originally published March 23, 2012
Today, in a roundabout way, we will be discussing the man who invented the 1980s.
The 80s were the decade of synthesizers. The handful of pop songs which allowed clanging guitars to step out front were eclipsed by a deluge of synthesized modernity, providing an identifiable date-stamp on the sound of the era. As a kid, I loved the synth. As an adult, I probably still love the synth, but I won’t admit it.
Before the Thompson Twins splattered synth like ketchup all over their songs, before Stevie Wonder turned synthesizers into a band, we have to go back to where it all began: the Moog.
Robert Moog started out selling theremins when he was a student (probably not door-to-door; the article doesn’t say). He started to tinker with sound-making devices. Up to this point, any kind of sound synthesizer had to be custom-made, using a number of filters and oscillators that could bend and warp sounds. This video features a 1952 composition by Otto Luenig, an electronic music pioneer. It’s trippy, like someone playing the wine glasses with a major echo effect. Listening to it, I feel as though I should burn some incense, maybe get a foot massage.
But it ain’t no “Final Countdown.”
The time was right for Moog. The advent of the transistor meant that a synthesizer could be built without vacuum tubes – it could be smaller, cheaper, and maybe someday turn into this:
An analog synthesizer doesn’t come equipped with presets, like “strings”, “oboe”, or “cowbell”; you’d alter the noise by tweaking knobs and stringing patch cables. Cowbells would have to be bolted onto the sides and struck manually. It was a primitive time.
The picture way up top is actually the first Moog synthesizer, commissioned by the Alwin Dance Theatre in New York. The notes could be played on a piano-style keyboard, but also be activated by a ribbon controller – a flat pad you can slide your finger up and down like so:
There were frequency oscillators and white noise generators you could patch in also. The early Moogs were incredible toys, but not very practical from a performance angle. They were built for studio experimentation. It could take hours to set up a new desired sound, and few audiences have the patience to wait that long between songs. Also, the oscillators would start drifting out of tune as the machine heated up. The technology was painfully fragile.
Two guys named Bernie Krause and Paul Beaver had tried to market Moog music to Hollywood studios for scores for a year, with no luck. In the summer of 1967 they set up a booth at the Monterey Pop Festival, and the Moog was generating a lot of buzz (which is kind of what it did literally and figuratively, I guess).
Some of the biggest Moog fans that weekend were the Festival’s performers, which included Jimi Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Byrds. It didn’t take long for Krause and Beaver to score a lot of session work in LA. They built their careers on electronic music, though the only thing I could readily identify out of their discography is that crescendo thing that THX used to use under their logo.
It may be a coincidence that the drug-heavy late 60s coincided with the popularization of electronic music, but if so it was a very happy coincidence. The Moog showed up everywhere in 1967: the Supremes, the Monkees, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, and so on.
No one really wanted to make a “Moog album” though. Electronic musicians would, but the guitar still held court in the rock world. Luckily for the Beatles, George Harrison became an electronic musician himself, releasing the Electronic Sound album in 1969. Give it a listen if you’d like. It’s enjoyable for about thirty or forty seconds.
The Beatles album Abbey Road (which is, I believe, wondrous and noble enough to name loved ones after) took the tool of Harrison’s dissonant weirdness, and wove it into songs people would actually want to listen to, like Here Comes The Sun and Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.
Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind put out a Moog-centric cover album of Johann Sebastian Bach called Switched-On Bach that went on to be one of the best classical album sellers ever. The first ever top 40 single that featured the Moog was “The Minotaur” by Dick Hyman.
Possibly the worst thing the Moog ever did to music was the rash of Moog cover albums of popular hits, which started back in those smoke-filled days of the Moog’s infancy. Though at the right party, those would probably still be a huge hit.
The Moog was officially handed over to the forefront of popular music in the 1970s by Stevie Wonder. Between 1972 and 1976 Wonder released what I call the Holy Pentalogy of Albums, from Music of My Mind to Songs In The Key Of Life. He worked amid a Moog chop-shop – electronic musicians Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff put together something called TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra), a polyphonic Moog on steroids.
The biggest Moog-heavy hit was the 1972 instrumental hit “Popcorn” by Hot Butter. If you know the song, good luck getting that out of your head for the rest of the day.
By the mid-70s the Minimoog, a portable and fully performance-ready version of the Moog, was everywhere. Bands could tour with it, and guys like Kraftwerk could be Moog-dominant instead of guitar-dominant. After that comes disco, and the inevitable slide into new wave, 80s pop, and Jan Hammer’s theme to Miami Vice. Good luck getting that out of your head now.
The people at Moog were smart. They stayed in the game, they kept innovating. It was Moog who first marketed the keytar.
But the 1980s gave rise to Yamaha, Korg, and a sea of competition which eventually drowned its ancestor. Moog declared bankruptcy in 1986. Luckily, for whatever reason, the 80s ceased to be old-timey and became retro at the turn of the century. Musicians sought out the now-vintage toys, and by 2001 Robert Moog’s new company, Big Briar, acquired the rights to use the Moog name again, and they went back into business.
If you really need an original, you can still pick up the early 70’s Minimoog in an online auction for around $3000. I’ll pass, but I suppose I’ll admit that I still love an aptly-used synth. That said, I’ve been spending the last 27 minutes listening to the first two-thirds of George Harrison’s Electronic Sound album, and I’m about ready to hit something, possibly the floor. I’m done.