Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Moog Machine - Christmas Becomes Electric

A funny thing happened on the way to the yuleblog this morning... a local power outage wiped out a majority of what I had previously saved in a first draft.

So... starting from scratch...

Here's another great Christmas album courtesy of Mr. Ernie from Ernie (Not Bert). He first offered this album back in 2005 which I gobbled up and quickly added to my collection.

But last year, Ernie decided to revisit the Moog Machine yet again. In his words:

"The sound should be better on this one than what I gave you last year, anyway. I know the cover of this one is in much better shape than the one I scanned last year. Also, I'm sharing stuff at a slightly higher bit rate this year, so even if the vinyl weren't cleaner (and it is), it will sound better."

Where do I start this review? How about Russia?

Back in 1919, a Russian inventor named Leon Theremin was fiddling around in his workshop with two radio frequency oscillators, two radio antennae, and a loudspeaker. Theremin found that when he would move his hands around the two antennae (one for frequency, the other for pitch) he created radio signals that were sent to the amplified loudspeaker and a crude form of music.

He had created the world's first electronic instrument and the first musical instrument designed to be played without being touched! It was so revolutionary that it was brought to Vladimir Lenin, the new leader of Russia and the leader of the original Russian Revolution. Lenin was so taken by the machine that he actually began to take theremin lessons!

Theremin began to take his invention around the world, first to Europe, then the United States. It was such a huge success that Theremin secured a patent to his invention in 1928 and gave RCA Victor production rights to mass produce theremins for home use.

Despite the stock market crash and the Great Depression, the theremin flourished for a brief time in the 1930s. This is largely due to the rise of Clara Rockmore, a classical violinist who was enthralled with the theremin, studied under Theremin himself, and became the instrument's first virtuoso.

At the end of the 1930s, Theremin was either sent back or forced back to Russia and promptly vanished. Did he die? Was he forced to work for Mother Russia? Seek out the amazing documentary called "Theremin - An Electronic Odyssey" for the rest of the story.

The musical instrument was largely forgotten until several major motion pictures began utilizing it in their movie scores. Rockmore felt the instrument wasn't designed to give movie music its distinct charm. The studios called on Dr. Samuel Hoffman to perform the theremin which he did in Alfred Hitchcock's psychological thriller "Spellbound" in 1945. Other films included "The Lost Weekend", "The Spiral Staircase", and a whole slew of sci-fi movies ranging from "The Thing (From Another World)" to "The Day The Earth Stood Still" ("Klaatu, barada, nikto!").

In 1953, a young 19 year old inventor named Robert Moog began his first company to manufacture theremin kits. Along the way, Moog became fascinated with new technology and was on his way to building the first electronic synthesizer. By the early 1960s, his company was completely devoted to mass producing Moog synthesizers.

Jac Holzman, the head of Arista Records, decided to create a project around the Moog synthesizer. Hiring the best session musicians he could find, they went into the recording studio and created a concept album revolving around an astrological chart. "Cosmic Sounds" by The Zodiac was released in November of 1967 - the first featured use of the Moog in music.

Pop quiz: What famous rock group was the first to feature the Moog on one of their albums?

Then in 1968, a budding Moog synth virtuoso named Wendy Carlos (then Walter Carlos) released a truly landmark album. "Switched On Bach" was a mammoth hit, selling over a million copies - the largest selling classical album of all time and the only classical album to go platinum!

Record labels all jumped on the bandwagon and began flooding the market with Moog albums: "Switched On Bach II", "Switched On The Beatles", "Switched On Country", "Switched On Bacharach", "Exotic Moog", "In The Moog", "Moog Party Time", you get the idea.

Two more switches to show: "Switched On Santa" was (and might still be) the best known Moog Christmas album (by Sy Mann and Jean Jacques Perrey). "Switched On Rock" by The Moog Machine - the very same group who released this Moog Christmas album you see before you.

Norman Dolph, the same record executive who helped start The Velvet Underground, brought together two others to form the Moog Machine - Kenny Ascher (keyboardist) and Alan Foust (arranger of the music). "Switched On Rock" covered many hits of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Motown and was a moderate success. They quickly turned their attention to Christmas music and issued this gem at Christmas, 1969.

It's a pretty straightforward Christmas album with mostly Christmas carol standards. The first track is the standout - "Jingle Bells". It leaps out of the speakers and creates a whole electronic wonderland. Other tracks of distinction: "The Little Drummer Boy", "O Holy Night", and "The Twelve Days Of Christmas".

Many of the remaining tracks (a majority which are under two minutes in length) are stately, snazzy, and all have that distinctive Moog fuzz sound. Like with "Switched On Santa", this album still sounds as fresh as it did 37 years ago and 37 years from now.

The Moog phenomenon probably peaked in 1971 with a major distinction. Stanley Kubrick chose Wendy Carlos to perform her now classic soundtrack to "A Clockwork Orange" - who can forget Beethoven's modulated Ninth Symphony with little Alex strapped into his chair, forced to watch ultraviolence? Since then, the Moog has popped up in many places with much distinction.

Any other Christmas Moog albums out there that I missed? I know of one which I found sealed in a Chicago record store that I'm planning on sharing next month...

Ernie, thanks for getting your Moog on and sharing out this album!

UP NEXT: Hawaiian Christmas (TWO REVIEWS)


P.S. Answer to the pop quiz question:
Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. by The Monkees!


Sheryl said...

As a kid in the 60s, I heard a synth album - no vocals, just synth sound. One tune I recall was Good King Winceslas. Since it was copied onto reel-to-reel, I don't have any idea what the cover looked like.

Used as filler to complete the tape, my father's friend added Glen Campbell's 1968 Christmas album. And the timing wasn't too far past 1968/69--his friend went to Vietnam before 1970.

Does any of this sound like something you could name? Album name or artist?

Anonymous said...

I just spotted this... what nice things you say.

All best,

Norman Dolph