October saw the release of a giant Tangerine Dream boxed set from Virgin Records, 'Tangents 1973‑1983'. In the first of this two‑part feature, MARK PRENDERGAST considers Tangerine Dream's groundbreaking use of emergent synthesizer technology during their first decade. This is the first article in a two‑part series.
In December 1993, when Virgin approached me to work on their forthcoming Tangerine Dream boxed set, it seemed like a thrilling but difficult task. Then, I knew only that the box set dealt with the Virgin years (1973‑1983), and did not even know which tracks the group would select for final inclusion. The story of Tangerine Dream's long career involves over 40 album releases and continuous changes in personnel, played out against a backdrop of three decades of massive advances in available music technology. Because of this last point, it was important to show how such a progressive group as Tangerine Dream adapted as new equipment became available. To help unravel this story, I interviewed members of Tangerine Dream in depth. Further research produced a 74‑page booklet for the boxed set, in which my purpose was to highlight the legacy of the group, and to convey their pioneering attitude towards recording electronic music. In recent years, this attitude has attracted great attention from those involved with modern electronic dance music, and consequently, like their contemporaries Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream have seen their sounds widely sampled for re‑use in House music.
During the course of my interviews with them, Edgar Froese and Christoph Franke came up with a great deal of fascinating background to the recording of each album, which was a just credit to their dedication and tenacity. Today, electronic equipment is pretty easy to use. You just buy it, study the manuals, and connect up the leads. In Tangerine Dream's heyday, equipment was all about trial‑and‑error, trying to obtain certain sounds from frankly unreliable machines. Today, 10 million album sales later, their story is still unique, for in many ways, as the group's founder Edgar Froese says, the history of Tangerine Dream is the history of modern electronic equipment.
Tangerine Dream's roots lie in the 1960s. Edgar Froese was a Lithuanian who loved classical music, surrealism and The Rolling Stones with equal fervour. Like many progressive rockers, he began his career as an artist, studying painting and sculpture in Berlin, even visiting Salvador Dali a couple of times, only to be caught up in the prototypical multimedia madness which surrounded the crazed genius in Cadeques. Unhappy with the rock scene, Froese returned to Berlin, and founded Tangerine Dream (named after a line on the Beatles' Sergeant. Pepper album) in the autumn of 1967. The early TD was unstable and home to various stabs at experimentation, using flutes, violins, and organs as well as the more conventional rock instrumentation of drums, guitar, and bass. They performed intense psychedelic sets at the Zodiak Free Arts Lab (founded by Cluster member Roedelius and Conrad Schnitzler), but these rock gigs proved a cul‑de‑sac until Froese met Klaus Schulze. Schulze, like Edgar, was a classical guitarist, but had turned towards rock drumming in the Hendrix‑inspired Psy Free. Together with Conrad Schnitzler, they decided to take a chance on a completely experimental rock album. It was called Electronic Meditation. In an SOS interview in February 1993, Klaus Schulze described it as "the primary electronic album". He went on to say: "We were experimenting with a lot of random stuff, putting things through loads of effects and making up our own sounds". Recorded in a rented factory on a 2‑track tape machine, it was a stab at free electronic rock which owed much to Hendrix and Pink Floyd. The album credits list Froese on 6‑ and 12‑string guitars, Farfisa organ and piano; Conrad Schnitzler on cello, violin and additator; and Schulze on percussion and metal sticks. More recently, Froese elaborated on the experience: "It was very exotic. Sounds were made using everyday objects — for example a sieve filled with dry peas, an old office calculating machine, two old iron bars, and hard parchment paper, all recorded with a microphone and sent through reverbs and delays to create unusual sounds. The results could not always be used musically — it was all quite different from the commercial pop sound. Technically, the studio was very sparse. As we didn't have a lot of money, all the resulting sounds were directly mastered onto a Revox quarter‑inch machine. It was pretty rough and adventurous. We never dreamed that anyone would want to press this recording onto vinyl..."
