David Stubbs – Mars By 1980: The Story Of Electronic Music (4 stars)

David Stubbs – Mars By 1980: The Story Of Electronic Music

Engaging contemplation on the history, evolution and future of electronica

Mars By 1980 takes its title from a 1970s newspaper headline. Today, such space age idealism seems quaint, even melancholy; a remnant of a lost future. Drawing on the writing of the late Mark Fisher, music journalist David Stubbs argues that under late capitalism, we have lost our 'idealism about the future and all that it might contain'.

This is reflected in 21st electronic music itself, particularly the retro-futurist hauntology of Ghost Box and the spectral garage of Burial. For Stubbs, electronic music can be 'a carrier of malignant ideas' and industrial scale mediocrity, but at its best, it has 'opened up great vistas of possibility.' In surveying its history, Stubbs aims to rediscover 'not merely a glow of nostalgia but the glow of possible dormant futures that have merely been deferred'.

Stubbs sketches a fascinating pre-history of electronic instruments, from Jesuit priest Jean-Baptiste Delaborde's 1759 clavecin électrique to Thaddeus Cavill's Telharmonium of 1893. But as he argues, the evolution of electronic music cannot be purely attributed to technological innovations. Musique concrete, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, acid house, EDM: each emerged from a confluence of socio-economic factors, imagination and ingenuity.

A colourful stylist, Stubbs is particularly engaging on subjects close to his heart. The avant-garde tape compositions of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Henry and Luc Ferrari are often seen as forbidding and cerebral, but in Stubbs' vivid prose, they come alive. And while he does not attempt a comprehensive overview of dance music – we already have Simon Reynolds' classic Energy Flash for that – his personal reflections on the transitional period between disco and acid house capture a time pregnant with possibility. No golden ager, Stubbs recognises that today's innovations are led by women, LGBT people, and artists of colour. The future is not yet lost.

Out now (Faber & Faber)

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