We look back at the life and work of a man who reshaped the sound of the 20th century.
This post ran originally on THUMP UK.
There's a comment from someone on the YouTube page for Mort Garson's 1976 album Plantasia who says that they inherited the album from their grandfather, who was given the album free with the purchase of a mattress at a mattress store in the late 1970s. The mattress store was giving away was giving away a copy of the album—a psychedelic, instrumental electronic record about plants—for free with every purchase. If this story is true, I would really love to find out how that particular deal came about. Thanks in advance.
Plantasia is an instrumental concept album about, yep, you guessed it, plants, made using only Moog synthesizers, accompanied by the subtitle "Warm earth music for plants...and the people that love them". Like most other people who've accidentally come into contact with Garson's magnum opus, I clicked on the album having had my curiosity piqued by the title and album cover. I stayed for the mesmerizing music, which still makes me feel like I'm happily trapped in a lucid dream whenever I listen to it.
And, again, like most people, I had no real idea of who this mysterious bloke with a plant fixation actually was. So, I started researching more and more about the man who made it, and began to uncover not only one of the most forward thinking composers of the early electronic era, but surely one of the most unusual characters—a middle aged, working class American who according to his daughter at least, was an incredibly emotionally sensitive man, who made his music mostly for the enjoyment of his wife.
Having worked as journeyman classical composer for many years, Garson first found commercial success writing pop songs for a string of acts based on the East Coast in the early 1960s.
After meeting the creator of the Moog synthesizer Robert Moog at some point in the late 1960s, Garson bought one of his early instruments, and began to incorporate it more and more into his music, eventually using nothing else. After getting to grips with the new technology, Garson was soon at the top of his game as a studio engineer and composer for television, creating jingles and sound effects for adverts and jingles, and in July 1969 he was even commissioned to soundtrack the transmission of the first moon landing.
But rather than just get drunk every day for the next ten years, Garson used his success to make over 20 solo albums exploring the possibilities of the synthesizer, choosing to work within concepts such as space travel, the occult, and the growth of plants.
The following is an attempt to map out his extraordinary musical journey in five steps.
1. Ruby and the Romantics - "Our Day Will Come"
Garson had been writing pop songs for other artists since 1957, but this was his first big hit, an R&B ballad that topped the Billboard chart upon its release. The song is nice enough and full of rich vocal harmonies, but for me the only thing that really draws any comparison with Garson's later work is the dreamy xylophone that drops in and out, and what I assume to be a harmonium bleeding in about halfway through the song. It's not that remarkable, but the textural qualities of the instrumentation and production hint at a composer ahead of the curve.
2. The Zodiac - Cosmic Sounds
After a hugely successful commercial period writing albums for singers like Doris Day and Julie London, and working as a producer for Capitol and Elektra records, the late 1960s is when Garson's experimentation with synthesizers begins proper.
This album was allegedly commissioned from Jac Holzman, the head of Elektra at the time, who hired Garson to write the music, and to produce alongside Alex Hassilev, of skiffle group The Limeliters.
The result veers between cheesy, by-numbers, synth-led psychedelic rock, and electronic atonal noise, punctuated by drippings of sitar and a sort of King Arthur-esque medieval narrative. One of the songs was sampled by DJ Shadow on Entroducing. Weirdly enough though, this album was a massive commercial success, which encouraged A&M to offer him a deal to write and produce 12 albums about each sign of the zodiac. So there you go.
3. Mort Garson - Electronic Hair Pieces
Alongside writing the 12 zodiac albums for A&M, Garson was also hired to compose the incidental music for the moon landings in 1969, of which he said that "the only sounds that go with space travel are electronic ones".
Earlier that year, Garson released Electronic Hair Pieces, which is the first album of his that has a cohesive identity. It's supposedly a reworking of the soundtrack of the musical Hair, although to my ears Garson's version of "Walking in Space" sounds nothing like the Hair version.
The Garson version brilliantly encapsulates his ability to build cinematic dreamscapes out of layered synth lines and a suggestive title, while at other points he predates classic video game music ("Good Morning Starshine"), as well as Conrad Schnitzler-esque motorik electronics ("Let the Sunshine in").
4. Mort Garson - Ataxaria The Unexplained
Garson first explored the concept of the occult on Black Lucifer Mass in 1971, but of his occult albums I prefer Ataxaria The Unexplained, which is meant to soundtrack mantras of your own choice.
It's much more industrial sounding than a lot of his other albums, which starts off sounding a bit like Throbbing Gristle playing Zelda, and ends in a sort of Giorgio Moroder-esque crescendo. What couldn't dear old Mort do!
5. Mort Garson - Mother Earth's Plantasia
While some of his previous works can be compared to German groups of the time like Cluster and Tangerine Dream, there is nothing to my ears before or since that sounds like Plantasia.
The record—designed to play to plants to help them grow—somehow sounds both primitive, and a product of a much more advanced civilisation than our own. I love the album in its entirety, but my favourite is Ode to an African Violet—like the best electronic music, the sound conveys a feeling more pastoral and human than is possible through traditional instrumentation, however paradoxical that might sound.
As far as I'm aware, this was Garson's last full solo LP, calling it a day after 20 odd albums, and heading back to his day job making jingles and sounds for gameshows such as Battlestars. TV's gain would be the plant world's infinite loss.
But Garson's legacy today lies in obscurity, even among the niche of early pioneers of electronic music. Not only was Garson's work the first use of the Moog on any record coming out of the West Coast, his use of electronic sounds to capture esoteric ideas and moods was unprecedented, foreshadowing an entire generation of ambient musicians and composers for film.
Although he reportedly kept recording music until his death in 2008, Garson did not release any more albums after Plantasia. Instead, his most commonly heard pieces of music—the sound effects and jingles that he continued to make for television throughout the 80s—were anonymous, and now largely lost.
So join us today in celebrating the life and work of a man who reshaped the sound of the 20th century.
Robert Greer is a freelance writer based in Madrid and he's on Twitter.