Edgar Froese passed away this week (January 20, 2015), and most of the world have zero idea what a legend this man was. That right there is a shame. John Lennon dies? John Entwistle? Johhny Cash? Headlines across the world. Edgar’s passing has created nary a ripple in most news outlets. And this is also a shame, for this man was a giant and a pioneer of synthesizer based music. He was the founding and sole surviving member of the German kosmische synthesizer trio Tangerine Dream. You may know them from the soundtracks to Risky Business or Firestarter. Others may remember darkened college dorm rooms with Stratosfear or Phaedra bending uninitiated minds to the edge of sanity. But one thing is certain: this man is single handedly responsible for most of space rock, krautrock and hell, even techno. That is a pretty large legacy for an under the radar German synthesizer guy.
For those who are new to this, let me get this out there: you need to own some Tangerine Dream albums. This band pretty much created a sound and scene on their own. Meetings and work in the late 60’s with Salvador Dali and Karlheinz Stockhausen cracked Edgar’s rock n roll reality. Multi media, lights, plays, music, improvisation? This was the signpost for the future. A new wind blowing through Europe encouraged experimentation. Fledgling experiments under the moniker Tangerine Dream started in 1967, with Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive as the blueprint. But where Pink Floyd quickly abandoned their massive sonic improvisational sound for songs, Edgar and company took the model even further. The first Tangerine Dream album, Electronic Meditation (1970), was a miasma of sound. Klaus Schulze, future synth god was aboard as the drummer. Many of Germany’s great space rock musicians had floated though the band before they broke internationally. But still it was rooted in the rock format-drums, organ and guitar were the predominant blueprint.
It was the period from 1972-1978 that was their glory period though, and the stretch where the albums that defined a genre were created. Kraftwerk, another synthesizer trio from Germany that broke in the US, were filled with repetitive blips and clicks. Tangerine Dream pulled in the sounds of the cosmos. Huge soundscapes were the order of the day. Melody, rhythm, chord structures? No thanks. 1972’s Zeit was a sprawling double album that sounded like a 60 cycle electronic hum accompanied by droning cellos. This was about as far from rock that anyone could get. Yet they swung in rock crowds, and attracted rock audiences. They caught the attention of Virgin Records, who were coming off the massive success of Mike Oldfield with Tubular Bells. They were looking to grab any fringe bands, and the enthusiasm of DJ John Peel for the band ensured they got signed. 1974’s Virgin debut Phaedra was the result. The classic trio of Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Peter Baumann had pretty much abandoned their ‘normal’ rock instruments (guitar, drums, keyboards respectively) for a new form of musicianship. VCS3 synthesizers, mellotrons and electronic effects replaced normal instrumentation for most of their tunes. Prototype sequencers generated hypnotic rhythmic patterns, drawing in the LSD and stoner crowd from England and Europe. Fans of space rock who thought Pink Floyd had sold out and gone commercial and that Hawkwind was stagnating in format now had a new darling-a synthesizer trio that could genuinely freak out the hard core freaks. Washes of sound induced paranoia could come on the heels of delicately beautiful piano driven melodies. Moog modular synthesizers could conjure up genuine vertigo as the sensation of the floor suddenly slipping away poured from your speakers. This was some heady stuff. But was it rock? Lester Bangs described it as the “sound of silt seeping across the ocean floor”.
Phaedra was the breakthrough. It sold massively in the UK, and was the underground hit of the year. With little publicity and zero airplay (barring John Peel’s rabid enthusiasm), it shot to near top ten in British charts. Europe and America started to notice. A tour in 1974 used cathedrals as venues (the natural ambience providing a powerful and impressive reverb character to the sound). A concert at a cathedral in Reims France in summer 1974 drew international attention when over 5,000 fans tried to cram into a cathedral that barely held 2,000. People were literally hanging from the rafters. (the Pope banned them from cathedrals, and sent emissaries to ritually ‘exorcise’ the sullied church) What the hell was going on? People were in a frenzy trying to see what many thought was just subliminal hums and static? And the band reinforced the image by never acknowledging the crowd. They came on to a darkened stage, played, and left. No song introductions, no hello or goodbye. Was this rock n roll?
After the international success of Stratosfear (1976), Tangerine Dream’s legend was assured. A massive tour of the United States was documented on the 1977 live album Encore (highly recommended as a starting point for anyone uninitiated, as is Ricochet). Krautrock was a recognized genre (see: Can, Cluster, Klaus Schulze, Conrad Schnitzler, Amon Duul 2, Faust, Neu, Guru Guru, Klaus Schulze, Kraan, Eloy…) and German synthesizer pioneers started to work with dance club divas (Donna Summer’s I Feel Love was a prime example). The seeds that spawned techno had been planted by German synthesizer pioneers.
So this brings us back to today, and the passing of a genuine electronic music genius. His work has been massively influential on swaths of musical fields. I had the pleasure of meeting Edgar briefly back stage after a 1986 US show. I approached him to shake his hand, and said “Danke schoen Edgar” He looked me in the eye and said in a thick German accent: “You’re welcome”. Thank you Edgar. See you in the cosmos.