Chatting About Pre-Beatlemania British Rock ‘n’ Roll with Ex-Mod Bryan Rogers

In this article, I chat with my friend Bryan Rogers, self identified ex-mod, about his time growing up in and around the music of London, England, in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, where he experienced the birth of rock ‘n roll in the UK first hand.  This was before Beatlemania, so pre-1963…

Bryan Rogers was born on the 10th December, 1940, in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England.

Here he is around age 2.

These were the pre-British Invasion days, and Bryan was there in person as bands like The Beatles, The Stones, and many more started playing small dance halls and theatres in and around London, before heading off to America to make it big.  

Venues like the Locarno Ballroom in Swindon, the Lyceum in London, McIlroys in Swindon, The Locomotive Pub, Farr’s, Gaumont State Kilburn Ballroom, and so forth…these were places that Bryan would frequent to listen to these rock ‘n roll groups, whether they played live, or a DJ was there playing records so the teens could boogie-woogie, as it were.

All this was happening around the same time that American rock legends like Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and many others were coming over to the United Kingdom to find new fans in the youth of England, and influencing those British bands who would later “invade” America.

In speaking with Bryan over the years, I’d heard tell of his adventures in and around jolly old England (particularly London), seeing all of these bands and having some first hand encounters with a few of them.  

Finally, I had a chance to sit down with Bryan Rogers, and chat with him on the topic of early rock ‘n roll in England in the early 1960’s, and what all went down back then – the way it was.

Bryan is, by nature, a curious cat, and usually cats live perilous lives, but this cat has fortunately survived to relate his tale to me, who was very interested to hear about his (mis)adventures and dirty deeds over across the pond.  

Hope you all enjoy our chat, and if you have any comments or stories of your own, please leave them below!


On 50’s music and the 1960 British pop music charts

Bryan: So back in the ’50’s, it was mundane music compared to what it is today, like Doris Day and Frankie Laine …for Chrissakes!  

And then there was The Shadows, who were the back-up group for Cliff Richards…they recorded a tune on their own called “Apache”, which was a knock off of an American group.

Anthony Newly was another English film star who became a singer, and then there’s Shirley Bassey…

Who else we got here?  <scanning the pop music chart from 1960> Roy Orbison’s in there with “Only The Lonely”.  

Presley started to pop up around then too.  Lonnie Donegan, Emile Ford and the Checkmates.  Cliff Richards and the Shadows again, yeah.  The Everly Brothers…these people are slowly coming on…yeah, these are the British, not the American charts, mind you.

And then there was people like Tommy Steele, who wanted to be American, like Elvis Presley, but he never was.

YTMS: Tommy Steele, never heard of him.  Was he really famous?

Bryan: In England, he was…he was on a merchant ship, and he learned how to the play the guitar, so he sung a few songs…became a big hit.  Because people like Bob Dylan were on the go, right?

YTMS: So he was a troubadour kind of guy?

Bryan: He was a folk singer…

YTMS: Big changes in music between 1960 and 1970…

Bryan: Yeah, the whole British Invasion happened.  The Animals, Freddy and the Dreamers, The Kinks, and all those groups.  I think The Animals come from Newcastle…

Seeing Rock Bands in the Early 1960’s (Pre-Beatlemania)

YTMS: When you were growing up over there in England, you saw a lot of these groups when they first came up?

Bryan: Yes, at the local dance hall, on a Saturday, they’d come and play, and we’d dance to them.

YTMS: What was the place called?

Bryan: The Locarno Ballroom, in Swindon.

YTMS: Locarna?

Bryan: Locarno.

YTMS: How big was it?

Bryan: Probably …

YTMS: 1000 people or so?

Bryan: Yeah.  I’d also go to the Lyceum Theatre, in London, just off the Strand, in the center of London.  It was all mainly records there.

YTMS: Just records?

Bryan: DJ’s, yeah.

YTMS: Any bands there?

Bryan: No.

YTMS: Ah, it was just a dance club, not really a venue for live bands to play. 

Bryan: Right.

YTMS: So where did you start seeing actual bands play, and when?

Bryan: Most of the people from that time, most of the bands…like The Undertakers, that was one of ’em…because of the success of The Beatles and The Stones, bands started coming around to the dance halls to play.

Some of these groups found success, like Freddy and the Dreamers.. I didn’t really like them, but there you go.  Uh, who else?  There was the Dave Clarke Five.

YTMS: They were a rock group?

Bryan: Yeah. “Bits and Pieces” was one of their songs. <sings a snippit of the song> “Glad All Over” was another one of their hits.  They come from Tottenham area of London.

YTMS: So they played at the Locarno? 

Bryan: No, but I saw them play in Tottenham.

YTMS: You’d travel around to see bands play?

Bryan: Oh yeah.  When I was livin’ in London, I had a scooter, and I’d tour around to the different city halls, dance halls…

YTMS: How far would you go to see a group?

Bryan: Half way across London.

YTMS: Really?

Bryan: Yeah, and London’s a big place.

YTMS: Just scoot on over?

Bryan: Yeah, Seven Sisters Road… just down the road from the stadium, there was a pub on the corner… at the pub, they’d have these dances, play all these pop songs…

YTMS: You were big on the clubs at the time around there?  You and your friends?

Bryan: Yeah…we’d hang out at Baker Street, which is in the book about Sherlock Holmes.  22B Baker Street. 

I used to go to a club called Farr’s.  F A double R apostrophe S, Farr’s.  We were about 14 or 15 then.  So we’d go there, and we used to have tailor-made suits.

YTMS: Really?

Bryan: Ok, here’s the scoop.  My friend Dennis and me.. Dennis lived down the road from me.. and he says, “Bryan, do ya want a job?”  Paperboy…I said “Sure.”  We had to walk two miles up the road, to this place called Ellington’s.  We go straight up Carlton Vale, and if you’d continue up Carlton Vale, at the end is a T junction, and that’s Abbey Road.  THE Abbey Road. 

So, prior to coming to Abbey Road, on Carlton Vale, we turn right on Maida Vale I believe it was, and we’d walk along there, and turn left, across from Maida Vale underground, and there was Ellington’s.  So, we were paid to mark up the papers, like, everybody in England had the morning paper.  We’d get the address for some apartment building, or “mansions” as we called ’em, take a Daily Mirror paper and a Women’s Own magazine, put them together, write the address down, fold them, put them aside, and a paper boy or girl would come and take them. 

So we used to mark up the paper rounds, and we also had a round of our own.  Now, let’s put it in dollars, it’ll be easier to understand.  They were pre-paid, say, 50 cents a week to deliver papers…

YTMS:  Ok…

Bryan: Dennis and I would get, say, 3 dollars a week to mark up the papers every morning to deliver a round, and our own round as well.  A suit back then, it used to be guineas, would be, say, around about 17 dollars for a tailor made suit.  So we were makin’ 3 bucks… what do you think we’d spend our money on?  Sharp linen.  So when we’re 14, we’d save our money.  And another thing, we’d have a con game going.  We’d go around to all these different apartment buildings, or mansions, that we knew were the other paper boys’ routes… knock on the door every Christmas, tell ’em we were the paper boy…

YTMS: <snickers>

Bryan: …and they would give us a tip.  Maybe 50 cents or a dollar. 

YTMS:  That’s pretty good…

Bryan: So that used to go towards our suit fund.  Twice a year we’d have tailor-made suits!

YTMS: Wow!

Bryan: Yeah.

YTMS: You bought more than one I guess…had a whole wardrobe full of ’em?

Bryan: Yeah.  Dennis had some overcoats made, but I never got those.

On Becoming A Mod

YTMS: What were you guys like you called? 

Bryan: Mods.  We had the short hair.

YTMS: You were trying to be a mod on purpose?

Bryan: We never thought about it at the time, but yeah.  We’d pick up some shoes, they were tapered.  Pointy, tapered shoes.  Fake crocodile skin…We had flared trousers…

YTMS:  Yeah…

Bryan: …with a little slit on the side at the bottom.  And maybe 2 or 3 covered buttons going up the seam on our jackets.  Single or double breasted, covered buttons, as well.

YTMS: Hm…This is what it was like to be a mod.  Any other defining characteristics?

Bryan: We had short jackets.

YTMS: Does that mean you were cool? 

Bryan: Yeah, we were with it. 

YTMS: Tough?

Bryan: No, no, no.  We had our own little clan, and we’d gyrate together, at these dance halls.

YTMS: Yeah, yeah.

Bryan: Now, if there’s any “teddy boys” around, or “rockers”…

YTMS: Is that what the other guys were called?

Bryan:  Yes. Now, they wore jackets down to their knees…black velvet collars…and had really tight jeans on.  And they had these boots called “chukka boots”.  They used to have crimped soles about that thick <gestures>, black or dark blue.

Bryan: So imagine – big pairs of boots and long jacket <laughs> with hair down back, like Presley, you know.. a D.A. .. Tony Curtis, you know.. film star.. he had that down there, and that was called a duck’s ass.  Parted down the middle, it all come down.. <gestures> and then a quiff over here <gestures>…So they were teddy boys, yeah.  And if we ever met… it was a punch up.  Sometimes, we’d get on our scooters, and we’d drive down to Bornemouth or Brighton..south end, that’s on the coast…and we see any rockers, it them or us.. we’d go for it.. like Quadrophelia. 

YTMS: Did you go looking for ’em?

Bryan: Nah.

YTMS: Were you worried about seeing them?

Bryan: No, there was usually more of us than them.

YTMS: Were there a lot of fights? 

Bryan: Just now and again, not that often.

YTMS: People get stabbed?

Bryan: No, no. But, prior to that, the teddy boys…they used to have razor blades, put them in their collar, or in their hat.  That was their weapon of choice – a razor.

YTMS: Sounds dangerous…

Bryan. So I come in at the end of the teddy boy era, basically, and at the beginning of the mod era.  Which was good…I prefer to dress smart than scruffy with messy hair.

YTMS: Did that work better with the birds?

Bryan: The birds, yeah…

YTMS: Did the girls like rockers or mods better?

Bryan: The mod girls liked the mod boys and same with the rockers.  You could tell by looking at somebody who was who.

YTMS: Did mods and rockers ever get together.

Bryan: Probably…well… I doubt it.

YTMS: So for bands at that time, who did you see?

Bryan: Prior to going down to the town Swindon where the Locarno was, I told you before I went to the Gaumont State Kilburn.  It could hold 4000 people. 

Guy Mitchell was in that early list here <from the 1960 hit parade>.  Singin’ the blues, we went and saw him.  When I was a young kid, every time I’d go by this theatre, I’d see Louie Armstrong would be advertised, Ella Fitzgerald, all the jazz people, yeah.

YTMS: Did you check them out?

Bryan: No, we were too young.  Maybe 10 or 11.

YTMS: Not interested?

Bryan: No.  And then we went up and we saw Guy Mitchell.  We went and saw Bill Haley.  I’ve told you this in the past.

Barging In On The Platters

And then, we saw The Platters.  You’ve heard of them?

YTMS: Yeah.

Bryan: So we said, let’s see if we can get in backstage and see them. Well, lo and behold, the first door we tried – it opened.  You don’t usually… We pushed on the door and it opened.  As we walked in, The Platters were there, as close as you are…there they were!  I thought the girl was pretty.

They stood and looked at us, we stood and looked at them.  Nobody said a word.  Then somebody goes, “Hey, what the f*** you doin’ here, get the f*** out of here!  And we were gone!

But…not only did they have this little stage at the state theatre, but they had this little dance area…and Gene Vincent came in…and he sung there.  Be Bop A Lula.  And that was another person who I told you before that you are aware of…The Beatles liked him.  They all followed these guys.

