Aired on Treasure Island OldiesJun 25, 2023

In 1928 Russian inventor Leon Theremin patented one of the first electronic musical instruments and one that was first mass produced.

The instrument became known as a “theremin,” and an offshoot of it would end up being featured on one of the greatest recordings of the rock era …


A theremin is controlled without physical contact by the performer with the controlling section usually consisting of two metal antennas which function not as radio antennas but rather as position sensors.

The sound of the instrument is often associated with eerie situations. The theremin has been used in movie soundtracks such as Bernard Herrmann’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

With a desire for more music control, in the late 50s, trombonist Paul Tanner and amateur inventor Bob Whitsell custom-built the Electro-Theremin, which features hands-on mechanical controls including a long slide bar for pitch (like a trombone) and a knob to adjust the volume.

Tanner played it for the 1958 LP record “Music for Heavenly Bodies,” the first full-length album featuring the instrument. He also played it on several television and movie soundtracks, most notably on the theme for the 60s TV series “My Favorite Martian,” that starred Ray Walston and Bill Bixby.

In 1966 Tanner played his instrument on four songs by the Beach Boys. One of those songs was the most expensive single ever recorded for its time with costs estimated somewhere between $50K – $75K ($450K – $680K in today’s world). However it is now considered one of the finest and most important works of the rock era,  ranking #6 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” It is also included in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys credits his mother for his inspiration and admits that he wrote the song while under the influence of marijuana. He goes on to say the following about the song: “I had a lot of unfinished ideas, fragments of music I called ‘feels.’ Each feel represented a mood or an emotion I’d felt, and I planned to fit them together like a mosaic.”

From the start, Wilson envisioned the use of a theremin on the track because it would enhance his ability to express his “Good Vibrations,” this week’s Tom Locke moment in time.

Epilogue: Tanner’s prototype Electro-Theremin appears to have been the only one made. In the late 1960s, Tanner donated or sold the instrument to a hospital to use for audiology work, because he believed that newer keyboard synthesizers made it obsolete. In 1999, Tom Polk built a replica of the original Electro-Theremin for Brian Wilson’s solo tour of that year. Polk called his instrument the Tannerin in honor of the original creator and performer.

YouTube video of this song:

This “Moments In Time” story is yet another example of a “golden oldie” or forgotten favorite that earned its place in the evolution of Rock & Roll.