELEFT]

WRITE FOR OUTSIDELEFT

If Outsideleft had arms they would always be wide open and welcoming to new writers and new ideas. If you've got something to say, something a small dank corner of the world needs to know about, a poem to publish, a book review, a short story, if you love music or the arts or anything else, write something about it and send it along. Of course we don't have anything as conformist as a budget here. But we'd love to see what you can do. Write for Outsideleft, do. [SUBMISSIONS FORM HERE]

OUTSIDELEFT UNIVERSE

Ooh Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha May 29th
OUTSIDELEFT Night Out
weekend

outsideleft content is not for everyone