Memo from Turner

Such was the complexity of the early models of the Moog Synthesizer that the company often dispatched an engineer to work with the pop stars who wanted to experiment with the device. In Analog Days: The invention and impact of the Moog synthesizer, Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco tell the story of Jon Weiss, the Man from Moog, who traveled to London in the summer of 1968 with a series of black carrying cases that contained the component parts of the Moog Series III modular synthesizer. His students in London were to be the Rolling Stones, whose manager, Allan Klein, had managed to convince Robert Moog that, for promotional purposes, the Stones would receive a Moog synthesizer and a week’s free tuition. As Pinch and Trocco explain, the free week of lessons turned into weeks and then months, as Weiss was absorbed into the Stones’ inner circle and spent the majority of his time tutoring Mick, who was apparently a very quick study, on the Moog.

The Stones’ electronic experiments come to the fore not on any of their studio albums, but on the tracks they recorded for Performance, the Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg film that was in production at exactly that moment. Mick was so taken with the device that it became a prop in the film itself, its aura of technological futurity fitting well with the film’s experimentalism and surrealism.

Mick and his Moog in Performance

Although filmed in the summer of 1968, Performance was not released until August 1970. By most accounts, the delay was the result of Warner Brothers’ shock over the film’s explicit sexual content, but it surely had something to do with its formal adventureness and general weirdness as well. The nearly two year delay from production to release surely meant that the cultural moment the film was meant to document had, to some degree, passed, but the film still had the capacity to shock and Warner Brothers were clearly skittish about its release in North America.

A press release from Warner Brothers (titled “Mick’s Mood is Moog in his ‘Performance'”) highlights Jagger’s use of the Moog synthesizer and struggle to explain the operation of the instrument. It references Wendy Carlos’ Switched on Bach, released the previous year to substantial interest and acclaim, but is quick to point to Mick’s newer, hipper, younger use of the machine:

There’s an air of press release desperation here in the reference to the telephone switchboard and in the reduction of the music-making process to “depressing the keys and plugging the holes.” Still, it is a reminder that in its earliest days the synthesizer must have seemed like a kind of alien machine to most and that the process of naturalizing and domesticating all those jacks, wires, and plugs took time as the use of the instrument trickled out over a number of musical genres over the course of the 1970s.

In his BFI Film Classics volume on Performance, Colin MacCabe notes that whilst the film was in studio limbo, Cammell solicited letters of support from a number of other filmmakers, including Kenneth Anger, David Maysles, and Stanley Kubrick, to send to Warner Brothers. He also wrote one himself and had Mick Jagger co-sign it. In it, he insisted that the film “does not upset audiences then it is nothing” (qtd in MacCabe 61). When Warners finally released the film they featured a commentary on it by Marshall McLuhan in the print advertisements.

Titled “Understanding ‘Performance'” the piece is filled with all kind of classic McLuhanisms. He claims the film is “a mildly emetic global pastoral, an artful repeat of the everyday world of 1970” and “a ‘garbage apocalypse’ – notice of cancellation of the world.” It’s not a half bad analysis of the film as it goes, and I’m sorely tempted to write a longer piece on it at some point in the future. For now, I’ll copy an excerpt from it below in which McLuhan links the way in which the criminal class and the pop world convergence in the film to the mergers and corporate partnerships characteristic of what was only around that time beginning to be identified as late capitalism.

Performance Notes

For more on Performance, I highly recommend MacCabe’s book, but see also Chris Chang’s “Cinema Sex Magick: The Films of Donald Cammell,” which appeared in the July 1996 issue of Film Comment and is archived at their site. There’s also an hour-long documentary on Cammell directed by Kevin Macdonald that, shamefully, has never been released on DVD. It is, however, available in seven parts on YouTube and is well worth watching. See the first bit here and following the links to watch the rest.

A note on the type

I think the typeface used for the title of McLuhan’s piece in the ad for Performance is Geometric 231 Light, designed by Rudolf Koch in 1927 at the Bauhaus. It’s close to, but not the same as, the one used for the cast and crew on the film’s original UK poster, which looks like Futura PT Light, also designed in 1927 but by Paul Renner, to me.

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