To celebrate today's Moog-inspired Google home page, enjoy this great Don Snowden interview with the synthesizer pioneer, as originally published in the Los Angeles Times on June 7, 1981——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
It's not unusual for a musician to become controversial, but it is rare for a musical instrument to be debated. Robert Moog may have envisioned a limited market for synthesizers when he developed the instrument in the mid-'60s, but it hasn't turned out that way.
"I knew it was applicable to pop music but our first market was the experimental composers, and that's not what you'd call the basis for a big business," Moog says now. "Nobody believed there was any future in that sort of thing."
Moog credits Wendy Carlos' 1968 album Switched On Bach with shattering the concept that synthesizers were only suitable for creating sound effects and avant-garde music. Tow years later the flamboyant Keith Emerson used a synthesizer on the first Emerson, Lake & Palmer LP, introducing the instrument to rock.
"Emerson, Lake & Palmer performed at Gaelic Park in New York City and it was incredible," Moog recalled. "There were 10,000 kids standing on a soccer field and here's Keith Emerson sticking knives in a Leslie cabinet. A New York musician who had bought some of my equipment was there and he was in complete shock. He said, 'This is the end of the world.'"
Emerson's wild-man-of-the-opera stage antics may have shocked some of Moog's more conventional customers but they thrilled many rock fans. ELP quickly became one of rock's most successful attractions and paved the way for other progressive rock bands like yes and Genesis.
But synthesizers acquired a controversial reputation during the '70s. Many rock and jazz keyboard players quickly embraced the instrument for the flexibility and extra textural properties it offered. Others, however, felt that twisting knobs to create unusual sounds was tantamount to musical cheating. Queen, for instance, proclaimed on its album covers that the band did not use synthesizers.
Synthesizers became such a common feature of the progressive rock bands that dominated the mid-'70s scene that the instrument virtually became the symbol of the entire genre. When the punk explosion reacted against the increasing complexity of rock music, complaints about "boring synthesizers bands" figured prominently in the attacks.
That phase didn't last too long, and David Bowie played a major role in sparking renewed interest in the instrument. By praising Kraftwerk's 'Trans Europe Express' during his 1976 tour and collaborating with Brian Eno on a "non-musician" approach to synthesizers on the Low and 'Heroes' LPs, Bowie alerted younger rock musicians that synthesizers could be used in more daring, experimental contexts.
Challenging English bands like Ultravox, Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League began building their sound around synthesizers. The Normal's 'Warm Leatherette' became an L.A. underground hit in 1978 and Gary Numan cracked the national pop charts with the single 'Cars' last year. American bands like Suicide, the Units and L.A.'s Wall of Voodoo surfaced with synthesizer-dominated sounds.
The new developments weren't confined to the rock arena. Giorgio Moroder's influential pop-disco production technique relied heavily on synthesizers. Eddy Grant adopted an electronic approach to reggae. Joe Zawinul used the synthesizer to simulate a big band horn section on Weather Report's recent cover of Duke Ellington's 'Rockin' in Rhythm'.
Moog certainly didn't expect the outgrowth of his life-long hobby of building electronic instruments to be put to such diverse use. The 46-year-old inventor-engineer graduated from Columbia with a degree in electronic engineering and earned a Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell. He developed the synthesizer in collaboration with a musician friend, Herbert Deutsch.
"I liked the guy's music and working together with him was interesting," Moog said by phone from his home in North Carolina. "We certainly didn't design the instrument with the idea that a guy with no musical training would use it. We always hoped and planned that it would be used by decent musicians.
"The keyboard was an afterthought. That was one convenient way of controlling it, switching it on and off and changing the pitch. The mini-Moog was conceived originally as a session musician's axe, something a guy could carry to the studio, do a gig and walk out. We thought we'd sell maybe 100 of them."
Moog obviously underestimated the demand for the instrument. Moog Music mushroomed from a small operation to one employing more than 40 people. A host of other companies entered the electronic instrument field during the '70s — adding string, guitar and polyphonic synthesizers as well as "syndrums" to the musician's potential arsenal — but Moog tired of the corporate whirl and four years ago sold out his interest in Moog Music to the Norlin Corp.
"I began in a completely undefined direction in 1964 and just by pursuing things that were interesting, I got myself into a fairly big operation," he explained. "The Norlin Corp. doesn't understand doing things that are interesting and then reaping the results. They have to see results every month and everything you do has to be approved by people who went to the Harvard Business School.