But luck was on Tangerine Dream's side, as Ohr Records took up the option. However, before the album was even released, Schulze quit during a European tour, and Froese found himself again fronting an unstable outfit. It was at this point that Christoph Franke joined the group. Eight years younger than Froese, Franke had impeccable credentials. He came from a family of musicians, and had won several brass competitions before turning to percussion in the group Agitation Free, which he founded when only 13. Within two years he was already working in his own electronic recording studio, having had his interest in electronic music encouraged by his music teacher, Thomas Kessler. Franke subsequently went on to join the prestigious Les Percussions de Strasbourg, which he now describes as "an avant‑garde percussion thing, with a lot of Asian and Indian influences, and a lot of contemporary jazz. I liked jazz, I liked rock, I liked Indian. I was pretty much open‑minded to everything I could hit. At the same time, though, I had the classical study — I studied the trumpet, the violin, the piano and composition, harmony and stuff. I met Edgar at the Berlin studio. He had just lost Klaus and needed a drummer. He struck me as a serious thinker, into playing regular concerts. So we just improvised, and liked each other's ideas. After a few concerts, I decided to stay. Then Conrad [Schnitzler] left, we got Steve Schroeder in, and recorded Alpha Centauri".
1971's Alpha Centauri established Tangerine Dream as primarily a space‑rock band. Instrumentation was even weirder than on the debut, with Franke handling lotus flute, piano harp, zither and VCS3 synth. Schroeder played Hammond and Farfisa organs, while a Roland Paulyck played a second VCS3. According to Froese: "The record company provided the use of an 8‑track studio, which was an expensive luxury in those days. We had borrowed a VCS3 synth from the WDR radio station in Cologne in order to record unusual sounds with better quality. Unfortunately, none of us knew how it worked, and we only had one and a half days to figure out the most important functions. Our enthusiasm for everything new, for unusual equipment which had never before been used for a rock or pop production, kept us working through one day and one night. The results of this recording sound poor compared to today's standards, but back then we thought it was sensational. Choirs were produced on guitars using an iron bottleneck, sounds of water were recorded at high and low speed and then mixed in with the electro sound. The backwards voice on one track is me reading the back of a ferry ticket from Dover to Calais".
Chris Franke has slightly different memories of the album: "We found an interesting studio around Cologne run by Dieter Dierks, which the record company had recommended. It was 8‑track, the latest thing then. Dierks was into what we were doing, as an engineer. We had all kinds of organs, endorsement deals with Farfisa, and also all these modules, tremolo things, ring modulators, all kinds of gates which opened and closed sounds, oscillators, and, of course, all these echo machines. It took hours to set up 10 different modules, and they were very unstable. The electrical impedances were also sometimes not compatible. Then I heard that EMS Putney in London had developed a way for all these things to be put together in a compact way. I immediately called them up, went over and got this box, called a synthesizer, which was all very new then. Alpha Centauri was a transitional album, from Tangerine Dream being a very loud group to being a very quiet meditational group. You see, I loved avant‑garde music. I brought all my Stockhausen and Ligeti records to Edgar, and taught him that there was more to music than Hendrix and Pink Floyd".
According to Franke, he brought Peter Baumann into the band because Steve Schroeder had become too "drugged out of it" to play. Froese maintains he saw Baumann playing excellent keyboards in a group called The Ants. Franke remembers that "when Peter joined, the group became more stabilised, and seriously started working on keyboards and synthesizers. Peter had been in a band called Burning Touch at the American school in Berlin. He played organ and was very into pop music. He spoke very good English, and was interested in surrealism. So his way into the new music was through art, even though his father was a composer".
The first thing that Froese, Franke, and Baumann (to this day the classic Tangerine Dream line‑up) did was to record a completely experimental album, with no recognisable beats or melodies — Zeit. The equipment line‑up was simple: Franke on VCS3, cymbals and keyboards; Froese on glissando guitar and various noise generators; and Baumann on VCS3, organ and vibraphone. The double album was all completed in 10 days in May 1972. Froese recalls: "That's all including mixing. We invited Florian Fricke (of Popol Vuh) to the sessions . He owned the only big modular Moog synth in Germany, but we didn't know how to use it that well. So we were forced into learning how the thing worked. Since we didn't want to use any rhythm on Zeit, we didn't have to worry about sequencers". Chris Franke remembers Zeit as an album born of "dreams and meditation. After three years of aggressive music derived from frustration with teachers, the classical system, guitar rock, and every other political thing, we came into this new phase of exploring the finer things. Fricke's Moog on that album was the key" (see 'The 800,000 Mark Synth' side panel).
