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Reproducing Traces of War: Listening to Gas Shell Bombardment, 1918

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World Listening Month3

Welcome to World Listening Month 2014, our annual forum on listening in observation of World Listening Day on July 18th, 2014. World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us [for the full deets, peep our recent SO! Amplifies post by Eric Leonardson, Executive Director of the World Listening Project].  We kick off our month of thinking critically about listening with a post by media historian Brian Hanrahan, who listens deeply to sonic traces of the past to prompt us to question our desires for contemporary media representations of “reality.”  It also marks the global 100 year anniversary of World War I this August 2014: a moment of silence. –J. Stoever, Editor-in-Chief

For some reason that I don’t fully understand, I am very emotionally moved by the space around a sound. I almost think that sometimes I am recording space with a sound in it, rather than sound in a space. -Walter Murch 

If you want to listen to the past, there’s never been a time like the present. Every year, it seems, new old recordings are identified, new techniques developed to recover sounds thought irrecoverable. Here is Bismarck’s voice, preserved on a cylinder in 1889.  Here, older still, is Edison’s. There is the astonishing recuperation of phonautograms – reverberation traced onto soot-blackened paper in the mid-nineteenth century, digitally processed and played back in our own. But as that processing underlines, no sound recording straightforwardly reproduces the real. An acoustic artifact is a compound of materiality, form and meaning, but also a place where technology meets desire. Old recordings meet the listener’s longing halfway; they invoke a reality always out of reach. And not simply a longing to hear, but also to touch, and be moved by, the fact of an absent existence.

Take, for instance, HMV 09308. In October 1918, just before the end of the Great War, William Gaisberg, a sound recordist of the pre-electric era, took recording equipment to the Western Front in order to capture the sound of British artillery shelling German lines with poison gas. Gaisberg died not long after, probably from Spanish flu, although some say he was weakened by gas exposure during the recording. Nonetheless the “Gas Shell Bombardment” record – a 12-inch HMV shellac disc, just over 2 minutes at 78 rpm – was released a few weeks later, just as the war came to an end. Initially intended to promote War Bonds, ultimately the record was used to raise money for disabled veterans.

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For decades, the HMV recording had a reputation as one of the very earliest “actuality” recordings – one documenting a real location and event beyond the performative space of the studio, imprinted with the audible material trace of an actual moment in space and time. Documents like this – no matter what the technology – usually come with additional symbolic authentication. Here, the record’s label does some of that work. This “historic recording,” says the subtitle, is an “actual record taken on the front line.” Publicity pieces drove home the message. In the popular HMV magazine The Voice, Gaisberg – or probably his posthumous ghost-writer – described the expedition in detail, claiming the track to be a “true representation of the bombardment.”

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In the same issue, a Major C.J.C. Street compared the recording to his own experience on the Front. “Its realism,” he wrote, ”took my breath away… I played the record many times… finding at each attempt some well-remembered detail.” He didn’t say so in his article, but Street – an artillery officer, a novelist and a propaganda man for the intelligence agency MI7 – was in fact the impresario of the record. This was not the first time he had found astute uses for sound media. The previous year he had put together a record that set artillery drill commands to popular tunes – the recording was both a propaganda release and an army training tool for new recruits. With the Gas Shell record, Street knew he wasn’t just selling recorded sound, but also an auratic sense of closeness to an overwhelming reality, the palpable proximity of war and death. Authenticating detail helped to underpin this sense of an absent real made present. Street cued the listener for those “well-remembered details.” In particular, he singled out one indistinct rattly flap-whizz noise, hearing in it, he claimed, the sound of a round with a “loose driving-band.”

The record stayed in the HMV catalog until 1945, but only in the early 1990s were its production history and authenticity claims seriously examined. In specialist journals, archivists, collectors and amateur historians undertook a collective forensic and critical analysis. A promising auditory witness was located: 95-year-old Lt.-Col. Montagu Cleeve another former artillery officer, in his time a developer of “Boche Buster” railway gun, later a music professor – was invited to critically assess the recording. Cleeve vouched unreservedly for its authenticity. He heard in it, he said, an unmistakable succession of sounds – the clang of the breech, the gigantic report of the firing explosion, the distinctive whiny whistle of a gas shell on its way across no-man’s-land. Others looked to data rather than the memories of old soldiers. One expert on pre-electric recording noted the angles commanded in firing instructions, correlated them with known muzzle velocities for 4.5 and 6-inch howitzers, then used this and other information to “definitively” explain the counter-intuitive anti-Doppler sound of the shells’ whistling. He also identified the audible echo effect – the curious “double report” of the guns heard here – as the sound of a brass recording horn violently resonating at a distance of exactly 26.5 meters from the guns.

