Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Old Synth Guy Speaks

Sean asks:
A little off topic as this relates to the 80's, but as a synthesizer guy, what are your thoughts on Gary Numan. I was listening to him this morning and was thinking how much I dug his synthesizer sound. Nothing sounds quite like that anymore.
Okay, the first thing you have to bear in mind is that I'm old enough to have seen the Doors play live, and the second is that I came out of that weird nexus where rock and serious music briefly intersected in the 1970s. So on the one hand there are photos somewhere in the archives of me hanging out backstage with the likes of Devo, and on the other, I met and got to know people like Terry Riley, John Cage, Morton Subotnick, Harry Partch (who just died recently), and Dave Brubeck, and studied composition under a guy who'd studied under Karlheinz Stockhausen. (Bet you didn't know *that* about Conrad, did you, Miss Bliss?)

So as far as electronic music goes, while back in the day I did listen to and enjoy Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes (not so much), and Pink Floyd, I also listened to Tomita, Tonto's Expanding Head Band, Edgard Varese, and early Frank Zappa. (Say, Uncle Meat and earlier. Zappa was an insanely brilliant experimental musician, before he discovered that he could become rich and famous by telling dirty jokes over music.)

Goodness, this is dredging up dusty old memories. I mean, Stardrive, with Robert Mason. There's a good subject for an Obscure Google challenge. What the heck ever happened to him? Oh, I suppose I could pop over to and find out in a minute, but where's the fun in that?

(Heh. So I did take a minute to look at that site, and in the list of companies and synths they're looking for information on I found the Passport Soundchaser. Since I worked on three of the four Soundchaser models, was the software project lead on the last one, and still have the prototype MX5 up in my attic, I suppose I should write them an article one of these days, hmm?)

Right. Back to the question at hand. While I enjoyed EL&P, I was never that impressed; Keith Emerson may have had a huge heap of Moog modules on stage, but every instrument he played, he played as if it was a Hammond organ. A lot of the things he did that people thought were synth sounds were in fact Hammond. You could get some amazing sounds out of those old electromechanical beasts, if you were willing to torture them. Similarly, while people still talk about Pink Floyd's use of electronics, mostly they used tape effects and processed guitar, right up through Dark Side of the Moon. (Which was the best Alan Parsons Project album ever.) Wish You Were Here was their first album to make extensive use of keyboard synths, and while I still like the music, technically, the electronic aspects of it were kind of ho-hum.

Shuffling slowly down Memory Lane, ignoring for now Larry Fast, Sigmund Snopek, Kraftwerk, Steve Reich, Tangerine Dream, Michael Hoenig, Vangelis, and the hideous abomination that was Switched on Bach... Jan Hammer deserves a special note. He tried hard and repeatedly to do rock with a keyboard in place of a lead guitar, but ironically, his best work was always as backup to utterly brilliant guitarists, like John McLaughlin and Jeff Beck. Gary Wright was the first one I can remember who actually cracked the charts doing three-minute pop tunes that were all synth, no guitars. And by the mid- to late-70s there were a *ton* of bands doing the "Top 40 song with a synth noise as the hook" thing; Wings, Steve Miller, Captain and Tenille, Foreigner, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, etc., etc. I guess The Cars finally perfected that trope, polishing it to such a high gloss that you could listen to it for three minutes, enjoy every second of it, and at the end feel like you'd listened to nothing at all. "I like the night life, baybeeeeee...."

In retrospect, there were three musicians whose use of synths really impressed me. The first was Pete Townshend, who, starting with Who's Next and going through Quadrophenia and the Tommy movie soundtrack, really proved the case for using synths to create ambience and do orchestrations. (As opposed to pretty much everyone else on the pop music scene, who treated the synth as just one more funny-sounding keyboard, to be used after you'd gotten bored with running the Rhodes through a phase shifter and the Clavinet through a wah-wah pedal a la Stevie Wonder.)

The second — chronologically, the third — was Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, who was way sharper and more tech-savvy than anyone ever gives him credit for being.

And the third, but probably the most significant, was Brian Eno. I'd been sort-of following Eno's career for a few years, from Roxy Music, through the solo albums (e.g., Another Green World, Before and After Science, Discreet Music), much as I'd sort of half-heartedly been paying attention to Robert Fripp. Then, in 1977, I had this audible bombshell dropped on me, in the form of the Bowie, Eno, and Visconti collaboration, Low. That was the first album in years that made me sit up and go, "Wow! I like that! How the hell did he do that?" And then they followed up with Heroes, which was ever better, and Scary Monsters, which was a little too weird even for me, and by that point I was really paying attention to Eno, and mostly noticing how much of the music I really liked had his name somewhere in the credits. For example, Talking Heads '77 was the first album in years that made me say to a friend, "Will you please turn that damned noise off?" But I just about wore out the grooves on More Songs About Buildings and Food and Fear of Music, and both of those were produced by Eno. Likewise, while Mothersbaugh is very sharp, Eno had a huge hand in shaping the early sound of Devo, and the boys from Akron never quite managed to sound as good again as they did when he was producing them.

Oh, but wait: this was supposed to be my answer to the question, "What do you think of Gary Numan?" To be honest, by the time Numan showed up — in what? Late 1979, early 1980? — I gave him a listen, consigned him to The Vague Gray Limbo of Second-Rate Peter Gabriel and David Bowie Imitators, and never gave him another thought. According to his wikipedia entry he later did some very experimental and influential work after Telekon, but by that time I'd lost all interest in him. So with all of that said, I'll turn the question back to you: what Gary Numan tracks would you recommend listening to?