By the beginning of 1973, the group had another weird album in the bag, Atem. Franke was still using the VCS3, but as he says, "the significant thing was that we started to build up the rhythms again, which had disappeared on Zeit. Another big change was the introduction of the Mellotron". Froese recalls: "Atem was recorded in the same 8‑track studio in Cologne as Zeit. We used the Mellotron for the first time, but since the tape loops in it only played for seven seconds when you pressed a key, several compositions had to be fitted to this playing technique. Looking back, the sound is horrible, the loops are in part irregular, hard to tune and have hardly any high frequencies, since they play back at about 9kHz. One certainly has to listen to the album with 'historical ears'! Christoph Franke played drums for the last time on that album, on the track 'Wahn'. The whole production lasted 15 days, including mixing. Farfisa organs, guitar and two VCS3 synths were also used".
Although Atem was voted John Peel's 'Album of 1973', there were significant problems within Tangerine Dream. Firstly, Peter Baumann left the group to go travelling in the East. Chris Franke sold his drums, and he and Froese were in limbo. Eventually, they decided to go into Skyline studios in Berlin, and record some music to present to Virgin, who had shown an interest in the group. The resultant album, Green Desert, wasn't released until 1986, and is best described as a collection of tone‑poems. It did, however, boast the use of a new batch of equipment, including a PRX2 Rhythm Controller, a MiniMoog, and a phaser. Though unreleased at the time, it landed Tangerine Dream a record deal when Virgin heard the tapes. Franke actually remembers Green Desert with excitement: "We got all this stuff and began experimenting. The phaser was really new then, and cost $1000. It did pitch‑shifting and also flanging and chorus effects. The Rhythm Controller was a surprise — it came from Italy, from a company called EKO, who made all these cheap warehouse organs. They had come up with this science‑fiction‑looking machine, a console with eight rows of 16 big knobs which lit up! It worked like a sequencer, which was great, because there were no drum machines in those days. I could programme a rhythm that the machine could remember. It was completely analogue — you pushed the buttons and they made the contact — and it was polyphonic! The lights blinked, like on an early Moog sequencer. And when the sequence or rhythm was still running I could change it — I could delete, skip, and change the rhythm while it was playing. I always liked this aspect of any sequencer. The internal sounds were pretty lousy, but the control panel looked great, and was nice to operate. Later, I built trigger outputs and triggered other synths with the thing, so it became a controller. Years later, I saw Manuel Goettsching play it live on stage in Paris".
With Baumann back in the group, the Green Desert tapes secured a five‑year contract with Virgin, and Richard Branson had the group come to England to work in The Manor, where Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells had been so successfully recorded. Chris Franke used part of the Virgin advance to buy a Moog modular synth he'd been practising on at the Hansa recording studios (see 'The 800,000 Mark Synth' side panel). "I bought it for a mere $15,000, an incredibly low price." It made a difference, for the following album, Phaedra, was a triumph of sequenced rhythm and electronic washes. The new LP flew up the charts on its release in February 1974, and went gold in seven countries. Froese's memories of the recording session are still fascinating: "We started in November 1973. Before, we had improvised, but now many things had to be structured, because of the Moog with its driving bass notes. Tuning the instrument took several hours each day, because in those days there were no presets or memory banks. By the 11th day, we only had six and a half minutes of music on tape. Technically, everything went wrong — the tape machine broke down, there were repeated mixing console failures, and the speakers were damaged, because of the unusually low frequencies of the bass notes. After a two‑day break in the country, things improved. 'Mysterious Semblance' was recorded in one take on a double‑keyboarded Mellotron while my wife Monique turned the knobs on the phasing device. Even 'Phaedra' was done in one go. Chris had pressed the button to start the bubbling bass note, but it wasn't right, so after a while the bass drops out. Then he started tuning the bass note while he was running it, and all the time, the engineer was recording. So what you hear today was in fact a rehearsal!"
While in England, Chris Franke was offered another cheap Moog synth, which had belonged to The Moody Blues. Today, Franke laughs when he thinks about it. "They hated it because it was so unstable, its oscillators kept drifting up and down. So, suddenly, I had two of these boxes, and was surrounded on‑stage by an electronic altar. The group were really boogieing with sequences and fat sounds... I was very happy at that time."
