DID ROBERT MOOG ANTICIPATE PAUL VAN DYK?
By Jeffrey J. Lyons
The opinions expressed here are the author's.
Back in 1961, Robert Moog enhanced an idea from a German inventor by using transistors in kits to create an electronic musical instrument. His name became synonymous with its invention - the Moog synthesizer. What an instrument it was. It had the appearance of a church pipe organ with three layers of boxes stacked on top. Those boxes were riddled with plugs and potentiometers and holes with wires dangling from within. It looked like a firetrap.
At first the Moog synthesizer made lots of cool beeping and blipping noises. It was the perfect instrument for the space age. But what useful purpose did it serve?
Enter Wendy Carlos. Long before her name change, Wendy (a.k.a. Walter) Carlos decided to switch on Bach. The Moog synthesizer now had a purpose. It could replace orchestras. Switched on Bach was kind of an oddity in its day. The public was amazed that a single instrument and a bunch of wires could produce these types of sounds.
It was about this time somewhere between The Beach Boys Pet Sounds and the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band that pop musicians discovered that rock and roll could be artistic and creative. Also, Phil Spector showed us early on that production played a significant part in selling a record or two.
As musicians experimented with sounds and musical arrangements it became clear that some of these sounds could not easily be reproduced on stage. The record labels still demanded that their acts go on the road to help sell even more records. Bringing along 60 piece orchestras could cost a few dollars…dollars that the record companies were not thrilled to cough up.
Enter Streetly Electronics and the Mellotron. This British based company used the principle that the keyboard note would be recorded to a tape and played back. The Mellotron had an ability that the Moog synthesizer did not. It was polyphonic. Electronically created strings sounded more like violins than the Moog, which sometimes sounded like a pissed off cat.
The mellotron and the Moog had one thing in common though. They were both bulky, huge, heaps of wires and plugs. While the mellotron did wonders at bringing the Moody Blues Days of Future Passed to life on stage, it was still a hassle to lug around.
Give the mellotron credit for the spawning of a new sound in the late 1960's and early 1970's. This sound merged the magnanimous part of the classics to rock music to create music aptly coined "Progressive rock." There was no more three-chord rock and roll. What emerged were art rock, e-prog groups such as King Crimson, Genesis, Renaissance, and Yes to name only a few. Synthesizers became a vital part of their existence.
Something still needed to be done. Around 1973 Japan's KORG Company came to the rescue by utilizing solid state technology with programmable capabilities. The company was experimenting with what it called polyphonic ensemble technology. It relied less on wires and more on switches. The E-prog bands loved it. So did others.
The machines were becoming more portable and more versatile. Germany became a hot bed for a wide array of electronic bands. Kraftwerk experimented with electronic sounds that bopped to a metronome-like beat. The members of Kraftwerk actually had talents beyond music. They built many of their own instruments and invented an electronic drumstick, which would expand sounds to a new horizon just a few years out. It also showed us that synthezizers could make music to a beat.
Kraftwerk became one of the first electronic bands to have a Top 40 hit in America. The song "Autobahn" became a song of choice for lazy US Top 40 DJ's to segue into the network newscast because they could fade out of the monotonous melody early and listeners might not have known the difference.
An even bigger single hit the radio airwaves about the same time from a synth artist named Stan Free who went by the pseudonym Hot Butter. The song was called "Pop Corn." It was actually a remake of a song recorded in 1969 by a band called The First Moog Quartet. Regardless, the Hot Butter version became a worldwide international hit and still is heard today in new remakes and on TV commercials.
Meantime, Tangerine Dream (also German) developed its own atmosphere of sound that was haunting and eerie. In those days, it was known as space rock. However this was the birth of what would eventually be known in the 1990's as New Age. Tangerine Dream and former ex-keyboardest Rick Wakeman took their shows and synthesizers on the road for throngs of concert going fans to enjoy. Japan's Isao Tomita created magnficent, incomparable synthetically-produced classical intrepretations of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite and Holst's The Planets (much to the dismay of Gustav Holst's heirs).
By the mid 1970's, keyboard players were a must for all rock bands. Keyboard generated music took on a life of its own. While Queen announced unmistakably that "No synthesizers were used on this album," Ex-Spooky Tooth synth player Gary Wright roared to #1 with a song generated entirely by keyboards called "Dream Weaver."
