“Nashville Moog”: Synth-a-billy

Tennessean synthesist, Gil Trythall, creates his own one-man electronic bluegrass band when he and his Moog synthesizer pay a visit to the Grand Ole Opry to shake up the Nashville musical establishment on “Nashville Moog” from 1973:

“Nashville Moog”     Gil Trythall     1973

“Nashville Moog” – from Trythall’s second album, Nashville Gold: Switched On Moog, would also serve as the B-side of a promo 7″ with “Martha White Theme” as the A-side.   Nashville Gold would also enjoy release in Australia.

Nashville Gold LP

Trythall would release his debut 45 – “Yakety Moog” b/w “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” – three years prior in 1970 on the Athena label.

Nashville MoogAccording to his own website

“Dr. Gilbert Trythall taught music at Knox College, Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt University), West Virginia University, Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo in Vitória, Brasil, and Brookhaven College, Dallas for more than 35 years.  He is best known as the synthesist of the electronic country music albums, Country Moog and Nashville Gold:  Switched on Moog.   He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee, Northwestern and Cornell Universities and an award winning composer of numerous traditional and electronic compositions.  Books include Sixteenth Century Counterpoint and Eighteenth Century Counterpoint (published by McGraw Hill) and Principles and Practice of Electronic Music (Grossett and Dunlap, out of print).       See entry in Who’s Who in America for additional information.”

This is the twelfth Zero to 180 piece to be tagged electronic musical instruments.

Dick Denney’s Secret Guitar Organ

Thanks to Vintage Guitar Magazine‘s October 2013 edition for its fascinating history of Vox, makers of musical amplifiers (primarily) but also effects pedals, guitars, organs and guitar-organs.  Peter Stuart Kohman’s article references Dick Denney’s futuristic appearance on Steve Allen’s I’ve Got a Secret 1960s game show – and fortunately, there’s a clip of this fascinating musical demonstration and great TV history moment:

Dick Denney Demonstrates the Vox V251 Guitar Organ     1967

It is particularly intriguing to see Denney – the instrument’s co-designer (who appears around the 6:30 mark) – show off the instrument’s “live looping” feature that allows the musician to sample & repeat a musical riff and then improvise melody lines on top of this looped musical accompaniment — a special capability that would only become accessible to the consumer market 30 years later (i.e., “one-man digital bands”).

Vox Guitar Organ

This innovative technology – “a hollow metal neck full of hand-wired contacts (each fret had an individual trigger point for each string)” – would prove, however to have still been in its beta stage.  According to Kohman, “While it did work (at least in the right hands), in the field it proved unreliable at best.”  And thus, the Vox Guitar Organ (1) “was never really a commercial success” (2) an “over-the-top design” and (3) “an infamous part of guitar history.”

voxmobile (ford cobra 289 v-8)  & Jimmy Bryant – “world’s fastest guitarist”

Jimmy Bryant & Voxmobile

“M1”: Modern Sound for a Modern Roadway

From Sound on Sound’s wonderfully detailed history of the Clavioline (the otherworldly keyboard sound that steals the show on Beatle B-side, “Baby You’re a Rich Man“) we learn that “electrical instruments first appeared at the close of the 19th century.”  However, it was only with the introduction of the Clavioline in 1947 by French company, Selmer, that “an affordable and widely distributed electronic keyboard became available.”


Fascinatingly, the Clavioline was originally built to be attached underneath the keyboard of a piano and “used to imitate orchestral solo instruments.”  Even though Selmer “offered suggested voicings,” there was nothing to prevent musicians from creating new sounds by combining the stops in novel ways, while at the same time employing the instrument’s knee lever to surprisingly expressive effect.

1962’s soaring #1 instrumental hit, “Telstar,” propelled the Clavioline onto the international stage thanks to producer/songwriter, Joe Meek – but was that the first time the distinctive and futuristic sound of the Clavioline made it onto a pop record?  The Ted Taylor Four, believe it or not, beat Joe Meek to the punch two years prior with their instrumental ode to the newly-opened M1 motorway that features a rather delightful romp on the Clavioline:

According to 45Cat contributor, Klepsie, the tune was “originally called ‘Left Hand Drive’ but renamed before release to ride the coat-tails of the publicity surrounding the opening of the M1 motorway.  Despite being voted a majority ‘hit’ on Juke Box Jury for 29 October 1960 (where Ted Taylor was the artist ‘behind the screen’) it missed the charts.”