YTMS: This is pre-Beatlemania?  ’62?

Bryan: Maybe a little before that.

YTMS: Did you ever end up seeing those big British bands.  The Beatles, The Who?

Seeing The Beatles

Bryan: No, never followed The Who.  I saw The Beatles and The Stones in Swindon. It was like an Eaton’s store, and they had a restaurant on the second floor…and on a Monday night, they used to have groups there.  Or lone singers…and this was prior to The Beatles becoming famous, they were there…The Rolling Stones another week.  Long John Baldry was there. He was there, he was talking to this guy, he had a woman with him, and I was there with my friend Dave…and we could hear everything they were saying, we were standing by the bar…

YTMS: Didn’t you tell me some weird story about this guy?

Bryan: Yes, I did.  So after a long conversation, this guy says to Long John Baldry, “Who’s the girl?” and Long John Baldry turns to the girl and says, “What’s your name again?”  <laughter> So, all these singers at the time, they all knew one another… they used to meet up.  Elton John got his name…it’s allegedly said… they were lovers, Elton John and Long John Baldry.  I heard this many years later, on the radio.. and…they split up, Long John Baldry dumped Elton John.. his real name was something like “Jimmy”…

YTMS: Reggie…

Bryan: Reggie something-or-other, yeah yeah…so, he changed his name, and because he liked Long John Baldry, he called himself John…this is the rumour, anyway…where he got Elton from, I don’t know…but it’s been successful for him.

YTMS: Yeah…

Long John Baldry Reuinion (Many Years Later)

Bryan: So, fast forward to a few years ago in Cambridge. There was a bar over by Soper Park and Highway 8.  There was a little blues bar in there. 

YTMS: The Cave?

Bryan: No, that little plaza with the pizza place.  Around the corner, they had a blues bar.  And Martin says to me, cause he was workin’ there…he says, “Dad, come, Long John Baldry’s here! Why don’t you come and see him?” So I went and saw him…he had this hat on, he always had this thing for a hat… and long hair now…When he was at Swindon, he wasn’t wearing a hat when he was talking to that guy and that gal, and he had short hair…blonde hair…he was a tall guy, about 6’4″, maybe taller. That’s why they called him Long John, I guess.  He was in this blues bar here and Cambridge and I went to see him…And, as he walked towards the dressing room I went to speak to him…

YTMS: He didn’t remember you, did he?

Bryan: No, no…I just wanted to say “Hey, I saw you in Swindon!”, but he just poo-poo’d me away and went into the dressing room. So Martin spoke to him after the band were done for the night. He said “Yeah, I remember Swindon, yeah” But I didn’t know he was gay ’til Martin mentioned it. 

YTMS: Really?

Bryan: I had no f***** idea. 

YTMS: He came to Cambridge (Ontario)?

Bryan: Yeah, he came and sung in that bar.

YTMS: Wow.

Bryan: To me it’s the end of the road if you’re singin’ there.  But, he was known by a lot of people. 

YTMS: Yeah, he was famous.

Bryan: Yeah…I’ve got all these books here about all these different musical groups, and now and again they’ll cross paths. 

McIlroy’s in Swindon

YTMS: So what was that place that was in Swindon, the restaurant?

Bryan: Yeah, on Monday nights it was a dance club, and during the day, a restaurant. One night, we saw Jerry and the Pacemakers.  The place was called McIlroy’s.

YTMS: Was this a cool place to play?

Bryan: Yeah, and it probably held about 500 people.  And a lot of the performers came there just when they were getting famous, or prior to.

YTMS: The Stones played there?

Bryan: Yep. This was before they were locked in a room and told not to come out before you write a f***** hit song.

Bryan: If you look up McIlroy’s in Swindon, you’ll see some of the flyers of the Beatles and the Stones.

YTMS: You were allowed in to this place, at 14, 15? 

Bryan: Yeah, there was no booze.  Actually, maybe there was.  You used to be able to drink at the Locarno.  I was 19 or 20 then.  But you could drink when you were 16…there were no drugs back then.  No one talked about them, and they didn’t even really exist to us.  The only people doing drugs were the groups – the Beatles and the Stones.  In the circle of people I moved with within London, and within Swindon, we didn’t do drugs.  We didn’t have a clue.

YTMS: Probably for the best…

Bryan: I remember…I used to hang out with a guy named Eric Heaton.  We eventually had an apartment between us, and had all the birds over.  We had a friend, Willie, who used to hang out at Locomotive pub in Swindon. 

Eric used to go there more than I did.  One time, we finished drinking in there, they closed the bar.  Willie says “Come on boys, let’s go back to my place and have some carrot wine.” “No,” i said…I’d had some of my mother’s homemade wine, knocks the s*** right outta ya. “No, no,” he says, laughing like a crazy Irishman. So we go back to his place and have some carrot wine, on top of all the beer we drank.  Then we staggered up the hill, until we got to the flat we were livin’ in.  I laid on the bed, and the f***** room was goin’ round and round.  Then I had to throw up, so I fell off the bed, got on my hands and knees, and crawled round to the bathroom.  Oh, that carrot wine!

YTMS: I never heard of carrot wine.

Bryan: Brutal.  So those groups back then, we’d watch them, and after a while we’d dance to them.  They were pretty cool.

YTMS: Were you a fan of the American bands when they came to England?

Bryan: We might have seen a few of them.

Jerry Lee Lewis – No Encore?

YTMS: Didn’t you say you saw Buddy Holly?

Bryan: Buddy Holly was when I lived in London, and went to the Gaumont State Kilburn. 

Like I said, the first guy we saw was Guy Mitchell. “Singing The Blues” – that was his big hit song.  After that, it was Bill Haley and the Comets, and then Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and then there was Jerry Lee Lewis. I checked on this – he only sung in three concerts, and that was it.

YTMS: In the UK?

Bryan: Yeah, the press gave him a hard time, cause he had married his 13-year-old cousin. But I read many years ago in about 1980, in the Penthouse or Playboy, I was reading that, and here’s an article on Jerry Lee Lewis, and then there was a paragraph about Jerry Lee singing at the State Kilburn, and it said we boo’ed him off the stage, because he married his 13-year-old cousin.  It wasn’t because of that.  We listened to him…he did his bit, and here’s the reason why we boo’ed him…

YTMS: Why?

Bryan: Why do you think?

YTMS: He sucked?

Bryan: No, he was fabulous.  It was because he left the stage, and wouldn’t come back and do an encore.  NO ENCORE.  And another guy that would not play an encore was Roy Orbison. When I used to ride my scooter around London with my pals, we’d see tour posters with Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers…

But you know, they were the best of times, the 60’s, and all those groups.  There wasn’t 1 group, or 2 groups…we used to have parties at my house, with my parents. 

After the British Legion closed on a Saturday night, people come over and we’d play records like Little Eva “Locomotion”, The Beatles, The Stones, and whoever else was popular at the time. 

They were good parties, they really were, and then we’d sit around and play cards afterwards, drinkin’ my mothers’ home made wine.  Then I’d get up and say “Holy f***!  It’s broad daylight!” and everybody’d be gone…


And so concluded my chat with ex-mod Bryan Rogers.  Stay tuned, we may yet chat again!  

Read about Bryan Rogers’ life story – http://imnotadoctorbutillhavealook.com

The Controversial History Of The Banjo

History can be a hard thing to discuss, because, inevitably, you probably weren’t there to see the events unfold as they did.

This is especially true when we’re talking about the history of one particular musical instrument with a somewhat checkered past – the banjo.

The banjo, as we know it, dates back 400 or so years to the Carribean in the 1600’s, when and where it was first documented.

By documented, I am referring to the only way anything way typically was documented centuries before now, and that is to say – in books, by way of either sketches or more detailed drawings, since cameras weren’t yet invented.

Sir Hans Sloane – First Documented Picture of a Banjo

For instance, here is an image taken from a travel journal from 1707 by Sir Hans Sloane, called “A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica”.

This shows the first documented image of what appears to be a banjo, or something like it, in the Carribean isles.

It should be noted that the book from which this picture was taken, was based on events that occurred in 1687, and then transcribed into book form in the 1700’s.

Sir Hans Sloane was a noted Irish physician, and his purpose in the Carribean was to assist the new Governor of Jamaica, the second Duke of Albemarle, as his personal physician.

While visiting the islands, he collected plants for study and also documented other things.  He also invented drinkable chocolate (chocolate milk), so you have him to thank for that, apparently.

As you can see from the drawings in his documents of the islands around Jamaica, these “banjos”, as it were, didn’t really resemble the banjos of today.  This is because they weren’t, strictly speaking, banjos.

These instruments were, at the time of documentation by Hans Sloane, considered to be simply the instruments the peoples of the Carribean were playing at the time, and in the text you can see them referred to as “lutes”.

One of the defining characteristics of a banjo, which is present in the above example, is the drum-like body.

I should mention that, around this time in history (mid-1600’s), there were dozens of variations of stringed instruments that all appeared slightly different.

With the increasingly large migration patterns of people in 1600’s, it was certainly a difficult task to document what each was called, and what unique traits each one possessed.

Stringed instruments themselves date back 40 000 years, so it’s not as though stringed instruments themselves were new.  Humans have been playing stringed instruments for thousands of years.

Plucked lutes, in particular, have been documented in Mesopotamia from around 6000 years ago.

Today the word banjo is loosely defined as: A stringed musical instrument (chordophone) with a round body, a membrane like soundboard and a fretted neck, played by plucking or strumming the strings.

The origin of the word “banjo” can be traced back to several places, including “banja” from Jamaica, “banza” from Brazil, and mbanza from Angola.

I’ve also seen the word “banjo”, used as a verb, meaning “to beat” or “to hit”.  As in, “He banjoed that guy in the face.”  This usage is, apparently, of British decent.  I don’t believe it is commonly used nowadays, but only the Brits know this for sure.

Where Did The Banjo Instrument Originally Come From?

Although the first documented picture of what could be considered a banjo dates back to the 1600’s in the Carribean islands (ie.(the one at the top of this article), this doesn’t mean banjos were “invented” in the Carribean.

Again, if we define a banjo as a stringed instrument with several strings and a drum-like surface, we can trace its origins back even further, and to other continents.

There are many popular perceptions surrounding precisely where the banjo originated, and there are logical reasons for each of these presumptions.

For example, most people who live in North America don’t think first of the Carribean as the birthplace of the banjo.  To some of us living in North America, suggesting that the banjo came from the Carribean doesn’t really sound accurate, and I think this is understandable.

The more dominant association that Westerners, I think, tend to recognize between the banjo and a particular geographic location, links the banjo, at least in the Westernized mind, to the southern United States.

This is a fair guess, as much of the lore, not to mention the majority of the popular media from the past 50 years, associates the banjo with styles of music that originated in the southern U.S., such as bluegrass, dixieland, and country music.

In addition, southern banjo players have been prominently been featured on various television shows and movies over the past 50 or so years, and that leads many of us to simply assume that banjo must come from the southern U.S., not the Carribean, as most research points to quite clearly.

Indeed, I’d say that there is a deep association between the instrument we call the “banjo” and states in the U.S. which are considered to be Appalachian.

Appalachian states include: West Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

In turn, the history of Appalachian culture traces back to Scotland, Ireland, and Germany, when those peoples moved to North America and began living there in the 1800’s.  And so, there are those who might guess that the banjo may have come from these countries, originally.

For example, it would seem fairly logical to think that the banjo may have come from Ireland, where the banjo is still popular today, when Irish peoples migrated into the mysterious and mountainous Appalachian rural regions, when the potato famine and general starvation prompted them to leave their homeland.

