Bruce Haack - Biography
Bruce Haack (1931-1988) was one of the most original, inventive, and blatantly weird artists of the 20th century, and if you don’t know his work, you’ve heard its reverberations. He’s a pioneer, one of the earliest and most brazen innovators of electronica, creating strange, otherworldly, space-age sounds in the late 1950s, years before commercially-produced instruments were available. Many of Haack’s records were self-released, intended for and marketed to children, and while he readily sprawled across genres – pop, country, classical, electro-acoustic – his work was composed with homemade electronics, ingenious modulators and synthesizers he crafted from everyday household appliances. His lyrics lurch from bizarre to surreal and his only major-label album, released in 1970, is about his notion of “Powerlove,” a conceptual life force so potent that, when harnessed, can save humanity and redeem Satan. The name of the album? The Electric Lucifer. In recent years, Haack’s been discovered by a new generation of analog hipsters, and they’ve labeled him the Father of Techno, and that’s actually pretty near the truth. And if anyone cares to dispute the use of the word “weird” in describing the art of Bruce Haack, they should first consider this lyric, from 1978’s Haackula (2009 Omni): “Welcome. You left your courage in a tree, and history gave you a blow job.” Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space.
Geographic isolation often plays a role in an artist’s development, and as a child, Bruce Haack was truly isolated, in a tiny mining town in the mountains of rural Alberta, Canada. He was musical prodigy, playing piano at the age of 4; by all accounts he had perfect pitch and a preternatural musical memory. As a teen, he attended the University of Edmonton, and while he immersed himself in music, his degree was in psychology. He also experimented with peyote. Haack then received a scholarship to Julliard School in New York, but chafing against convention, regimentation, and authority, he lasted a mere 18 months. However, Julliard is where he met Ted “Praxiteles” Pandel, who would become his constant companion and creative partner for the rest of his life. Cut loose from academia, Haack blossomed. He wrote and published pop songs; he composed avant-garde works for theater and dance companies; he assembled recordings of musique-concret, many in cooperation with Ted Pandel; they wrote for Broadway, and performed at Carnegie Hall. Haack also began devising how best to introduce his electronic efforts to the world, and turned to his studies in psychology in general, and child psychology in particular.
None of this should imply that Haack’s children’s records are profound studies in educational philosophy or leadership, although they are legitimately progressive in the manner in which they physically and intellectually engage with children. Haack understood that children’s minds are wide open, far more open than adults’, and that if he wanted to get his electro-aural Freak on, children’s records were the path of least resistance. But don’t worry: these twisted albums are definitely meant for adults as well as kids. To facilitate matters, he and Pandel started their own record label, Dimension 5. The first LP was Dance, Sing and Listen (1963 Dimension 5), followed by two sequels: Dance, Sing and Listen Again (1964 Dimension 5); and, of course, Dance, Sing and Listen Again & Again (1965 Dimension 5). They’re credited to “Miss Nelson” (Esther Nelson, who assumes role of soothing maternal figure and propels the narrative) “& Bruce” (Haack, of course).
All of these albums feature tracks that tremble and twitch on the brink of sanity, with titles like “Shadows: Listen to the Electronic Music, Be Your Own Shadow and You Will Move In Most Wondrous Ways” and “Pots and Pans: Mix Some Real Pots and Pans with One Spoon, a Dash of Direction from Miss Nelson and Bruce… and a Little Concentration… the Result is a Creole of Folk Rhythms Most Grown-Ups Can’t Make.” The anarchic clanking of the pots and pans is an electronic facsimile, with some electro-acoustic mash-up thrown in for good measure. Okay; maybe this recipe is profound after all. But these tracks are definitely bizarre.
Then, after a brief hiatus, there were a few more kids’ albums that were even more electronic and throbbing and weird. The most prominent was Wayout Record for Children (1968 Dimension 5). We can begin and end our discussion with the track “Motorcycle Ride.” It’s (another) electronic facsimile, this time of a motorcycle ride along a highway. Sound familiar? Yeah, Bruce Haack beat Kraftwerk and 1972’s Autobahn to the punch by a solid four years. Seriously, it may require some acclamation, but if you’re interested in raw, original, prototypical Genesis Electronica, you need to seek out Bruce Haack’s albums. It won’t be an easy search, but this stuff is off the rails. Electronic Record for Children (1969 Dimension 5) followed the next year.
After that, it just got mind-meltingly, synapse-numbingly Weird. Haack and Pandel were running around in queer mainstream circles, appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and hanging out with Mister Rogers on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and bloviating on game shows, “performing” on human flesh with electronic sensors. (Twelve “chromatically tuned” babes in swimsuits, anyone?) Then they scored the major-label deal for The Electric Lucifer (1970 Columbia), in which Haack, inspired by acid rock (i.e., acid) describes a vast war between the forces of Evil and Powerlove, which confront Satan and compel him to kneel in the face of the benevolence of the Moog synthesizer, beneath the Sturm und Drang of glitchy, cracked electronics and proto-Techno thump. It’s essential.
In the 1970s, there were several more (increasingly twisted) albums: Dance to the Music (1972 Dimension 5); Captain Entropy (1973 Dimension 5); This Old Man (1974 Dimension 5); Funky Doodle (1975 Dimension 5); and Ebenezer Electric (1976 Dimension 5), a thoroughly outlandish take on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. After Ebenezer Electric, Haack assembled two sets of recordings that were so profane and nasty and bizarre, that he and Pandel decided to not release them at all. It’s a shame. Despite song titles like “Blow Job,” the unreleased (until recently) titles Haackula (2009 Omni) and Electric Lucifer Book II (2009 Omni) indicate that Haack and Pandel shared a wry, arch, Trickster’s spirit, and that they were fully aware of the insidiously subversive nature of their efforts. Haack’s health declined in the 1980s, and he passed in 1988, but Pandel continues to maintain his legacy. A feature-length documentary, Haack: The King of Techno (2003 Koch), lovingly chronicles the life and work of Bruce Haack, and vivifies his influence on 21st century esoterica.