Fanfare for the common transistor

When I was a kid I was deeply impressed by a music video shot in a snow-bound Montreal Olympic stadium.

Me practising the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression on my Roland Alpha-Juno 2.

It was the British super-group ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer’, performing their version of Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’, which was basically his three-minute piece split by a six-minute solo section of their own. It was 1977, and the piece became a surprising hit by a trio popularly regarded as dinosaurs amidst a flourishing punk era. What got me was that it was mostly played by Emerson on his Yamaha GX-1 synthesiser. Only about 100 were ever made, of which Emerson owned two (one was destroyed by a tractor, the other fried itself). Benny Andersson, from Abba, also had one.

The only Yamaha synth from the period I’ve played is the SY-1, same-gen technology, but priced for everyday people and consequently a mono-synth with a couple of dozen preset sounds and some tweakability. A friend has one in his vintage synth collection, and I had a go at the fanfare from ‘Fanfare’, which I promptly botched because I couldn’t remember the notes.

I’ve never played a GX-1, but the specifications were astonishing for the day – two 61-key, velocity-sensitive 8-note polyphonic keyboards, a 25-note monophonic foot-board, a 37-note ‘solo’ keyboard and a ‘ribbon’ controller. Like the SY-1 it worked in part from pre-sets labelled as real instruments – which is what organs had done since forever. Indeed, the GX-1, under its alternative guise as the GX-707, was also part of Yamaha’s Electone series of electric organs. Some sources classify the GX-1 as an organ on that basis. But its sounds had tweakability, so maybe we’re better to say it was in a class of its own. Certainly it was in a price of its own. Yamaha built so much capability into the GX-1 that it apparently retailed at $60,000 in 1973 US dollars – the thick end of about $US400,000 in modern money. Nobody could afford to buy one except a handful of mega-rich super-musicians.

The synth side flowed into the CX-80, a cheaper but still awesome polyphonic synth that Vangelis used as part of the Blade Runner soundtrack palette. The instrument was SO closely associated with the movie, in fact, that a clone’s available today dubbed…wait for it… Deckard’s Dream.

What gets me is that – along with devices such as the Philips K-9 colour TV set – the GX-1 was the pinnacle of 1960s-70s consumer tech; complex circuitry using discrete-component printed circuit boards. Another was the Korg PS-3300; and yes, synths were at the top end when it came to devices available for commercial sale. The military had more complex stuff at the time, but that’s another matter.

All these instruments arrived on the cusp of micro-processor tech becoming cheap and reliable – which slashed the cost of the capability Yamaha built into the GX-1. They literally don’t make ‘em like that any more (much); and these days it’s possible to have your own GX-1 in software on a common or garden PC – emulating the original, although I can’t help thinking it wouldn’t be quite the same.

And just in case you’re curious, here are Emerson, Lake and Palmer in that Olympic stadium, some 41 years ago:

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

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