Imperial Drag



The Moog Cookbook


It’s a funny thing about kitsch: the crap that one person champions as brilliant can cause another to lose his lunch. The very notion of Buffalo Tom covering “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here” on Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks or Joan Jett releasing “Love Is All Around” as a single is enough to make me gag. But I’m not gonna throw stones, ’cause I’m not without sin myself. One of my weaknesses is for early-70’s analog synthesizers-the cheesier the better.

Sure, vintage synths are plenty hip in indie-rock circles in these days, with everyone from Stereolab to Sabalon Glitz singing their praises. But I’m not just talkin’ cool Krautrock minimalist synths. I even like big, pompous, overblown dinosaur synth like those favored by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Rick Wakeman, the Japanese genius Tomita, and the godfather/godmother of ’em all, Walter/Wendy Carlos, the poineer behind 1968’s Switched-On Bach and pop music’s first transsexual superstar, which makes him/her a trailblazer any way you cut it. And this is why the kitschy self-titled debut by Imperial Drag and the even kitschier The Moog Cookbook are such wonderful guilty pleasures.

The credit (or blame) for both of these albums is due in part to keyboardist/vocalist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., a veteran of the justly forgotten early-90s bubblegum group Jellyfish. Jellyfish was what I would consider bad kitsch: a bunch of guys in their early 30s tarted up in junkstore clothing to look like teenagers circa 1968, delivering ultralite pop tunes ripped out of the Beach Boys and Squeeze songbooks. Jellyfish alum Jason Falkner is still pursuing this very VH-1 direction (he makes his solo debut in August with Author Unknown on Elektra), but Manning and Eric Dover(yet another Jellyfish alum) are tackling something far nobler with Imperial Drag: crafting a merger of early-70s hard rock a la Grand Funk Railroad and Ted Nugent and early-70s synth rock a la ELP, tailored (of course) to the current hook-happy demands of modern rock radio.

A recipe for trouble, some of you are saying, but I can’t get enough of goofy kick-ass anthems like “Zodiac Sign,” “Boy or a Girl,” “Playboy After Dark,” and “Scaredy Cats and Egomaniacs”-tunes propelled by fat T. Rex guitar riffs, big boogie bass lines, ridiculously busy drumming, and silly sing-along choruses, all of it decorated by Manning’s humming, droning, buzzing, whirring, bleeping, wheezing, farting synthesizers, which sound like nothing so much as a UFO passing in the night. Imperial Drag is the album Urge Overkill should have made to follow Saturation. From the retro lyrics (“I’m unoriginal, it’s fine…I’ve got a boner for your zodiac sign”) to the back cover art (two aloof blonds dressed like the mod teens in A Clockwork Orange, lounging on a circular bed and fondling and Imperial Drag LP), everything about this album is tongue-in-cheek, and I love it all.

I’m even more enamored of The Moog Cookbook, a sort of sythesizer tribute album credited to the mysterious space-suit-clad duo of Uli Nomi and Mecco Eno, who are actually Manning and his pal Brian Kehew. In the spirit of Switched-On Burt Bacharach, one of the many follow-ups to the spectacularly successful Switched-On Bach, Manning and Kehew deliver ten alternative-rock hits of the 90s (“Black Hole Sun,” “Buddy Holly,” “Basket Case”), each arranged for synthesizer and perfect for your space-age cocktail lounge. Even if you’re sick of the Esquivel/exotica revival (and who isn’t?), you’ve got to admire the mostly instrumental The Moog Cookbook on two levels: one, reducing tunes by oh-so-serious alternative superstars like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Lenny Kravitz to futuristic Muzak is inspired satire; and two, crafting songs by methodically building up a dozen or more melody and rhythm lines, each played on a different vintage synth, is damn hard work. Manning and Kehew pull it off with none of the seams left showing, and the liner notes even lovingly detail which keyboards were used for which parts.

Sure, both of these albums are crap, but your crap is my kitsch, and vice versa. Now, turn off that damn Carpenters tribute record and let me tell you how much I love Abba…

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): pictures of record covers.