Audio Archaeology: MOOG: The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman (1969)

One of the advantages of working in a record store is being able to go through all the used material before it’s put out for sale.  Amongst the millions of used copies of Herb Alpert albums and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors there is often a gem. To my luck I was on shift one evening when a buy back came in that provided such a gem.

Initially I was drawn in by the cover. It borders on the absurd. Twelve images of a man, 11 of which are negative images, all scattered around the moon’s surface next to a lunar lander. In the blackness above the surface is the title: MOOG: The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman. The back cover cleverly shows an almost exact inverse image of the front complete with Moog printed as if you were looking at it from behind.  he size of the word Moog alone made me want to open this up and play it.

The Moog synthesizer was developed by the Robert Moog Corporation in the 1950s. Its use as a musical instrument was demonstrated at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967. The following year, using a Moog synthesizer, Wendy Carlos recorded Switched On Bach, one of the biggest selling classical albums of the era. The title went on to inspire a series of Stereolab releases. In 1969 jazz pianist Dick Hyman began tinkering with the Moog.

Hyman did two principal recordings using the Moog synthesizer. The first was The Electric Eclectics. The follow up was the Age of Electronicus and was predominantly a covers album with Hyman interpreting on the Moog. By the time Hyman began working with the Moog synthesizer he had pretty much come to dominate any other form of keyboard, organ, piano, ondioline, etc. This was the next challenge. “My objective is to humanize electronic music as well as to humorize it and to play it as a full performance instead of a collection of unearthly sounds,” Hyman said of making this album.

Hyman uses the Moog as a total musical instrument playing it in three ways – unaccompanied, accompanied with live musicians, and accompanied by a Maestro Rhythm Unit, a robot drummer often used as accompaniment by cocktail lounge organists. The MRU can be programmed and then routed through the Moog for infinite tempos and rhythms.

The first half of the album is the “pop” side. The songs are a bit shorter and quicker. Throughout the album there is a blend of Indian (subcontinent) and Greek music and themes. “Topless Dancers of Corfu”, the opening track demonstrates the use of these themes however the listener may be distracted by the continuous sound of what can only be described as laser fire. There is even another sound that is all too reminiscent of Pac-Man dying.

If there was ever a Moog version of a bubblegum pop song it would be “The Legend of Johnny Pot”. Blending organs and synthesizers, Hyman plays a feast for the ears. The whimsy continues onto “The Moog and Me”, the opening of which is eerily similar to Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk”. Throughout the entire track Hyman is heard whistling, accompanied by the Maestro Rhythm Unit and his overdubbing of piano and synthesizer.

As the first side winds down improvisation takes center stage. On “Tap Dance in the Memory Banks” Hyman is literally just manipulating knobs as he sits down at the keyboard. In doing so he came up with what he described as a dancer who is “no Astaire [and] a little bit klutzy.”

The hit single of the album opens side two. “The Minotaur” is a layered composition featuring the Moog combining a bossa nova rhythm with a waltz to create what Hyman described as “a sort of oriental ¾.” The Indian and Greek influences are once again featured, with the melody actually coming from a Greek album in Hyman’s collection. By far the longest song on the album at over eight minutes, when held up against more obvious pop-like songs such as “…Johnny Pot” I find it odd that this song was the hit single. On a historical note, “The Minotaur” provided the inspiration for Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Lucky Man”.

The sound of cascading spacey Moog bells provides the template for “Total Bells and Tony”, a track inspired by Hyman’s associate jazz clarinetist Tony Scott. The addition of a clarinet sound atop the synthesizer helped to create a sound “rather like the way [Tony] played.” All the parts dubbed in by Hyman were via the Moog synthesizer.

The second side, much like the first, closes with some improvisational tracks featuring Hyman demonstrating the amazing versatility of the Moog. The sounds and images created with the Moog were just beginning to be discovered. The future would prove the Moog’s lasting success through bands like Stereolab, Broadcast and the Moog Cookbook. However, it was musicians like Dick Hyman, whose early experiments with Robert Moog’s invention on albums such as The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman, that opened the door to a whole new world of sound.

Endnote: The current CD reissue of the album features three tracks previously available on the Age of Electronicus follow-up album, including a cover of James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turn It Loose”.

Audio Archaeology is a presentation of Media Potluck and Consequence of Sound.


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