The UK improvisor recalls his years with the young Roland UK company and his relationship with Ikutaro Kakehashi
I can’t remember the first time I met Ikutaro Kakehashi, who died on 1 April, but it must have been the mid-1970s. Before he founded his electronics corporation Roland he used to make frequent trips to the UK as he loved the music scene, British amps, recording stuff and studios, and respected the UK as a pioneer in creative music and music gear. I’d met Fred Mead and Brian Nunney who were working for Dallas Arbiter at the time, at Shoebury in Essex near me. They had picked up distribution of a new line called Roland, which was right at the beginning of its journey.
We had meetings Fred’s house in Canvey Island, where we talking about a proposed new company with Ken Stodard, who became the accountant. At that time the young Roland company was distributed exclusively though a Danish company called Brodr Jorgensen, so the first company was the UK arm of that, with warehouse distribution on an industrial site on the Great West Road in West London. Roland was doing well, even at this early stage, but Brodr Jorgensen got into financial trouble and finally closed. Brian flew to Japan to speak to Taro, and Roland UK was born, a joint venture with Taro holding 51 percent of the ownership.
Often Taro, a talented engineer, would come over on a weekend and Brian asked me to look after him – to take him around London to music shops and brief him on the latest gear. I had originally been a drummer but got into percussion in the early 70s when I studied Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter and Karlheinz Stockhausen with the very fine cellist Leonard Stehn. I was into electronics too, so we had a lot in common. He didn’t speak great English but had a wicked sense of humour. He chuckled constantly at the punk movement and found many English words strange. The word amplifier, for example, really freaked him out: ampli-fire.
I became Roland’s demonstrator for the high-end stuff while we were still in the analogue era. The first few products would perhaps be laughable now – devices to simulate the sound of a leslie speaker cabinet, for example, and crude drum machines with synthesized sounds. But Taro had great vision – he didn’t only think of products that musicians needed, but more importantly how to make them. He was a totally hands-on guy, completely into electronics. I remember the terrific products coming thick and fast: the CE1 chorus pedal became the now famous Boss pedal range and developed into the Roland Dimension D. There were many keyboards, basic pianos, and then the now famous mono synths, followed by the early polyphonic instruments like the Jupiter 4 and Jupiter 8. Primitive rhythm boxes grew into classic instruments such as the TR-808 and TR-606, all of which sold extremely well. A rare dud in my opinion was the SH1000 keyboard, from way back in 1973. The home organ scene has gone the way of the dodo now, but in the 1970s it was very popular, and the SH1000 was designed to sit on top of an organ and offer synthesizer-like sound and presets. It was pretty corny and certainly not an indication of what was to come.
The Roland range exploded into digital pianos, guitar synths, synthesizers, amps, PAs, vocoders, etc. I remember the RE-201 Space Echo was so innovative compared with the naff competition from Binson, Ecoret, etc. The Space Echo had multiple inputs, sophisticated repeat echo control, was cosmetically attractive and had a neat see-through tape cartridge system you just slotted in. I sold a lot to Barry Anderson of the West Square Music Workshop, of which I was a member. He was working on a super-long tape delay system to use on his piece Mask, which was to be performed in London in 1976, with myself as one of the percussionists. He was flying every weekend to IRCAM in Paris, working on the electronic tape part of another piece called Arc, flying home and trying to run the workshop and studio. He later had a heart attack in Paris and died, literally of stress and overwork.
I eventually became a music retailer, starting the Future Music chain in the late 70s. I had a 24-track recording studio above the shop in Chelmsford and Taro bought over the CPE-800 Compumix, the world’s first computerised mixdown system with motorised faders! It was a revelation. Roland later produced the first complete portable recording multitrack systems, which developed into sophisticated standalone units such as the 48-track R-1000.
In 1983 Taro asked me to come over to the Hamamatsu factory in Japan and see some new stuff he was working on. It turned out to be the early electronic drums – everything was very hush-hush. The originals had a sort of triangular shape which kind of shocked me. He knew I was a percussionist and was very interested in what I thought of their ideas for the feel of the drums. At that time you had stuff like the Simmons syndrums, which were pretty crude soundwise and you could break your wrist playing them. Taro was concerned to vastly improve the drum feel. If you look at their current V Electronic drum system now, they are a million miles from the early days –truly playable instruments giving drummers a real feel. On that trip Taro also took me to the studio of Isao Tomita, who had become famous as an electronic musician with his interpretation of Debussy’s Snowflakes Are Dancing, on which he used one of the large Roland System 700 modular set-ups. He had incredible patience to work with the system to produce thousands of sounds and make them sound so authentic.
Brian often asked me to go and see various people to demonstrate the more complex instruments. The System 700, for example, took up a whole wall and was very intimidating, with wires everywhere like a telephone exchange. If you had a basic knowledge of analogue synthesis you could get your way around one easy enough: it was just multiple combinations of voltage controlled oscillators, filters, VCAs and ADSR envelopes, etc. It was pretty expensive, I remember one was put into Freedmans musical instruments in Leytonstone in East London. Needless to say they didn’t exactly fall out of the door at £12,000 a pop. Roland later bought out a much smaller and cheaper alternative, the System 100. I remember selling one to British Telecom, who used it to make ringtones. One person I went to see was Jimmy Page. Led Zeppelin were at the height of their fame and touring America non-stop, and manufacturers were throwing free gear at them as the advertising was worth thousands. I duly drove down to the address given in Sussex through county lanes and picturesque countryside. The house seemed much smaller than I expected; needless to say this was just the gatehouse. After a long lane that seems to go on for ever an incredible mansion came into sight. Jimmy took me to a large cupboard, and when he opened the door a massive heap of new stuff fell all over the place, including a System 700, guitar synths and an MC8, the world’s first digital sequencer designed to be programmed to work with the modular system.
On another trip to Japan I bumped into the shaukahachi player and Wire contributor Clive Bell. He temporarily joined one of my bands Worlds In Collision and we appeared on the BBC’s Look East TV programme doing a piece I wrote specially, combining free improv, electronic music and jazz with the System 700 at the heart of it. it all looked amazing, but it was way over people’s heads then. My brother phoned, annoyed, as he thought I had bought the family into ill repute!
When the world recession of 1990–91 came Taro retired, and so by coincidence did I. I had become disillusioned with the way musicians were investing in technology to cover up their limited music ability – with sampling, someone could press a key and hear the tones of, say, a flautist who had dedicated their whole life to producing such an exquisite sound. It was all becoming too easy. Bored with the greed, egos and infighting of the music business, I took the opportunity to go back to what I truly loved, trying to be a creative musician – I founded the improvised music label FMR in 1987. FMR continues to this day and has released more than 500 discs. Recent disc Reunion reconvened our group String Thing, with Ian Brighton, Philip Wachsmann, Marcio Matttos and others – a project which first began back in the Roland days, and had not played together for nearly three decades.
Taro had suffered from tuberculosis when young and survived by using a miracle experimental drug, but he still suffered practically all his life from a constant bad cough. To think he managed to reach 87 is amazing. His name will of course be revered in the history of music technology, but even though he became a very rich man, I feel he was never happier than with a soldering iron in his hand and an idea in his head.
Trevor Taylor is an improvisor based in Essex and runs FMR Records.