However, “M1” is not the first appearance of a Clavioline on record – at least, in the UK.  According to Wikipedia, that honor goes to Frank Chacksfield and His Orchestra with “Little Red Monkey” which peaked at #10 in April, 1953 on the UK pop chart:

Meet the Musitron – The Clavioline’s Kissing Cousin

Del Shannon’s #1 1961 hit, “Runaway,” features a prominent keyboard line that music scholars have long assumed to be a Clavioline — Sound on Sound helpfully informs us:

“The instrument used to create the track’s instrumental break — possibly the first ‘synth solo’ ever released on record — was not a Clavioline, but a custom instrument called a Musitron, which was assembled by Shannon’s keyboard player and co-writer, Max Crook.  Based on a Clavioline, the Musitron incorporated numerous other unspecified electronic bits and pieces that made it possible for Crook to create a wider range of tones and special effects.  Later, he was to build another hybrid, which he dubbed the Sonocon.  This had pitch-bend and was also capable of generating percussion sounds that the Clavioline could not.”

According to Del Shannon’s website, keyboardist and electronics wizard, Max Crook, took a Clavioline (itself adapted from the Ondioline, also French) and modified it by (1) “expanding the octave range to infinity” and (2) incorporating a “spring echo reverberation unit,” as well as (3) additional outboard effects, such as “mechanical vibrato” and tape delay (i.e., “Echoplex”), while also inserting (4) “extra resistors, pots & capacitors” into the mix.  Most interesting – for historical sake – is Crook’s assertion that his keyboard’s inescapable sound directly influenced Joe Meek to use the Clavioline on that following year’s equally-unavoidable radio hit, 1962’s #1 “Telstar.”

“Kalimba Story”: Thumb Piano Pop

My first encounter with a kalimba, the African instrument (also known as a “thumb piano” or, more properly, mbira) was when I read the album credits for Space Oddity in my youth and learned that David Bowie played a kalimba on the title track, Bowie’s first American breakout hit (a.k.a., “Major Tom”).  You can hear the kalimba’s shimmering effect in the intro and into the first verse (Bowie, no doubt, getting a strong vibrato effect by rapidly moving his finger on/off the instrument’s sound hole).

Hmm, I wondered – has any popular musical artist ever decided to write a song that celebrates or honors the kalimba itself?  As it turns out, yes:  Earth Wind & Fire‘s “Kalimba Story” from 1974’s Open Our Eyes, the group’s fifth album – and third for Columbia, since switching from Warner Brothers:

“Kalimba Story”     Earth, Wind & Fire     1974

How refreshing to see the kalimba makes its first appearance a mere 2 seconds into the song and then proceeds to kick out the jams a little further ways in.  Interesting to see this song released as the A-side of a 45 (#6 R&B, #55 Pop), the second of three singles from that album.

Seven years later, Earth Wind & Fire would issue “Kalimba Tree” on 1981 album, Raise! – an interesting melange of deep analog synthesizer, soprano sax, and vocal chants with gentle mbira embellishments.

A piece about the mbira wouldn’t be complete if I failed to mention the work of Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo, whose music not only embraced the instrument from the outset but also featured electric guitar lines that beautifully emulate a master mbira musician.

“Hanzvadzi”     Thomas Mapfumo     1993

Rolf Harris Introduces the Stylophone to the Masses

Right after I posted this piece, I was reviewing the musician credits for the Space Oddity album and was struck by the fact that, in addition to the kalimba, David Bowie also played a stylophone during the recording sessions.  A few years ago I was introduced to this monophonic electronic keyboard – that one plays with a metal stylus – when I was graciously given one by close friends.  I had assumed all this time that the stylophone was a relatively recent invention, but seeing the instrument credited on a 1969 recording, of course, set me to wondering:  when did the stylophone enter the realm of popular music?

As it turns out, Rolf Harris – the Australian entertainer probably best known for his hits, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” and the Aboriginal-inspired, “Sun Arise” (produced by George Martin and probably the first time most Americans heard a didgeridoo) – is likely responsible for unveiling the stylophone to European audiences for the first time, as this documentary clip reveals:

Rolf Harris demonstrates the electronic instrument using a song from “the hit parade” – John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” first covered by Glen Campbell in 1967 – on a program that may have originally been broadcast on BBC in September, 1968.

This film clip, thankfully, answers the question – on which song did Bowie use the stylophone?  Answer:  the album’s title track (at around the 2:37 mark) during the instrumental bridge immediately following Bowie’s strummed acoustic guitar riff.

