Geoff Harrison | | 5 min read
Keith Emerson's recent passing powerfully resonated with me – and not just the way he left in early‑March but, more reflectively -- on how that instrument he mastered and pioneered back in the early 1970's changed my sense of the world then. I still have the first Emerson Lake & Palmer recording on vinyl – a heavy beast it is – almost need a crane to load it on to the turntable.
The piece from the Robert Moog documentary approx 10 years ago, with Keith running his virtuosic fingers up and down the keyboards of this monster sized early Moog, will stay with me forever – a fine musician, loved and deeply respected by many in his field, and one of the "flag bearers" for this new creation called the synthesiser.
About the synth, two things immediately come to mind – firstly, how a musical instrument that was originally developed to create advertising gimmick sounds could have ended up evolving so far – and so quickly – and second, how its infinitely variable sounds instantly transports me to different eras in my life.
I first became aware of it with Walter Carlos' Switched On Bach in the late Sixties – and that image of a man dressed in 18th century royal court clothing (loved the wig) sitting in front of a major computer bank full of wires and knobs – but the music struck me as gimmicky and light then.
Then came the life changing sound track from the dark and intense Stanley Kubrick futuristic movie A Clockwork Orange – where Walter Carlos had suddenly become seriously good at putting new life, using the synth, into classical pieces like Rossini's William Tell Overture – along with Purcell's Funeral for Queen Ann and, most powerfully, the recreation of key parts of Beethoven's glorious 9th Symphony into something beautiful and, as well, a little "scary".
That was it for me – and this was followed, in 1971 by Keith Emerson's synth solo at the end of Oh Lucky Man and, around that time, George Martin using it, sounding like an electrified French horn, played in an echo chamber, in Because from side two of the Beatles timeless Abbey Road.
And also to be noted, the late Carl Wilson's use of it, played like it was under water, in that eerie and beautiful piece Feel Flows from the Beach Boys seminal 1970' recording Surf's Up – for the record, nothing to do with surfing that album.
Then, in ‘72, in a recording that clearly marked his transition from "Little Stevie Wonder" into an unmistakably modern musician, saw him use it so intensely on some tracks in his transition recording Talking Book. Wonder’s Superstition is an early synth masterpiece and, in addition, the track Maybe Your Baby was intense and powerful and was… like… insane!
David Bowie, featuring in the Time/Life doco the History of Rock 'n Roll, records him and Brian Eno experimenting with synths in the early‑mid Seventies and after a while they threw away the manuals and just "went for it", colourfully described as "farts and whistles" by Bowie.
The rest is musical history.
Also, while in quotation mode, Rick Wakeman (pictured) reminisced in the Robert Moog doco – made around 2004 or 2005 – in discussion with the great man himself, backstage at a Moog fest concert in New York, that this instrument could "cut through concrete" with its power and sharp musical blade and had, most significantly "changed the face of music forever".
Vangelis’ soundtracks, utilising a "big" sound system, are signature pieces for the films Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner – and, in the latter, that majestic futuristic sound track became "the movie". It was an inspired choice by Ridley Scott to tap this musician and composer along with his mighty arsenal of electric machinery for that film.
For me the Eighties is the musical era which has to be defined by the synth – whether it's by the Eurythmics, The Cars, A‑Ha, Bowie or Madonna, the list is endless. Yet throughout that time, in order to keep some perspective, great singers and songwriters have continued to emerge and, most importantly, the electric guitar, the instrument that defined rock'n’roll and the later rock era, has continued to flourish with great players like The Edge, Slash, Eddie Van Halen and many others, along with established musical masters like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck
In short, the landscape enlarged throughout this period, with the synth creating its own unique place in the musical landscape.
The beautiful composition Drive by the Cars, featuring appropriately and slightly melancholy vocals, and a gentle driving beat, is enhanced by the focused use of the synth in two ways – to create that warmth melodic tone, as a driving force in the song, and augmented by delicate tingling, in a type of "rain drops" effect – a perfect composition and arrangement.
The 2012 movie Drive -- music by Cliff Martinez -- saw the electronic gateway used to real effect in that film, again with a unique and often intense atmosphere that the electronic backings injected into its mood.
It's no surprise that the soundtrack recording was a sell out.
In the 1994 documentary on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, his session drummer from that time, the gifted and funny Hal Blaine, commented about Brian's Sixties musical arrangements, in particular his ability to combine together instruments like the harp, harpsicord and other instruments into making a new and unique sound.
He said, "In those days it was the natural sound, as it were – of course these days they do it all on synthesisers".
Geoff Harrison is a 61-year old seasoned divorce lawyer practicing in Auckland. From an intensely musical family, raised in Wellington, with lots of Chuck Berry, Elvis and Motown on the wireless and car radio during his formative years. Remembers vividly, as a moderately gifted pianist aged about 10, his mother phoning his piano teacher and saying, "Geoffrey won't be back for any lessons for a while, Kate – he's been seduced by the Beatles".
Geoff has some writing skills, augmented by his occupation as a lawyer, with words being the currency he deals in. Seduced throughout his life by loud rock music, particularly that heard at the gym and on the car stereo playing CDs – and forever in his memory, Led Zeppelin with "Marshall stacks" at Western Springs in 1972.
He is also, he says, “blessed with a quality tenor voice from my late mother, Shirley, a fine soprano”.
We take his word for it.