I’ve seen dozens of Warner Brothers cartoons that involve factories. Bugs Bunny chasing Daffy Duck through a manufacturing plant, Daffy Duck narrowly avoiding having his head chopped off by an automatic chopping machine. The exact same music is played every time, a jaunty, rhythmic song that is in my mind synonymous with automation. I hear it quoted every time I listen to Soul Coughing’s “Bus to Beelzebub, or They Might Be Giants’ “Rhythm Section Want Ad.” It’s used on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.” I’ve even seen it on The Simpsons.

The song, it turns out, is “Powerhouse” (

), written and performed by composer and engineer Raymond Scott in 1937. The brilliant Carl Stalling used “Powerhouse” time and time again in WB cartoons from 1943-1960, employing the first half (“Powerhouse A”) for chase scenes and the second half (“Powerhouse B”) for factory scenes, all performed by WB’s orchestra. Though “Powerhouse” was certainly his most commonly-used song in cartoons, twenty of his songs were used over time.

Scott was a pioneer in electronic music — he worked with Bob Moog, who cites Scott as a major influence. He created the Clavivox and the Electronium before moving on to the polyphonic sequencer. Though he gradually became more and more reclusive, working on his inventions in his lab, but that didn’t prevent him from befriending a young experimental filmmaker, Jim Henson, for whom Scott created electronic soundtracks. He fell into obscurity after that, but circumstances conspired to make him briefly popular again in the 90s before his 1994 death.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

4 replies on “Powerhouse.”

  1. Scott was terrified someone was going to steal his inventions, which is why he was so secluded. His motivation for creating electronic music was to eliminate human error. He despised improvisation, and rode the players in his quintette to make sure they didn’t stray from what he prepared for them to play. The MANHATTAN RESEARCH INC album is a must-have for anyone who wants to hear the early days of electronica.

    Also, the original Ren and Stimpy cartoons featured the original Scott recordings, which was the first time I had ever heard them.

  2. other Raymond Scott songs which have been featured frequently in popular cartoons include:

    “Twilight in Turkey,” “Manhattan Minuet,” “Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner,” “In an 18th Century Drawing Room,”
    and of course “The Penguin” (which was also sampled by Soul Coughing.)

    The majority of Carl Stalling-scored WB cartoons contain at least a snippit from one of those. The best known is probably “Twilight in Turkey,” which was THE music used to indicate a mediterannian or middle-eastern setting for most of the 20th century. (incidentally, I’d be interested to learn the source of the equally-prevelant stereotypical “chinese” music — you know, the ascending/descending 3-note chime w/ gongs that you hear every time a cartoon character goes to China — that one wasn’t by Scott.)

    Needless to say, he was sort of the pioneer of the modern “wacky” composition, and I’ve always seen him as an important predecessor to the Frank Zappa / John Zorn / Mike Patton / early Boredoms school of thought. Oddly enough, Raymond Scott HATED cartoons and never wrote a score specifically FOR a cartoon in his life. One would assume he wasn’t exactly thrilled about his popular association with them, although I’m sure he didn’t mind the royalty checks…

    I’ve read a lengthy article wherein Irwin Chusud interviews Scott’s widow, and it’s immensely depressing. Essentially Scott was the Peter Sellers type, someone who was completely incapable of expressing emotion or relating to any other human being, yet was responsible for creating really whimsical and joyful music which is universally beloved.

    For those interested in his work from this period, the 1992 columbia compilation “Reckless Nights and Turkish Twilights” is absolutely essential. “Microphone Music,” I’d suggest, is for completists only. He later wrote several recordings for larger orchestras in the 40’s, which are nice but lack the perfection of his 1930’s work, and he was also responsible for several very obscure, impossibly nerdy “jazz” recordings in the 50’s and 60’s, which are mostly amusing because they’re so BAD.

    And, later in life, he was indeed an important electronic music pioneer, although his innovations were mostly in the realm of invention rather than composition. The above-mentioned “Manhattan Research Inc” 2xCD (which is spotty, but contains several gems) is mostly technical studio demonstrations and failed attempts at commercial work. His only true electronic recordings for home listening were the “Soothing Sounds for Baby” set of records, which vary from some absolutely perfect compositions (my favorite is “Sleepy Time”) to some maddeningly repetative 15+minute loops which will bore you to death (or at least make you want to put on some mid-70s Kraftwerk instead)

    As far as early electronic music goes, Scott was a sort of odd duck — he’s not as imaginative or expansive as his contemporaries Vladimir Ussachevsky, Louis and Bebe Barron, or Morton Subotnick — but he fails to summon the energy and whimsy of his followers like Dick Hyman, Cecil Leuter, Nino Nardini, or Scott Ludwig & Maximillion. (Wendy Carlos, by contrast, managed to straddle both of these disparate directions in electronic music fairly effortlessly). So yes, Raymond Scott is historically important to electronic music, but his work from the period is pretty underwhelming.

    Anyhow, for those seeking some vintage electronic music which conveys the bizaare joy and cheerful energy of Raymond Scott’s 1930’s compositions, I cannot recommend Perrey & Kingsley highly enough. They are best known for their 1966 novelty moog-pop album “The In Sound from Way Out” (from which the Beastie Boys stole not only the title, but the cover art as well), although for my money it gets no better than Jean Jacques Perrey’s first 1968 solo album “The Amazing Electronic Pop Sound of Jean Jacques Perrey.” Seriously, if Raymond Scott’s music appeals to you, you should buy this Perrey album TODAY. It’s one of my all-time favorites.

    His 1970 follow-up “Moog Indigo” is far less consistent but contains many of his best moments, namely the unbelievable “Gossipo Perpetuo” and the much-sampled “E.V.A.”

    Gershon Kingsley’s first solo album “Music to Moog By” is also notable, both for its cheesy renditions of tracks by the Beatles and Paul Simon, but also for the fantastic opening track, the impossibly futuristic sounding “Hey Hey.” I play it often when I DJ, and people are always complimenting me for playing RJD2 — it’s not RJ, it’s a track from 35 years earlier that he wholeheartedly ripped off. The record also contains the original version of “Popcorn” which became a #1 hit when a fly-by-night funk band covered it a few years later.

    Kingsley returned to Israel shortly afterwards and, sadly enough drifted off into making bizaare religiously-themed rock-operas (they’re pretty bad, he’s got nothing on Bruce Haack in that department), before retiring completely.

    Perrey, on the other hand, is still alive and has been consistently making records since the mid-60’s, often collaborating with people half his age (including a number of great library-music recordings with his 10-year-old neice in the mid-70s which are sadly very out-of-print). He’s got to be in his 80’s by now, but he’s put out several albums in the past few years and they’re remarkably good. Depsite getting remixed and sampled by Fatboy Slim, Perrey has completely resisted the temptation to modify his sound to try to appeal to a contemporary audience — his records today sound basically exactly the same as his records from 40 years ago, albeit with different technology and better recording quality, and they’re just as charming.

  3. I’m sort of a nut for early electronic music. Can you tell?

    (it’s a boring day at work, hence the gigantic post)

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