Category Archives: Music

Glory Days

I was born in 1970. That was an odd time to be born, I think, what with the Culture Wars and the Vietnam War and earth-tones and Ranch-style houses all being such a big deal.

All the bits and pieces of culture that we reflexively associate with that time were not then cartoonish and laughable: the hair, the clothes, the shape of automobiles, the look of so many modernist buildings, they were a part of the fabric of our daily lives.

But here’s a very nice article from Hendrik Hertzberg on being a young Newsweek reporter in San Francisco in the late-60’s, a period that bled seamlessly but traumatically into the time of my childhood. I especially liked this bit:

Newsweek finally got around to doing a cover story on hippies some nine months later, for the issue of October 30, 1967….My surmise was that some of the sons and daughters of some of the editors of my former magazine had turned on, tuned in, and made it their mission to drop out. In any case, the headline on the cover was ‘TROUBLE IN HIPPIELAND.'”

It’s shocking how naive the major movers of that scene really were. Well, Bill Graham wasn’t naive. But a lot of the folks who played in bands or who danced in front of the stage at the Fillmore that year were very naive, back in 1966, when the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane were still local celebrities unknown outside the Bay Area, and it was still a rather exclusive club of people gyrating deep into Friday night, all of them convinced that there was something IMPORTANT happening, and not just right in front of them, but IN them, as the LSD sizzled across their synapses and the pulsing light shows reflected off the walls.

Life had gotten complicated in America by then. I remember it well. I was just a child, but it seemed to me that each individual’s naivete and confusion about who they were and where they were going was all bound up in everybody being naive and confused about who we were and where we were going, as if the whole country was experiencing a collective adolescence. Now, whenever I see mention of Ronald Reagan in an article, I always think to myself: whatever else he might have been, whether real or pretend, for the people who voted for him he was an honest effort to un-complicate their lives, to feel sure of something again.

I wonder what happened to all those dancers.

How Did Everything Get So Flat? – Part 1

Some of my favorite memories are of hearing a popular song for the first time.

Take Prince’s “When Doves Cry”, for instance. It was the summer of 1984. I was 14, living in a small town in South Carolina. I was doing yard work for a neighbor down the street. It was a beautiful summer day. I was wearing a Walkman clipped to my belt, tuned to a pop station out of Columbia, the little black foam headphones over my ears.  As I walked towards the street carrying a cardboard box full of clippings to dump on the curb, the song started: out of nowhere, all by itself, an electric guitar started pealing off that ripping torrent of notes; followed soon thereafter by that drum machine pattern with the weird, pulsing kick drum; then a strange, filtered, moaning vocal sound; and finally those minimalist syncopated keyboards.

Right around the point where Prince started singing, I sat down, involuntarily, right in the middle of the yard, with the sun shining on the green grass and on the leaves of the trees and on top of my head. I just plopped down on the ground with my box of clippings in my lap, and I listened to that song. I think my mouth was hanging open a little bit.

For anyone who knows anything about the history of computers in music, the Linn LM-1 looms large. It was the first drum machine to use digital samples of real drums. It had individual analog outs for each sound, and each sound was individually tunable and mixable. It also had a built-in digital sequencer, which included Roger Linn’s now-legendary “swing” function. And you could swap out the memory chips, for a price, giving the machine a whole new set of sounds. All of this was quite revolutionary, and very expensive: $4,995.00, or around $14,000.00 in today’s dollars. Only 500-700 were made, and they were quickly snapped up by leading names in the recording industry, artists and musicians and studio engineers with the money to spare on such cutting-edge gear.

Linn LM-1

Prince used his LM-1 a lot back in those days, but “When Doves Cry” was singular. The sheer weirdness of the song is due in great part to the way he used the drum machine, sending the drum sounds (from their individual outputs, remember) through various guitar effects pedals on their way to the tape machine. The effect was one of pulsing, undulating cycles, round and round, with no release from the tension of the groove.

Again, at the time that the first digital audio gear came to market, only wealthy people could afford it. And the wealthy people interested in such products tended to be musicians who had already enjoyed a measure of success, ones who were prone to adventurousness in their artistic pursuits: people like Prince, or Peter Gabriel.

Here, let me show you adventurous:

The Flower

That’s Peter Gabriel during his time in the prog-rock band Genesis. He started wearing outlandish costumes because his singing couldn’t be heard above the band during their early gigs. He soon realized that the costumes helped to further the narrative preoccupations he was trying to address in his lyrics.

Hey, it was the ’70s.

Gabriel was one of the lucky few who got their hands on a Fairlight CMI before any of the rest of us had even heard of sampling. He had already enjoyed a successful career with Genesis before going solo, and he had made some money, so he spent some of it on this:

The Fairlight CMI enjoyed a brief but beautiful (and influential) time in the musical sun. It was a full music workstation: it sampled, it synthesized, it sequenced, it even allowed you to alter the shape of waveforms by drawing on the screen with a “lightpen”. And it had a sound, a breathy, wispy quality that was, ironically, a side-effect of the programming the creators had done to deal with the limited processing power of the computer components available at the time. It cost $35,000.00 at the time (or $90,000.00, adjusted for inflation). That’s a lot of money. You can buy three cars for that kind of money.

So, again, only wealthy artists could afford one. But listen to what they did with it: Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey”, Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love”, Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (hello, Trevor Horn). Something new and very exciting was happening in pop music.