 

Peter Adamson, “The Gas Shell Bombardment record,” The Historic Record Quarterly, April 1991.

Peter Adamson, “The Gas Shell Bombardment record,” The Historic Record Quarterly, April 1991.

 

Eventually, skepticism won out. Close listening at slow speeds – just careful attention and notation, nothing more elaborate – revealed inconsistencies and oddities in the firing noises. The bongs, plops and whistles seemed internally inconsistent. Some of the artillery sounds – ostensibly a battery of four, firing in quick succession – varied implausibly with each successive firing. Physical evidence from the record’s groove, as well as extraneous noises – surface crackle and fizz, and, audible within the recording, the swish of a turntable – seemed to indicate at least two rudimentary overdubs, in which the output of one acoustic horn was relayed into a second, possibly using an auxetophone, an early compressed-air amplifier. All this resulted in a double- or triple-layered sonic artifact. Finally – the crucial evidence, although oddly it was hardly noticed at the time – an alternative take was located. In this take, according to its discoverer, the entire theatrics of gunnery command is simply absent, and there is no sound at all of whistling shells in motion. What was left was a skeleton sequence of clicks, thuds and cracks, supplemented with only a single closing insert, the portentous injunction “Feed the Guns with War Bonds!”

In short, it seems highly likely that any original field recording was, at the very least, post-dramatized with performed voices and percussive and whistling sound effects. So, it is tempting to say, that clears that up. The recording’s inauthenticity is proven. File under Fake. But in fact, if we don’t stop there, if we set aside narrow and absolutist ideas of authenticity, and instead explore the recording’s ambiguity and hybridity, then Gas Shell Bombardment becomes all the more interesting as an historical artifact.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that some form of basic recording was done in France, very possibly a staged barrage specifically performed for Gaisberg’s visit, and that this recording then had effects added back at HMV in London. The record might then be seen less as a straightforward documentary, and instead as an unusual version of the “descriptive speciality,” a genre of miniature phonographic vignette dating back to the 1890s, far predating longer-form radio drama. Very little is known about these early media artworks, but it is a fair generalization to say that in America the genre was more slanted towards vaudeville comedy, whereas in Europe, imperial and military scenes predominated. As early as 1890, for example, there had been German phonographic representations of battles from the Franco-Prussian war. The Great War saw a flourishing of the genre. Scholars are just beginning to take an interest these old phonographs; here’s one recent essay on the “Angel of Mons,” for example, a British acoustic vignette of a famous incident on the Western Front.

Listen to a 1915 German descriptive speciality, depicting the attack on the fortress of Liège the previous year:

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As a descriptive speciality, Gas Shell Bombardment is unusual because it incorporates an actual indexical trace. But such traces – as emphasized by Charles Sanders Pierce and many later media-theoreticians– do not resemble their referent, they are caused by it. The bullet hole does not look much like a bullet; thunder is lightning’s trace, not its likeness. But for Street and Gaisberg, the trace’s lack of resemblance caused problems: the original recording’s lack of detail, cues and clues, but above all its lack of internal dimensionality, created a perceptual shortfall and a lack of credibility. Maybe they hoped that the guns, by sheer force of amplitude, would overcome the spatially impoverished, reverbless reproduction of pre-electric recording. If so, it didn’t work. Without added effects, the guns’ trace was as flat and “body-less” as a sequence of Morse. It was a sound without a scene. The producers’ interventions aimed to thicken the primary artifact with referential-sounding detail, but also to heighten the sense of materiality and spatiality, and to strengthen the sense of diegetic presence, of worlded thereness. The soldiers’ voices – louder and quieter, close-up and farther-out – and the fake-Doppler of the “shell whistling” lent the recording narrative direction (literally, some trajectory) and “authenticating” points of detail. But above all they gave a sense of internal space to the recording, a space into which the listener could direct her attention.

