When the Moog Cookbook was invited to play live on MTV's Week in Rock program, bandmembers Uli Nomi and Meco Eno, aka Roger Manning and Brian Kehew, didn't see any drawbacks to accepting, even though it would mark their first-ever concert appearance. But after they donned their mock-futuristic costumes, they realized that they were in trouble. Not only couldn't they see their hands clearly, but they could barely breathe.
"It was the first time we'd actually worn our space helmets in public," Kehew allows. "We never wore them in the studio, and when we did photos after the album was done, we intended them to be for looks only."
Fortunately, this story did not end tragically. No one required hospitalization after the segment was completed, and a subsequent turn by the Cookbook on MTV's European service was not life-threatening as the result of a tactical switch to more user-friendly helmets. Moreover, the Cookbook's concept--turning popular songs into cosmic Muzak with the use of vintage Moog synthesizers--has found an unexpectedly sizable audience. Its debut recording, 1996's The Moog Cookbook, has already spawned a sequel, the Restless Records release Ye Olde Space Bande (The Moog Cookbook Plays the Classic Rock Hits)--and Kehew certainly doesn't view the latter as a swan song. Nor should he, given the kudos that have been coming his way from fellow musicians. For example, Foo Fighter Dave Grohl was so impressed by the combo's out-of-this-world oeuvre that he hired its creators to whip up the elevator-style intro that graces the video for the Foo tune "Monkey Wrench," and Weezer has been known to answer curtain calls to the sounds of the Cookbook's rendition of "Buddy Holly."
When the recipe for the Cookbook was conceived four years ago, neither Manning (a veteran of the pop-rock acts Jellyfish and Imperial Drag) nor Kehew had any idea that their enthusiasm for analog keyboards from the Sixties and early Seventies would turn into a profitable career. Far from it: The duo's Moog mania was regularly dismissed by peers. "If we got called to do a recording session for somebody, they usually wouldn't let us bring out these goofy sounds that we like to use," Kehew recalls. "So we tried to find a project where we could use all our keyboards," despite the fact that some of them had not been widely heard since the days when leisure suits were considered fashionable.
On The Moog Cookbook, they succeeded in this quest by remaking grunge-era anthems by the likes of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. On Ye Olde Space Band, they leap further into the past via deconstructions of compositions by dinosaurs such as Steppenwolf and Boston. In Kehew's opinion, the time was right to take on these behemoths: "Once people understood what we were all about, we figured we could do some more classic songs that people were more familiar with. So on this record, it was a conscious effort to make sure we picked songs that everybody knows, even if they don't own a Lynyrd Skynyrd record."
Granted, the average redneck might not recognize the Cookbook's version of Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," which would sound more appropriate at your neighborhood King Soopers than at a Southern roadhouse. But such radical alterations are part of the Cookbook's point. To Kehew, simply cloning a tune is a waste of time. "We're not very happy with some of the tribute records that come out nowadays," he says. "We would like to be involved in a few of those, because a lot of people will get asked to do one, and they'll go out and buy the original album and sort of slap together a version of it that's not even half as good as the original. But what you should be trying to do is to beat it, or at least change it in some way that's interesting to the listener."
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In picking the ten tunes that appear on Space Bande, Kehew notes, "we had a huge list, because the classic-rock era was a long couple of decades." However, not all of Kehew's favorite ditties from the period made the final cut. According to him, "A lot of things have too much repetition or they have no strong melody." Hence, testaments to testosterone like the Who's "My Generation," Alice Cooper's "School's Out" and Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" were excluded in favor of Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4," the Eagles' "Hotel California," Kiss's "Rock and Roll All Nite" and Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." Not all of the selections work: "Born to Be Wild," the Steppenwolf favorite, stretches to an inexplicable four-plus minutes, while the stately tempo of David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" causes the concoction to fall flat. But most of the other choices, such as Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," served up with technologically altered vocals and a keyboard solo by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh, are as inspired as they are amusing.
Getting the Moog Cookbook's joke isn't a prerequisite for enjoying the group's work. "I don't know why, but everyone under the age of four just goes crazy when they hear it," Kehew reveals. "They don't have any knowledge of what Led Zeppelin is at all, but they like to dance to it because it's real bright, catchy and happy." Likewise, many listeners in France and Germany, where Kraftwerk and other keyboard-heavy acts are revered, don't see the songs as novelties. Kehew speculates that a general humorlessness may have something to do with this reaction, but he doesn't mind. It's fine, he says, if "they think it's just good music."
At this point, Manning and Kehew are mulling over possible subjects for their next opus; animation themes, movie music and punk rock are all in the running. In the meantime, the two have been petitioned by a handful of advertising concerns to produce jingles. Kehew has high hopes for this sideline. "Maybe Coke or Pepsi or somebody will call us, and we can do something that sounds really hip and modern but kind of cartoonish and makes people pay attention in a different way," he says.
Another appearance on MTV would be nice, too--as long as they can wear their new helmets.