Friday, August 1, 2008

ElectroComp 101

Electronic Music Laboratories, builder of the ElectroComp Synthesizer Model 101 (or just the EML synthesizer, pictured), started business in 1968, building some simple modular synthesizers the purpose of which was educational: to teach schoolchildren about electronic music. According to Mark Vail’s book Vintage Synthesizers, the first machines—referred to at the time as “black monsters” because they had to have a 200-pound weight requirement in order to discourage students from stealing them—were sponsored by the Department of Education of the State of Connecticut. After undertaking the synth-building venture, however,

The EML founders soon discovered who they were competing with. “Moog was one step ahead of us,” says Murray. “We were following closely at Moog’s heels, but using different techniques. Most of Bob Moog’s early equipment used discrete transistors, which tended to drift. You had to continuously tune the components. We used a slightly different approach: Linear integrated circuits called op amps were becoming feasible for consumer-type equipment at about the time we got involved with this business, so we relied heavily on those to get better performance from our circuitry. We earned a reputation of making equipment that was rock-solid and dependable.” (136)

Apparently the EML synthesizers were quite dependable. According to Allen Ravenstine of Pere Ubu, interviewed by Michael Jarrett,

[The educational synth] had to have certain properties. It had to be very simple, and it had to be virtually indestructible. It also was designed in such a way that, while it had various elements of a synthesizer in it (oscillators that made sine waves, triangle waves, and square waves; filters, high-pass and low-pass; and an enveloper to change timbre), all of these elements had to be in the box—the same box—but none of them should be connected internally.... One of the synthesizers I bought has a serial number of one hundred and something. Whenever I had a question, I’d talk to the guy who built it. I was the first guy that ever tried to use these things in a rock ‘n’ roll environment. I never played the keyboard like a keyboard. I can’t play a tune on a keyboard. I used the keys as triggers. (107)

Some Artists Who Have Used the EML Model 101:
Brian Kehew and Roger Manning, The Moog Cookbook
Tommy Mars and Peter Wolf, with Frank Zappa
Allen Ravenstine, Pere Ubu

Some Representative Recordings:
Pere Ubu:
The Modern Dance (1978)
Dub Housing (1978)
New Picnic Time (1979)
The Art of Walking (1980)
390° of Simulated Stereo (1981)

The Moog Cookbook:
The Moog Cookbook (1996)
Ye Olde Space Band (1997)

Frank Zappa:
Joe's Garage, Acts I, II, & III (1979)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Ultimate Oldies But Goodies

Back in March, I posted an entry on Art Laboe’s first Oldies But Goodies compilation, issued in the fall of 1959 on Laboe’s Original Sound Record Co. label. Peaking at #12 on 28 September 1959, Oldies But Goodies would remain on the charts—according to The Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums—for a total of 61 weeks, that is, well over a year. I noted that Laboe, by issuing the Oldies But Goodies album, accomplished two culturally significant things: one was that he was the first to historicize rock ‘n’ roll, to lend it the dignity and distinction of a “classic” or “golden” era—the album cover boasts the LP contains “The Original Recordings of the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Hits Of All Time.” The other was that he altered the cultural consumption of rock 'n' roll music in the sense that he demonstrated compilation albums could sell: think of the sheer number of compilation albums released the past fifty years.

About three weeks after posting that initial blog on the Oldies But Goodies LP, I received an email from Joe Sasfy, who created Time-Life’s 50-album, 1, 100 song, Rock ‘n’ Roll Era series some years ago. As I noted in my subsequent blog, I’m very sure Time-Life’s Rock 'n' Roll Era series is the biggest and biggest-selling oldies series of all time. I reported at the time that Time-Life had just inked a deal with Art Laboe for the purposes of issuing a new, 10-CD collection titled The Ultimate Oldies But Goodies Collection, to be sold primarily as an infomercial. The host of the infomercial was to be Bowzer (stage name of Jon Bauman), former member of the group Sha Na Na.

I’m happy to report that a couple of days ago Joe contacted me regarding The Ultimate Oldies But Goodies Collection, telling me that the infomercial, hosted by Bowzer, is now on the air and that the collection is available at (shipping around the third week of August according to the website). Joe was pleased to report that the infomercial is “hugely entertaining thanks to Bowzer’s ‘charm’ and lots of great vintage footage.” All signs indicate The Ultimate Oldies But Goodies Collection will be a big success, evidence, according to Joe, “that the original audience for 50s rock ‘n’ roll music remains faithful even as the music recedes in pop history.”

