Monday, March 30, 2009

“This Record Was Made To Be Played Loud”

Trivia question: What was the first album in the history of rock to include the disclaimer, “This Record Was Made To Be Played Loud”? I cannot provide a definitive answer to that question, but in my (limited) experience, it was an album by Mountain, titled Climbing!, released in March 1970 (which includes the band’s biggest and perhaps best known hit, “Mississippi Queen”). Of course, loudness is not noisiness, but at the time that album was released, the terms were often used interchangeably, and the injunction to play the record loud was meant to suggest that if the listener would play the record at a high volume, it would sonically recreate, as closely as possible, the live concert experience.

Loudness has to do with volume level; noise typically refers to disagreeable sounds (which may be loud) rather than to music. Early on, “noise” (and “noisy”) was a pejorative term applied to rock, which meant that [fill in the blank] was not music at all. Hence the word “noise,” as Jacques Attali has pointed out (Noise: The Political Economy of Music, 1985), is really a category of taste. I remember hearing the word “noise” quite a bit in 1964, the year the Beatles were introduced to America. For those Americans born before the war who grew up listening to jazz and swing, what the Beatles played was not music but noise, which, translated, meant that the music challenged what were presumed to be clearly defined notions of good and bad taste.

Hence, while there is such a thing as noise, noise-as-noise, in rock music, because it is a product of culture and technology, noise is never noise, but rather noise-as-code. Even so-called “feedback,” which might be considered as an accident or a form of error, can be considered noise-as-code: because of the theatrics of the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix and The Who, by the late 1960s rock concerts often concluded with guitarists leaving their instruments on the stage in order to generate self-sustaining feedback while the audience left. At the very least, this practice challenged conventional notions of taste. Yet because “change is inscribed in noise” according to Attali, it also, obviously, represented rebellion, but perhaps more importantly a new, perhaps “revolutionary,” order outside the hegemonic norm (the “mainstream”). Feedback, in other words, was not noise; it was ideology.

Noise-as-code pre-dated Elvis, but he was certainly aware of its existence. By the late 1960s, noise-as-code could be deployed both as an individual statement as well as a critique of cultural violence and chaos, and there is perhaps no better illustration of noise-as-code in the history of rock than Jimi Hendrix’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in August 1969. That the performance was understood to be an ideological statement was revealed by the cultural debate that occurred almost immediately after the release of the film WOODSTOCK in March 1970 (coincidentally, at about the same time as Mountain’s Climbing!). As is typical of much public discourse, the issue quickly became polarized: was his rendition of the national anthem an anti-war statement, or a statement on the divisiveness that characterized America in 1969? Idealism or disillusionment? In retrospect, the moment was so significant that subsequent developments of noise-as-code, as exemplified by movements such as “industrial music,” “electro-industrial,” and “industrial rock,” can be understood as mere gloss on this historic moment.

Update: 31 March 2009 9:02 a.m. CDT: Ian W. Hill wrote in (see comments) and indicated that the first rock album to carry the disclaimer was Let It Bleed, by The Rolling Stones, released November 1969, which contained the injunction to “play it loud” on the inner sleeve (as well as a note to play side one first). Thank you very much, Ian, for writing in and supplying the information. I forgot that the Stones album contained the injunction; for some reason I remembered the Mountain album instead. Given that the albums were released just a few months apart, I suspect we now know not only the first album to contain the disclaimer, but the second as well.


Ian W. Hill said...

Let It Bleed, by The Rolling Stones, was released November '69 and has an injuction to play it loud on the inner sleeve (as well as a note to play side one first).

Unknown said...

J.Geils Band "Blow Your Face Out" also has Made Loud To Play Loud on the back of the album cover.