❉ Paul Vearncombe reflects on the ups and downs of his lifelong love affair with the prog pioneers’ work.
I first heard Tangerine Dream in about 1985 when I would have been 14 years old. The music teacher had gone round the whole class asking everybody in turn what sort of music they listened to. Pop music and the charts were everything to teenagers then. Some of the boys had logos painted on their haversacks which fascinated me: The Jam, The Who, The Specials. One kid had meticulously recreated the Rolling Stones’ lips logo from Sticky Fingers. The girls were into Duran Duran and Ultravox. Lots of people were into ska and reggae. Then it was my turn. I couldn’t think of anything, so I said, ‘nothing.’
She didn’t like that answer. Nobody liked that answer. You’re supposed to like music. I did like music, but nothing specific, and nothing that much. My mum always had music playing. The radio was on all day except when she specifically picked out a cassette or an LP from a vast library. But it all seemed ancient to me – showtunes from the ‘50s and ‘60s, big band stuff from the ‘40s, even music-hall novelties from the ‘20s. She always had an old taste and it seemed ridiculous to me then. So this stuff was always on, and I never heard anything contemporary to be influenced by it. And then, after this music class, one of the lads brought in a cassette for me of two LPs that he had recorded from his sister’s collection. He liked them and he thought I would too. Why? ‘Well, you like sci-fi don’t you?’
Side One was Tangerine Dream’s Force Majeure. I listened and was astounded. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. It painted pictures, it took me away, and all those clichés. And there were no words to get in the way – it could mean whatever I wanted it to mean. I played it over and over. Side Two was Edgar Froese’s Solo 1974-79 which is a best-of compilation of tinkered-with selections from the man’s solo career. It has never been released on CD which is a shame because it’s a great collection and it flows together wonderfully thanks to Edgar doing a George Lucas and touching up his own earlier pieces. In this instance it works well and if anything I loved this even more than Force Majeure. That was it, then. Electronic music would be my thing. I still don’t know what it’s got to do with sci-fi really, but I suppose I do know what he was feeling when he said it.
The English teacher Mr Whitton caught us teenagers talking about Tangerine Dream, fell off his chair, and then brought in Stratosfear and Alpha Centauri for me to ‘borrow’’. When I later tried to give them back, having taped them off, he let me keep them. Wish I still had them – Alpha was an Ohr Records gatefold sleeve and probably worth a fortune now. After that I spent all the cash from my weekend job in Virgin Records in Broadmead. It was great in there because in those pre-internet days you needed somebody to tell you what else was available by that artist and Virgin used to write the titles of the artist’s back catalogue on the plastic divider that showed their name in the racks. You could then order the title from the man behind the counter, and I did – working my way solidly through all the Tangerine Dream and Edgar releases, starting with the Virgin record label albums first because they were cheaper in Virgin Records’ stores. Then came the expensive off-label soundtracks. The store also wrote ‘see also’ so then came Klaus, Ashra, Vangelis, Jarre and others. But Tangerine Dream remained my first real love and after hearing Alpha Centauri, which was a lot weirder than the later stuff I’d heard, I had to try out the early lo-fi period. It terrified me but I still loved it.
I’m guessing this would all have happened in 1985 because I’m sure I remember the new Tangerine Dream album Underwater Sunlight coming out, which was released in 1986. I loved that record. I certainly remember eagerly pre-ordering Tyger so I was a veteran of the whole back catalogue by then. But it was all relatively new to me so I was happy to play Le Parc straight after Cyclone and think nothing of the different style or sounds. I loved it all in different ways.
Some fans dismiss whole periods of the band – for some the early stuff is too abrasive. Some say the Virgin era is all you need. Julian Cope dismisses anything after Atem, calling Phaedra ‘pre-new age sequenced automaton synthesizer music’ as if that’s a bad thing. A surprising number of fans dismiss Tangram. Many are leery of Le Parc as being too light and poppy, and a great many hate Tyger because of the vocals. I followed and still enjoyed the band through the so-called blue period of the mid 80s. Then, after Livemiles, everything changed. Chris Franke had left Tangerine Dream.
