wax Poetics
Pink Floyd. Photo courtesy of Backbeat Books.

Tropicolours and Woomerangs

A Quick History of Electronic Sound Before Pink Floyd

A Chapter from Lunacy: The Curious Phenomenon of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, 50 Years On

by John Kruth

Published by Backbeat Books, March 2023

published online
By John Kruth

Editor's Note: The full title of the chapter is Tropicolours, Woomerangs, Whooshes and Washes: A QUICK HISTORY OF ELECTRONIC SOUND BEFORE PINK FLOYD. Our website does not permit such length. The following is an excerpt from the chapter and we encourage you to purchase John Kruth's book through Backbeat Books.

Wax poetics

In 1957, Philips Records released an album titled Song of the Second Moon by the Dutch duo Electrosoniks, which would forever change music history. It was the brainchild of Tom Dissevelt and Dick Raaymakers, a.k.a. Kid Baltan, a nickname he devised by reversing his first name, Dick, and the abbreviation for Natlab—the Natuurkundig Laboratorium, the physics lab where Raaymakers worked at the time. The sonic palette of this recording is astonishing, comprised of a series of aural inventions that wobble in your ears like orange and purple Jell-O. Blobs of noise squiggle like mercury, silvery and slippery, and then shatter and crash, inspiring the listener to reconsider everything they previously understood about sound, while striving to invent new language in order to find the words to describe it.

These radical innovations employed elements of echo, delay, tape loops, and sped-up/spliced-up bits of musique concrete—a concept first forged by Pierre Schaeffer in 1948 that was inclusive of all sounds and thereby extended the vocabulary of modern music. Yet Piet Mondrian, whose modern abstract paintings resemble grids of futuristic cities, previously conceived of “neo-plasticsingle-color” sounds generated electronically as early as the 1920s!

Hailing from Haight-Ashbury, the Fifty Foot Hose were arguably the world’s first electronic rock band. In December 1967, the five-piece group released their first album, Cauldron, on Mercury Records. Initially, the album failed to make much of an impression on anyone beyond music critic and Rolling Stone publisher Ralph J. Gleason, who drolly wrote, “I don’t know if they’re immature or premature.”

Following in the wake of the Fifty Foot Hose came a flood of electronic and experimental groups, including Silver Apples, the United States of America, and Lothar and the Hand People. “In 1961, Don Buchla saw Sun Ra live in San Francisco and was inspired to build his own electronic instruments,” recalls the Hose’s bassist and electronic shaman, Cork Marcheschi. “[Guitarist] David Blossom and I had been part of the Mills College Tape Music Center and had access to all of Buchla’s innovations.”

Marcheschi, who’d been playing bass in North Beach strip joints at the time, built two theremins of his own design and bought another “from a guy down the street who used it to scare neighborhood kids with it on Hallowe’en.” He also built homemade audio generators and ring-oscillator circuits, then started experimenting with and attempting to control feedback as a pure sound source by waving a microphone in front of a pair of speakers.

Not everyone worked from the same store-bought palate of sounds. At the time, a more adventurous spirit prevailed—an attitude of, Let’s see what kind of sounds we can create ourselves, without relying on mass-produced instruments. The pair of theremins Marcheschi built were from plans he’d found in anarticle in an old 1957 issue of Popular Electronics:

“All of the parts were still available, so I just put it all together. It made a sound unlike any theremin I’d heard. I still have it! Sound is real and lacking any technical finesse I’ve always played with it, and manipulated it, in its purist form. There’s a lot of simple, inventive things you can do, that are readily at hand, like speaking into a fan and have it chop up your voice. As there was no easily available equipment then, what we did with the Fifty Foot Hose was, we got an FM transmitter and put the signal out and would catch it again going into the tape recorder—but use a loop-stick antenna to put it out of phase, which was the basics of a ring modulator. On Cauldron, there’s a lot of spoken-word poetry. You can hear voices being manipulated simply by moving the loop-stick and changing the phase as the soundwaves travel through space.

