As George Harrison once told my friend Martin Smith at Streetly Electronics, “History is bollocks. If you weren’t there, you don’t know.” I suspect that we can all symphathise with that view to some extent although, if taken at face value, it would render valueless almost all history books and retrospectives, not least because the people about whose activities they were written were generally long dead by the time that quill was eventually scratched across papyrus. So, when David Abernethy decided to write a definitive history of Sequential Circuits, he hit upon a plan so cunning that he could have pinned a tail on it and called it a fox. He decided to involve all manner of people who were there at the time including, most importantly, Dave Smith and John Bowen, as well as luminaries such as John Chowning, Tom Oberheim and Roger Linn, all of whom are still very much alive and active in our industry.
I first heard of the project when Abernethy contacted me in October 2012, by which time he had already invested two years of his life in it. He was planning to fly from his native New Zealand to the UK to interview a number of musicians and writers with the intention of adding their memories and observations to the corpus, and asked me whether I would be willing to contribute. Five months later, I met him at BVE (the Broadcast Video Expo) in London, and we spent a happy hour or two discussing all things Prophet-y.
Everything then went quiet for another couple of years during which, unbeknown to the rest of us, Abernethy was visiting, meeting, interviewing, Skype-ing, emailing, and generally sucking vast quantities of memories from the great and the good of the industry, then trawling through the huge body of information he was acquiring and whipping it into shape for publication. When it appeared, the book was subtitled, The Complete Story Of Sequential Circuits, which at first seemed a bold claim, but even a brief skim suggested that it wasn’t inappropriate. In addition to the principal players, Abernethy had managed to interview many of the original instruments’ hardware and software designers, industry gurus from contemporaneous companies, plus writers and reviewers old enough to have been there the first time around. But I suspect that it’s the wealth of comments from high-profile musicians such as Tony Banks, Geoff Downes, Suzanne Ciani and Larry Fast that will fascinate most, as well as the ‘Horror Stories’ and ‘Mad Moments’ dropped into many of the chapters.
Spanning the entire history of Sequential Circuits from their first product in 1974 to their demise at the end of 1987, the book doesn’t focus exclusively on the one company, and therefore provides a huge amount of valuable context within which the story unfolds. And, although it’s a large–format paperback rather than a ‘coffee table’ hardback, the production quality is good, the layout and choice of fonts make the information very accessible, and the high number of images and photographs (mostly in full colour) all combine to make it a cracking good read. Indeed, I found it to be almost like reading a novel. Sure, I knew that the main character died on the last page, but I frequently found myself reading for longer than I had intended, just to find out what happened next.
At this point, I have to declare an interest — much of my conversation with Abernethy made it into the book, so maybe I could be accused of bias. So let me conclude with somebody else’s view. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to ask Dave Smith of Sequential Circuits what he thinks of The Prophet From Silicon Valley and he told me, “It’s very complete and accurate, at least from what I remember from that long ago! There were a couple of things that apparently other people remembered differently than I do, but after that much time I don’t necessarily trust my version enough to challenge them. There were even a few stories that I hadn’t heard before. I’ve heard from a number of people saying how much they like the book and how much they’ve learned. With the entire story in one place, it’s a great historical reference for that period of synth history.” Were George Harrison alive today, he might have had to eat his words. To misquote him, all things must pass, but not necessarily before someone with the commitment shown by Abernethy has had the chance to record them for posterity. Highly recommended. Gordon Reid
Paperback £28.08, Kindle £10.48.
Paperback $42.95, Kindle $15.20.