Check out Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock putting Herbie’s new Fairlight through its paces, circa 1984:

What you’re witnessing in the video is two of the most talented musicians in the world getting really excited about something technologically extraordinary, but something that only wealthy people like themselves had access to. Just a few years later, that basic technology would become much less expensive and rather commonplace, available at any local music shop.

Today, you have only to open your laptop in order to have access to computer programs (and processing power) that make the LM-1 and the Fairlight seem quaint by comparison. The barriers to entry have fallen. And yet most people agree that pop music is not what is once was.

More on that in a bit.

Music as Experience, Music as a Means to an End

Here’s an interesting article on Madonna’s early career, and on the people who helped her make her first album and then present herself to the world for the first time:

Madonna’s Debut Album at Thirty: An Oral History | Music News | Rolling Stone.

I love getting a glimpse behind the curtain of the music business. I like getting a little taste of what it was like to be in the room while cultural/artistic/musical history was being made.

On that note, I heartily recommend the Classic Albums series of documentaries. You can get them on Amazon for cheap. They chronicle the making of some of the finest musical works of the 20th Century.

Anyway, it’s amazing to hear iconic musical moments explained. It’s inspiring, it’s educative, and it’s titillating, all at the same time. And it helps to demystify things that were carefully crafted to be mystifying. I like that. It’s okay to enjoy the spectacle, I think, but it’s important to understand just how much work goes into making something so difficult seem so easy.

Madonna, by all accounts, worked really, really hard to make difficult things seem easy.

Back in the day, the barriers to entry were high. Just getting a song recorded was a challenge: the technology required to do even a decent job of it would fill a small room and cost a small fortune, never mind paying someone who knew how to use that technology.

And in order to get into that recording studio, in order to spend time there with people who knew what they were doing, you had to impress someone at a record company: they opened the doors, they provided the money, the connections and the access. And in order to impress the record company you had to have something they could sell, something they were willing to take a chance on, something that made them want to call every musician, producer, songwriter, stylist and photographer in their Rolodex.

According to everyone who was there at the time, Madonna had “Star Power”, and in spades. Nobody thought she was a great singer. She was only a pretty good dancer. She wasn’t quite gorgeous. But when she walked into a room, everyone turned and stared. She had presence. She was sexy. She was smart as a whip. And she maximized everything she had in the service of her ambitions. Nobody who met her doubted her.

What was she after? She charted a number of fine pop songs, but it’s difficult to make the case that her music demands careful attention, or even much respect, the obvious exception being some of her work with Nile Rodgers on the album Like a Virgin. Rather, music seems to have been a means to an end for her, a vehicle to carry her to fame and fortune. Fair enough. She earned it.

They say it’s impossible that we should ever again see the rise of a celebrity as huge as Madonna was in her heyday. That seems a safe bet: pop songs aren’t as clever or as catchy or as musical as they used to be; the record companies are shadows of their former selves, with only traces of the money and power and influence they used to wield; and our pop stars are smaller now, too, with less talent and less charisma.

But my point is this: Madonna’s primary talent was not musical, though she made (with a lot of help) some very good pop music. Madonna’s singular gift was for self-presentation.  And she exacted a profound influence on our culture, at a time when our culture was ripe for that sort of influence.

More on that in a bit.

Space Was the Place

Kitschy and slightly gimmicky, but cleverly crafted and carefully timed to ride the coattails of both the Apollo 11 moon landing and Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (and nodding as well at the psychedelic fads of the era), David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” was originally created to jump-start a seemingly stillborn career.

Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield was recently filmed singing the song aboard the International Space Station (ISS),  during what was probably his last trip to space. Hadfield’s version of the song is poignant and sweet, sung against the shining backdrop of the planet he will soon return to, never to leave again. You can see in his eyes that he’ll miss it up there.

David Bowie never had very many poignant moments, at least not in a recording studio. So it’s strange that one of his most careerist and cynical musical efforts should be rendered so touching by being sung by a real astronaut on a real space mission. Hadfield does a good job of singing it, and the backing tracks are well-played, but the recording would not be quite good enough to garner our collective attention if it weren’t for the fact that he sang it in space, floating in the gravity-free confinement of a high-tech tin can with superbly good views out the window.

It seems like space is not so important to us anymore. I’m not sure why. When I was young, I dreamed of going to space. Many kids did. Back then, NASA was a very big deal, and the men who went to space were more than heroes: they were almost god-like. The screening process that ended with so very few being chosen was rigorous and exacting, and the men who soared out of Earth’s atmosphere were branded forever, known for the rest of their lives for their association with something special, audacious, and magical.

Becoming an astronaut still requires a staggering amount of discipline and determination. One is not surprised to find that one of Commander Hadfield’s crew mates aboard the ISS is a Navy Seal. That’s the sort of person we hurl into space. It’s just expected that these people are the brightest and hardiest of us all.

One has a difficult time imagining a man like Neil Armstrong singing a mournful pop song made famous by some decadent rock ‘n’ roll androgyne, much less recording himself in the act and then broadcasting it to everyone down on Earth.

David Bowie could never have been an astronaut. He was far too artsy and willful for that sort of thing. I bet he dreamed of it, though, when he was still young. He wrote a song about it, after all.

And Commander Hadfield could never have been a rock star. He doesn’t have that sort of charisma, nor does he have that sort of voice. Few of us do. But look at what he actually did do: he went to space in a rocket ship, several times. He looked out his window and gazed at our planet from hundreds of miles away. Not many of us alive today will ever do that.