Under the Influence of ‘70s Synths

About the songs that influenced R.M.Hendrix’s War Is On Its Way

The author, R.M. Hendrix, posing as a passed out drunk, but instead of a bottle of whiskey, he’s holding a synthesizer
R.M.Hendrix under the influence by Solomon

During Wilco’s tongue-in-cheek song, “Late Greats,” Jeff Tweedy sings about the best song you’ve never heard: “You can’t hear it on the radio / Can’t hear it anywhere you go!” It’s familiar social currency to any pop culture nerd, the more obscure the band or song, the more important they are in the canon. Remember Rob and Barry bickering at Championship Vinyl in the film High Fidelity? This is essential music nerd behavior.

James Murphy, of LCD Soundsystem, one-ups the joke in his sarcastic “Losing my Edge,” claiming a string of bragging rights, from being at Can’s first show in Cologne (before he was born) to being at the rehearsal sessions with electro pop pioneers, Suicide (when he was four). “I was there in 1974 at the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City. I was working on the organ sounds with much patience,” he sing talks over the beat before rattling off a litany of influencer records every collector claims to have on their shelves.

My new Spotify Playlist highlights electronic artists from the 1970s that influenced the sounds on my EP, War Is On Its Way. At first glance I know some folks may read it as a music snob moment — unless you’re a true music snob — then you’ll say I didn’t dig deep enough into the crates!

The synthesizer began gaining popularity in the late ‘60s with brief appearances on records by The Monkees, Byrds, Beatles and Beach Boys. But by the ‘70s the synth went from novelty act to mainstream instrument, sometimes replacing guitars completely. While pop music was forking rapidly: soft rock, hard rock, glam rock, prog rock, Southern rock, disco, funk, punk, new wave, Afrobeat, R&B… electronic music was just beginning to establish itself for the masses.

This growth was partly due to companies like Arp and Moog creating portable synthesizers, a smart response to the popularity of the furniture-like modular synths in recording studios. What had been confined to the workspace was suddenly free to roam night clubs and garages across the city.

What I love about listening to these tracks is recognizing how fringe they were at the time, and how influential they are now. They are from the bands James Murphy talks about in “Losing My Edge.” They are the bands that most musicians cite as important to their work. And yet you’ll rarely hear them on Classic Rock stations celebrating the same era. Even if you recognize a name or two, the most influential songs never made it to the top 40.

I often wonder whom of today’s “influencers” will actually be influential. Sure, the Classic Rock or Historic Hip Hop stations of 2070 will still be playing Imagine Dragons and Travis Scott (without ad interruptions!), but who will the musicians be name-dropping? Who will the streaming playlist curators be arguing over?

I wonder what the equivalent of tape loop experiments is today? What is the new synthesizer of 2020? (Please don’t say semi-modular synthesizers). Where is the new ambient music? What’s the current psychedelic mindset? It’s out there. It’s happening. Some of it’s going to crawl from the primordial sonic ooze of 2020 and shape the pop musicians of our great grand kids.

Silver Apples performing live
Silver Apples performing live
Silver Apples, 1968. Photographer unknown

The playlist I made to accompany War Is On Its Way celebrates the ooze of the ‘70s. It begins by fudging the dates with a Silver Apples track from 1969. Below the folk rock melody is a synth bass line alternating octaves between live drums, covered by a droning organ. It’s a clear influence on Portishead’s Third, and most other electronic drone tunes by bands such as Moon Duo and Stereolab.

Another standout for me is Joni Mitchell’s “The Jungle Line.” Though The Hissing of Summer Lawns was panned in 1975, it’s grown in popularity since then because of its genre-blending arrangements. This track from that album is composed primarily of her voice, a field recording of Burundi drummers and a Moog synthesizer. You can hear her acoustic guitar buried deep in the mix periodically but it’s nearly inaudible. This still sounds fresh to me, but don’t take my word for it. Producer Nigel Godrich says Joni Mithchell’s ‘70s records have been a huge influence on him and you can hear that influence on Radiohead’s A Moon Shape Pool, an album he produced.

The final song is a five minute tune by German experimental group, Harmonia. Arpeggiated bleeps are overlaid with a drum machine and a heavily delayed guitar snaking through the trills. It’s probably the most direct influence on War Is On Its Way. If they had taken this jam and chopped it up for use in more traditional song structures, you might have had a similar sounding record.

The band, Harmonia, gathered around several keyboards and modular synthesizers, performing a song
The band, Harmonia, gathered around several keyboards and modular synthesizers, performing a song
Harmonia, 1974. Photo from Groenland Records

There are plenty of other jewels here including Suicide, Iggy Pop, Faust, Brian Eno, Wire and Gang of Four. I included those last two bands because of their socially conscious lyrics, another key influence on my EP. Mixed in between these dusty tracks you’ll hear songs from War Is On Its Way and I hope you’ll hear the connection, because now you can hear them everywhere you go. But you won’t hear them on the radio.

R.M.Hendrix “Under the Influence: 1970's on Spotify

Author @public_affairs, Designer @IDEO, Lecturer @BerkleeCollege, Boston experimental musician @rm_hendrix. Views are my own.

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