In this context, we can only admire the creativity and performative élan of the unknown production crew. We know little about effects production in early phonography. It is a safe bet that some techniques were adopted from theatre, and that there was overlap with silent film accompaniment. But whatever the method used, it would have called for the awkward orchestration of a limited number of iconic sounds to create an impression of a spatially coherent and materially detailed sonic environment. The recordist and his team would first have had to imagine how relative loudness – of voices, of material objects struck and sounded – might create a sense of spatial depth when transduced through the horn’s crude interface. Then they would have had to perform this as a live overdub, keeping time with the base track of the gun recording played through another horn. And all this done with participants and equipment crowded tightly around the mouth of the huge horn, crammed into the tiny pick-up arc, a scene looking something like this image of Leopold Stokowski’s pre-electric recording sessions or this photograph of the recording of a cello concerto.

Acoustic recording session with Elgar and Beatrice Harrison, 1920

Acoustic recording session with Elgar and Beatrice Harrison, 1920

As well as this hybrid of trace and live performance, there is another performance here – Gaisberg’s journey itself. With twenty years of recording experience, Gaisberg was probably very well aware that the expedition would not yield a “realistic” recording of the guns. But the expedition had to be made, so that it could be said to have taken place. Expectations had to be primed and colored, so that, to use André Bazin’s famous phrase about photographs, the recording could partake in an “irrational power to… bear the belief” of the listener. The journey, and the accounts of Gaisberg and Street are not a supplement to the “true representation” of the gas bombardment. They are part of that representation. Moreover, in subsequent writing it is noticeable that the manner of Gaisberg’s death becomes a rhetorical amplification for the authenticity of the recording’s trace, as if his fatal inhalation (of gas molecules or flu bacilli) were itself a deadly indexation, paralleling the recording’s claim to capture the breath of the War, and even of History itself.

In media-historical terms, the Gas Shell Bombardment recording can be understood as a late, transitional artifact from phonography’s pre-microphonic era. The desire for the sonic trace, for an ever more immersive proximity to events was there, but electro-acoustic technology was not yet in place. Two years later, in 1920, Horace Merriman and Lionel Guest made the first experimental electrical recording, arguably also the first true field recording. The event, appropriately enough, was an official war memorial service in London, where Merriman and Guest – working for Columbia Records – put microphones in Westminster Abbey, running cables to a remote recording van parked in the street outside, where they sat amidst heating ovens and cutting lathes. By the end of the 1920s, remote recording and broadcasting, while never straightforward, were well on the way to ubiquity.

Illustrated London News, 1920.

Illustrated London News, 1920.

Claims made on behalf of technologies of reproduction may seem simplistic, but there’s a grain of truth to their simplicity. If there were nothing special – even magical – in the referentiality of the camera that captures the moment, the recording that’s like being there, the liveness of the live broadcast, these things would not play the role they do in everyday life and in the ideological fabric of society. But there is falsehood too, in over-simplifying the nature and affective charge of old photographs, old footage, old recordings. These are made things, composed of different materials, media, signs and conventions; they are inseparable from the desires and expectations they induce and direct. They function in part by mimesis and verisimilitude, but also through the gaps, blank spots and false illusions of their trace. They can – rightly – intensify our feeling towards the past, but should also prompt us to think about our own desires and investments.

Image by Flickr User DrakeGoodman, “Horchposten im Spengtrichter vor Neuve-Chapelle 6km nördlich von La Bassée Nordfrankreich 1916,” A trio of lightly equipped soldiers from an unidentified formation oblige the photographer by looking serious and pretending they’re just metres from the enemy, listening for activity in his lines. The improvised “listening device” is actually a large funnel, probably liberated from a nearby farm.

Brían Hanrahan is a film, media and cultural historian, whose work focuses on the history of acoustic media, German and European cinema and the culture of the Weimar Republic.

