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A Brief History of Rock Musicians Who Went Electronic

Stephen Malkmus. Photo: Burak Cingi/Redferns via Getty Images

Last year, Stephen Malkmus delivered a new album to his longtime label, Matador. Rather than be stoked about the first Malkmus album in three years, they were instead nonplussed. “They didn’t want to put it out,” Malkmus told the Washington Post. “It was a head-scratcher. Maybe some of my more traditional fans that know Pavement would scratch their heads.” Ever since Pavement emerged on the college/indie-rock landscape in 1989, Malkmus was the figurehead for a scruffy, ironically detached, T-shirt-and-jeans guitar player and — much like J.R. “Bob” Dobbs of the Church of the SubGenius — the embodiment of slack for Generation X. He was also a low-key guitar shredder, as became more evident on later Pavement albums and then across a string of albums as Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks.

Last week, Malkmus announced the release of Groove Denied, the album that Matador blanched at releasing (opting instead for last year’s more traditional Sparkle Hard). On it, Malkmus deploys a battery of keyboards, drum pads, Ableton, and software, with nary a guitar in earshot. With it, the elder statesman of slack joins a rather elite club of rockers who forwent their guitars to instead indulge in electronics, a pivot equivocal to Spinal Tap Mk.II: A Jazz Odyssey. For some that see the divide between rock and electronic music as a Grand Canyon, the two genres double as an elemental battle for the soul of humanity. Take for example, this hysterically histrionic Michiko Kakutani article bemoaning that techno “relies on computers, synthesizers, drum machines and samplers to purvey a cold, distinctly antihumanistic agenda. Many of its practitioners are key punchers, not guitar players; deejays and computer geeks, not musicians.” Whither the guitar player who also is a key puncher? Since the dawn of electronic music, rock stars of every generation have dabbled in exploring such circuitry, be they the Beatles or rock gods or late-20th-century guitar gods. Results vary, but most are indulgent, a few ignoble, some visionary, and some just charming paths not taken.

George Harrison, Electronic Sound

The Beatles were under the sway of electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (even putting the German composer in the mix on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s) and both Paul McCartney and John Lennon would do their own Stockhausen impersonations, the former with the still-unheard “Carnival of Light,” the latter with The White Album’s penultimate cut, “Revolution #9.” But George was also a diligent explorer, first melding Indian classical to Western rock and then going deep on his own Moog 3-series synthesizer. One of only two albums ever released on the Beatles’ Zapple sub-label, Electronic Sound is a piercing exploration of the Moog.

Harrison first encountered the Moog in 1968 while out in L.A. recording Jackie Lomax’s debut for Apple, thanks to musician and Moog salesman Bernie Krause. According to Krause, Harrison taped one of his demonstrations on the synth without his knowledge and released it as “No Time or Space” here. Harrison’s own Moog showed up in 1969, and with it he cut “Under the Mersey Wall,” fumbling around in the nether reaches of the cosmos with his new toy. The Moog only cropped up on Abbey Road’s “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” but was helmed by Paul, not George.

Mick Jagger, “Invocation of my Demon Brother”

Not to be outdone, the Rolling Stones soon followed suit. Whether or not you think that Their Satanic Majesties Request apes Sgt. Pepper’s or Beggars Banquet’s white sleeve closely approximates that of The Beatles, for a time the Stones seemed to be right on the heels of their fellow countrymen. And anything the Beatles could do, the Rolling Stones could do sleazier. So Mick Jagger took a turn on the Moog himself, deploying its white noise filters to craft the score for Kenneth Anger’s legendary Invocation of My Demon Brother. Jagger makes a wheezy, 11-minute score that’s a tad menacing but mostly just irritating, nailing the tone of a stuck car horn as it soundtracks a Satanic funeral ceremony for a pet cat.

Paul McCartney, II

Speaking of Paul, despite no experimental behemoths to his name while in the Beatles, he soon became the Beatle most likely to cross over to electronic music. It didn’t happen right away, as instead his attentions turned toward Wings. But as that band neared the end of its run in the late 1970s, McCartney decamped to his farm in Scotland with a battery of new-fangled drum machines, synths, and 16-track recording equipment and began to, as the very first song he laid to tape put it, “Check My Machine” (sampling Tweety Bird and Sylvester in the process). In total, he made 20-odd very odd tracks — dizzy, whimsical, surreal, effortless ditties. He shelved them as Wings went out for a Japan tour. At customs, though, McCartney was busted for 219 grams of marijuana, arrested, and then sent back the way he came. As Wings disbanded, McCartney brushed a few tracks off and put McCartney II into the world.

