an evaluation of the history of cybotron
When Cybotron recorded 'Techno City', black music was in the Electro age officially ushered in by Afrika Bambaataa's 'Planet Rock' and Arthur Baker's take on Krafwerk's 'Numbers'. Cybotron were right in there: Juan Atkins and Rick Davies (aka 3070) had recorded 'Alleys Of Your Mind', a prime piece of future shock, in 1981, but they were stuck in Detroit. Nobody knew about them: "I had to pay some pretty terrible dues to make the music," says Davies today; "You're almost invisible in time and space if you're doing something new".
In late 1984, 'Techno city' was released in the UK on the fourth Streetsounds' "Electro" compilation. For many, including myself, it was the standout cut: Electro in its beats and some of the percussion (those handclaps!), but there was something else. The vocals were cool but highly passionate; the sounds were caressing, spacious and highly synthetic. It was, and remains, both exciting and scary, precisely balanced between utopia and dystopia, between the future as dream and the future as nightmare.
"The techno Rebels are, whether they recognise it or not, agents of the Third Wave. They will not vanish but multiply in the years ahead. For they are as much part of the advance to a new stage of civilisation as our missions to Venus, our amazing computers, our biological discoveries, or our explorations of the oceanic depths." Alvin Toffler: "The Third Wave" (1980).
"Music is prophecy: its styles and economic organisation are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible." Jacques Attali: "Noise" (1977)
Nearly ten years later, we're all living in Techno City. Techno has become the international dance language: a catch-all phrase that can mean anything from Euro-Pop - Two Unlimited's 'No Limit' with its classic "techno techno techno" rap - to the speed driven mania of 'Ardkore, or the lush travelogues currently marketed as Ambient. If there is one central idea to Techno, it's of harmony between man and machine: as Juan Atkins says, "Techno is technological. It's an attitude to making music that sounds futuristic: something that hasn't been done before".
Atkins was in at the ground level of Techno, being featured, along with Kevin Saunders and Derrick May, on the 1988 UK compilation that put the term on the map: Virgin's "Techno! The New Dance School of Detroit". This trinity have since become internationally respected and successful DJ's, producers and performers, but that wasn't the start of it: as Jimmy Castor says, "what we're going to do here is go right back, way back, back into time".
It's 1980. There is no American Electro. There is black futurism but it's Funk: Earth Wind and Fire, the Parliafunkadelicment thang. A DJ called Electrifyin' Mojo is, however, playing these weird records on Detroit radio: cuts by the Human League, Ultravox, Kraftwerk's 'Trans-Europe Express' (a minor disco hit in the US), Gary Numan's 'Cars'. Two young black men meet at Washtenaw Community College in Michigan, both fired by the example of local hero George Clinton and these extraterrestrial moises beamed in on the ether.
"It was destiny for us to meet up", Juan Atkins says. "We liked a lot of the same things - books, films. Science fiction: you gotta be into SF stuff to like that kind of electronic music. When I heard digital music, I thought you had to be a computer programmer to make those records. I found out it wasn't as complicated as I'd thought: Rick had one of the first Roland sequencers and we made 'Alleys Of Your Mind' by ourselves."
A Detroit native, Rick Davies had been shipped out to Vietnam just in time for the January 1968 Tet offensive. He doesn't want to talk about it: "I guess I'm not to get into street education. The streets are pretty bad." After, he went to electronic school and started playing early synthesiser equipment like the Arp Axe and the Arp Odyssey: one result was "an experimental record called 'The Methane Sea': it was a multitrack recording. The Electrifyin' Mojo used it as the opening monologue to his show."
Together with Atkins, Davies came up with the concept for Cybotron: "I'd got into Alvin Toffler and his comments concerning the electronic village. I considered that there had to be more than three waves and extrapolated the necessity of interfacing the spirituality of human beings into the cybernetic matrix: between the brain, the soul and the mechanisms of cyberspace."
As part of this concept, he also changed his name to 3070: "I was doing the Zoharian discipline at the time: to be in cyberspace, it was necessary for me to find an interface where I could find my deepest inner being. Zohar is based on the study of numbers: to become an entity you have to become a non-entity, and 3070 was my Zoharian designation. I had dues to pay to the Cosmic Lord: that's why I had to do 'Megiddo' and 'Eden'."
