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(Credit: Bob Moog Foundation)

Music

A man hoisted by his own petard: Robert Moog the synthesiser inventor who disliked synth music

@TomTaylorFO

In 1964, Robert Moog invented the first commercial synthesiser. In 1976, Brian Eno came running into the studio where David Bowie was either squirrelling away or sniffing coke, perhaps both, and proclaimed ‘I’ve heard the future of music’. As Bowie recalls: “He puts on ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer. He said, ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sounds of club music for the next fifteen years’. Which was more or less right.”

Along with Pete Bellotte, Giorgio Moroder and Robby Wedel, Donna Summer broke new ground with Moog’s invention and spawned the next advent of music—new wave. With the track, they demonstrated how you could synchronise separate elements on the same synth for a complete sound. “[Wedel] said, ‘It’s something I’ve figured out that even Bob Moog didn’t know his machine was capable of, and now I’ve told him how it’s done.” 

The track was a masterpiece. It was a postmodernist breakthrough that paired art and technology with one force informing the other to break new ground. This welcomed the instrument into a new era. It was, however, a synth masterpiece that the inventor of the synth didn’t much care for.

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Upon hearing his invention reach the loftiest height to date, he commented: “That sequencer bass that’s chugging along through the whole thing has a certain energy to it but also a certain sterility because it’s always the same … Warm, lyrical vocals but essentially it sounded like [Summer] was fighting the sequencer.”

Continuing: “When the sequencer stopped, I felt that I could hear the audience sort of coming alive and breathing a sigh of relief … When [the song] is played live, what does [the band] do? The audience expects a musician to be doing something and if he’s not doing as much as they expect, it’s more showbiz than music.”

Like internet inventor Tim Berners-Lee scrolling through the libertarian hell of Twitter and Facebook, Moog had witnessed the commercial future of his nerdy invention laid bare. The difference was that ‘I Feel Love’ truly was brilliant, but nevertheless, it raised a pertinent point that Moog put his finger on from the get-go: “When [the song] is played live, what does [the band] do?”

Well, Mr Moog, the band might not be there at all. Six years on from ‘I Feel Love’ when new wave was building like a synthetic tsunami, the Musician’s Union tried to ban synths. Their fear was that sessions musicians would be automated out of work and that eventually kids could forgo tireless music training, networking and everything else and write and record a number one single from their bedroom. What a bunch of Luddite fools… as if they’d need their full bedrooms!

This is notion is one that has its pros and cons and could be debated over in a few hundred theses. However, given Moog’s take on Summer’s track and other innovative ones of the era, it seems that he would fall firmly on the side of the condemners. You see, despite the nature of his invention, Moog was no futurist—he saw himself as more of a toolmaker and offered his creation to orchestral composers like Richard Teitelbaum, Wendy Carlos and Vladimir Ussachevsky. His synthesisers were meant to be part of the ensemble in a toolset, not the sonic Stanley knife that rendered others redundant.

However, the progression towards ‘I Feel Love’ was inevitable. For him the technology and innovation was riveting, but things got a little punky with it. As he said in 2000 regarding his favourite synth creation: “The biggie was ‘Switched-On Bach’. In light of that, everything else pales.” ‘Switched-On Bach’ came out at the end of 1968.”

Continuing: “I can remember playing a cut from it at an Audio Engineering Society convention in New York City about a month in advance of its release, and I can remember all those cynical, experienced recording engineers listening to this and being so overjoyed that a piece of work so innovative and of such high quality was being done that they give Carlos a standing ovation.”

That standing ovation still ripples throughout music too this day, in fact, it’s got even louder. The synth was never going to go into the box from then on. It spawned just about every future genre that followed, and Robert Moog himself didn’t really express much of an interest in any of them.

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