Monday, June 15, 2009

Rock-'n'-Roll, Live Performance and the "Recording Artists", Parts 2 and 3

Click here for Part 1

Part II: Radio

The recording medium, and the synthetic art produced through it, has relied upon broadcasting to promote big-label product, aiming thereby to corner the market by repetitious playback of the same songs. However, music genres have emerged, selling millions of records, without the aid of radio or TV promotion at all. This was true of jazz records in the 1920s, rock’n’roll in the 1950s, heavy-rock in the late ‘60s, disco in the ‘70s, and heavy metal and rap in the 1980s.

The record industry has supplied demand that radio, due to its own business model (its customers are not the audience, but the sponsors) was and always will be unable to provide. Records have no “sponsor” (although recordings have been produced for “educational” or propaganda purposes, and given away free or sold at far below cost). They are sold directly to the audience, and thus the “supply”, their music content, must conform to the demands of the marketplace. It is interesting, in this regard, that truly populist music (ie. that found on records) has usually been beat-driven, and evocative of forbidden desires and notions. Music intended for broadcast, on the other hand, has tended toward the melodious, non-offensive and “pleasant.” The record industry has had to grapple with this reality all along. Radio play was necessary to sell product: but radio would only play music that was “soothing” to the listener. On the other hand, people wanted to “get into” records, and that could be achieved best by a heavy beat.

The most successful performers in the twentieth century, have been able to fuse these contrapuntal tendencies, borrowing the rhythms if not the percussive force of beat-driven music, with the melodic sweetness of broadcast tunes. After the explosion of jazz and swing in the 1920s and early ‘30s, came the crooners, such as Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, both of whom leavened or eliminated the beat with smooth vocals and soothing string arrangements. By the ‘50s, music had become so “elevator” that youth were ready for the “race” records, which combined rhythm-’n’-blues and country-and-western music. Elvis “the Pelvis” achieved in this genre what Sinatra did in the realm of jazz, that is, effectively fuse melody with heavy. Presley gave rise to the many “Bobbies” and Pat Boone, rock’n’roll vocalists that eschewed beat nearly or entirely. Within a few years, though, the Beatles emerged with a new fusion. The group (formed in 1956 in the midst of the British “skiffle” craze) emerged out of the “beat” scene in northern England (hence the pun). Retaining the old folk traditions, however, the Beatles were also harmony and melody makers. Perfected on the early releases, the beat sound proceeded to conquer the airwaves, and the record charts as well. From 1964-66, rock’n’roll was performed in close harmony by virtually all popular groups. Thereby, rock became predominant on AM radio.

Beginning with “psychedelic” music in about 1967, however, rock groups became progressively more dependent upon selling their music on long-playing records. Thus, psychedelia, acid- and hard-rock became less dependent on commercial radio. There emerged the sub-genre, “soft” rock, which laid off the beat in favour of the melody — as found in the music of America, Bread, John Denver, Crosby, Stills Nash and Neil Young (on some albums), Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, among many others. These artists became million-sellers through AM airplay, but the hard-rock sounds found a place on the FM band.

FM (which is short for "frequency modulation"), though superior in terms of audio fidelity than AM ("amplitude modulation"), was for years a snob’s reserve of jazz, classical and talk radio. Coincident with the rise of hard rock in the late ‘60s, FM-stations began to switch over to an album-oriented format (“AOR”) which played few if any, 45-rpm records at all, instead focussing on longer, harder-rocking compositions by groups such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Genesis or Yes. All of the latter groups sold long-playing records in the millions, but few had 45-singles that reached the top-ten, or that charted at all. As the ‘70s went on, moreover, FM rock-radio became more and more popular, often coming out first or second in local markets. The AM band, in turn, moved away from top-40 toward news- and sports-oriented talk-radio, or the “classic” format. But, as FM radio became more popular, it took on the former AM adversity to beat-music.

