Saturday, January 23, 2010

High Fidelity

The long-playing (“LP”) microgroove record, what is commonly referred to as the vinyl LP, which in its final form held about 20 minutes of music per side, makes sense, as David Morton has observed, only “in the context of the long passages typical of classical music” (Off the Record 38-39). Peter Goldmark and Edward Wallerstein—the CBS employees who after the end of World War II pushed the invention of the “LP” record in that company’s laboratories—had found that the vast majority of classical compositions could fit on two sides of a single record if the storage capacity on each side was around seventeen minutes. Prior to the invention of the long-playing microgroove record, classical recordings were packaged in “albums,” that is, bundles of 78-rpm discs. In their pursuit of a storage medium that could hold 90 percent of all classical music (Morton 38), Goldmark and Wallerstein, perhaps intentionally, linked “high fidelity” with “high brow.” But as Morton points out, while the term fidelity (truth, accuracy) “remains central in the technical vocabulary of music recording and reproduction” (15), an understanding of common music recording practices reveals that sounds are not captured, but made. Nonetheless, companies which issued jazz records, such as Prestige, were formed after CBS' introduction of the long-playing record medium (Prestige, for instance, in 1949).

In contrast, RCA’s introduction in 1948 of the 7” 45-rpm single (which was able to exploit the technical improvements of the LP with the inexpensiveness of the 78-rpm single) was, as Morton observes, “aimed squarely at the largest market in the country,” popular music (155). Serendipitously, jazz music, with its extended improvisations, lent itself to the high fidelity LP format, and so, somewhat improbably, jazz became “high brow.” By 1957, in Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock, jazz music lovers are portrayed as snobs and elitists. Conveniently, a crucial scene in Jailhouse Rock has been recorded by Krin Gabbard in his important work on jazz and the American cinema, Jammin’ at the Margins (1996). The scene takes place at the home of Peggy’s (Judy Tyler’s) parents. Her father, a college professor, is having a party, during which the conversation has turned to jazz music and a jazz figure named “Stubby Ritemeyer,” a fictional musician whom Gabbard indicates is based on West Coast trumpeter-composer Shorty Rogers.

“I think Stubby’s gone overboard with those altered chords,” says one of the pompous guests. “I agree,” says another, “I think Brubeck and Desmond have gone just as far with dissonance as I care to go.” “Oh, nonsense,” says a man, “have you heard Lennie Tristano’s latest recording? He reached outer space.” A young woman adds, “Some day they’ll make the cycle and go back to pure old Dixieland.” A well-dressed, older woman says, “I say atonality is just a passing phase in jazz music.” Turning to Presley, she asks, “What do you think, Mr. Everett?” He answers, “Lady, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” and storms out of the house. (124)

While Gabbard observes in the scene (and movie) a “dizzy mix of black and white music and their imitations” (125), the scene also is about high (jazz) and low (popular) culture, high fidelity—the extradiegetic jazz recording playing the background—and “low” fidelity—the 45-rpm singles Vince Everett (Elvis) wants to record (“Treat Me Nice”). David Morton observes that “high fidelity became a mass market phenomenon after 1952” (39), and that sales of phonographs and high-fidelity equipment grew throughout the 1950s, one consequence of high-fidelity promotional “fairs” that began in 1949. By 1957, of course, Elvis had been signed to RCA, which had made the corporate decision almost a decade earlier to back and heavily to market inexpensive 7” 45-rpm singles to a popular music audience. Elvis, of course, was signed by RCA to produce singles, not LPs.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Historian David Morton indicates in Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America (2000) that the first significant mass-market success of audio tape technology in America was the “Stereo 8” cartridge system, otherwise known as the 8-Track. Introduced in 1965, the 8-Track was promoted by William Lear (after whom the Learjet is named), who built it “around an existing endless-loop cartridge for background music applications, the Fidelipac” (159). Morton writes:

After modifying the cartridge enough to win a set of patents on it, he [Lear] wisely combined his company’s resources with those of several other top firms: the manufacturing capability of the Motorola corporation, the record catalog of RCA-Victor, and the marketing organization of the Ford Motor Company. (159-60)

Priced at $128, the Ford 8-Track player was instantly successful, and quickly, Morton indicates, “other U.S. auto manufacturers and third-party equipment retailers offered it as early as 1966” (160). Hence the 8-Track’s success was a consequence of its portability, a factor that has determined the direction of research in home electronics and popular music for the past 45 years (think of the small, inexpensive transistor radio). The 8-Track was to the automobile what the Sony Walkman (in the 1980s) was to jogging, revealing the crucial connection between the home audio system and the need for portable music, otherwise known as compatibility. In other words, the crucial factor determining the consumption of popular music the past several decades is not “high fidelity,” but portability. Since World War II and the rise of home audio, the audio manufacturers have typically touted “high fidelity” as a major factor in determining home audio purchases, and while this feature is still no doubt crucial for many enthusiasts (so-called audiophiles), for the majority of consumers, the crucial factor is mobility. Hence, like so much other cultural activity, the automobile has organized our behavior.