As many of us are aware, there are various stigmas attached to the idea of the someone who is from Appalachia, both good and bad, which I need not elaborate on here.

Suffice it to say, Appalachian peoples are considered to be of the land, and there is certainly a connotation that links banjo playing to a more rural type of folk.

In other words, an impoverished people, and this is fact is very much line with the reputation of previous peoples who played the banjo in past decades, where they were of a lower caste.

Here is that famous scene from the movie Deliverance, featuring the classic “dueling banjos” bit, although one “banjo” is clearly a guitar.

The interesting thing about the boy from Deliverance, Lonnie, who was presumably chosen for this unusual appearance (the book depicts an albino negro), is that he didn’t even know how to play the banjo, nor was he recruited from the backwoods of northern Georgia.

This next clip interviews the “boy” himself (now in his 50’s), played by Billy Redden, where he talks more about his role in the movie and his lack of skill on the instrument.

The clip also includes an interview with Ronny Cox (who played Drew Ballinger) talking about the cultural significance of the famous banjo scene, as being one of the defining movie moments of all time.

As more research is done about the history of the banjo, an interesting but rather dark narrative began to emerge from the gloaming of the past.

All that is needed to put this in perspective is a proper view of history and the slave trade in the 1600’s, which historians, by this point, have illustrated rather conclusively, to the point where any educated person would have trouble refuting it.

When it comes to the banjo’s true origins, all research points to it originating from Africa.  Specifically, countries such as Senegal or The Gambia (ie. Senegambia), which were the focus of the slave trade.

The original picture which I shared at the beginning of this article, from 1707, shows a version of the banjo that does not yet appear in its modern form.

Banjos made from gourds

When the banjo was beginning to catch on in the Carribean, it still showed some evidence of its past where it was fashioned sometimes out of gourds, serving as a shell for the body.  This was then attached to its characteristic long neck, and strings were added.

Before banjos took on the appearance we know them to have today, with a circular body shaped that almost looks like a snare drum, their precursors from Africa were often made from different materials than were available in the Americas in later centuries.

Here is a reproduction of a colonial era banjo made with a gourd for a body.  As you can see, this has influences of a style of instrument popular in Africa over the centuries.  At the same time, you can see how this instrument below does have characteristics of the modern banjo.

Next, we have an image of a banjo that seems to bridge the gap, between a banjo body made out of a gourd, and one that more resembles a wider circular drum.

Even though it still has a primitive look, like it wasn’t “professionally” built, this banjo begins to take on a more “modern” shape.

The image most of us conjure up when someone says the word “banjo”, was not yet in existence in 1707, and wouldn’t be for at least 100 years.

Here is an old banjo from the 1900’s.  By this time, banjos were fully Americanized, one might say.  It has the modern fretboard, the modern tuning pegs, and the unmistakable body and neck shape.

To reach its modern form, history would have to wait until the late, great, and controversial Joel Sweeney came along in the 1830’s and “invented” it, or so it has been said.

Joel Sweeney, “Inventor” of the 5-String Banjo

Joel Walker Sweeney was a popular minstrel performer from the first half of the 19th century hailing from Virginia, who was perhaps the first popular white man to famously play the instrument.  At the same time, he was said to have been taught by African Americans, which is partly why he could play so good.

Joel Sweeney has been credited with raising the profile of the banjo from an instrument associated with the unwashed masses, and bring it up to a level of sophistication which could be eventually be accepted, and then firmly embraced by the middle class.

Claiming that Joel Sweeney somehow single handedly raised the stature of banjo playing on a global level is almost too ludicrous to say, but it may in fact ultimately be true.

The reason the claim is contentious, is because Joel Sweeney was not just a talented performer who ended up making the banjo more famous because of his adept abilities on the instrument.  He certainly was that, but that was only part of how Joel Sweeney shined the spotlight on the banjo, and “brought it” to the higher societal castes, as it were.

Here is a book on Joel Walker Sweeney, if you are interested in getting the full story on the man and what he did for the banjo.

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The Birth Of The Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney And Early Minstrelsy

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The Birth Of The Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney And Early Minstrelsy

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It is more accurate to say, I think, that Joel Sweeney was a multi-talented circus performer who, according to rumour, played the instrument with his feet, while fiddlin’ with his hands, and then playing mouth harp all at the same time, when the mood hit him.

He was also highly skilled at imitating animals, as one of his primary talents for which he was known.  Basically, the guy was just a son of a gun who was, by all accounts, very entertaining to everyone who happened to catch his performances.

His influence spread as he and his troupe toured America, as well as Europe, and even played for Queen Victoria in 1843.  He then went on and played and showed off his formidable banjo playing skills with his brothers, called Old Joe’s Minstrels.

Joel Sweeney’s influence on the popularity of the banjo cannot be underestimated.

The controversy, which occurs more in retrospect than it did at the time it happened, comes now from the fact that Joel was a blackface performer, a practice which is now practically forbidden in Western society today.

To be specific, blackface is the theatrical practice where non-black performers painted themselves up to look “black” with greasepaint, burnt cork, or shoe polish.

The last time we saw people performing in blackface wasn’t all that long ago.  One more recent instance was The Black and White Minstrel Show from 1978.

Consider this – slavery didn’t end until 1865, with the introduction of the 13th Amendment, which declares: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Of course, it is not difficult to see the connection between the racial stereotypes that blackface seemed to promote, and the mistreatment of blacks through the centuries.  In fact, the idea of the old style minstrel show, complete with blackface, is a quick reminder to many people, to this day, of the existence of slavery, and various caricatures of black culture.

Of course, where you had minstrel shows in the 17th century, onward, you had blackface, and so then you had banjos.  Banjos, the instrument which was beginning to see acceptance worldwide, and detaching itself from various prejudices of the times, was still very much embroiled in what I can only call “racism”.

It is understood that, in the context of the times, minstrel shows were quite normal.  Then again, so was slavery.

Perhaps the most famous blackface performer people know today is Al Jolson, who was the highest paid entertainer back in the 1920’s and was, at the time, proclaimed “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” at one time.

Al Jolson, although he didn’t play the banjo himself, helped popularize one of the most well known banjo songs ever – Oh Susanna.

To me, this song represents, in large part, why the banjo is thought to come from the southern U.S., as the lyrics reflect this, and the song is maybe the best known banjo tune of all time.

As you can see above, Al Jolson used blackface makeup, which he often did.

This practice of blackface dated back to, reportedly, the 1400’s, but had become very popular in colonial America at the time in the 1800’s.  There are many pictures of blackface performers holding or playing banjos.

The association between minstrels wearing blackface makeup and the banjo itself is a strong one, but I don’t say this to indict the banjo as being part of the history of racism, even though it essentially is a part of that history.  That said, you can’t really “blame” an instrument for anything, can you?

Of course, there’s no denying that the banjo probably wouldn’t have made it to the Carribean, to be used by slaves in the Americas, had it not been brought across the seas along with the thousands of slaves who played similar instruments, and who were sold to slavers at the time, in the 1600’s, when the trade was in full swing.

It is worth mentioning that at this time, the banjo was not called a “banjo.”   I mentioned some of the other names of the banjo that were used previously, but, back in 1687, when Sir Hans Sloane was travelling in the Carribean, writing his now-famous journals, he referred to the instrument as the “strum strump”.  Nice name!

Akonting

In these African communities in Senegambia, from which slaves were being captured and brought to the Americas by the thousands, there was (and still is) an instrument known as the akonting, which is said to be the precursor to the modern banjo.

Other African instruments said to be precursors of the banjo include the ngoni and xalam, but for now I’ll focus on the akonting, a hide-covered instrument said to be the most similar to the banjo.

The akonting (also known as the ekonting to the Jola tribes who first created them) is a strummed folk lute style of instrument which is similar to a banjo, traditionally made with a gourd for a body, along with two strings for melody, plus one drone string played with the thumb.  This makes the akonting similar to a 5-string banjo.

The akonting can be traced back to the village of Kanjanka, Senegal.  It can be tuned in different ways, similar to a 5-string banjo, and its tuning, called kanjanka, equates to kan (5th note of a scale), jan (root note of a scale), and ka (the flatted 7th), or 5/1/-7.

Here is a picture of a Jola village, the originators of the akonting / ekonting instrument.

Up next, we have a man named Daniel Jatta, playing a tune written by his father on the akonting in the traditional style.

The downstroke style here, called “o’teck” or “to strike”, is very similar in style to the very first banjo styles in the Americas, the “stroke style”, which was a precursor to the clawhammer or frailing style.

While all of this seems very plausible, that the akonting was brought over to the Americas by slaves, and that is the instrument upon which the modern banjo was based, there is still some controversy around this topic, making it unclear at which point exactly what happened during those harrowing years when the slaves were brought to the Americas.

Banjos on the Plantations

By 1807, there were over 3 million African slaves in the Americas, where they harvested crops like tobacco, sugar, and cotton.

Once the slaves were living in the Americas, they lived on the plantations, worked, and, above all else, suffered.  For a more detailed history of what this was like, go here.

As much as the African slaves suffered, their music never left them, and they looked for opportunities to express it, as anyone would.

Although they basically were brought here with nothing, the African slaves were eventually able to have some small respite from their masters, at first through the singing of gospel music, which is something that was impossible to take from them completely and helped them cope.

Then, if they were able, they would produce the occasional musical instrument that they were able to build by hand.

This is where their memories of their favourite native African instruments came back to them, and they were able to make these banjo-esque instruments, in order to accompany their singing, and put voice to their struggle.

That is, if their cruel slave masters allowed it.  Some plantation owners certainly did not accommodate their wishes, regardless of how modest they were.

Here is a recent “lynching memorial” erected in Montgomery, Alabama.

William Boucher

In the midst of the tumult that was America in the 1800’s, due to slavery, wars, and other factors, a Baltimore man named William Boucher was busy building instruments, including drums and minstrel banjos.  He was the first ever commercial maker of banjos in the U.S.A.

Here is a video which shows a replica of a Boucher banjo being played.  Not surprisingly, there’s a little Oh Susanna thrown in for good measure.

You can still purchase original builds of these banjos, although they will can cost upwards of $10 000 nowadays.

Conclusion

While there is plenty more to say about the development of the banjo up through the years, I think it’s alright to stop here.

As we know, the banjo went on to become an instrument that is a major part of the broader musical landscape around the world.

Despite its confusing and controversial history, I can say that in 2018, if a young person wants to learn the banjo, they can do so without having to ponder all of the heavier historical baggage that comes along with it and just enjoy the music.

That said, sweeping history under the rug is never a wise thing to do, especially when we know some of the facts.

West German Underground – A Brief History of Krautrock

krautrock band

Sauerkraut (literally “sour herb” or “sour leaf”) is a salty cabbage dish from Germany that’s really quite delicious. It’s often eaten with mashed potatoes and ham or sausages. From this popular cabbage dish, the term “kraut” arose as a slang word for a German person, usually in a derogatory sense.

The term “Deutsch-Rock” (German Rock) was used until 1973 for the rock groups coming out of West Germany.

But in the early 1970s, the British music magazine known as Melody Maker coined the term “krautrock”.

It was first used more to ridicule or make fun of the bands, but as krautrock caught on in Britain the term lost any negative or mocking connotations it once had, though many German “krautrock” bands still rejected the name.

It is thought that krautrock was more of a British phenomenon that focused on how the music was received in Britain, rather than how the West German music scene felt about the music.

Characteristics of Krautrock

Krautrock may sometimes be referred to as “Kosmische Musik” (meaning Cosmic Music), which suits its sound in my opinion, because there are aspects of this music that feel otherworldly, like they can’t have been composed here on Earth by other humans.

