Electronic Music Pioneer Bruce Haack Was Decades Ahead of His Time
When it comes to the life of Bruce Haack, separating truth from fiction is not easy.
The groundbreaking electronic music composer and inventor is said to have taught himself to play piano by age 3. By 8, he apparently was escaping his abusive mother’s wrath by sneaking off to Indian reservations, where he had early psychedelic experiences smoking peyote.
It’s quite plausible that by 12 he was building his own instruments, which led to some of the earliest synthesized recordings, decades before they became popular. In fact, Haack may have been the very first to employ a vocoder on a commercial record; its previous incarnation was as a cloaking device used during World War II to disguise the human voice.
But then Haack’s entire CV reads like that of a mad scientist, years ahead of his time.
In his early career he wrote, produced, performed and often designed sleeves for a flurry of children’s albums. They, like his other work, were incredibly strange and went largely unnoticed, until recently.
Even in the mid-’00s, when artists like Beck caught onto Haack’s genius, the media mostly didn’t, and decades after his 1988 death, Haack remains dreadfully obscure. But local filmmaker Philip Anagnos — a quirky, unrelenting Haack obsessive — is determined to prove that his subject’s time has finally arrived.
Is Los Angeles ready? According to messages Anagnos believes Haack has sent to him from beyond the grave, the answer is yes.
Bruce Haack was born in 1931 in the small Alberta town of Rocky Mountain House. His father was a miners’ accountant who had a deformed back from a childhood bout of polio; he died when Haack was young. His mother was a music teacher who later ran a corner store, where she was said to have treated First Nations customers poorly, as she did young Bruce.
By the mid-1950s, Haack left Canada to attend the Juilliard School in New York City. He studied under famed composer Vincent Persichetti and wrote several compositions in the then-vanguard musique concrète style, before dropping out of college a few months later.
Eschewing classicism, Haack took low-paying commissions for off-Broadway dance and theater scores. He penned ad jingles for Kraft Cheese and Bazooka Gum, which his Juilliard friend Praxiteles “Ted” Pandel, a trained concert pianist, pitched to the agencies along Madison Avenue. The pair also managed to land two B-sides with teen-pop singer Teresa Brewer.
Through it all, Haack earned next to nothing.
“Bruce was cosmic and creative,” says Pandel, a retired college music professor, speaking from his home in West Chester, Pennsylvania. “He was not a strong person; he was a dependent person.”
Pandel says Haack rarely went anywhere by himself, and often missed appointments. Unable to secure regular employment, Haack began playing piano for a children’s dance class just north of the city. It was there that he met instructor Esther Nelson, who would help launch his career.
Nelson, an elfin figure with a big personality, still lives in the same Bronx co-op where she was raised by activist Russian-Jewish parents during the Depression. By the 1950s, Nelson was rubbing shoulders with folk icons such as Moses Asch and Pete Seeger. (Seeger described Nelson as “one of my favorite people,” adding, “There must be thousands of children who feel the same way.”)
Today Nelson remembers Haack as a kindred spirit. Back in the ’60s, she recorded seven children’s albums with him for their homespun label, Dimension 5 Records. The first, 1963′s Dance, Sing and Listen, was essentially a field recording of Nelson’s class. Haack accompanied them using his homemade inventions.
“Bruce would go to Grand Street and buy a bag of parts for a dollar and build instruments with them for us to record with,” Nelson recalls. She still owns several of Haack’s inventions, including a metal bracelet that he’d attached to a battery pack and an amplifier, which created musical sounds when you rubbed it against human skin.
Haack filled his earliest recordings with whimsical, creepy, sometimes brooding instrumental tracks. The lyrics, intended for elementary school kids, were filled with bizarre sexual undertones and wildly imaginative story lines. The album sleeves offered Haack’s inspirational tidbits, including: “In this wild and wonderful time, we take the slogan, ‘Drop Out,’ turn it around, and print our own button for children: ‘Drop In.’ We love you.”
The works received stellar reviews in publications including The New Yorker and The New York Times, which enthused: “Bruce’s music, produced on a Hohner Cembalet, an electronic mechanical keyboard, is incredibly varied and gives off sounds that UFOs would make — if there were such things.”
Even amid the weird landscape of ’60s electronic music, Haack stood out as a true outsider. He befriended Moondog, the blind, Greenwich Village jazz guru who played handmade instruments and dressed as an 11th-century Viking. Besides creating his own instruments, Haack was hired to program Raymond Scott’s Electronium, an algorithmic synthesizer, which was employed by Motown Records artists during the psychedelic era.
Burly, handsome and lithe, Haack took his inventions on TV programs such as The Tonight Show, where he was treated as an artful kook, his inventions as space-age gimmicks. Celebrity was elusive, but that didn’t stop Haack and Nelson from continuing work on their increasingly complex children’s albums. Some schoolkids’ parents suspected an affair between Haack and Nelson, who was married. But what seems much more likely is that Haack was maintaining a secret romance with Pandel. (Pandel denies having any romantic relationship, but Nelson and Haack’s former manager, Chris Kachulis, say that one went on for a decade. Haack’s foremost chronicler, Philip Anagnos, says Pandel has told him this as well.)
At some point, Haack struck up a brief love affair with Kachulis. Kachulis says it was he who introduced the songwriter to psychedelic rock, and, along with Nelson, the pair eventually recorded 1969′s The Electronic Record for Children. Featuring synthesized Indian ragas and wistful chants, the album anticipated Haack’s only major-label work, 1970′s The Electric Lucifer (Columbia Records).