Edited post-publication at 8:00 pm EST on July 7, 2014


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SO! Reads: Susan Schmidt Horning’s Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP–Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo

A Brief History of Auto-Tune–Owen Marshall

DIY Histories: Podcasting the Past–Andrew Salvati

  

SO! Amplifies: Ian Rawes and the London Sound Survey

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Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

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The London Sound Survey website went online in 2009 with a couple of hundred recordings I’d made over the previous year. For a long time I’d wanted to make a website about London but couldn’t think of a good angle. When I got a job as a storeman in the British Library’s sound archive I became interested in field recording. There were the chance discoveries in the crates I hauled around of LPs like Murray Schafer’s The Vancouver Soundscape and the Time of Bells series by the anthropologist Steven Feld. I realised that sound could be the way to know my home city better and to present my experience of it.

Fast forward to last week: It is a warm June afternoon and the marsh is alive with the hum of the Waltham Cross electricity substation. I am a few miles to the northeast of London in the shallow crease of the Lea Valley. It’s a part of the extra-urban mosaic of reservoirs, quarries, industrial brownfield sites, grazing lands, nature reserves and outdoor leisure centres which has been usefully named “Edgelands” by the environmentalist Marion Shoard.

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To make the recording, I’m wearing two mics strapped to each side of my head. The grey acrylic fur windcovers enveloping each mic might, from a distance, look like small woodland animals. It’s as well that not many people come here.
This is how I’m spending the summer, gathering the raw material for a new section on the London Sound Survey website. The London Sound Survey is a growing collection of Creative Commons-licensed sound recordings of places, events and wildlife in the British capital. Historical references too are gathered to find out how London’s sounds have changed. It’s partly to experiment with depicting the sounds of places as diagrams and collages rather than literal-minded maps. But it’s also a nice indulgence after quitting a job where I spent the last three years in a windowless room.
Content of the daytime sound grid recordings depicted in graphical form. The louder the sound, the darker the icon. More than one icon of the same kind means that sound takes up more of the recording. The London Sound Survey® 2014

Content of the daytime sound grid recordings depicted in graphical form. The louder the sound, the darker the icon. More than one icon of the same kind means that sound takes up more of the recording. The London Sound Survey® 2014

Listening as a topic of scholarly interest has grown in popularity recently. I was interested too, and thought the best way forward was to find some expert listeners – blind people – and ask for their opinions. I soon learned there were differences in perceptions between those born blind, and those with age-related visual impairments. The former are more likely to have detailed mental maps of their surroundings based on listening to reverberation, from which they learn about features like the width of streets and the height of buildings.
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I’m grateful to have Andre Louis, a blind musician and field recordist, begin to add his recordings and commentary to the LSS website. I’m always struck by the precision with which Andre pays attention to what he hears around him.
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Screenshot 2014-06-23 11.04.30

Hear the city’s busy thoroughfares and quieter corners through the ears of musician and recordist Andre Louis. His thoughts on why he records are rendered in braille to form the basis for a new London sound map. The London Sound Survey® 2014

Other work is to be done. The Museum of London has offered to archive the site’s recordings and I have to ferret out all the original uncompressed sound files for them. Also, new batches of recordings have to be made for another site project, the 12 Tones of London. Here I’ve used census data and a statistical method called cluster analysis to sort neighbourhoods into 12 groups, and identify in each group the most demographically ‘typical’ neighbourhood to record in.
12 Tones of London uses a statistical analysis to select 12 out of London's 623 council wards (not counting the City of London) in the hope that their sound profiles can be generalised across relatively large swathes of the capital. It makes central to the investigation demographic factors such as class, ethnicity and age.

12 Tones of London uses a statistical analysis to select 12 out of London’s 623 council wards (not counting the City of London) in the hope that their sound profiles can be generalised across relatively large swathes of the capital. The London Sound Survey® 2014

This way, the primary social facts of class and ethnicity are put into the foreground of the project by determining where recordings are made. It’s a small start in moving away from the tropes of unusual or disappearing sounds, and towards how new ways of living sound in a city reproducing itself through great flows of capital and labour.
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The London Sound Survey belongs to the tradition of enthusiasts’ websites which strive to amass as much information as they can about their chosen subjects. It has an open-ended design since the boundaries of what can be learned about city life and history through sound have hardly been tested, far less determined. It’s probably benefited from how the internet has expanded people’s access to music and other media, and from that a greater willingness to experiment in what they choose to listen to.
Ian Rawes was born in 1965 and grew up in London where he’s spent most of his life. Since leaving school he’s worked as a printer, book designer, market stallholder, concert promoter and sound archivist. He now runs the London Sound Survey full-time and lives in a suburb of south-east London.
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That Infernal Racket: Sound, Anxiety, and the IBM Computer in AMC’s Mad Men

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[Warning: Spoilers Ahead for Folks Not Caught Up with Season 7, Episode 5!]

