The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Robert Moog On The State Of The Synthesizer
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'.