The Electric Muse: Monsters in the Basement - Rolling Stone
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The Electric Muse: Monsters in the Basement

Don’t shoot the piano player, he’s only following orders

Roland, Moog, Synthesisers

A Roland Synthesiser.

Simon King/Redferns

(Somewhat tense, smiling woman in her late 40s wearing checked doubleknit pantsuit and seated at electric spinet organ with color-coded keys and gold ski trophy.)

Hi, I’m Joy Daley of Studio City, California. It’s not easy bringing up four teenage boys, two pet turkeys and my husband Buzz, what with rising prices and a changing neighborhood. Buzz sells hospital disposal units and we’re not wealthy by any means, but we do have our health and, more important, a healthy belief in family and family fun. In many ways, I suppose, we’re just like you and me; we know that happiness needn’t be costly, that frequent investments in inexpensive family entertainment – a badminton set, an ice-cream maker, some one-way mirrors – can turn the drudgery of daily living into wholesome family adventure.

But frankly, we never really knew what fun was until one night Buzz came home with this wonderful spinet organ in the back of his truck.

(Pats organ affectionately.)

At first I thought he was showing me a new disposal unit, because Buzz always, you know, tries to involve me in his work. But Buzz said, no, Joy, this is not for the hospital, this is for you and me and the boys. We’re going to add some music to our day.

Well, Buzz, I said, tapping my foot, you might as well include the pet turkeys ’cause we all have the same musical ability. Not to worry, said Buzz. With the automatic chord and rhythm section and the simple color-key instruction manual, two fingers is all you need to produce professional-sounding music you never dreamed possible.

Naturally, Buzz was right. Which is a good thing because Buzz Jr., the surviving twin, only has two fingers, yet even he can sit down and play all the groovy, way-out mod tunes so popular among his schoolmates. Personally I prefer to play classical, everything from Stephen Foster to Cole Porter. Buzz holds down the fort with polkas and marches.

This little organ does it all. Its complete selection of electric knobs and switches can produce an almost unlimited variety of musical sounds, from baroque to be-bop to bagpipes, from rich church organ tones to shimmering vibrator– what? . . . oh, yes – vibrato effects. And isn’t it a gorgeous piece of authentic antique-style furniture?

As a result, we now live life to the fullest as one of America’s growing number of electric home organ owners who believe in, quote, doing our own thing. Through the modern miracle of electronic technology, I, Buzz, the kids and millions of Americans like us are now enjoying a more sprightly future and have been for some time. Thank you.

* * *

At the Sound Stage in San Francisco, a well-stocked store of amplified musical instruments, a young salesman named Joe was demonstrating a portable Roland synthesizer. We’d asked him to knock out a short series of notes and make it repeat over and over, but something wasn’t working. Notes were repeating over and over but they were the wrong ones, and no matter what knobs or slide bars he moved, the notes wouldn’t change. Finally he stood back and said, “Wait … we lost control of the keyboard,” canceled the program and tried a new one. Now that started me thinking.

We were surrounded by dozens of amplified keyboards, some of them already classics in the mutated world of rock music. There were electric keyboards that still retained some sort of mechanical, hammerlike action, such as the Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes and LeSage pianos and the Hohner Clavinet and Pianet; there were all-electronic tone-generated keyboards, such as the Univox, RMI and Roland pianos, the Yamaha and CDX combo organs, and the Elka, ARP and Freeman string synthesizers (the Elka Rhapsody was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the day, producing a sweet string orchestra sound that closely resembled the much more costly and cumbersome Mellotron); and, of course, there were portable synthesizers by Moog, ARP and Roland. And I couldn’t help thinking that all these keyboards, to one degree or another, represented a certain loss of control, a control usurped by the modern miracle of electronic technology.

With most of them it was a minor loss – the direct control of attack and dynamics so dear to the hearts and fingers of acoustic piano players. No big deal, really, since in any good pact with the devil, you got some nice worldly rewards in return: power, convenience, wild effects and hipness. (If Nixon had played a Hohner Clavinet or a Fender Rhodes, might he not still be president?)