In one of the more memorable – and squirm-inducing – scenes of this season of AMC’s Mad Men, brilliant but eccentric copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) presents his colleague, agency copy chief Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) with his own severed nipple, placed carefully in a gift box. Ginsberg explains to the understandably horrified Peggy that the gift is both a token of his affection and a means of relieving pressure caused by the arrival of Sterling, Cooper & Partners’ (SC&P) newest acquisition: a humming, room-sized IBM System/360 mainframe computer. Explaining his enmity for the machine and his increasingly erratic behavior, Ginsberg tells Peggy that the “waves of data” emanating from the computer were filling him up, and that the only solution was to “remove the pressure” by slicing off his “valve.”

The arrival of the IBM 360 in the idealized 1960s office space inhabited by Mad Men is obviously an unsettling presence – and not only for Ginsberg. Since its debut in Episode 4, commentators (e.g. WaPo’s Andrea Peterson, Slate’s Seth Stevenson) have meditated on the heavy-handed symbolism surrounding the machine – both in terms of its historical significance and its implications for plot and character development. Typically cued through noise (or lack thereof), it is worth reflecting upon the role of sound in establishing the computer as a source of disruption. Between the pounding and screeching of installation and the drone of the completed machine’s air conditioner and tape reels, the sonic motifs accompanying the computer underline tensions between (and roiling within) SC&P staffers grappling with the incipient digital age. Likewise, the infernal racket produced by the installation and operation of the IBM 360 adds an important dimension to the tensions resulting from its presence, which can be read as allegories for the complexities and contradictions of our relationship with technology.

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The tone of the conflict is set even before we meet the IBM 360 toward the end of Episode 4: The Monolith – a reference to Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (Slate’s Forrest Wickman ably discusses the references). Like the unnerving silence used with such great effect in that film, the absence of sound frames our first encounter with the computer – or at least its promise. Early in the episode, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), newly rehabilitated from his forced exile from the agency, arrives one morning at SC&P to find the office deserted. The ghostly sequence is clearly meant to symbolize Draper’s detachment from the firm. But as the episode progresses and tensions mount over the possibility that the IBM 360 will render jobs obsolete, the desolate office suggests a more ominous meaning – a once lively space muted by cold, impersonal automation.

In following scenes, successive stages of mainframe installation are marked by convergences of conflict and cacophony. First, there is the din of the creative team as they evacuate their beloved lounge – now earmarked as computer space – and during which a distraught Ginsberg projects his indignation onto art director Stan Rizzo, who appears more accepting. “They’re trying to erase us!” Ginsberg exclaims bitterly. Later, Draper lounges on his office couch as a clop clopping of hammers outside signifies tangible change. As if this weren’t enough of a distraction, two men in the corridor begin to chat loudly over the noise. Going out to investigate, Draper strikes up a conversation with one of the men, Lloyd Hawley, installation supervisor and founder of a small technology company competing with IBM. “Who’s winning?” Draper asks innocently, “who’s replacing more people?” Clearly irritated by Draper’s tone, Harry Crane – SC&P media director and the computer’s lead cheerleader – offers Draper a condescending apology for the loss of his “lunchroom,” assures him the change was “not symbolic.” “No, it’s quite literal,” Draper retorts. Unabated, the pounding and screeching of construction work emphasizes his point.

For the remainder of the episode, the raucous noise of construction acts as a leitmotif underscoring tensions between characters – between Peggy and Lou Avery (Draper’s priggish replacement at creative director), and between Draper and the interloper Lloyd. Finally, the end of construction is punctuated by a return to silence, as Peggy arrives one morning to see workers glide mainframe components noiselessly into the office.

Mad Men Logo. Used under the auspices of fair use for identification and critical commentary.