It’s the same kind of mindset as the guys in the fifties who customized cars. You had to do it yourself. So, you’d take a piece of something, put it on something else, and go down to the drag strip and people would be there, creating their own visions. It was fantastic. There was a desire, a passion to create. Whether you wanted to go a hundred eighty-five miles an hour, or make louder weird sounds or just get chicks, your brain had to go new places. It wasn’t simply, How much money do I need to buy this, but How do I make it?’”

The 1968 Limelight Records compilation version of the Electrosoniks' work
The 1968 Limelight Records compilation version of the Electrosoniks' work
Fifty Foot Hose, photo courtesy of Mercury subsidiary Limelight.
Fifty Foot Hose, photo courtesy of Mercury subsidiary Limelight.

At the same time the Fifty Foot Hose were in the thrall of experimentation, Wendy Carlos (then still known as Walter Carlos) recorded Switched-On Bach, playing Bach with a new and different set of sounds. Suddenly, one person could create the sound of an entire orchestra with Robert Moog’s synthesizer. 

“There was also Harry Chamberlin, who created a bizarre instrument which he named after himself,” Marcheschi reminds. “The Chamberlin combined a keyboard with tape loops of every instrument. So, you could play it in every key and have the sound of real instruments, but it involved hundreds of tape loops. It was a real disaster. There were all these people creating their own sounds and they each had their own specific polish to it. Our approach in the Fifty Foot Hose was to go all the way back to the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo, with his Intonarumori, a noise instrument so extreme it caused a riot at his Gran Concerto Futuristico in 1917.”

In 1958, Edgard Varese composed the eleven-minute “Poeme electronique” as an ambient soundtrack to the Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World Fair. The French architect Le Corbusier designed the building with assistance from the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, known for both orchestral and electronic music. Visitors to the Pavilion were exposed to both Varese’s piece and a “song” by Xenakis entitled “Concret ph,” which evoked the sound of burning embers, rain against a windowpane, or rattling chains.

Cork Marcheschi became obsessed with electronic sound in 1962, after hearing the Varese piece on an album recorded at the Brussels World Fair: “Poeme electronique” was written with the idea that visitors would walk through Corbusier’s sculpture/ building in the amount of time it took for the piece to run. This was the first full-scale exposure of avant-garde music/environmental sculpture and architecture, with projected images that were intentionally not matched to the sound. The Philips Pavilion looked like a cow’s stomach turned inside out. They’d built speakers into the walls, which were bowed and elongated, and covered in asbestos! They projected hundreds of images on the walls, chosen to work with the poeme, that appeared and disappeared slowly, in time with this amazing piece of electronic music. Varese created pure audio sculpture, combining human voices, machine sounds and physically manipulated tapes. We did similar things with the Fifty Foot Hose. I made a lot of those sounds by just simply putting my thumb on the tape reel to slow it down.”

While everyone else was in the thrall of Flower Power, Marcheschi found the San Francisco musical scene surprisingly conservative:

“In a very short time, everybody was wearing the same clothes, smoking the same dope and listening to the same music. The conformity of the hippie scene was no different than people who worked on Wall Street. Psychedelic people were also parochial in their musical taste. David Blossom and I didn’t do drugs. I thought they were boring. I had enough exciting stuff going on in my own head. People who saw us thought, You must really be out there, man. . . . Maybe we were, but we were interested in the music. While we were into improvisation, we never reached the level of jazz musicians. We thought about the music more like a combination of avant-garde and classical players than jazz guys. It wasn’t that we didn’t know we were or wanted to be rock and roll musicians. We were just trying to move the music somewhere else! We had an innocent audacity and were inspired by the concepts of avant-garde composers like Luigi Russolo and John Cage. At live shows we would use silence, stopping the music for sixty seconds, then bang on a giant saw blade, that rang like a gong, and then go right back into the music again, and people would go nuts!”

Cork in a backyard in Minneapolis 1977. Photo by John Kruth
Cork in a backyard in Minneapolis 1977. Photo by John Kruth

Along with Stockhausen and Varese, Cork was inspired by the performances and concepts of the Japanese art collective known as Gutai. Formed in Osaka in 1954 by abstract painter, sculptor, and writer Jiro Yoshihara and action painter and sound sculptor Shozo Shimamoto, Gutai presented a series of shocking happenings and created concept art that represented a radical break with the cultural traditions of postwar Japan.

