Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Synthesizer in Pop Music


My first experience with the Moog Synthesizer was in 1968 with Walter Carlos's Switched-On Bach, still the biggest selling classical LP of all time. It's an intensely complex production that includes an incredible performance of the Brandenburg Concertos, Bach compositions written between 1711 and 1721. Now keep in mind that when the Moog was utilized on this recording, it was so primitive that only one note could be played on the keyboard at a time; something as simple as a C chord could not be "played," it had to be manipulated by playing and recording one note, a C, then playing and recording the next note, E, without erasing the original C, then adding atop them both the G note that completes the chord. With thousands of notes layered one upon the next, one can imagine the time and effort put into Carlos's production.



Now maybe I should back-track a bit. The synthesizer developed by Moog was a complex electronic device that created sounds that essentially had never before been heard by the human ear, synthesized sound – manufactured sounds. The synthesizer was programmed by the musician utilizing an electronic keyboard with each note creating a different sound in a musical progression. Pianos, for instance, utilize mechanical means to create sound; in this case, a felt-covered hammer striking a metal string. But there is nothing mechanical about synthetic sound, it is purely the result of electronics. Some will point back to the Moody Blues in 1966 or King Crimson in 1968 and the use of the mellotron as the first synthesized sounds on record, but mellotrons were actually keyboard-driven tape loops. You would record on tape the sound of a single note played by a physical instrument like the French Horn and then loop that tape through the mellotron. Strike a corresponding key on the keyboard and you hear the tape loop of the horn. It’s simply not synthesized sound.

Now, aside from Switched-On Bach, I thought my first exposure to the synthesizer was on the Beatles' Abbey Road in 1969 in songs like "Because" and the Abbey Road Medley. George Harrison had exposed the other Beatles to its sound and said, "I first heard about the Moog synthesizer in America. I had to have mine made specially, Mr Moog had only just invented it. It was enormous, with hundreds of jackplugs and 2 keyboards." But it was two years earlier when Robert Moog, who invented the synthesizer in the mid-sixties, marketed the complex machine at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and caught the ears of both Simon and Garfunkel and the Byrds. The Moog is subsequently heard on Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends in 1968 and on The Notorious Byrd Brothers, which was recorded in late 1967. So, we've moved back a few years, but we're not done.

Brian Wilson had utilized a different type of synthesized sound in 1966 in the recording of Good Vibrations, the Theremin, invented in 1928 by Leon Theremin. It's an electronically manipulated device on which the thereminist essentially waves his hands over the instrument creating scales, physically touching nothing. Because of the sliding scales, the Theremin has an eerie sound that was utilized in films like Hitchcock’s Spellbound and in sci-fi classics like Bernard Herrmann's The Day the Earth Stood Still. The penultimate use in rock music though goes back beyond the Beach Boys to 1965 and an early psychedelic band called Lothar and the Hand People. But we're not done.

In 1962, The Tornados' smash hit "Telstar" utilized a synthesizer called the Clavioline invented in France in 1948. With that info, 1962 was my go-to date for the synthesizer; that is until I watched Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove the other day. I hadn't seen it in years. In the end, after the hilarious scene with Slim Pickins, the greatest stage name ever, Vera Lynn's British hit from 1938, "We'll Meet Again," plays over the video footage of nuclear mushroom clouds. There's a strange instrument in the background that sounded to me like a synthesizer. Indeed, after doing my research, I discovered that the instrument is called a Novachord, invented by Hammond Organ in the mid-1930s. It is actually the first polyphonic synthesizer, meaning it could play more than one note at a time, something the early Moog Synthesizer could not do. 

And there you have it: the first use of a synthesizer in pop music, not the Beatles, not Simon and Garfunkel, The Moody Blues, or the Tornados, but Vera Lynn in 1938 with "We'll Meet Again."

No comments:

Post a Comment