Szyzygy's Blog

November 10, 2009

Thumbs up for Krautrock

In the wake of the ridiculous debacle which was Synth Britannia of a few weeks ago, by way of an act of contrition BBC 4 screened the almost exponentially more intelligent and engaging documentary, Krautrock: The Rebirth of Europe. Comparisons of this degree of magnitude are almost certainly invidious: if you must do reflective social and musical history, then this is indubitably the way to do it. Setting the socio-political context with a degree of nicety, the reaction against schlager and Anglo and American pop which was to ultimately become the zenith of industrial techno as personified in the form of Kraftwerk, the introduction sets out a far more compelling appraisal than was ever ventured in the totality of Synth Britannia. Wenders and Herzog, Baader and Meinhof. Fitzcarraldo. Checkpoint Charlie, the Vopos. All of these appeared within the first ten minutes or so, and none of them struck a false note.

Was British synth culture so much more vapid than the nascent German industrial techno culture? The answer is probably no and the richness of experience which was the documentary Krautrock, set against the echoing vacuity which was Synth Britannia, can only boil down to the fact that Ben Whalley, the maker of these two documentaries suffers from creative bipolarity of the sort heretofore only evidenced in Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.  Even Karlheinz Stockhausen, that enfant terrible godfather of the world of experimental sound got a look in. Maybe he’d like to have another stab at Synth Britannia, doing it properly this time.

October 18, 2009

Synth Britannia – BBC: The Missing Plot

Filed under: Uncategorized — syzygy @ 6:27 am
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I cannot think of a time when I have been so thoroughly unimpressed by the BBC’s output. It obviously needs a quantum of vacuous prole-feed like Strictly Come Dancing to feed the internal ratings-driven machismo culture, however there is now so much dross on offer that the few grains of genuine quality that do from time to time appear also aspire to swoop vicariously to this condition of loathsome dumbed -down mass-market appeal.

Synth Britannia, ghettoised on Friday night on BBC4, was a prime example of this. The predictable luminaries of British synth pop culture were wheeled out for this bun-fight. Unilluminating references to J.G. Ballard’s Crash proliferated. Clips of all the usual suspects in action abounded. Kraftwerk & Walter/Wendy Carlos were mentioned in dispatches.  The real problem I have with an hour and a half of sitting through this tosh was that I came out of it with the distinct sensation that I knew and understood less about British synth music culture than I did before I commenced watching it. 

The documentary recycles and builds upon, as its central premise, some well-worn lies, notably that prior to Kraftwerk there was little or no engagement with synthesised music by British bands, and that nobody in Britain had heard of Walter/Wendy Carlos prior to his soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange (clips also included to underscore entirely predictable points about relationship between sci-fi, alienation, industrialism and synthesizer culture), despite Switched On Bach  and The Well Tempered Synthesizer being well received over here.  Edgar Froese’s Aqua, an album which lived atop the British album charts for months was not mentioned once. Van der Graaf  Generator. Soft Machine. Hawkwind. Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. None of these seemed fit to mention. Howard effing Jones got tagged though…. It was documentarial Strictly Come Dancing with major parts of the body of evidence deliberately excised.

The only real saving graces surrounding this programme were the apercus of Cosey Fanny Tutti and Chris Carter, erstwhile members of Throbbing Gristle, & the ever so subtle pisstaking of Richard Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire (how he kept a straight face is beyond me).  The real synthesizer & sampling explosion which came with acid house was airbrushed from history.  Dub and sleng teng rhythms didn’t get a mention. Instead we had an hour and a half revisiting clips from the Soma Light Entertainment department. They even, for Stalinist completeness, airbrushed out the work of the BBC’s own Radiophonic Workshop (Dr Who theme music anyone?) and Delia Derbyshire. Couldn’t move for Orchestral bloody Manouevres though,  Heaven 17 or Depeche Mode.

As an afterthought I’d have got someone with half a brain to front this, like a very drunk Mark E. Smith. Even in his cups he would have made a better fist of it than this snivelling excuse for a documentary.

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