Saturday, September 20, 2008

Spaceship Moog

For the synthesists of the late 1960s, as Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco point out in their fine book Analog Days (2002), to be properly recognized for their efforts on a recording was a real problem. They claim that within the recording industry during the late 60s, the status of a synthesist was institutionally ambiguous: was he or she an artist, or a technician (the latter being analogous to a computer programmer)?

Was the actual creation of original electronic sounds—the patching and programming—an artistic, or engineering achievement? With all its dials and wires, it was perhaps not surprising that producers and record-industry people regarded the Moogist as being more like a recording engineer….The record industry just did not know how to deal with this hybrid machine-instrument and its operators; it defied the normal categories. (125)

This fundamental ambiguity of electronic music has persisted to the present day. As Robert Ray points out:

Sampling and sequencing, go the current complaints, make musicians unnecessary: you can make records now entirely by recombining bits and pieces sampled from other records; you don’t have to play a musical instrument at all. (70)

Virtuosity, in other words, no longer seems relevant when it comes to music, just as rhetorical eloquence is no longer relevant within a culture that more and more communicates through emails and text messages. Early “Electro-pop” (or “Techno-pop”) groups, especially those of European origin such as Kraftwerk, exploited the ambiguity surrounding the synthesizer within the music industry: Were synthesists musicians, or merely technicians, patching the correct cables and tweaking the proper knobs? Songs such as “Showroom Dummies,” “The Model,” and “The Robots” seemed to underscore this fundamental ambiguity: art, or artifice; human, or simulacrum?

“Electro” was a British term used to designate early ‘80s African-American dance music that primarily used electronic instrumentation. Perhaps the essential Electro recording (and certainly a key recording of "old school" Hip Hop) is Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” a 1982 single featuring AB’s rapping to a (Roland) 808 drum machine and a sampled melodic figure from Kraftwerk. According to David Toop, in his article, “A to Z of Electro” (1996) that can be found here, the genre of dance music known as Electro “was black science fiction teleported to the dance floors of New York, Miami and LA; a super-stoopid fusion of video games, techno-pop, graffiti art, silver space suits and cyborg funk.” While Toop suggests important precursors to Electro are figures such as Sun Ra and George Clinton, it perhaps might be important to remember that, in the 60s—meaning early in its historical reception—the (Moog) synthesizer was strongly associated with transgression, transcendence, and transformation (see Pinch and Trocco’s Analog Days). These trans-itive associations with the synthesizer seemed to have informed all its subsequent developments in the 70s and early 80s, especially evident in the work of George Clinton (who strongly influenced Afrika Bambaataa), with his creation of his idiosyncratic space mythology, in which his own experience with cultural marginalization led to a strong association with the Alien Other.

Given the recent resurgence of Electro, we perhaps might do well to understand its origins in the Moog--and all its subsequent offspring, such as the drum machine.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

I Wanna Be a Boss

Perhaps because Americans are so preoccupied with material acquisition, the workplace (or office space) is essential to their lives, a location where they spend huge amounts of their time. And if the workplace is so profoundly important, then so, too, as a consequence, is the boss. According to the OED, the word “boss” is an American word derived from the Dutch word baas, meaning “master,” although an older meaning of the word was “uncle.” Baas is supposedly related to the Old High German word basa, “aunt.” Primarily, although not exclusively, used by Americans, the word “boss” means “the equivalent of master in the sense of employer of labour,” but can be generally applied to “any one who has a right to give orders.” Since the word boss carries the meaning of “master,” to this day it carries a particular resonance in the American South, where, because of that region's history of slavery, the word must be used judiciously. I wonder, how many times is the word “boss” uttered in Cool Hand Luke (1967), a film set in the South in the context of a prison chain gang?

Americans also use the word to refer to “a manager or dictator of a party organization,” as in “party boss” (pastiched by the figure of “Boss Hogg” in The Dukes of Hazzard) or “mafia boss” (pastiched by Fred Williamson in Black Caesar). In the discourse of popular music, Bruce Springsteen is referred to as “The Boss,” although the designation carries no pejorative meaning, but is used to connote his power and prestige within the rock culture. But boss can also be used derisively, in the same way “big shot” carries two meanings, referring to someone who has power and influence, but also to someone who mistakenly believes he has power and influence. By 1960, the word boss had become a term of approbation, referring to anything the speaker perceived as new, original, exciting, or hip: a new clothing style, a new model of automobile, most anything, could be “boss.” In the spring of 1965, two California radio pioneers, Bill Drake and Gene Chenault, transformed the Top 40 format of Los Angeles radio station KHJ into something they named Boss Radio.

As far as I can tell (that is to say, so far as I know), the first use of “boss” in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll was by Eddie Cochran, in “Summertime Blues” (1958). Soon after, blues singer Jimmy Reed recorded “Big Boss Man” (1961), a song later covered by Elvis. But the word is no doubt is used far, far more often than I can possibly enumerate here.