"I didn't function in that environment. What Moog Music is doing now is going after the well-developed, almost mature areas of the market and I want to go after the things for which there's no market yet. I'm finishing building a house and setting up a shop to build custom electronic musical instruments."
Moog may have retired from the rat race but still keeps in touch with the music world through a regular column for Contemporary Keyboards magazine. Curious about his opinions of current developments, Calendar submitted to Moog a tape of 10 songs offering a representative cross-section of the instrument's use in pop music today. His reactions:
'STAR CYCLE', Jeff Beck (from There and Back) — "It's a saving grace having Jan Hammer playing the lead. He's done more to use a small keyboard synthesizer expressively than any other one musician. There are 10,000 keyboard players breaking their fingers trying to do what he did. It's certainly not the most exciting music. There's a lot of music there but it sounded too arranged to me. This is my personal taste, but I would have preferred it a bit looser.
"That sequencer bass that's chugging along through the whole thing has a certain energy to it but also a certain sterility because it's always the same. I notice the same sort of thing in the Donna Summer tune ('I Feel Love' from Live and More), Warm, lyrical vocals but essentially it sounded like she was fighting the sequencer. When the sequencer stopped, I felt that I could hear the audience sort of coming alive and breathing a sigh of relief."
'CARS', Gary Numan (from The Pleasure Principle) — "I assume the lead instrument was the synthesizer but the playing came across a little bit simple. There's no pitch-bending, which you have to do in order to get expression in a lead line. I think you can get expression in a lead line. I think you can get away with simplicity in pop music as long as some part of it is complex or alive. For instance, the Eddy Grant tune ('Living on the Front Line' from the album of the same name), he's great singer. I'm not sure I've heard him before but I'd like to hear him again. I really liked the way the vocals sounded but the rest of the tune is really simple.
"On the other hand, the vocal was very weak on the Genesis tune ('Cinema Show/Aisle of Plenty' from Selling England by the Pound). That's Peter Gabriel?! He sounds like he's half-dead on that record. It doesn't sound like recent Gabriel. That particular tune is long, static and the record as a whole came off to me as just not worth listening to."
'POP MUZIK', M (from New York-London-Paris-Munich) — "I really like that tune. There was sequencer to it but I found the use of the electronics there, the punctuation that just flies out all over the record, is very, very musical. You can hear that a lot of thought and work went into getting those sounds right because there's very little that's used over and over."
'ROCKIN' IN RHYTHM', Weather Report (from Night Passage) — "What can you say? I listen to a lot of Weather Report and what struck me about this is that the blending of the instruments is really spectacular. There was no self-conscious sticking out of electronics like on the simpler tunes. It sounded to me like a cartoon of a big-band sound. He got the musical essence of it but you'll never be fooling anybody into thinking there were actual horns. Zawinul's very creative, very musical."
'WARM LEATHERETTE', The Normal — "I wouldn't call this music. I'd call it more poetry, and pretty sophomoric poetry at that. The background sequence is short and repeated without variation. It's cleverly constructed to complement the subject matter. I hate to think on how little that must have cost to put together."
'(NOT JUST) KNEE DEEP', Funkadelic (from Uncle Jam Needs You) — "I like the group. The vocals are what's important and the whole effect to me was musical. I heard a lot of different used of electronics in there. I think the bass line was electronic although it's hard to tell sometimes because, with the right number of fuzz boxes and the right playing technique, someone can almost make it sound like a synthesizer."
'WARSZAWA', David Bowie (from Low) — "What was it used for? Obviously it's orchestral in concept. The whole quality for me was heavy and plodding; there's nothing joyous or swinging about it. It just got repetitious after a while, not enough musical variation."
Does Moog see any general trends or potential pitfalls in the future?
"The use of sequencers and pre-set patches, these electronic assists of some sort, raise a philosophical question," he reflected. "What is the musician really doing when he plays something that's pre-programmed? If he keeps busy, he can get as much musical content into manipulating something that's already pre-programmed as he can by playing every note on the keyboard from scratch.
"On the other hand, I just had to wonder, when the Donna Summer tune is played live, what do those guys do? The audience expects a musician to be doing something and if he's not doing as much as they except, it's more show biz than music.
"Both the players and instrument designers have to learn something about really getting control of a lead synthesizer. To me, it's a big difference between just playing a keyboard and playing it with pitch-bending and vibrato so that it's expressive. Playing the keyboard is OK but there are very few people who can do something like Jan Hammer does."
© Don Snowden, 1981
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