10 great things about the ARP Odyssey

ARP Odyssey
(Image credit: Future)

The ARP Odyssey celebrates its 50th birthday this year - and what a 50 years it's been. 

Introduced in 1972, this classic synth remains one of the most iconic instruments in electronic music, and has been utilised by a laundry list of artists from the legendary (ABBA, Jean-Michel Jarre and Herbie Hancock, to name a few) to the contemporary

Join us as we revisit ten memorable moments from the Odyssey's odyssey through synthesizer history. 

1. The first synth to greet aliens

The scenario might be the stuff of fantasy: aliens make contact with humans atop the strange Devil’s Tower (actual place). But in what is probably the greatest idea anyone could have ever, the humans’ first reaction is to play them some synth music on an ARP 2500. 

We think the finest thing you could do to ease into a relationship would be to play some early Tangerine Dream or Jean-Michel Jarre – we do exactly this when we form relationships with other humans, so know what we’re talking about – and top marks for whoever thought of this. 

The ARP 2500 plays the famous ‘da da da, do, daa’ theme which [SPOILER ALERT] the aliens like so much, they decide to return some people who they’d essentially kidnapped, and then take some replacements just for good measure (and probably hugely painful genetic experiments). Would the same thing have happened if Bieber had been blaring through the speakers?

2. The first synth voiced by aliens

If you think ARP’s alien connection is pretty cool with Close Encounters, then the sci-fi story continues with R2-D2, possibly the most famous robot in our galaxy’s history and – because we’re actually starting to believe that the whole Star Wars saga actually happened – that of a galaxy far, far away. 

Yes, he/she/it/they spoke ‘ARP’! The diminutive star of Star Wars (and the real star if you think about it) was voiced by an ARP 2600. We can only assume that ARP’s PR company must have been very closely involved with Hollywood at the time. To have your synth involved in one iconic sci-fi film is lucky, but two? Careless…

3. Anything by Billy Currie

Visage, Numan and Ultravox – as we shall see here – all owe a huge debt to the ARP Odyssey and its finest ever player, Billy Currie, who deserves his own slot in our Ten ARP appearances, in addition to some of these act’s tracks. In short, Currie did more for 70s and 80s synth playing – and ARP’s own PR – than pretty much any other keyboard player, taking what is essentially a simple synth by today’s standards, and wrestling so many different sounds, solos and emotions from it, you’d think he was using a giant bank of many a module. “I just like the honky, mad sound,” he once told Electricity Club.

4. Gary Numan – On Broadway (Live) AKA Billy Currie part 2

Numan is really known more for his Moogs, Polys in particular – those classic strings defined his sound in the late 70s/early 80s – but he made special use of the Odyssey when he employed Billy Currie on his 1979 Living Ornaments tour. Incredibly, given his stark and alien output up to this point, Numan decided to cover On Broadway, a ‘smooth jazz’ song originally recorded by The Drifters. 

This live version was then released with one of the best ARP solos ever – Billy Currie wrestling a range from the ARP never heard before or since, with Chris Payne’s Polymoog joining forces for one of the finest synth segments in any song ever committed to tape, let alone performed live. Check it out from 1:50 below for a screaming, howling idea of what the Odyssey is capable of (in the right hands, of course).

5. Ultravox – Astradyne AKA Billy Currie part 3

Ultravox had started to home in on an electronic sound in their first incarnation with John Foxx leading the band from its art house roots down a more synth route. Their keyboard player Currie had invested in an Odyssey in 1977 and took its sound into the Mark 2 line-up fronted by Midge Ure. 

Astradyne is from this incarnation’s debut album, Vienna, and while the Odyssey was used on many tracks (including the title) from that album, it features with a huge solo on this track from around 4 and half minutes, almost guitar-like in its structure. In fact, Currie told Electricity Club in that 2012 interview: “It is a very good, strong keyboard part. I used to say at the time: ‘Only a guitarist could come up with that!’ I meant that as a good thing!”

6. Visage – Fade To Grey AKA Billy Currie part 4

Look, around 1979 to 1981, Billy Currie did the rounds, OK? We’re doubtful whether even he knows what band he was in during this period, but wherever he was, Currie took his Odyssey with him. 

While we’re not 100% sure that it was used as the main intro riff of this classic, we are sure that the synth was used across many tracks on Visage’s debut album (Visage). Plus we also found a great video of a bloke on YouTube demoing how you can use an Odyssey to play the intro to Fade To Grey. So that’s good enough for us.

7. ABBA – Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)

Phew, an entry without a mention of Billy Currie. And, of course, you can give us ‘A Man After Midnight’ any time… as long as they arrive with an ARP Odyssey. (What happens if they arrive before midnight is anyone’s guess though.) Yes ABBA, aka the greatest pop band ever, used an Odyssey on Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!

We reckon it was the main lead although there is also a synth bass used in the song. You can see Benny playing what looks suspiciously like a MkII Odyssey mounted on top of two other keyboards in the official video, filmed in the ABBA studio during the song’s recording. 

And while we’re on the subject, what the heck has happened to those supposed two new ABBA songs that were supposed to be out by now? Ooh, exciting. We just Googled it. It might well be five or eight new ABBA songs. That means an album basically…

8. 70s cop show TV themes

We love 70s cop shows here at MusicRadar, mostly because they employed the synths of the time for a more crazy-sounding usage. The Rockford Files ‘we-ooh, we-oh, we-oh, we-oh’ main lead was by all accounts (aka the internet) a Minimoog, while ARP worshippers can turn to Ironside’s TV theme which employs an ARP Odyssey to create a cop-style siren. 

Not the synth’s best ever use but Quincy Jones was responsible so who are we to argue? You see, the Moog vs ARP thing even translated to 70s TV cop shows. Brilliant. And Hawaii 5-0 used a Roland. No, it didn’t really. 

9. The Radiophonic Workshop

The Radiophonic Workshop was a crazily underfunded disorganisation at the heart of the BBC which made use of any old gear (oft found in skips) to make some of the most incredible music. The Dr Who theme (credited to Ron Grainer but realised by Delia Derbyshire, who should have been given more credit) is the most famous example. 

In this clip it’s recreated in 1980 by a CS-80 and ARP Odyssey for the ‘oo-wee-you’ bit. The ARP wasn’t used on the original – Derbyshire created it with the Radiophonic Workshop equivalent of tin cans and a piece of string, making it all the more remarkable – but we love the charm of this clip. Check out the great Arena docu-drama about Derbyshire on BBC iPlayer too.

10. Kraftwerk (of course) – The Robots

Yes it’s Kraftwerk, yes they used synths. And the ARP Odyssey was used all across their Man Machine album, from which this track came. The synth is undoubtedly responsible for the more whooping sounds on this track and others and, of course, the K-boys also employed an army of Moogs at their Kling Klang Studios. There was no such thing as Moog Vs ARP for them; they had it all, or simply invented what they didn’t have.

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