Friday, 16 February 2018
(This first appeared in issue #70 of Shindig! magazine.)
The missing link between Spike Jones, Joe Meek, Kraftwerk and Fat Boy Slim? Duncan Fletcher celebrates the life of Jean-Jacques Perrey - composer, entertainer, electronic revolutionary and self-described “passenger here on planet Earth.”
Jean-Jacques Perrey's life sadly ended in November last year but he leaves behind an indelible stamp on modern music. His classically trained musicality, love of entertaining and innovative studio and tape manipulation helped make a wealth of groundbreaking music. Quirky musical jokes, sci-fi eeriness, concrete sounds and dance-floor friendly grooves are all found in his work. The Beastie Boys, Fat Boy Slim, and even The Beatles have all been influenced by, or sampled his music. A pioneer of electronic music, he helped popularise the Moog synthesizer and his music still sounds fresh on TV adverts to this day.
Perrey was born Jean Leroy in Paris in November 1929 and grew up during World War Two, an experience that affected his outlook towards life as well as music. Perrey's daughter/manager Patricia explains - “He witnessed a lot of suffering. He grew pessimistic on mankind. This is possibly why he mostly wanted to make people happy. He considered it his mission in life to bring joy and happiness through his music. His biggest reward was when he saw people smile when they heard his music.”
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Jean-Jacques began studying to be a doctor but he abandoned medical college after meeting Georges Jenny, the inventor of the Ondioline. Jenny's invention was an early electronic keyboard and precursor to the Moog. It had a range of voices designed to imitate real instruments. The two men struck a deal. In return for a free instrument Perry would travel Europe to promote its possibilities. He became the Ondioline's only true virtuoso. The meeting with Jenny was the first of many fortuitous pairings that continued throughout Perrey's life.
Perrey relocated to America in 1960 at the insistence of Carroll Bratman who'd set up a studio and sound lab for him. It was here that Perrey would develop tape slicing techniques and methods for generating new rhythms. In 1965 he teamed up with Gershon Kingsley, a former colleague of John Cage, with whom he'd release two classic LPs for the Vanguard label, using the second Moog synthesizer ever produced. It wasn't until 1967 that the Moog became commercially available and associated with artists such as Wendy Carlos.
The next few years were Perrey's golden period when the biorhythms of technology, his own creative abilities and people's openness to new sounds all aligned. It was during this era he released some of his best-loved work including The In Sound From The Way Out! (with Kingsley 1965) and Moog Indigo (1970) which contained the dance-floor classic 'E.V.A.'.
“His happiest time was clearly in New York between 1960 and 1970,” says Patricia. “Composing in the studio that Carroll Bratman had set up for him and his Ondioline, and then with the Moog synthesizer that Bob Moog had himself come to set up and demonstrate to him. These ten years in the States were his most productive, innovative and creative. He met an incredible number of people, many of them famous, and was lucky to be able to share thoughts and ideas with them. He was so kind and charismatic, everybody loved him and wanted to know more about the Ondioline, then about the crazy loops he used to make. It made him proud and happy.”
Even The Beatles gave their stamp of approval by including a snippet of Perrey's 'Baroque Hoedown' on their Christmas fan-club flexi in 1968. This track remains one of Perrey's best known, thanks to Walt Disney using a orchestrated cover as the music for their theme-park's Main Street Electrical Parades.
A new vinyl LP of rare and unreleased material focusing on the Ondioline years is now available thanks to super-fan and friend Wally De Backer (aka chart-topping musician Goyte). Wally explains how they became friends - “My production partner François Tetaz played me The In Sound From Way Out! in 2005 when we were mixing my second record Like Drawing Blood. He thought the more whimsical moments on my tracks recalled the spirit of Perrey & Kingsley's music. Only a week later I stumbled upon a goldmine in a thrift shop near where I was living: all of Jean-Jacques' classic Vanguard LPs in mint condition!... There's a song on the next Gotye album that I wrote and produced in tribute to Jean-Jacques. I sent a demo of the track to JJ and his daughter/manager Patricia about three years ago, they responded warmly and invited me to visit (I was on a plane within two weeks!) I visited a number of times since, it felt like meeting family each time.”
Along with tracks showing his fun and quirky side, the album Jean-Jacques Perrey et son Ondioline, also contains rare library music, private press pieces, a demonstration of the Ondioline's voices and more impressionistic and personal tracks including collaborations with American composers Angelo Badalamenti and Billy Goldenberg. The album is the first release on Wally's Forgotten Futures label - “I've set up the label to excavate lost and super rare works by inventors of electronic and unusual musical instruments from the 20th century, some of whom were composers themselves, others of whom had interesting connections with musicians who were greatly inspired by the inventors' instruments to go on all sorts of wild musical journeys.”
Wally recently appeared at this year's Moogfest in North Carolina performing a tribute set to Perrey with his newly-formed Ondioline Orchestra. They were also due to perform with him last year but it wasn't to be - “We premiered the show at a brilliant venue in Brooklyn called National Sawdust last November. It turned out to be only days after Jean-Jacques passed away. He was to have joined us to celebrate his life in music, plane tickets booked and everything, but he received a terminal cancer diagnosis very suddenly and, mercifully, departed only days afterwards. Bittersweet though it was to do the show, JJ's daughter Patricia and also Marie Lorette Jenny, daughter of the Ondioline's inventor Georges Jenny, joined us to celebrate these two great men's wonderful work. The feeling in the room was something I'd never experienced, truly elevated. I felt JJ's spirit, especially, guiding us through every song.”
The vast archives of unreleased material no doubt contain other sides to the man rightly regarded as a giant of electronic music. Says Patricia - “I'm delighted that many of my father’s early works are now easily available. His contribution to music of the 20th century is considerable in the field of easy listening electronic music. I think he was one of the most important links between serious research in electronic music and its use in popular music. As Wally is still busy listening to old tapes and looking into people’s attics, I’m pretty confident he'll find more material that he'll want to release.”
I asked Patrica how she thought her father would like to be remembered - “He used to say that he hoped he had been able to bring some happiness into people’s homes, that it was the most important thing for him. He also always advocated for more respect of the planet and of animals. And he hoped humour would save the planet. From the numerous testimonials I received I see that he is remembered as a loving person and a humorous musician. That is good. That is exactly how I think he would have liked to be remembered, had he said anything about it. At the end of all his performances he would say to the public 'Don’t forget to be happy. I love you.'”
Jean-Jacques Perrey et son Ondioline is out now on Forgotten Futures.