The history of electronic music within European pop

Part 4: The Silver Apples & The Zodiak Free Arts Lab Bookmark and Share

As many of you already have gathered by now the synthesizer as an instrument plays an important role in European popular music. It’s an instrument you will encounter in the European art scene, the (progressive rock scene) and entering the main stage in the eighties with the development of new wave and hi-nrg disco. But did this tradition came falling from the sky? In the coming months we will try to recreate a small history of the use of electronic music and the use of the synthesizer within the European popscene...This is part 4

So at the start of the seventies the word synth-pop fell for the first time. But, although ‘Popcorn’ was a novelty hit, it would take almost another decade before the synthesizer would become a prime instrument in the stage act of pop and rock acts. How did the synthesizer get adopted into rock? In this chapter we take a closer look at the those pioneers that took the synthesizer out of it’s novelty niche into a full blown rock-stage act as an additional instrument to the classic guitar-bass-drums line up. And 1969 seems to be a key-year that marks the change.

But let’s take a small step back. In the summer of 1967 the first electronic keyboard players entered the stage as members of rock groups. Think Rick Wright (Pink Floyd), Keith Emerson (then in The Nice) and Rick Wakeman (Yes). They used the Hammond organ at first. In 1966 the duo Beaver & Krause worked on an album that would be titled The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music. They introduced the hippie community to the moog by displaying it in a booth at the Montery pop festival of 1967. Still a true crossover with rock was not made, it stayed avant-garde.

The honour of combining rock with electronics is granted by most historians to two members of the former New York based Overland Stage Electric Band. Drummer Danny Taylor and singer / keyboard player Simeon called themselves the Silver Apples and started fidgeting with old oscillators. The arsenal of oscillators eventually grew, according to their first LP liner notes, to include "nine audio oscillators piled on top of each other and eighty-six manual controls to control lead, rhythm and bass pulses with hands, feet and elbows". Simeon devised a system of telegraph keys and pedals to control tonality and chord changes.

In 1969 the small Kapp label gave them the opportunity to record their debut album. Their highly psychedelic electronic music did nothing in the mainstream but decades later most keyboard players, named above, name the Silver Apples as a conceptual breakthrough of the possibilities of electronic keyboards in rock. The Silver Apples would eventually get back in the limelight when in 1994 the German label TRC rereleases their albums, is able to track down Taylor and Simeon and give them a posibility for a reunion tour in 1998.

(Listen to fragments of 'Lovefingers' and 'Pox on you')


Obviously inspired by artists like the Silver Apples German artists/musicians Conrad Schnitzler and Hans-Joachim Roedelius started The Zodiak Free Arts Lab in an old building in West Berlin in the Halleschen Ufer, Kreuzberg. In fact it was (and still is) a theatre called the Schaubühne but at night the duo could use parts of the building.

The Zodiak was sub-divided into two main performance areas, one of which was painted completely white and the other completely black, and was filled with all kinds of instruments, amps and speakers which people could more or less do with as they pleased. Here, musicians were allowed to experiment with free jazz, psychedelic rock and avant-garde styles. Conventional forms of music were frowned upon: a phrase frequently used to describe the spirit of the times was that "songs were considered bourgeois."

Among the many artists and bands who passed through the Zodiak in their early days were Ash Ra Tempel, Geräusche (Noises), Plus/Minus, Curly Curve, Per Sonore, Human Being, The Agitation later Agitation Free, Klaus Schulze and, most significantly, Tangerine Dream. The club played an important role in the development of a style of music that would later be called krautrock. Acts like Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Amon Düül, Can and Neu all originated from the lab and would take up tape loops and synthesizers as an important part of their act.

Check below rare video of what was going on at the Free Arts Lab.


A person who cannot be unnamed in this German paragraph is producer Conny Plank. Plank (who began his career as soundman for Marlene Dietrich) was an ardent believer in the possibilities of electronic music and a master of creating startling electronic soundscapes, but he was also adept at blending them with conventional sounds, or natural sounds given unconventional treatments, such as using large metal containers and other industrial objects as percussion instruments.

His vision would leave its mark on the first electronic rock-records like ‘Klopzeichen’ by Kluster and ‘Electronic meditation’ from Tangerine Dream. Both released in 1969. In the eighties we will see Plank return as one of the key-engineers of New Wave and the Neu Deutsche Welle.





But up until then the artists worked with self made machines, linked oscillators and tape-machines which made it not very handy to tour (like a regular rock group did a lot in those days). See for instance Robert Fripp, of King Crimson, and Brian Eno (later Roxy Music) who experimented with analog tape loops effect (Frippertronics) but were unable to get it to the stage. Later on some of the compositions were released as ‘Evening star’ and ‘No pussyfooting’.

The solution comes from Robert Moog who creates the Minimoog Model D, an electronic keyboard that was portable and a relatively affordable synthesizers. He gave a prototype of the machine to jazz musician Sun Ra in 1969 who started using it…a lot. And never gave it back.

Keith Emerson was the first musician to tour with a Minimoog, in 1970, during Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Pictures at an Exhibition shows. He immediately adopted it as one of his main instruments and into his stage act including using knives to wedge down specific keys of his keyboard, playing it upside down while having it lie over him and backwards while standing behind it. In a way the upcoming of progressive rock or ‘prog-rock’ is linked with the rise of the synthesizer as a rock-instrument. Progressive rock bands were the early adopters of new electronic musical instruments and technologies.

Check below clip to see what Keith was doing with and to his keyboards




We already named artists from Germany and the UK who were experimenting with synths at the first half of the seventies. But of course the USA knew their acts as well like The Residents who would create a universe of their own with tape loops, a self made drum machine and visual arts.

In Poland Czeslaw Niemen incorporated the Moog and electronic music starting with ‘Enigmatic’. In Greece the Aphrodite’s Child keyboard player Vangelis worked on a project about the student riots of 1968 called ‘Fais que ton rêve soit plus long que la nuit (Make your dream last longer than the night), comprising musical passages on the moog and mixing them with samples of protest songs recorded in the streets. A year later he came with the groundbreaking soundtrack ‘L'Apocalypse des animaux’ and a project with singer Melina Mercouri called ‘Si Melina...M'etait contée’. In France a young Jean Michel Jarre (and former student of Pierre Schaeffer, see chapter 1) made his first release, ‘La Cage/Erosmachine’ in 1971, which was a mixture of tape loops and electronic sounds.

But the artist who would stay close to original idea of Musique Concrète (see chapter 2) was Italian composer Franco Battiato. Together with experimental musician Juri Camisasca Battiato devoted much of his efforts of the seventies to (very!) experimental electronic music. Starting out with electronic progressive rock with some emphasis on vocals, his music became increasingly experimental, gradually moving into minimal electronic avant-garde.

Battiato at work in his studio in 1972



Go back to part 3: The in-sound from way out

Go to: part 5, 1977; "Frankie Teardrop, I feel love"