Techno Week 2: “No UFOs” by Model 500
Detroit techno, as I discussed in a skeletal fashion in the last post, took existing styles of black music, especially funk, and retrofitted them with a forward-thinking embrace of technology. To say that techno was “forward-thinking,” though, does not imply that the future it saw was conventionally optimistic. One would be hard-pressed to find a trace of Gene Roddenbery’s Star Trek, or, heaven forbid, The Jetsons in a track like “Cosmic Cars.” Like much of 1980s science fiction film––think Robocop, Alien, The Fly, and Blade Runner––Detroit Techno as fashioned by Juan Atkins and Richard Davis had a bleaker and grimier vision of tomorrow. It’s not as though the artists who had a hand in creating techno didn’t recognize the influence of their home city on their art. Derrick May, an innovator whose work will just possibly turn up later this week, had this to say about techno:
“The music is just like Detroit: a complete mistake, it’s like George Clinton and Kraftwerk are stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company.”
Stuart Cosgrove, “Seventh City Techno”, The Face, May 1988.
May, in a documentary called Universal Techno, also had this to say while walking through the gutted Michigan Theatre, now transformed into a car park:
“Being a techno-electronic-futurist, high-tech musician, I totally believe in the future, but I also believe in a historic and well-kept past. I believe that there are some things that are important. Now maybe this is more important like this, because in this atmosphere, you can realize just how much people don’t care, how much they don’t respect—and it can make you realize how much you should respect.”
“No UFOs,” the song of the day today, is one of the first true techno songs, while Cybotron’s output has been more vaguely classed as “electro.” Techno is synthetic and electronic to the bone, sending out manufactured grooves at a steady, mechanical pace. “They say there is no hope/They say no UFO,” the vocal track intones. While UFOs––and cybernetics for that matter––are generally stock villains in American science fiction, the UFOs are more enigmatic here. Perhaps this is by necessity since there are so few words in the song, but the tentative “Maybe you’ll see them fly,” if anything, solidifies this ambiguity. UFOs are both hopeful and fearful symbols, invasive and yet undeniably compelling. In other words, they encapsulate the paranoid, almost fatalistic technological underpinnings of techno. Techno could probably have no fitter beginning than here.
P.S. Oddly enough, it captures the feeling of the city far better than Jim Jarmusch. Perhaps what we need in our Detroit films is less mope and more drum machines.