This week’s issue of the magazine celebrates music’s Ultimate Cult Heroes, from Syd Barrett to Jay Reatard, Mark E. Smith and The Sonics. Here, in an extended extract from the mag, The Drums’ guitarist Jacob Graham talks us through his own cult heroes, three pioneers of electronica…
I got into electronic music at an early age after my mom gave me her old synthesizer. That the matriarch set me on this path is decidedly significant. Although a boys’ club these days, three of the most important pioneers of the medium were in fact women: Clara Rockmore, Delia Derbyshire and Wendy Carlos. These ladies took the reigns and showed us just what was possible, but, sadly, they do not get the credit they deserve. Though highly regarded by some, the recognition they’ve achieved is slight compared to their invaluable contribution to electronic music over the decades.
Born in 1911, Clara Rockmore was a violin prodigy by the age of five with a promising career ahead of her. Tragically, health complications in her teenage years robbed her of the ability to play. Her future as a violinist vanished, but with this, new promise was born. This was the dawn of the electronic age, and Clara soon discovered the Theremin, an instrument developed in 1919 that needn’t be touched to be played – perfect for her sensibilities and condition. She was world renowned in her time, but because none have equalled her mastery of the instrument (and it really must be heard to be believed!), history remembers her as little more than a novelty.
Next came Delia. Working largely in the Sixties, she constructed otherworldly pieces by recording sounds to magnetic tape, then manipulating and meticulously arranging them after splicing the tape up with razor blades. She is responsible for the much-revered Dr. Who theme song, for which she was famously uncredited – a common practice at the time for contributors at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Perhaps ironically, she gave up on music when the synthesizer was born, reasoning that electronic music creation had become too impersonal.
Which leads us to Wendy. With what we would consider a prototype synthesizer, she made ‘Switched-On Bach’ – the first electronic music album to be certified gold and then platinum. Wendy is responsible for people taking electronic music seriously, but her reclusive nature at the height of her success prevented her from reaching celebrity status.
I’ve been a huge fan of these women for so long but have never really seen them written about together. The dots needed connecting. They represent such unique and essential aspects of the art form, musicianship, experimentation and composition. I think we had their work ethic in mind the whole time we were making our new record. There were even times in the recording process when we’d get a really dark, aggressive sound from a synthesizer and we’d say to one another: “That sounds so Wendy!”