It was not a success, with critics deeming it “unfinished musings” and “arguably the least well-received solo work of any Beatle.” But in the decades since, it’s become a template for bedroom electronic producers, with tracks like “Temporary Secretary” getting aired on big stages by the likes of James Murphy, Radio Slave, and Dixon. More eclectic DJs turn to the likes of even more left-field B-sides like “Check My Machine” and the woozy epic “Secret Friend.” As McCartney told The Quietus: “The thing of making music in your bedroom, or your living room, at home — that has now become the present whereas then it was the future.” Be it Hot Chip or Aphex Twin’s tossed-off ditties, they bear more than a passing resemblance to Macca’s example.

The Fireman, Rushes

By the 1990s, Macca’s vision of the future of bedroom music producers had exploded into the mainstream with the rise of electronica. And with it, hand-wringing about whether these were the new rock stars, rendering guitarists into dinosaurs. Around the time that McCartney put the finishing touches on his ninth solo studio album, Off the Ground, and was in search of someone to mix the album, a mate connected him with Martin Glover (a.k.a. Youth). Glover played bass with Killing Joke and was an early member of the Orb and the two soon hit it off, deciding to drop their own ambient electronic album as the rather anonymous sounding the Fireman.

Their 1993 debut Strawberries, Oceans, Ships, Forest was all but ignored upon release. At least it was until murmurs began to spread that McCartney was behind the project (McCartney has a penchant for phony names, such as Percy “Thrills” Thrillington). And it’s rather hilarious to imagine old Beatles fans queuing up to purchase their first (and no doubt last) ambient house record. Too bad, as the Fireman’s follow-up Rushes is a rather capable and enjoyable ambient electronic record full of spacy delights. It also has one of Linda McCartney’s last vocal contributions. As Youth remembers it: “We recorded the album when Linda was going through the final stages of her cancer. When I listen to the album now, it sounds like a requiem for her, it’s very beautiful.”

Eric Clapton, Retail Therapy

McCartney wasn’t the only ’60s rock god facing oblivion at the hands of our new techno overlords. And he wasn’t the only one to adopt an anonymous moniker to have a go at electronica. A few years after enjoying an early ’90s renaissance thanks to “Tears in Heaven” and his Unplugged set, Clapton teamed up with his longtime friend Simon Climie. Clapton took up the avatar of x-sample, they decided to call themselves T.D.F. (Totally Dysfunctional Family) and released Retail Therapy in 1997.

There are plenty examples in both Eastern and Western mythology of God in all of their omnipotence assuming a more humble human form, returning to Earth to be among mankind. For a fellow often referred to as “God,” that’s perhaps the only explanation we will ever get as to why Clapton put out this agonizingly shitty and half-hearted stab at ambient and drum-and-bass. The fake graffiti cover is warning enough, though knowing that Giorgio Armani commissioned this music from Clapton might also scare you off. If not, marvel at a True Rock God in all of his infinite wisdom making himself prostrate with an album about going shopping at the mall. It’s the kind of clueless electronic album you could imagine your dad making, though I guarantee that even he can’t sit through this Clapton album.

Neil Young, Trans

With so many reinventions already under his belt, Neil Young (and by default his fan base) should have already become accustomed to the man and his willful left turns from “middle of the road” rock right into the ditches. But few people, even his own bandmates, were prepared for Young’s 12th solo album, Trans.

By the start of the decade, Young had left his longtime label Reprise to instead sign with Geffen, which purportedly offered him a million dollars an album. He was also getting down with the robotic stiffness of Kraftwerk and Devo. But kept closer to the vest, Young was also grappling with his newborn son Ben’s cerebral palsy and its attendant issues. “At that time he was simply trying to find a way to talk, to communicate with other people,” Young said of his son. “That’s what Trans is all about.”