This is perhaps no better illustrated in the career of Genesis. Formed in the late ‘60s in Britain, the group was an AOR darling throughout the ‘70s, when it had very few hit singles (in contrast to album tracks known to millions through FM airplay).[vii] In 1976, however, the group’s lead singer and chief songwriter, Peter Gabriel, unexpectedly quit the band for a solo career. His replacement was even more unexpected: Phil Collins, who was the drummer for Genesis. Thereafter, Genesis’ music took on a very MOR (ie. “middle of the road”) turn. While the band would rock out at concerts, their (enormous) radio hits were characterized by a minimization of the beat in favour of the melody. In the late 1970s, FM radio would have nothing to do with punk music, for example, just as it did not play heavy metal during the 1980s. For the same reason, FM-radio became very comfortable with the synth-pop sounds of the ‘80s, as represented by Human League, Wham! and Gary Neuman.

Crucial to the synth sound was the electronic drum, which could provide a beat without the beat being so hard. Music producers had for years looked for ways to muffle the sound of drums (as described by Doors' drummer John Densmore in part 1 of this essay), so that they would not drown out the melody (and thus, but for transient periods, not receive radio airplay). With electronic drums, the sound could be modified at will. In any case, FM commercial-radio missed out on the hard-rocking sound — a mixture of punk and metal — that emerged in the United States during the mid-1980s, especially in Minneapolis (with Husker Du, the Replacements and the Violent Femmes) and Seattle (Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Faith No More, Nirvana, etc.). These rock acts and many others were at first snubbed by the big record labels, too, until the late 1980s. It was, of course, Nirvana’s 1991 disc, Nevermind, which turned “grunge” into a hot property. Even so, it did not become evident on radio until the mid-1990s, when Soundgarden’s Superunknown became a million-selling smash.

The grunge style became massively popular via a third medium, cable-television. MTV and its competitors and derivatives fulfil the role of AM radio during its top-40 days, albeit on a nationwide, televisual scale. Instead of the tight formats that evolved as FM became the more popular band in the 1970s and ‘80s, AM hit-radio would play any style that was popular, ie. that sold records. As late as the ‘70s, a listener to top-40 might hear Olivia Newton-John’s Please Mr. Please, followed by Popcorn by Tangerine Dream, and then Fame, by David Bowie, the set concluding with Sundown, by Gord Lightfoot.

Top-40 was a product of a time when marketing was not so sophisticated as to be able to segment local populations into target audiences (and thus, narrow formats). The goal was instead to get as many listeners as possible, by playing the most requested songs, regardless of their musical style. Until comparatively recent times, the FM band was difficult to receive through portable radios. AM was the more popular band, simply because more people had access to it. Although top-40 was criticized for “always playing the same songs,” it was far more amenable to populist pressure than later FM radio, with its rigid playlists. If a record sold, or if enough people called up to request a song, then an AM music station would play it.

The Beatles first gained notice in the U.S. after the famed New York D.J., Murray “the K.” Kaufman, noticed the “boards lighting up” after he played their early hits (Mr. K. went on to promote the band’s first concert tours).[viii] Similarly, Simon and Garfunkel’s original acoustic version of the Sound of Silence became an AM-radio favourite in 1965, even as the album on which it was released was a complete bomb. CBS records producer Tom Wilson dubbed a rock-combo onto the track, which became the monster hit that is known throughout the world, along with dozens of other Simon and Garfunkel hits.

It is the same now with music-television. When, in 1991, music-channel programmers noticed that Nevermind was flying up the charts, they placed the video-clip of the lead single, Smells Like Teen Spirit, in heavy-rotation. It became an instant classic, and soon after parodied by shlock-rocker “Weird” Al Yankovic. However, “grunge” became domesticated, emphasizing the melody over the beat, just as AM radio had rendered beat-music into soft-rock after a few years. The programme-content of AM radio, as with MTV now, was always biassed toward the middle of the road. In response to popular demand, they will play beat-driven music. But most of the time, it is the melody that is so prized by a mass audience. “Hard” music drives away a significant minority of any listening/viewing audience, where soft music does not have the similar, perverse effect. At various times, as we saw, talented acts such as Elvis, the Beatles, Nirvana and Soundgarden can merge the melody with heavy, to mega-success. However, as this attracts many others without the finesse for melody, or for heavy, the music becomes
segmented, with the heavier styles going “underground”, and the softer, turning into “pop.”