There are elements of the unexpected – it is unpredictable, slightly strange, a little bit out there. I think it’s also interesting to note that the word “komisch” means strange in German, which is not a far cry from “kosmische”.  You could always call the music space-y, and that would fit as well.

night sky

But what does Krautrock mean, musically speaking?  It is, essentially, a genre of experimental rock which pulls from psychedelic rock, funk, jazz, avant-garde, and electronic music.

It arose from West Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The genre deliberately tries to distance itself from the American rhythm and blues genre and instead draws on German influences, while still keeping a distinct rock rhythm.

A band member of the popular krautrock band Faust stated that they tried to forget everything typical of the rock and roll genre, including the three-cord pattern and the usual lyrics. They wanted something totally different.

Here’s a little taste of Faust…

Krautrock is a very experimental genre, breaking out of old, tried-and-true habits and delving into the untouched, the unthought of, the new and strange.

A 4/4 rhythm known as “motorik” is common of the krautrock genre. Motorik means “motor skills” in German. This drum pattern was pioneered by Jaki Liebezeit, drummer of the popular krautrock band Can, and was also used early on by the band Neu!.

The motorik 4/4 beat was later used by many other krautrock bands.

Early Beginnings

In the 1960’s, the hippie movement and political activism that was rampant in North America and Europe demanded a new type of music.

Avant-garde music was emerging, droning on with ambient synthesizers and other psychedelic sounds. This genre of music largely inspired the krautrock movement.

In 1968 in the city of Essen, a rock festival took place, and this was one of the first places that krautrock was performed and heard.

From here on, the krautrock genre took hold and many bands began producing music with this spacey, ambient and electronic sound.

A Closer Look at the Pioneering Bands

Let’s take a look at Can, one of the pioneering bands of krautrock. Can was formed by two students of the famous and praised composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Stockhausen was called one of the most influential and also controversial composers of the 20th century. He was well educated in music, having attend the University of Cologne and the University of Bonn.

He was known for his influential compositions, his work with electronic music and his theories.

Can

Evidently, his students learned a lot from his unique teachings, and went on to form the krautrock band Can, which was using techniques that were, at the time, very new and unheard of.

It is one thing to see a new genre of music after it has been invented and think, “that doesn’t seem so hard to come up with, the idea was sitting right in front of them”, but it is another thing entirely to create a new genre from thin air.

Of course, Can was not the only band pioneering the krautrock genre, but they certainly had a big hand in it.

Can band photo

For a super detailed history of Can, go here

Can was formed in 1968 in Cologne. The band mainly consisted of four members: Holger Czukay on bass and Irmin Schmidt on keyboard (the two members who studied under Stockhausen and formed the band), Jaki Liebezeit on drums (from whom the motorik beat originated) and Michael Karoli on guitar.

The group did not have one permanent singer, but rather many temporary ones.

Tago Mago album cover

Schmidt, the band’s keyboardist, had been heavily influenced by avant-garde musicians such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich and La Monte Young on a trip he took to New York.

From this, he began to see the new and different possibilities of rock music. In 1968 the band released their first album “Monster Movie” with vocals by Malcolm Mooney.

Then in 1971, they released another revolutionary and unconventional album, “Tago Mago” with vocals by Damo Suzuki. “Tago Mago” was a very influential album, featuring great tracks such as the dreamy “Paperhouse” and the hypnotic “Oh Yeah”.  Have a listen to the song “Paperhouse” below.

Neu

Another band that helped lay the groundwork for krautrock was the band Neu! (meaning “New”).

If you’re wondering why the band was named “new!”, it was inspired by the rise of advertising in the bigger German cities at the time, and “new” was one of the most powerful words for selling different things to the public.

Neu! was formed in 1971 in Düsseldorf by Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother. Dinger and Rother were two former members of the popular band Kraftwerk in its earliest days, but left to start Neu!.

Although Neu! had less commercial success than Can, it was still a pioneer of krautrock and inspired many punk, rock and electronic bands in the years that followed.

The band’s first album, entitled “Neu!”, was released in 1972 and sold 30 000 copies, which was not very much when compared to mainstream competitors, but a decent amount when considered that they were an underground, off-beat band.

This album has come to be praised by many big names in music such as David Bowie, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop. Songs like “Hallogallo” demonstrated the quintessential motorik beat.

During the production of their second album, Neu! 2, Rother and Dinger began to run out of money. Therefore, on the second side of their album, they simply remixed and played with their already recorded single “Super”, sometimes slowing it down, sometimes speeding it up, and manipulating it in other ways.

The song “Super 16”, one of the manipulated versions of the original song, was used in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Kill Bill Volume 1.

The duo Dinger and Rother were quite different from each other. In their third album, “Neu! ‘75”, they decided to each pursue their own personal style, making half the album a solo album for Dinger, and half the album a solo album for Rother.

This album is seen as a very diverse krautrock album. After its release, the duo split up and went their separate ways.

Kraftwerk

As mentioned before, Dinger and Rother were originally in the band Kraftwerk in its early days, before leaving to form Neu!. Kraftwerk was another influential band of electronic music.

It was formed in Düsseldorf in 1970 by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider. The band experimented with krautrock in its early days, featuring instruments such as the synthesizer, drum machines and self-made instruments.

Kraftwerk really helped to popularize the lesser-known krautrock genre and make it available to a wider audience.

kraftwerk

They released three albums in the early 1970s: “Kraftwerk” in 1970, “Kraftwerk 2” in 1972 and “Ralf und Florian” in 1973. They performed as a duo during the years of 1972-1973, as their lineup was not steady.

In 1974, they had commercial success with their hit album “Autobahn”, which they were able to tour with the financial help of Phonogram Inc.

After this tour, they began working on their next album which was released in October of 1975, entitled “Radio-Aktivität”, or “Radio-Activity” in English. Kraftwerk is still active in 2018, working on new projects.

You can listen to the album “Autobahn” below.

Faust

Lastly, we’ll take a look at Faust, who we gave a sample of near the top of the article.

Faust is a band named after the protagonist of a classic German tale. Faust was a popular band that was formed in 1971 in Wümme. Faust paved the way for many other krautrock bands. Although their debut album had poor sales, it did attract a small but loyal fan base, and was praised for its innovation. Their second album, “So Far”, did better than the first and was one of the albums that made krautrock accessible internationally. Here is the title track from that album.

Some other notable krautrock bands include Tangerine Dream, Embryo, Cosmic Jokers and Cluster, among many others.

The Influence of Krautrock

Krautrock had a considerable influence on many genres, including electronic, post-punk, rock and British new wave. A notable musician who was inspired by the krautrock scene was David Bowie.

Bowie, who began living in Berlin in 1976, later created the “Berlin Trilogy”, a sequence of three albums, “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger” as a tribute to the music scene he experienced in Berlin, which included krautrock and kosmiche musik.

Conclusion

Krautrock, while it may have been named so as a mockery at first, has actually become a highly influential and fascinating genre. It features cosmic, dreamy and ambient sounds and often uses the 4/4 motorik rhythm.

I think the krautrock genre is commendable in its non-conformity and innovation of the rock genre.

Bent Beats – A Brief History of Funk Music

James Brown

What is funk music?  Funk is an earthy, rhythmic genre that blends jazz, soul and R&B. In this article we’ll take a brief look at the extensive history of this groovy and influential music.

Here’s a funk drum loop called “Funky Drummer” that originated from James Brown’s band and has been used many a time on hip hop songs, but it was born out of funk.  Maybe you have heard it?  This will hopefully set the mood for this article…

Etymology

The word “funk” comes from the latin word “fumigare” which means “to smoke”. Funk was originally introduced into English to describe a strong smell and was first used around 1620.

About a century later, the adjective “funky” was derived, meaning musty. This word was then picked up by the jazz communities in the 1900s and used as slang to describe something that was earthy or deeply felt.

By the 1950s and 1960s, the use of “funky” to describe jazz was common, and this is how the genre “funk” got its unique name.

Characteristics

Funk is a very danceable genre. It is upbeat, rhythmic and, for lack of another word, undeniably funky. Funk puts more emphasis on bass line as opposed to melody. It incorporates a variety of rhythm instruments, with bass and drums playing an important role in most funk songs.

Funk usually doesn’t limit itself to the regular verse/chorus structure of most songs. The song goes where the music carries it, and often each section of the song is given fairly equal weight and importance.

Funk was the voice of a generation in the 1970s. It expressed the struggles of the working-class community, giving them music to share and identify with.

Here’s a band called The Meters that you’ll become familiar with if you stick with the funk.  Cissy Strut, 1974…

Beginnings of Funk (Late 1960s)

Funk was born in the African-American communities of the mid to late 1960s. It was heavily influenced by (you could even say it was started by) a musician named James Brown, AKA the “Godfather of Soul”.

James Brown

James Brown was an innovative singer that started out in blues and gospel-based forms of music, singing in the group The Famous Flames in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Later in the 1960s, however, Brown decided to try something new, and so he shifted to an Africanized style of music. This change in style was launched by his hit singles in 1965, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)”.

Check out this clip of James Brown performing live in 1965.  If you haven’t heard him before, this will help you understand the meaning of funk.

Brown’s signature groove developed into an accentuated downbeat, with emphasis on the first beat, as opposed to on the backbeat which was typical of most African-American music at the time. In other words, his signature groove went like this: one-two-three-four, as opposed to the typical one-two-three-four.

Brown’s style of funk can be seen clearly in his songs such as “Ain’t It Funky Now” (released in 1967) and “Mother Popcorn” (released in 1969), in which he uses strong bass lines, drums patterns and complex grooves to make a rhythmic and danceable song.

Brown also used his voice as a percussion instrument in his songs quite often, by making rhythmic exclamations, laughs, or grunts throughout the music, as a drum might do. 

This type of percussive vocals is something the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, adopted later on.  Here’s a clip of Jackson doing what he did best back in the 1980’s.

Speaking of drums, another large contributor to the funk genre was Clyde Stubblefield, a well-known drummer who worked with James Brown. Stubblefield was largely influenced by the R&B genre that arose from New Orleans after the second World War.

This played an important role in the development of the funk genre. Stubblefield took up these New Orleans R&B drumming techniques and turned them into the groundwork of funk.

According to Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis, another musician who worked with James Brown, “Clyde Stubblefield was just the epitome of this funky drumming”.  For an example of his funky style, you can listen to the audio clip we added at the beginning of this article.

Clyde Stubblefield drumming

The Rise of Funk in the 1970s

After James Brown pioneered this new and exciting type of music, many musicians began to adopt his style. Dyke and the Blazers released one of the first albums to have “funky” in its name: the album “Funky Broadway” in 1967.

In 1970, the band Tower of Power (TOP) released their debut album, “Easy Bay Grease” featuring songs such as “The Price” and “Back on the Streets Again”. The band was a break-through for modern funk because they popularized the genre and spread it to a wider audience.  

The band Sly and the Family Stone released the song “Thank You” which hit #1 in the charts in 1970, and their song “Family Affair” reached #1 in 1971.

The Meters, whom we mentioned earlier, was another influential band who brought funk to New Orleans, making it popular in that area.

Another significant funk band was The Isley Brothers, who came out with the hit song “It’s Your Thing”. This group was one of the stepping stones that lay between the jazzier James Brown and the psychedelic Jimi Hendrix.  

The 1970s is undeniably when funk had the most time in the limelight. You could say that the 1970s were the “heyday” of the funk genre. It was played on the radio and enjoyed by many people.

Some other big names in funk at the time were Stevie Wonder, Rufus & Chaka Khan, and the Bar-Kays.  Here’s Stevie with a funky number called Master Blaster (jammin’).

