In the heat of the space race, as U.S. corporations and advertisers tried to whet the public’s appetites for all things astronomical, they were coincidentally aided by the innovations struck by Don Buchla and Robert Moog. Both men were working to shrink the size of modular synthesizers down from the hulking machines that filled an entire room to something more manageable and playable by studio musicians and concert performers. And the bleeping, wowing, almost rude sounds that could be created by these instruments were the perfect stand-in for all things technologically advanced, alien and groovy.
Combined with the platinum-selling Switched On Bach, a collection of classical pieces adapted for the Moog by Wendy Carlos and released in 1968, and the influence of psychedelic drugs on the music world, the marketplace was soon flooded with albums that recorded new versions of jazz standards and Billboard hits with the modular synth taking the lead. And no one was better situated to ride this cultural wave than the late French composer, Jean-Jacques Perrey.
By the late ‘60s, he had already taken the principles of musique concrete composition—especially the concept of turning random bits of field recording into rhythm via tape loops—into the pop realm. He and fellow synth enthusiast Gershon Kingsley collaborated on a pair of whimsical albums (1966’s The In Sound From Way Out! and Kaleidoscopic Vibrations from a year later) that used melodies from an Ondioline and a mischievous mood for ultimate giggle-inducing impact.
Once he started working primarily with the Moog, Perrey kept up an impressive pace. Between ‘68 and ‘74, he released nine LPs; some under his own name, others using pseudonyms like Sir Christopher Scott and Pat Prilly (a play on his daughter’s name). While all of them are worth exploring, particularly the Prilly albums of original material meant for use in French TV and radio, the best of the lot is his 1970 album Moog Indigo.
The LP does bear the markings of a cultural artifact. Perrey closes the album with a backward glancing trio of tunes that includes a version of the pop standard “Hello Dolly,” and “18th Century Puppet,” a classical music medley. But otherwise, the full-length, recently remastered by Vanguard Records for a gorgeous-sounding vinyl reissue, is the perfect showcase for Perrey’s ability to combine inescapable hooks with his technological wizardry.
His take on Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” for example, was built using actual recordings of bees, which were then pitch-shifted to hit the notes of that deliriously spinning melody. It was then given some groovy flair by an acid funk backing track that presaged disco-classical hybrids like “A Fifth of Beethoven” by seven years. A similar approach was used on another highlight track, “Gossipo Perpetuo,” which used stuttering vocal samples and various Moog settings soaring up and down the scale while congas and shuffling drums hit a samba beat.
What has kept this record in the crates of DJs and hip-hop and electronic producers for the past 40 years is the downright nasty grooves that Perrey and his collaborators—notably Andy Badale, who would later achieve cultural infamy under his actual name Angelo Badalamenti—crank out early on. Album opener “Soul City” is carried to the exosphere by a casually sinister wah-wah loop played by guitarist Vinnie Bell, and “E.V.A.” (a sample of which was used to great effect on Gang Starr’s “Just To Get A Rep”) feels far too sweaty and sinful to be simply a tribute to Neil Armstrong, as Perrey suggested on his website.
Even as artists like Stereolab and Aphex Twin took the modular synth into the modern age, there’s an unavoidable kitsch factor to Moog Indigo, and the dozens of others that were released around the same time. It’s evident even before taking the record from the sleeve with its “trippy” cover art and hyperbolic liner notes (“What the MOOG SYNTHESIZER opens up for the future of music is beyond dreams”). But what keeps these records in circulation is the humor that artists like Perrey brought into the mix and how the sounds and spirit found within the grooves call to mind an era when the skies suddenly felt limitless.