Title: Techno: the early years
Author: Paul Morley
Source: The Guardian
Publish date: Friday July 26, 2002
Occasionally there comes a moment in your life when you get a chance to be in a pop group and give it a name. I'm sure some of you can identify with this. In the early 1980s, I found myself with the opportunity to name a group formed by producer Trevor Horn, using a team of talents that had featured on albums by Malcolm McLaren, ABC and Dollar. Trevor's team consisted of the pianist and composer Anne Dudley, the studio engineer Gary Langan, and a computer programmer called JJ Jeczalik - an odd, engaging company of artists and technicians who were mixing a combination of traditional musicianship, innovative technology, studio wizardry and good old-fashioned daftness to create a new kind of synthesised pop sound. This sound was electronic and abstract, and something about its spaced-out rhythmical randomness, and its exploration of early sampling techniques inspired by the vinyl scratching over in New York, would mean that the group, despite their immense, eccentric English whiteness, became something of an influence on hip-hop.
When I heard the kind of sounds and noises this team could create, inventing new textures to fill out the shape of songs so that the songs resembled songs - but as if reassembled in the way that Picasso reassembled facial features - I knew exactly what to call the group. They played me a piece of music that was made up of a computer-generated drum that sounded as big as the sky, the sound of a car ignition starting up an engine, the recording of a tennis match, and a bassline that was a machine's hopeful idea of boogie-woogie. I named them The Art of Noises. The "s" got knocked off, and as this was in the days when "The" groups were out of favour, Trevor's team became Art of Noise. But they were named after a manifesto written in 1913 by an Italian futurist named Luigi Russolo.
When he wrote The Art of Noises, Russolo was 28 and a follower of the futurist leader Filippo Marinetti, who had used the term "futurist" for the way it suggested forward motion and speed. His belief was in a rosy if abrasive future, liberated by technology, and he was vehemently opposed to nostalgia, romanticism and what he called "armchairism". The futurists were activists in art and politics, and Marinetti sought to change the future by publishing aggressive anti-complacent manifestos. He was an early precursor of Malcom McLaren, a skilled self-publicist with a mission, setting up a movement, attacking received wisdom. There was a punkish contempt for high culture, for detached, elitist bohemian art, for general lethargy. Inspired by Marinetti's monstrous cheek and intolerance, his celebration of machinery and the city, his values of dynamism rather than stillness, Russolo flew into futurism with gusto. His "Art of Noises" manifesto is a classic statement of intent, written by someone who was as much a poet, a conceptual artist and a painter as a musician, and defining all his basic ideas for how music could, should and would constantly move forward. In it, he advocated a world of new music where factories could be tuned. He predicted a world where music - a combination of noise, sound, electricity and energy - would be everywhere. He demanded that sound arouse the emotions. He outlined how you might incorporate into music the sound of nature, the sound of everyday urban activity, and the sounds made by the mouth without talking or singing. "We must break out of the limited circles of sound and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds." He asked people to wander around cities with their ears more alert than their eyes.
Russolo and colleagues built new types of instruments to try to capture the noises he was hearing in his head. They built up whole orchestras of crackers, roarers, bubblers, thunderers and bursters. Russolo scored compositions for noise machines he invented that made loud noises when you rotated a handle. These primitive machines, some of which stored pre-set sounds, reminded me of the Fairlight computer JJ Jeczalik was using to bring sounds from the outside world into music. The Fairlight now seems more primitive than Russolo's glorious boxes, but back in the early 80s it seemed as exciting as a time machine.
Russolo wasn't as absolute as Marinetti. He didn't consider the past completely obsolete. He loved music for the way a fantastic world could be superimposed on to the real one. His love for music was why he wanted it to move on, to change, to stay relevant in people's lives. He believed you could introduce into music noise from outside. Russolo accelerated and mutated the development of music by incorporating other elements into the arena. By defining what music could be, what its impact could be, how it could be produced, how it could be subverted, Russolo helped create a musical landscape that stretches all the way from experimental classical music via avant-rock to electronic pop.
His ideas, alongside the equally liberating emergence of jazz, fed through the work of Cage and Stockhausen, affected the way technology was used (and abused) to mix sound and noise, influenced the ways that the recording studio would be used as an improvisational instrument. It meant that even though we do not really know how Russolo's music sounded, because of his writing, he is one of the major influences on 20th-century music. All great radical modern music made by humans and machines mixing noise and nature is Russolo's great dream of industrial sound come to life. Everything in his head could eventually be produced in a modern recording studio.
Russolo appreciated that music was as much chaos as order, it was a mix of outer space and inner space, and it was about breaking rules more than following them. All this makes Russolo the spiritual, conceptual and disgraceful godfather of all forms of groundbreaking new noise-music - John Cage, LaMonte Young, Sun Ra, the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, AMM, Faust, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Kraftwerk, Throbbing Gristle, Sonic Youth, Aphex Twin, Coldcut, Dr Dre, genres from free jazz to japanoise, the darker end of techno and rave, turntablist sound acrobatics, all the popularising MOR cousins of the true innovators, the nice polite likes of the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the whole idea of remixed music - it can all directly or indirectly be traced back to the theories, desires and twisted marketing skills of Russolo. To the idea that music represented and made sense of a constantly fragmenting world getting louder by the second. Ultimately, all sound was music, all noise was part of the harmony of the world, of creation itself. Life is noise. Death is silence.
I loved the name Art of Noise so much that I forced my way into the group. If over the years people asked me what I did in the group I replied that I named them, and it was such a great name, that was enough to justify my role. I was the Ringo Starr of Art of Noise. I made the tea. Oh, and I wrote the lyrics to one of the loveliest pieces of pop music ever - Moments in Love. When Trevor and I left, they became a novelty group who had hits with Tom Jones. When I again participated in an Art of Noise project a couple of years ago, we perversely created a musical biography of one of Russolo's hyper-romantic classical villains, Claude Debussy.
We went on tour, and I found myself in the position of being a lead singer in a group that doesn't have a lead singer, filling in roles created by John Hurt, Tom Jones and Rakim. I hoped I might come across like a vision of Lenny Bruce meets William Burroughs with a hint of Bez, someone on the edge of reason but making a kind of sense Russolo would have appreciated. Reviewing the DVD souvenir of the tour, however, I think I'm more Bobby Ball on acid than anything.
Then again, a group named in honour of a group of futurists eventually turning into a coffee-table drum and bass outfit, paying madly metaphorical tribute to a 19th-century French composer and fronted by one half of a seaside comedy double act lost in a psychedelic haze, is not completely without entertainment value. Still, when it comes to totting up a compilation of great tracks in the spirit of the original Italian Art of Noises, the original English Art of Noise will make it with Beat Box, where a car starting up and the sound of a tennis ball being hit was turned into a rhythm, a rhythm that would have had Russolo in his grave spinning into the future. The future he could hear coming.
· Art of Noise - Into Vision - The Compleat Compendium is released on DVD next week.