In the mid-60s, American acts such as Simon and Garfunkel and the Byrds were able to fend off the British invasion by adopting the harmony-vocals typical of the English beat groups. It is significant that by 1967, the biggest American group was the Doors, led by Jim Morrison, who sang unaccompanied by harmony. It many ways, the Doors established the arrangement rock groups have subsequently imitated — a single, domineering lead vocalist backed by a bass-drum-guitar combo (in the Doors’ case, the bass-guitar part was assumed by the organist, Ray Manzarek, using a foot pedal).

The change was demonstrated by the progress of the music of the Who. The vocal part on all of the group’s early singles — such as I Can't Explain, Anyway Anyhow Anywhere, Substitute, The Kids Are Alright, I'm a Boy, Happy Jack and Pictures of Lily (all from 1965-67) — were characterized by close harmonies. The group’s breakthrough U.S. hit, I Can See For Miles, from 1967, has vocalist Roger Daltrey singing the verses solo, joined in by guitarist Pete Townshend and bassist John Entwhistle on the famed chorus (“I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles...”). By the 1970s, however, all Who songs were solo-vocal performances by either Daltrey, Townshend or Entwhistle (on his own songs).[ix]

This switch occurred even more dramatically with the Beatles. Harmonies were still evident throughout the Revolver and Sgt. Pepper albums, from 1966 and ‘67, respectively. By the self-titled “white” album, in 1968, the four Beatles not only stopped singing harmony, they stopped composing songs together.[x] “Psychedelic” music is characteristic both from the hard rock that followed it, and the beat-driven melodies of the 1964-66 period, for retaining vocal harmonies while also rocking it up. When the harmonies were abandoned soon after, “psychedelia” became hard rock. This is witnessed also in the career of the Yardbirds.

Formed in London in the early ‘60s, the Yardbirds featured young Eric Clapton on guitar, with he and his band-mates performing British-influenced American r-’n’-b. Signed to a major label, the Yardbirds then veered into harmony-pop territory (as with For Your Love, in 1965), which outraged blues-purist Clapton, who quickly left the group. Another guitar wizard, Jeff Beck, joined the line-up, to continued pop success. Later, studio man Jimmy Page (who played on the Who’s first single, I Can’t Explain), came in on bass guitar. In ‘67, the Yardbirds went psychedelic, like all other rock acts. By the next year, Beck was gone and the group fell apart. Plant organized a new lineup, with Robert Plant on lead vocal and John Bonham on drums. Bassist John Paul Jones had sessioned with the Yardbirds, and so he took over that instrument while Page became the lead guitarist. This act toured briefly as the New Yardbirds, but thereafter changed their name (at the suggestion of John Entwhistle) to Led Zeppelin.

On Zeppelin’s records, the only vocal heard is that of Plant. Page, though the producer and musical director, did not sing. The rare harmonies on Led Zeppelin songs are by double-tracking Plant’s vocals, or with session vocalists. Between the last of the Yardbirds records in about 1967, and the debut of the successor band, Led Zeppelin, in late ‘68, the switch from harmony-vocals to a single voice was complete. It was Jim Morrison that led the way, with the smash-hit Light My Fire, from 1967 (which was a three-minute version of the seven-minute album track). However, the biggest Doors hits aside from Light My Fire, were relatively lightweight tracks such as Love Me Two Times, Hello, I Love You, Touch Me, Tell All the People, Love Her Madly, and so on. The sombre verse Unknown Soldier, from ‘69, barely scraped the top 40. The brief rule of the Lizard-King was bought through AM radio. Even “blues-purist” Clapton became an MOR success, thanks to AM and later, MTV. It was as if musicians, unconsciously, abandoned melody as their music became heavier, while others abandoned the beat when melody became more important to their songwriting.

Part III: The Long-Player and the Compact Disc

The premiere music producers of the rock-album era, be they musicians such as Jimmy Page or Pete Townshend, or non-performers like Phil Spector or George Martin, were the true “recording artists” of the time, using recording media (chiefly multitrack audiotape) to create a novel and unique artform, music that could not be reproduced with any fidelity in live performance. The sounds were composed by them, through the skilful editing of the multiple, disparately recorded, parts, as a painter constructs a picture or composer on a score. Recording media have never been exploited particularly as self-conscious art. The true “artistry” of the recorded form was realized not (as with the visual and plastic arts in the twentieth century) in abstraction and obscurity, but in the most popular, most “accessible” music.