Jazz-Funk-Fusion

The 1970’s were also when jazz musicians began blending jazz with different genres. Jazz-funk arose from this experimentation: a blend of jazz and funk. Jazz-funk used electric bass and electric piano, as opposed to the traditional jazz of the time, which used double bass and grand piano.

Herbie Hancock, a jazz pianist who played with the Miles Davis Quintet throughout the 60s, decided to break out into the world of funk in the 70s with a new band of his creation called The Headhunters. Their debut album, “Head Hunters”, was released in 1973 and became an instant hit across audiences, though it was criticized by some jazz musicians because it felt more like funk than jazz.  

Here it is!  If you want to feel funky, put this on.

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, one of the most acclaimed jazz figures of the 20th century, decided to release a jazz-funk album in the 1970s, like so many other jazz artists.

The album he recorded was “On the Corner”. He wrote it during the summer of 1972 and released it later that same year. It was an attempt to recapture his young black audience, who were turning to funk and rock instead of jazz.

“On the Corner” is rich with layers and textures, with instruments such as the Indian tambura and tablas, as well as the Cuban congas and bongos. There is also heavy funk drumming and a funky groove played on the bass.     

P-Funk (Parliament Funk)

In addition to the blend of jazz and funk, some groups began to develop a funk-rock style. The two bands of singer George Clinton, Funkadelic and Parliament, started experimenting with jazz and psychedelic rock in their funk music.

P-Funk

These two bands are often referred to together as Parliament-Funkadelic, because they shared many band members.

From these two bands, the subgenre P-Funk arose, referring to the music of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic.

The P-Funk groups became quite popular in the 1970s, due to their exciting new brand of funk and their live performances. Starting in the 1980s, samples of P-Funk were also incorporate throughout many rap and hip-hop songs, including Dr. Dre.

Influence on Disco

Disco music was heavily influenced by funk. Many of the disco hits of that time were sung by artists who started off in funk.

For example, the funk band Rufus & Chaka Khan launched the solo singing career of Chaka Khan, who went on to sing the hit disco song “I’m Every Woman”.

Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” was also inspired by funk rhythms, as was “Kung Foo Fighting” by Biddu and Carl Douglas, and “Love Hangover” by Diana Ross.  

And let’s not forget the funkiest disco band of them all, Chic.

1980s Synthesizer Funk

Electronic instruments, drum machines, and of course, synthesizers, began to trickle into funk music in the 1980s. Saxophones and trumpets were given less time in the lime light of songs, and synth keyboards became popular instead. Synth keyboards were also used for the bass lines that were originally played on bass.

In 1980, the band Yellow Magic Orchestra became the first band to use the programmable drum machine known as a TR-808.

Rick James was another artist of the time experimenting with synthesizer funk. With his hit 1981 singles “Super Freak” and “Give It to Me Baby”, we can see that the 1980s brought a change not only to the sound of funk but to the lyrics of funk as well; they became more explicit than before.

Prince was another icon of the 1980s, writing adventurous music with sexual themes and funky instrumentation. Some other synth-funk artists of the time were Cameo, the Bar-Kays, Zapp, and the Dazz Band.

Afrika Bambaataa, a band inspired by Yellow Magic Orchestra, developed electro-funk in 1982 a genre driven by electronic sounds woven into funk beats.

Late 1980s and Onwards

Funk declined greatly in popularity with the arrival of hip-hop, rap and contemporary R&B in the late 1980s. However, it was still used, and is still used today, for sampling in many hip-hop songs. 

In fact, James Brown and Parliament-Funk are said to be the two most sampled artists in all of the hip-hop genre. Dr. Dre has said that he was greatly influenced by the psychedelic funk of George Clinton and P-Funk. 

Dr. Dre

Rock bands also used certain elements of funk in their songs. Bands such as Jane’s Addiction and Rage Against the Machine were influenced and inspired by funk.

The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, when they first began, took a page from punk funk acts like Defunkt and The Contortions. Their debut album, “The Red Hot Chilli Peppers” featured back-up vocals by Gwen Dickey, the singer of the disco funk band Rose Royce.

Even modern R&B music has been touched by the splendours of funk. Beyoncé’s 2003 hit “Crazy in Love” samples the funk song “Are You My Woman” by the Chi-Lites, a funk quartet from Chicago.

The song “Get Right” by Jennifer Lopez samples the funk song “Soul Power ‘74” by Maceo Parker, a trumpeter who worked with James Brown in Parliament-Funkadelic.

Women of Funk

Often, the history of funk focusses on men, and on bands consisting mostly of men, but there have been notable and influential funk women as well.

Chaka Khan, for example, who started in the band Rufus and Chaka Khan before pursuing a solo career, has been called the “Queen of Funk”.

Her 1984 album “I Feel For You”, brought her much success and became a platinum album. The title track of this album features a harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder and a rap by Grandmaster Melle Mel.

Dawn Silva and Lynn Mabry are another two big names in funk. They started off as back-up singers for Sly and the Family Stone, and then began working with Parliament-Funkadelic. They then began their own career under the name The Brides of Funkenstein, which was named by George Clinton after the P-Funk album “The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein”.

 Their 1978 debut album, “Funk or Walk”, was a huge success, selling thousands of copies in the first week.

In 1979, Lynn Mabry left and was replaced by Sheila Horne and Jeanette McGruder. Their second album, “Never Buy Texas from a Cowboy” won them an award for best new female artist.

Here is the title track from that album. 

The Pointer Sisters, made up of the four sisters Ruth, Anita, Bonnie and June Pointer, were a quartet that performed music spanning the genres of R&B, pop, be-bop, soul, and of course, funk.

They strived to create original music that combined jazz and be-bop rather than follow the mainstream trend of pop.

Some of their top singles include “Fire”, “Jump (For My Love)”, and “Yes We Can Can”.

Conclusion

Although there is so much more to be said about the intricate and extensive genre of funk, I’ll leave it here for now.

Funk has certainly been a very influential genre since the get go, getting its roots from blues singer James Brown and quickly spreading across North America.

It became big in the 1970s and was fused with many other genres to create sub-genres such as funk rock, jazz funk, electro-funk and psychedelic funk.

Its earthy sound, danceable beats, groovy bass lines and drum beats continue to please and inspire many audiences.  

We’ll leave you something with something that comes from a more electronic direction, that being some music by Luke Vibert.  Adios and stay funky y’all!

History of the Gramophone or Phonograph

The gramophone is a record player that you’ve probably seen – the one with the horn on the side.

Even if you’ve never seen one up close and personal, you know exactly what it is. They were the first devices invented to play back music and other forms of sound.

Before we jump into the history, here’s a quick video showing a gramophone that is still functional playing an old record, so you get the idea, even if you have no idea what I’m rattling on about up until now. 

What is a Gramophone?

The gramophone, or phonograph, is a device that records and plays sound. While we’ll be touching on the exact nature of the gramophone, it makes sense for us to talk about the disc phonograph record, which is a vinyl record as we know it today. These two concepts go hand in hand.

The waveforms of sound were impressed onto a wax cylinder when inventors were first experimenting with the device. The device was handcranked and produced a sound that wasn’t suitable for listening at all. It was awkward and cringe-inducing.

Musicians would find that they had to record music continuously because the wax cylinder couldn’t hold the tone. The cylinders used were very bulky, too.

As it was improved upon, the gramophone would record and play sound on discs made of tin and, finally, other materials.

It wasn’t until the gramophone used flat disks that it became more popular and successful.

Parts of the Gramophone

Disks

The disks brought the gramophone to life around 1892. They measured between 5 and 10 inches at that time. It was in 1908 or so that it was possible to record on both sides of the disk.

Turntable & Spindle

The turntable itself is made of a round steel or aluminum piece that is turned with a rubber belt. The turntable and spindle work together to spin the record for playing. The turntable keeps the disk in place while turning, too.

Stylus

This is the needle that plays the record or disk. It reads the music or sound for the listener. Early models would have a sapphire or diamond as the playback device. The early 1900s brought about copper and steel options instead.

The Horn

The horn of a gramophone is the iconic look that most people understand when you say gramophone or phonograph. It was the part of the device that allowed for playback to be heard.

To alter the volume of the sound emitting from the horn, they would use a muffling ball in the opening of the horn.

Who Invented the Gramophone?

In 1877, Thomas Edison came up with the concept of a device that would play back sound. He used a tinfoil design that could only play a recording one time.

Edison’s phonograph was pretty much a bust when Alexander Graham Bell created a graphophone. 

Here is a video showing a graphophone in action, so you can distinguish between a graphophone and a gramophone, as they are not the same thing.  The one in this video happens to be a 1896 American Graphophone Phonograph Washington Type A.

Unfortunately,Alexander Graham Bell came up with the wax cylinder that didn’t quite work. Each cylinder had to be recorded separately, which meant hours and hours for one cylinder.

Finally, Emile Berliner created the design we’re familiar with today. He applied for a patent in 1887, which was 10 years after Edison tried and failed at the same type of play back system. Berliner stopped trying to stick with the cylinder idea. That’s when it started to see success. He used flat disks. They were made of glass at first.  Here’s a newer record, made of glass.

Back then, the sound information was etched into the disk and played back with the stylus through the arm of the gramophone. The needle would transmit the vibrations to the horn, which would bring sound to the listener.

Berliner was the first to create a mold of a disk, which could be mass produced for a wide audience. Each mold would allow for hundreds of disk pressings.

The Gramophone Company

Berliner started the company to produce the gramophone he’d created as well as the disks to be played on the device. He had to persuade musicians to create music for his disks.

The company took on a painting by Francis Barraud as its trademark. It’s one that most people are still familiar with today (the picture with the dog looking into the horn). He sold patent rights to the gramophone as well as how to make records to RCA, The Victor Talking Machine Company. They were the ones to bring the product to the US.

The Automatic Gramophone

In the days when the gramophone was first patented, the listener had to hand crank the device. It would wind up the spring that would play out the record. It would play at an uneven speed based on the amount of tension in the gramophone.

Berliner and Elridge Johnson worked on a motor for the spring that would allow playback without having to crank. Without the cranking, the playback of records was even and smooth. Johnson had created a motor that would keep up a speed of 70 rotations per minute.

From the gramophone, other recording and playback devices evolved. Record players became more advanced. The horn was replaced with speakers inside the device.

Current Devices

Today, we have turntables and records for those who want to still hear vinyl records. These diehard record lovers are often called audiophiles. They’d rather hear a vinyl record from their favorite singers and musicians than digital reproductions.

There are also turntables used by DJs to create music mixes, but even most of those are done on digital turntables with digital recordings.

All of the current turntables and record players exist because of the invention of the original gramophone.

The Rise of the MP3 – Internet Audio Files That Changed the Music Industry

As an avid music listener and maker, it has been interesting to look back through the history of music availability and the changing formats in which music has been presented. 

With the advent of internet and computers especially into the 1990s, it introduced an entirely new way of storing music. 

There are two different categories of music file formats: lossless and lossy. Lossless, as you may surmise, indicates a file format that retains the original quality of the music whether it came from vinyl, CD, et cetera.

This includes AIFF, made by Apple, WAV, a universal format, FLAC, ALAC and APE. Most of these are uncompressed file formats, meaning there is no loss in quality or detail from the original music. 

Lossy refers to a slightly lower quality file format that is designed to save storage space, which leaves you, the listener, with more room for more music.

However, you will notice a significant difference in sound quality. This is because lossy file formats (MP3, AAC, et cetera) are typically compressed in order to make them smaller.

What matters in these formats is bit rate. If you’ve a file with a high bi trate then you won’t notice much difference, if any, between this and lossless files. 

