We revisit an album that remains a creative high watermark for Edgar Froese's band.
"When Phaedra went into the LP charts, it was one of the great moments of my life," said famed BBC Radio 1 presenter John Peel to an audience at London's Rainbow Theatre in 1974, where he was introducing Tangerine Dream. Back then, the band were a novelty: a (nearly) all-electronic group who had taken to playing in pitch-black to disguise the humdrum look of their live show, essentially a bunch of dudes sitting motionless at machines. Still, this performance at the Rainbow Theatre, full of excited fans who were converted by their most recent album, Phaedra, was a nice change from the angry concertgoers that would throw fruits and vegetables at them in years past.
It's hard to imagine it now, but Tangerine Dream—then composed of founder and visionary Edgar Froese, Moog wiz Christopher Franke and the multi-instrumentalist Peter Baumann—were pretty radical back then. People didn't know what to make of them, or the way they composed or approached music. Was it even music?
"Three years ago, an LP called Electronic Meditation was released and we played it on the wonderful Radio 1," Peel also said in that introduction, referring to the group's spaced-out debut album. "From then on, whenever we played a track by Tangerine Dream, we'd get people coming along saying, 'Listen, we don't want to play that sort of thing at all. No one likes it, it's deeply unpopular, only loonies like you are prepared to listen to it.'"
By 1974, the tide had started to turn. As the group's releases coalesced into something resembling what we'd now call ambient music, Tangerine Dream's sales grew enough to catch the eye of Richard Branson's Virgin label, who signed the group just in time to release Phaedra. While the new LP was by no means a commercial turn—there were no vocals and the title track was 18 minutes long—the album did introduce some structure to the group's music, thanks to the sequencers that would come to define their sound, as well as the wider Berlin school of electronic music that Tangerine Dream, along with ex-member Klaus Schulze, would lead.
Phaedra was a dark horse, but it peaked at #15 on the UK album charts. It had longevity, too, remaining in the charts for 15 weeks. It launched a career that would last for decades up until founder Edgar Froese's death in 2015, encompassing several more brushes with the mainstream, including many Hollywood soundtracks (and a notable influence on more recent cultural phenomena like Stranger Things).
Tangerine Dream's landmark album was recorded over the course of three weeks at The Manor studio in Oxford. "We'd worked a couple of days in the studio and recorded some sketches, and then I was sitting in the control room and Christoph [Frank] was playing and checking out something on the Moog sequencer," Baumann told The Ransom Note. "We just looked at each other and said this sounds great, so we recorded it. Christoph was unaware that we were already recording it."
The group built the title track around that sequence, adding a stark intro of heavily delayed and processed sound that recalls the outré experiments of earlier albums, before things take shape into that unforgettable synth line that John Peel described as the best nighttime driving soundtrack ever. It feels like the sequencer is hurtling through dimensions and galaxies, growing and receding in volume as other melodies criss-cross over it, before fading out into a gorgeous Mellotron outro.
"Phaedra" sounds like a product of its time, but its synthetic sounds and ambitious arrangement remain unique. The synths are gleaming and futuristic, but also dull and scuffed. "Phaedra" has come to be the classic Tangerine Dream song because it finds the group in the middle of the evolution from avant-garde to overtly commercial dreck. It's melodic but weird, rhythmic but confusing and emotionally ambiguous. (Just listen to how tense it sounds in the context of Black Mirror's Bandersnatch episode, during an acid trip.)
Phaedra the album is about more than just "Phaedra" the track. The group were heavily inspired by modern classical music, which they explore on "Mysterious Semblance At The Strand Of Nightmares," a Mellotron-heavy track that uses the unwieldy instrument in a nimble way, mimicking the feel of a string section, albeit one playing in the vacuum of space. (The band actually created patches and sent off ideas to Mellotron during the early '70s, such was their mastery of the instrument.) That and the burbling "Movements Of A Visionary"—which features the guitar-sequencer interplay that would surface on later, more commercial albums like Tangram—round off a perfect major label debut that carefully invites a new audience in without losing the edge, or courage, that defined Froese's unique approach to music.
Froese said that Phaedra "helped build a career I never dreamed of." It was the start of a decades-long flirtation with the mainstream that would lead to scores for films like Sorcerer and Risky Business and household name status thanks to tracks like "Love On A Real Train" and "Exit," which were part of their pop-baiting '80s phase before their music melted into New Age schlock.
Tangerine Dream remain a complicated band. They made history not only with their synthesizer music but their performances, becoming one of the first bands to play in East Germany with their famous 1980 concert, immortalized on the (very good) live album Pergamon. Their mix of progressive rock, ambient and synth music remains incredibly influential today. But the schmaltzy, chart-chasing tendencies that grew with each new album led them into territory that would make electronic heads who loved their early records turn their noses up.
Phaedra, then, is the happy medium, the sound of music changing in real time, as synth music suddenly became mainstream, capable of having its own emotional and sensual qualities. (Kraftwerk released "Autobahn" the same year.) It left a lasting mark not only on John Peel and the UK album charts, but the direction of Western music in general. You can you hear the beginnings of Italo disco, techno, ambient and, of course, synth music in Phaedra, which carries an air of discovery and mystery to this day.