Most of the rest of 1974 was spent performing in strange locations, particularly European cathedrals. Back in England, TD returned to The Manor in January 1975 to record Rubycon, possibly their finest achievement. Choral and pastoral elements added to the impression that Froese, Franke, and Baumann had really absorbed the innovations of Stockhausen and Ligeti decades before. On the equipment front, Franke added a modified Elka organ, while Baumann introduced prepared piano and ARP synth. Not surprisingly, Rubycon charted higher than Phaedra on its release three months later. Edgar Froese remembers the recording: "Unlike Phaedra, there were no breaks in creative flow. The sequencers could now be technically better equipped, although many of the technical alterations had to be custom‑built. This was a very extensive undertaking, and most of our Phaedra earnings went into new equipment. I had orchestral instruments recorded by the BBC for my Mellotron, at the time a very luxurious thing to do. The biggest problem was the inconstant power supply at The Manor — power cuts which forced us to interrupt recording sessions to connect synths to electrical generators. Chris's Moog also played random sequences at times, because of the unstable current driving the oscillators".
More problems with Franke's Moog plagued the group on a subsequent Australian tour, when it was damaged in transit, an experience that led TD to re‑think their entire live transportation setup. According to Franke: "All the modules had been built into one big case, to save time setting up on stage. The large case was shipped upside‑down, and after 48 hours on the plane, the heavy transformers came loose and fell through the circuitry. When I first plugged it into the mains in Australia, I got a heavy electric shock. It wouldn't make any sound, and two days were spent repairing it and flying stuff in from Germany. That was a nightmare — I nearly lost my life on that one".
At the end of 1975, TD released Ricochet, an album culled from the cathedral performances in Europe. 'Part 2' was quite brilliant, opening with flute and closing with a suite‑electronique which wouldn't sound out of place on the latest ambient House album. Franke was quite proud of it: "Ricochet was the first album we really had a concept on. We had 16 tracks, so it was the first album where we really got in touch with overdub technology — it was much more formed".
With no let‑up, the group began 1976 by retiring to Berlin to record the soundtrack for William Friedkin's film The Sorcerer. The collection of 13 short compositions combined throbbing rhythm with chilling suspense. Froese recalls: "Sorcerer was recorded on an old 8‑track Ampex in Berlin. It was one of the four machines that were in Abbey Road Studios in London, and which were sold after the Beatles era. We had rented an old movie theatre in Berlin, and made a small studio out of it. The Moog was very useful, and by this stage we were quite versed in its use. We also used a Fender Rhodes piano, guitars, and even Revox tape machines as delay units".
Franke: "William Friedkin had heard our music in Los Angeles. He rang up and said he liked it, that it was innovative and new, and that he'd like to do a film with it. He was interested in having the music playing for the actors on set. We felt very independent — it was just us in a room in Berlin, with an 8‑track and the script".
Sorcerer was the beginning of a great period for Tangerine Dream. The next album, Stratosfear, elevated them alongside Pink Floyd as lords of so‑called space rock. Recorded in August 1976 in Berlin, Stratosfear merged sequenced rhythms with splashes of Mellotron strings, harpsichord, and acoustic guitars. 'Invisible Limits' was particularly representative of this new sound. Edgar Froese, though, remembers the production as nerve‑wracking: "Peter Baumann had had this huge computer sequencer built for him by the Berlin electronics company Projeckt Elektronik. It was technically much more comfortable to use, and the tuning was more stable. But it had taken them a year to build it, and it was only completed two weeks after recording had begun. Peter had a lot of problems with it, and anything that could go wrong, both technically and musically, did. Me and Chris often left the studio in a bad mood. The recording time cost a fortune, and the production went on for weeks". Froese's memories of the recording of Stratosfear include broken‑down multitracks, exploding Dolby units and much else. "So much happened during those sessions — master tapes disappeared from the studio, finished tracks were mysteriously erased, and the mixing console finally went up in smoke!"
Chris Franke has happier memories: "A special favourite, Stratosfear. I especially like it because it has a feeling of open space. We tried out a new location, Audio Studios in Berlin, which was used for orchestral recordings. I remember playing music for up to two hours at a time non‑stop — it was so fluid. Usually, improvising electronic music is a process of planning, starting and stopping, but on Stratosfear we really got into these long phases. We also brought back some more acoustic sounds bit by bit to add more colour. It was really the first blend of all the possible material we could play. For me, Stratosfear was the next big step after Phaedra."
