Starting in 1968, San Francisco musician Doug McKechnie was one of the very first people to play a Moog. Stand by for a remarkable story involving Hell’s Angels, FBI agents, concrete caverns and a pyramid of Mexican weed

“I’ve always had too much fun,” says Doug McKechnie with a chuckle. “Back in the 1970s, a psychic told me that I was here on vacation and I decided that was as good a reason for being as any. I also decided I was definitely going to take full advantage of that. So whenever things have gotten a little weird, I’ve said to myself, ‘Wait, everything’s OK… I’m just here on vacation’.”

McKechnie’s eyes shine brightly and his chuckle turns into a big laugh. And well it might. This has turned out to be quite a trip for him. He’s been on holiday for approaching 80 years and he’s celebrating with the release of an album, ‘San Francisco Moog 1968-72’, which is certain to set him off on a whole new series of adventures.

As you’ll have gathered from the title, ‘San Francisco Moog 1968-72’ is a collection of archive material recorded half a century ago, when Doug McKechnie was one of the very first people to make music with a Moog. The tracks are both highly enjoyable and supremely significant sonic nuggets, so it’s astonishing that the album marks McKechnie’s vinyl debut. It’s come about after Lee Gardner from VG+ Records in Baltimore heard a few short clips of his work on YouTube. To add another twist to what is a truly madcap tale, the musician didn’t even own the synth that he played for four years.

‘San Francisco Moog 1968-72’ should finally secure a place in the annals of electronic music history for a man who is a legend in his home city but has remained largely unknown beyond California. That it’s taken so long for this material to surface seems almost criminal. But the ebullient and effortlessly charming McKechnie believes it’s actually for the best.

“You know, the raw waveforms created by the Moog were shockingly new to everybody in the late 60s and early 70s,” he says. “I think it’s taken 50 years for them to become part of the normal and acceptable palette of sounds. So I think the timing of this record is right. It’s only now that these recordings have the stamps of history and originality that will hopefully mean people can appreciate them.”

Doug McKechnie grew up singing, dancing and acting in as many school productions as he could. He started at San Francisco State University in 1959, initially majoring in theatre and then in film. He got involved with the beatnik crowd in North Beach during his first term, hanging out at the Old Spaghetti Factory and spending two years performing in a satirical revue called the Macaroni Show. Dropping out of university for a while, he worked as an emergency medical technician, but his life flipped soon after going back to college, when one of his friends suggested they make a documentary about the recently formed American Nazi Party.

“We made contact with George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the ANP, and convinced him we’d make an unbiased film, so they let us live next door to their headquarters for six months,” says McKechnie. “Rockwell was running for Governor of Virginia and it was an incredible situation. I remember going to a Martin Luther King rally, where the Nazis planned to throw balloons full of red paint over King. The police nabbed them immediately, of course.”

The film won Best Documentary at the prestigious Flaherty Film Seminar in 1967, although by then Rockwell was dead, gunned down in the street by a disgruntled former ANP member, and McKechnie had switched college courses again. This time he wanted to study communications.

“I thought, ‘What the hell, I’ve tried everything else’,” he grins. “So I took this new course and into the room walked Richard Marsh, who’d just returned from a year in Mexico with Dr Timothy Leary. He told us we’d learn all there was to know about communications and then at the end of it we would all take LSD together. Which we did. About a hundred of us. After that experience, I had no problem with anything. Nothing bothered me. Thirty days later, I went into the army. I was completely ironed out and I did my act of duty with a smile on my face.”

As a result of his experience as an EMT, McKechnie was posted to an army medical unit. He had a run-in with the seemingly aptly named Colonel Stern from Military Intelligence over his ANP film, managed to avoid being sent to the Vietnam War, and found himself dumped back on Civvy Street six months later. But if that was something of a whirlwind, it was nothing compared to what happened next.

Within weeks of leaving the army in 1968, McKechnie rented the third floor of a building on Harrison Street, not far from the Bay Bridge, the crossing that links San Francisco to Oakland and Berkeley. When it dawned on him that he couldn’t afford the 2,500 square feet on his own, he looked for someone to share the space with him. At which point, his life changed forever.

