Techno DJ
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Techno’s Labor Force, Rock’s Betrayal, and the Birth of the Fascist Groove Thing

There’s a prevalent notion throughout techno and house music of human beings becoming well-oiled machines, or even merging with machines, a vision in keeping with Kraftwerk’s utopian Man Machine futurism or the dignified Soviet toil of Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera.

Electronic music is post-industrial music. It is the beneficiary of mass production, and as such, it has always maintained a dynamic relationship to manufacturing, technology, and labor, socio-economically and sonically. In fact, one of the foundational enterprises for the modern electronic music landscape is a genre called industrial music. Industrial fell out of favor throughout the ‘naughts, though it never exactly disappeared as a sonic referent in various strains of house, techno, or electronic listening music. Its disappearance has as much to do with a commercial misappropriation of the tag itself as it does with the fickle habits of a listening public, but aspects of the changing Western cultural landscape from a manufacturing nightmare to a virtual one make the transfiguration of industrial music all too appropriate.

Now, as labels like Ancient Methods, Downwards, and CLR attempt to reincorporate the most brutalist and atonal aspects of industrial, and the continued mass archival recovery project finds a broad compass of electronic artists who are beginning to acknowledge their debt to early industrial, EBM, new beat, noise, and minimal wave pioneers, it may be helpful to reexamine industrial’s place in the electronic spectrum to determine what “industrial” is in a digital age, what these sonic signifiers tell us about our time, and why artists are identifying with music that has long been declared – as the title of a Throbbing Gristle album and song puts it – “Dead on Arrival”. Before examining where the culture stands now, it’s imperative to explore how music in response to industrialization originated.

The compulsive repetition of electronic dance music has always aligned the genre’s sonics with manual labor and hence industrialization. Techno’s beats and its pull are explicitly physical. Its drive is actualized through dance, itself a series of repetitive body movements. As functional music, techno always has a task, goal, and objective to fulfill – to move bodies. Without this essential labor, there can be no scene, no community, and no consumption of its ongoing production. On the dancefloor, clubbers and ravers become workers and consumers, bridging the industrial gap Marx defined as existing between people and their products, which Toffler predicted would be tightened in The Third Wave. As consumers, dancers are able to discernibly reject products that don’t meet their exacting standard, but as workers, it’s their obligation to produce an effect or an energy level that will make a song a viable point of return for the DJs (who could equally be thought of as investors, floor supervisors, project managers, or even CEOs).

The music arose as if inscribed upon the urban landscape in New York, Chicago, and particularly the motor city of Detroit, the American automobile’s birthplace and possible death place. It’s often commented, somewhat accurately, that techno and house are churned out as if on an assembly line, interchanging melodies and effects as if it were an automated process. Yet, proof of the music’s strategic design does not account for the way in which some tracks become sublime while others are, at best, operational and lifeless. Producers are often called chemists not only because they make music to tap into the psychopharmacology of a listener’s drug consciousness but because they are often working with elements of a fixed mass, trying to coordinate the right amount of synergy that will make their research and development pay off.

The term “house music” derives partly from a Chicago nightclub called The Warehouse. Besides this factoid, there are innumerable references throughout electronic dance music’s history to factories, power plants, work, slavery, industry, production, technology, transportation, efficiency, and precision. Club music’s connection to machinery is part of why this analogy of labor works. The music’s effects are quite literally programmed into synthesizers or computers, making the end users enact a kind of predetermined ritualization on the dancefloor.

There’s a prevalent notion throughout techno and house music of human beings becoming well-oiled machines, or even merging with machines, a vision in keeping with Kraftwerk’s utopian Man Machine futurism or dignified Soviet toil of Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera. “Better living through circuitry” was a common mantra throughout the ’90s, suggesting a kind of cyborg consciousness at one with the music. The prevalent use of vocoders gave voice to this sentiment. The literature surrounding the movement examined the potential of posthumanism, particularly the development of virtual identity elements through altered states and computer technology.