Mad Men Logo. Used under the auspices of fair use for identification and critical commentary.

With this emphasis on technology as a source of symbolic, physical, and sonic disruption, Matthew Weiner and the creators of Mad Men draw upon a rich literary tradition. A relevant example contemporaneous with the show’s “present,” is literary critic Leo Marx’s 1964 text The Machine in the Garden, which examines the complicated relationships between a “pastoral ideal” and technological progress within American literature and popular imagination. Marx’s analysis reveals that sound is often used to convey the disruptive presence of technology within the bucolic landscape of the American continent. In Hawthorne’s Sleepy Hollow for example, it is the interrupting shriek of a locomotive whistle that breaks the author’s harmonious reverie: “Now tension replaces repose: the noise arouses a sense of dislocation, conflict, and anxiety” (15). In the decidedly un-pastoral modern office space, the noise of the computer installation nevertheless signifies a momentous social change and irrevocable loss. Picking out these tensions has always been one of the show’s strengths – whether it is the computer, Draper’s double identity, or the quiet endurance of women to the misogyny of midcentury work and domestic life.

Change, however, has significant consequences for Ginsberg, the young copywriter and Holocaust survivor who, as CBS’s Jessica Firger observes, has been deteriorating psychologically for some time. The proximity of the IBM 360, and the incessant drone of its mind-controlling waves eventually puts him over the edge. As Draper and Peggy enter the office early in Episode 5, Ginsberg glowers into the room housing the IBM 360. “Stop humming, you’re not happy!” he explodes. As Peggy attempts to soothe her colleague, our perspective shifts to look out at them from inside the glass-encased computer room. From here, the mainframe’s ambient noise muffles Peggy’s words, suggesting isolation between human and non-human. This play of speech and silence reoccurs later in the episode as Ginsberg, working alone on a Saturday with tissues wedged in his ears, spies Lou Avery and SC&P partner Jim Cutler inside the computer room, their voices made inaudible by the droning computer in a delicious homage to 2001 (see Vulture’s amusing gif). But the noise is clearly affecting Ginsberg. “It’s that hum at the office! It’s getting to me!” he tells Peggy later that evening. He even claims the computer has affected his sexuality.

Ginsberg’s noise complaints would have resonated in 1969 New York. In November of that year, the New York Times ran a feature on the city’s nerve-shattering noise pollution, calling it a “slow agent of death.” In addition to the myriad construction projects, subways, car horns, jet planes, and standing machinery populating the city soundscape, office workers found scant respite indoors where phones, air conditioners, “computers and typewriters and tabulators” whirred, whined, and clacked throughout the day. The article went on to report that scientists studying the impact of prolonged noise exposure on the human body had concluded a variety of ill effects on the heart and nervous system. Though no connection was made between computers and sexuality (as Ginsberg claimed), the article reported that laboratory rats under prolonged noise exposure had indeed “turned homosexual,” an opinion that underlined deterministic associations between sexuality, psychological disorder, and external stimuli.

An advertisement for the IBM 360. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.

An advertisement for the IBM 360. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.

As SO! editor Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has argued, noise in midcentury New York also signified a sonic-racial politics, in which the mainstream “listening ear” recoiled at the “noise” created by Black and Puerto Rican others. In terms of Mad Men’s computer however, it is technology, economic anxiety, and mental illness, rather than ethnicity that frames sonic disruption. The basis of these tensions are similar however, and various interactions with SC&P’s IBM 360 demonstrate, as Stoever-Ackerman writes in SO!, “the ways in which Americans have been disciplined to consider some sounds as natural, normal, and desirable, while deeming alternate ways of listening and sounding as aberrant [and] dangerous.” Though similar, the conflict with technology on Mad Men does not suggest a clear us/them, or us/”it” binary. The banging of construction may be at first antagonistic, but it’s finite – eventually the computer is normalized within the SC&P office space to the extent that Peggy chides Ginsberg’s exasperation in Episode 5 by insisting “it’s just a computer!” Ginsberg’s reaction is more complex however, implicating a contradictory relationship with technology: once fully installed, has the droning computer become “natural, normal, and desirable” despite previous ambivalence? Is the keen awareness and anxiety towards technology symbolized through Ginsberg (albeit in a extreme form) suggested as the “aberrant” listening practice, or could it be Peggy’s apparent acceptance?

