All dressed up with no place to go.
It’s the mid-Seventies glitter-rock era, and I am drumming in a band with keyboardist Dominic and bassist Art. We somehow got wind of a music store opening that very night, it being a unique enterprise at the time: the store stocked nothing but electronic keyboard instruments.
So, it was off to hoity-toity Ardmore for the three of us, blending in as well as Joe Pesci’s character in My Cousin Vinny. Which was especially ironic considering, other than us and the store employee, the place was filled with Main Line snobs who were there supporting their moneyed friend, the owner, and wouldn’t know a clavinet from a clarinet. In short, we three were the only ones present that even remotely stood a chance of ever patronizing the business.
We were a flamboyant lot, used to disapproving sneers and not ones to let it annoy or intimidate us. Also wise enough to recognize when we were on someone else’s turf and, consequently, to remain on our best behavior. Dominic even played a bit on an electric piano, making it clear we were musicians, not some riff-raff there to rob the place, or whatever these bluebloods imagined “our kind” got up to.
Still, when the owner locked the doors (with us inside the store), there was a touch of trepidation on our part. It was all for naught, as the real reason for doing so was the start of the private Grand Opening ceremony, with a special guest speaker and demonstrator.
When the owner introduced Dr. Robert Moog, three jaws hit the carpet simultaneously,
Although it was early days for synthesizers—so much so, developers had yet to figure out how more than one note at a time (e.g. chords) could be played on the instrument—we tuned-in Future Rock Stars knew we were in the presence of a certified genius and a pioneer in a whole new form of sonic expression.
In 1968, performer/composer Wendy Carlos sent shock waves through the recording industry with the release of the triple-Grammy-winning album “Switched-On Bach,” classical music with a MAJOR difference—every note was created by a Moog synthesizer.
Following her lead, more-experimental rockers such as Frank Zappa and Keith Emerson had begun exploring the possibilities of the original Moog synthesizer, a large panel loaded with an assortment of wires plugged into it, more resembling a telephone switchboard than a musical instrument.
The Minimoog synth, a compact, simplified version of the original rig had recently been released, and major musical acts were gobbling them up, both for the new sounds they produced and the portability that made the Minimoog ideal for a touring band.
The synthesizer had yet to revolutionize the music and movie industries (more on that later), but it had made enough inroads that Dr. Moog’s presence was A Very Big Deal to my trio, despite the remainder in attendance being oblivious.
“You won’t believe what happens next!”
Bob, as he preferred to be called, was a very affable host, going around the room explaining, in laymen’s terms, how some of the electronic keyboards worked, including the mellotron (which, to this day, those writing about music often get wrong.)
This, of course, built up to him showcasing his invention, demonstrating how the Minimoog could mimic the sound of a traditional string instrument, play unending rhythmic sequences with a touch of one key, make all the boops and beeps of a UFO landing, and so on.
Art, Dominic and I occasionally made jocular comments to each other; and, during one particular sequencer passage that closely resembled a drum beat, one of my bandmates ribbed “We don’t need you anymore.” Little did we know what was to come.
After demonstrating the vast variety of sound the keyboard could trigger, the good doctor remarked “I know there’s a drummer in the room”—apparently overhearing the earlier wisecrack—and, with that, produced a small drum that plugged into the synth.
Then invited me to play it!!!
With someone holding the drum in place, I tapped away with my fingers (there were no drumsticks present) as Bob threw various switches and twiddled dials, creating all sorts of sounds beyond those expected to come out of a drum.
Your humble narrator was already a very advanced drummer by that point and thus I adapted my riffing to beats best suited for whichever tone Dr. M conjured up. At one point, after we had really gotten in synch, I glanced up, only to catch Bob smiling and bobbing his head to the rhythm.
So, for just that brief moment, I stood there completely awestruck, thinking “Hot damn, I’m jamming with the inventor of this revolutionary drum, it’s Robert freakin’ Moog—and he’s digging what I’m doing!”
And all of this transpired simply because we got a tip-off about a store opening and casually decided to kill an hour one bored evening, before getting up to our usual shenanigans. Crazy, huh?
It was no hyperbole when I mentioned how the now-deceased Dr. Moog and his invention changed the world of entertainment.
You know how a different musical style will come along and be considered “a new sound”? Dr. Moog (and a few others on the same path) quite literally created new sounds, ones that had never been heard before in the entire history of mankind.
Eventually, polyphonic—meaning multiple keys could be played simultaneously, like an organ or piano—synthesizers were developed. As were pre-sets. In simple terms, rather than having to set dozens of knobs and switches in order to change over to a desired sound, the player could dial up an assigned number.
This combination was a tremendous boon to live performance. No longer did a keyboardist have to fumble around in a mad dash under poor lighting between songs, hoping to replicate a desired tone. Or worse yet, the band having to attempt to play along with a tape, often a disaster.
Instead, Kenny Keyboard can calmly flip to Preset 3, press both hands on a group of keys and fill the hall with the lush sounds of a string section, then swing over to Preset 9 for a “flute” solo. If you have attended a rock, pop or hip-hop concert with a keyboard player onstage, you’ve likely experienced a synthesizer “in action.”
Though you may not realize it, synths are employed in many hit records, as well as familiar TV and movie theme songs. But it goes well beyond theme songs. Synthesizers often create background sounds and music, and simulate storms, battlestar shootouts, and so much more. They are also incorporated in radio and television commercials, and may even be heard over the sound system at the local supermarket. In other words, odds are quite high that synthesizers are a part of your daily life.
None of which may have ever come into being if not for some extremely bright individuals seeking to wed electricity to sound.
So, yeah, THAT “Robert freakin’ Moog.”