What is an MP3?

MP3 is one of the most – if not THE most – popular file format available. It is a form of codec (COmpressing and DECompressing data).

Sometimes when people download music they look specifically for the MP3 format because it is so ubitiquitous and therefore well known, and some of us believe it is the only file format out there. Since it’s so popular, other formats like APE or FLAC can look rather daunting or untrustworthy. 

MP3 refers to a mass-produced file format that lacks proper and due quality, but people still love it. 

Its name, MP3, is short for MPEG 1 layer 3. It is an audio-coding technology that takes the information from CDs (and others), compresses the information into tiny files suitable for Internet transferring and computer storage.

This way, the music does not take up much space, allowing the user to download or copy as many songs as they please. Mostly these came from CDs.

CDs contain digital files too, but one song can be up to 40 megabytes in size, and that is a lot of space when you take into consideration a full-length CD multiplied by your entire collection.

Think of it this way: one minute of CD quality audio sound takes up about 10 megabytes. This is for full-resolution files.

The MP3 file would take up about 3.5 megabytes instead, making the files eleven times smaller. That’s quite a significant change and you can imagine the bits of detail that may get quashed during the process, since there just isn’t room for it.

However, MP3, like other lossy formats, are built on the theory that the human ear doesn’t really pick up much information to begin with, therefore it’s not even worth coding in.

In addition to allowing for more storage on your personal computer, MP3 files, being so much smaller, can be downloaded in ten minutes instead of several hours. It is important to note that once the files are compressed, the lost data is lost forever.

The sharing of music and MP3 downloading was, in 1999, as popular as people searching for sex online. 

When was the MP3 invented? 

The MP3 was developed in the late 1980s and used in the early 1990s. It was nearly abandoned, considered a dead format by 1995. It was replaced by the AAC format in 1996, a format that could get around technical limitations imposed on the MP3.

Initially the MP3 was used for sports sites. The internet however really took off in the 1990s, with tons of websites popping up that were dedicated solely to pirated music and file sharing. Remember Napster?

The MP3 was named in popular press in 1997 and fully reborn by 1999. Technicolor and Fraunhofer IIS are the companies behind it. A lot of people had computers and internet service at this time.

The MP3 subsequently appeared for those who wanted to use the Internet as a new and powerful tool to share their creative works with others. It was a fast and easy way of sharing music with people all over the world. 

Its rise in popularity

When MP3 websites were first available, it was a lot of college and university students sharing files of bootlegged albums with each other since they lacked the funds to purchase CDs.

However, these young people also had passionate interest in lesser known artists and the internet was the perfect place for them to both find and share new musicians.

The very first MP3 player was the MPman, released in 1998, and then Apple soon joined the market in 2001 with iTunes and the iPod.

This meant an entirely new relationship of music and listener. The same file could be shared by thousands of people anywhere in the world, just by the click of a button, whereas previously, a cassette, vinyl or CD physically belonged to a person, and they could only share it at home with friends or family.

This also meant that people now had access to an infinite library of music. You could download another person’s entire music collection and there was no more worrying about returning CDs or scratching someone’s vinyl.

And, because people had access to nearly anything they wanted, they could acquire much more music in a shorter amount of time.

For example, instead of buying your favourite band’s new CD once a year, you could have thousands and thousands of new songs and artists to check out, all within a matter of days.

While some artists saw the amazing potential in the MP3 and this newfound ability to share music with a global audience like never before, many feared the MP3 and foresaw problems with copyright and a loss of rights for the artists or producers.

For those artists who did see the potential with the MP3, they found they could share bits of music that didn’t make it onto the album, or tease their fans with hints of new songs.

This was a bonus not just for the artist but also the diehard fans, who would appreciate tidbits of unreleased material, as a way of accessing virtually everything their favourite artists had created rather than enjoying the final cut of an album.

Record companies, being the mega-capitalists they are, with money as their bottom line, were not so jazzed about the MP3 and would beg their artists not to share the music for free.

They preferred to instead wait until they had figured out a way to make the fans pay to hear these tidbits or unreleased songs. This would force the listener/fan to not only pay to download the song, but that the file would have a limitation of number of plays before the listener had to pay again to download another file for the same song.

Of course, the smart ones would have burned everything onto CDs before the files expired.

Everyone from ultra-popular Beastie Boys to lesser known artists saw the MP3 as a way to reach the world if they couldn’t afford a tour or didn’t have a record deal. Before the days of internet music file sharing and MP3s, how were these smaller bands to get their music heard?

They would, like record companies, release a song for free to titillate the audience and then release a full album that the audience would then purchase.

MP3s are especially favoured by smaller bands and independent artists who are looking for new and exciting ways to get their music out there in the world.

If you’ve ever recorded an album or toured as musician you will know it’s very expensive to rent studio time and to then produce music and release it.

For musicians who are not signed to record labels, it is a lot easier and more affordable to record music in home studios and upload it as MP3s, which fans or listeners would find on MP3.com, one of the first major file transfer websites.

Digital distribution allows the artist to keep a much higher percentage of the sale price, too, and allow artists greater control over distribution. The MP3 file format is truly a revolutionary tool in the music industry, allowing artists to take over from the bottom up. 

However, despite all its benefits, there have been some downsides. 

Where it is now

When MP3s first came out, back in 1999 (that’s nearly 20 years ago), things were different. There was only dial-up internet. MP3s were made for dial-up internet when everything could be shared across the globe but took a lot longer than it does today.

Some artists and record companies blame the MP3 for killing the music industry, but other musicians, like Radiohead or Amanda Palmer, for example, have taken the cue and separated from their record companies; preferring to instead release their music independently, online, and letting listeners pay whatever they want, whether it’s ten cents or twenty dollars.

Today there are many, many online file sharing websites like Spotify and Apple Music. You can buy songs on iTunes for a dollar.

It really shows how music providers and artists have changed with the times, listening to the demands of the public and offering them what they want. The quality of these files is incredibly good; you just need good speakers to play them.

Of course, there are still websites where you can download music for free, and there are still record companies and musicians releasing their work through them.

And the public are still buying them.

There’s one thing online files will never have: the physical experience of interacting with music. The booklets, the artworks, the cover themes and fonts. The CD that sits like a book on a shelf with a title on its spine that you recognize immediately and pull out.

It is that very immersive and real experience that comes with physical music that you would never experience with downloaded files, and so many of us music appreciators tend to be artistic and exploratory folk.

We say immersive because it is so rewardingly consuming to sit down with your favourite record, pull out the booklet, read the lyrics, study the artwork while the music plays: to be immersed in that full experience designed intimately from the artist to the listener. 

In conclusion, we don’t hate MP3’s.  They were invented for a reason, and in the big picture, they serve a purpose or two, so why treat them with disdain?

Downtempo – A Guide to the Great Artists and Their Best Songs and Albums

What is Downtempo Music?

Downtempo is a killer subgenre of electronic music, with little to no vocals and simple beats. It’s laidback like ambient music but has a beat you can groove to, unlike ambient music.

Okay, that is a total lie. At the bottom of the article we have included several of the best downtempo artists and some of them include vocals, but for the sake of this brief introduction to the genre, and to help familiarize you with it, let’s go ahead and say that most downtempo music uses soft vocals for audible texture but not so much to tell a story.

Partygoers, ravers and clubbers will be familiar with this genre, as well as DJs, of course. 

The music is a lot more chill than others in the electronica genre. Seasoned DJs will leave downtempo to the end of the set when the party draws to a close.

downtempo music

This music is also played in side rooms of clubs or designated “take five” areas. The beats are slower and super groovy, perfect for a break from dancing or wrapping up a party.

Most clubgoers, whether they recognize and know downtempo or not, will automatically get the signal from this type of music that it’s late into the night.

If you’ve ever seen Portlandia, the theme song is a prime example of downtempo music with a chill beat that is easy to listen to and very enjoyable. There are some vocals but they’re airy and non-dominant. 

Non-dominance is a good way to define downtempo. It’s got elements of ambient music and serves listeners the same way: it can be enjoyed either as a focal point or be ignored while still providing an atmosphere. It neither overpowers nor disappears. 

It’s a beautiful genre for summer driving.

You will often hear downtempo in lounges.

It’s great for a casual hangout with friends or any time you need to relax.

A bit of history

It all started with the synthesizer. This instrument became more affordable to people in the late 1960s – early 1970’s and so musicians, being the experimental and curious artists they are, ever-searching for the perfect tool for self-expression, fell in love with it. We had the beginnings of ambient music in the 1970s; 

Electronic music really came into huge popularity in the early 1990’s. The club scene brought in all kinds of new genres after the : electronica ruled the soundsystems everywhere because it didn’t require a live band and provided dancing crowds with non-stop movement to inspire their dancing.

It was an obvious new experimentation with the synthesizer, which at the time had only been around for a couple of decades. There was plenty left to explore on that instrument with so many options.

Downtempo is usually played on a synthesizer as well as a drum machine and a few other things.

Electronica is typically faster paced, and so downtempo was created not as an antithesis but simply as an alternative for lounge areas and chill-out rooms at festivals and nightclubs. 

Dancers could go into these rooms and sit for a while, taking a break from the intense energy of the dancefloor and enjoying a drink. 

You’ll notice rather a hypnotizing element to downtempo, the same way electronica brings you in and holds you.

The genre originated on Ibiza, a Mediterranean island, well known for its nightlife and electronic music. Tourists from all over the world come to Ibiza as a destination for this type of holiday.

DJs have always known how to read a crowd (or, they should) and know how to bring up the energy and bring it down. On the island of Ibiza, where they party til sunrise, the DJs start playing downtempo to bring the crowd down after a full night of partying.

Here’s a “Best of Ibiza” chillout downtempo playlist if you want to feel a little bit of that vibe for a while.

Oh, and downtempo is sometimes called trip hop, taking elements from hip hop, drum and bass and ambient music: these are combined altogether over a lower tempo. These days the music also incorporates more melodic instrumentals.

The Artists

Now that we are familiar with the genre, let’s have a listen, shall we?

Here are some of the best downtempo artists out there. Some were around for the advent of the genre and helped shape it; others showed up along the way and furthered the genre’s popularity by keeping it alive. 

Thievery Corporation

Thievery Corporation has been around since 1995. This electronic duo has opened for Paul McCartney and worked with artists such as David Byrne and Wayne Coyne.

They bring an overtly political message with their music and actions, performing at the Operation Ceasefire concert and supporting human rights and the World Food Programme.

Visit the Thievery Corporation official website


Flume

Flume is a young’un, born in 1991 and has been making music since 2004. He has risen to popularity rather fast, having remixed several famous songs by artists like Lorde and selling 40 000 tickets for his first national tour.

He is from Australia and his work incorporates many electronic elements from hip hop to dub. Here is his self-titled debut album. 

Visit Flume’s official website 


Blue Sky Black Death

Another duo on our list, Blue Sky Black Death hails from San Francisco, California. They produce their music with a drum machine, sampler, keyboard, synth and guitar. They’ve been on the scene since 2003.

The phrase “blue sky black death” is a skydiving phrase alluding to beauty and death. They got their start making beats to rap over but soon gave up rapping to pursue producing. Below you can hear their third full-length album, Noir.

 Visit the Blue Sky Black Death Bandcamp page


Kruder & Dorfmeister

Kruder & Dorfmeister get automatic points from us for their G-Stoned cover, which resembles the famous Bookends cover by American duo Simon & Garfunkel.

Peter Kruder & Richard Dorfmeister comprise this Austrian duo and have been making music together since 1993. They got their start playing big festivals and were instantly loved by the audience. They have gone on to tour the world and continue producing music to this day. They’ve also put out their own solo albums and albums under aliases. They have at least 9 studio recorded albums available.

