Saturday, November 5, 2016

Jean Jacques Perrey, 1929-2016

Rolling Stone magazine and other outlets are reporting the passing of Jean-Jacques Perrey from lung cancer on Friday. He was 87. An early pioneer of electronic music, the French-born Perrey was an early adopter of an electronic instrument called the Ondioline (a modified version of which was used in the famous solo in Del Shannon's Runaway) and in 1966 with Gershon Kingsley (who composed the famous Moog composition Popcorn) released the album The In Sound from Way Out!, combining the Ondioline with hand-spliced tape loops of animals, humans, and other sound effects. Their follow-up the following year, Kalidoscopic Vibrations, is notable for featuring one of the very first songs ever to utilize a Moog synthesizer, The Savers (later used as the theme to the game show The Joker's Wild). Although many Moog-based albums would be released in the 1960s and 1970s - many of which would follow Perrey & Kingsley's example of mixing original compositions with classical music and popular Top 40 tunes of the time, it's amazing to think that what I've always considered the earliest example of a "Moog album" is in fact 95% not "Moog" but rather a predecessor!

Perrey & Kingsley's one actual "Moog" composition, The Savers (1967)

Perrey would later record two solo albums for Vanguard and compose a number of other works and albums both alone and with collaborators, most recently with Dana Countryman. Jean-Jacques Perrey's work is some of my favorite music of all time because it's not only catchy, but also a very "visual" sort of music. It's some of my favorite music to draw to and is in a way to me very much like an aural cartoon - many of his songs I can imagine sight gags that accompany the changing instrumentations and sound effects (in later years Perrey's work with Countryman would even sample the iconic Hanna-Barbera cartoon sound effects, which scream "zany cartoon" to me - as they probably do to a lot of people, since they've been used in practically every cartoon from the past 30 or 40 years). It's also probably some of the few "Space Age" music that still sounds "out there" and futuristic, perhaps not in the real future sense that was big in the '60s, but the imagined "retro future" of the same era that '60s icons that originally meant to predict what our futures will be like, such as Disneyland's Tomorrowland, have chosen to pay tribute to when those predictions turned out to be less than accurate.

One of my favorite Perrey & Kingsley "cartoon" pieces, Electronic Can-Can (1966)

And speaking of Disneyland, it is they who we have to thank for Perrey's most indelible contribution to pop culture - when Disneyland introduced the Main Street Electrical Parade in 1972, Don Dorsey, who was responsible for audio engineering and production for Disneyland parades and festivals, chose Perrey & Kingsley's Baroque Hoedown as the song which would accompany it. Dorsey's rendition of the song is famously mixed with various theme songs from famous Disney movies and patriotic tunes. The song oddly fits the experience, which is as "out there" as Perrey's music, and the song has become one of many that make one immediately think of the Disney parks - if not the Walt Disney Company as a whole itself. Interestingly, the song was at first used without permission - Perrey himself was unaware that Disney was using it in a parade until he visited one of the theme parks and was shocked to hear one of his own compositions! Since then, things have been squared away and Perrey & Kingsley have been paid proper royalties by Disney. (Before Disney took the song as its own, the Beatles sampled Baroque Hoedown on the 1968 installment of their annual fan club Christmas greeting - a record which also included Tiny Tim covering Nowhere Man.)


Perrey and Kingsley's original recording of Baroque Hoedown was used as the soundtrack for this short film which appeared as part of Mickey Mouse's 50th anniversary TV special in 1978. Combining it with stop-motion animation of Disney memorabilia further shows how the song has become synonymous with "Disney" as a company and a spirit. Stop-motion animator Mike Jittlov was incensed that Disney did not give him on-screen credit for his short films, so he hid the name of two collaborators in the animation itself and his name backwards on the psychiatrist's door at the start of the film. Jittlov's autobiographical movie The Wizard of Speed and Time is an interesting, if intentionally fanciful, recollection of his work and example of his mastery as a stop-motion artist.

Other countless examples of Perrey's work in pop culture include, but are not limited to, the "Medicinal Fried Chicken" episode of South Park, a recent Simpsons couch gag and a recent Apple commercial, a sample in the Smash Mouth song Walking on the Sun, and countless, countless others. As Perrey was a musician, the best way to honor him is not to talk about him, but to let you listen to him, so here are some more of my favorite compositions as well as other uses of his music in pop culture:


2016 guest Simpsons couch gag featuring Perrey & Kingsley's Computer in Love


December 1969 sketch from The Ed Sullivan Show starring one of the newest Muppets at the time, Big Bird, only one month after Sesame Street debuted, featuring Perrey's solo composition Minuet of the Robots. Big Bird is performed here not by Caroll Spinney but a professional dancer, who accidentally beaned Ed with his beak at the end of the sketch. Sullivan apparently didn't get the "I'll give you the bird" zinger - I'm guessing he ad-libbed the unintentionally hilarious (and redundant) introduction of his next guest as "Big Bird, a real big bird."

An example of Perrey's later work- his 2006 cover, with Dana Countryman, of The Typewriter, a famous comic instrumental by Leroy Anderson, famed composer of light, usually comic, instrumentals, his most famous being Sleigh Ride (the lyrics were written later by someone else).

"Going to the Store" (2011) by David Lewandowski, featuring Perrey & Kingsley's The Little Ships

I end this tribute to one of my favorite composers with my all-time favorite composition of his - Country Rock Polka from the 1970 solo album Moog Indigo. This is another "aural cartoon" track where I can think up gags in my head to the constantly changing instrumentation of the simple, hummable, repeated theme. These are the kind of instrumentals I like best, giving joy without words to everyone regardless of language, and Jean-Jacques Perrey did it quite well and with technology that was new at the time and still sounds unique to this day. Remembering his collaborator, Dana Countryman wrote in an appreciation that "[h]is motto and creed in almost every interview that he gave was 'keep smiling and be happy'. He was the master of happiness." Great advice, especially in a year such as this one. Thanks, Jean-Jacques, for your humorously happy music.


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