Urmusik (2): Steampunk, Scooby-Doo and the Birotron

You need to look on the side of the music tree where the sun doesn’t shine much anymore to find this musical branch of German electropop; and rummage through a lot of lurid but scrubby growth, and strip away a fair bit of leaf-mould in the process.

What a difference 3 years and another city make. Founded in West Berlin in 1967 (Kraftwerk were founded in 1970 in Düsseldorf), German synth rockers Tangerine Dream have always sat firmly with the psychedelic, Pink Floyd, prog rock crowd.

Edgar Froese, founder, sculptor and Salvador Dali protégé and the only continuing member in TD’s 46 year history, was born during the Second World War in Tilsit, which is in what used to be called Kaliningrad, that strange enclave that is now attached to Russia. So in a number of ways Tangerine Dream feels like a connection to the past, rather than the future.

Tangerine Dream have produced 94 studio albums in their career, plus a whole load of live ones and other work that amounts to over 200 albums, EPs, singles and compilations. This goes beyond the simply prolific. It dwarfs the minimalist tally of 10 Kraftwerk albums. My five Tangerine Dream albums therefore represent a tiny proportion of the band’s total work. That’s my excuse, anyway.

West Berlin must have been a strange, slightly unreal place. Stuck in the middle of hostile East Germany, perhaps a gilded cage at times; all that wealth and the knowledge that grey repression was on the other side of the wall. Did that influence the fantastical direction that Tangerine Dream’s music took?

It’s landscape music – so no surprise that Tangerine Dream have produced plenty of soundtracks for movies, although no particular box office smashes.

TD mostly avoided vocals. This was a good call, if the exceptions are anything to go by. Kiew Mission, from Exit (1981) has a spoken female vocal reciting, in German, the names of countries. That’s not too bad – just a little dull, perhaps. Cyclone (1978), however, has a couple of corkers: Bent Cold Sidewalk and Rising Runner Missed by Endless Sender.

Nowadays, people would probably see song titles like these and pass on quickly by. Were they intended to convey an air of mystery and other worldliness? Or just an elaborate joke? I feel a twinge of embarrassment just noting the titles down.

If you thought the titles were bad, wait till you get to the vocals. Here is an excerpt from Bent Cold Sidewalk:

‘Bent cold sidewalk, open the gate / I may be late but I can no longer wait / Stealing the crown that stood me up / I’m laying the table with dusty plates’

Er, right. Put the album down, slowly and back away very, very carefully. Cyclone is slightly redeemed by a non-vocal Madrigal Meridian, which fills the entirety of Side 2.

Electronic or not, there is a prog rock theme here, at its most absurd. Maybe the Dali influence creeping in.

Stratosfear (1976) is a four track album, a couple of which look slightly worrying:

1. Stratosfear
2. The Big Sleep in Search of Hades
3. 3 AM at the Border of the Marsh from Okefenokee
4. Invisible Limits

There is actually an Okfenokee Swamp. It is an area of protected wetland in the USA, on the Georgia / Florida border. It attracts a lot of tourists from abroad – Wiki lists a number of countries, but, interestingly, Germany is first on its list. Perhaps just a coincidence; or is there some connection which inspired Edgar Froese? The Swamp also featured in several Scooby-Doo episodes. Maybe Froese was a Scooby-Doo fan.

Leaving aside the lurid track titles, on Stratosfear Tangerine Dream achieved a happy synthesis of listenable sound that goes a long way to explaining its commercial success. And not a vocal track in sight. If you want an atmospheric, other worldly mid-70s synthesised instrumental album in you collection then it should be this one. Amongst the other 100 or so Tangerine Dream albums, there may be a rival, but I haven’t found it yet.

Stratosfear has a musical flow that is often missing from the other albums. After the big title track, the second, shorter Big Sleep (…in Search of blah, blah, blah) is largely acoustic, leading with flute and guitar. The swampy third track (3 AM at the Border of Thingy) has a marvellously atmospheric opening, the synth dripping like electronic water from the trees. Then it gets quite spooky. They went thataway. Pesky kids.

Invisible Limits is a piece within a piece. And a two-word title. A solitary flute leads us in, building to a mini-Tubular Bells-type crescendo about 3 minutes in. Then the piece starts to run until it slows for wistful piano and flute. Nowadays it has a New Age-y feel to it. The synthesisers all sound as if they are made of rubber or water; with none of Kraftwerk’s emotionless angularity. Probably best played late at night.

The instruments are a judicious mix of conventional and electronic. On the CD are listed the following: Moog synthesiser; Organ, Percussion, Loop Mellotron, Harpsichord, Mellotron, 12 and 6 string guitar, Grand Piano, Bass Guitar, Mouth organ, Project Electronic Rhythm Computer and Fender E Piano.

Which brings me to the Birotron. This was intended to be a state of the art replacement for the Mellotron (which coped badly with the heat of live concerts), using batteries of 8-Tracks with a vast array of sounds, connected to a keyboard. The Birotron had an entire orchestral sound taken from the London Symphony Orchestra and choral effects from the Nottingham Town Choir. It had a 37 note keyboard and 19 cards with 19 8-track cartridge readers. Each cartridge had 4 sounds on it.

It turned out to be impossible to build commercially, requiring bespoke parts (including a long drive shaft that was only manufactured in one factory in the world) and expensive rare metals. One commentator summarised it neatly as a ‘steampunk’ instrument.

It created huge excitement amongst musicians (of a certain type) at the time. Designed by Dave Biro (hence the name) from Connecticut, the prototype caught Rick Wakeman’s eye, who (bizarrely, in collaboration with the Campbell Soup Company) proceeded to fund an attempt to manufacture the instrument commercially. By 1979 the company had gone bust and Dave Biro was on the street three years later. Not only was the instrument unproduceable – even if it had succeeded, it would have been a last hurrah for analogue synths. The Synclavier digital synthesiser saw the light of day in 1977, and its rival, the Fairlight CMI, based around a dual 6800 microprocessor, was designed in 1979, ushering in a new digital era.

Wiki thinks the Birotron instrument was used on Stratosfear, but I’m not sure that’s the case. The album was released in 1976. From a quick review of other readily available articles, it looks unlikely that the first post-prototype Birotron would have been ready in time. It isn’t specifically referred to on the album cover, but Wiki speculates that the ‘Loop Mellotron’ referred to in the album credits is, in fact a Birotron. This also seems unlikely – why not refer to a brand new state of the art electronic instrument by name?

However, there seems no doubt that Chris Franke of Tangerine Dream did acquire a Birotron – #005, to be precise. And that a Birotron was used throughout TD’s really quite mainstream 1979 album, Force Majeure (which is OK – but it kind of washes over you).

Although orders were placed for 1,000 instruments, only 13 were ever made. Five are known still to exist in the world, making it the world’s rarest pop/rock keyboard instrument. Apparently only two of these are in working order. One of these two may well be the instrument acquired by Chris Franke of Tangerine Dream. Somehow the Birotron symbolises Tangerine Dream’s form of electronic pop. While at the time it must have seemed to be the future of music, in fact it was a final hyperbolic flourish of a passing era.

So there you have it. One German electronic band, Kraftwerk, hailed 30 – 40 years later as the ancestor of a vast body of modern music; another tucked away on a largely forgotten branch of music, almost as a historical footnote.

There aren’t too many pictures of Birotrons on Google, but here are a couple, to give you an idea. The figure in the second picture must be Rick Wakeman, but – no, it couldn’t be – if you squint closely, could that be Bill Bailey?

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