Here is their first album, G-Stoned.

Check out the Kruder and Dorfmeister Facebook page


Samantha James

Samantha James stands out from others on our list for her vocal style. Many downtempo artists are producers and rarely feature vocals in their work. Rather the vocals are presented as a soft ambience over the beat.

Samantha’s singing is incredibly soulful and gives a whole new life to this style of music. Coming from Los Angeles, she became involved with the underground dance scene there as a teenager.

She has been making music of her own since 2007. Her first single, Rise, was an instant hit in 2006 and she has since toured the world with her wonderful blend of electronic and soul music.

She has two full-length albums and has reached #1 on the US dance charts.

Listen to her first album, Rise, here:

Check out Samantha James on Om Records


Helicopter Girl

Helicopter Girl is a Scottish musician and has been active since 1993. She gives downtempo a unique spin incorporating elements from several genres, including dance music, indie pop and jazz.

Helicopter Girl is widely revered for her vocal style and the lyrics offer a listening experience that speaks utter truth. Straight badass. You’ve just got to give a listen and experience this for yourself.

We’ve included a link to her video for Glove Compartment but we also recommend listening to her song Angel City.

Glove Compartment is mysterious and fateful; Angel City is rockier than everything else on this list, but the vocals are cool, calm and sultry, chilling you right out with icy proclamations.

Check out Helicopter Girl on Dharma Records


Portishead

Portishead are one of the better known artists on this list. They remind us of Helicopter Girl a bit – with their infusions of other genres like indie rock laid on top of downtempo – and a bit of sex appeal.

This is music you can throw on for driving or grooving out at home, and works just as well in a lounge setting. Portishead has been around since 1991, taking a brief hiatus from 1999 through 2005. They took up music again after the break.

They’re an English band, well known in this genre because they were one of its pioneers. Despite their dislike for press coverage, their music has been successful internationally.

Even Rolling Stone referred to them as Gothic hip-hop. They’ve been around so long making this kind of music that they have been played in all kinds of underground clubs and gothic scenes.

Visit the Portishead website here

What is Downtempo Music? – History, Characteristics, and Artists

Downtempo is a genre of electronic music. It is similar to ambient music, however, downtempo has a greater emphasis on beats. It is also similar to trip hop, a fusion of hip hop and electronica which emerged in Bristol in the late 1980s. Downtempo also surfaced around this time in the UK, but its rise in popularity began in the 1990s.

In 2010, the Atlantic described downtempo as “a variety of music styles from the 2000s characterized by mellow beats, vintage synthesizers, and lo-fi melodies.” The genre generally includes chillwave, glo-fi, and hypnagogic pop.

Downtempo music is slow, made up of tranquil beats and melodies peppered with synth that flows in and out, presenting an overall retro, dreamy, far away vibe. There are usually few to no lyrics used in downtempo. The genre takes inspiration from many other styles of music, like 80’s pop.

Some artists have also taken a feather from Jamaican dub and reggae and incorporated that into the genre, such as the duo known as Thievery Corporation. Their album “Treasures from the Temple” illustrates their reggae-influenced style of downtempo perfectly. You can listen to the album below.

In addition to Thievery Corporation, some other downtempo artists include Flume, Little Dragon and Tycho.

Washed Out is another prime example of the genre. You can listen to “Feel It All Around” below.

There is a simplicity to downtempo that makes it easy to listen to, and a rhythm to it that makes it enjoyable.

Tycho album cover

History of Downtempo

Downtempo was often played in Ibiza throughout the 1990s. Ibiza is an island in the Mediterranean Sea known for its nightlife and summer club scene, as well as the electronic music that originated on the island.

Many DJs use Ibiza to try out new songs in the electronic music genre. Often in Ibiza, DJs would play downtempo music to bring down the vibe as the party neared sunrise. After a night of upbeat electronic music, a bit of chill, ambient downtempo would relax the vibe and bring everything to a nice close.

Throughout the 1990s, downtempo was played in the chillout and relaxation areas of clubs and electronic music events. Later in the 1990s, it grew in popularity thanks to the Austrian duo Kruder and Dorfmeister who remixed many pop and hip hop songs in the downtempo genre. You can listen to their song “Shakatakadoodub” from their 2008 album of the same name below.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for some chill, ambient music, embroidered with a bit of 80s charm and stitched together with simple beats and melodies, this genre is for you.

What Is Electropop Music? Characteristics, History, Popular Artists, and More

Electropop, as a musical genre, has existed since electronic synthesizer-based music fused with pop music to create a new genre that is now widely known as electropop. 

In other words, if your music has synthetic elements, and yet aims to be popular, it could be considered “electropop”. 

But this is too simple an explanation – let’s dig a little deeper and explore the history, some of the characteristics, and popular artists working in the genre right now.


History of Electropop Music

The genre found its footing in the 1980’s with all sorts of electronics-based pop bands who were finding mainstream success, such as New Order, Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Pet Shop Boys, A Flock Of Seagulls, Aha, Soft Cell, Simple Minds, Erasure, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Depeche Mode, and countless others.  Back then, it was known as synth pop. 

Remember this classic synth pop song from The Breakfast Club Soundtrack – Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me)?

There was no “electro pop” label around this time in the early to mid-80’s, but there was electro-punk music.  However, “electro-punk” I believe referred to groups like Suicide, maybe Devo, and even early Human League. 

The whole “electro” label just wasn’t used widely yet during the 80’s, they apparently liked the word “synth” better. 

My guess is that “electro” still reminded people of electric instruments, which were already widely in use, so they needed to differentiate.  Who’s “they”?  The writers who wrote for music periodicals, of course.  Rolling Stone, NME, etc. 


Influencers of Electropop

The bands that influenced all of these new synth-based pop music were far more progressive in nature than what amounts to electropop today – back then, it was synth pioneers like Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, even Pink Floyd and Bowie – these were some of the very earliest synth-based songwriters who experimented with the technology and became widely known as masters of that technology before anyone else.

Here’s Jean-Michel Jarre, with Oxygene, Pt. 4 – a song that came out well before even synth pop emerged in the 1980’s.

Synth-based pop music artists, who started their careers in the 1970’s, and who were really hitting it big by the mid-80’s, showed us that electronic pop music could become just as widely accepted as many of the larger rock bands of the day. 

The rise of synth pop was surely to the dismay of some rock bands and out of touch record company execs at the time, who didn’t want to have to deal with a whole new batch of weirdos wielding instruments that didn’t look very exciting (futuristic pianos), and people that moved in a more “unnatural” way.

A good example of this new type of “weird” music could be summed up with a band like Devo, who looked more like geeks and dweebs than any type of typical rock star. 

However, if you were around in the ’80’s, you knew that movies by the likes of director John Hughes and others were presenting social outcasts in a new light. 

It was “revenge of the nerds” out there, folks, and all sorts of people who were formerly cast aside were starting to become more generally accepted in society.  Life imitates art, they say. 

This clip from the Revenge of the Nerds movie shows the influence of electronic pop bands at the time on popular movies, which were seen in theatres and on video cassette by millions throughout North America.

With synth pop on the rise, and its more fringe elements starting to align with the concerns of Western society, the music loving public was now willing to accept synth-based music as a legitimate form of music, just as they had accepted rhythm and blues before that into the cultural lexicon.


Synth Pop’s Mass Appeal 

In terms of why synths caught on in the first place, I think that once the prices dropped for certain synths, which were, prior to the early 80’s, too expensive for most musicians to afford – well, these now slightly affordable synths eventually were within reach of more “normal” people, and more and more musicians started using them for songwriting purposes. 

That’s when synth pop / electro-pop bands started to surface, as people got a hold of the synths needed to make the music. 

Here’s a popular synth pop track from the time, which many of you might remember – Take On Me by A-ha.

I’ll throw in a personal anecdote at this time to corroborate some of this information I’ve been saying.  In 1984, when I was 7 and in Grade 3 here in Canada, I remember we had an assembly in the gym where a number of synth pop bands came to our school and played synthesizer music for us. 

I believe they came from the high schools, and it was just an event to show us smaller kids what was happening in the world outside.  All these teenagers had weird hair (ie. mohawks, hair dye, giant rat tails and mullets), and played various types of keyboards that looked like pianos but didn’t SOUND like pianos at all.  I remember being slightly confused, but very impressed. 

The point is, by the mid-80’s, kids were getting synths for Christmas and were putting their piano lessons to use by forming synth pop bands, some of whom had just watched movies like The Breakfast Club.

As the 80’s progressed, synth pop bands around the country started hauling these large synths out on stage for live performances, and that’s when critics took note that bands started looking and acting different, being quite suspicious of these bands at first. 

After all, most concert goers and editorial writers only knew rock ‘n’ roll for the longest time, and had yet to catch up with the paradigm shift that a large part of society had already experienced. 

These stuffed shirts and yuppie types who were accustomed to things being a certain way all the time, certainly weren’t ready for people like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper – these total freaks that were also female, to boot!  Scary!

For some people, having their daughter take after Madonna was their worst nightmare.  Still applies today!

As mentioned, “electropop” as a descriptive term for a style of music still hadn’t been born yet, and the terms around this time were synth pop, new wave, and electro punk.  Even Madonna, who was one of the biggest musical stars ever by the end of the ’80’s, was still referred to as a pop artist, if anything. 

Also around this time (mid-80’s), hip hop was beginning to develop out of New York, with artists like Afrika Bambaata, and it too was based mostly on electronic elements with some help from Mr. James Brown.

Still, no genre of music was really being referred to as electropop at the time, as it was still filtering its way into the deepest levels of society. 

By the 1990’s, “pop” was a common way to describe a lot of music that was in the charts.  If it wasn’t rock, it was pop, unless it was jazz, or blues, or something else. 

In fact, if memory serves, all of the electronic music that was being written in the ’90’s and was considered groundbreaking such as Underworld, Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin, Orbital, etc. 

Their music was called just that – broadly labelled as electronic music, and was still considered a fringe element along with the venues in which electronic music was played – raves, festivals, dark clubs, and such.  Even though these types of events were becoming far less fringe and more appealing to the masses.

In retrospect, this, of course, was the rise of DJ culture, and as such, most rock people and even people who were accepting of synth pop in the ’80’s wasn’t exactly prepared to accept rave culture into their homes.  That is, until they had to because it was just too damn popular to ignore any longer.


Electropop

If you ask me, electropop didn’t become a specially used term until the 2000’s, when all of the electronic music and all of the pop music finally merged to create a single definable style with certain characteristics.

Artists like Lady Gaga, Calvin Harris, Ke$ha, Hardwell, and The Chainsmokers have been dominating the charts now for years and their music could easily fall under the umbrella term of electropop, even though their music would also naturally fall into other sub-genres as well.

Let’s have a look at and a listen to perhaps the queen of electropop – Lady Gaga, from back in 2008 when she performed on Ellen.

To define electropop, it doesn’t have to be complicated, and yet it sort of is.  It is a style of music that is often heavy on synths, but avoids certain cliches that a genre like synthwave might embrace.  For instance, electropop is modern, without being retro-futuristic if that makes any sense. 

To explain, a similar genre like synthwave music harkens back to the days of synth pop and retro electronic sounds from the 60’s / 70’s / 80’s, typically of the progressive variety.  Electropop, on the other hand, is music made for this moment, is influenced by all sorts of world music styles but especially hip hop, and doesn’t rely on any sort of dystopian futurism for it’s stylistic cues. 

Which means, electropop isn’t usually very dirty production-wise or overly dark or sinister theme-wise.  Rather, the themes of electropop tend to be more eternal – love lost and found, and more relatable themes of that sort.