What really unites (wo)man and machine in electronic dance music, though, is the beat. The beat is both the compositional exoskeleton and the heartbeat. It’s a set of instructions for the body, with the capability of slowing and accelerating one’s own heartbeat and altering breathing patterns. The purpose of all dancing is to connect oneself to the rhythm. Thus, techno music’s theoretical function can be traced to cybernetics because dancing about sex, power, image, warfare, identity, or consciousness forces oneself to think about the mechanics of those things and how they operate as a complex network of interloping processes, just like the music.

The beat also represents the allure of control, as well, and it’s this that tends to keep rock music at bay. Techno and house music create a controlled environment that traps inhabitants in a cage of the music’s making. Surrounded on all sides by the beat, electronic dance music is hardly rhizomatic. It forces you to become either a participant (a laborer) in its agenda or a passive observer (an inactive consumer) of it. The DJ’s goal is one of control, which he or she attains by establishing a rhythm, thus controlling the clock, programming the pacemaker for everyone in the room.

On the other hand, rock music paints itself as anarchic, with a perpetual stake in the independence of the human spirit. It prides itself on being unhinged and uncontrolled. In the ’60s, rock even propositioned itself as a counter-culture, extrinsic to the forces and demands of mainstream society and certainly surrogate from the desires of capital. Perhaps the reason why rock ‘n’ roll rejects techno so readily, even as it welcomes former nemeses like hip-hop into its fold, is because rock’s central ideology involves the essentialist doctrine that every human being is capable of being free, whereas techno is intrinsically compromised, at best set adrift on a sea of beats.

Yet, rock ‘n’ roll is just as controlled an environment as techno, the product of steady studio hands and schedule micromanagement. Musically, myriad conventions define much rock music, from the exact timing of bridges and drum fills to the containment of a guitar solo to a certain number of bars. The use of a limited palette and the hierarchy of singer to players are all ideologically hidden factors that precipitate a very specific effect, even if rock fans come out of the experience feeling less jailed than they may have had they attended a rave.

Plus, as the vision of perpetual adolescence, rock is frequently a series of power grabs, attempts to take power back from parents and adults, from lying cheating women, from competing bands, from corporations and government, from religion, and from the standards of what an adult male should behave like in public. It prides itself on being uncompromising, thus never willing to cede control.

Rock’s rhetoric about avoiding commodification rarely denotes an actual battle against the commercialization of the music. Rather, this language usually signifies a contention over who controls the commodification. Deep down, rock knows, as techno’s industrial aesthetic admits, that music is only weaponized when its more dangerous and transgressive qualities are absorbed en masse, which can only be accomplished whilst using the avenues provided by capital. Rock’s role as an arbiter of independence then actually becomes a championing of solipsism, outwardly inclusive and intrinsically exclusive.

Rock’s ideological stance post-Dylan was a kind of proto-Marxist populism. Rock worked hard to maintain its status as working-class music in the spirit of its Americana forebears- blues, folk, and country-western. Yet, its perception of the working class is decidedly narrow, as is commonly the case when trying to define a people en masse. After all, is anything more culpable than rock ‘n’ roll for the current vogue idea of a “real America”? As the ’70s teetered on, roots rock continued to champion the blue collars of ’70s boogie bands or troubadours like Springsteen, while post-psychedelic music simultaneously won acclaim with opulence and extravagance (Yes, Genesis, ELP) or theatrics (Kiss, Bowie, Elton John).

When Punk Broke

When punk broke into the youth scene, it was as unhinged and uncontrolled as trad rock said. Punk’s DIY aesthetic breathed the populist rhetoric that rock ‘n’ roll and hippie culture only preached. And it was more democratic, too. Punk encouraged a participatory public to include the lowest of the low on the food chain, no matter how well they could play an instrument or how many zits their face was littered with. It was a forum where everyone could speak, not just the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and the cult of personality. Punk welcomed an uninvited anti-celebrity culture of rejects and fuck-ups to the mainstream while smashing the old league. Afterward, post-punk began restructuring the new wasteland into new forms.