“This guy shows up. His name was Bruce Hatch. He’d just flown in from Kansas, where he’d been at the Menninger Institute for two years, dealing with a psychiatric issue. He came from a wealthy family in the Midwest. He seemed nice, we got on well, and he moved in. A few days later, some boxes arrived. And out of these boxes came this strange electronic equipment. I said to Bruce, ‘What the hell is this?’. He said, ‘It’s electronic music’. And I said, ‘It’s what?’. I had no idea what he was talking about. It turned out he’d seen an advert for a Moog synthesiser in Mechanix Illustrated magazine on the flight from Kansas. So he’d bought one.

“Once he’d set it up and walked me through the basics of how it worked, I was blown away. The waveforms and the tones and the sequencers… it was magical. Bruce was an electronics freak and his original idea was to hire the synth out to studios and bands. He was totally unmusical, though, whereas I’d always had a great ear. So I jumped on this thing to see what I could do with it. And that was it. I didn’t get off that horse for four years.”

Bruce Hatch had purchased one of the first Moog Modular Series III synthesisers ever made. It had the serial number 004. McKechnie and Hatch dubbed it “Big Moog” and with good reason. The instrument had nine oscillators, three envelope generators, high and low pass filters, a ribbon controller, a 60-note keyboard with 60 knob controllers, and two 24-step sequencers.

With McKechnie as the pilot and Hatch as the engineer, it didn’t take long for the roommates to realise the incredible possibilities of Big Moog. The synthesiser dominated the studio space they created at Harrison Street, which they called San Francisco Radical Laboratories, often shortened to SF Rad Labs. Hatch soon forgot about hiring out the Moog, happy to aid and abet McKechnie as he explored the machine, recording everything his musical partner did on quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape. Four of the five tracks on ‘San Francisco Moog 1968-72’ were recorded by Hatch at Rad Labs.

“Once I’d figured out the limitations of the instrument, it was always my intention to create stories,” says McKechnie. “If I started something, I felt it had to go somewhere, it had to have an ending, it couldn’t just be bleeps and burps. I mean, what the hell is the point of that? So every time I used it, although I would never quite know what I was going to do, I would do my best to make it interesting. It wasn’t easy to begin with, because I was on a steep learning curve, but the fact that there was always something more to explore was a real driving force for me. There wasn’t a single moment that I wasn’t thrilled by it.”

The material on ‘San Francisco Moog’ appears in roughly chronological order. ‘The First Exploration At SF Radical Laboratories’ and ‘Meditation Moog 1’ date from 1968 and offer fascinating insights into McKechnie’s earliest experiments with the machine. The sequencing on ‘The First Exploration’ is a delight, while ‘Meditation Moog 1’ is built around two low-frequency waveforms and is both minimal and powerful. The other two tracks recorded at SF Rad Labs, the pulsing and hypnotic ‘Baseline’ and the tweaky, wobbly, almost acidic ‘Crazy Ray’, show how McKechnie’s skills developed over time.

‘Crazy Ray’, the closing cut, is an homage to Ray Anderson, one of the leading figures of the San Francisco counterculture movement. Anderson ran the Holy See Light Show, supplying psychedelic visuals for the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and The Grateful Dead. He was a close associate of Neal Cassady, the inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ and a leading member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

“Ray was the most amazing person. I stayed with him and his wife Joan for three months when I didn’t have anywhere to live and he had this fantastic library of books and records. He had an eye and an ear for everything. He was constantly moving, constantly on fire. There was a live wire running through him the whole time. When I listened back to the recording of this piece, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god, this is like a dervish on speed’, and Ray immediately popped into my head. He died three or four years ago and that was a big loss. It’s hard to lose good people.”

Ray Anderson was just one in a long list of San Francisco freaks that McKechnie and Hatch crossed paths with. Trippy rockers Blue Cheer rented the floor above SF Rad Labs and oddball cowboy Dan Hicks also used the Harrison Street building as a rehearsal space. Bob Cohen, the promoter at the legendary Avalon Ballroom, lived there as well. There were the guys at The Family Dog too, including Richard Winn Taylor from the Rainbow Jam Light Show. Taylor, who later designed the Enterprise model for ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ and oversaw the effects for ‘Tron’, is still one of McKechnie’s best friends. He created the cover artwork of ‘San Francisco Moog’.

Then there was The Grateful Dead, already firmly established as the quintessential West Coast hair band, who asked McKechnie to bring the Moog down to the studio when they were recording their 1969 album, ‘Aoxomoxoa’. The result was ‘What’s Become Of The Baby?’, which many Deadheads view as the most bizarre track the band ever recorded.