“They did these incredibly aggressive and bizarre performances where three or four people who were covered in mud would scream and holler and take axes and destroy an amplified piano!” Cork marveled. “These artists were the people we’d dropped atomic bombs on! We weren’t looking to do anything that intentionally rude or aggressive. We wanted to move rock music ahead, to extend its possibilities, not necessarily to change it. We wanted to add a new electronic dimension to it, taking ideas that Stockhausen had been working with and bring them to a broader arena where people could hear it. We wanted to give it a completely different frame of reference. I thought Jimi Hendrix was very genuine toward sound exploration and experimentation. While I liked Pink Floyd’s music, I never thought of them as wholly electronic, like Switched- On Bach. They were adventurous on their records and staging, which helped bring a lot of these concepts to a broader arena. They also had some very catchy tunes. I can see why people loved it and went mad for it.”

No matter how intriguing Pink Floyd’s use of electronic effects was, they still had a hard time filling the enormous void left by Syd Barrett’s parting. As Barry Miles wrote in his sobering review of A Saucerful of Secrets in the August 8, 1968, edition of the International Times, “In the same way bad sitar playing is initially attractive, electronic music turns people on at first—then as one hears more, the listener demands that something be made and done with these ‘news’ sounds, something more than psychedelic mood music.”

A Saucerful of Secrets was the first Floyd album to feature all five members of the band. Gilmour had a tough gig indeed. Filling the multicolored, mirrored hobnail boots of the increasingly erratic Syd Barrett was no easy task. “Most of the early stuff embarrassing,” he later admitted. “It’s all part of growing up . . . and being British.”

Although a lovely dollop of psychedelia, Pink Floyd’s fifth single, “Point Me at the Sky,” was a futile attempt at preserving Barrett’s singular sense of whimsy. Released in the UK (but not in the USA) the week before Christmas 1968, the song was met with indifference and rejection, and Waters considered it a failure.

It’s interesting to note, though, that the cover photo for the single portrays the band done up in flight suits and goggles, nearly a year before Led Zeppelin donned pilot gear for their second album in October 1969.

“I wasn’t crazy about the early Floyd at first,” (guitarist/producer/ace engineer) Robert Musso confesses, at the risk of sounding “uncool.” Syd was okay, but not my favorite songwriter, or guitarist in the band. When I heard “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” I thought these guys might have a chance at getting popular. From there, I got turned on to the craziness of Ummagumma. I had really been into the Dead at the time, who were also on the Zabriskie Point soundtrack. And even Meddle didn’t really work for me. Along with Floyd, I listened to Yes, Gentle Giant, and King Crimson, which all came in one swoop, like a second British Invasion. But it wasn’t until I got turned onto Dark Side by my friends—that record kind of blew me away and really changed things. It was the first real concept album that I was familiar with. It was one of those albums, like Led Zeppelin IV, that you didn’t have to own, because everybody had it. It was everywhere!”

Fifty Foot Hose's electronic set up.
Fifty Foot Hose's electronic set up.
Silver Apples at Magic Theatre Music 1968
Silver Apples at Magic Theatre Music 1968

In 1968, a Wisconsin kid named Grant Richter became fascinated with electronic sound and built his first transistor amplifier. “It squealed with feedback, turning into an electronic oscillator by accident,” he recalls. “Not to take anything away from Stockhausen, but novelty had a lot to do with the initial appeal of electronic music. In that way, it was similar to abstract art.” Richter eventually “played knobs” in the Milwaukee-based electronic rock band known as F/I, who still remain below the radar despite making thirty albums of “space music” and touring Europe for decades. Their name, he emphasizes, “has no meaning. Don’t bother trying to figure it out. It could stand for anything, from Fuel Injected to Fucking Imbeciles!” While the major innovations came from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s home studio, Raymond Scott, and WDR Studios, none of this music could ever have happened without “the Wizard of Waukesha,” Les Paul, who invented multitrack recording. Once anything is recorded, it becomes electronic music, and you can manipulate it. Dark Side of the Moon was a technical achievement—a brilliant confluence of styles that reflected all the advances made from the ’40s through the ’60s. These experiments in Modernism have been going on for a long time. Jean Dubuffet experimented with two tape recorders to create soundscapes to his living paintings.*

