Electro Anniversary?

SF: Electro has many beginnings. It's a bit like the universe; what you're told depends on who you ask, and most times something important is left out. To that end, the Skinny asks Trevor Jackson from Playgroup about his new compilation with Alter Ego (Kings of Electro), and the legendary Greg Wilson, about where it all began.<br/><br/>PQ: ""Electro to me is such a broad term. I find it hard to define; in fact I don't really want to define it at all."" - Trevor Jackson (Playgroup)

Feature by James Blake with contribution from Niall O'Conghaile | 07 Nov 2007
Some names will leap to mind straight away – pioneers and mad scientists in the world of music like Afrika Bambaataa or Kraftwerk - but when it comes to naming the originator, there are some differences of opinion.

A case in point? Well, this year is the 25th Anniversary of Electro, according to some. A Kings of Electro album is being released to commemorate it, taking 1982 as the beginning. Playgroup's Trevor Jackson, who mixed one disc from the two CD set, told us he "[doesn't] really know about the '25-years-old' thing at all." The uncertainty about dates was reflected in the responses of most people we spoke to, all with their own theory as to when and where it started.

So why 25? Well, when Prince was telling everyone to party like it was 1999 - October of 1982 - music was as futuristic as it had ever been. In early April of that same year, Bambaataa and The Soulsonic Force released Planet Rock. Few would question the importance of that record, but it didn't appear in a vacuum. It was a marriage of funk and technology, much like the Detroit scene that was to give us techno, or the house scene in Chicago. The flamboyance of legendary acts Parliament and Funkadelic was clearly an inspiration to Bambaataa. Like those early experimenters in Michigan and and Illinois, however, he was also heavily influenced by the likes of Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra. Like them he was unashamed of sounding synthesised, embracing the technology available to give us his trademark sound. This open, broad-minded approach to injecting technology with the funk was controversial when it first happened – pioneering DJ Greg Wilson told us he can remember a time when Face magazine put electro on the front cover, almost two years after Wilson's original residency at Legend hit capacity, playing electro funk to a predominantly black audience from all over Britain.

So that's one of the splitting points – Kraftwerk. While nobody can deny their influence, it's hard to say they were making electro. They were heard by the right ears, though, and it was the owners of those organs who cemented the legend of Trans Europe Express. Much like the Pixies in the world of rock, Kraftwerk are a band often remembered less for their own music than the effect they had on other people's art. Their enthusiastic use of technology helped many others get past the idea that computers were not 'real' instruments, and paved the way for techno and house. They are still named today by almost any child of the sequencer, and rightly so.

But they didn't invent electro, then?

Well, no. It seems fairer to say that electronica came alive when it met the funk aesthetic and attitude that Bambaataa actively participated in, in New York, and became electro-funk. The terminology is often applied retrospectively.

Gary Numan certainly had success with the synthetic sound before Planet Rock, in 1979, heavily influenced by everybody's favourite German technologists. He was a part of something electronic if not electro, as were others, like Yello and Human League. What they did is often called electro today, as is some disco, like I Feel Love by Donna Summer. It becomes a matter of distinctions here, though. Some call it futurist, some say electronica. Some say synth-pop. At the time, nobody would have called it electro, though. As confusing as all this is, one thing remains clear. Synths and sequencers changed music forever. That explosion is still audible today. We're barely beginning to exhaust the potential of the new material created.

So, what's on Kings of Electro? Well, no Afrika Bambaataa. The album was compiled and mixed by Alter Ego and Playgroup, and it features both one historical mix and one more contemporary one. Unfortunately not everything on the shortlist was cleared by the original labels (Tangerine Dream and Jean Michel Jarre, for example), but there are some tracks you'll know in amongst a few you might not. As Jackson puts it; "Electro to me is such a broad term. I find it hard to define; in fact I don't really want to define it at all."

"It was a fine balance," he continues. "I wanted to put some obscure things on there, but at the same time it was hard, because I didn't want to put on too much stuff that the public wouldn't know and might get turned off by."

Was there any unifying feature? "For me, there is a connection between the tunes, even though they sound quite diverse, and that's because the people who were making them were very open-minded and basically into everything!"

And as Greg Wilson puts it; "The purists regarded electronic or electric (as they called it) with total contempt, rejecting its validity on the grounds that it was, in their opinion, not real music." Radio stations were filled with rock and pop, and electro was in the position of being able to grow organically and out of the spotlight of mainstream media.

It's no surprise that it became such a diverse style, given that there was no canon. With no respect coming from the music establishment, people were free to make what they wanted. The production results were to become something of a hidden legend, and for the UK it all began in a club appropriately called Legend, mixed by Greg Wilson. We've decided to let him have the last word.

"Electro-Funk (or electro or whatever people choose to call it) was the catalyst, the mutant strain that bridged the British jazz-funk underground to the acid-house mainstream. Until this fact is fully recognized the UK dance jigsaw will remain incomplete and confused, with countless clubbers, twenty years on, having no idea of the true roots of the music they're dancing to."
Trevor Jackson & Alter Ego - The Kings of Electro (!K7/Rapster) is out now.