I wrote Joe a congratulatory note on the release of the new collection, telling him that the vintage footage used in the infomercial sounds great, and asking him if he’d give some thought to putting together a DVD collection of this material. As someone who’s interested in this vintage footage, I told him there's no easy way to gather together this sort of material: some of it is impossible to get (or extremely expensive should you try), is scattered all over the place, and much of it consists of poor, first or second generation dupes. I asked Joe if it were possible to put together an "Oldies But Goodies Video Collection," but alas, he wrote back telling me that it is very difficult to work through all the licensing issues related to compiling this kind of footage, especially when licensing from different sources. “Sometimes it is feasible—for example, I compiled 8 DVDs of live country performances from Grand Ole Opry TV shows of the 50s, 60s and 70s that is selling very well. We are always trying.” I wrote him back, insisting that a DVD collection would be the ticket, but who knows what success I had persuading him. I’ve found that when I watch infomercials advertising old hits—such as Time-Life's “Flower Power” collection of 60s material hosted by Peter Fonda—I’m always more interested in the video footage included in the presentation, since I already have virtually every song in the collection, on vinyl or CD. My personal view is that DVD compilations are the way to go, but then I don’t have to face the daunting licensing issues Joe speaks about.

At any rate, if you are interested (as I am), Joe tells me the infomercial for The Ultimate Oldies But Goodies Collection will run on CNBC this Saturday (August 2) at 5:30 PM (ET). Apparently Bowzer ends the infomercial with his “Grease For Peace” mantra that he used at the end of every Sha Na Na TV show episode. I’m looking forward to seeing him do that, as I haven’t seen him do so in many years. Come to think about it, Sha Na Na, once an “oldies” act, is now itself an oldies act.


On an entirely different note, I invite everyone to take a look at Bent Sørensen's comment on my previous blog entry, "Automo-bubbling." Bent discusses a paper he's written and about to deliver on the culturally symbolic capital of the American automobile, in particular the Cadillac. Besides taking a look at Bent's sources, I'd also recommend Greil Marcus's essay, "Elvis: Presliad," in Mystery Train, on the meaning of Elvis's pink Cadillac. Additionally, I thank Bent for his ongoing interest in my blog.

Monday, July 28, 2008


According to Ronald Primeau, in his study of the literature of the American highway, Romance of the Road, the “American road genre”—popularly expressed in novels, short stories, poems, songs, movies and video—emerged out of a literary form known as the Bildungsroman, or the novel of education (psychoanalytically considered, a story of “individuation”). The lure of the highway has always been its freedom, the opportunity for the individual “to explore or redefine” himself. Part of the appeal of the road, Primeau argues, is “the road’s carnivalesque disruption of the ordinary,” the opportunity for an individual to seek something “beyond the mundane” (15). Most certainly popular musicians have exploited these promises of the open road, but in America, at least, the technological means of obtaining the highly prized escape from the quotidian or banal was the automobile.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that at the beginning of the twentieth century, the automobile craze enabled the creation of an entirely new genre of popular song, one extolling the virtues of life on “the open road" but also fetishizing the machine that enabled one to access it. Perhaps the most popular of the early twentieth century songs about the automobile was Billy Murray’s In My Merry Oldsmobile, recorded in 1905. Billy Murray (1877-1954), nicknamed “The Denver Nightingale,” was perhaps the most popular (white) entertainer in America from roughly 1905 to 1920 (supplanted in the 20s by Al Jolson). Considered the foremost interpreter of his era of the songs of George M. Cohan, Murray had huge hits with “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “The Grand Old Rag,” and “Harrigan” (“H-A-double R-I-G-A-N spells Harrigan, that’s me”). According to Frank W. Hoffmann, in his liner notes to the Billy Murray Anthology: The Denver Nightingale, Recordings 1903-1940, Murray’s 1905 releases of “In My Merry Oldsmobile” and “Everybody Works but Father” “remained in record catalogues for 15 years,” suggesting “they were phenomenal sellers.” Indeed, Billy Murray’s 1910 recording, made with the American Quartet, of “Casey Jones”—not the Grateful Dead’s version, obviously, but prompted by the same famous 1900 railroad crash—may well have been the biggest hit of his career; it is estimated it sold well over two million copies.

So, in a sense, we have Billy Murray to thank for the vast popularity of the “car song,” of which there are no doubt hundreds, perhaps thousands, of instances in American popular music. Although the automobile is widely associated with “cruising” in the 1950s and 60s, even in Billy Murray’s day the automobile was associated with the courtship ritual—so apparently we have him to thank for that motif as well.