A Baker’s Dozen Of Songs About The Boss (not Bruce Springsteen):

Gene Ammons – Boss Tenor (bebop jazz LP, 1960)
James Brown – The Boss (from the soundtrack to Black Caesar)
Albert Hammond Jr. – The Boss Americana
Mick Jagger – She’s the Boss
Jimmy Reed – Big Boss Man
Stan Ridgway – I Wanna Be A Boss
Diana Ross – The Boss
Rick Ross – The Boss
The Brian Setzer Orchestra – You’re the Boss
Shareefa – Need A Boss
Slim Thug – Like A Boss
The Sonics – Boss Hoss
They Might Be Giants – Boss of Me (from the soundtrack to Malcolm in the Middle)


The term Krautrock refers, following the concise definition provided by Michael Jarrett, to “a genre of German experimental rock that originated in sixties psychedelia (Faust), culminated in seventies electro-pop (Kraftwerk), and influenced new wave (New Order and PIL), rap (Afrika Bambaataa), and ambient-techno musics (Orb)” (138). “Kraut,” derived from the name of a food largely associated with Germany, sauerkraut (sour cabbage), is a racial slur for a German, just as “frog” is racial slang for a Frenchman because of his supposed dietary preference for frog legs. (Food is one of the primary means by which rival cultures distinguish themselves from one another—see Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Raw and the Cooked).

As a designation for a particular genre of music, the word Krautrock seems to have originated in Britain, where the music influenced numerous synth-based bands in the late 70s and early 80s. Eventually, Julian Cope, once a member of the band The Teardrop Explodes, authored a book, published slightly over a decade ago, titled Krautrocksampler (1995), an appreciation and survey of the music, which includes an annotated appendix consisting of 50 Kosmische Classics.

Krautrock—one of the few forms of music the designation for which is derived from a racial slur—defines itself by being the antithesis of schlager, a German word meaning “hitter” or “a hit.” According to, schlager is

a style of popular music that is prevalent in northern Europe, in particular Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Latvia and Lithuania, but also to a lesser extent in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Typical schlager tracks are either sweet, highly sentimental ballads with a simple, catchy melody or light, pleasant, throwaway pop tunes. Its lyrics are typically centered [on] love . . . relationships, and feelings.

Hence Julian Cope’s list of 50 Kosmische Classics is comprised not of (pop) songs but entire albums, the LP the privileged medium, in this case, over the 45 rpm single. Defined against schlager, Krautrock is much more than a matter of a supposedly superior medium. For instance, given its bias for the LP-based format, it prefers long, instrumental tunes as opposed to those with vocals, but also prefers (listed as a series of oppositions, with the privileged term on the left, the feature of schlager on the right):

The long song – The short song (generally)
Composition – Performance
Varied arrangements – Repetitive arrangements
Male band members – Female or integrated band members
Virtuosic (professional) playing – Non-virtuosic (amateur) playing
Cool, “distant” – Sentimental
Restrained – Florid
For listening – For dancing
Industrial ("metal machine," factory) – Lyrical

I’ll refer readers to the aforementioned webpage listing Julian Cope’s 50 favorite Krautrock recordings; in addition, I’ll recommend the following (on compact disc):

V/A – Space Box: Space, Krautrock and Acid Trips (Cleopatra)
V/A – Unknown Deutschland: The Krautrock Archive, Vol. I (Virgin)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Rick Wright, 1943-2008

The BBC reported this morning that Rick Wright, founding member of Pink Floyd and that band's distinctive keyboardist, has died following a battle with cancer. He was 65. As is well known, Wright was an essential member of the early Pink Floyd, contributing his highly distinctive, psychedelic textures to the first Floyd albums. Although Wright most often sang background vocals, he occasionally sang lead vocals (“Time,” “Astronomy Domine”), while as a composer, his most well-known compositions were both from The Dark Side of the Moon: “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Us and Them.” He briefly left the band in the early 80s as a result of irreparable tensions he and Roger Waters were then experiencing, but re-joined the band following Waters' departure.

I am saddened by this news because it may well have been because of Rick Wright that I became a Pink Floyd fan in the first place. By the time I became seriously interested in Pink Floyd, around September 1973, I was in my second year of college, and The Dark Side of the Moon had been released to great fanfare earlier that year, and was topping the album charts. That album very quickly became a staple of FM radio, and because I was an impecunious college student, I was in no hurry to buy it. However, that fall I did, in fact, purchase my first Pink Floyd album, not Dark Side of the Moon, but Ummagumma (1969); it had, by the time I first heard it, been in release for about four years. I bought it used from a fellow boarder in the rooming house where I was living at the time; he happened to have just cued up "Careful With That Axe, Eugene" when I stopped by his room to say hello. I was immediately hooked, particularly by the eerie, slightly sinister sounds being made the keyboards; it was as if I was listening to the soundtrack of an unnamed horror movie. He, on the other hand, wasn't all that crazy about the album, and I subsequently bought it from him for $2 (or more precisely, several quarters, a few dimes and nickels), a fair price in those days for a used record (or, in this case, two records). I played "Astronomy Domine," "Careful With That Axe...," and "Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun" over and over on the old J.C. Penney stereo system I then owned, and by the time Christmas rolled around later that year, I received Dark Side of the Moon, which I'd asked for, as a Christmas present.

