I do like to think that I keep up with happenings in the world, at least those that interest & affect me. I mean I have the Internet & it’s all on there isn’t it. Unfortunately a combination with the current corona cull & being a man of a certain age has meant that in the past year there’s been just too much death in the news that has come my way. I was not affected by the recent expiration of a senior member of our royal family, nor by the excessive, often obsequious media coverage as I own a television that has an off switch. I was though surprised & saddened to only learn this week of the passing, three weeks ago, of Malcolm Cecil, a pioneer of & innovator in electronic music &, with his partner Robert Margouleff, more responsible for the introduction of new technology & its potential to mainstream music than anyone.
Londoner Malcolm was born into a musical family in 1937, his mother Edna being well known as “The Queen of the Accordion”. After a first professional gig as a 13 year old drummer he switched to double bass & made the Jazz scene with leading British musicians while backing visiting American stars as part of the resident band at Ronnie Scott’s club in the glittering West End with a daytime job in the BBC Radio Orchestra. An engineering education then a two year stretch in the Royal Air Force as a radar operator extended his interest in & knowledge of the technical side of recording. His understanding of the process led to the first 4-track studio in London which soon had become 16-track & demand for his services in Los Angeles & New York. In N.Y. he was referred to Media Sound Studio where Robert Margouleff was producing sound effects for advertising jingles on a Moog Series III. Galvanised by each other’s enthusiasm, with a whole lot of inspiration, innovation & access to the developing technology “The Original New Timbral Orchestra” was the largest, multitimbral polyphonic analog synthesizer in the world, whatever that means T.O.N.T.O., 6 feet high, 25 feet in diameter & weighing a ton, was impressive.
“Zero Time”, an album by Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, was released in 1971. Recorded at Media Sound, entirely on synthesizers, the adventure stimulated the duo to create new sounds, grabbed on to tape from the analogue gear before they disappeared & even new gadgets to expand the machine’s range. These soundscapes (a new word back then) were undoubtedly helped by Cecil’s musicality & Jazz background, they had rapidly progressed from “how do you get a tune out of this thing?” to doing exactly that. With its Sci-Fi inspired tracks & psychedelic cover, in the early 1970’s the album was at the front of the stack, along with “Live/Dead” & “Gandharva”, an atmospheric piece by fellow Moog Droogs Beaver & Krause, for pleasant evenings sprawled on a large cushion with a small circle of friends & a microdot tab of L.S.D. each. “Zero Time” did not sell too well but was still noted. When Stevie Wonder asked to meet the pair he arrived carrying a copy under his arm.
Stevie Wonder was just 21 & his album “Where I’m Coming From” (1971) had marked a process of establishing his independence from the Tamla Motown organisation & his maturity as a writer & musician. On the majority of the record he had played a synth bass, now he was looking for new sounds on new instruments & his collaboration with the similarly eager Margouleff & Cecil proved to be monumental. With a new contract & full artistic control the quickly recorded “Music of My Mind” (1972) was more than a statement of intent. A critical rather than commercial success it gave the trio confidence to push it along even further. Bob & Malcolm found the sounds that Stevie could hear, setting the controls for the heart of the Funk, Stevie played the instruments while his partners rolled the tape. “Talking Book” (1972), “Innervisions” (1973) & “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” (1974) were expressions of the genius of Stevie Wonder that progressed the sonic palette of popular music. Add in a record by his wife Syreeta & Minnie Riperton’s “Perfect Angel” & the trio were on a run. I could select any number of tracks to confirm that & it’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” with its adroit, avant-garde, fat, funky bassline that makes the cut today.
Such success meant that the pair were in demand as programmers, producers & engineers. Cecil set up the synths for Stephen Stills’ “Manassas”, the same on “Good Old Boys” for Randy Newman & Van Dyke Parks’ “The Clang of the Yankee Reaper”, all three favorites round here. It was with the Isley Brothers, a group that had an ear for what’s going on since the world was in monochrome, that the pair added value to a sound that sold on the “Live It Up” & “The Heat Is On” albums. In 1975 disagreements over credit & finance led to Wonder, Cecil & Margouleff going three separate ways. The family Isley stuck with Malcolm & he produced “Harvest For the World”, a song we all know.
With his own set up at T.O.N.T.O studios, Santa Monica, Malcolm continued to work with Billy Preston then in 1977 began a relationship with Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson, fellow students at Lincoln University Pennsylvania who, throughout the 1970s had combined Jackson’s Soul-Jazz grooves with Gil’s conscious poetry to create music that was to prove increasingly influential leading to Gil being recognised as a Rap pioneer. When Jackson left “Reflections” (1981) was overall an attempt to make a mainstream record that was not always successful. The album included “B Movie”, a 12 minute long salvo against the trivialisation of US politics, of nostalgia for a past that only existed on celluloid, of the desire for a president who embodied the masculine virtues of John Wayne & the reel to reality of the second-rater Ronald Ray-Gun (sound familiar?). Underpinned by another sensationally groovy bassline, Cecil produced a masterpiece where the music & the message meet in perfect euphony.
Since the first piano lessons at the age of three there had always been music in Malcolm’s Cecil’s life. He was of an age & temperament to have an inquisitiveness to obtain knowledge of developing technology in electronic music & its potential to change recording techniques. Of course he had contemporaries who were making their own contributions & breakthroughs in the field but none were making records that made the charts & sold in their millions. In a pre-digital age where experimentation & innovation was a necessity it was Cecil’s vision & musicality that transformed the squawks & squonks of a machine into a key, now commonplace, development in modern music. A restored, playable T.O.N.T.O. is now in the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alberta & until his death Malcolm would lecture on & demonstrate his amazing device.
I’ll close with a track by Little Feat from their great “Dixie Chicken” record. I had always assumed that Bill Payne played all the keyboards on their albums but on “Kiss It Off”, a diversion from the group’s developing sultry Country Funk, Cecil’s work, programming & probably playing, transforms Lowell George’s mournful ballad into an atmospheric, experimental treat.