It’s no secret that we love electronic music here, especially that made with the earliest instruments to hit concert stages and recording studios. The most prominent of these two, respectively, would be the Theremin and the Moog synthesizer, two devices invented by engineers who were not themselves musicians. Ironically, these have remained two electronic instruments with the most harmoniously musical voices—simulating the warmth and quavery vibrato of the human voice while also lending everything they touch an eerie, otherworldly air.
What often goes unremarked is the close, nearly direct influence of one upon the other, as David McNamee at The Guardian notes. Often thought of now as a novelty, the Theremin in its day received serious treatment in the hands of classical performer Clara Rockmore, who inspired Robert Moog, then only 14 years old, to build his own version of Leo Theremin’s device in 1948. “Godfather of electronic music” Raymond Scott took Moog’s instrument and wired it “into a keyboard-controlled contraption Scott called the Clavivox, which had a profound influence on Moog.”
Moog continued to build Theremins (a version of one went on tour with the Beach Boys to play “Good Vibrations”). But he is most famous for his synthesizers. Initially, he had “no interest in replicating existing instruments. They were machines for creating sound that sounded electronic.” Moog first designed a cumbersome studio-only apparatus, debuting in 1964, and his company’s “massive, fragile and impossible to tune” modular synthesizers had little popular appeal, or affordability. “Few of Dr. Moog’s early customers,” McNamee points out, including “sound artists, choreographers, and studios” were “interested in playing conventional melody on the instruments.”
This makes all the more impressive the achievements of Wendy Carlos, who showed the Moog’s capability for dynamic range and musical precision with her hugely popular adaptations of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven on the Moog synthesizer in 1968 and subsequent years. But by 1970, the Minimoog, the inventor’s first portable keyboard, had made analog synthesizers accessible to musicians worldwide—even though later consumer-grade instruments retained some of the odd properties of the original, like the “shonky” pitch control that sends Moogs quavering off key. (In its earliest incarnations, “making the things stay in tune seemed a low priority.”)
There’s no overstatement in saying that the Moog’s move out of the hands of elite engineers and onto the stage and rock studio changed music history forever in the 70s and 80s. Comprehensive accounts of the Moog revolution fill books and feature-length documentaries. The most direct experience comes from the music itself, of course, and to that end, The Guardian compiled the playlist above of “Moog heroes”—featuring reliable electro-stars like Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Rick Wakeman, and Herbie Hancock, as well as more esoteric Moog composers like Italian horror-film masters Goblin. Giorgio Morodor’s Moog grooves with Donna Summer are prominent, as are more recent dance hits from Depeche Mode, Franz Ferdinand, and LCD Soundsystem. Surprises come in the form of little heard tunes from classic rock artists, like Neil Young’s “Computer Age” (further up).
We’ll all find bones to pick with this list. Astute music nerds will notice right away that not all of these songs feature Moog synthesizers, and at least one, the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years from Home,” actually uses an instrument that predates Moogs, the Mellotron. One might then reasonably refer to the playlist as in some degree “Moog-inspired.” Missing here are essential contributions from Bob Marley and the Wailers and the recently-departed Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic, from the eternal grooves of African pioneers like William Onybear (top), and arguably, from Suicide and electro-psych rockers Silver Apples (who built their own synthesizer). These and other perhaps crucial omissions aside, The Guardian’s “Moog heroes” playlist more than makes its case for the historical significance and utterly distinctive character of the Moog and its imitators and musical children.