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AS THE BAND WHICH FIRST INSPIRED VIRGIN Records to invest in the new German music, and furnished the first significant chart success for the genre, Tangerine Dream played a pivotal role in the Krautrock story.
The classic T Dream sound is that of Phaedra, their Virgin debut: ethereal, misty soundscapes of an otherworldly flavour, synthesized orchestrations with a faintly metallic tang. Chill-out music before the term was invented, it provided the likes of The Orb's Alex Paterson with one of the strands from which he plaited the notion of ambient techno. Later on, the group would, like Kraftwerk, come to relish the hypnotic capabilities of synthesized sound, using the machines to unleash the juddering adrenalin surge of Thief, their soundtrack to Michael Mann's film of that name (aka 'Violent Streets').
Before Phaedra, however, the group had already been through a number of incarnations, starting as a student band in the democratic island of Berlin, where leader, guitarist/keyboardist Edgar Froese, was studying sculpture. In the mid-'60s, Froese's previous group, The Ones, had performed at parties thrown by Salvador Dalí at his home in Cadaqués, Spain, and the legendary Surrealist exerted a strong influence on the musician's own work, which thereafter leaned heavily towards the experimental.
Like most German bands of the era, the early Tangerine Dream worked in a more or less traditional Anglo-American rock style, but Froese soon grew mindful of not only its limitations but also its sheer incongruity. "We didn't have the attitude for rock'n'roll, the blues and so on," explains Froese. "What can you do if you're in a position where you can run round in circles and still never catch up what is already there? That period of time was when Clapton was big with Cream, and Hendrix was big -- what did it mean for a German to take a guitar and start playing like that? It was ridiculous."
So, like their contemporaries Can and Amon Düül II, in 1969 Tangerine Dream took to jamming in the new space-rock style originated by British psychedelic bands like Pink Floyd and Haphash & The Coloured Coat -- a process which resulted, in a roundabout way, in their debut album Electronic Meditation, recorded at a particularly feverish taped rehearsal with drummer Klaus Schulze and guitarist/cellist Conrad Schnitzler two days before Froese left for London to meet a singer who had replied to a Melody Maker ad which the group had placed.
"He was a total nightmare," says Froese. "He didn't have any money, he couldn't sing, and he was total rubbish. I had to sell the two guitars I came with in order to buy my train ticket to get back. And when I got back to Berlin, totally burned out and penniless, I found a letter in my box saying, 'We listened to your tape and it sounds great, we want to sign you'! I thought, What tape? Who wants to sign us? I rang them back and it turned out to be Ohr, the record company which had just been set up and was looking for unusual musicians. I said, 'Here I am, take it! What will you pay?' They gave me a thousand Deutchmarks, which at that time was more than I could expect. The tape became Electronic Meditation."
Several more albums -- Alpha Centauri, Zeit, Atem -- followed in quick succession, while the band's personnel went through various changes, settling on the classic line-up of Froese, Peter Baumann and Chris Franke. The changes in their music, however, were more significant: inspired by their first brush with a VCS3 synthesizer (lent them by a Japanese student at the WDR radio station while they were recording Alpha Centauri), the traditional rock instrumentation of the first two albums was ditched, on Zeit, in favour of the new synthesizer technology.
At first they didn't realise the potential of the new instrument. "We didn't know what it was about, we would just turn things right to left, left to right, get some sounds out of it, and put them straight on the record!" admits Froese. "It sounded as strange as we thought a sound could be at that time. That's all we could do on Alpha Centauri! So it's maybe a bit poor if you listen to it today, but back in '72 or '73 it sounded avant-garde!" Shortly afterwards, however, the group had the Damascene conversion which would provide electronic music with its single greatest breakthrough.
"There was a gig somewhere in the South of Germany where we walked on-stage with the usual line-up and were playing some crazy free music with rock instruments," recalls Froese, "and all of a sudden we realised that if you do that for years you end up nowhere, with nowhere to go. Even though we were doing crazy things, the sound was pretty normal. We felt we had to make an absolute break, so after the gig we decided to sell everything we had in the way of normal instruments and do something completely new.
"At the same time, we were watching what was happening in the avant-garde community, where people were getting rid of harmonies and melody lines and so on. We knew we wouldn't make any money out of it, but we bought some little sine-wave generators and microphones which we put on different things like calculators and stuff, and produced sounds which we then sent through echo and reverb units. It sounded so stupid that we thought we'd get some attention, at least!"
And so they did. Audiences hated them. At one gig, showered with apples and bananas, they left the stage after mere 10 minutes. The rest of continental Europe was no better than Germany: at a Paris concert, someone up in the balcony threw a plastic bag full of marmalade onto the group's eqipment, rendering it useless. "Have you tried getting marmalade out of keys?" asks Froese. "In those days people were not very polite about what we did. In a Melody Maker interview in '73 or '74, when Phaedra got released, I said, 'In about 10 years' time, everybody will play synthesizers' -- the guy stopped his tape recorder, said, 'You're an idiot', and walked out. They thought we were aliens just fooling them."
