The true test of whether you might enjoy Future Sounds—the Story of Electronic Music from Stockhausen to Skrillex is this: Scope the names listed not-quite-chronologically on the back jacket; if a few of them are familiar and beloved, read it. If nothing rings a bell or strikes your fancy, leave it aside. I found several names whose works I have devoured or merely enjoyed, and I loved seeing where in the multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of electronic sound the author places them.
NOTE: The subtitle is a bit misleading, as the first few chapters explore music that predates Karlheinz Stockhausen significantly.
Future Sounds came into my possession via my wife's book prospecting trip to Brazos Books, my favorite indy bookseller in Houston. She has done this just a few times, sometimes surprising me with new releases in which I have expressed an interest, sometimes bringing home books I would have glanced at and moved on if I had gone myself. Jeff Tweedy's memoir Let's Go (So We Can Get Back) is an example of successful prospecting; the English translation of László Krasznahorkai's The World Goes On...less so (but some day, dammit, I will work through this rather challenging set of shorts, just as I plowed my way through Moby Dick).
Goodreads notes that there are at least two authors named David Stubbs in its database; the other one is a historian. There are also several works with "Future Sounds" in their titles—not very original, mate. It didn't help that I caught some factual slip-ups in the first few pages (I might get around to citing examples—never developed the habit of reading with highlighter in hand), plus the occasional head-scratching goof in the ensuing chapters (sketchy knowledge of US geography, for example, for which we can forgive a Brit); or that Stubbs begins the Introduction name-checking some Top-40 acts not known for their electro-savvy, such as Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. And then he had the gall to suggest that Frank Zappa's output went downhill after he stopped using the musique concrète techniques found on the early Mothers of Invention albums.
Misgivings officially assuaged: I enjoyed the 400+ pages of this book, including the index, on several levels, thanks. Let's bullet just a few of the reasons I found this tome worth my time.
- The writing style: I have enjoyed reading album reviews since my teens, when I subscribed to Rolling Stone, Musician, Player, and Listener, and Songwriter magazines. It isn't always that I can enjoy an entire book full of album review–style writing, but Stubbs's prose style is florid, stretching for the loftiest and most florid reaches of his vocabulary without going over the top (or remaining there for long when he does). However, one of the pitfalls of writing from the perspective of a music reviewer is comparing the work of unfamiliar musicians to those he might just assume are household names that require no further identification: e.g., saying something sounds like early Tangerine Dream but offering no appositive to explain what a Tangerine Dream is.
- The breadth and depth of knowledge: As befits a writer with a lengthy career at outlets such as Melody Maker and New Music Express, Stubbs knows a lot about a lot of modern music. His tastes developed along similar lines as my own: born the same year I was, encountered some of the same musical epiphanies as I did at about the same ages, and having done some DJ work in his university days. Just like your friend's kid who discovers the blues via heavy metal and Led Zeppelin, unsatisfied with just enjoying the present incarnation of the music, from an early age Stubbs sought out the inspirations of the music he liked, and the inspirations for that, all the way back to the late Romantic era and the antitheses of classical music that arose in the early 20th century when Western music had just about run out of original melodies and chord progressions. Stubbs takes pains in his two Prefaces to name-check some of the obvious names omitted from the main chapters, such as Todd Rundgren and Jean-Michel Jarre, pointing out that the book focuses on his own personal favorites (of which there are literally dozens).
- The inclusion of innovators who weren't pasty-white academics: The chapter focusing on Sun Ra and Miles Davis is super-important in reminding us that black artists and others from the jazz world leveraged technology to expand their musical palettes (and their fans' palates). Detroit techno also has African-American lineage, following the lead of hip-hoppers like Run-DMC and De La Soul, with black mixologists sampling and contorting a wide range of white music and reversing the old paradigm of white artists misappropriating black songwriters' work. Think of how Afrika Bambaataa gave Kraftwerk's "Trans-Europe Express" new life in 1982, or the way Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" went from a cappella novelty to dance floor sensation.
As much as I enjoyed reading about the careers of musicians whose works I know deeply (Joy Division/New Order) or have only tasted (Stockhausen), my favorite chapter mostly contains names I've never known: "Reverberation and Decay." Here Stubbs not only gets to quote or allude to Jacques Derrida a few times like a proper Oxonian, but also to demonstrate how Derrida-esque deconstructivism has informed the electronic canon of the past 20 years. Do you like found sounds, such as those used by David Byrne and Brian Eno in some of their collaborations? How about making a recording mixing playbacks from badly stored reel-to-reel tapes that literally decompose as you play them in loops, each iteration a tad more gappy than the previous? Check out William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops, recorded mostly in 2001, if you find that intriguing.
I also learned quite a bit about the group Cabaret Voltaire's early years as electro-pioneers in 1970s Sheffield (South Yorkshire UK), emerging from the post-industrial horrorscape and paving the way for the Human League/Heaven 17 axis that in turn birthed the smart-pop from ABC and Thompson Twins. When I first heard Cabaret Voltaire in the early '80s, I just found them annoying, ignorant at the time of their historical importance (still nascent at the time), unable to foresee the influence they would eventually exert on multiple flavors of music.