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Perrey Goes Large

The other day I was sent a link to a youtube video showing an elderly man in a 1950s sci-fi spaceship playing a funky electro instrumental on one of those keyboards you wear round your neck like a guitar. After briefly wondering if this was a new initiative in music therapy for senior citizens I realized that the old man was not any old man, but the last survivor of the first age of electronic pop music, and that the video is a celebratory launch into his ninth decade.

Way back in time, when Kraftwerk were in der Schule and Bob Moog was a callow youth making Theremins at home, the first glints of the bright dawn of electro-pop could be glimpsed over Paris. There, in 1952, a medical student called Jean-Jacques Perrey met an eccentric named Georges Jenny, who was hand-making and selling the Ondioline, an electronic musical instrument he had invented while recovering from TB in a sanatorium. Perrey was fascinated by the instrument and within a year had become Jenny’s salesman and ambassador-in-chief.

After a few years of traveling around Europe giving Ondioline demonstrations at music fairs, Perrey showed the instrument to Edith Piaf, who was much impressed. He played Ondioline on stage with her at the Paris Olympia in 1959, and she in turn gave him money to pay for studio time to make some recordings. Piaf then sent these to a friend in New York called Carroll Bratman, whose company, Carroll Music Service, hired out musical instruments to orchestras and studios throughout New York. Bratman liked what he heard and ordered an Ondioline. He also invited Perrey to visit New York in 1962, sending him tickets and providing accommodation and studio space for him once he arrived.

Once established in New York, Perrey set about composing and recording, while promoting the Ondioline wherever he could. He toured the country and appeared many times on television as ‘Mr Ondioline,’ a cheerfully rotund Gallic eccentric. The American public had already heard the instrument on account of its use by composer Alex North in the Stanley Kubrick film Spartacus (1960). North had bought his Ondioline in Paris, but with Perrey’s arrival in 1962 the instrument became more widely available in America, and for a short while it was in vogue. The following year the Ondioline appeared in the American singles charts for the first time, on an instrumental called ‘More’ by jazz trombonist Kai Winding.

Meanwhile, Perrey played Ondioline whenever he could, making adverts, jingles, and a series of four instrumental albums for Vanguard, two with collaborator Gershon Kingsley. These developed the trademark Perrey sound - best described as electronic easy listening – and pulled of the rarely-achieved feat of switching between novelty and innovation with ease. It was retro-futurism before the future had even arrived, positing a technological utopia where technology is fun. The first of the four albums, The In Sound From Way Out (1966), was made entirely with tape manipulation and the Ondioline, while the other three also used the then new Moog synthesizer, which could, rumour had it, make any sound you wanted. The Moog was actually a far more sophisticated instrument than the Ondioline and by the late 1960s the French oddity was drifting inexorably into obscurity, and with it, Perrey’s career started to wane. It was already an anachronism when, in 1978, Television used one on ‘The Fire’ from the Adventure album.

Perrey continued recording Moog albums with diminishing returns into the 70s, before moving onto other things. But by the late 80s/early 90s a burgeoning interest in vintage electronica saw Perrey name-checked and courted by the Beastie Boys, Stereolab, and Air, to name a few, and his much sampled 60s Ondioline/Moog instrumental ‘E.V.A.’ finally started to sounded contemporary. In 1998 Perrey returned to music, making his first album for twenty years, and, indefatigable, he hasn’t stopped since. He turned 80 on January 20th this year, still performing and recording, currently paired with that curator of kitsch Dana Countryman.

Perrey is an important figure, not just because he is probably the only 80-year old man in the world who plays a keyboard round his neck, but also for being one of a the first people to take electronic musical instruments out of austere mid-twentieth century experimental music into the bright, cheerful pop landscape that has turned out to be their natural home. History has proved him to be a true visionary. When Perrey started on his idiosyncratic career, pop’s use of electronics was in its infancy, whereas in modern classical music electronics were the coming thing. Now, almost all pop music uses electronic sound, whereas in classical music it remains a marginal option. Bon Anniversaire, Monsieur Perrey.

Mark Brend – January 22nd 2009

See Jean Jacques Perrey and Dana Countryman here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4FEet-mRXc
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