Techno: the early years
Italian futurist Luigi Russolo’s manifesto ‘The Art of Noises’ impressed Paul Morley so much, he named a band after them. He pays tribute to the Malcolm McLaren of the 1910s
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—
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—
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.
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—
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—
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—