By the mid 1970s, electronic effects and early synthesizers were nothing new, but they were totally out of the price range for ordinary people. Keyboard wizards like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson had been twiddling away for most of the previous decade. Often classically trained, many prog rock musicians used the new technology to administer clever arpeggios, choir sounds or even end of the world explosion noises to give their respective projects both gravitas and a pinch of techno-elitism. The equipment was specialist, complex and very, very expensive.
Other examples of bewildering and expensive equipment of the 1970s included the home organ. Aunty Betty had one. Mostly it was obscured by a layer of dusty doilies and pot plants, but very occassionally she’d open it up, switch it on and trundle out something that sounded a bit like the songs you’d hear at the ice rink. Vibrato-ed versions of “The Last Waltz”, eked out by slowly following the colour coded dots on the instruction booklet. Whether it was The Last Waltz or not, that’s how everything sounded.
In 1976, guitar effects manufacturers Electro-Harmonix, quietly released a budget drum machine. Initially intended as a practice tool for guitarists, the Rhythm-12 had preset rhythms and a tempo and volume control. It was one of the first low budget drum machines on the market. You can hear it in all its glory at dubsounds.com
Initially, and with 12 onboard rhythm patterns to choose from, plus a tempo control, the possibilities seemed endless. Having had access to one myself in the early eighties, I can report back that after an hour or so, the possibilities seemed fairly limited, but it was new, and a new way of approaching things was sometimes all that mattered. You could be your own one girl bedroom band and record all your scrappy attempts at songwriting ….but this time WITH DRUMS!!!
In the hands of dance music producers, electronica took on a whole new dimension. Far from the noodling layers and special effects of progressive rock, synthesizers were allowed to do what they do best – stabbing out rhythmic and repetitive riffs. Released in 1977, producer Georgio Moroder used full on machinery to drive the incredible “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer, and despite its Disco beat…you couldn’t help but take notice.
The giant leap forward for the bedroom band was the release of Casio’s VL-1 keyboard in June 1979, it was the first commercially available monophonic synthesiser. With it’s button keys and child sized dimensions, it was portable, accessible, and most importantly utterly unassuming. It was exactly those toy-like qualities along with its price tag and the fact that you were automatically limited to playing one note at a time, that made it so popular.
Bands started to form with new technology at its core. Casiotone followed up with the polyphonic MT60, as did other manufacturers who released their own budget techno to keep up with the interest. Gone was the need for any particular line-up, and by 1981 artists like Tubeway Army, Depeche Mode and Soft Cell began the move to reconfigure what we even meant by “band”. In 1982, the band Trio featured the full sonic force of the Casio VL-1 on their super smash hit “Da Da Da” – they even took it onto Top of The Pops with them, to show just how futuristic they were feeling.
Until 1980, the classic band line up of drums, bass and guitar was almost unavoidable because there were no easy alternatives; no synths, no sequencers, no drum machines. If you wanted drums you had to have a drummer, but post 1980 and with the advent of affordable technology, bands could comprise of any number of people, or hardly any at all … as long as they had machines. It really did feel like the future had arrived.