Reviewing Techno: A Social History – Episode 1

A few weeks ago, Ears To The House ran an article revealing a then forthcoming series on Britain’s BBC Radio 4. The three parter called Techno: A Social History was due to go out in three parts from July 19th at 11.30am and was to be narrated by Ash Lauryn. And now to the question which matters – is it any good?

The Ears To The House editor listened to the show in its entirety at the time of broadcast and is ready to say what he thinks. Here’s his review of the first part, which was originally broadcast yesterday…

It all started with the Electrifying Mojo, the Arkansas born DJ who introduced many artists to Detroit and also introduced Detroit techno to the world. This was one of the first things mentioned in the first episode of Techno: A Social History – and as far as beginnings to this documentary go, it was a pretty solid one.

And before the names of three certain synonymous individuals were given the opportunity to pop up, the documentary went further back into time – all the way to Motown. Narrator Ash Lauryn informed us that the Motown sound was huge in Detroit, without quite explaining how someone born in the 1980s would truly know.

Oddities like this aside, Lauryn did a very good job of narrating this documentary – for my personal preferences, she sometimes paused for just a little too longfor dramatic effect, but she otherwise met the brief well. Nearly half of this first episode was spent discussing things like the decimation of the city’s jobs market due to automation in the 1960s and 1970s.

Indeed, it took some 13 minutes before the notorious words “Belleville Three” to appear – and this was when my eyes began to roll. Were the documentary makers really about to undo all their good work so far by parroting how great the so-called Belleville Three were? Mercifully not – those words were only mentioned around three or four times throughout.

Juan Atkins was first introduced, and spoke a little. Then Kevin Saunderson spoke briefly – with Lauryn subsequently interjecting rather informally with the words “let’s just pause here”. The music stopped. It was time to introduce the other member of the Belleville Three – but just how would Lauryn approach it? And would we hear May’s infamous voice?

Even Lauryn’s informal presentation style couldn’t disguise the feeling this was something the BBC had pretty much ordered to be inserted into the programme. The audience was informed Derrick May was “facing multiple allegations of sexual abuse from multiple sources”, that “he denies the allegations” and “You won’t hear from him in this documentary, but you will hear his name”.

Back to the question of the Belleville Three. Did this show promote it in the way it usually is by the dance music press? The answer was mostly no – whilst it did virtually nothing to challenge the official accepted narrative, it also seemed surprisingly keen not to get drawn in on such matters. The brief of the documentary series – exploring Detroit techno’s effect on society – helped in this purpose. However, the reluctance to reference it in anything other than a passing fashion is curious.

The remainder of the documentary talked about Chicago’s role in spreading Detroit techno to the world – Chicago had a records export store whilst Detroit did not. Hence why when house music truly arrived in the UK in 1987, both were at play. There was also a fleeting reference in the episode’s dying moments to Berlin – here’s hoping this is expanded a little more in the remaining two episodes.

Overall, I enjoyed this insight into Detroit techno history and discovered a few things I didn’t know – although I must admit it felt strange learning all this on Radio 4 at half past eleven on a Tuesday morning. Lauryn was designated as the narrator and did a good, respectable job – even if the content wasn’t a little more inquiring…

Anyone who wants to listen to the show for themselves can do so at BBC Sounds.

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