“Cindy Electronium”: Shockingly Futuristic

Hard to believe this piece of music was made in 1959 – sounds quite contemporary to me:

YouTube comments are almost universal in declaring Raymond Scott to be ahead of his time, with many remarking upon this recording’s resemblance to “chiptune” or “8 bit” (i.e., video game) music of the 1970s & 80s.  Thanks to MSN Entertainment for the back story:

“Of all of Scott’s accomplishments of 1949, however, none was more important than the Electronium, one of the first synthesizers ever created.  An “instantaneous composing machine,” the Electronium generated original music via random sequences of tones, rhythms, and timbres.  Scott himself denied it was a prototype synthesizer — it had no keyboard — but as one of the first machines to create music by means of artificial intelligence, its importance in pointing the way toward the electronic compositions of the future is undeniable.  His other inventions included the “Karloff,” an early sampler capable of re-creating sounds ranging from sizzling steaks to jungle drums; the Clavinox, a keyboard Theremin complete with an electronic sub-assembly designed by a then 23-year-old Robert Moog; and the Videola, which fused together a keyboard and a TV screen to aid in composing music for films and other moving images.”

ElectroniumWhat’s interesting is that if you pull up Raymond Scott’s works from Discogs’ database, you will see very few commercial recordings released in his lifetime – “Cindy Electronium” not being one of them.

Those interested in Raymond Scott’s work might well want to seek out 2-CD compilation, Manhattan Research (named for Scott’s own audio laboratory) — says Wikipedia:

“The material, while never intended for commercial release, provides insight into Scott’s work.  Included among the tracks on the album are commercials for companies such as Ford Motor and IBM, a humorous “Audio Logo” collage entitled, “Don’t Beat Your Wife Every Night!,” and various collaborations with Jim Henson.   The album features a number of Scott’s inventions including the Clavivox keyboard, Circle Machine, Bass Line Generator, Rhythm Modulator, Karloff, Bandito the Bongo Artist, and the auto-composing Electronium.”

“Swimmy”: Sounds of a Buchla Box?

I am very appreciative that Scholastic Video, in partnership with Weston Woods, has done such a consistently great job adapting children’s literature for the small screen and in a way that appeals to people of all ages.

PV000324_storytimefavorites_VSOne such adaptation is the story of a fish named Swimmy, who shows his friends how—with team work and ingenuity—they can overcome any danger.  The film’s soundtrack is particularly effective in conjuring up a nautical netherworld, and yet no information seems to exist about who scored these sounds.  In absence of any facts, I would not guess that a Moog is making those undersea burbling sounds but rather a Buchla Box:

Swimmy Soundtrack

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play the soundtrack to the film adaptation of “Swimmy” by Leo Lionni.]

Swimmy - page from book

120 Years of Electronic Music provides the historical overview:

“Donald Buchla started building and designing electronic instruments in 1960 when he was commissioned by the Avant Garde composer Morton Subotnik to build an instrument for composing and performing live electronic music. Subotnik was interested in developing a single instrument to replace the large complex Electronic Music Studios of the day where most ‘serious’ avant-garde music was composed and recorded. These studios consisted of multiple individual oscillators, processor units, filter and mixers that, with the help of technicians (each of the studios had it’s own unique system), needed to be manually patched together. The advent of transistor technology allowed much of this process to be miniaturised into a single portable, standardised version of the Electronic Music Studio but still using the modular, patchable approach.”

Buchla Modules - Series 100

(Notice – no keyboard with the original 100 Series Buchla Box)

By the way, I called Weston Woods to inquire whether they had a historian/librarian who could provide any information about this film and its soundtrack and was told that Weston Woods actually licensed this title from Italtoons, a film production company based in New York City.  Italtoons, unfortunately, seems to be no longer in business.

I then reached out to electronic music pioneer, Suzanne Ciani, who very kindly agreed to listen to the “Swimmy” soundtrack to determine whether a Buchla Box might have been used to generate the sounds that accompany the narration of the story.  Ciani concluded that, while these analog sounds certainly could “be done on a Buchla,” nevertheless, “there is nothing particularly Buchla-esque” about this synthesizer-embellished soundtrack.  Will that stop me from creating false controversies in future posts?  Doubtful.

Worth noting, by the way, that filmmaker, Connie Field, finished her Kickstarter Campaign last October and is presumably at work on her new documentary, Buchla:  California Maverick on a New Frontier.