Industrial music sprung from the post-punk moment, punk’s decimated ruins. Fittingly enough, it was partly a response to Britain and Europe’s postwar project of endless deconstruction and rebuilding. Einsturzende Neubaten’s namesake, commonly translated as “Collapsing New Buildings,” implies both an accusation of planned obsolescence and a critique of modernism, but industrial’s major gripes were not merely aesthetic gripes (nor did it implicitly reject modernism). In contrast to techno’s privileging of the labor of production, industrial saw that the major export of the factory was devastation. It focused on the externalities of capital, the picture outside of Pravda and Business Week.

Where rock championed the “Factory Girl” and the workers protesting conditions on “Maggie’s Farm”, it had never sonically entered the factories or the neighborhoods of the working poor. Stemming from their factory hometowns in places like Manchester and Sheffield, industrial recognized the asthmatic feel of the toxic smoke in your throat, the uneven terrain of the city streets, the decay of the municipal buildings, the crooked teeth, the coughing and disease, the stench of shit in broken plumbing, and the dead look of overworked, underfed workers, who were more like monsters than noble workers, the equivalent of Genesis P-Orridge’s Zyklon B zombies, breathing in the carcinogenic exhaust of other people’s comfort.

Industrial’s junk electronics, usually handmade, replicated the rust and grit of the factories. It was imperfect sound that used unwanted sandpaper blipping contours and feedback grime, a textural environment full of pollution, the kind rock studios tried desperately to cleanse from their mixes. There were society’s castaways gleaning music from the junk they were thrown away alongside.

Dylan et al. then came to be seen as politicians and demagogues, filthy rich rock stars who tried to idealize the common man as a self-congratulatory act of salesmanship. Is it any wonder that the rock hegemony are now the biggest cheerleaders for the Democratic Party, the greatest ideological champions of capitalist realism?

Rock’s division from any real perception of working-class sensibilities is best represented by the Cohen Brothers ‘film Barton Fink, wherein a playwright, who fancies himself an artist of social realism, romanticizes a travelling salesman without realizing that he is a murderous lunatic. The gap between the two involves an alienation between creative and physical labor. Whereas Barton Fink (John Turturro) toils under the crippling menace of writer’s block, his hotel neighbor Charlie (John Goodman) stresses under long hours of dehumanizing door-to-door sales in lonely hotel rooms. Barton thinks he is trying to create art, notably art that gives voice to the powerless. Charlie, though, is just trying to stay afloat by moving product. Barton fails to grasp that the commonality of the common man is not a noble struggle but a curse. Ironically, Hollywood has recruited Barton not to create art, but to, like Charlie, move product, to create a genre picture designed to turn a profit quickly and be promptly forgotten.

Barton claims to traffic in “the life of the mind”, which he claims to be grueling, but Charlie’s common man is mentally tortured. The battered mind comes to welcome fascism and accept murder as a solution. Charlie speaks of being humiliated at work and degraded by the middle-class housewives who reject him. In this state, “the life of the mind” becomes unhinged, and attempts to regain control and assert authority over what it perceives to be lower castes by whatever means necessary.

Industrial music stepped inside the factory and saw that a working man had no dignity; he was a shell, a complete product of his environment. New conditions of precarity that arose in the ’70s recession (the birth pangs of neoliberalism) augmented this instability and dehumanization. The only time the blue-collar man could become unhinged was in the pub, where his excess mirrored rock’s – getting drunk, fucking loose women, and provoking others. Contrary to the rock ‘n’ roll ideal, these behaviors were not liberating to the man still shackled to thankless, menial work. This only made him an addict, an adulterer, and a pugilist.

As a study of the extremes of human nature, industrial music found that under the auspices of control, the proletariat could degenerate from potentially revolutionary workers into domestic tyrants, serial killers, Nazi sympathizers, policemen and army brats with a fascist streak, scabs, psychopaths, pedophiles, and terrorists. Rather than aberrations from society, these fringe figures were seen by the early industrial musicians as symptomatic of the kind of culture we created. That the average oppressed citizen didn’t explode into acts of unbridled violence was not a sign of restraint, but one of impotence and exhaustion, libidinal defeat.