However the beat started by Kraftwerk pounded harder thanks to a sound of historical proportions with its roots in Black soul and rhythm and blues. That sound was Disco. Synthesizer-programmed drum kits pounded out a throbbing beat with a lot of whooping and hollering. When the Mistress of Disco Donna Summer recorded and released the song "I Feel Love," electronic music would never be the same again.
Disco thrived for about three years until the world's most famous disco club Studio 54 of New York City became embroiled in controversy and closed. Shouts of "Disco sucks" echoed across college campuses as the students started listening to punk rock. That seemed to signal the end to Disco. Yet people still liked the beat, they just wanted something with a little more creativity.
Three key songs and the introduction of cheaper keyboards helped keep disco alive in a whole different form, which soon became known as New Wave. Those songs were "Funky Town" by Lipps Inc., "Pop Musik" by Robin Scott's M, and a dance tune written by gospel singer Jackie DeShannon and sung by country singer Kim Carnes called "Bette Davis Eyes." Welcome to the 80's.
The thing about artists is that they are often impoverished and they need to start simple before ending big. Moogs, Mellotrons, Korg's, and Roland's cost mucho bucks. Leave it to a calculator and watch company to come up with something cheap, simple, and portable. In 1980 Casio introduced its Casiotone. You could buy them for under . Some sold for as little as (US dollars).
The only drawback is that Casio and many of the other companies added pre-programmed rhythms and bass lines to the equipment. With just the flick of a switch, you could play a disco line, rock line, jazz line, a waltz or even a samba. One record storeowner commented "Someday all of the music on the radio will be written by Casio."
That was not far from the truth. Pop groups were throwing away their guitars and hooking up their synthesizers at the drop of a hat, particularly in Europe. Electronica was born. In those days it was called technopop or synthpop.
One factor for the success of this type of music was the introduction of MTV in 1981. This techno sound was extremely popular in English dance clubs, which had escaped the fallout from the failure of Studio 54. Synth-Pop groups like Visage, Buggles, The Human League, Depeche Mode, Heaven 17 and Orchestral Manoeurvres in the Dark were scoring hits upon hits and keeping people dancing. There had not been anything quite like it since the 1964 British invasion. These acts were anal about their image and savvy about promotion. Some called themselves the New Romantics. They produced videos. Americans did not produce videos. MTV had to play something if it wanted to be a successful 24 hour all music station. The first music video ever played on MTV was "Video Killed the Radio Star" by Buggles. Many British techno songs followed for the first three years.
Like all fads this one faded. It evolved into quasi disco with extended versions of songs, seemingly taking away the freshness of the original stuff. But that kept some of the dance halls alive and gave DJ's a chance to mix and play. Interest in rap and "scratching" increased during the mid-80's. Scratching is a technique where the DJ finds a certain sound on a vinyl record and repeatedly twists the turntable back and forth over that spot to enhance a song playing on the other turntable. A clever DJ fit scratching right into the beat of the other song. It became a skill and an art form.
Another technique, which was gaining a following, was sampling. Regardless of potential copyright infringements, DJ's would take great pleasure in pulling excerpts from popular songs and mixing and remixing them into other music that was pounding across the dance hall - or the "House."
In 1988, Manchester, England record store owner Martin Price and English music producer Graham Massey teamed up to form a music outfit called 808 State. The idea was to keep the beat loud and pumping, while filling the rest of the song with highly produced tape-looped music - mostly instrumental. The song "Pacific" hardly made a dent in the US but it stormed to the top of the UK charts and a whole new kind of sound was born. Nowadays we call it Rave.
Elsewhere, Space rock continued to have a smidgen of life during the 1980's. It continued to change and expand its horizons until a kind of mood-enhancing relaxing sound emerged. This was called New Age. Andreas Vollenweider's 1986 masterpiece "White Winds" chalked up significant enough sales to convince record labels to keep signing these artists. Windham Hill records played a big part in keeping this music alive as did the Christmas records of Mannheim Steamroller.
Soon DJ's had the idea of marrying this New Age to the 4/4 beat of electronic drums. By the mid-1990's, there was something more desirable for those who did not care for pounding sound effects and just wanted to dance. These long and redundant musical pieces, played mostly in major keys, came to be known as Trance. The early pioneers of this new sound include Robert Miles, Jonathan Peters, Moby, and Paul van Dyk.
The synthesizer has taken music to a whole new era and one that continues to expand and change as we move into the future.