Jean-Jacques Perrey, was born in a little village in northern France, on January 20 1929, and received his first musical instrument, an accordion, when he was just 4, as a Christmas present. He would go on to teach himself to play the piano by ear, although he did once attempt to study music at the Amiens Conservatory, but was kicked out for violating school rules by performing in public.
Perrey must have had some sort of epiphany in Paris in 1952, after meeting inventor Georges Jenny. In 1941, the Frenchman had come up with the Ondioline, a very unique vacuum-tube powered electronic keyboard, suspended on special springs which made it possible to introduce a natural vibrato if the player moved the keyboard from side to side with their playing hand. The result was a beautiful, almost human-like expressive vibrato.
Perrey, who at the time was a student of medicine, must have realised that it was actually the science of electronic sound, that was really giving him a buzz, as opposed to the science of medicine. Upon that first meeting, Jenny must have enjoyed Perrey’s excitement towards this new instrument and actually gave him one to take home for six months, to see what someone with Perrey’s mind and talent could do with it. On the return, Jenny was quite impressed, and probably never heard anyone play it like he did. Perrey ditched his medical studies and Jenny hired him as a salesman and demonstrator of the new instrument. Out of these demonstrations grew a cabaret act in which Perrey played piano and Ondioline, at times simultaneously. Titled Around the World in 80 Ways, the show was quite popular and Perrey took it on tour throughout western Europe. Working the nightclub circuit, Perrey became acquainted with singer/songwriter Charles Trenet and also legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhart, who he ended up recording several songs with, one of which, The Soul of a Poet, became a major hit in Europe.
One night after a presentation of the show, Perrey received the notice that someone wanted to talk to him at the bar. To his surprise this person was Jean Cocteau (and by the way, myself having a huge adoration for that artist, when this fact was revealed, my brain exploded a just a little bit). The influential poet gave Perrey the advice to go to the U.S. to follow his music career there. “He said there would be more possibilities and an audience for my approach to music. He asked for my phone number and told me he would hand it to somebody that he knew who could help me find the sponsor in New York I needed. He gave my contact to Édith Piaf!”
Piaf was already really interested in the sounds of the Ondioline, and took Perrey under her wings. They would bond, perform and record together, and she would pay for studio time that enabled Perrey to record his own compositions. But Piaf’s biggest contribution was to send one of these tapes to Carroll Bratman, a music contractor in New York City. Bratman responded immediately, sending plane tickets to Perrey with one word marked on the envelope: “Come!” He moved to the U.S. in March 1960 and stayed there for 10 great years.
Now be sure to watch the online footage of Perrey demonstrating his incredible musical vocabulary on the Ondioline, which was televised on the American I’ve Got A Secret show in 1960 and also in ’66. Quite remarkable to see the reactions for what must have been for the majority of the audience, their first steps into the new world of electronic music.
Also, before Perrey moved to the U.S. he did release two EP’s under the adopted persona of Mr. Ondioline around 59-60 for Pacific Records. The result may have been whimsical commercial pop bent into kooky novel shapes, but it’s probably that bizarre mysterious cover that makes this 7″ EP so sort! Crazy for it’s day!
Bratman built Perrey an experimental laboratory and recording studio, where he would he invent “a new process for generating rhythms with sequences and loops”, utilising the environmental sounds of musique concrète. Like a mad scientist, he’d spend endless hours, even weeks, splicing tape, and tape recorders with scissors, piecing and “looping” together a unique fantastical take on the future.
In 1965 Perrey met Gershon Kingsley, who you could say was a like minded contemporary German American composer, and a former colleague of *John Cage, and at the time was a staff arranger at Vanguard Records. There must have been a strong and obvious connection from the get go. They both shared each others way of musically thinking, way out side and far beyond any square. And it wasn’t long before they found themselves recording together in the Vanguard studios, which normally specialized in folk, and not in avant-garde. The end result of their first collaborative effort was The In Sound from Way Out! released in 66.