Hippiedom tried to imagine a utopianism bred through a counterculture that challenged establishment values and tried to coerce a universal bond based on love and brotherhood. What many of the postpunk generation saw, though, was a movement interested in permanent leisure, a “cheap holiday in other people’s misery”, as Johnny Rotten put it. The hippies, after all, didn’t want people to stop fixing their toilets and pumping gas into the VW buses. All the communes that sprouted during the late ’60s and early ’70s promised self-sustainability, but most dissolved for the same reasons that Big Brother-style reality shows tend to garner so many viewers. However, the communal ideal did find success in the Manson family, who failed to let hidden ego clashes get in the way of their vision of an alternative culture.

Only 25 years after the human animal had hit rock bottom by enacting a bureaucratic proposal of self-extinction, hippies thought they escaped the allure of fascism without ever exploring the psychological and social conditions which ushered its arrival. Furthermore, their weapon against the fascist enterprise was rock ‘n’ roll populism, which completely ignored the fact that fascism, too, was a populist movement. Anxieties that the baby boomer generation would follow this same path were voiced in the film Wild in the Streets, about a young rock star elected President who sets up re-education camps to force-feed LSD to anyone over 35 for the rest of their lives. A silly concept, to be sure, but rock’s descent into misogynist narcissistic claptrap about an eternal party in the ’70s wasn’t a good sign that rock was brewing with answers on how to resolves society’s capacity for subjugation.

Fascism was a source of fascination for early industrial noisemakers. Noisy underground cassettes, performances, and fanzines explored this most extreme of positions provocatively and shockingly. Chronologically, this preoccupation aligned with the rise of the national front and Thatcherite conservativism in the UK, as well as neoconservatism and the theocratic populism of the religious right in the US, which led many to question the motives of this movement. In truth, there was little in the music itself to dissuade the opinion that industrial musicians held totalitarian sympathies.

While some, such as Cabaret Voltaire, tried to link the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the West to the (American-backed) advent of Islamism in the East in a critical way, others seemed to be openly drawn to the seductive thrill of the far right. Boyd Rice of NON has often courted controversy for his refusal to disavow his more extreme viewpoints, even going so far as to participate in a cordial interview with avowed Neo-Nazi leader Tom Metzger. Death In June’s Tom Wakeford was a member of the National Front before he became involved in the punk, industrial, and neo-folk scenes. William Bennett’s Whitehouse project, which followed the industrial tradition with an extreme form of atonal sound collage called power electronics or noise, often put out frankly fascist (the album New Britain), racist (participation in the White Power cassette), and sexist (songs like “Rapemaster”, “Just Like a Cunt”, and “Pro-Sexist”) sentiments, which were pronounced as art but provided no commentary and little space for interpretation. To date, a subset of artists in the noise scene, who hold such colorful names as Xenophobic Ejaculation, continue to thrive under the adopted banner of “white power electronics“, which is exactly what it sounds like.

Downsized and Outsourced

Meanwhile, in tandem with the rise of industrial was a burgeoning scene that came to be known as Electronic Body Music (EBM). EBM was fast-paced stroboscopic ‘arpeggio-laced synth music with pounding industrial-sounding motorik beats. Its major proponents also courted fascist comparisons and flirted with totalitarian imagery as the music of Front 242, Laibach, and DAF at times emphasized tyranny, discipline, punishment, and terrorism, with varying degrees of irony and distantiation. The blood-pumping beats also made this a very masculine music, almost ritual musick for the production of adrenalin and testosterone. This also made it quite popular in gay and/or sadomasochistic communities.

These associations make as much of a sonic as a political statement. Yet, if these bands were in character, they refused to break it. Front 242 regularly dismissed the notion that the politics of their aggressive sound could reflect upon who they were as individuals but noted that its intensity and austerity demanded a corresponding performative and visual supplement. Slavoj Žižek has defended Laibach, insisting that Laibach is playing the straight man when they champion military might, uniformity, and nationalism, using this guise to reimagine pop anthems like Europe’s “The Final Countdown” with ambivalently totalitarian lyrics. Zizek argues that Laibach’s lack of commentary underlines the ways in which the hidden fascistic elements of social democracies go unexamined; thus, they are “taking the system more seriously than it takes itself”.

