Bob Moog: Original synth

When he invented the world's greatest synthesiser, Dr Bob Moog started a cult. As new disciples are brought in by the electro revival, he tells Ian Burrell why he's launched a new machine

Friday 14 March 2003 01:00 GMT
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The name Moog is unusual enough in itself, never mind that it's become synonymous with one of the greatest instruments invented in the history of modern music. So imagine how Dr Bob Moog feels at not being able to sell his own invention, the greatest-ever synthesiser, under his world-famous moniker. For the first time in decades, a new synthesiser from Moog (it rhymes with "Pogue") is on the market. Yet British trademark law means that the 70-year-old creative genius cannot sell his synth under the internationally recognised brands of Moog Music or Minimoog, because they have been appropriated by an entrepreneur in Wales. Thus, the new synthesiser was launched to feverish anticipation from British keyboardists and electronica fanatics in London this week bearing the rather coy legend "Voyager – by Bob Moog".

The legal wrangle in the UK has come at a bad time: Moog is back in vogue. The instrument that characterised much of the soundtrack of the Sixties and early Seventies is enjoying a phenomenal revival. The adoption of the synthesiser by a swathe of young electroclash artists – the likes of Fischerspooner and Felix Da Housecat – has introduced a new generation of music-lovers to Moog. British dance bands such as Underworld and Leftfield are also avowed Moog fans. The synth has given its name to a club in Barcelona and a lounge bar in Nottingham. Morcheeba wrote a track called "Moog Island", and the old Moog logo adorns one of the bestselling T-shirts on the music-festival circuit.

At his offices in Asheville, North Carolina, the doctor is philosophical about his changing fortunes and the legal loss of his identity. "Around the time that the trademark was being re-applied for in the UK, my own personal life was a bit hectic, and I missed it," he says. "People think: 'It's your name – why can't you use it?' But trademark law is more complex than that. In some ways, it's not fair in the conventional sense."

It is nearly 40 years since Moog "discovered" his instrument, while studying for a PhD in engineering physics. A humble man with glasses and an electric shock of wild grey hair, he recalls how the musician Herbert Deutsch took "a funny little prototype" into a corner of a New York studio in the summer of 1964 "and came up with a piece." Within a couple of years, the Moog sound – usually described by synth aficionados as "warm"or "fat" – was being used by the Beach Boys on "Good Vibrations"; other early customers included The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Dr Moog says: "It's not like a violin, where you have to learn for a year or so before you can start playing a sound. You can begin immediately, and if you are creative, the ideas start coming." The instrument's ability to produce unique sounds led to musical boundaries being pushed back, with records such as The Moog Strikes Bach by Hans Wurman and Gershon Kingsley's Music to Moog By being sold as much on the name of the synthesiser as the artist. The doctor himself pays special tribute to Dick Hyman, whose album Switched on Bach helped to launched the Moog sound, and the pioneering synthesist Wendy Carlos, whom he describes as "an inspiration to thousands of musicians".

The keyboard-player perhaps most closely associated with the Moog is Keith Emerson, of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, who even transformed his instrument to create special effects, such as shooting flames into the audience.

Rick Wakeman, another great Moog disciple, says: "The original Minimoog changed the face of music with its incredible sounds, and the Voyager is no less than a 21st-century equivalent."

The first Moog revival came at the turn of the Eighties, when Gary Numan found an old Minimoog abandoned in a recording studio and set to a heavy bass programme. Numan pressed the keyboard, and the booming sound that emerged changed his world and led to hits such as "Are 'Friends' Electric?" and "Cars". A wave of British electronica was spawned, stretching from The Human League to Depeche Mode, which has in turn been the inspiration for today's electroclash devotees.

But Dr Moog has not always found it easy to keep up with developments. In the late Seventies, he was the victim of changing musical trends, as the Moog sound went out of fashion. Then, Japanese electronics companies tried to force him out of the market by producing digital synthesisers with sampled sounds. The Japanese companies marketed instruments that played more than one note at a time and were cheaper.

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But the Moog proved to have the greater endurance. When the new synth was launched in Los Angeles last autumn, Herbie Hancock, Bootsy Collins and the former president Bill Clinton were among the musicians to pay tribute. In Charing Cross Road, central London, John Arbiter has created a shrine to the Moog with a collection of vintage synths that resembles a line-up of ancient Post Office telephone exchanges. Some now sell for up to £10,000. At Arbiter's Turnkey shop last week, Manfred Mann arrived with other Moog connoisseurs to see the new machine.

The Voyager has many added features, but the UK version has been stripped of its Minimoog and Moog Music badges, on both the instrument itself and the packaging. Dr Moog admits that the battle has been a "royal pain". He says: "We are trying very hard to rectify the situation – to prove that the present arrangement is misleading and that awarding the registration to us would be more in the public interest."

Michael Adams, president of Moog Music, says that he and Moog were prepared to make the changes because of Britain's history of championing the instrument. "This is the place where the creative musicians originated from," he said. "We wouldn't do it for Belgium."

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