Stratosfear soared up the British and American charts, and in the spring and summer of 1977, Tangerine Dream played two sell‑out tours of the United States (see the 'Live Dreaming' side panel). Encore, a live album from the tour, was released in October 1977. It captured the full stylistic Dream sound over four tracks — from guitar rock to ambient, sequenced compositions to sound paintings. Franke today admits that the tour involved a lot of improvisation, and that every show was recorded. "It was very expensive to do a good live recording at that time. We used a 4‑track Ampex deck." As well as being a good summation of their musical career up to that point, Encore proved to be the end of a golden period for the band, as the album was the last to feature Peter Baumann. After the last concert of the tour at Boulder, Colorado in September 1977, Baumann left the band for good. Friction between him and Froese had come to a head, and his solo career had taken off with Romance '76. A second solo album, Trans‑Harmonic Nights (released in 1979) was a crucial recording, on the way to electro‑bop and House music. Baumann described it as "near the edge points of pop", and won global critical acclaim for its creation. But for Tangerine Dream, Baumann's departure was to prove a serious set‑back...
Next month, in Part Two of this feature, Chris Franke and Edgar Froese look back on how they overcame the difficulties caused by Peter Baumann's departure , and how they spearheaded the development of digital sampling technology over the course of the next decade.
"I didn't have a synth at the time of Zeit, but occasionally I would practice on the big Moog modular in the Hansa recording studios. They had got it inexpensively from The Rolling Stones, who used it for a film in 1967 and then saw no further use for it. Fricke and Eberhard Schoener were definitely the first people in Germany to own a Moog, and had paid 800,000 Marks each for the privilege! Anyway, nobody in Hansa knew how to use it. So I got involved, but wasn't allowed to take it out of the studio until 1973. It didn't have a user's manual, so for two years I kept rehearsing on it. Every night I'd go into the studio and explore the Moog with its bad patching and unstable sound. But what I discovered about it was the sequencing side, its ability to generate an ongoing rhythm. Its sound, to me, had analogies with the repetitive rhythms of Indian music. It wasn't boring, so I just spent hours and hours creating sequences. Later, Edgar heard it and thought its driving rhythm was perfect for Tangerine Dream's music."
By the time of their 1977 American tour, Tangerine Dream's arsenal of electronic equipment was quite formidable. Chris Franke had bought a new Oberheim 8‑voice polyphonic synth, and was using both the Projeckt Elektronik sequencer and a Computerstudio digital sequencer. Alongside the Moog, Mellotron M400, ARP and Elka synths, Franke had an Oberheim sequencer and electronic percussion. Peter Baumann had an identical set of Projeckt Elektronic, ARP, Elka and Mellotron gear, but augmented it with the Fender Rhodes and an EMS Vocoder setup. Edgar Froese, meanwhile, played several guitars, the other big Moog, a twin‑keyboard Mellotron Mark V, a Steinway grand piano, an Oberheim 4‑voice synth, an ARP Omnistring, and a PPG synth, in addition to operating a Projeckt Elektronik time control system. Visually, the group used a new Krypton gas laser system to generate spectacular moving images.
Not surprisingly, all this equipment was extremely difficult to transport and set up quickly. Franke remembers: "Because we needed much more time than a rock act to set up, we had to fine‑tune. We had special cabling requirements and new lighting ideas. We had to halve our setting‑up time, and the only way to do it was to be more compact. We did things that are now standard, like having the racks on wheels — you just open the front and back, and the rack is there. We had these snakes built, multicores with 120‑pin sockets, so it would take us only half a minute to plug everything in. Everything had to change in order to keep playing advanced concerts. Hartmut Heinze of Projeckt Elektronik worked for six months before the tour, and even came with us to oversee things, make little adjustments and repairs to the equipment throughout".
Chris Franke's memories of Peter Baumann are quite interesting today. "Peter was a very smart person. But we always wondered if he was a musician by deep heart. He could play music but could do other things too. Myself and Edgar were born for music and we had to do music. Peter played the game with us, and for a long time understood exactly what we were up to, so we shared a lot of musical experiences. Peter's speciality was in conceiving the music — we discussed it, and then we played it. He knew that great music not only comes from virtuosity, but also from the mental state. That concept was very important to us, because we were making free‑form music. But Peter always had a desire to go further on. He dreamt about a life that was more chic and yuppie‑oriented, while myself and Edgar were more interested in being down‑to‑earth and continuing along the path."