Beeps, Swishes and Bleeps: In praise of the VCS3

I appreciate the small (in number) but select (in quality) group of cognoscenti who read this blog. I know that they will forgive me, or humour me, for yet another self-indulgent post. Either that or they’ll not bother to read it, which is, alas, an all too common reaction. (Are you still with me? I’m having fun writing this, whether you like it or not.)

Way back in the 70s, before Facebook, Instagram, Soundcloud, WhatsApp, Twitter, Auto-Tune, or even mobile phones (yes, children, there were such times) I read more science fiction than probably was good for me. Naturally, when rock music began to impact on my adolescent brain, I discovered Hawkwind. They could be best described at the time as being a space-rock band. They had it all, including Lemmy as bassist (and a very good one.) Their art work, by Barney Bubbles, was tremendous. Their light show was mind-blowing, even without drugs, which apparently they consumed in large quantities. They had Stacia, a statuesque, often naked dancer. I have probably listened to their ‘Space Ritual Live’ album more than any other piece of music.

EMS_The_Putney_(VCS3)One of the best things about them was the spacey sounds which pervaded all their work of this period. The beeps, swishes and bleeps came from audio generators (very simple technical equipment) and a synthesiser, named the VCS3. The initials stand for Voltage Controlled Synthesiser. I don’t pretend to understand exactly how it worked, but it could produce a wide range of exciting sounds- well, exciting to a 17 year old boy (and a 59 year old man.)

The VCS3 was popular for a time. Gong, a band about which I have waxed lyrical here (Musical Bodies) and about which I intend to enthuse again- sorry- used a VCS3, often to create trancey, spiritual, dream-like moods, rather than Hawkwind’s outer/ inner space soundscapes. A VCS3 was at the heart of the ‘creative tension’ that made Roxy Music so exciting for the first two albums. Operated by Brian Eno, it added an avant-garde element to their mixture of rock, rock and roll and nostalgia. Eventually it was clear that there could only be one non-musician in the band, and Eno left. (It appears that his use on stage of tape delays, so that what was played by other musicians was not what was coming out of the speakers, didn’t help.)

Curved Air and Pink Floyd also used the VCS3, though more as added colour than as an integral part of the sound. There were certainly others. I have seen all the above bands (though not Gong in the heyday of the VCS3.) Most exciting at the time was the visceral wall of sound generated by Hawkwind; best appreciated from the balcony (second time) rather than with your head nearly inside one of the double bass drums (first time).

The VCS3 produced sounds which were not universally admired: “a flock of deranged psychedelic chaffinches” was how one-time Gong drummer Pip Pyle described them. Nevertheless, they were part of the soundtrack to my life, and thanks to Del Dettmar (Hawkwind), Tim Blake (Gong) and others, who pushed the musical boundaries.

There are numerous websites which explain how synthesisers work, and give much more detail on the VCS3. I have added two links to my Websites page. The intro to Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’ single is a classic example of the sounds of the VCS3, as is the instrumental on Roxy Music’s ‘Virginia Plain’.

Photo by Alexander Baxevanis (Flickr: The Putney (VCS3) synthesizer) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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