The Electronic Music of the 1960s

The 1960s was an era of vast social upheaval. Grainy textbook pages and archive footage alone cannot convey all of its unbridled creativity coursing through various subcultures that emerged then.

Cork Marcheschi had his Damascene moment at a church concert when he witnessed a rhythm & blues band whose rhythmic sounds sent shivers down his spine, inspiring him to create his own haunting electronic music. This event led him down the path towards creating his own bizarre electronic compositions.

Tonto’s Expanding Head Band

Malcolm Cecil was an electronic music pioneer associated with Tonto’s Expanding Head Band who died March 28 at 84. Among other early synth pioneers such as Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra album or Klaus Schulze’s Picture Music albums. Malcolm Cecil made numerous groundbreaking compositions like 1971’s Zero Time that predated these groundbreaking efforts from their rivals Tangerine Dream (Phaedra) and Klaus Schulze (Picture Music).

Cecil began his musical journey as a bass player for Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated and British jazz groups before coming to America as a studio engineer at Media Sound Studios. There, he met Robert Margouleff – an operatic tenor turned synthesizer enthusiast – whom Cecil formed a duo with and recorded Zero Time together.

Listening to Zero Time was like experiencing an audible celestial orchestra of analog synth sounds; its impressive array resembled something out of a sci-fi B-movie with its impressive array of 86 manual controls modulating nine oscillators and was comprised of nine oscillators modulated by nine manual controls modulated manually from nine manual controllers containing manual oscillator modulators. Zero Time marked a dramatic departure from Canned Heat/Allman Brothers style jammed out boogie-woogie/Allman Brothers mode jammed out boogie-woogie/Allman Brothers mode nasal pseudo country harmony singing of Everly Brothers type vocal harmony singing/Syrinx/Fifty Foot Hose/Beaver Krause kinda weirdness made manifest through their experimental sounds/psychedelic weirdness/etc… Zero Time represented an original musical experience unlike anything before encountered before.

Even though TONTO was never commercially successful, its influence can still be felt today. If you look closely at any recordings from Quincy Jones, Minnie Ripperton or Stevie Wonder in the 1970s that feature credit lines including Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff (the creators of TONTO), chances are you’ll come across their names among those listed as collaborators on that project.

Their musical experimentation also contributed to the birth of progressive rock, the genre that combined rock with classical styles that would come to define the 1970s and beyond. Furthermore, the fact that Cecil dropped out of college after mastering these skills exemplifies how innovative musicians today tend to operate outside traditional educational channels.

Fifty Foot Hose

Fifty Foot Hose are among the many bands who deserve to have the term’synthelic’ attached to them (though Wiki tends to group Procol Harmum and Moby Grape in with them too). Based in San Francisco, Fifty Foot Hose were an outstanding example of avant-garde psychedelia music straddling this precarious genre boundary.

Cauldron were also, in many ways, precursors of groups like Can and Krautrock. While their first album featured adventurous Moog-meets-rock arrangements, their second truly shines: Cauldron features complex electronic compositions ranging from delicate drones to massive sound storms that become truly mesmerising.

This album lasts almost an hour and a half, and features slow-paced space beats propelled by bass with interesting interludes of treated sound effects, often given a droning quality by manipulation, or sometimes made out of clankity household objects like chains or saw blades – giving its music its unnerveous quality that has made this record so influential.

Silver Apples of the Moon stands out as an important work as it was the first extended piece of ‘classical’ music released as an extended piece on CD, shifting focus away from live performance to recorded media culture and becoming an influential benchmark piece. You can hear its influence even today through artists such as Billie Eilish and Grimes’ spiritual yet experimental music.

Intersystems were an experimental arts laboratory like their American counterparts the Hose, producing multimedia happenings incorporating poetry, kinetic sculpture and architecture. John Mills-Cockell played an essential part in these happenings with sonic contributions by John Syrinx (later founded with Paul Beaver to form Syrinx) providing sound. Their 1967 release Free Psychedelic Poster Inside is an innovative example of Moog meets rock that also bears some similarity with Can’s avant garde fusion music; an essential listen for electronic music fans!


While musique concrete pioneers were gathering at Paris’ GRM and Stockhausen was developing his art of “electronique musikk”, pioneers of American electronic music established their own space in Manhattan – Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Centre was an experimental lab funded by grants that explored sound synthesis using its signature Brobdingnagian RCA Mark II synth.

Milton Babbitt and Vladimir Ussachevsky were its founding members, along with Paul Beaver and Bernard Krause (technicians who would help with experiments). Paul Beaver and Bernard Krause, among many others, assisted them with these experiments and the resultant LPs were often cerebral yet abstract – with stippled chimes on ‘After Hours’ layering rattling typewriters and ringing phones to form an industrial collage; fluoro loop-di-loops on ‘Drops’ creating multicoloured dust clouds!

Other albums from this period explored more esoteric realms of electronic music, and there are some real gems among them. John Grossi tries to reconcile electronic composition’s more unpredictable possibilities with clear musical purpose; although not always succeeding. It includes some intriguing sounds such as the stippled chime pattern found in ‘Warm-Up Canon And Peace’ or loop-di-loop harmony found on ‘Forests’ that may take your breath away!

Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder were instrumental in giving synthesizers pop connotations through their electronic dance music, making synthesisers accessible to a broader audience. Furthermore, these artists began replacing orchestras with drum machines and sequencers while maintaining the same essential soundscape-based approach.

While Moog had long been used in experimental music, this album marked its introduction into general public consciousness. Custom-tailored to fit both sides of a 12″ vinyl record, its ambitious scope makes for an engaging set of fizz-bang electronics: pinprick tones sweep across stereo fields while gentle passages are interrupted by sudden bursts of noise, while sequenced synth phrases (another innovation at the time) feature bleeps and trance stabs to complete its impactful experience.


After Intersystems disbanded, John Mills-Cockell founded Syrinx with Doug Pringle on saxophone and Alan Wells on conga drums – two pioneering users of the new Moog synthesizer to push electronic music beyond classical confines into more contemporary non-classical territories. Their 1970 debut record featured wild sequencer rhythms blending exotic percussion, world beats, acoustic strings and flutes for an outre record before its time.

But what makes them truly fascinating is their use of the Moog to craft melodies which seem to originate in spiritual realms. “December Angel” features strange squalls and unusual Moog chimes that sound almost celeste-like; demo and live versions become even more mesmerizing with space for violins and bells to drift through the atmosphere.

Its melodic, even tranquil quality stands in stark contrast to much of the experimental music produced during this era, yet is no less impressive for being so novel. When it comes to early 1970s experimental music, few are as striking.

As time passed, significant development in both acoustic and electrical devices began, though developments that would eventually give way to modern electronic music came more rapidly after WWII ended. By 1948, basic circuits for sine, square and sawtooth waves had been invented while mechanical recording processes had been replaced with electrical recording techniques.

As more composers began taking advantage of electronic technology, new compositional styles emerged that utilized it; during this period we can hear the first large-scale, fully composed piece of electronic music – Silver Apples of the Moon by Terry Riley – made famous worldwide.

This work was commissioned by the BBC, and performed at the Festival of Britain. Recorded between 1966-7 at New York University using a Buchla 100 synthesizer which Subotnick and Tape Music Center had helped develop. Not only was this piece the first piece of electronic music ever to premiere this way; but also marked a breakthrough moment for classical composers as their works became available commercially for sale.