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Disco’s revenge: the legends of house, acid, and techno

The four-on-the-floor grooves that defined the ’80s were said to be ‘disco’s revenge’. Read on to explore the legendary artists and gear behind house, acid house and techno.

The 1980s was a decade of building on established principles from prior decades, but also one of transformation. Electronic music and samplers were starting to creep into the mainstream pop consciousness and a recording accident set the percussive template for the entire decade’s popular music. Electronic music was part of the shock of the new and from the decline of disco in the dying days of the ‘70s, a genre that became known as ‘disco’s revenge’ began to take shape: house music.

House music kicked off in the ‘80s, with the first tracks making an impact in the period from 1984 to around 1987 — such as On and On by Jesse Saunders, Your Love by Frankie Knuckles and Jamie Principle, and Move Your Body by Marshall Jefferson to name a few. The seeds of the style were planted in two U.S. cities: Chicago and New York.

Jesse Saunders
Jesse Saunders. Credit: Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archive

Clubs in these cities such as The Warehouse, The Power Station and The Music Box, and radio shows such as WBMX’s The Hot Mix 5 helped to popularize the genre. Of course, prior to house music existing as we know it, its earlier form grew out of Disco Demolition Night in July 1979, as disco went underground once again, after mainstream success in the 1970s.

The term ‘house music’ was originally used to describe music that played in The Warehouse, a Chicago club headed by DJ Frankie Knuckles, where the music initially centred around older disco tracks from artists such as Candido’s Jingo, or Sparque’s Let’s Go Dancing, on the Salsoul Records and West End Records labels respectively.

House music owes a great deal to disco, as the four-on-the-floor beat (an innovation of the 1970s of Philadelphia International Records session drummer Earl Young) is a characteristic that both genres share. Another important innovation that house inherited from disco was the invention of the 12-inch single (NYC producer Tom Moulton is credited as inventing the format on Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s I Feel Love).

A prime example of the four-on-the-floor groove and long-form 12-inch format transcending genres is the Salsoul classic (popular at clubs like the Paradise Garage and the Warehouse) and the very first house track: Jesse Saunders’ On and On.

Early house music, as it emerged in the early to mid-1980s, was a remixing of older disco tracks, and using two turntables, a mixer and two copies of the same record, as the supply of older Salsoul and Philly records was limited. This forced the DJs to get creative; by blending two portions of the same song, it could be tailored to the reaction of the crowd.

This blending technique is probably most evident in the work of the Hot Mix 5, which began on WBMX 102.7 in 1981. The show involved live mixing of disco tunes on air, by using the same technique that DJs were using in clubs: turntablism. Aside from the approach that these DJs were taking in blending existing disco tracks with a pair of turntables, electronic instruments were crucial in helping to define the genre.

Jessie Saunders’ On and On originated from a bootleg megamix record also called On and On by Mach, which in turn used the electronic rhythm from a Sydney-produced novelty song, Space Invaders (Player One, WEA Records 1979). The riff from Space Invaders was used in the song in conjunction with two important (and at the time, forgotten) musical instruments: the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer and TB-303 Bass Line.

Dance machines from Japan

Released in 1980, the 808 differed from expensive samplers and drum synthesisers such as the Fairlight CMI or Linn LM-1, in that instead of replaying a pre-recorded real drum sound indefinitely, the relays and transistors of the 808 worked to create the sound every time, by using sound-generating hardware as opposed to sampled drums.

The synthetic soul of the 808 — its larger than life kick drum boom and tinny hi-hats was in no doubt helped by the head of Roland Corporation, Ikutaro Kakehashi, and his insistence of deliberately employing faulty transistors. These transistors included an oscillator with a powerful trigger, which makes the start of the note particularly accentuated, while the oscillators are controlled by Voltage Controlled Amplifiers (VCAs) which determine whether or not the electrical pulse is sent to the trigger and makes the sound.

The accented signal is processed in such a way that it possesses an unusually flat decay curve, which stretches out into silence. Working in conjunction with this technology, the 808 also includes a low pass filter, which places a ceiling on the high frequencies.

Once the supply had dried up (after circa 12,000 units built), the TR-808 was replaced by the TR-909, which utilised a similar concept in circuitry (though cymbals and hi-hats were crafted from digital samples).

The machine was used by the likes of 808 State, Jesse Saunders, A Guy Called Gerald and many other early house music pioneers. A unique point of the 909 is its versatility; not only could it be a standalone drum sequencer, but also digitally communicate with other devices via MIDI.

The birth of acid

But it was another Roland instrument that was so influential that it created a whole new genre: acid house. Acid house was a genre centred around the 808’s contemporary: the TB-303. Standing for ‘Transistorized Bass’, it was designed by Roland employee Tadao Kikumoto, and intended to be employed as a stand-in for bands performing without a bass player.

Much like the 808, the 303 also used analogue circuitry with a single oscillator capable of performing two waveforms — a sawtooth wave and a square wave.  The machine’s mono output was also equipped with a 24dB low-pass filter (though some sources claim it as 18dB), and pots which managed tuning as well as pots for decay length and accent (that is, how prominent specific notes are). There were also several more controls for envelope modulation and resonance of the pattern, as well as tempo and volume knobs.