Come away with me Lucille
In my merry Oldsmobile
Down the road of life we’ll fly
Automo-bubbling you and I
To the church we’ll swiftly steal
Then our wedding bells will peal
You can go as far you like with me
In my merry Oldsmobile

Although there are numerous rock and pop songs in which cars are mentioned (e.g., explicitly, such as “Baby You Can Drive My Car,” "Little Deuce Coupe," or through synecdochal reduction, as in “Radar Love”), few name the actual make or model of the car in the actual title, so I thought I’d list a few representative songs in which such information is presented, allowing us to discern the associations the culture has built up with various makes of cars (e.g., "Little Red Corvette"). I'm well aware there are many, many other examples of songs in which the name of a particular make of automobile is mentioned in the lyrics (e.g., Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time,” Don Maclean’s “American Pie”). But in the list below, however, as a sort of homage to Billy Murray who popularized the genre, I’ve confined myself to a baker’s dozen of songs in which the specific make or model of the automobile is fetishized in the title. Why not?

Billy Murray, In My Merry Oldsmobile (1905)
Jimmy Liggins, Cadillac Boogie (1947)
Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats [Ike Turner], Rocket 88 (1951)
Ronny and the Daytonas, G.T.O. (1964)
Bob Dylan, From a Buick 6 (1965)
Wilson Pickett, Mustang Sally (1966)
Janis Joplin, Mercedes Benz (1971)
Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, Hot Rod Lincoln (1971)
Sammy Johns, Chevy Van (1974)
Rush, Red Barchetta (1981)
Prince, Little Red Corvette (1982)
Bruce Springsteen, Pink Cadillac (1984)
Ween, El Camino (1990)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Audio/Vision: Addendum

Serendipitously, just a couple of minutes after posting today's blog entry, “Audio/Vison,” I checked my email to find that I’d received the Sunday e-issue of The Los Angeles Times, which had a review of a new book (cover is pictured to the left) entitled The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde, Ed. David W. Bernstein (U of California Press/Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), an account of the pioneering electronic music center in San Francisco. Since a number of issues explored in the book are relevant to my previous blog on ambient music—particularly the role of technology and the recording studio—I thought I’d provide readers with a link to the review. Click on the book title above to go the University of California website for further information about the new title. List price of the book is $65.00, but may be substantially discounted at certain on-line vendors.


Ambient music is generally defined as music in which the sounds are as equally important as the notes, its purpose being to invoke an “atmosphere” or to enhance an “environment.” It was Brian Eno who named this kind of music ambient (from the Latin ambire, "to go around") saying it consisted of sounds poised on “the cusp between melody and texture.” While there are any number of artists one could name who contributed to the development of ambient music (what Erik Satie in an earlier age called musique d’ameublement, “furniture music”), for Eno the major contributor to the development of ambient music is that “grand new musical instrument, the recording studio” (30). Eric Tamm, in Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Color of Sound, writes:

Eno has singled out a number of musicians who . . . consciously tried to realize the potential of . . . the recording studio: Glenn Gould (whose technique of recording many performances and editing them together Eno greatly admired); Jimi Hendrix (who would fill as many as twenty-six separate tracks on a thirty-two-track tape recorder with guitar solos, then begin the real creative process of blending, mixing, and deleting); Phil Spector (who “understood better than anybody that a recording could do things that could never actually happen”); the Beach Boys, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Byrds (whose experimental and psychedelic approach Eno appreciated); the Beatles (whose 1966 album Revolver, recorded on four-track with George Martin at the controls, Eno described as “my favourite Beatles album”); and Simon and Garfunkel (“The song ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ [1970] is perfection in its way. I’m told it took 370 hours of studio time to record—that’s longer than most albums, but it is such an incredible tour de force....” (30-31)

Eno’s remark about Phil Spector—he “understood better than anybody that a recording could do things that could never actually happen”—is an insight shared by the very best filmmakers, those who will sacrifice narrative logic for the sake of a powerful image (e.g., Andrei Tarkovsky, pictured) and also invent not mere sound tracks, but audio tracks (e.g., David Lynch), that is, use the grand musical instrument of the recording studio to the same degree as the motion picture camera.

Representative Films Featuring Masterful Audio/Vision:
Chris Marker/Trevor Duncan, La Jetée (1962)
Michelangelo Antonioni/Giovanni Fusco and Vittorio Gelmetti, Red Desert (1964)
Stanley Kubrick/H.L. Bird and Winston Ryder, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
George Lucas/Walter Murch, American Graffiti (1973)
Terrence Malick/George Tipton, Badlands (1973)
David Lynch/Alan R. Splet, Eraserhead (1977)
Andrei Tarkovsky/Eduard Artemev, Stalker (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola/Walter Murch and Carmine Coppola, Apocalypse Now (1979)
Brian Eno, Thursday Afternoon (1984)
Michael Mann/Elliot Goldenthal, Heat (1995)
Terrence Malick/Craig Berkey and James Horner, The New World (2005)