Monday, 31 October 2011

I've Got a Secret and Avant-Garde Music

"It's September 16th, 1963 and John Cale is walking onto the stage of a television studio in New York City. "That was one repressed individual," recalls the older, less repressed John Cale over the phone from his studio in Los Angeles, nearly half a century later, "Very uptight." Back in 1963, Cale in a dark velour suit jacket and tie takes a seat next to the show's host, Garry Moore and whispers into his ear, "I performed in a concert that lasted eighteen hours." The point of the show was that the four panellists had to work out the guest's 'secret' from a series of yes and no questions.

"Does it have anything to do with endurance?" asks former Miss America, Bess Myerson."

The above is an extract from my recent interview with John Cale, for The Quietus. But three years later, on the 12th of December 1966, another episode of the same show featured Victor Borge, one time "clown prince of Denmark" withholding the secret, "I'm going to play a song by touching ten pretty girls". The electronic device utilised by Borge for this most extraordinary rendition of 'Dark Eyes' is called a Peopleodeon and was invented by none other than Bruce Haack, along with his friend Ted Pandel, both of whom make a brief appearance at the end of the episode.

Former pianist with The Swing Tones, Haack met Pandel at the Julliard school in the fifties. This episode from I've Got A Secret was broadcast somewhere between Haack's various electronic records for children, made in collaboration with dance teacher, Esther Nelson - Dance Sing & Listen and The Way Out Record for Children - and later (even) more psychedelic stuff like Electric Lucifer and Haackula.

Without any real training in electronics (his degree from the University of Alberta was in psychology), and showing disdain for such ncieties as circuit diagrams, Haack gamely hacked together his own electronic instruments out of guitar effects pedals, battery-powered radios and any other bits and bobs he could lay hands on. These oddments were then put to the service of instructional dance records for children.

The question is, what on earth was a man like this doing on I've Got a Secret, a mainstream American panel show, hosted by Steve Allen and created by comedy writers Allan Sherman and Howard Merrill as a sort of cheap knock-off sister show to What's My Line? How much of another world does the sixties seem when we discover that such a workaday network product, otherwise notable for its brief appearance in the 1959 Doris Day vehicle It Happened to Jane, would feature incursions from John Cale playing Erik Satie's Vexations and Bruce Haack's homemade electronic instruments? Can you imagine comparable guests being introduced in the midst of Ant & Dec's Push the Button?