The implications of this aesthetic are that no matter how good we tell ourselves that we are, the shadow of our dark history lingers. In industrial civilization, elements of fascism still exist because, to a certain extent, Nazism was the ultimate expression of industrial civilization, micro-managed without commentary or debate, concerned with productivity and efficiency to the point of eliminating unwanted members of society in a very custodial manner. The collapse of labor as a political force under late capitalism, coupled with the demonization of socialism and communism, has meant that the undemocratic institution of the corporation goes unchecked (the argument that “voting” shareholders democratize business holds little waters since shareholders are bound exclusively by the profit motive).

The politics of EBM and industrial mirrored those of the early 20th-century Italian Futurism movement, which openly celebrated power, an accelerated rate of change, technology, military strength, automotive transport, misogyny, and fierce nationalism. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto called war “the world’s only hygiene”, and Marinetti and his peers were early supporters of the fascist movement in Italy. It’s worth noting that early fascist literature allegedly sought a contract between social democracy and corporatism until the latter eventually phased the former out. However, despite Futurism’s conservatism, its inspired and radical appropriation of technology was progressive in its perspective. Contrary to the transcendentalism of Whitman, Emerson, the Beats, and eventually the ’60s rock hegemony, which rejected society in favor of a more natural state, Futurism proposed that mankind’s creations were as much a part of him as any organ in his body and that technology need not be feared implicitly.

Musically, this translated to symphonies composed on and by machinery. Luigi Russolo’s manifesto The Art of Noises proved instrumental in spearheading a century of electronic composition, influencing artists from Varese to Stockhausen to Cage. The groundwork for Pierre Schaffer’s notion of using real or concrète sound, which would have great influence on industrial music, was arguably laid in The Art of Noises. However, here was a situation where sonic innovation could be easily divorced from political discourse, as the bulk of the 20th-century vanguard of electronic composers were far from totalitarian or even corporatist in their worldviews (though their expensive experiments often relied on significant corporate donations).

Regardless of the intentions of groups like Whitehouse and Front 242, their presentation of fascistic elements in their music and demeanor forces the listener to engage in a critical position. Whether they are presenting a mirror or a model, the question is whether a ur-fascist motif blends into the culture seamlessly or whether its acceptance would involve a complete overthrow of our current system of values. Rather than sitting in judgment of the dominant culture from a safe distance as the hippies proposed, these artists attempt to identify with it, in the process highlighting its most troublesome aspects, not least of which is the cold allure of its power, valor, and systems of hierarchical dominance. When DAF instruct you to do “Der Mussolini”, branding one of history’s biggest monsters as a dance craze, it’s hard to resist that beat.

As EBM began to grow underground momentum, many of the original industrial artists began to experiment with their sound, inviting synthesizers and drum machines into the mix. Often this sound was in stark contrast to the harsh sturm und drang of their usual compositions. It’s notable that only rarely did the early industrial musicians morph into rock outfits. Most kept electronics and experimental sound design at the forefront. Throbbing Gristle’s late period found them diverging into proto-synthpop and techno directions with driving synth-based efforts like “AB/7A”, “United”, and “Hot on the Heels of Love”, each of which would signal new directions for the group as they pushed forward individually.

Probably the most commercial of the post-Throbbing Gristle projects, Genesis P-Orridge’s Psychic TV played dark occult synthpop complete with its own cult before P-Orridge became a kind of staple of the American acid house scene. Meanwhile, partners and eventual husband and wife duo Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti made a mix of sometimes experimental and sometimes melodic electronic pop and krautrock as Chris & Casey, Carter Tutti, and CTI. Finally, Throbbing Gristle member Peter Christopherson explored all manner of dark ambient, neo-folk, acid house, and avant-garde compositions with his life partner Jhonn Balance as Coil.

Cabaret Voltaire continued into the ’80s, forging ahead with a kind of dark avant-funk brand of industrial commercial enough to land them on Ferris Bueller’s bedroom wall. The band’s Richard H Kirk additionally branched off, making electronic listening music under his own name and helping launch Warp Records and the bleep sound with Sweet Exorcist. Other once experimental bands like Clock DVA and Skinny Puppy molded their rough sounds into a more dance-friendly format late in the decade as industrial and goth dance clubs began to proliferate. Robert Gorl of DAF would become involved exclusively involved in techno. His 1998 album Sex Drops was produced by Regis, founder of the industrial-tinged techno label Downwards and current member of the Sandwell District collective.

