How Bruce Haack Went From Composing Children’s Music to Making One of Canada’s Weirdest Electronic Albums
In 1970, Columbia Records released an album entitled The Electric Lucifer, written and performed by a little-known Alberta-born composer named Bruce Haack. It was an odd title for an even stranger LP, a concept record about the battle between heaven and hell, set to acid rock guitars, the early sounds of the Moog, and the Canadian artist’s homemade synthesizers. At the time, Haack made his living in New York as a pianist for dance instructors, and had only previously recorded music for children. Though The Electric Lucifer is now seen as a cult classic, he died in 1988, before ever seeing his accolades or even knowing he had an audience.
It wasn’t until the late 90s that people started appreciating Haack’s genius. Following compilations on Q.D.K. Media and Emperor Norton, a Philip Anagnos-directed documentary about his life called Haack: The King of Techno was released in 2004. He’s since been covered by Beck, and sampled by producers including J Dilla, Cut Chemist, and Madlib.
This week, Toronto-based label Telephone Explosion Records are finally reissuing The Electric Lucifer on vinyl. They were also responsible for reissuing the record’s sequel, The Electric Lucifer II, in 2014, and 1978’s Haackula last year. The album is a landmark work, featuring bouncy electronic numbers like vocoded opening track “Electric To Me Turn,” as well as more psychedelic songs like “Program Me,” with its heavy slice of bass and organ. To mark the occasion, we’re taking a look back at how Haack evolved from a self-taught musician growing up in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, to a pioneer of Canadian avant-garde electronica.
Ted Pandel is the most qualified person to tell the late artist’s story. Haack’s longtime friend and manager of his estate today, they met at NYC’s Juilliard School in 1954, while both waiting in the registrar’s line. “We couldn’t have been more different,” he tells THUMP over the phone from West Chester, Pennsylvania.
While Pandel was a classically trained musician, Haack was entirely self-taught, spending much of his early years in rural Alberta in front of his parents’ piano. By age 12, the only child was giving piano lessons to other people in his neighbourhood, before applying to the University of Alberta’s music program after high school. Due to his lack of musical notation knowledge, he wasn’t accepted, so he decided to study psychology instead, continuing to compose for the university’s theatre productions.
Not being able to write out his scores didn’t impede Haack’s ability to perform, in fact, it put him down the path of electronic music. “He never had to notate anything because he’d use a tape recorder and play all the instruments himself. It was the kind of music they’d call musique concrete,” recalls Pandel. It was through these jobs that Haack was introduced to actor Charles Laughton, who encouraged him to pursue his studies in music in New York.
Even with a full scholarship, he didn’t last long at Juilliard, with Pandel explaining that “he didn’t fit into that classical idiom.” Haack started devoting more time and energy into building his own instruments, visiting shops on Canal Street to buy parts for his homemade synthesizers. Many of his inventions were built through trial and error with a desired effect in mind, but no technical knowledge of how to get there. One such instrument was the heat and touch-sensitive “peopleodeon,” or “dermatron” as it was later called, which allowed the human body to trigger different pitches. The idiosyncratic device led to Haack becoming a popular guest on the CBS game show I’ve Got a Secret, including a 1960 appearance where he played the dermatron on Pandel’s forehead, while Pandel performed Nat King Cole’s “Jet My Love” on the piano.
By the time Pandel graduated in 1958, the pair were roommates and looking for work as a songwriting duo, shopping their songs to offices and executives across the city with little success. “We thought what we were going to do was make money at pop music,” says Pandel laughing. “We couldn’t even get past the secretaries.” They finally got a break after writing two tracks, “I Like Christmas” and “Satellite,” for Teresa Brewer, which ended up as B-sides for the American pop singer’s singles “Jingle Bell Rock” and “The One Rose (That’s Left In My Heart).” “The truth is, Bruce wrote most of the songs,” admits Pandel. “He would always add my name because he wanted to have a kind of Rodgers and Hammerstein thing.”