“They were at Pacific High Studios, not far from Harrison Street,” explains McKechnie. “So we took the Moog over, hooked it up, and did a modulation of Mickey Harte’s voice for the track. Ray Anderson was there too and he shot a 10-minute film of everybody in the studio. I don’t think anyone has ever seen it and that’s probably for the best. The band had this five-foot-high canister of nitrous oxide with eight hoses coming out of it. The antics were historic.”

By this point, pretty much everything McKechnie and Hatch did revolved around the Moog, with Hatch becoming increasingly convinced that the power of the synthesiser went way beyond music.

“Bruce’s clock ran a bit different to everybody else. That’s why he’d spent time at the Menninger Institute. He was so excited by what we were doing, he wrote to President Nixon extolling the virtues of electronic music and telling Nixon how this was going to fundamentally change the way people related to one another. A few weeks later, these guys appeared at the door. It was the FBI. They had the black suits and the shiny shoes. Nothing ever came of it, but they’d come to check us out in response to Bruce’s letter to Nixon.”

McKechnie and Hatch could afford to joke about that afterwards, but it was a good job the G-Men didn’t turn up the day that Bob Moog paid a visit to SF Radical Laboratories.

“That was quite something,” laughs McKechnie. “We’d just received a kilo of very fine Mexican weed and we’d put it on this long conference table we had in the room at the front of the studio. So there’s this big pyramid of nicely cleaned dope sitting there and Bob Moog walks through the door. We knew he was in town, but we didn’t know he was going to show up like that. So he walks in and we’re like, ‘Ohhhh shit!’. He looks at us, looks at the pyramid of weed, and then a smile breaks out on his face. And he says, ‘Well, I hope you’ve saved some of that for me’. He stayed for a while and, as you might imagine, we had a great time with him. He was a terrific guy.”

Whereas most of the early Moogs were stuck in studios or academic institutions, McKechnie and Hatch put a lot of effort into making their modules as portable as possible. They took Big Moog to schools and colleges in and around the Bay Area, where McKechnie would give demonstrations and lectures – “My opening sentence was always ‘All things manifest in waveforms’” – and the synth was a popular draw at local concerts and parties too.

McKechnie’s most notable gigs included a spot at Altamont, the ill-fated free festival headlined by The Rolling Stones at a speedway track in Northern California. The one-day event, which took place at the end of 1969, was attended by 300,000 people, most of them loaded on LSD. The San Francisco and Oakland chapters of the Hell’s Angels were there in force too, supposedly to keep the crowd back from the stage, but the situation spiralled out of control, with one of the Angels knocking Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin out cold while the band were playing. Later on, during the Stones’ set, another Angel stabbed and killed 18-year-old festival-goer Meredith Hunter, who had run towards the stage waving a handgun.

“We had our own crew of helpers by this time and we got a call asking us to come to Altamont to help build the stage and the sound system,” says McKechnie. “I said, ‘Yeah, we can do that… as long as I get to play’. So we piled the equipment into a truck and off we went. We worked on the site all the next day and camped on a hill behind the stage that night. I then got up early and played the Moog at sunrise on the morning of the festival. I played for about 20 minutes. It wasn’t my best musical effort, particularly as the sun hitting the Moog shifted its tonality, but it was OK.”

McKechnie was scheduled to play a set from the stage that afternoon, slotted in to appear before Jefferson Airplane. There’s a clip of him with the Moog in ‘Gimme Shelter’, the Maysles Brothers’ film about Altamont, which documents the unfolding chaos and horror of the event.

“We’d set the modules up on a table at the front of the stage and eventually someone said, ‘OK, it’s your turn’. I’d decided to kick things off at 55 cycles and then ramp it up to 20,000. I wanted it to sound like a huge siren and blow everybody away. But something I hadn’t factored in, standing three stories up on a scaffolding tower in the middle of the field, was Bear…”

Owsley Stanley, aka Bear, was The Grateful Dead’s sound engineer. He was also an underground chemist of considerable repute, by his own admission producing over five million doses of LSD during the late 1960s. Bear was manning the mixing desk at Altamont and he had no idea what McKechnie was planning to do.

“So I opened with this deep rumble and the needles on the desk were going crazy. Bear could see them peaking into the red, but he couldn’t hear any sound coming out because the frequency was so low. So after a few seconds of this, he just went, ‘Nope’, and shut the whole thing down in an instant. That was the beginning and the end of my official Altamont performance.