However, popular recorded music, as it depended upon artifice, was indeed “abstract”, transcendental, just as the visual arts in most times and places don’t aim for complete naturalism in depiction (as they did during the classical and Renaissance times). The “wall of sound” and classic albums defy nature, too, if authenticity is to be judged by ability to perform a piece of music live. The greatest records attract and obsess the many in the same manner as do the greatest paintings, poetry, novels, or operas. All great artforms objectify corporeality and transcend experience. The recording arts have been a potent cultural form, because their artifice is ignored or dismissed. Recorded music is the aural decor of contemporary society, a programmed sonance that seems to have encouraged the visual and plastic arts toward aggressive non-representation or “fragmentation”. During the twentieth century, aurality became a primary means of cultural enclosure, through recordings and radio (and also through telephony and television), as vision was exploited by artists in all media, to estrange the psyche from itself.

The rock era, which extended to about 1982, was killed off by the album format the genre perfected during the 1960s. Before the Beatles, popular music was heard on 45 rpm, mostly. Full length albums were usually collections of singles, plus a few other titles (usually covers). This was the pattern followed by the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Yardbirds and the rest, until Lennon and McCartney made albums as popular as singles (and extended-play records), starting with Revolver in 1966. After 1967, nearly all rock bands, and performers in other genres as well, concentrated on the production of albums over singles. Singles were no longer released independently of albums; they were simply tracks taken from the albums, as radio advertisements.[xii]

Thus, during the late ‘60s and throughout the 1970s, album production became much more technical, such that the gap between studio and performance yawned all the wider. The master LP artists during the ‘70s were Pink Floyd. Their 1973 release, Dark Side of the Moon, took nine months to record, and exploits the recording medium to its fullest, “a stereo wet dream for hi-fi snobs everywhere.”[xiii] The “rock opera” from 1979, The Wall, also used the recording medium as an artform. Accordingly, Floyd had to tour the world with an elaborate light show and giant props (such as an inflatable pig during their tour for the dreary 1977 album Animals) to disguise the fact that no matter how well they played their material on stage (often not very well anyway), it could never be played as well as it sounded on record.

Pink Floyd, which came late to the London blues scene, never released a live album during their active career. They appeared in a “concert” film, which was not in fact a concert at all, but the band playing, alone, amid the ruins of Pompeii. There is no legend of classic Pink Floyd concerts, because there haven’t been any. The band was a creature of recording media, a fact perhaps acknowledged by the members’ virtual non-appearance on album covers and non-communication with the press and public, after about 1970.

This divergence between recorded and live performance plagued nearly all the major acts of the ‘70s. Through albums, bands could combine classical or other influences that while successful, were difficult to carry out again on stage. The album-oriented music scene encouraged individuation in the listening experience, but the concert performance of album music, with its flashy effects and theatricality and maudlin singing, could no longer encourage communion among the listening public. Rock became exhausted, passe, when it became too artificial, and unable to effect psychic and cultural enclosure. Listeners turned to music, namely punk, which was deliberately unpolished and basic enough to be indistinguishable between live and recorded performance. Punk evolved into New Wave and heavy metal, musical forms of disparate aural character that were alike, in that they were each direct and simple enough to be performed as well on record as on stage. Thus these two genres, while largely neglected by commercial radio, produced million-selling artists and sold-out tours, by blending recording and concert media.

Once again, for the punk generation and their successors, 45 singles became as important as albums, not to get airplay, but to sell product cheaply to their many teenage fans to listen to in the “privacy” of their own homes.

Punk explicitly rejected the studio “trickery” of the dinosaur groups like Zeppelin and Floyd. But their successful translation to the recorded medium depended on the recording technology developed to accommodate the super groups of the rock era. Music from the early years of records of nearly always pleasant and singable, because anything very hard would not have been audible back then. Only when the guitar, bass and drum parts were recorded separately from one another, could the musician be free to play as aggressively as he pleased, without worry of drowning out or falling from time with the other players. This very multi-tracking is what killed the spontaneity of rock music, as we saw, and the post-rock artists of the ‘70s and 1980s overcame this problem by pushing music even further into automation and electronics, by adopting the synthesizer.