Speaking of patterns, the 303 has a familiar sequencer for writing repetitive riffs, while saving and loading of patterns is done with a rotary toggle switch on the front.  The 303, however, was difficult to program and because of this — and its unnaturally squelchy sounds — it was discontinued by 1983. Despite being a commercial failure, the 303 would, much like the 808 before, take on a new life of its own in the acid house scene.

An emblematic piece from this period is Acid Tracks by the Chicago collective Phuture. The 303 plays a starring role in this track with its metallic squawking sounds born from experimenting with the device’s resonance. The 808 is used here as a foundation from which the song is constructed, but the 303 takes centre stage.

Acid Tracks was constructed as part of a long, informal jam session, and was edited down to a ten-plus minute set, which was delivered to Ron Hardy — the infamous DJ at Chicago’s The Music Box nightclub. In an interview in Red Bull Music Academy, DJ Pierre explained the genesis of Acid Tracks, and the crowd’s reaction to the new sound:

I kept twisting knobs, and the next thing you know, we were there for an hour or two, just twisting knobs and programming things. The funny thing is, that first day, we made Acid Tracks. We thought ‘That’s it, he’s not gonna play this track because people aren’t getting into it.’ So an hour later, he drops it again”.

While Acid Tracks was the first recording featuring this new style of tweaking bass from outer space, it certainly wouldn’t be the last. With tracks like Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald and Maurice’s This is Acid, as well as Sleezy D’s I’ve Lost Control (which not only used the 303, but also sampled vocals) being well-known and popular exemplars of the acid house sound.

Motor City sounds

At the same time acid was taking off in Chicago’s house music scene, there was a new, mechanical sound coming from the Motor City of Detroit, Michigan. The origins of techno can be traced to the mid-1980s, through the combined interests of three school friends: Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson — collectively known as the ‘Belleville Three’, after their high school in Belleville, Michigan.

The three friends used the music as a form of escape from life in the suburbs, and their tastes were developed both with the radio and science fiction, such as futurist Alvin Toffler’s books Future Shock and The Third Wave.

In the documentary Can You Feel It: How Dance Music Conquered The World, the Belleville Three explained the process for helping develop the sound of techno. Inspired by a radio show on the local radio station WGPR 107.5, hosted by a DJ known as the ‘Electrifying Mojo’, where he would play a mixture of music, including European electronica, like Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode.

With this background of music and science fiction, Juan Atkins and Richard ‘3070’ Davis formed Cybotron in 1980, with Alleys of Your Mind being released the same year as a 7” single.

Atkins’ and Davis’ contributions to techno’s development would be solidified with the release of Enter (later reissued as Clear in 1990). It features the distinct character of the 303 throughout, lending the piece a kind of industrial chic. The same can also be said for Alleys of Your Mind and one of the most famous tracks in the sphere of techno, Strings of Life by Derrick May.

Released in 1987 under his alias of Rhythim is Rhythim, Strings of Life is a multi-layered composition chiefly held together with a looped piano riff, a varied synth string section (courtesy of the Ensoniq Mirage, a disk-based 8-bit synthesiser), and Roland TR-727 drum machine. The creation of the track was a complete surprise, as Derrick May recounts in Can You Feel It:

Strings of life was a complete accident. I was needing some disk space, and I was going to erase this sequence that I didn’t recognize; so I took a little piece, and did what’s called a re-edit, and did a loop of that one little piece, and added all the music around it.”

The loop of that short piano piece, along with Cybotron’s earlier efforts, helped to define techno’s sound – one marked by the influence of technology and understanding the future through the prism of music.

In addition to these foundations of techno, a more dance-oriented sound was also being cultivated in the late ‘80s. It’s most prominent champion was Kevin Saunderson, whose project, known as Inner City, represented an evolution for the genre.  As Saunderson himself explains in Can You Feel It:

I formed Inner City, ‘cause I wanted a vocal group for one. I wanted to do something that could be played in the clubs, but I wanted to create something hooky with a great melody but could be a dance record as well.”

Inner City’s first release, Big Fun was released on Virgin Records in 1988. More dancefloor-friendly than previous techno offerings, it still leans on the style’s angular traditions, with synthesised pads, and clipped strings. Big Fun was to peak at #1 on the US Dance charts in 1988-89, and #57 on the ARIA charts here in Australia.

Frankie Knuckles
The late house pioneer, DJ Frankie Knuckles

Aside from the use of drum machines and bass synthesisers in house music, there was also extensive use of keyboards in the genre, where they were used primarily as samplers (the Ensoniq Mirage is one such example). However, electric pianos were something that was being used prominently for the first time in Marshall Jefferson’s Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem).

The creation of new genre’s such as acid house and techno had helped to realise the musical destinies of two American cities: one without much of a party scene before the arrival of The Warehouse in the early ‘80s (Chicago), to a reimagining of a city’s soundscape in a post-industrial decline (Detroit).

By the end of the decade, the house music craze had travelled across the Atlantic into places like Shoom in the London borough of Southwark.  Places like Shoom were to change the very makeup of club music in the UK and its impact can still be felt today — all thanks to a fateful trip in 1987 to Ibiza, where London pirate radio DJs Paul Oakenfold,  Danny Rampling and Johnny Walker discovered the latest imports of house from Chicago and techno from Detroit. This summer holiday was to be the spark that not only begat the ‘Second Summer of Love’, but also rave club culture as a whole.