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'Electronic Sound': The pivotal moment George Harrison discovered synthesisers

@SamWKemp

There are few albums more experimental in scope than George Harrison’s second solo offering, Electronic Sound. The record is so left-field and so utterly abstract that even die-hard Beatles fans are often surprised to hear of its existence. Despite its obvious difference from Harrison’s later solo work, the album marks an important milestone in the creative development of one of music’s great songwriters, the point at which Harrison embraced both the avant-garde and, importantly, the synthesiser

The last of two LPs released via the Apple off-shoot labelZapple, Electronic Sound is an avant-garde synth record Harrison made in 1968-1969. It comprises just two recordings, each around half an hour long: ‘Under The Mersey Bridge’ and No Time Or Space’. The Zapple label specialised in releasing avant-garde and experiential music, and, gee-whizz, this is experimental.

As one of the first electronic music albums by a rock musician, it is less a collection of songs and more an exploration of the capabilities of synthesised sound. On release, Harrison’s 50-minute collection of mechanical sounds failed to capture the public’s imagination. Most felt it impossible to relate to, viewing it more as an exercise in self-gratification than an exploration into the untrodden recesses of the avant-garde. 

Nevertheless, Electronic Sound has gone on to influence several notable musicians working in the land of pops and bleeps, including The Chemical Brothers’ Tom Rowland, who once claimed that he had a copy of Harrison’s 1969 LP having above his Moog modular synthesiser, “beaming inspiration straight to my brain”. It was one of these hefty pieces of electronic equipment with which Harrison would craft Electronic Sound and which he would later bring into The Beatles’ Abbey Road sessions for use on tracks such as ‘Here Comes The Sun’.

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But let’s start at the beginning. When George laid eyes on the Moog, it was love at first sight. He was in Los Angeles in November 1968 to produce Jackie Lomax’s album Is This What You Want? for the Apple label. The sessions had seen Harrison work with The Wrecking Crew, a legendary group of Los Angeles-based session musicians who were employed for thousands of studio sessions throughout the 1960s and ’70s. On the last day of recording, Bernie Krause, a sales representative for Moog, arrived at the studio with a gargantuan electronic instrument encrusted in a hundred tiny knobs and filled with a tangle of wires. It may have looked like the control panel for some highly advanced fighter jet, but it was, in fact, the Moog 3.

In one Jackie Lomax session towards the end of the day, Bernie Krause demonstrated the Moog 3 by overdubbing a range of peculiar sounds on top of one another while twiddling the knobs and inserting the various wires into different modules. Harrison, who was looking for a new way to express himself outside of The Beatles, was utterly transfixed. After convincing Krause to stay on after the session and give him a lesson, Harrison asked the sound engineer to keep the tape rolling in the live room where the lesson was set to take place. The recordings of that first lesson would form the foundation of Electronic Sound, making up large chunks of ‘No Time or Space’.

George Harrison’s first and only synth lesson would – much to Krause’s delight – convince the musician to buy a Moog and ship it over to his house just outside London where he finished Electronic Sounds album. Following its completion, he moved the metal giant to Abbey Road in August of 1969, where The Beatles were putting the finishing touches to their album of the same name. With the help of Manfred Mann’s Mike Vickers, Harrison installed the enormous Moog 3 in room 43 of the legendary London studio. Having grown familiar with the Moog’s unique properties, George Harrison was the first Beatle to use the instrument on Abbey Road, employing it for the bridge section of John Lennon’s song ‘Because’.

Next up was Paul McCartney, who took to the Moog on the much-despised ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, which had been giving The Beatles grief for months on end. But the arrival of the Moog heralded a way out of the gridlock The Beatles had found themselves in. Alan Parsons, one of the studio engineers working on Abbey Road, once recalled the impact the instrument made on The Beatles: “Everybody was fascinated by it,” he began. 

“We were all crowding around to have a look. Paul used the Moog for the solo in ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ but the notes were not from the keyboard. He did that with a continuous ribbon-slide thing, just moving his finger up and down on an endless ribbon. It’s very difficult to find the right notes, rather like a violin, but Paul picked it up straight away. He can pick up anything musical in a couple of days.” Then there’s also that immortal, portamento synth line on George Harrison’s track ‘Here Comes The Sun’, a song that just wouldn’t be the same without the Moog.

Love it or hate it, George Harrison’s Electronic Sound is an important landmark in The Beatles sonic development. It was something of a flop as a solo record, but that didn’t stop it from informing the unique sound palette of one of The Beatles’ greatest and most enduring albums. So, the next time you’re thinking of listening to George Harrison, why not give Electronic Sound a spin? You never know; it might just change everything.

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