Industrial’s evolution throughout the ’80s, its peak moment, would be characterized by the competing tensions between noise and order, texture and propulsion, dystopianism, and futurism. As techno and house’s sound grew in the gay black urban subculture, the parallax EBM and its later Belgian brand new beat became indistinguishable from artists termed “industrial”. In fact, as house and techno began to emerge, there weren’t enough records to make the rounds, so DJs spun anything in their collection with a propulsive beat and a synth melody, plucking from Italo-disco, Hi-NRG, house, EBM, new beat, techno, Manuel Göttsching’s E2-E4, soul, synthpop, and, yes, Industrial at clubs like Amnesia in Ibiza or The Warehouse in Chicago. Industrial fanzines throughout the ’80s and ’90s regularly featured prominent techno/rave artists and vice versa for the rave zines.

Crossovers or remixes from the integrated scenes were regular such that it became hard to tell Sheep on Drugs from a bad techno act or Meat Beat Manifesto from a good one. Likewise, dance groups like LFO would occasionally cut records like “Tied Up”, which fit not only industrial’s sadomasochistic aesthetic of discipline but sounded like an intimate tour of a box crusher. Even the more chilled-out island scene was once a companion to industrial sounds; the first Balearic Beats compilation on Pete Tong’s FFRR in 1989 featured contributions from Nitzer Ebb and Fini Tribe. Later on, prominent industrial label Wax Trax, at the height of its power, distributed the likes of The KLF, Underworld, Autechre, and B12.

A vast number of those making electronic music got their start in industrial, usually in the noisier end of things. Graham Massey of 808 State fame was in the industrial-leaning Biting Tongues. Omni Trio’s Rob Haigh debuted in Truth Club, contemporaries of Whitehouse, before composing some of the lushest jungle ever heard. Mark Van Hoen, who worked extensively with Seefeel, has an album called Natural Composite that shows his work as Locust going back as far as the early ’80s when he sounded more like Coil than a hazy summer day. Achim Szepanski cut his teeth in experimental outfits like PD and P.16.D4 before founding Force Inc., which eventually became the groundbreaking Mille Plateaux, which popularized illbient and glitch music.

In the early ’90s, industrial broke through in a big way thanks to the foregrounding of heavy guitars in some of the genre’s bigger acts, particularly Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. The latter retained a machinal and electronic vitality for a while, even becoming an advocate for drum n’ bass and recruiting remixers like Aphex Twin, Porter Ricks, The Orb, and Telefon Tel Aviv. In addition, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails became the US distributor of various releases by respected IDM acts Squarepusher, Autechre, Plaid, and Plug via his Nothing Records imprint. Yet, it was the metal more than the metallurgy of Nine Inch Nails that garnered attention. Earlier in the decade, halfway above-ground acts like The Butthole Surfers and Faith No More had experimented with industrial sounds with mild commercial success, but the massive victory of Nine Inch Nails’s The Downward Spiral heralded in even the old guard (David Bowie, Gary Numan, Motley Crüe), looking to sound hip and up-to-date with industrial records.

Reznor’s protégé Marilyn Manson outsold him, but much of Manson’s “industrial” output consisted of little more than hard rock with some programming underneath. By the time the major labels got a hold of industrial and shat out Filter, Stabbing Westward, Gravity Kills, and God Lives Underwater, the genre had pretty much become untouchable by anyone hoping to retain credibility. That the genre had begun as a reaction against rock and wound becoming another byproduct of it was an irony not lost on many of the scene’s top players. By the time this happened, EBM had dissipated completely into techno, industrial dance, trance, crusty rave, and acid house. The noise community, fittingly enough, remained static, submerged in mountains of limited edition tapes.

Industrial sonics would reemerge on the fringes of electronic dance and listening music in the ’90s and the naughts, as the music began to soundtrack a world becoming increasingly virtualized, where industrial labor was downsized and shipped far away from view, and corporatism and neoliberalism started to conquer all aspects of social life.