The MM scribe was in a minority, however. In Britain, alerted by John Peel's interest (the DJ made Atem his album of the year for 1972) and fuelled by Virgin's mail-order imports, Tangerine Dream were building up a huge following. When, disaffected with Ohr owner Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser's overly paternalistic attitude towards space-rock (which included secretly spiking musicians' drinks with LSD and recording the results for his new Kosmische Musik offshoot), T Dream refused to record for the company, Virgin stepped into the breach and signed the band.
"We were very interested in European music, because we seemed to have a secret that no-one else knew about -- it was commercial and courageously avant-garde at the same time," recalls Virgin label head Simon Draper. "We must have sold 15,000 Tangerine Dream albums on mail order, just importing finished product from Ohr and selling them on. So we knew Phaedra was going to do well, but we had no way of judging how well. It just took off, and was a gold album here straight away. In a naive way, I thought we were going to do this with Henry Cow and Faust and all the other stuff as well! But it didn't work out that way..."
According to Draper, the release of Phaedra was almost, like Electronic Meditation, subject to the vagaries of Dame Fortune. "They recorded Phaedra at The Manor, where Phil Beck was the in-house engineer," he explains. "Phil was into what they were doing, but found it boring, and he told me he went to sleep for much of the time. He was entrusted with cutting it, and when I sent the two acetates of the sides to Edgar for approval, he reported back that side two was backwards -- Phil had cut it backwards, and he didn't know the difference! On ordinary records, if it's backwards you get that szzhwoop! sound, the reversed envelope, but you don't get that with their music. But Edgar didn't take it too seriously -- later on we suggested putting all the records out again, backwards, and no-one would know!"
With the success of Phaedra, the group's future was secured. Froese, claims Draper, was always a shrewd operator, fully in charge of his own destiny, and constantly renegotiating his Virgin contract to his own advantage. Further finances came from the movie score commissions which started to pour in -- firstly for William Friedkin's Sorcerer, then Thief, Risky Business, Legend and others, plus of course the obligatory Miami Vice contributions. The group's cache received a further boost when, on December 13, 1974, they were invited to play in Rheims Cathedral, the Gothic surroundings of which were perfectly approriate to their sound. However, when the expected crowd of 1,500 swelled to nearer 6,000, intractable problems arose in the jammed-tight pews.
"What do you do if you want to go to the rest-room and you can't move?" asks Froese rhetorically. Gallic fans, demonstrating the charm and hygiene for which the French are renowned worldwide, pissed copiously against the 12th century pillars of the cathedral in which French kings were once crowned. Not unnaturally, worshippers complained about "pagan music" and "drug and alcohol orgies", and demanded a purification ceremony to restore the place to more like a cathedral than a lavatory.
"The result was that we are perhaps the only band in the world to have been banned by The Pope himself from playing in churches!" says Froese with understandable pride. "We've got it in writing! But then, because of the ban, the opposite party, the Protestants, invited us to do some church gigs in Britain! So in 1975 we played Coventry Cathedral and York Minister and Liverpool Cathedral. It was quite interesting playing these places, bacause it was a church but at the same time it became a neutral place, so there was not the typical pressure of these religious surroundings."
Tangerine Dream's career, in terms of sales and audience size, peaked with the first three or four Virgin albums, which became exotic visitors to the quotidian UK album charts of the mid-'70s. Since then, they've been through further line-up changes -- the current one features Edgar's son Jerome and horn player Linda Spa -- but, under Froese's guidance, have steadily continued to plough their own furrow through modern music, reintroducing 'normal' instruments to their armoury and developing greater structural definition within their music to meet the more rigorous demands of filmmakers.
"We've been through the entire range of possibilities of creating a piece of music," acknowledges Froese. "In the early '70s, we did 100 per cent improvised stuff, just sat down and started playing. Even up to '77, '78, in concerts we would just walk on stage and say, 'A? E? C? What key shall we start with?' 100 per cent risk, each gig. Then we moved on and started structuring things more, when technology became more reliable and flexible and you could store things and recall them better. That proceeded until today, when we've reached the absolute opposite point to which we started: Electronic Meditation was 100 per cent improvised, absolutely nothing organised, with just a few little overdubs, and Tyranny Of Beauty is 100 per cent composed, with every tone set as we want them to sound. That's a huge cycle of work, through many years, and now we've decided to move again, in a completely different direction. We'll see what happens."
[INTRO] [Faust] [Amon Düül II] [Can] [Kraftwerk]
[Brian Eno's comments]
Andy Gill | Mojo Magazine | 4/97