The birth of club music was a murky affair. There is one record, however, that is so far reaching that almost every club-music camp agrees it's a starting point for electronic dance music. With the exception, of course, of its creator.
“I didn't think a lot about this album,” says Manuel Göttsching of his almost hour-long composition, E2-E4 (currently out on Spalax), recorded 25 years ago. Once the youngest of Krautrock innovators — the first album by Ash Ra Tempel, the famed psychedelic act he founded, was released when he was 17 — Göttsching is now 53 years old. His hair is gray, his glasses are thick, and his style is thoughtful. “I just switched record on the tape machine and said I want to play, just a little bit. I feel honored that this track has inspired so many people to use it.”
Recorded solo in 1981 in real time with no overdubs, E2-E4 initially sold fewer than 3,000 copies. Yet the album, based on the two chords of its title, became a cornerstone for the next 20 years of club music. Larry Levan demanded that it be played at his funeral. Detroit innovators such as Juan Atkins would credit it with kick-starting techno. A rerecording became a No. 1 Balearic hit at the turn of the '90s. Eventually reworked by artists from Yamantaka Eye (of The Boredoms) to the Basic Channel crew, few records would a reach so many genres of DJ music — and this one didn't even use a computer.
“What makes it so groundbreaking is the layering of sounds,” German electronic producer Ian Pooley asserts. “Back then, I thought the guys from Detroit were the true innovators of the new techno sound. After hearing E2-E4, I had to say that Manuel was the man who changed it all.”
Göttsching was an unlikely hero for the rave generation. Ash Ra Tempel may have been the archetypical hippie band. Led by Göttsching's masterful fretwork, its approach wasn't far from the further-out stylings of the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd. But there was always an interest in electronics. Ash Ra Tempel's first drummer was Klaus Schulze, later a pioneer of synthesizer music (and whose label would originally release E2-E4). By the mid-'70s, Göttsching looked for outlets outside of his band for expression. He started experimenting with keyboards and an early punchcard-coded EKO drum machine. “Electronic music finally started to move,” Göttsching says. “Because before it was only sound.”
These interests resulted in the one-man Inventions for Electric Guitar (OHR) album from 1974. Although the album was recorded using only a guitar, its blissed-out repetitions were a step in the direction of dance music. Performing as Ashra in 1977, Göttsching persisted in a similar direction with increasing complexity. By the time he recorded E2-E4 (the title references an opening chess move and the Star Wars droid R2D2), his home studio setup included a Sequential Circuits Prophet 10 for chords, two Moog Minimoogs (one for bass and one to trigger drum sounds on a noise generator), an ARP Odyssey for melody, the EKO, an EMS Synthi A for noises and a Pearl Syncussion triggered by the sequencers. Played live, it was over in an hour. No mistakes, no overdubs. Through subtle manipulation of the gain, it grooved in a way that other electro pioneers, such as Kraftwerk, did not. It sounded a lot like techno, years ahead of its time.
But Göttsching filed the album away, until three years later when Schulze asked him if he had anything lying around. It was released in 1984 — the first album under Göttsching's own name — only to have the label, Innovative Communications, soon go bankrupt.
But the record slowly worked its way into an unfamiliar world. A copy got into the hands of Larry Levan, and he regularly closed out his Paradise Garage set by playing its entirety. Unbeknownst to Göttsching, it became a staple on the New York club circuit. “I was tired of listening to DJs playing only E2-E4,” Levan disciple Joe Claussell says.
For experimental techno composer Ken Ishii, E2-E4 marked the beginning of a musical era. “I had listened to Ash Ra Tempel, but E2-E4 sounded different from that to me,” Ishii says. “It was much more like house and other new stuff to me in terms of its musical structure. I was surprised that the record was produced many years before house even came out.”
Beyond Manhattan, Alex Paterson, who would later team up with Göttsching's friend and fellow guitarist Steve Hillage in The Orb, spun it in sets that would birth ambient techno. In 1989, Göttsching received word that a group of Italians wanted to make a cover version of it. “I thought, ‘Cover version? In Italian? There are no lyrics on it!’” Göttsching says with a laugh. A week later, Giovanni Natale from Expanded Music was on his doorstep.
Natale wanted the publishing rights to E2-E4, and Göttsching demurred. So they agreed that it would come out under a new name: DFC record's “Sueño Latino.” Teasing the samba groove from the Krautrock, it became the Balearic/Italo disco smash of 1989, going to No. 1 in several countries, with DJs such as Carl Craig and Derrick May later remixing it. “That track must be one of the top five most influential dance tracks ever produced!” Hillage exclaims. “And Manuel's work was 80 percent of the whole sound!”
And E2-E4 just keeps on giving. Last year, the classical Zeitkratzer ensemble performed it live with Göttsching on guitar and also released an album. Expanded Music will soon release a tribute compilation. Göttsching appears to have made peace with his unlikely personae as dancehall guru.