Prairie Pop: The secret history of Craig Leon, punk’s electronic-music innovator

Prairie Pop
Leon performs with his wife Cassell Webb, pictured here in their London studio. — photo courtesy of Craig Leon

Craig Leon made a name for himself producing the first New York punk records by The Ramones, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Blondie and Suicide. But who knew he was also a groundbreaking electronic music artist?

In 1980, Leon’s debut album Nommos was released on Takoma, an independent record label set up by avant-folk artist John Fahey. This hypnotic, droning work of space-aged psychedelia promptly sunk into obscurity, as did his 1982 follow up, Visiting.

They have since been recognized as innovative works that were well ahead of their time—or, perhaps, from another solar system. It’s therefore fitting that the albums were reissued this fall as a double LP set titled Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1 (RVNG Intl.). A CD version of the same music was released by Aparte/Harmonia Mundi Worldwide under the name Craig Leon: Early Electronic Works.

Just how does one go from producing seminal 1970s punk records to making an album for a classical label like Harmonia Mundi? From Leon’s point of view, his involvement in the New York music underground wasn’t a random detour from his classical music roots. In fact, he viewed punk as an extension of the experimental art music tradition that appealed to him as a teen in the 1960s.

“Music was really esoteric back then,” says Leon, who now primarily works as a classical music producer. “In pop music you could have a show that would have Terry Riley opening up for the Mothers of Invention as the second act, and Hugh Masekela as the headliner and nobody would think anything about it. Genres were crossed very easily.”

This open-minded approach to music explains Leon’s deep love for Suicide, an iconoclastic duo consisting of keyboardist Marty Rev and vocalist Alan Vega. Starting in 1970, they jettisoned the traditional bass-drum-guitar rock band lineup in favor of keyboards, drum machines and a confrontational attitude.

“In 1972 or ‘73,” Leon says of a Suicide show at the downtown club Max’s Kansas City, “I saw them and they were doing their whole performance art shtick. Alan was beating the tables in the front with chains. I thought they were fabulous.”

Leon’s passion for the group even ended up costing him a potential record company job (though soon after, he landed a position at Sire Records).

“I took the interview on a Friday and they said, ‘This weekend, go out and see some bands and then give me your report on which ones you would sign on Monday.’ I saw Suicide, and I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna sign this band called Suicide.’ And it was like, bang, career over at that label before I even started.”

This was the mellow 1970s, when record buyers rode on horses with no names while smoking doobies with their brothers.

There was no way a label executive would even consider signing Suicide—a group whose very name unsettled the peaceful, easy feeling that was hegemonic throughout that decade. Record companies avoided Suicide like the plague until Leon finally got a chance to produce their 1977 debut for an indie label. Its minimalist, murky dubscapes went on to be a huge influence on techno, synth pop and experimental electronic music.

Despite a very long list of production credits, Leon is perhaps best known for signing The Ramones to Sire and producing the band’s first record. Although they are largely remembered today as cartoon punk street hooligans, Leon places them squarely within the experimental art music tradition.

“The Ramones were like a performance art piece, in Tommy’s mind,” Leon says of drummer Tommy Ramone, the band’s mastermind. “He saw things in that visual sense,” he tells me, referring to their matching leather-jacket-and-jeans uniform and Warhol-esque deadpan personas. “They were like straight out of the New York art scene.”

Leon began working more seriously with electronics after assisting a DJ named Larry Fast record a series of classic synth albums under the name Synergy. “That was the first really hands-on stuff that I did,” he says, “and I started gathering up ideas for doing my own electronic work—which I didn’t really do till a few years later.”

Near the end of the 1970s, Leon jumped at the chance when the Takoma label approached him to do a synthesizer album. “Nommos was originally supposed to be an orchestral album in my mind,” he says. Unfortunately, he was working with a rock bottom budget that didn’t allow for such luxuries.

If Nommos was born in 1980, you might say that the album died when its original master tapes were tragically lost years ago during the major label merger era. Fortunately, Leon was able to resurrect the project because, well, he had good notes.

“I kept notebooks of all my synth stuff,” he says. “I still have the old Rolands that I actually did it on, and the old Moogs.”

In addition to keeping his synthesizers, Leon also held on to the physical tape loops that formed the basis of the original Nommos recordings—which he transferred to digital. Through a combination of analog and digital technologies (and meticulous specs detailing synth patches, settings, and other technical stuff), he was able to recreate the album sound-for-sound.

This process encouraged Leon to begin performing Nommos live with a hybrid electronic-acoustic lineup that included himself, Leon’s wife Cassell Webb, and a string quartet. This small ensemble appeared this year at Moogfest in Asheville, North Carolina, as well as several other events. These 2014 shows culminated in the realization of a lifelong goal—performing Nommos with a full orchestra—which finally happened on Oct. 15 at the Unsound Festival in Kraków, Poland.

“It was a thrilling experience,” he tells me after the show. “This year’s theme for the Unsound Festival is ‘The Dream,’ and it couldn’t be more appropriate than in this case.” His initial plan was to electronically treat some of the acoustic instruments, but Leon says he “didn’t have enough rehearsal time to do treated work with the orchestra, so it was purely orchestral except for my synth playing.”

“Having said that,” Leon adds, “I am returning to Kraków next month to record the orchestral Nommos with the same ensemble, Sinfonietta Cracova, and I’ll be recording the piece with processed orchestra only.” The plan is to release the recording next year.

“My dream is to have a kind of a cyborg-orchestra synthesized fusion,” Leon says.

All hail the cyborchestra!

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