Check out this classic Calvin Harris track from 2009 called I’m Not Alone.  It has some guitar, yes, but it also builds around some epic synths, making the whole production sound huge.

Electropop now is like synth pop was, or pop music in general always has been – meant to be timeless.  Instead of using a lot of standard rock instrumentation (which it reserves the right to if it wants), electropop music itself can be built up with synths so long as the synths aren’t too retro-sounding. 

They can be retro, but not past say, the late 90’s, or it gets into that territory of 80’s synth pop which is does try to consciously avoid, I think. 

I would say that the synths used in electropop music sometimes has to play down their synth leads, due to the inclusion of vocals, whereas more experimental styles of electronic music don’t have the pop vocal performance to worry about as much (my highly generalized take on things, I know).

While electropop has been described as robotic and artificial by some (in terms of production, if nothing else), electropop music still manages to dominate most pop radio stations today, as electropop artists tend to write songs specifically to be catchy and have mainstream appeal. 

Other similar genres to electropop will opt for a more underground appeal, which serves to legitimize them more with certain fanbases, whereas electropop always goes for the largest audience possible, because it is “pop”, after all. 

Cue “Fireflies” by Owl City.

That said, the genre can still be experimental music in nature if it so chooses, as it is perpetually trying to be cutting edge and modern, attracting the slickest producers in the game, as well as some of the most talented artists in music right now. 

And, at the same time as it tries to be cutting edge, many detractors of electropop will claim that the genre is to music as the Twinkie is to nutrition – as in, devoid of any real value due to it’s assembly line production style.  In the end, all views are subjective, and tastes obviously differ from person to person.  

Like it or not, electropop is a dominant force in music today because it is one of the remaining musical genres where the success level can still be huge, as evidenced by artists like Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Owl City, Passion Pit, and others. 

And, with the accessibility of recording software and hardware, it is easier than ever for an artist to write an electropop song by themselves with no help from anyone, and make it sound like it was written by a million-dollar producer.  So, what are you waiting for?  Go do it.  If the Owl City guy can do it, why can’t you?

What Is Synthwave Music? History, Characteristics, Artists, and More!

Music these days has splintered off into a thousand and one sub-genres.  Who can keep track?  Me, I guess.  With the genre known as synthwave, there is the added complication of there being two different incarnations, with one appearing in the late 1970’s and lasting for another decade or so, and the other being much more recent, starting in the 2000’s and continuing to this day.

If you are new to synthwave, we will try to describe the difference between the two genres, and clarify what exactly synthwave is now. But first, we’ll dip into the history of the genre.

History of Synthwave

What synthwave is and what it was are basically two different things.  The original genre of synthwave was also called synth-pop or sometimes electropunk.  It was never really called synthwave actually, or even “synth wave”, specifically.  If I recall correctly, it was referred to as synth pop, but some writers may have called it synth wave at some point.  For our intents here, we will distinguish between the first wave being called synth wave (note the space), and then the second and most recent incarnation being synthwave.  Get it?

Before we go further, here’s a taste of some old school synth wave from one of my favourite 80’s movies, the 1981 John Carpenter classic, Escape from New York with Kurt Russell starring as Snake Plissken as…ah, look it up if you feel like it.

Escape from New York doesn’t exactly “embody” the genre of synth wave aka synth pop, but no one song or soundtrack does. 

The essential premise of the original wave of synth-based music, under the umbrella term of synth pop (but was not really synth pop at all), is that it involved any music that contained a lot of synths, was used for a sci fi or action movie soundtrack, and combined it with a type of futurism, with the result being a type of music that best used for scoring films and video games. 

Synth pop was part of this “wave” of synth-based music, but synthwave, or what would become synthwave nowadays, was sort of an undefined type of synth music that was becoming popular due to the proliferation of the technology, plus the types of movies and games that were permeating pop culture at the time.  Speaking of pop culture, I remember in 1987 when Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was in theatres, and this song, called “Oh Yeah” by Yello, came on the screen at the end.  By this point, you knew (or can see in retrospect, at least) that pop music and offbeat experimental electronic music had finally melded into one.  

Influencers

Who influenced the first coming of synth wave?  Jean Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno, and Vangelis are some of the essential first wave synth proponents from the ’70’s, not to mention all of the retro gaming music composers like Rob Hubbard, Matt Gray, and countless other old school retro video gaming music gods.  

These guys had their roots in classical, jazz, and prog rock, so they weren’t exactly mainstream hitmakers.  In fact, they weren’t part of the mainstream at all, although their sound was so powerful that it attracted new fans left and right.  

There were still most often vocals in these original synth wave songs that became hits in the 80’s, like any other pop song of the day, but often songs had no vocals to highlight the soundtrack nature of some of the songs, as shown in the above examples for instance.  It was always a dichotomy, with some songs going straight for the pop jugular, and others being steeped in obscure references and progressive music from the past.  

Here’s a synth pop song with vocals that was aiming for mass appeal, from classic synth pop band Depeche Mode.

In many cases both the bands who performed synth wave, in the manner that people still play it today, represented “the future” in one way or another, either performing as robots, cyborgs, (ie. Kraftwerk) or some type of futurist (often dystopian). 

Of course, if they were more on the new romantic side of things, they might just be sharp dressed individuals with some type of distinctive “look”.  Hair was always something to check out on these artists.  Think Duran Duran circa 1984.  They still had guitars, but synth was a big part of their sound and they went on to be one of the biggest bands the world has ever known.

Here is a band that informed the original synth pop bands a great deal – the legendary Kraftwerk.  This was back before they really modelled their look after dystopian futurism, in 1975.  They went on to call it “machine music”.

Divergence of Synth Pop and Synthwave

It is also worth noting that when it comes to categorizing music in general, the acts that were considered “synth” groups in this original period of the 70’s/80’s were more so labelled as such by music journalists who were having a hard a time figuring out what to refer to these new and different bands as in music magazines. 

Music industry people had never seen bands like these before, nor were they familiar with synths in general, so no one really knew what to call these types of groups.  Should they be called synth pop, new wave, synth wave, electro punk?  Synth pop, to my knowledge, was the prevailing term of synth-based bands at the time.  Synthwave, as we now know it, was still at this time more of a loose concept than a formal term, and embodied the more experimental aspects of synth pop.

 Here is the group, Yazoo (AKA Yaz), with their hit, “Only You”, written by synth master Vince Clarke.  Undoubtedly synth pop.

The bands themselves didn’t always refer to themselves by any such label, ie. “synth pop”, or anything else at the time.  That said, once the term synth pop had caught on, bands realized they could benefit by billing themselves as such, and so they did later on, once the term had been firmly entrenched in mass culture as a whole.

Many of these synth-based acts, while reaching their peak in the 1980’s, still started their careers in the 1970’s, when synthesizers were becoming more accessible to musicians by virtue of slightly lower prices at music stores. 

What Is Synthwave Now Vs Then?

The relatively “new” breed of synthwave music is not really referring to the old guard of acts who once embodied the genre like Depeche Mode, and the rest.  Synthwave (no space this time) began in the early 2000’s, and, like the synth pop of old, certain tracks were instrumental only, while others feature vocals prominently.  This has never been the deciding feature of the genre.

Let’s kick this section off with some Mitch Murder and his classic track, “Remember When”, which flashes back to the ’80’s and some of the great nostalgic memories from movies of that time including E.T., the Karate Kid, the Breakfast Club, and more.

Modern synthwave, while it does sometimes target mainstream listeners, generally is more of an underground self-aware type of affair, with only a select group of listeners who care about old movies, video games, and synth pop caring about very much. 

That said, while its crowd is currently somewhat selective, I think it is also fair to say that synthwave has elements that appear in all forms of modern popular music in terms of radio hits nowadays, because most radio hits love to incorporate synths more now than ever into their song arrangements. Still, this type of music would now be considered electropop, not synthwave.  

Regardless of which demographic it is aimed at, this new form of the genre takes everything that happened in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, including video games, movie soundtracks by famed directors like John Hughes and John Carpenter, and, of course, the original bands that inspired the name (pop, experimental, or otherwise), and mash it into one glorious cocktail of sounds to give us what is the essence of “synthwave” now. 

Let’s have a listen to the track Ghost Dancers Slay Together, by Perturbator, which definitely throws back to some serious old school vibes featuring a dystopian cyberpunk aesthetic.

It was in the 80’s that the music business and fans as well realized how much they loved the sound of dystopian futurism, and it became bigger in some ways than anyone might ever have dreamed. 

Not to name drop Depeche Mode again, but in recent years their world tours have generated more money than almost anyone else, and even though they typically are thought of as synth pop, they too have strong synthwave elements – go figure.  

The new synthwave really makes no bones about where it comes from – it honours the past while also playing with it, then serves to experiment and forge new ground where it can.  It is not a limited genre, but, like all genres, it follows certain trends and cliches which everyone loves and are tried and true.

Equipment Used in Synthwave

The driving principle behind the music described as synthwave now is – surprise – using lots of synths.  Whether it’s an actual analog synthesizer, or a VST (Virtual Studio Techology) which replicates old school synth sounds, synthwave tracks generally feature these sounds, as well as synth drums.  Big, evil basslines are also found in synthwave music, courtesy of the right analog gear or particularly juicy VST’s. 

Retro elements from old video games and movies are definitely taken advantage of as well, in the form of certain familiar tropes.  At the same time as the music has a retro feel, it uses modern production to update the sounds which, in their original incarnation, may have been more contained and sparsely produced, can now be blown up to sound huge and, more suitable for today’s larger than life global culture.  Since synth users were always considered more geeky than their rock guitar playing counter parts, it is no surprise that they seem to have a better insight into musical production, if I may generalize.

Check out this epic track by Gunship, called Art3mis & Parzival, which successfully combines all the elements that make synthwave what it is – dystopian futurism, retro gaming, soundtrack music, but it combines it with more modern elements as well.

Another element of synthwave today is the “open source” nature of the sounds themselves.  Creators of certain tracks are apt to share various patches with other creators in order to create certain sounds.  This, in a way, makes the “sound” or “effect” the star just as much as the artist.  Because, once artists become aware of a particular patch as being a good one, the community will rally around it and actively mention it and promote it.

But synthwave is now more than just music.  It is also wrapped up in culture itself, with synthwave style art also being somewhat definable.  Just drop by any platform that features a visual component (instagram, etc), and you’re bound to see some synthwave style artworks.

Unfortunately for those of us who would like to keep things simple, the rabbit hole that is synthwave goes far deeper than just simply defining the genre and being done with it.  Synthwave grows tentacles in the forms of sub-genres like vapourwave, futuresynth, retrowave, and outrun, to name but a few sub-genres. 

If you were a kid in the ’80’s, you might know “outrun” as Outrun, a popular driving video game.  Yeah, it’s that, but it’s also a genre now too, thanks to the 2013 album by Kavinsky that produced fast-paced synth music perfect for driving. 

Speaking of synth-driven driving music, the successful 2011 movie Drive, featuring Ryan Gosling, also helped to bring synthwave to the fore.

Today, it’s shows like Stranger Things and the 2017 version of Blade Runner that have helped to keep synthwave popular.

Another feature of synthwave music that is particular to these times is the fact that it is self-produced, and is effectively an underground movement.

With platforms like Bandcamp, Youtube, and Soundcloud being huge incubators for new ideas, they tend to draw in synthwave artists because there is no barrier between the artist and releasing their work to the public.  And these days, you never know what will be popular next, although many artists are content to exist in their dark little corner of the web as well, as not all artists crave the adulation of the masses.

We hope this clears things up a little bit as to what synthwave is all about.