Larry Fast: Digital, Experimental

Tip of the hat to my old tennis partner and high school music rival. Ed Goldstein [he was in The Head Band with future “Smooth” songwriter, Itaal Shur, and one-time-bassist-for-Sleepy-Labeef-turned-sociology-professor, Adam Moskowitz, while I was in The Max, formerly Max & the Bluegills], who recently paid tribute to Peter Gabriel and late-70s Genesis as pivotal influences on his approach to percussion, with “Games Without Frontiers” leading the way as his favorite Gabriel track.

As music entered the ’80s, I remember how things got increasingly and disconcertedly digital — MIDI, disk drives, drum machines and the like — putting some of us analog-minded folks off, at least initially.  Not Ed, though, who helped serve as a bridge to fearful, reactionary types like me, whose old school heart will always yearn for analog-only devices, such as a Hammond organ with a rotating Leslie speaker, or a Moog Taurus bass pedal synthesizer (my college roommate had one), or an Echoplex tape delay effects unit (sax man & friend, Bruce Batté, once had one), without which dub reggae would almost certainly have never been born.

                  Hammond B-3                                   red Walnut Leslie Speaker Cabinet

Hammond B-3Leslie speaker

Moog Taurus II Bass Pedal Synth                 Echoplex – Complete with Case

Moog Taurus Bass PedalsEchoplex - vintage

“Games Without Frontiers,” unsurprisingly, would be cited in a fun historical romp – “Ghosts in the Machine:  The Most Important Drum Machines in Music History” – which begins in 1959 with Wurlitzer’s built-in percussion sidekick, the Side Man.  Peter Gabriel, as it turns out, utilized a Linn Drum predecessor I was not aware of until now – PAiA – that enjoys the distinction of being the “first programmable drum machine in history,” having been introduced to the marketplace in 1975.

Frustratingly, that information is not spelled out in the otherwise detailed credits captured on Discogs for the UK edition of Peter Gabriel’s third album from 1978.   Did Gabriel himself do the drum programming vs. Jerry Marotta & Phil Collins, the drummers listed on the track?  We do know, however, that Gabriel and Larry Fast both did some programming with respect to synthesizers, such as “Games Without Frontiers,” on which both musicians programmed synth bass lines (one of which I initially assumed to be Tony Levin playing a Chapman Stick).

Larry Fast LPSoon after playing bagpipes on the album’s concluding track “Biko,” Larry Fast — under the name Synergy — would issue his fourth long-playing release Games, an “all electronic production” that, like his three previous efforts, would be produced, engineered and programmed by Fast himself.   Released in 1979, Games is an instrumental song cycle that some might deem “experimental, ambient” (Discogs) and challenging at times but is hard to categorize given the dynamics and dramatic shifts in mood and intensity, as demonstrated on six-minute composition “Delta Four”:

“Delta Four”     Synergy     1979

From the liner notes courtesy of Discogs:

Digital synthesis realized using the digital synthesizer at Bell Laboratories – Murray Hill, New Jersey.

Mixed at House of Music June and July 1979 by Larry Fast except Delta One which was mixed by Charlie Conrad & Larry Fast.  Mastered by Robert Ludwig, Masterdisk, NYC.

Digital synthesizer computer programming by Greg Sims.  Equipment used on this production manufactured by — Moog Music Inc.; Oberheim Electronics; Sequential Circuits; Paia Electronics; 360 Systems; Musitronics; MXR; DBX; MCI; Eventide Clockworks; Sony; Teac-Tascam; EMT; The Synergy System; Apple Computer Corp.; Bell Labs Digital Synthesizer; Deltalab Research.

Soundcheck:  “Delta 3” [parts A-F] developed from themes written during soundchecks on the August to December 1978 Peter Gabriel Tour.  “Delta Two” themes are remnants of 1974’s electronic Realizations For Rock Orchestra writing sessions.  “Delta Four” is a surviving digital synthesizer sequencer program experiment combined with some advanced tape loops.  “Delta One” is an experiment fusing the pop and electronic vocabularies of turn of the decade composition.

Electronic music pioneer & Occasional Bagpipist – Larry Fast

Larry FastIn a 2004 interview, Larry Fast would have a lot to say about the experience of the album:

“Games was the first encounter on a Synergy album with digital synthesis and to some degree, digital recording.  It was done under laboratory conditions at Bell Labs, which was then the crown jewel of the AT&T Research Lab.  It’s still there [or is it?], but it’s now part of the crown jewels of Lucent.  AT&T was the telephone company—Ma Bell—back then and had lots of wonderful “blue sky” research going on in computers, audio and various other technologies.  They would fund these things thinking—and rightfully so—that at some point, something would surface out of these free thinking projects that might be beneficial to the phone company.  They don’t do that so much anymore.  At that time, there wasn’t any real competition in the phone business.  Now, it’s very cutthroat.  However, at that time, one of their great, shining lights was Max Matthews, one of the pioneers of computer music and electronic music, at the academic and theoretical level. One of his departments was speech and synthesis.  They were exploring several areas of synthesizers, speech and vocals, which could be made into singing.  He had worked on one project as early as 1976 that incorporated aspects of that.

By 1978, they had some of the very earliest digital synthesizers, running essentially as software, with some concurrent specialized hardware they had built on minicomputers.  They were just mind-boggling to me after struggling to extract sounds from the Moog, Oberheim and related instruments I had been working with in the analog world.  This was positively world changing.  Again, like any technology at the beginning, it was a little tedious and difficult to control. I was just getting my feet wet, but there were a few passages recorded at Bell Labs that found their way onto the Games record.  The passages were enhanced with some of the analog synthesizers to flesh out the arrangements.  It was a very eye opening experience.  It set part of the tone for the album.  The other aspect of Games it that I was on the road a lot with the Peter Gabriel band and recording with them as well.  It meant that some of the writing was done on the road, captured on small cassette recorders and lots of scribbled-down notes.  It was the first album where I hadn’t set aside a block of time in my composer’s studio to write.  It was a different approach.”

Is it ironic that this digital work was issued on 8 TRACK?

Larry Fast 8 trackEd Goldstein’s current percussion philosophies are being carried out through Big Car Jack.

Big Car Jack-xThis piece, by the way, is not Zero to 180’s first reference to bagpipes in popular music — sorry Ed, I’m not referring to AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” but rather “Reggae Bagpipes“!

Abstract Interjection!  This is the 4th Zero to 180 piece tagged as “Experimental Pop