Moog Music


The commercial introduction of the Moog Synthesizer followed decades of musical experimentation (only a portion of it recorded) that had begun in the 1920s. Experimental music’s composers and performers sought out unconventional, often strange-sounding instruments, such as the famous RCA Mark I and Mark II synthesizers of the late 1950s. Moog’s instrument was eagerly anticipated and very quickly adopted by several musicians. Because the Moog could only produce one sound at a time, multi-track tape recorders were used extensively to layer sound upon sound to add a rich, orchestral feel to the cold, otherworldly and distinctly “electronic” sound of the Moog.

Eventually, the Moog made it onto a number of albums from various record companies. Some were legitimate attempts to make new kinds of music with the Moog (or one of the other electronic synthesizers then hitting the market). Experimental artists suddenly found record companies eager to record their works. But others were obvious attempts to cash in on a trend.

Among those who tried to use the Moog artistically, Gershon Kingsley stands out. Kingsley was a German musician who began making experimental recordings in the mid-1960s, using heavily edited tapes and strange sound effects. While working at a record company as an arranger, he met Jean Jacques Perrey, and the two began a collaboration. Perrey had recently come to know Robert Moog, and later used one of the early Moog synthesizers to produce Kaleidoscopic Vibrations: Spotlight on the Moog. Then in 1970, the Audio Fidelity record company commissioned Kingsley to record a live performance of a “quartet” of Moogs at Carnegie Hall in New York. The decidedly uneven result was the album The First Moog Quartet. That same year, Arthur Fiedler of the Boston Pops Orchestra arranged for Kingsley’s quartet to perform with the full orchestra. Kinglsey’s most lasting contribution, however, was to write a short song called “Popcorn,” for the Moog, which he later recorded. But it was the group “Hot Butter,” created just to “cover” the song, which turned it into a hit in 1972.

Less happily for musical history were the more blatant efforts to score a “hit” based on the space-age appeal of the Moog. Obvious rip-offs and cash-in records abounded in the early 1970s, like Switched on Rock (Columbia), Christopher Scott’s Switched on Bacharach, (MCA Records, 1969), and the New World Electronic Chamber Ensemble’s Switched on Beatles, (Island Records, 1974). Several of the kings of “middle of the road,” living-room oriented albums made the slight transition from their earlier “mood music,” to Moog music, including Les Baxter, who recorded the album Moog Rock and Hugo Montenegro, who released several Moog albums including 1969’s Moog Power on RCA Victor.

Almost as soon as it started, the Moog music fad was over. A few groups continued to try to sell “pure” Moog music to the public into the late 1970s (such as the Electric Moog Orchestra, which released Moog-based covers of the soundtracks to Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the late 1970s), but they thinned rapidly and eventually disappeared.

But the use of the synthesizer was moving in new directions by this time. For one thing, the Moog was not the only synthesizer available. The ARP and other, lesser-known makers offered a wider variety of choices to musicians by the early 1970s. Further, musicians were breaking away from the “pure” Moog sound and incorporating the device into recordings and performances that featured conventional instruments and human voices. Probably the best-known performer in this vein was Keith Emerson of the group Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Their first album, released in 1970, featured Emerson pounding out a dramatic keyboard solo on the hit song “Lucky Man.” Emerson and others would move popular synthesizer music in a new direction. While experimental, classical, and novelty recordings featuring the Moog and other types of synthesizers would continue to be made, after the early 1970s the electronic synthesizer would find a permanent place in popular music and rock and roll.