Randy Lewis' report on the revival of vintage synthesizers at the 2015 National Assn. of Music Merchants convention (opening Thursday, Jan. 22, in Anaheim) reminded us of an interesting bit of music history trivia: the time Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones attempted to play an early analog synth in 1969.
The Rolling Stones' involvment with analog synthesizers is a fascinating saga. While other bands would seem to be more obvious candidates as unusual electronic instrument pioneers (the Beach Boys and the theremin-driven "Good Vibrations," the Beatles with their "Strawberry Fields Forever" mellotron and much of "Abbey Road"), the blues-obsessed Stones actually purchased as a group an early Moog sequencer.
Sam Umland, a professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, has an illuminating post about the Rolling Stones' own synthesizer on his "60x50" music blog: "Apparently at the time the idea was that Mick was going to use the Moog synthesizer 'as his instrument in the band,'" writes Umland, quoting Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco's "Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer" (Harvard University Press, 2002), the indispensable source for the history of analog synthesizers.
"As is well known, Mick Jagger did not take up the synthesizer," adds Umland. "But, according to Pinch and Trocco, the Moog synthesizer originally purchased by the Stones lived on: 'It was sold on to the Hansa by the Wall recording studio in Berlin, where in 1973 Christoph Franke of Tangerine Dream purchased it for $15,000. The Moog sequencer became the defining element of Tangerine Dream's sound, and the Moog became an enduring influence on the many waves of German electronic music in the 1970s.'"
The film clip of Keith Richards attempting to play an analog synthesizer comes from the art film "Umano Non Umano" (1969), produced by the great Italian pop artist Mario Schifano. "Keith is attempting to play what appears to be a custom-built modular synth," says rare instrument collector and musician Robbie Lee, who writes songs as Creature Automatic. "1969 was right on the cusp of commercial synths being available to rock musicians. Previously they were all at universities and government-sponsored experimental tape centers."
Keith looks a little confused by the setup, but his improvisational efforts are neither embarrassing nor overly compelling, much like those of George Harrison in his 1969 "Electronic Sound" album. Harrison used the freedom of the Beatles' own Apple records to release his synth noodlings through the short-lived, experimental Zapple imprint.
Keith Richards and George Harrison as prog musicians? Could have happened ... in the "Twilight Zone" of the end of the 1960s.