This piscine piece is dedicated to the (former) Invertebrate House at DC’s National Zoo – no longer extant as of today.  Is it hopelessly naive to think that a petition might help reverse this decision by Smithsonian officials?  Quite possibly – but let’s try anyway.

Free Game!  Suzanne Ciani:  Real-Life Pinball Wizard

Riveting film clip of Suzanne Ciani living out every 70s teenage rocker’s fantasy:  creating the music and special effects for a Bally pinball machine.  Peter Ustinov narrates an 8-minute clip from the science TV news magazine, OMNI, that shows Ciani at work in the recording studio experimenting with a vocoder, programming in BASIC, and creating various synthesized sounds for 1979’s Xenon – one of the few pinball machines to feature a woman’s voice.  Click here to see (and hear) a video of two games being played on Bally’s Xenon pinball machine back-to-back, with an exciting multi-ball climax at the end of the second game.

Extra Ball:  Buchla Box Meets the Mad Men

Check out this Clio-winning General Electric dishwasher ad for which Suzanne Ciani wielded her trusty Buchla Box to create the synthesizer-driven soundtrack.

“Daily Nightly”: Mickey Dolenz, Moog Pioneer

The rap on the Monkees I remember growing up was that “they didn’t play their own instruments.”  While it is often true that seasoned session players provided much of the musical backing behind the Monkees’ vocal tracks, it is inaccurate and unfair to say that the Monkees didn’t bring their own musicianship, songwriting and sense of artistry to bear on their recordings, as evidenced by a song written by Mike Nesmith and embellished with Moog synthesizer lines played by Micky Dolenz – “Daily Nightly” – from 1967‘s Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd.:

Along with “Reflections” from the Motown musicians backing Diana Ross’s Supremes (July 1967), “Nightly Daily” is one of those instances where pioneering artists were discovering exciting ways to incorporate Moog synthesizer into more radio-friendly fare.

Monkees 1967 album ad

Dolenz is considered the third person (if you kindly ignore Paul Beaver & Bernie Krause)  to purchase a Moog synthesizer behind (1) Walter/Wendy Carlos and (2) Buck [!] Owens.  According to the MonkeesSessionography website, Micky Dolenz superimposed his Moog treatments sometime between August/September onto a recording of “Daily Nightly” made at RCA Victor studio in Hollywood on June 19, 1967.

Micky Moog

      Truth & Accuracy Dept.

  •   Thanks to Dale Charles, I now know that Micky Dolenz was the 19th (not third) person/corporate entity to have purchased a Moog modular system – check out the customer list at this web link.
  •   On page 2 of the aforementioned Moog customer list, you can see that Motown purchased a Moog system in December 1967 – after the recording of “Reflections,” however.  Thanks to the Bob Moog Foundation’s fun & fascinating list of “Early Recordings Often Mistaken for a Moog,” I now know that the super cool sounds featured on “Reflections” were, instead, produced by an Eico audio oscillator, “with the engineer wailing on the dial.”

“Mandolina” vs. The Remarkable Riderless Runaway Tricycle

Media Alert!

A battle has suddenly erupted between two formidable foes who share a common sound — the analog synthesizer.  Not just any analog synthesizer sound, mind you, but a deep burbling one:  pulsating and insistent.

Ronnie Montrose LP

In this corner, wearing a strangely intricate electronic eyepiece, we have Ronnie Montrose with “Mandolina” from 1978’s Open Fire album:

“Mandolina”     Ronnie Montrose     1978

In the opposite corner, wearing an ill-advised sleeveless t-shirt, we have the menacing and flatulent opening theme of Scholastic Video’s interpretation of Bruce McMillan’s classic children’s story, “The Remarkable, Riderless Runaway Tricycle” – also from 1978 (and in the key of D):

“The Remarkable, Riderless Runaway Tricycle”     1978

Note:  after the first 15 seconds of the video, you can move the cursor down to the 8:00 mark for a longer disco version of the synthesizer theme from this opening sequence.

Important to note that the aforementioned Moog bass synthesizer part for “Mandolina” was played by none other than Edgar Winter.

And the winner is…

Ronnie Montrose — in a first-round knockout while blind-folded.

“I Know You Aries”: Mort Garson Asks, What’s Your Sign?

How nutty to release 12 albums of Moog synthesizer music simultaneously, one for each sign of the Zodiac.  And yet Mort Garson somehow convinced A&M to do so in 1969 –Signs of the Zodiac

I Know You Aries,”  the lead-off track on the Aries LP, could have been the A-side of a 45:

I Know You Aries – Mort Garson

[Pssst:  Click the triangle above to play “I Know You Aries” by Mort Garson.]

