Jean-Jacques Perrey: space-pop pioneer
Back in the 60s, when I was still at primary school and my shilling-a-week pocket money could barely buy me a fraction of the pop singles I craved, my listening was confined to The Sunset Show (4.30pm weeknights on 2ZB) and the odd assortment of LPs in my parents’ collection. They had Beethoven symphonies and Mozart sonatas, a live album of Harry Belafonte, a couple of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and a record called The In Sound From Way Out. It was credited to two names, Perrey and Kingsley. I had no idea who Perrey and Kingsley were, as the cover showed only an abstract arrangement of brightly coloured dots, blurred as though caught by a moving camera, but of all my parents’ records I liked this one the best. It was packed with short appealing tunes, as catchy as anything on The Sunset Show but entirely instrumental, with titles that seemed designed to capture the imagination of an eight-year-old with fantasies of space travel: ‘Unidentified Flying Object’, ‘The Little Man From Mars.’
Even more intriguing were the sounds. These didn’t seem to made by any instruments I knew, but rather by unidentifiable inventions that variously whirred, buzzed, bleeped and hummed the cosmic pop melodies. They were like alien voices, or unidentified musical objects.
After a couple of years, my interest shifted to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, and I began to regard Perrey and Kingsley’s music as a bit quaint and best forgotten – though to be honest, in those new sonic frontiers of rock I was exploring, I often heard sounds that reminded me of them.
I was reminded again this week when I learned of the death, at age 87, of Jean-Jacques Perrey, half of the Perrey-Kingsley duo. Surveying his achievements over a career of more than 50 years has given me a renewed appreciation of what he created.
Born in France in 1929, he was a medical student when he met George Jenny, inventor of an early electronic keyboard he called the Ondioline (a relative of the earlier Ondes Martenot, revived this century by the group Radiohead). Perrey, an amateur accordion player, dropped his medical studies to travel around Europe demonstrating the Ondioline. By the early 60s he had moved to New York, where he continued to pursue his fascination with electronic sounds. There he met Robert Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesiser, and became one of its earliest practitioners. He also experimented with splicing tape to create loops of sound, which became the basis of his compositions.
In New York he met Gershon Kingsley, a former student of the avant-garde composer John cage, with whom he formed a duo. The In Sound From Way Out was their first release in 1966; a second album Kaleidoscopic Vibrations, came out the following year, after which the pair moved into sound design for radio and television advertising.
Perrey eventually returned to France, where he continued to compose for ads, television, ballet – and conducted medical research into therapeutic sounds for insomniacs.
Though I hadn’t heard anything by Perrey since the ‘60s I was occasionally reminded of his work. In 1996, hip-hop group the Beastie Boys appropriated the distinctive cover of the In Sound From Way Out for an album of instrumentals, an apparent homage to Perry-Kingsley.
Then in 2006 I stumbled on his work again. It was an album called Moog Acid by DJ Luke Vibert, an experimental DJ I’d been interested in, mainly for his innovative mixing of dance beats and pedal steel guitar. Here were those unidentifiable yet uniquely recognisable sounds – some remarkably like those I remembered from that childhood LP, others different yet just as otherworldly. Perrey continued to make records with a variety of collabroators, almost until his death. Last year he released ELA with young French pop electronicist David Chazam. It’s as full of mad pop melodies, childlike whimsy and space-age sonics as anything he ever did.