Having studied at the Columbia/Princeton Electronic Center in the 1960s, as well as with Edgard Varese, Turkish-American electronic musician and composer İlhan Mimaroğlu contributed to the soundtrack of Fellini’s Satyricon and produced jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus for Atlantic Records. In 1971 and ’72, Mimaroğlu collaborated with jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard on a pair of sonically lush albums—Sing Me a Song of Songmy and Wings of a Delirious Demon—that freely mixed synthesizers with Hubbard’s fiery improvisations. A year later, in May 1973 (just two months after the release of Dark Side of the Moon), a Jean Dubuffet retrospective at New York’s prestigious Guggenheim Museum presented Coucou Bazar, a performance that combined theater, music, and dance, for which the eccentric French painter designed twenty dazzling costumes with interchangeable masks, hats, dresses, coats, and gloves. 

* The painter Jean Dubuffet was an art-school hero of Syd Barrett’s, along with Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg.

“The spirit of the whole performance is situated at the opposite pole of realism and rationality,” Dubuffet exclaimed. The otherworldly music that accompanied the piece was “composed and realized” by Mimaroğlu and released later that year on the small independent label Finnadar Records.

   The avant-garde was not the sole property of a small group of eccentrics and outsiders. Paul McCartney had been enthralled by Stockhausen as well. In April 1966, the Beatles were ensconced at Abbey Road, recording what would become their brilliant seventh album, Revolver, which features their first foray into experimental music, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” While John Lennon is most often perceived as the “arty” Beatle due to innovative songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus” and his collaboration with Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono, it was Paul who created a series of homemade tape loops of sounds that were no longer recognizable but evocative of everything from blaring traffic jams to squalling seagulls. When mixed with droning Indian music (George Harrison’s latest passion), they created a surreal soundscape for the Beatles’ one-chord mantra, in which Lennon enticed listeners to “turn off ” their minds with a heady lyric inspired by LSD guru Timothy Leary and The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Beyond the sharing of a studio and engineer/producer Norman Smith, the Beatles’ influence on Pink Floyd was inestimable. While they were recording Piper at the Gates of Dawn in Studio 3, members of the band were invited to listen to the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita.” The Fabs’ huffs and puffs and grunts and groans on the song’s extended tag are said to have influenced the Floyd’s feral vocalizations on their psych/jazz instrumental “Pow R. Toc. H.”

More obvious examples occur when comparing the lilting fingerpicked guitar figure of “Dear Prudence” with “Brain Damage,” or playing the Beatles’ dramatic coda to “I Want You” against David Gilmour’s guitar figure on “Echoes.” While hardly a note-for-note match, both songs build with a sinister tension in a remarkably similar way. Overflowing with cosmic imagery, “Echoes” also nicks a bit of Lennon’s lyric to “I Am the Walrus,” as Gilmour and Wright sing in seamless tandem, “I am you, and what I see is me.” Leaning on Lennon again for inspiration, Roger lifted the phrase “inviting and inciting me” directly from “Across the Universe.” Was Waters paying tribute to John or simply displaying an enormous amount of cheek? Alan Parsons was of the opinion that “if it hadn’t been for the way the Beatles had recorded . . . Pink Floyd, who are very much studio-based musicians, would not have turned out the way they did.”

   Less apparent is the impact the Floyd’s sound had on the Beatles. “Wings was in Abbey Road at the same time Dark Side of the Moon was being recorded,” Fernando Perdomo points out. “There’s a track on their 1973 album Red Rose Speedway called ‘Loup, the First Indian on the Moon,’ which sounds, surprisingly, a lot like Pink Floyd.”

Listening to this spacey instrumental embellished by liquid electric guitar riffs and Moog synthesizer, floating over Denny Seiwell’s lumbering drums, one must wonder if McCartney wasn’t intentionally imitating or paying tribute to Pink Floyd. “It was sort of a bit of fun for us. It’s pretty experimental,” Paul later explained. It’s also interesting to note that Alan Parsons mixed the track.

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