From Garson’s obituary in the January 11, 2008 edition of the Los Angeles Times:

Beginning with The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds in 1967, Garson created numerous albums using the Moog synthesizer, including Electronic Hair Pieces, a 1969 version of songs from the hit Broadway musical “Hair,” and Signs of the Zodiac, a 12-volume 1969 series featuring one album for each astrological sign.

Garson was making The Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds album for Elektra with writer Jacques Wilson when an orchestra member said he knew engineer Robert Moog, who had invented the first commercially available electronic music synthesizer a few years earlier.

“I met him, got interested in his invention and immediately put it in Zodiac to add a sweetness to the sound,” Garson told the Los Angeles Times in 1969.

“That was the first album ever to use the Moog synthesizer and a live orchestra together,” said Bernie Krause, who was at the “Zodiac” recording session.

Krause said he and his music partner, Paul Beaver, had introduced the Moog synthesizer to pop music and film in Hollywood in 1967 and were selling the units and teaching classes on how to use them.

Zodiac is a very influential cult album from the ’60s,” said Trevor Pinch, co-author of Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer, a 2002 book that featured a 1969 photograph of Garson and his Moog synthesizer on the cover.

Zodiac influenced all sorts of people, including the Moody Blues,” Pinch said. “They came up with ‘Nights in White Satin’ after listening to Zodiac: Cosmic Sounds.”

Garson said in the Times interview that he didn’t use the Moog synthesizer in “a very sophisticated way” on the 1967 Zodiac album.

But by the time he and Wilson did the 1968 A&M album The Wozard of Iz: An Electronic Odyssey — a hippie-style parody of “The Wizard of Oz” in which Dorothy proclaims that “Kansas isn’t where it’s at” — he said he had learned most of the techniques.

“His albums were fabulous examples of New Age music and really kind of kicked off the New Age genre — and they were enormously popular,” Krause said. “It was part of the texture of the whole San Francisco flower scene and all the rest of it in the late ’60s.”

At the time of Garson’s interview with The Times in July 1969, his Moog synthesizer music was about to be heard by millions of Americans who would be glued to their TV sets watching history in the making: the Apollo 11 mission to land on the moon.

At frequent intervals during coverage of the mission, CBS aired a 6 1/2 -minute commentary-free film produced by Chuck Braverman with music by Garson.

Garson completed the score for the film — a doctored and edited version of NASA films from previous space flights — in a week in the small studio in his home in the Hollywood Hills.

“The only sounds that go along with space travel are electronic ones,” he told The Times. “The Apollo film shows different facets of the flight — blastoff, separation of the stages of the rocket, scenes of the moon at close range, of the astronauts playing games in the ship and of earthrise.”

The music, he said, “has to carry the film along. It has to echo the sound of the blastoff and even the static you hear on the astronauts’ report from space. People are used to hearing things from outer space, not just seeing them.

“So I used a big, symphonic sound for the blastoff, some jazzy things for the zero-G game of catch, psychedelic music for a section that uses negatives and diffuse colors on shots taken inside the ship, and a pretty melody for the moon. After all, it’s still a lovely moon.”

Born July 20, 1924, in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, Garson attended the Juilliard School of Music and was a pianist and arranger with dance orchestras before serving in Special Services during World War II.

He most recently composed a suite of music about San Francisco, his home since 1993.

“He was just putting the finishing touches on it,” Darmet said. “We were going to digitally record it; we still will.”

Sir Christopher Scott: Synthesizer Magician

During the 1970s when progressive rock, pop and soul were at their peak, a number of wizard keyboardists enjoyed superstar status:  Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Stevie Wonder, Jan Hammer, Billy Preston, Jon Lord, Bernie Worrell.

And Sir Christopher Scott.

I learned this when I picked up Sir Scott’s 1970 Decca LP, More Switched on Bacharach :

“Here’s a second helping of great music untouched by human hands.  More of the really magical songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David are played electronically by that genius of the Moog synthesizer, that wonder of the switches and plugs, Sir Christopher Scott.”

Secret for success?   Magic + music = Sir Christopher Scott:

“And that’s the secret of Sir Christopher Scott and his patch cords, plugs, electronic gear, and mind full of ideas:  what he does is magic, but it’s always music.”

Sir Christopher Scott II

Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head- Sir Christopher Scott

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to hear “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” by Sir Christopher Scott]