The Bus to Beezlebub: Diving Into Tangerine Dream, Part I

The massive In Search of Hades box set covers the German electronics giants’ freewheeling 1970s era

In Search of Hades artwork

It’s Tangerine Dream time again. Of course, I might suggest it’s always Tangerine Dream time – sometimes I can hear them playing the soundtrack to my everyday life, not unlike James Caan in Thief.

But this time the gods of commerce have blessed us with seven additional reasons to be cheerful. Seven albums the German trio recorded for Virgin Records between 1973 and 1979 – Phaedra, Rubycon, Ricochet, Stratosfear, Encore, Cyclone and Force Majeure – have just gotten the remaster/rerelease/bonus track treatment. They sound terrific and, frankly, timeless.

Always led by the late Edgar Froese, you could call Tangerine Dream pioneers of ambient music, electronic music, mood music (both fierce and calming) or soundtrack music. (I’m sure there are some folks who first heard TD in “Risky Business.”) Maybe, if you want to stretch a bit, even EDM, though TD was far from a dance band.

When I talked to Froese in 2012, I had to ask him about the EDM kids. “I listen to a lot of electro youngsters,” he said. “Some are on a very creative level and others maybe should work on something else. But here we are talking about subjective opinions. Every musician, every artist, is learning from other artists. My master was J.S. Bach, even if that’s not that obvious in all of the TD sequences, but it’s true. I am not proud; I am just filtering what runs as an inspiration through my system. That exactly is what the young musicians do by listening to the old or newer TD stuff. That is more than correct. I am just proud that life has given me the chance to be part of such a great, creative family of musicians.”

The seven Virgin discs, mind you, represent just a small slice of the TD catalog. There were four LPs on the German experimental label Ohr, starting in 1970, before this series of Virgin releases and chart success (at least in Europe). There were umpteen studio and live albums to follow, but the Virgin days were a real sweet spot for the band.


STREAMING: Tangerine Dream’s Risky Business soundtrack

It was about the synths; but it wasn’t all about those synths. “Even in the old analog days,” Froese told me, “the machine didn’t do anything. But people didn’t know it. There was a preconception to machinery, to computers, and the preconception said quite clearly. You just have to look at it and the work gets done.’ That’s ridiculous. … All instruments including synths are not more or less than crutches for an artist to express himself. Defining those instruments in categories like “robots” and “human” just shows how little the common music consumer has understood about what sounds really are.”

I fell in love with the band in college, first buying the live import LP Ricochet in 1975. That and Stratosfear, and the live follow-up Encore were seminal albums of my electronic/space rock headphone/stoner music days. And it was, at times, scary music. Brooding, Foreboding.  Ominous. All was not well out there.

I last saw them in 2012 at Boston’s House of Blues. A sextet at the time, TD did a Phaedra Farewell tour, which was captured on a three-CD set. On the band’s website they said that tour didn’t mean a goodbye forever situation, but a move away from concert tours, that they would still do one-offs. But Froese, 70, died Jan. 20, 2015 in Berlin from a pulmonary embolism.

Jim Sullivan and Edgar Froese / Photo by Roza Yarchun

I was a pop music critic at the Boston Globe and fortunate enough to have seen and reviewed Tangerine Dream several times and interview Froese at various points in time from the ‘80s into the 21st century.

When I saw them in 1992, it was after a shift in direction – certainly from the Ricochet-era band I fell in love with. Some of what I wrote for the Globe:

The music throbs, pulses and percolates, but there’s not much implicit terror in this year’s model, which played an oft-mesmerizing, nearly three-hour show at Berklee Performance Center. Tangerine Dream is a lot warmer now. It’s a sensual sonic bath. You could shut your eyes and dream your own dream or watch the band ply its trade in the chemical smoke and follow the precise laser-lighting. None of it — the music or the lighting — was particularly jarring, at least, not in the old-style sense. Though they’ve recorded 50-some-odd albums, Tangerine Dream is not a band to look back; nine of the songs were unrecorded and unreleased with the bulk of the others coming from “Rockoon” and “Canyon Dreams.”

The rich, layered synth-based rhythms and melodies — generated by Linda Spa, and the Froeses, Edgar and his son Jerome — flowed purposefully, pleasantly: Like a series of stones being tossed in a pond and observing the overlapping ripple effect. To this band, songs are journeys, simultaneously bumpy and restful. Neat things enter along the way, much of which, like the percussion and distant chant-like sounds, are programmed into the synths. In songs like “Homeless” and “Rockoon” — which closed the first and second sets last night — there was much more grandeur than tension.

I am glad I didn’t use the term “new age,” even though Tangerine Dream notched five consecutive Grammy nominations in that category – during the ‘90s. Years later, when we talked, I asked Froese about that somewhat spurious category – good for Enya, not so much for TD. He said, somewhat cryptically: “There are so many new ages blown into the atmosphere by false prophets that it’s like an inflation for the good spirits. But where is the new aspect – especially in music? Where are the knob nerds who promised to have the electric key to paradise?”

The guys in Tangerine Dream – Froese, plus more than 20 others over the years – always gave us the silent treatment in concert. Never spoke much, if at all, and certainly not when I saw them.

Was it a purposeful statement of being remote or distant? Were they, like their peers in Kraftwerk, trying to present an image of being more machine than man, or maybe a melding of the two? I asked Froese about that in 2012.

“We are fan-friendly,” he said, “and that’s why we don’t talk during the sets. What would be necessary to say? In my view, a spoken language is always a kind of a lower octave against the music. Also, people who start talking about music try to explain the unexplainable. The best way of communicating is the freedom for everyone to step in and out of your own score of life.

“Tangerine Dream is just there to tickle the ears of those who can imagine changing their consciousness. Saving the world and dancing the bad vibes away for just one night, we would leave to Bruce Springsteen and others from the straight rock league.”


VIDEO: Tangerine Dream “The Elecgtric Mandarine Tour”, Zurich, Switzerland 2012

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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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