David Stubbs: Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music – book review
Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic is the latest book by the acclaimed author David Stubbs (Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany). Simon Tucker reviews.
David Stubbs is a brave writer. Not content with trying to fit the history of one of the most diverse and influential music scenes of all time (Krautrock) into one book he now turns his gaze onto another all encompassing form. That of electronic music. To try and break down this decades-old form of artistic expression into sections, providing the reader with a linear and engaging narrative, is a hefty task and one that will carry some (natural) pitfalls. The fact that people will complain about the exclusion of those they feel should definitely have a place in the story of electronic music. Stubbs himself acknowledges this in the first Preface where he explains his intentions to not focus on one aspect of Electronic music but all of its various mutations and also for his book to not be “exhaustive” or a “directory”. Instead Stubbs tells us that this is a “personal and selective account that is more about aspects and angles, patterns and trails”. By telling us this in the preface, Stubbs protects himself from the aforementioned complaints and also opens up his scope so as he is not married to the more common held opinion of electronic music basically following the Stockhausen – Radiophonic Workshop – Kraftwerk – Acid House – EDM (with some diversions in between).
Broken up into four parts with sub-categories in each one, ‘Mars by 1980′ manages to bring into focus an unyielding genre of music that his slipped its tentacles into nearly every form of music that we hear today. We start with a wonderfully written prehistory of the genre where we learn of characters such as Thaddeus Cahill (“a Washington-based, 115-pound hyper-metabolic human dynamo”) who invented the Telharmonium before we alight at Futurism and the Birth of Noise which is where the real story begins. Stubbs writing of these periods is exemplary as it manages to make a point in history, full of scientist types and artists with grand political and social statements to make, alive and thriving. What could be, in a lesser authors hands, a basic and plodding account of a period in time that may not be of that much interest to those looking for the lowdown on people like Autechre or Eno, instead becomes a fizzing and enthralling period drama with as much sociological intrigue and scandal as a BBC made-for-television play.
Stubbs’ writing style is as much as a character in Mars by 1980 as that of the people he is discussing. The words flow and pop like wonderful Jazz which helps make the book a fast-flowing one to read. You will either fall in love with this style of writing or it will not be your personal cup of tea but personally this writer finds it difficult not to smile when Stubbs writes lines like:
“Prince would take this principle to another level again, the vocoder another electric device on his Cupid’s bow of polymorphous perversity”
and (describing a Dave Clarke set)
“..a bass boost, a switch to seventh gear, and we’re catapulted out of the referential zone into the deep, black space of the now, propelled at the warp speed of pure techno”.
‘Mars by 1980′ is a vital document and telling of the Electronic music story. It can read like an academic text first time round (indeed many Music & Media Studies departments would do well to include this on the syllabus) but once you go back to it a second/third/fourth time you will find that you are drawn to chapters that are more akin to your preferences and your favourite period in time which makes the book incredibly re-readable. You will have fun cursing Stubbs out for not including your favourites (even though he has said this would happen right at the beginning you will still find this happening. That is human nature. For this writer it is the exclusion of Frank Ocean in the Electrification of Soul chapter) whilst simultaneously hailing him for drawing your attention to artists/mavericks/explorers who you were unaware of and whose contribution to the story of electronic music had completely passed you by. Stubbs’ other great achievement is his complete lack of musical snobbery which can be apparent in many a book about a specific genre. He writes as lovingly and precisely about the works of Miles Davis as he does Fatboy Slim never comparing their inherent, or lack of, “greatness” instead just placing them as pieces in the giant puzzle that is the story of electronic music and one which has pieces being added every second of every day.
David Stubbs can be found via Twitter where he tweets as @sendvictorious