Graded on a Curve: Tangerine Dream,
Phaedra

The late, great Lester Bangs began his absolutely priceless 1977 review of Deutsche Electronische Musik pioneers Tangerine Dream with the words, “I decided it would be a real fun idea to get fucked up on drugs and go see Tangerine Dream.” His narcotic of choice? Two bottles of cough syrup. Having finally (I’ve been putting it off for decades) gotten around to listening to Tangerine Dream, I think he had the right idea. When it comes to listening to Tangerine Dream, paralyzing quantities of cough syrup are most definitely in order.

Lester opened his review on a jocular note, but he was at heart a serious man and truly curious. What was it, he wondered, that made people actually want to go see a band that sounded like, in his own words, “silt seeping on the ocean floor?” He couldn’t come up with an adequate answer to this question, and neither can I. I suppose some people can empathize with silt. They have silt-like qualities. They listen to Tangerine Dream and they can “relate.”

I decided to further Lester’s research (sans cough syrup) by listening to 1974’s Phaedra, which is widely considered one of Tangerine Dream’s best. I found the experience both boring and unnerving, which you would think is impossible but isn’t. I still don’t know how they pulled it off. I can only say I was as uninterested by its subtle ambience of nothingness as I was disconcerted.

The basic question is this: why do I find such unobjectionable, unobtrusive music so objectionable and obtrusive? I do not know. I can only say I wanted what I was hearing–and I can only describe most of what I was hearing as eerie solar winds blowing across the denuded surface of some alien planet, set against the backdrop of a persistent mechanized hum–to go away. I don’t want to listen to eerie winds–to say nothing of burbling water, disquieting whooshing noises, or random blips and chirps. I’m a rock ’n’ roll fan. I want to hear comforting loud and vicious noise set to an ear-pummeling beat.

A bit of background. Phaedra, Tangerine Dream’s fifth LP, was a success. I would say a surprising success, but that would be redundant. People–and particularly people in the United Kingdom–actually bought the thing. The German people–having learned a cautionary lesson in the dangers of mass hypnosis several decades earlier–avoided it the way one avoids spoiled fish. Phaedra was the first Tangerine Dream LP–or so I’m told–to feature what would become their trademark “sequencer-driven” sound. I don’t know what that means and I don’t want to know, although I suspect it has something to do with the way Phaedra has of burbling along, rather like a mechanized stream. This is particularly noticeable on “Movements of a Visionary,” which I will admit has a certain, er, charm, although I find the machine-tooled bird chirp distracting, if not downright irksome. But at least it moves, rather than simply sticking to the walls of your ears like electronic wallpaper.

The LP opens with what sounds like a spaceship landing. Then the portal of the spaceship opens, and what emerges is pure, synthesized, Lovecraftian horror. I immediately wished I’d slugged down two bottles of cough syrup. There are, it should be noted for posterity, guitars on this album. Where they are hiding is anyone’s guess. What you hear are synthesizers, producing solar winds. This is pure, unadulterated cosmic muzak and the human beings who produced it make every effort to be as unobtrusive as possible. They do not sing. They do not have personalities. Their only human desire is to become one with their machines and produce layer upon layer of sound “textures” that lack the “motorik” quality that makes, say, Kraftwerk engaging. Which is not to say this stuff is unlistenable. Were I a machine I might even fall in love with it. I might even find myself smitten with the mechanized space birds that warble throughout the title track. I’ll bet you they’re pretty. I’ll also bet you they have very long talons and are lethal.

What good things can I say about Phaedra? Listen to it with ears squinted, and you can almost hear the more Eno-inflected, Krautrock-indebted music of David Bowie’s Berlin period. It has the same hushed, mood-setting, ambient feel. So why do I object to it? I object to it because had Bowie gone down the Electronische Muzak rabbit hole with both feet and never emerged to write another rock song I’d have written him off as a lost cause. He was, it should be borne in mind, writing “Heroes” at the same time. And he knew to keep his aural experiments brief. Had “Moss Garden”–which I must confess I don’t much like–been 17 minutes long I’d have never listened to it. He put his synthesizers to work for him like good little employees, rather than melding with them in some sort of horrifying analogy to David Cronenberg’s The Fly. I direct your attention to “Mysterious Semblance at the Strand of Nightmare.” At almost ten minutes in length it is a nightmare of low-key haunted house theatrics complete with the sound of electronic bat wings and Phantom of the Opera organ. Outside the haunted house, the wind howls. Some more annoying burbling occurs. Positively frightens my ears, it does, but not in the way intended.

I’ll wager you Phaedra sounds good on LSD. Then again silence sounds good on LSD. Has a real groove to it, silence does. You can dance to it. But I mock Phaedra in vain; the popularity of Tangerine Dream is a fact best demonstrated by the fact that they have, according to Wikipedia, released some 157 LPs over the course of their (to me improbable) 50-year career. I can only assume from this that their public simply cannot get enough of them. Right now I’m listening to 1984’s live-from-Warsaw LP Poland. Poland loves Tangerine Dream. Tangerine Dream conquered Poland as easily as Adolf Hitler had. And Poland is not alone. The whole world is silt lost in a Tangerine Dream. What can I say? I give up. Like Lester Bangs, I may not be able to discern Tangerine Dream’s charm, but their 157 LPs speak for themselves. If you’re a fan, go in peace. Enjoy. I know when I’m beaten, I really do.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-
(Upped a grade in deference to their horrendous world popularity.)

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