Optical Race appeared so soon after the release of Livemiles that I recall buying both of them together on the same day in 1988. I now know that Livemiles isn’t the live album it’s presented as but is rather a studio version of some of the music worked up for the tour, and it’s the last thing that Chris Franke worked on with the band before falling out with Edgar and leaving in a huff. I like Livemiles and it retains the sound and feel of the previous few albums. It seems like a natural progression. Optical Race on the other hand feels like a deliberate fresh start after the departure of Chris Franke. It’s the first Tangerine Dream album that was put together entirely digitally using composing and editing software, so it ends up with a programmed feel rather than a played one. It’s melodic and listenable and I do enjoy it still but for me at the time – freshly minted music critic aged 17 – it was immediately clear that something had been lost. Presumably that something was Chris Franke.
It can be difficult to pinpoint who is responsible for what contributions in a group dynamic, and especially difficult in a band made up of three keyboard players. ’80s member Johannes Schmoelling described Chris Franke as ‘the rhythms guy’ and certainly it has always been the view in fandom that Franke was responsible for many of the sequencer patterns on albums like Ricochet. Given that he started out as the drummer in Agitation Free that certainly makes sense. By the late ‘80s Tangerine Dream had moved away from the sequencer driven sound of the ‘70s and the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of electronic music. The last gasp of Franke’s sequencers is probably on Poland. So in his last couple of years with the band did he feel surplus to requirements? Had Edgar – always in charge – steered the music to a more melodic place in which Franke felt redundant?
Very little has been said about Franke’s departure from the band after 16 years. Edgar remained fairly tight-lipped about it for the rest of his days, and in his autobiography he is fairly lukewarm about Franke’s entire contribution to Tangerine Dream. Not exactly critical, but indifferent. All he does say is that Franke was increasingly absent, and that they had ‘interpersonal’ problems. I have read that Franke was unhappy about the band’s increasing obsession with the USA, specifically California, and about Froese’s obsessive work ethic. This does make sense in the context of this period – Tangerine Dream had discovered Hollywood, and there was money to be made.
In 1977 the band scored Sorcerer, in 1980 Thief, and then throughout the 1980s the soundtracks came faster and faster. Fans tend to agree that the early ‘80s material ranks alongside the best of the band’s studio output from that period. The band knew this and would perform material from the soundtracks in their live concerts during this time in the knowledge that the fans would be familiar with it. The Keep, Firestarter, Flashpoint, and Legend remain fan favourites to this day, but as the ‘80s wore on the offers came faster and faster and the quality became poorer and poorer.
Optical Race might have been an alright album but the soundtrack to Shy People, released the same year, was very much not. Weak melodies borrowed from Pink Floyd, and vocals from a male club singer and a female Tina Turner sound-alike. 1989’s Destination Berlin was a soundtrack to an Imax film and is all nasty up-tempo Casio synths. Canyon Dreams is a landscape movie which Tangerine Dream chose to score in a nasty new age muzak style, complete with faux pan pipes. Deadly Care is thin, Three O’Clock High forgettable, Catch Me If You Can sounds like a video game soundtrack. It’s all horrible. This was the backdrop to 1989. Then came Lily on the Beach.
I still wonder if this was a failed soundtrack to the movie Lily Was Here, which came out the same year. I’ve never found anything to back this up but it’s a bit of a coincidence if it’s not because Dave Stewart very specifically used sax player Candy Dulfer and oh look – for the first time ever, Tangerine Dream used a session sax player on the similarly titled Lily on the Beach. They also used programmed rock drums. They also used squalling guitar solos, one of which is provided by Jerome Froese, son of Edgar. Having made the move to the USA and signed to Peter Baumann’s Private Music label in 1988, the band suddenly sounded so American, churning out rawk song after rawk song, all skewed though the Tangerine Dream machine. Rock songs without a singer. Rock songs without a real drummer. Rock songs with no bass player. Rock songs with lots of programmed synth and electric piano. And the squalling, squealing guitar heroics. This was music for Trans World Sport.