The compact disc brought about the demise of audio tape technology, replacing the cassette (which replaced the 8-Track) with the iPod. Hence the iPod is to the CD what cassettes and 8-Tracks were to the vinyl LP. Reshuffling (randomization) replaces the predictability (stability) of the record, and the déclassé technology assumes the status of a found object, the technological equivalent of the fossil record. The archeologist is replaced by the antiquarian.

Monday, January 18, 2010


There’s an old saw that avers suffering transforms the common man into a philosopher, and this may express a certain truth. In one of her poems, Emily Dickinson uses “lead” as a metaphor to approximate mental and emotional suffering: “After great pain a formal feeling comes,” during which “The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs.” She goes on to write:

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow—
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Traditionally, lead has been associated with the planet Saturn; hence, the emotional feeling Dickinson is trying to describe by “the hour of lead” is called saturnine. Freud suggested the mental energy required for this “letting go” was the difference between mourning and melancholy. In his Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1985), Italo Calvino suggests that “melancholy is sadness that has taken on lightness,” just as “humor is comedy that has lost its bodily weight” (19). Calvino also observes that the ancients thought the saturnine temperament the one “proper to artists, poets, and thinkers, and that seems true enough. Certainly literature would never have existed if some human beings had not been strongly inclined to introversion, discontented with the world as it is, inclined to forget themselves for hours and days on end to fix their gaze on the immobility of silent worlds” (52). Calvino contrasts the saturnine temperament with the mercurial one, the former “melancholy, contemplative, and solitary,” the latter, mercurial one, “inclined toward exchanges and commerce and dexterity” (52). I can think of no better poetic example of the contemplative, solitary artistic temperament than that of Dylan Thomas’ “In My Craft or Sullen Art,” in which Thomas writes:

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

My astrological sign is Cancer, the crab, one who carries his home on his back. Hence my temperament is to prefer the solitary. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve always been attracted to Thomas’ poem, and especially the description of his writing as “spindrift pages.” Spindrift typically refers to the telltale spray blown from cresting waves during gale force winds, but the word is also used to describe the fine sand that is blown off the tips of sand dunes, or the fine snow that the wind blows off the top edges of snow drifts. Thomas’ “spindrift pages” are those pages that are whisked like fine snow from his writing desk, destined for an unknown reader, or perhaps no reader at all. Therefore, for me the image that best captures the saturnine temperament, or melancholy, is one of the ocean, or desert, or hilltop that displays the telltale wisps of spindrift. My personal image of melancholy is not necessarily one that is common or widely endorsed, of course, because it partakes of the wholly personal and private, eluding public endorsement. The musical equivalent of melancholy is perhaps private as well, just as the personal image of melancholy is, and so my list of some melancholic songs may not match those of others.

A Personal List Of A Few Musical Equivalents To Spindrift:
The Beatles – In My Life
Glen Campbell – Wichita Lineman
Neil Diamond – Solitary Man
Elton John – Rocket Man
The Grateful Dead – Box of Rain
The Left Banke – Walk Away Renee
Harry Nilsson – Everybody’s Talkin’
Phil Ochs – Boy in Ohio
Roy Orbison – In Dreams
Gilbert O’Sullivan – Alone Again, Naturally
Quicksilver Messenger Service – Spindrifter
Marty Robbins – Saddle Tramp
Bob Seger – Turn the Page
XTC – My Bird Performs
Neil Young – After the Gold Rush

Sunday, January 17, 2010


According to John Tobler’s This Day In Rock (Carroll & Graf, 1993), Led Zeppelin’s first album (cover pictured) was released 41 years ago today, on 17 January 1969, during the band’s first American tour. Other sources, however, aver it was released a few days earlier, on 12 January. Perhaps the release dates for the album were different in Britain and America, but in any case the lack of positivistic certainty regarding the album's release date is as elusive as the music the band played—what is it? Led Zeppelin’s music has often been characterized as “heavy metal”—but what is that? Heavy metal as idea, heavy metal as product, heavy metal as mass phenomenon—which one is heavy metal? It has often been observed that Led Zeppelin was to the Seventies what the Beatles were to the Sixties, and there may be some truth to this claim, assuming one believes that the history of rock is the history of a few moments of genuine authentic expression that quickly deteriorates into what might be called “commercial” imitations employing a similar sound—e.g., Led Zeppelin devolves into Heart.