Eschewing the kids stuff, Lucifer was a full-blown antiwar declaration, which employed massive walls of synths, vocoders and electric psych jams to convey its theme of unification, wherein mankind comes together and even the devil himself is forgiven. The lyrics, sung by Haack himself, include robotic non sequiturs such as, “Ray of sun/Reason/Knowledge/No legends.” Rolling Stonechose the album as one of 1970′s best; again this distinction helped little in terms of sales.
“Sure, money and fame is great,” Haack told one radio interviewer, “but I’m more interested in obtaining a telepathic following.” Kachulis maintains, however, that Haack was crestfallen by Lucifer‘s failure and began upping his daily intake of pills and whiskey, which he sometimes augmented by smoking peyote.
By the early ’70s, Pandel had left New York City to work as a piano instructor at the University of West Chester, near Philadelphia. Later in the decade he married a woman and the couple had two children. That didn’t stop him, however, from moving Haack into the basement of his house. Perhaps understandably, Pandel’s wife never took to this arrangement, and once threw the songwriter down the stairs.
Still, through it all, Haack kept on: 1977′s Haackula includes conspiracy theories, apocalyptic warnings and unhinged sexual references on tracks such as “Blow Job,” which demands: “Who killed the cock? Who spoiled the show?” Not surprisingly, no label picked up Haackula.
Seldom credited for his pioneering efforts, Haack finally found a willing collaborator in future Def Jam Records impresario Russell Simmons, who in 1982 produced the new-wave, hip-hop–inflected “Party Machine.” An inspired-sounding Haack roars out through his beloved vocoder: “Haack attack is back/Bruce Haack, anti-whack.”
He was, in fact, anything but back.
Living in a state of neglect, Haack spent most days sealed off in his basement studio, where he talked often of suicide. Occasionally he would record new children’s songs with Pandel and Esther Nelson. More often, however, he guzzled bottles of whiskey by himself. In September 1988, he died suddenly of heart failure at age 57, almost completely obscure.
Philip Anagnos has emerged as today’s foremost, and perhaps only, Haack authority. Lean, with tousled hair and a gray-flecked beard, the 43-year-old filmmaker first discovered Haack’s music in the mid-1990s, excavating several of the old Dimension 5 albums from dusty bins at Atomic Records in Burbank.
Originally from St. Louis, Anagnos lives these days in West Hollywood, where he sometimes works as a video editor for shows on A&E and the History Channel. Mostly, he devotes his time to promoting Haack’s legacy. What Anagnos says he loves most about Haack’s music is its rare “spiritual marriage between man and machine,” noting that the late songwriter’s “influences seem somewhere outside of his actual music.”
In 2004 Anagnos released the documentary Haack: The King of Techno, which he produced independently for $1,000. (It recently was rereleased by Bleep.com, a division of Warp Records.)
Over the years, Anagnos has contacted everyone from techno darlings Daft Punk to Yo Gabba Gabba DJ Lance Rock in hopes of publicizing Haack’s oeuvre. More recently, Anagnos dreamed up a musical tribute called Haackfest, which he pitched to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, recommending synth-pop legends Kraftwerk as headliners. (The Philharmonic instead simply booked Kraftwerk.) He also claims to have introduced both Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh and dubstep star Skrillex to Haack’s work, though neither responded to the Weekly‘s requests for comment.
Anagnos’ tireless obsession goes well beyond fandom; he created a mock-up L.A. Weekly cover for this story, for example, before it was even commissioned. He sees himself as a “vessel” for Haack’s wishes, which he believes the deceased songwriter transmits telepathically in a series of thinly veiled signs that Anagnos alone can decode. For evidence, he points to old Haack axioms such as, “My work is in the air” and “Whoever wants to know me will find me.”
Indeed, Haack did much that proved prophetic. He predicted one day all music would be shared for free on computers. He also was among the first to employ sampled loops, which he demonstrated on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968, using a Rolling Stones track.
Haack also insisted his work would not be discovered until the year 2000, which wasn’t far wrong.
It was 1999, actually, when a compilation of Haack’s 1960s music with Esther Nelson was reissued by L.A. electro label Emperor Norton Records. It was embraced enthusiastically by analog synth devotees. Soon after, local indie label Eenie Meenie Records Stones Throw Records released Dimension Mix: A Tribute to Bruce Haack and Esther Nelson, which featured covers by alternative mainstays such as Beck, Stereolab and the Danielson Famile. Beck told the album’s producer that Haack’s “Funky Lil’ Song” was “the most beautiful song I have ever heard.”
Having acquired a small cult following, Haack certainly is more popular now than when he died. Anagnos, however, hopes for much more. Thus was born the idea for Haackfest, originally slated to take place in September at the Ace Hotel, with Moby as the emcee. Though Anagnos says both the venue and the superstar DJ gave verbal commitments, both have since backed out.
Meanwhile, Anagnos hosted a Kickstarter campaign for Haackfest, which raised more than $3,000 but was canceled by Anagnos in mid-August. He insists that the show will go on, however, and that it is tentatively scheduled for October. In his eyes, nothing can stop Haack from achieving the posthumous acclaim he deserves.
“The more Bruce is submerged,” Anagnos concludes, “the larger the combustion will be. It can’t stay hidden forever.”
In the end, if Bruce Haack’s futuristic artistry has finally found a home in Los Angeles, it is a Hollywood ending forever tainted by the tragedy of real life. Out of sync with his own time, Haack used his music to plead for the kind of love he himself was more often than not denied. He believed that technological advancement would improve mankind’s quality of life, and that sharing information would one day make us more peaceful. Not every prediction has come to pass. At least not yet. But as Haack himself once wrote: “Maybe this world is the best world we ever had.”
Philip Anagnos’s documentary Haack: The King of Techno screens at the Downtown Independent on Sept. 20 at 9 pm.