Moments after I read of Rick Wright's death, I was prompted, in remembrance, to play Ummagumma, which I now also own on CD. But I couldn't do it, and probably won't, for a long time. Nor am I inclined to listen to any Pink Floyd, although I'm sure the FM airwaves will be filled with the band's music as a tribute to this great, innovative musician. Moreover, it will be long time before I'm prompted to watch, say, Live at Pompeii again--too much of a museum piece now, reminding me of a time when bands such as Pink Floyd defined rock music's avant-garde. Syd Barrett's death a couple of years ago marked the end of the original line-up of Pink Floyd, but with Rick Wright's death, Pink Floyd is no more, now a part of rock history--now it "belongs to the ages."

There are any number of fan sites dedicated to Rick Wright. One might well begin here, and follow the links from that point.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

An Unexpected Twist

Drum roll please . . . According to the Billboard Hot 100 chart, what’s the most popular single of the past 50 years? Is it by Elvis? The Beatles? The Rolling Stones? They aren’t even in the top five. The most popular single during the past fifty years? Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.” According to Billboard,

“The Twist” is the only song in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 to enjoy two separate chart runs to No. 1: Sept. 19, 1960 (one week), and, following an October 1961 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Jan. 13, 1962 (two weeks). It also set a record for the most weeks (39) on the Hot 100 by a No. 1 song that held until UB40’s “Red Red Wine” lasted 40 weeks in 1988.

Billboard’s list, as many have remarked, seems counter-intuitive. As someone commented on Billboard’s website, many other songs in the history of pop have enjoyed multiple chart runs: The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” The Contours’ “Do You Love Me,” and The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.” The real puzzler for me, though, is the absence on the Hot 100 list of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” The song reached No. 1 on the UK singles chart in 1968 and was among the top-selling singles of the year in that country. Later the song was a Top 10 hit in 1971 in the United States as a result of being re-released after Armstrong’s death in July 1971. But the song wasn’t finished yet. It was later featured in the film Good Morning, Vietnam (1988) and again was re-released as a single in the United States and elsewhere and did very well, reaching No. 1 in Australia in June 1988.

According to an article about Billboard’s list on Yahoo! News,

Geoff Mayfield, director of charts at Billboard magazine, acknowledged that the list might not jibe with some fans’ personal thoughts of the most popular songs of the past 50 years.

“This is simply a chronicle of how each of these songs performed in their era on the Hot 100. We’re not saying these are the most memorable songs of your life. That would be something that's almost impossible to determine,” said Mayfield. “Everyone has a subjective frame of reference.”


The Billboard Hot 100 chart measures airplay and sales information (and more recently digital downloads) in determining the nation’s most popular songs. To determine the most popular song of the Hot 100 era, Billboard used a formula to determine the top song—not always relying on weeks at No. 1 since the data was reported differently in its early days.

Initially, Billboard relied on stations to report the most popular songs, and got sales surveys from record stores. But Mayfield said stations often stopped reporting on a song’s popularity if it was no longer a priority for record labels. And in 1991, Billboard began relying on sales data from Nielsen SoundScan and airplay data from Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems. So Billboard weighted certain songs from different eras to make sure all songs were on an even playing field.

“We went through each era, and we looked through the rate of turnover. The rate of turnover was very high in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and we had to put a weight on that to make the chart runs of that era equal to the chart runs that can be accomplished since 1991,” he said.

In other words, some sort of algorithm was employed to approximate the chart runs of the past based on the pattern of runs established since 1991. Clearly, though, the data analyzed was taken only from chart runs in the United States, ignoring the rest of the world.

Apparently Chubby Checker wasn’t surprised about the popularity of “The Twist.” According to the Yahoo! News article:

“My music is less played that any performer that has been a No. 1 chart man on the planet,” said Checker, who also had hits with “Pony Time,” “The Fly” and “Let’s Twist Again,” which earned him a Grammy. “I don’t get the respect that Rod Stewart gets, or the Rolling Stones, or Frankie Valli. ... But I have to deal with it.”

While the complete list can be found here, I reproduce below the rest of the top Top 10:

2. Santana featuring Rob Thomas – Smooth
3. Bobby Darin – Mack the Knife
4. LeAnn Rimes – How Do I Live
5. Los Del Rio – The Macarena
6. Olivia Newton-John – Physical
7. Debby Boone – You Light Up My Life
8. The Beatles – Hey Jude
9. Mariah Carey – We Belong Together
10. Toni Braxton – Un-Break My Heart