Atkins helped to develop the concepts and provided the Funk, but it was a new kind of Funk: stripped, cool. "Nothing was really deliberate," he says. "Everything was on feel. My music has always been very minimal. If it's there, it's there. If it's doing the job, why dress it up any more? We used Rolands, Arps, the Korg MS 20. The whole idea was to do something futuristic, that hadn't been done before."
'Alleys Of Your Mind' was recorded in a friend's 4-track home studio. Released independently on Deep Space, it sold about 15,000 copies and went to #1 in the local radio charts, until, as Davies tells it, "major label promo people made the radio stations stop playing the record." Cybotron signed to Fantasy to get more clout, added an occasional guitarist, John Howesley, and made the "Enter", subsequently "Clear" album - from which the bulk of the cuts here are taken.
This was Cybotron's purple patch, building from Kraftwerk's electronic grid and the alienation of UK Electro to redraw the map of their blasted city. "You can look at the state of Detroit as a plus," says Atkins. "Alright, you only take 15 minutes to get from one side of the city centre to the other, and the main department store is boarded up, but we're at the forefront here. When the new technology came in, Detroit collapsed as an industrial city, but Detroit is Techno City: it's getting better, it's coming back around."
"'Techno City' was the electronic village," says Davies. "It was divided into different sectors. I'd watched Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" - which had the privileged sector in the clouds and the underground worker's city. I thought there should be three sectors: the idea was that a person could be born and raised in Techno City - the worker's city - but what he wanted to do was work his way to the cybodrome where artists and intellectuals reside. There would be no Moloch, but all sorts of diversions, games, electronic instruments. Techno City was the equivalent of the ghetto in Detroit: on Woodward Avenue the pimps, pushers etc get overlooked by the Renaissance Tower."
For Cybotron, electronic music wasn't only an ideal (or even an escape) but a way of being positive about contemporary urban reality - a theme which continues in today's Techno. One way of dealing with it was (and is) high-speed travel. "At the time of 'Cosmic Cars' I was living in the suburbs," adds Davies. "Juan would have to take long drives to get together. It was part of the city's nightlife that you had to interface with car radios - Gary Numan did it with 'Cars'. it was necessary to interface with that tribe."
Despite their quality, Cyboron made no headway in the climate of the time. Davies: "The radio stations refused to play these records - 'robo shit', they called it. Gary Numan and Howard Jones started using real instruments. Kraftwerk made little penetration. The acoustos conspired together with the Musicians Guilds in the US and the UK to suppress synthesisers. Anyone into cyberspace and synthersisers couldn't play. They Cyberlords, being suppressed, had to practice and await the time when the acoustos would get too far gone and be shattered."
There was friction between Davies and Atkins: artistic differences over 'Techno City'. In 1985, Davies left to go to college in Berkeley and worked on the final Cybotron cuts from there: 'Eden' was completely solo. Atkins stayed in Detroit and began working on his Model 500 project, the results of which are mandatory listening and can be heard on the R&S compilation, "Classics", released this year. Atkins has also released an album with 3MB this year, while Davies has a brand new album, "Empathy", forthcoming on Fantasy.
Before they split however, Cybotron produced the track which stands as their epitaph: the unique, prophetic 'Visions'. Presented by a 'celestial archivist first-class' to 'the celestial university of inter-dimensional studies', as from the pre-apocalyptic era, circa 1986, 'Visions' presents a hyper-bleak view of industrial wastelands and burning bodies punctuated with the plea: "I need something to believe in". The cut resolves in the soft, repeated cry of "trance".
Well, it happened, only two years later. Cybotron were too early to benfit from the successive waves of transcendent club culture which thay had influenced. "A lot of it was as we planned," Atkins says now. "Nobody knew Techno would be the global thing that it is now, from little Detroit." As our past, present and future start to spin before our eyes, and our feet start to slip the positivism inherent in techno (which, according to Davies, reflects "the shamanistic tendency in late 20th Century man") remains a guide.
Cybotron - Interface: The Roots Of Techno
Alleys Of Your Minds