Perhaps there is another way to conceptualize the band’s music. As Ingeborg Hoesterey has observed (Pastiche: Cultural Memory in Art, Film, Literature, 2001), the term “pastiche” is often used in a negative sense, but the term can be understood more positively. While her study is predominantly interested in the visual arts, she does touch briefly on popular music, observing, “pastiche structuration has been a feature of innovative popular music for more than a decade, registered for the most part under different labels” (p. 112). Her use of the term “pastiche” in this context refers to the conflation or mixing of different kinds of music, the creation of “impure” blends including “funk-rap-rock,” “hiphop/techno/jungle,” “country and hiphop,” “Afro-Celtic,” “Afro-Pop,” “Ethno-Punk,” and so on (p. 113). Whatever one wishes to call it—“hard rock,” “heavy metal,” rock-infused blues and folk—Led Zeppelin’s music was pastiche—a flagrant, ostentatious borrowing from the musical archive of Western culture. A conceptually elusive term, the term pastiche rather obviously has fuzzy boundaries, overlapping with a number of other aesthetic categories. I have extracted of few of these categories from Hoesterey’s book and used them below. The term pastiche overlaps with a number of semantic categories, and I have listed only a few of them here, for purposes of illustration.

Appropriation – A term that gained widespread use in the eighties to stress the “intentionality of the act of borrowing and the historical attitude of the borrower” (p. 10). In the Sixties, the blues, along with folk, came to represent authenticity, what Simon Frith has labelled the widespread perception of “music-as-expression” (as opposed to “music-as-commodity”). White blues musicians considered African-American music as “authentic,” an outpouring of genuine feeling, and authenticity was defined by closeness to the blues. To play authentically, therefore, was to play the blues. Among other kinds of music, Led Zeppelin appropriated the blues, primarily electrified Chicago blues. While “Chicago blues” most certainly was the effect of industrialization (requiring an industry and circulation), Led Zeppelin appropriated the music of Chicago blues artists such as Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, sometimes without the proper attribution of authorship (e.g., “How Many More Times”). Of course, the music industry had exploited the music of Afro-Americans for commercial profit since the jazz era—it literally banked on their music . . . as did the members of Led Zeppelin. For how appropriation is linked to imitation, see below.

Bricolage – The bricoleur describes a “creative persona who draws his/her work upon heterogeneous models and sources” (p. 10). A number of sources claim Led Zeppelin incorporated rockabilly, reggae, soul, funk, classical, Celtic, Indian, Arabic, pop, Latin, and country. Hence the band members can be considered legitimate bricoleurs.

Farrago – “One of the meanings of pasticcio [from which the French-language word pastiche comes] in common Italian is ‘mental confusion’” (p. 12). Hence the origin of Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused,” a farrago.

Imitation – “The basic structure of pastiche is a degree of imitation. What happens beyond this determines the artistic sense of both the traditional and postmodern pastiche” (p. 12). The band’s first album includes a cover of Otis Spann’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby" and the aforementioned “How Many More Times” first recorded by Howlin' Wolf. It also is worth mentioning that in their stage performance Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, to use Krin Gabbard's phrase (Black Magic: White Hollywood and African American Culture, 2004), were “borrowing black masculinity,” that is, imitating the performance styles of the black artists they admired. Gabbard cites John Gennari on the subject of the white male appropriation of black masculinity, suggesting that it “operates through gender displacement, i.e., sexual freedom and carefree abandon . . . [being] . . . expressed through feminized gestures (emotion, flamboyance, etc.) that, paradoxically, end up coded as masculine. I think here of Elvis's hair styling . . . Mick Jagger's striptease . . . the spandex, long-hair, girlish torsos of the cock rockers. To try to get this point across to my students, I show footage of . . . Robert Plant and Jimmy Page talking about how everything they did came out of Willie Dixon and other macho black bluesmen. Then you see them aggressively pelvic thrusting through “Whole Lotta Love,” looking like Cher and Twiggy on speed.” (Gabbard, Black Magic p. 33)

Refiguration – The art of refiguration “takes formal elements of past styles, and brings them forward into a contemporary context, resulting in a sometimes disquieting synthesis of past form and present context” (pp. 12-13) Led Zeppelin’s extraordinarily loud, spacey and druggy refiguration of the Chicago blues might in fact be what is meant by the term “heavy metal.”