He electrified the music world

Bob Moog, whose synthesizer started a revolution, dies


August 23, 2005|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

It produced sounds like no other instrument, weird, otherworldly electronic wails and haunting beeps and chirps that suggested jungle insects on mescaline, and you either loved it or you hated it.

It was called the Moog synthesizer, and along with the electric guitar, it revolutionized rock and pop music in the 1960s and '70s as bands such as the Beatles and Emerson, Lake and Palmer experimented with its piercing, pulsating sounds and keyboardist Walter Carlos (who changed his name to Wendy after a sex-change operation) recorded the hit classical music album Switched-On Bach that used the synthesizer to replicate an entire orchestra.

On Sunday, its inventor, Robert Moog, died of a brain tumor at his home in Asheville, N.C., at age 71. But the impact of the humble engineer and self-described "toolmaker" who became a pioneer of electronic music will be celebrated for years to come.

"To invent a whole new instrument is a pretty major achievement," said Trevor Pinch, a professor of science and technology studies at Cornell University and co-author of Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. "He saw it as [something] people could explore and make new music on."

Moog - it rhymes with vogue and rogue - invented the synthesizer that bore his name in 1964.

As a young man, he spent much of his time working on theremins, electronic instruments that produce the eerie, high-pitched sound heard in schlocky horror movies just before the monster strikes, and in cheap sci-fi flicks when the spaceships are about to land.

His first synthesizers were huge, unwieldy things that looked like the instrument board of a power plant and were expensive to buy.

But the fact that they could replicate the sounds of other musical instruments, such as strings and horns, and also provide innovative sound effects with the turn of a dial, made them highly coveted by rock bands and solo musicians of the psychedelic era looking to create a new kind of sound.

The Beatles used a synthesizer on their Abbey Road album; it was featured prominently in the songs "Because," "Here Comes the Sun" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer."

And bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer were soon using it to create signature waves of pulsating sound that electrified rock fans - even as it horrified rock purists.

"Up until Bob came along, keyboardists were backroom boys," former Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman told Entertainment Weekly last year.

"When it came solo time, you were either drowned out completely or the band had to embarrassingly drop their volume in order for you to be heard. Guitarists would inevitably smirk to the bass player, as if to say, `I don't know why we even have these people on stage.'

"Then the Moog hit the scene and here was an instrument with a sound that would cut concrete. Guitarists fell to their knees in fear."

"If you're in the psychedelic era and you're on drugs and you listened to [the synthesizer], you said, `Wow, man!'" said Pinch. "But some people didn't like it and some feared its effects."

The main fear was that it would put musicians who played conventional instruments out of work. And this fear was so great, said Pinch, that the synthesizer was banned for a short while by union musicians in New York City.

But just as the synthesizer was becoming the must-have instrument for much of the rock and pop world in the early '70s, Moog sold his trademark and company, Moog Music, to a larger music company.

"He was a lousy businessman," Pinch said.

When Moog moved from Buffalo, N.Y., to Asheville, he continued to design electronic instruments. The popularity of the synthesizer waned after the disco era, but Moog looked back fondly on the major role he had played in the evolution of rock and pop music. In the past two years, an annual Moogfest took place in New York to celebrate and evaluate Moog's contributions to music.

"He had an otherworldly, [but] homespun personality," said Pinch. "He was his own thing ... a very unique guy. He was a geek."

Pinch recalled traveling to North Carolina in 1996 to interview Moog for his book. At the time, said Pinch, Moog's offices were in this "ratty, run-down" house crammed with electronic gear.

"He said, We'll do the interview in the executive lounge,'" Pinch recalled. "And I thought, `There can't be an executive lounge in this place.'"

With that, Moog ushered Pinch out of the building and across the street to a park, where the two parked themselves on a bench.

"Welcome to the executive lounge," Moog said. "Ask me anything you like."

Moog is survived by his wife, Ileana, four children, a stepdaughter and his ex-wife, Shirleigh Moog.

Wire reports contributed to this article.

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