The history of electronic music within European pop

Part 3: The in-sound from way out Bookmark and Share

As many of you already have gathered by now the synthesizer as an instrument plays an important role in European popular music. It’s an instrument you will encounter in the European art scene, the (progressive rock scene) and entering the main stage in the eighties with the development of new wave and hi-nrg disco. But did this tradition came falling from the sky? In the coming months we will try to recreate a small history of the use of electronic music and the use of the synthesizer within the European popscene...This is part 3

We left the development of electronic music at the World’s fair of 1958 when the avant-garde and pop came together. But electronic music still was considered an oddity, the world was dancing to rock ‘n roll and wasn’t prepared to listen or dance to the bizarre music that was made by a machine. At the start of the sixties two developments lowered the threshold to the public a bit. In the United Kingdom the BBC Radiophonice Workshop was set-up to satisfy the growing demand in the late 1950s for "innovative" sounds at the BBC.

Senior Studio Manager Desmond Briscoe together with engineer Dick Mills began working on a sound catalogue highly influenced by the Musique Concrète and tape manipulation techniques. The emplyed young musicians like George Martin (later producer of the Beatles), Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and John Baker to create the sounds and music. The workshops finest hour came in 1963 when Grainer and Derbyshire created the theme tune for ‘Doctor Who’. They created a piece of Musique Concrète which has become one of television's most recognizable themes.

Meanwhile in the US Raymond Scott started working with Robert Moog to create the Electronium. An electronic musical machine that enabled Scott to create futuristic commercial jingles which became more and more in demand. At the start of the sixties they created a series of futuristic soundtacks for commercials from General Motors. They were received so well that GM asked Scott to produce the music for their 1964 World Fair pavilion called ‘Futurama’. In fact it was the second 'Futurama' pavillion since the 1940 version was the first.

The 1964 version depicted life 60 years into the future, this time 2024. Scenes showed a lunar base of operation, an Antarctic "Weather Central" climate forecasting center, underseas exploration and "Hotel Atlantis" for underseas vacationing, desert irrigation, and land reclamation, building roads in the jungle and a City of the Future. Visitors rode through the dioramas in 3-abreast chairs on a ride train.

The success of the pavilion enabled Scott to create one of the first albums completely filled with electronic music. The groundbreaking work ‘Soothing Sounds for Babies’ was released in late 1964 in collaboration with the Gesell Institute of Child Development. The music did not find much favor with the record-buying public of the day but would be have an enormous influence on later electronic composers like Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. The album also give the last push to Scott’s collague Robert Moog to tackle the problems of the Electronium and create a multi use electronic instruments. At the AES convention in 1964 Moog demonstrated the first voltage-controlled subtractive synthesizer to utilize a keyboard as a controller.

(listen to 'Nursery rhyme' from Soothing sounds for babies - age 1 to 6. (courtesy of www.muziekweb.nl)

Another visitor of Scott was Frenchman Jean Jaques Perrey who saw the possibilities to build on the Music Concrete ideas from Schaeffer with the machines Scott and Moog made. Befriending Robert Moog, he became one of the first Moog synth musicians, creating "far out electronic entertainment".

In 1965 Perrey met German Gershon Kingsley, a former colleague of John Cage. Together they created two albums for the record label Vanguard: ‘The In Sound From Way Out’ (1966) and ‘Kaleidoscopic Vibrations’ (1967). The combination of Perrey's tape loops, and his inventive melodies with Kingsley's complementary arrangements and instrumentation resulted in tunes that sounded like an animated cartoon gone berserk. Their attempt to make electronic music more accessible with happy, upbeat melodies made quite an impact on cartoonist Walt Disney who searched for music to accompany his Main Street electric parade in Disneyland. The music of Perrey and Kingsley can be heard up until today in the Disney amusement parks around the world.






Meanwhile one of Moog's earliest musical customers Walter Carlos (later Wendy Carlos) created the album ‘Switched-On Bach’ (1968). Using the moog to play the compositions of German composer Johan Sebastian Bach. It was one of the first classical albums to sell 500,000 copies, and (eventually) to go platinum.

But the final breakthrough came at the end of the sixties with a single track from the Perrey /Kingsley album ‘Music to Moog By’. ‘Popcorn’, as the track was named, would became the key electronic tune for years to come and a big hit for Hot Butter in 1972. It was also the first time the term "synth-pop" fell. But by then the whole range of pop-artists already was using the synthesizer on their albums.



Go back to part 2: The audible future at Brussels

Next month (May): part 4, The Silver Apples & The Zodiak free arts lab