When the Moog Cookbook was invited to play live on MTV's Week in Rock, band members Uli Nomi and Meco Eno -- a.k.a. 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 the mock-futuristic costumes that had become their visual signature, they realized 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 says. "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, the story didn't end in tragedy. No one required hospitalization after the segment was completed, and a subsequent turn by the Cookbook on MTV's European service was even less threatening as the result of a switch to more user-friendly helmets. Moreover, the Cookbook's concept -- turning popular songs into cosmic Muzak with the use of vintage synthesizers -- has found an unexpectedly high-profile audience. The group's debut CD, 1996's The Moog Cookbook, has already spawned a sequel, the recently released The Moog Cookbook Plays the Classic Rock Hits. Kehew doesn't view the second disc as a swan song by any means. Nor should he, given the kudos that have been coming his way from fellow musicians. Foo Fighter Dave Grohl was so impressed by the combo's out-of-this-world oeuvre that he hired the pair 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 first 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 '60s and early '70s would translate into what passes for a career. Indeed, at the time, the duo's Moog mania was regularly dismissed by their 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."
On The Moog Cookbook, they succeeded in this quest by remaking grunge-era anthems from the likes of Pearl Jam and Nirvana. For The Moog Cookbook Plays the Classic Rock Hits, they leapt 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," he says. "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 Skynyrd fan might not recognize the Cookbook's version of "Sweet Home Alabama," which would sound more appropriate at your neighborhood Randalls than at a roadhouse. But such radical alterations are largely 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."
In picking the ten tunes that appear on The Classic Rock Hits, Kehew notes, "we had a huge list." However, not all of Kehew's favorite ditties made the final cut. "A lot of things," he says, "have too much repetition or they have no strong melody."
Hence, testaments to testosterone such as 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-minutes-plus, 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 to 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 says. "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."
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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 European humorlessness may have something to do with that, 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 -- that makes people pay attention in a different way," he says.
Another appearance on MTV would be nice, too -- so long as they can wear the new helmets.