Electronic instrumentation was employed by the New Wave, and more radically by the New Romantic, Goth and other “synth” bands during the early 1980s, not (as previously) to be an often gimmicky back up for the regular performance, but rather, predominantly, without “analogue” playing at all. This repaired the disjunction between recorded and live performance, as synthesizer back tracks could be programmed identically for studio or stage. Rap and hip-hop, which also emerged as a popular form during the 1980s (its roots going back a decade to the “ghetto” streets of New York city), resolved differently the tension between studio and live music, namely by using long-playing records as the backing track to the rapper’s rhymes. While sales for new LP records declined throughout the 1980s — the highwater mark for LP sales was 1979, and thereafter they came to be replaced by cassette tapes, and then compact discs — the market in cheap, second-hand long-playing discs boomed, which was a boon to the rap music scene. The predominance of “programmed” music (game-show, commercial and series themes, for example), especially in the later forms of rap and hip hop, reflects the accessibility of the all-important DJ’s to this form. By the late 1990s, rap and hip hop were in the position of rock twenty and twenty-five years earlier, that is as the single best-selling musical form, a form that was nevertheless regarded as “noise” and otherwise derided for its vulgar and violent lyrics, by everyone but most people under the age of 25.

The 1990s’ resurgence in rock — in the form of grunge — was a fusion of punk and heavy metal, a more “mature” rendition of darkness-and-death motifs of the latter style. Nirvana, Soundgarden and numerous other groups from the Puget Sound area gained popularity as live bands, and as their sound deliberately eschewed the complexities of rock acts from the earlier era, it could be more easily translated to disc. The term “grunge” seems to have been derived from the sloppy, second-hand clothes worn by the groups and their “slacker” fans, and their recorded music was at first available only on local labels, such as Sub-Pop. It reached mass popularity with the 1991 release of Nevermind, by Nirvana. The band’s guitarist and lead singer, Kurt Cobain (who committed suicide in April, 1994), was probably the most talented songwriter of the Seattle performers. The grunge style was a perfect incorporation of Cobain’s mentality, which, as it turns out, was not only suicidal, but severely deranged and even borderline psychotic, as well. Nevermind was a good album, appropriately straightforward, and all the Seattle bands released multi-platinum albums in turn, but they were all more potent as live than recording acts.

The grunge concert was nothing like the lazy, hazy stone-fests hosted years earlier by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Chicago. Rather, the driving rhythms and singing style of grunge bands, at their most powerful, effected a literal merger of the audience with itself, such that at its focus, below the stage, the crowd would turn into a “mosh”, a mass of dancing, kicking, jumping, moving people, into which the lead singer would often dive, the performer literally becoming part of the audience. As Seattle acts became more adept with the recording medium (as did Soundgarden with their final two albums) the less “grunge” they became. Cobain may well have sensed the end, the transformation of the style he’d pioneered into a job, an artefact, a technique, removed from the psychic enclosure he’d evidently gained from playing music his way. Having failed weeks earlier to do himself in the soft way (overdose), he did the hard way (gunshot). Just about when Cobain pulled the trigger, Soundgarden were preparing for release, or had already published, Superunknown, their breakthrough disc, and definitely a product of the recording, as opposed to live, medium. The band became super well-known, and their next release, Down on the Upside (1996), was even better than the last. But the group, too, realized the exhaustion of the grunge form. Committed by then to recording technology, Soundgarden understood that they could not reproduce on stage what they’d created in the studio, and so (honourably) went their separate ways. Since the death of grunge, rock has remained steadily, but not explosively popular, and has accepted the hip hop form to a great degree (most popularly with Kid Rock and Linkin Park), which again aids in bridging the gap between the stage and recording forms.

The compact disc, which became the standard playback format in the second half of the 1980s, improved upon the convenience and durability of the long-play, and the sound quality of the cassette. It could play, continuously, longer than either of these formats, about 74 minutes. Music production in digital conditions obviously expands the possibilities for studio “trickery”, and so the last twenty years has seen the partial re-emergence of the Spector-like musical director, featuring names such as Rick Rubin (founder of the Def-Jam label, which released most of the popular rap in the early days), Robert J. “Mutt” Lange (producer of numerous popular acts, who lifted his former wife, Shania Twain, from the obscurity of Timmins, Ontario, to international super-stardom), Glenn Ballard (who similarly turned Ottawa’s Alanis Morrisette from teen queen to rock goddess), as well as Hull, Quebec native, Daniel Lanois, producer of U2's smash Joshua Tree.