“It was frustrating, but at least I’d played on the hill at sunrise. And actually, my main concern over the next little while was to protect the Moog. I had my crew nearby, so I wasn’t terribly worried, but things were turning nasty and I couldn’t move because of the shit that was happening around me. I didn’t want to move anyway. I was at the front of the stage and I could see everything that was going on with the Angels and Airplane and the crowd. I was there for some time. I just sat there and watched it all go down.”

McKechnie’s other live shows with the Moog were less hairy, but many of them were no less interesting. A few months before Altamont, he played at the opening of the Exploratorium, the San Francisco technology museum founded by American physicist Frank Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer had worked on the Manhattan Project, helping to develop the nuclear bomb, and he was fascinated by the synth. In 1971, McKechnie also played the first-ever concert at the Berkeley Art Museum. A 13-minute extract from this live set is featured on the ‘San Francisco Moog’ album. The only piece not recorded at SF Rad Labs, it’s simply titled ‘Berkeley Art Museum’.

“There wasn’t a big crowd, maybe 80 people, but it was an amazing space,” says McKechnie. “It was basically a concrete cavern, a huge echo chamber, but we were able to position the speakers so the sound came from all around the audience. We effectively played the whole place like a giant electronic instrument. Thinking about being in that space still gives me goosebumps.”

‘Berkeley Art Museum’ is a remarkably atmospheric piece. You can hear whispering and coughing in the quieter moments, but you can quite literally hear the room too. Building on a slow sequence that gradually gathers pace and grows in complexity, McKechnie has to battle to take control of the Moog and get the synth to do what he wants it to.

“It was always a struggle… every damn time,” he notes. “I was never sure what was going to come out. So many things – a change of environment, a change in temperature – could and would have an impact on what happened. But that was part of the excitement of the Moog. Every time I played, it was an exploration of the unexpected, wrestled into form on the fly. That’s what made it so enjoyable and such an unbelievable experience.”

In 1972, Bruce Hatch put his Moog up for sale. He had heavily customised the instrument by this point – “There were switches everywhere,” says McKechnie – but it wasn’t difficult to find a buyer. Through a contact in Germany, it was purchased by Tangerine Dream. The Berlin group used Hatch’s machine, together with a second Moog they picked up from Mick Jagger, on their game-changing ‘Phaedra’ album, which they recorded in late 1973.

“Without the Moog, I felt like an astronaut floating about in the middle of nowhere,” sighs McKechnie. “So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to play the piano and I’m going to get some lessons’. I found an old upright for 200 bucks and signed up with a piano teacher, but I quit after six lessons. I realised that if I carried on, I’d end up substituting my ears with my eyeballs. That didn’t work for me. In the same way I taught myself the Moog, I taught myself piano.”

It’s a testament to McKechnie’s perpetually inquisitive nature that he soon found himself busy with other projects. From 1973 onwards, he created a series of presentations for planetariums and composed over 100 scores for short films and documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated ‘Spaceborne’ in 1977 and the Oscar-winning ‘Women – For America, For The World’ in 1986.

Since 1982, he’s been the driving force of the San Francisco Synthesizer Ensemble, whose exploits include sampling the suspension cables of the Golden Gate Bridge and turning them into an electronic suite. He has also worked as an actor, a photographer and a demonstrator for Yamaha, as well as producing live events around the Bay Area and writing an annual variety show for a local television station for 20 years between 1990 and 2010.

photo: dianne woods

These days, he gives piano recitals for his neighbours in his front garden on Fridays, plays chess with his buddy on Tuesdays, and religiously takes a two-hour nap every afternoon. “It’s not a siesta, it’s a gift from the gods,” he declares. He’s still pals with Bruce Hatch, by the way, although his old roommate now lives in Texas.

So given his somewhat unconventional career path, how would Doug McKechnie describe himself? He’s always been way more than a musician.

“Many years ago, my dear friend Amy Hill, who worked for Rolling Stone magazine, sent me a little box in the mail. There were 100 business cards inside the box and these cards had ‘Doug McKechnie – Catalytic Agent’ printed on them. I thought that was great. It just confirmed to me this idea that I could do anything I pleased. I’ve called myself a catalytic agent ever since. I’m a catalytic agent… although I am just here on vacation.”

And with that, McKechnie bursts into laughter once again. Having a good time all the time. With knobs on.

’San Francisco Moog 1968-72’ is out on VG+

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