Andy Bergsten: Connected for a beat

Do you remember that cool story Barry Marshall told us about hearing David Robinson play the Syndrums live for the first time, back in 1977? Well, I had the pleasure of talking with the gentleman who worked with David on integrating that technology, so let’s pause our Boston Boys series and take a closer look at that.

Andy & Paul
Paul McCartney and Andy

Andy Bergsten and his company, Bergsten Music Inc., has been providing professional event production services (musical instruments, sound equipment, stage lighting, etc.) to musicians and venues for over 40 years.  Their list of clients reads like the ‘who’s who’ of the music industry, beginning with Van Morrison and continuing on with Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, Nirvana, The Cars , Celine Dion, Aerosmith, Elton John… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

In fact, here’s an interesting tidbit in his history: Andy was the one who literally pulled the plug on the 1994 Green Day show when the free concert escalated into a riot. Not familiar with that fiasco? Check this out:

Not only was Andy a natural salesman, he was (and is!) a musician himself. Back in the mid 70s he was the bass player for Munson & Valentine, a folk-duo-turned-folk-rock band that was getting radio play with their single, “Blow On By.” Andy went on to play with neoswing legends Bellevue Cadillac, earning 11 Grammy nominations and touring the world in the sixteen years he was with them. He currently jams with Border Road , a South Shore band that includes Chuck McDermott (Wheatstraw). On occasion, he also plays bass and is the musical director for Denny Dias (Steely Dan) and friends.

And back in 1977, he put his fingerprints on The Cars’ iconic debut album. Fortunately for us, Andy has spent time during the pandemic quarantine writing out some of the more memorable experiences of his career, so we get to read the details of his collaboration with David Robinson in his own words!

The Syndrum was an electronic drum invented by studio musician Joe Pollard in 1976.  Joe was a friend of a legendary sound engineer Stuart “Dinky” Dawson who worked with artists like The Byrds, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, and many more.  My wife, Margaret, took a job working in the office of Dawson Sound around 1974 and at the time I was going to Berklee College of Music. In late 1976, Joe Pollard was looking for a New England sales rep to handle sales of his drums so he turned to Dinky.   Well, Dinky turned to me as I was just about to graduate from Berklee, and so began the adventure.

1977. business card from barry marshall
Andy Bergsten’s business card, circa 1977. Courtesy of Barry Marshall; shared with permission.

I took it upon myself and began marketing it like I did my bands over the years.  I knew every music store in New England from gigging so I began to visit the stores and try to sell them a very expensive item that was way over their budget; boy, was I naïve! Then I approached some of the well-known drummers in New England and got a quick lesson on endorsements… they all wanted a set for free.

Around this time, I got a call from the office that David Robinson of The Cars was very interested in the drums. He was very aware of the tom-tom sound that they made as it was all over the airwaves, and he was eager to find out what else they could do. I didn’t know The Cars , but did know of the band Cap’n Swing, who played venues that I was playing.  I had a single out which was playing on Boston stations with the band Munson & Valentine, and I think David and I looked at each other as peers who were experienced skilled musicians.

Syndrum manualAt the time, because of a stall in production, I had the only set in New England that was available for demonstrations and studio work. I called David and set up a time where I could demo the drums. Shortly after that call I went into Boston to meet David at his apartment on Commonwealth Ave that I believe he shared with Elliot Easton, The Cars’ guitarist.  David and I drove together in my van to a rehearsal room in Allston where I set up the Syndrums and showed him the multiple sounds the drums could make. I was the only rep for Syndrum that was a professional musician, and artists appreciated that I could suggest spots in their tunes that Syndrum sounds would work. David caught on quickly and immediately saw the wide potential for them, kinda like a kid in a candy store. It was a very relaxed and friendly time.

After the demo we went back to his apartment where Elliot was and hung out for a bit. The Cars had received some advance money to do their first album and David not only bought a set from me, but ordered a second set of four that came through Wurlitzer Music in Boston. The next time I saw him was at the Rex ballroom where I brought supplies for the drums to him. I hung in the Green Room with them until they went on.

The crowd was into the fresh sound of the Cars, as it was the beginning of the “new wave” of music and a refreshing change from disco. As I remember from the Rex show, David used the descending tom-tom sound on a lot of stuff — the sound like in “My Best Friend’s Girl.” He also used some of the more synth sounds, like the rising “space effect” using 2 oscillators. 

syndrum set up
A peek at David’s Syndrums on the left, France, 1978

Looking back at what David did with the Syndrums, I always felt that he used them more creatively than most, and he was the only artist that used eight Syndrums.

At the time, you could hear the tom-tom sound in songs like “Poor, Poor  Pitiful Me,” “McArthur Park,” and many disco tunes. Many people came to think that the tom-tom sound was the only sound they made. The Syndrum got nicknamed the “disco drum,” and as disco faded during the early ‘80s, so did the Syndrum.  Sadly, the 10,000 plus sounds the drum could make never got used the way they could have. Many years later there was a resurgence and interest in them, but over time other electronic drums hit the market and offered a greater variety of usable sounds.

For me, the Syndrums were my introduction to a new world where people rented musical instruments, and I began getting requests for other items.  I always felt that I needed to say yes [to inquiries], so when requests came in I found a way to get what was needed by borrowing from other musicians or just going out and buying things used out of the want ads.  It was basic music industry things like Fender amps, drum kits and eventually a keyboard or two. The Syndrum was by far the most unique item I had, but they opened the door.

During the next few years I gained a reputation for having good equipment and being on time so venues began to come to me for their music instruments needs. The backline industry was in its infancy and though I wasn’t on the ground floor, I was at least on the first floor. In 1978, I was trying to sell an electronic drum set to stores which was way above their budget, $1500 at the time. I hit all the music stores that I knew from gigging without any luck.  The sale to David was my first sale and I look at it as the beginning of a company that, up until the Covid issue, was supplying instruments and sound to over 2000 shows a year.  Do the math on that!  

~ Andy Bergsten

Shortly after working together on David’s new gear, Andy and David were interviewed for this article that ran in The Boston Phoenix on May 16, 1978. What a boon that Andy still had a copy of it for us to read!

Syndrum_Cars 78-page-001

Syndrum_Cars 78 rescan 1-page-2_3

I’m always fascinated with the behind-the-scenes details of Cars history, and I love that Andy was able to give us some insight into what David was doing, tucked away at the back of the stage. Thank you so much, Andy!

One of The Cars’ songs that has such an unforgettable Syndrum sound in my ears is “Good Times Roll.” You can’t go wrong with that incredible intro! It is the perfect opener for the album, and for those early live shows, too. Enjoy!

7 thoughts on “Andy Bergsten: Connected for a beat

  1. After hearing that David had a set I went out and bought one because I could only afford one. I used it to play Cars songs and one Bad Company song. I wish I still had it because I would break it out and use it. Great interview, thanks SPJ!

    Liked by 3 people

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