There are thirteen short tracks on the album, which was a record for a band that as recently as two years ago had released Livemiles with its two 30-minute titles. Only on movie soundtracks had the band crammed in so many brief themes. A glance at the track titles tells you everything about where the band’s head was at – Mount Shasta, 29 Palms, Paradise Cove… These are all locations in California. Radio City is no doubt named for the studio in NYC. Long Island Sunset – well, that’s in NYC as well. Tangerine Dream’s European-ness had evaporated overnight, and Phaedra suddenly seemed like a long time ago. I persevered with Melrose which I felt was a better, but that American feeling persisted.
Jerome became the third full-time band member and there would be no limit to the twin-guitar widdly-widdly on the subsequent albums. Other band members joined – another guitar gunslinger who murders Purple Haze on one of Tangerine Dream’s live videos. Did we need Purple Haze from the band that gave us Zeit? The sax player joined the band full-time and the sax wouldn’t go away. The clatter, the jangle, the squalling. The overly-familiar synth sounds were trying as well. In the ‘70s, synthesizer musicians had to create their sound from scratch with actual electronic engineering. By the ‘80s off-the-peg solutions were available but the likes of Tangerine Dream tended to go their own way to at least some extent. But by the early 1990s Tangerine Dream were using the same sounds as everyone else and Yamaha and Korg were making fortunes out of Jan Hammer and Paul Hardcastle. A lot of Tangerine Dream fans got off the bus. I was one of them.
For me the Dream was over. Having now become ‘Interested In Music’ I found that other stuff was out there. A friend got me into indie music like Cocteaus and Nick Cave and the Aeroplanes. Another mate had his prog rock favourites which he had inherited from his brother, so in came Genesis, Gabriel, and Pink Floyd. And another was obsessed with Iron Maiden. Somebody else knew about Yello. And on and on. My Tangerine Dream collection stopped in 1990. I still played the old stuff but never bothered with the new. I spotted it in the racks occasionally – it looked to me like a band out of control, pumping out product faster and faster in a more and more reductive manner.
They developed a house style for the releases, using the same corporate layout and the same ‘futuristic’ type face so that every album looked the same and in my mind probably sounded the same. More recently I have caught up with the albums from that period and I can’t say I was wrong. It took until 2016’s Particles for me to take interest in the press that Tangerine Dream were getting again. Edgar had died but it seemed like the new line-up were continuing in a more interesting way, not only honouring the past by reworking pieces like White Eagle and Rubycon but also developing new pieces in a synth-based style more in keeping with the ’80s and ’90s material that I had loved.
Quantum Gate is just as interesting, and the later Sessions live albums show the new band improvising like the old band used to do in the early ‘70s. But is it Tangerine Dream? Many fans are adamant that with no Edgar there is no Tangerine Dream. Former member Jerome Froese has stated that Tangerine Dream were his dad’s band and they no longer exist. Should Tangerine Dream continue to exist without Edgar? Would we accept The Fall without MES? The Blue Aeroplanes without Gerard? But then this line-up was put together by Edgar so it’s not as if three people randomly called themselves Tangerine Dream. And if the music is good, the music is good, right? I didn’t want to listen to ‘90s Tangerine Dream with Edgar in the band because I thought the music was awful, but I’m happy to listen to 2018 Tangerine Dream without him. It’s a strange situation which fans have to accept, or not.
So whatever happened to Chris Franke? Having railed against the Californian lifestyle and the endless soundtracks Franke released his first solo album in 1991 entitled Pacific Coast Highway, of all things. The irony. It’s a sugar-sweet album of new age hold music full of track titles like Malibu Avenue and Big Sur Romance, all awash with Californian sunsets. Mostly horrible. In 1993 he began soundtracking Babylon 5, which put him on the gravy train for five years. His B5 score was workmanlike but I can’t bring any of it to mind now. So perhaps the element that Tangerine Dream lost in the late ‘80s wasn’t Chris Franke at all. Perhaps this was simply a musical direction that Edgar had decided to take.
Going back to Lily now, which was my break point, I can’t say that I was wrong about it. Everything that I didn’t like then I still don’t like. The music floats past and I struggle to think of the title from the tune. I struggle to remember the tune as soon as it stops playing. I cringe at the gee-tars and the drum machine. But time and familiarity have done their work and…maybe I was harsh. I see what they were trying to do. I wish they hadn’t tried to do it, but still. An album of its time; I’ll never love it, I’ll never more than tolerate it. But maybe I should tolerate it. A bit.