“I Like Christmas” demonstrates Haack’s fanaticism for the holiday, a recurring theme of his discography that would culminate in the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, 1976’s Ebenezer Electric. As much as “Satellite” is a novelty from the Sputnik era, it also has its own orbit, a strong pull created by the dizzying, off-kilter opening string arrangement, and the tension between the singer’s wide-eyed innocence and the expansive universe that the song takes place in. More than a simple pop tune, “Satellite” was just the beginning of Haack’s foray into the kind of world-building we’d later hear on The Electric Lucifer.
With their pop bubble burst, Pandel took up working as a page at ABC Studios, where he met Chris Kachulis, who immediately took to Haack’s music. Kachulis became Haack’s manager, constantly accompanying the reluctant composer to appointments at commercial agencies. Around the time he was writing 15-second jingles on-the-spot for employers, Haack also started working as a pianist for dance instructors in Westchester County, which flexed very similar muscles. “All the dance teachers would say to Bruce was “give me two beats and make it Indian,’ and he’d whip something up,” says Pandel.
One teacher, Esther Nelson, became particularly close with Haack, and they released a record together in 1963. Dance Sing and Listen, a collage of dance instruction, storytelling and song, was pressed for $500 and sold to parents. The album was so successful that they started a label, Dimension 5, with Pandel, and continued collaborating on material throughout the 1960s. Foundational to their approach was respecting their audience’s intelligence. Haack and Nelson were intent on divorcing children’s music and entertainment from the formulaic folk tradition that dominated the industry. The duo used expansive sounds and structures to teach throughout all eleven of the records they made together. Though they used terms like “reverse-psychedelik” to describe their philosophy, their albums resonated with children, parents, and educators alike
Between the Dimension 5 recordings with Nelson and the commercial work he was doing, Haack was able to earn enough money to build his own studio in New York, and began work in 1967 on a project that would become The Electric Lucifer. Unlike his paid work, it wasn’t a record that was commissioned by or for anyone else, and he drew heavy inspiration from the sounds of acid rock introduced to him by Kachulis. In a 1970 interview with Albertan radio station CKUA, he said he appreciated the less formally constrained genre, and believed it worked well with his electronic tendencies.
The clear stylistic distinction between electronic music and rock on the record helps illustrate the tension essential to the album’s concept of a war between heaven and hell. It also creatively alluded to the paradigm shift happening in the late 1960s and early 1970s as electronic music was growing increasingly popular. Once the record was completed in 1969, Pandel recalls it was Kachulis who came through again for Haack, orchestrating Columbia Records’ involvement and eventual release of the album. “Chris through his perseverance got a hold of John Hammond, who was the big man at Columbia Records. Chris called his house and talked to his maid and convinced her to put him on the phone,” he says. Somehow he got Hammond to hear The Electric Lucifer and he loved it.”
To their credit, Columbia, who had just had major success in 1968 with Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, were not only receptive to the potential of electronic music, but in particular, the Moog. Part of the label’s agreement with Haack stipulated that he add Moog parts to the album, which he happily obliged, further cementing the record’s place in electronic history.
While it was well-received by college radio and music critics, it would be his only major label release, with every subsequent Haack album coming out on Dimension 5. Though in his lifetime he never enjoyed the recognition he has now, his cutting edge work with children’s music ensured that the next generation of musicians would have the tools to understand the legacy he left behind. In children’s music Haack found his creative impulse, a place where electronic music wasn’t fringe or a novelty, but an exciting new sound full of possibility, living outside of form and convention, much like he did. Rather than an anomaly that exists outside his body of work, The Electric Lucifer is the culmination of the artist’s delve into children’s music, a wide-eyed and innocent look at conflict, and an expression of the exciting potentialities of the future.
“When you hear something like The Electric Lucifer, and when you put it in context with its time even, you know it’s coming from somebody special,” says Telephone Explosion co-founder Jon Schouten. “History tells us that people who have this kind of genius just aren’t typically recognized within their own time.”
Michael Rancic is on Twitter.