The compact disc, during its fifteen to twenty year reign, created music super-stars of unprecedented popularity and exposure (aided by the rock video and heightened interest in pop music stars by periodicals and newspapers), whose success depended upon slickly-crafted full-length discs, integrating technology and performance to such a degree that the music could not be reproduced capably or with fidelity on stage, or not so without the aid of large backup ensemble and advanced equipment. The need of music acts for a large number of backup musicians, and the latest in audio technology, was a prime cause of the inflation of concert-ticket prices during much of the 1990s, far beyond the rate of normal devaluation (which was in fact negligible during the decade). Even then, performance could never live up to the clear sound heard in the digital format, and acts that soared to the top, selling millions, on the strength of well-produced discs, found their follow up releases underrated and ignored. Music produced for compact disc may not be translatable to the stage, at a very basic level.

The compact disc rendered music into an appliance, an aural background not particularly
attended to. CD music, because it is a translation of computer code, somehow resists listener involvement in the sound, as inspired by the long-playing record. It evokes not social enclosure, but domesticated individuation. The live reinforcement of the kind of society created by bands and styles, is not achievable in the digital world, or is available at too much of a premium. This may have been the reason for the remarkable popularity during the ‘90s of the “rave” dances, with their associated “electronica” style, the thundering, atmospheric sound that, while completely dependent upon electronic technology, was scarcely heard through the recording form at all. It was indeed music only for the drug-induced groove of the rave scene, and only a very few outfits that began on the scene (chiefly in Britain, where the movement began) have become major recording stars in their own right — but performing music that is far more conventional and commercial than what is typically played at rave dances. The great popularity among the young of electronica and its “underground” stars, shows that this form has used electronic technology, previously associated only with the studio, as a live form. There is, in fact, no real persistent structure to electronica “songs”. Different beats and styles are merged together, change abruptly from one to the other, and so on.

[footnotes i to vi are in part one]

[vii]. According to Wikipedia, the only Genesis single that charted during the Gabriel era came in 1974, as compared to several dozen top-10 U.S. and U.K. singles after Collins took over as lead singer. It is the same with the other big album-oriented groups: Pink Floyd’s only hit single in the early ‘70s was Money, from the album Dark Side of the Moon, which itself remained on the charts from 1973 until the early 1990s. Led Zeppelin did not usually release any singles from their albums. Yes’ only hit single from the ‘70s was an edited version of the eight-minute Roundabout, from 1972.
[viii]. Kaufman, who dubbed himself the “fifth Beatle,” was a pioneer of FM commercial radio when, at the end of 1964, his AM station switched to an all-news format. He became the programme-director and lead DJ of WOR-FM in New York in 1966, the first all-rock station. The American sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, broadcast in the late 1970s, was loosely based on the experience of one of its creators, who worked at an Atlanta radio station in the late 1960s, when it (as with the fictional WKRP) switched from “elevator” music to rock. The actor who played D.J. Johnny Fever, Howard Hesseman, himself worked as a jock at the first San Francisco radio station to go rock in the late 1960s.
[ix]. In this respect, the later Who were more similar to the style of their earlier incarnation as the blues-oriented High Numbers.
[x]. Hey Jude, released as a single earlier in 1968, concluded with the famous “na-na-na”, was a last-hurrah for the Beatles as a harmony group. Even this part was essentially tacked on to the original song.
[xii]. Acts that concentrated on singles before albums remained, during the 1970s, a remunerative although not prestigious sub-sector of the record industry. See Robert A. Hull, “My Pop Conscience”, in Rolling Stone: The Seventies. Edited A. Kahn, H. George-Warren, S. Dahl (Boston, New York, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1998), pp. 36-39.
[xiii]. “Pink Floyd.” The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, 3rd. edition. R. Bonds, ed. (New York: Harmony Books, 1982), pp. 181-183.

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