With Perrey’s tape loops, and his inventive melodies twinning together with Kingsley’s complementary arrangements and instrumentation, the album created, was filled with tunes that sounded like some kind of surreal animated cartoon from out-of-space gone berserk. And since this was decades before the advent of widespread digital technology, each tune took weeks of painstaking editing and splicing to produce. Their second and final collaborative effort came in 1967 with the release of Kaleidoscopic Vibrations: Electronic Pop Music From Way Out!, and although sounding similar in style, this release was particularly different in two ways. Firstly, most of he compositions were versions of popular songs of the day. And secondly, Perrey’s tape loops and effects were added in post-production after Kingsley’s orchestrations were recorded, a technique now commonly used by electronic artists to this day. Also the album was one of the first to use the new Moog modular synthesizer, a massive, complicated electronic instrument resembling an old-style telephone switchboard.
Kingsley continued to do his own work with the Moog, while Perrey joined with producer John Mack and arranger Dave Mullaney and their company, Laurie Productions, to compose and record, mostly for radio and television advertisements. Perrey recorded two more albums for Vanguard, The Amazing New Electronic Pop Sounds of Jean Jacques Perrey and the legendary sort after Moog Indigo in 1970.
The back cover liner notes to this far out LP read…”Without a ship Columbus could not have traversed the Atlantic, without a telescope Galileo could not have charted the solar system, and what the MOOG SYNTHESIZER opens up for the future of music is beyond dreams”. The enthusiastic proclamation would continue with…”The most amazing instrument is nothing without a mind behind it, and Jean Jacques Perrey’s mind is that of a combined musician and scientist, with a special love for what is happy and vital tin popular music. The way Paganini thought musically in terms of the violin, Perrey thinks musically in terms of the Moog”.
As you’ve probably guessed, there were some pretty great spaced out tracks laid down on this 12″ slab, and as expected from Perrey, cosmically twisted, fun and swinging. There’s the great opener Soul City that every space mod must have played on their Weltron 2007 while preparing a Martini, and also the dark and slinky Cat In The Night. But the real track here, that took Perrey to a new level of greatness, is of course E.V.A.!
Now I know this infamous track is nowadays quite well known, and not just amongst the vintage space pop fanatics, but it’s hard to believe that is was never to be officially released by Vanguard as a 7″ in the US. In fact even the UK had to wait two years for the first Moog Indigo single, and that wasn’t even EVA, but instead the loopy Gossipo Perpetuo with the title track on the flip! THANKFULLY the vanguard people over in Brazil had the sense to release it 3 years after it was recorded as a single and as featured here, a gorgeous EP picture sleeve, that actually runs at 33rpm.
This track is pretty special to me for a number of reasons. It played on the dance floor at Sounds of Seduction when I meet my wife many years ago, and it also played at our wedding and is featured on our Super 8 wedding video. It’s so smooth, it has beats, it has fuzz and Wah wah, and it even has bells…but most importantly, it has so much integrity! And while so many other Perrey recordings happily and contently sit back in that other time from the past, this unstoppable track is still soaring far ahead, smashing through electronic genres, only leaving a traces of space glitter on the occasional hip dance floor.
And so what does E.V.A. stand for? Well to tell you the truth, I don’t know, but it is a space term for extra-vehicular activity, so maybe that was a reference point?
Perrey returned to France in 1970 and became the musical director of a ballet company. He wrote and recorded music for a television commercials and a number of French cartoons, and released several albums of this music on the Montparnasse label. He also continued to work on music for therapeutic purposes, including one project that involved recording with dolphins in the waters near Vancouver, Canada. “It was remarkable,” Perrey says. “If you played sounds of a certain frequency, the dolphins began to swim in perfect circles.”
Perrey’s influence would reverberate for years – The In Sound from Way Out! inspired a tribute from the Beastie Boys, who borrowed both the album’s title and cover art for their own album 30 years later. But sadly, none of this translated into personal fortune. Perrey did not own the publishing rights to his music when it was licensed to Disney, while Stanley Kubrick was able to incorporate some of Perrey’s sound effects into 2001: A Space Odyssey for next to nothing. Perrey says: “Jean Cocteau told me, ‘Thirty years after I die, you will retire a rich man.’ Well, Cocteau died in 1963 and I haven’t been able to retire yet.”
I highly recommend this video interview by Richard Lawson from 2004!
Also great Perrey references here…
*John Cage, who was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde, and is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″, which is performed in the absence of deliberate sound. Musicians who present the work do nothing aside from being present for the duration specified by the title. The content of the composition is not “four minutes and 33 seconds of silence,” as is sometimes assumed, but rather the sounds of the environment heard by the audience during the performance.
*Photo credit to Marco Zanoni