Work began on a new record with Crazy Horse, but as guitarist Poncho Sampedro said: “Next thing we knew, Neil stripped all our music off, overdubbed all this stuff … and put the synth shit on it.” Playing with a Sennheiser vocoder and Synclavier, Young crafted a woefully misunderstood album that soon spurred his label to sue him for “deliberately uncommercial” music. Its legacy has been far kinder in the 21st century. The likes of Sonic Youth and Parquet Courts have covered those songs and it speaks to Young’s acumen that the best songs here aren’t the bookend rockers (those come off as rather stiff), but rather the synth and vocoder numbers. While some rock stars merely dabbled with their gear, Young sounds both adept and comfortable here.

Tony McPhee, The Two Sides of Tony (T.S.) McPhee

When Stephen Malkmus gave his Desert Island Discs list back in 1997, perched at the top of the list was the Groundhogs’ progressive blues-rock pummel, Thank Christ for the Bomb. Alas, few rock fans will remember the British blues band and perhaps even fewer rate bandleader-guitarist Tony McPhee (he doesn’t appear on the Rolling Stone Greatest Guitarists list, for example). But I guarantee that Malkmus is familiar with McPhee’s manic 1973 solo album, The Two Sides of Tony (T.S.) McPhee. Side one finds McPhee grappling with acoustic and electric guitar, while on side two he whips up a maelstrom with three keyboards, drum machine, and a long poem he penned about war and man’s inhumanity. Vacillating between ambient spoken word and proto-acid, it’s a visionary work, a rare instance of a rock guitarist creating something totally singular in the electronic music realm.

Cat Stevens, “Was Dog a Doughnut?”

Before converting to Islam, Cat Stevens cut this b-boy classic. Not that he knew it at the time, as he no doubt thought of the instrumental “Was Dog a Doughnut?” as some filler for his 1977 Izitso, made with some help from session players like Ray Gomez and Chick Corea. Initially dismissed (even though it marked the lone instance that Cat Stevens crossed over to the R&B charts), it was thanks to NYC DJ Jellybean Benitez that this funky synth instrumental became ingrained in the mind of breakdancers. From there, it became legendary, with fans ranging from the Wu-Tang Clan and Carl Craig to Madlib. At one point Questlove got to ask Stevens about the track, its legacy unbeknownst to him: “What was just him messing around for four minutes in the studio wound up being a staple in the hip-hop world, which he was very shocked to discover.”

Trickfinger, Trickfinger

One of alternative rock’s lone guitar heroes (thanks to his solar flare solos on a run of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ albums), John Frusciante might have also become a cautionary tale. When he departed the band in 1992, he sunk deep into a heroin addiction, making some of the most addled albums of the era that sound both deep down in a hole and teetering on a precipice at once. But just as abruptly, Frusciante got clean and returned to the fold of the group for another stadium-filling run from 1998 till 2009. As he told Pitchfork: “The whole time I’d been in the band, I would’ve rather been spending all my time making electronic music.” While rocking onstage night after night, Frusciante was also stockpiling 808s and 303s for further exploration. In 2015 he made his debut as Trickfinger. But as eclectic and outlandish as his varied solo work can be, the most surprising thing about his Trickfinger alias is how straight he plays it.

Wes Borland, Crystal Machete

In the intervening years between Frusciante’s stints in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, alternative rock slowly devolved into rap-rock, headed by Limp Bizkit. But guitarist Wes Borland served as ballast of sorts to front man Fred Durst’s dunderheaded proclivities. And like Frusciante, Borland also stepped away from the band for an extended period of time before finally returning to the fold. It was only in 2016 that Borland finally released his first solo album, Crystal Machete. As he told Stereogum, he had a few rules to follow: no distorted guitars, no human vocals, as little outside help as possible.

With nary a compressed guitar in sight, Borland indulges in vintage synthesizers and throbbing electro grooves. It’s conceived as an imaginary ’80s soundtrack and the influence of John Carpenter looms over the project. But Borland strikes a careful balance between menace and light, with playful bits of steel pan and glockenspiel dashed into the mix. For those who swore to never be near a device playing anything associated with Durst, Crystal Machete’s machine groove can’t be denied.

A Brief History of Rock Musicians Who Went Electronic