2- Broken Glass, Metallic Beat: The Life, Death, and Resurrection of the Roland CR-78 CompuRhythm - Greg J. Smith, McMaster University

9:00 AM, Sunday 26 May 2019 (2 hours)
Coffee break   11:00 AM to 11:30 AM (30 minutes)

Released in 1978, the Roland CR-78 ‘CompuRhythm’ was one of the first programmable drum machines. It allowed players to select and alter rhythms and—a major innovation—store new patterns. David Bowie was an early adopter and used it to program the languid beat of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” (1977), and Throbbing Gristle’s “Twenty Jazz Funk Greats” (1978) foregrounded it as well. But two hits signalled the CR-78’s arrival: Blondie’s crossover smash “Heart of Glass” (1978) and Phil Collins’ brooding “In the Air Tonight” (1981), where it set the stage for the song’s famous drum break.

“In the Air Tonight” was essentially a death rattle for the CR-78; a commercial failure, it was discontinued that year. While its adoption across other genres was sporadic, it flourished in British New Wave circles and was used by Gary Numan, Ultravox, Soft Cell, and others. More recently, Radiohead and Beck have incorporated it into production and performance.

In this paper, I will reconsider the impact of the CR-78. First, I will use close readings of “Heart of Glass” and “In the Air Tonight” to survey shifting norms across genres and music making practices in this era. I will then examine John Foxx’s Ballardian song “Burning Car” (1980), considering how the sonic and functional idiosyncrasies that made the machine untenable in pop were formative for Foxx and British New Wave producers. By focusing on the CR-78 and this (arguably) under-examined genre, I will challenge narratives of failure and survival in histories of popular music and its technologies.

McMaster University
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