“Moog”: The Godfather of Synth-Pop
As the man who brought the synthesizer out of the laboratory and into popular music, Robert Moog is a tantalizing subject for a documentary, and it’s admirable that California filmmaker Hans Fjellestad, a musician himself, has done one. His 70-minute feature, “Moog,” is clearly a labor of love.
Robert Moog (his surname rhymes with “vogue”) is a New York electrical engineer, inventor and music nut, born in 1934, who became fascinated at an early age by sound — in particular, the very strange sound of the theremin, an electronic instrument invented in 1919 by a Russian scientist named Leon Theremin. Theremin was a pioneer, but even back then, the dream of electronic musical production wasn’t new. In 1897, an American inventor named Thaddeus Cahill had patented a machine he called a telharmonium, an enormous heap of Victorian technology which generated audio frequencies and piped them out through huge acoustic megaphones. (Amplifiers and speakers had of course yet to be invented.) The telharmonium was an impressive sonic monstrosity in its time (Mark Twain was among those most impressed), but it had serious drawbacks. For one thing, it was 60 feet long and weighed 200 tons, and transporting it anywhere required the use of 30 railroad cars. The theremin, the first entirely electronic instrument, was much more portable. It was essentially a box with two antennas attached; pitch and volume were controlled by hand movements near the antennas, and the resulting sound was stark and eerily beautiful. (It became a familiar component of otherworldly movie soundtracks, starting with the 1951 sci-fi classic, “The Day the Earth Stood Still”; and latter-day versions of the instrument were used by such rock bands as the Beach Boys and Led Zeppelin.)
Bob Moog built his own theremin at the age of 14, and later went into business selling theremin kits to musicians by mail order. Business wasn’t exactly brisk, but Bob was in the right place for the major musical changes that were at hand. By the 1950s, electronic music was blossoming internationally. Experimental labs had popped up in France and Germany; and in New York City in 1955, RCA unveiled its groundbreaking, room-size Mark II synthesizer, which was said to be able to synthesize any sound. The problem with the Mark II — apart from the fact that it couldn’t be “played,” exactly, but had to be programmed with paper tapes — was that very few people ever got to use it, and those who did found themselves having to engage in complicated consultations with attendants in white lab coats.
Apart from the distinctive filtered sound of his instruments, and their user-friendly keyboards, one of Moog’s most useful contributions to the development of the synthesizer was his use of then-new solid-state electronic technology, which shrank the size of his synths down to non-humongous levels. Working with a Hofstra University music professor named Herbert Deutsch, he designed his first synthesizer in 1964, and began building prototype Moogs the following year. Their impact on popular music was swift and revolutionary. One of the first composers to take them up was Walter Carlos, who used Moogs to record a 1968 album called Switched-On Bach, which became the first album of classical music ever to go platinum, much to the horror of concert-hall traditionalists. The Beatles used Moogs (then retailing for around $11,000) on the last album they recorded, Abbey Road. So did the Byrds and the Doors, and later Pink Floyd and Parliament and Brian Eno and Kraftwerk. Mick Jagger bought one, and reportedly sold it to the German band Tangerine Dream before ever actually using it himself. In 1970, the Minimoog appeared — the perfect portable instrument for the touring musician. That same year, Keith Emerson’s wild, yowling Moog solo on the Emerson, Lake & Palmer hit “Lucky Man” demonstrated for delighted keyboard players everywhere that it was at last possible for them to blow amp-shredding lead guitarists right off the stage, if they so chose. By 1977, Moogs were ubiquitous: producer Giorgio Moroder used them to create the first completely synthesized pop hit, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.”
But the Moog era was coming to an end. Bob had sold his business in 1975, the same year that the first digital synthesizer, the Synclavier, appeared, heralding a more complex generation of computer-based, sample-driven musical technology. Bob moved to North Carolina, where he continues to produce new instruments today (including a computer-compatible version of his first love, the theremin). This is where we find him at the beginning of “Moog,” the movie.
Bob Moog’s story, packed with star-power and played out across an exciting period of musical history, would make a fabulous documentary. Unfortunately, “Moog” isn’t it. To a great extent, this is due to the severe budget constraints under which director Fjellestad obviously had to work. Doing colorful justice to this tale would require extensive use of old concert footage — we want to see Keith Emerson and Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman (another Moog enthusiast) onstage in their prime, making the music that Bob’s synths made possible. But period footage of that sort is very expensive to license, and sometimes unobtainable at any price. (According to “Moog” producer Ryan Page, Walter Carlos — known as Wendy Carlos since a 1972 sex-change operation — threatened to sue if he was shown in the picture.) So what we get instead is Emerson and Wakeman today, two men in their 50s reminiscing (sometimes amusingly) about a fabled long-ago time that we don’t get to see (and, if we weren’t there, can’t really envision). Worse yet, we see them playing at a recent “Moog Fest” in New York, where their flamboyantly ornate prog-rock synth-soloing demonstrates anew why punk just had to happen. Also shown noodling about to no particular purpose are Mix Master Mike and Money Mark, the Beastie Boys collaborators — good musicians, but why them? The only contemporary participant with anything thoughtful to contribute is DJ Spooky (Paul Miller), who says to Moog at one point, while they’re hanging out somewhere, that sampling is “a way of playing with systems of memory.”
Fortunately, the focus is mainly on the white-haired, avuncular Moog, who at 70 years old is still a spry and engaging character. Although he has a Ph.D. in engineering physics, he’s anything but a white-lab-coat kind of guy. He says his innovations were all prompted by the needs of musicians, and he’s remarkably diffident about his remarkable contribution to the art of creating music. Undeniably, he was a major force in helping launch the revolution that made synthesizers an easily transportable everyday wonder, now unremarkably common on stages, in studios, and hooked up to even the most modest home-recording rigs. But Moog, a man receptive to spiritual illuminations, sees himself almost as a bystander to all this. “I can feel what’s going on inside a piece of electronic equipment,” he says simply. “It would be egotistical to say ’I thought of it.’ I opened my mind and the idea came through. It’s something between discovering and witnessing.”
(“Moog” opens in New York and Seattle this weekend, and in Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, on October 1. It’s due to open in Los Angeles and San Francisco a few weeks later.)