Thanks to the New York Times' new music newsletter The Amplifier, I recently discovered a whole new world of early synth instrumental cover albums. I was already familiar with the iconic work of Moog revolutionary (and trans icon!) Wendy Carlos, but I didn't realize how many artists she had swiftly inspired to try and rip off her work. As The Amplifier author Lindsay Zoladz explains:
Many novelty synthesizer records were pumped out in the late 1960s after Wendy Carlos's "Switched-On Bach" became an unexpected commercial hit. By 1970, there was "Switched-On Country," "Switched-On Bacharach" (clever) and my personal favorite in title if not in execution, "Switched-On Santa." I did not own a copy of "Switched-On Rock," one of the most popular of the bunch, and when I saw a cheap one in the crates, I could not resist. Please enjoy what I hope is one of the strangest Beatles covers you'll ever hear, centered around a Moog modular synthesizer just five years after it was invented. For all their overwhelming kitsch, there's something I genuinely love about the "Switched-On" records and this era of electronic music in general, when there was a palpable sense of wonder (and slight confusion) about what these newfangled machines could actually do.
Zoladz actually selected the Switched-on Rock version of the Beatles' "Get Back" for her weekly playlist, but I find this "Hey Jude" cover to much more mesmerizing — both for better, and for worse. According to Wendy Carlos: A Biography, this Carlos-ripoff record was so panned that the Los Angeles Times review said that, "rarely has rock music sounded so bad," and the UK's Melody Maker magazine called it "an artistic failure." Incredible!
Also, according to Wikipedia, Switched-on Rock was produced by Norman Dolph, a music marketing executive who was also produced and engineered — get ready for this — The Velvet Underground & Nico. Of course, that album was initially a commercial failure (despite the legendary reputation it's developed over the years). Which is how Dolph ended up being the guy who got tapped by Columbia Records to assemble a bunch of terrible cash-grab instrumental Moog cover albums ripping off of Wendy Carlos.
Anyway here's some more fun details about GWIRPING, directly from the liner notes:
The record is virtually 100% Moog — only two instruments are live. One is the drum set; Moog drums are possible, but at this stage of the art, sound kind of mechanical…the second real sound we leave to the listener to spot. This is a synthesized record; all the orchestral textures, somewhere in the vicinity of 150 different varieties, come out of that funny box many of the sounds have no natural counterparts, so we coined neo-names to enable communication, e.g., the Gworgan, which is a Gwirped organ. Gwirping is the act of sweeping a filter with a high regeneration setting from top to bottom. It makes the sound "Gwirp" … the inverse is "Pwee," sweeping from bottom to top. The Pagwipe sounds like a ferocious, leaky bagpipe; the Jivehive sounds like a megaton of bees all swarming in tune. And there is the dread Moogoboe, and the Sweetsweeop, a back and forth roar of harmonic sound like a jet plane playing through your head.
Analog synth technology is wild.
Moogs and Muppets: Record Shopping in Brooklyn [Lindsay Zoladz / The Amplifier / The New York Times]
Full disclosure: I also write for Wirecutter, which is owned by the New York Times Company, which publishes The New York Times.