But that incident with the Roland synthesizer unnerved me. Here, it seemed, was a very real breakdown between the keyboard and the pitches it was supposed to control. Which raised certain questions. Were the traditions of virtuosity and creativity being threatened? Shouldn’t an expert be consulted?

I rushed over to the home of Ron Nagle, a professional songwriter, keyboardman, record producer, ceramist and generally accomplished weirdo. An energetic, balding young man with bulging eyes and a cultured sneer, Nagle spoke with great enthusiasm, although I’m not sure he understood the question any better than I did.

“Anything that’s happening, whatever anybody puts out, is worth using, is my attitude,” he began. “I mean, I have a $30 organ, you know, try to fake strings on it by turning the reverb up. A Woolworth piece of shit, but you can play harmonics on it, you know? It’s like basement music – that basement mentality, it’s so beautiful.”

“Basement mentality?”

“Okay. There’s all kinds of records with what I would call a basement mentality. You got Billy Swan, you got George McCrae, you got ‘Doctor’s Orders’ by Carol Douglas, you got ‘I’m a Girl Watcher’ by the Ovations. Okay, a basement mentality is like a singer/songwriter, or maybe just a songwriter, goin’ down there, he’s got his piano, he’s got his drum machine and he starts doin‘ something. And that relates to the home organ thing. The home organs not only include what the drummer would do, they include what the bass player would do. And then some guy who can’t even play, like, plays the melody.”

Well, that was my point, I said. What does that do to the creative process? Here you’ve got a guy incorporating into his music the ideas and sometimes the performances of a bunch of people he never even met.

But Nagle, who’s had some experience in these matters, saw the creative process differently. “What’s important, I think, is what you can do with what you’ve got,” he said. “All I can talk about is record excitement. Take a record like ‘Do You Want to Dance?’ by Bobby Freeman, okay? – a suitcase with a couple of brushes, and a piano and an attitude. More than anything, an attitude. I mean Bobby Freeman, he ain’t any brilliant guy, whoever played the piano wasn’t a virtuoso – it was the attitude, the excitement and the fun. And it was one of the biggest records in the whole history of fuckin’ rock & roll.

“They were using what was available to them at that time. Now we’re up to a drum machine, we’re up to Conn this or that, we got the Clavinet. I mean, the Clavinet – guys who can’t play guitar can now play guitar licks on it. Like ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin’ by Stevie Wonder – probably everybody can hum the Clavinet lick on it, and that was basically a guitar lick.”

But there was another problem, I said. As these machines, particularly synthesizers, become more sophisticated, won’t there come a time when very few musicians will be able to fully understand and control them, when the machine’s own technology and programming will dominate the creative process?

“Naw,” sneered Ron, “that sounds like a gimmick issue for your story. The machine will never take over, man. There’ll be people who make it on different levels, that’s all. We’re just talkin’ about tools; they’re used if they’re exciting. I mean, Phil Spector used toy pianos.”

Well, Nagle’s probably right, but I’m not entirely convinced. Two years ago I met a composer in Chicago who took me up to his attic and demonstrated a new portable synthesizer. He’d owned it only about two weeks and was still “feeling it out.” It included some kind of sequencer unit, so that after he played a short melody on the keyboard, the machine would take that melody and keep changing it in different ways until he decided to play a new melody. The process reminded me of a pinball machine. With the synthesizer’s pegboard-type patchwork, he could set up an infinite number of sequencer patterns, and it would be impossible to determine in advance, if ever, what any one pattern would do with any one melody.

At one point the composer went downstairs to the bathroom, and the machine just kept on playing– “creating,” if you will. And I wondered, what if the composer in the bathroom slipped on a piece of soap or something and fell to his death down the trash chute? And the garbage truck came and deposited him in a dump on the outskirts of Chicago? And they foreclosed on the house and shut off the synthesizer and put it in storage? And years later somebody bought it at an auction and turned it on?

Well, the machine would pick up the melody just where it left off in the attic. And theoretically it could continue to play that melody for a thousand years or forever, whether or not they ever found the body.

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