A tribute to the eccentric synthesizer.
Robert Moog once described his relationship with electronic equipment as inhabiting a space "between discovering and witnessing." It was precisely this blend of effortless genius and geeky, childlike awe that endeared Moog, who died last month at age 71, to the thousands of musicians who fell in love with his inventions over the years. The New York native got his start in the 1950s selling do-it-yourself theremin kits in the back pages of hobbyist magazines. While working at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in the '60s, he developed the prototype for the keyboard-operated synthesizer that would become known as the Moog. Over the ensuing decades, as the size of the Moog shrank from a room to a closet to a desk, the synthesizer's whimsical sound palette won such fans as the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Kraftwerk. What was unique about Moog was that he never considered the human and the circuit board to be warring factions. Instead, he hoped the two would become intimate conspirators, spurring each other on in pursuit of sounds as sophisticated and far-reaching as they were beautiful.
Pierre Henry Messe Pour Le Temps Present (Philips, 1967/Polygram reissue, 2005) Listen to "Teen Tonic."
Most graduate students spend their spare time complaining about tiny stipend checks; Cornell engineering and physics student Bob Moog spent his revolutionizing the sound of popular music. Given the somewhat nerd-academic milieu in which Moog mingled, it's no surprise that his invention first captured the imagination of avant-garde composers such as Pierre Henry. Despite his classical education, Henry became fascinated with electronic music in the 1950s, experimenting with unconventional sound sources, tape editing, and noise as a leader of France's Musique Concrète community. Messe Pour Le Temps Present, a collaboration with the choreographer Maurice Béjart, is Henry's most famous album, probably because it is also his most listenable. Ranging from lowbrow to high, the album showcases the Moog's versatility. The oft-sampled trio of "Psyché Rock," "Jéricho Jerk," and "Teen Tonic" are all compact, groovy delights replete with cutesy, ray-gunning Moog notes—a stark contrast to the rest of the album's sparse, scriptless electronic experiments. Think Austin Powers, but with interstitial blasts of raw noise.
The Monkees Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. (Colgems, 1967/Rhino reissue, 1995) Listen to "Daily Nightly."
It is widely believed that the first pop-oriented record to feature a Moog was the Zodiac's Cosmic Sounds, a bizarre concept album about the astrological signs released in the summer of 1967. But it wasn't until this trippy masterpiece was released later that year that fans and musicians gained a sense of how to best incorporate this odd synthesizer into rock music. Though the quartet of Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, and Mickey Dolenz started off beholden to the stark fact that their band was a made-for-TV gimmick, they eventually gained the confidence and creative control to noodle around. Dolenz played the Moog on "Daily Nightly," a psychedelic-influenced song that Nesmith wrote about the Sunset Strip riots the summer before. Though Dolenz's use of the synthesizer was sparing, it gave the song, with its starry-eyed descriptions of "prisms of no color" and "phantasmagoric splendor," an eerie, airy feel. Two years later, the profile of the Moog got another boost when Monkees fans the Beatles used the instrument on Abbey Road.
Wendy Carlos Switched-On Bach (Columbia, 1968/Columbia reissue, 1990) Listen to "Prelude and Fugue #2 in C Minor."
In 1968, Columbia released three albums that showcased the Moog to capitalize on the public's fascination with these quirky, new electronic instruments. Much to their shock, this novelty recording featuring bubbly versions of Bach's most famous fugues and movements was the one that hit, becoming the first classical record ever to go platinum—you can verify this yourself by going to the local Goodwill store and surveying the piles of used Carlos records. At the time, Switched-On terrified Bach purists the world over, and for good reason. While its precise, rinky-dink playing and one-woman wall-of-synthesizer coolness may have intrigued listeners in the late 1960s, it sounds unbearably corny now. Carlos, who also scored the films Clockwork Orange and Tron, continues to be one of the more interesting musical figures of the past 40 years. When Switched-On and its follow-ups were released in the 1970s, Carlos was a transitioning transsexual and forced, she claims, to use her birth name of Walter so that the records would be easier to market.
Fred Wesley and the J.B.'s James Brown's Funky People, Pt. 3 (Polygram, 2000) Listen to "Blow Your Head."
Though jam-happy progressive rock deities like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes are often cast as the archetypal Moog enthusiasts, jazz and soul artists like Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Parliament-Funkadelic, and Ohio Players have dabbled in the analog arts as well. Leave it to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, to record one of the funkiest Moog solos ever and alienate his band in the process. Released on his trombonist Fred Wesley's brilliant 1974 solo album, Damn Right I Am Somebody, "Blow Your Head" is an under-acknowledged gem of the Brown canon. According to legend, Fred Wesley and the J.B.'s—Brown's world-class backing band—had finished recording this raucous marriage of tough percussion and spry, darting horns when Brown arrived. Deciding that the track needed something more, Brown started fooling around on the Moog, overdubbing some introductory zaps (later sampled by Public Enemy) and assorted squiggles over Wesley's finished work. Wesley wasn't particularly happy about this, and some speculate that this led to his departure from Brown's band. A legitimate beef, sure, but one listen to Brown's buzz-saw funk proves that the Godfather knew best.
Stereolab Oscillations from the Anti-Sun (Too Pure, 2005) Listen to "Moogie Wonderland."
When the British group Stereolab released their first singles collection in 1992, they weren't shy about their fetishes: It was titled Switched On. The group, led by the husband and wife duo of Tim Gane and Laetitia Sadier, was at the forefront of the rediscovery of analog keyboards in the 1990s—and the subsequent spike in the prices of vintage gear. With groups like Tortoise and the Moog Cookbook, and producers Pete Namlook and Fatboy Slim, the Moog made a bit of a comeback. Thanks to songs like the sitcom-length "Jenny Ondioline" and the dreamy anti-capitalist "Wow and Flutter," Stereolab found the most ardent cult following. "Moogie Wonderland" is one of their sillier tunes—a rippling, droning, farting, squirming, buzzing catalog of everything the synthesizer can possibly do. Luring fans as diverse as Blur and the Neptunes, the now-veteran Stereolab have actualized Moog's vision, which he stumbled upon so many years ago: to make music that is different and progressive, but with a warm and decidedly human wit.
Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College. He is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman, about H.T. Tsiang, his imagined rival Pearl Buck, and the often contentious community of Americans writing about China in the 1930s and '40s.
Audio excerpts from: Messe Pour Le Temps Present © 1967 Phillips; Oscillations From the Anti-Sun © 2005 Too Pure; Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd. © 1967 Colgems; James Brown's Funky People, Pt. 3© 2000 Polygram;Switched-On Bach© 1968 Columbia. All rights reserved.