Like most cultural texts set in the past, it is possible to read Mad Men allegorically, as suggesting a certain ordering of meaning and values. From the perspective of those who have long since domesticated computers, the controversies and tropes activated by SC&P’s IBM 360 might strike us as familiar, even quaint. As the sociologist Bruno Latour has argued however, we would be wise to consider how technology exerts a kind of social agency that structures and impacts our daily lives. As historical symbolism, the sounds and noises of the IBM 360 on Mad Men should remind us that technological progress is not teleological, but a struggle over meaning in which anxieties (about jobs, mind-control, surveillance, subjectivity, etc.) may be variously accommodated, suppressed, or dismissed as irrational.

Featured image: An IBM 360 Mainframe. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0

Andrew J. Salvati is a Media Studies Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University. His interests include the history of television and media technologies, theory and philosophy of history, and representations of history in media contexts. Additional interests include play, authenticity, the sublime, and the absurd. Andrew has co-authored a book chapter with colleague Jonathan Bullinger titled “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past” in the recent edited volume Playing With the Past (2013)and has written a recent blog post for Play the Past titled The Play of History.”

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“DIY Histories: Podcasting the Past” -Andrew J. Salvati

“The Noise of SB 1070: Or Do I Sound Illegal to You?”- Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman

“DIANE… The Personal Voice Recorder in Twin Peaks” -Tom McEnaney

Sounding Out! Podcast #28: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles

Day Shot With Mtns

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Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles

With the slight return of warmth to the East Coast of the U.S. and Tropics of Meta’s very recent release of Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis’s fantastic history“’The Sky is Black and the Asphalt Blue’: Placing El Monte in the Early LA Punk Rock Scene” and its accompanying archival project (bring your old flyers and pics down to scan at Bridgetown DIY, 1421 N. Valinda Ave, La Puente, CA on May 3rd from 2-6 pm), we thought it was high time to bring Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s LA mixtape Off the 60 into the sunlight for everyone to bump with their windows down.

Off the 60 was initially commissioned as a sonic installation for the re:present L.A. Exhibition at East LA’s Vincent Price Museum from May 3 – July 27, 2012. re:present L.A. was curated by Museum Studies students at Claremont Graduate University (and coordinated by performance artist, scholar, and poet reina alejandra prado saldivar, who wrote about the experience for SO! in 2011). The exhibit sought “to explore, challenge, and depict the multiple representations of Los Angeles that responds to the present social landscapes of city” through both sight and sound.” Click these links for the exhibit’s virtual catalogue and list of participating artists. Both the liner notes and the track listing have been modified slightly from the original for publication here.

Off the 60: Liner Notes

When I began to make this mix-tape that somehow would re-present L.A. in a mere 80 minutes, my enabling fantasy was that I could make a playlist that would be my musical calling card, a sonic Rosetta Stone for “home” that would unravel the complex knot of feelings about L.A. I carry around with me, something I could share with my son, whom I am somewhat reluctantly raising as a New Yorker. You know, a musical study guide so the sounds that raised and shaped me could tell him all the things I just can’t put into words about Los Angeles, namely how much music and place are wrapped together in my memory’s DNA. Therefore, this mix deliberately dates and locates me, enabling, in the words of Ronnie Hudson’s “West Coast Poplock,” the intimate knowledge of “listening to the map.” And—there was more than a little magical thinking involved here—I thought that perhaps if I arranged these songs just so, then the barren Sleepy Hollow landscape of wintry upstate New York would transform itself into the desiccated foothills, dried river beds, and dense strip malls of Southern California. I’d turn a bend and, with a little help from the Go-Go’s and Union 13, 79 would suddenly become “the” 60.

60 freewayAnd thus the title, a tongue-in-cheek reference to J.Lo’s debut album On the 6 (1999), named after the subway line between Manhattan and the Bronx, where she grew up. Off the 60 references the freeway whose red brake lights stretch between Los Angeles and Riverside, my hometown, and the mix is just the right length for a one-way trip, provided there’s no traffic (I told you there was some magical thinking involved here!). The 60 is one of the most heavily trafficked commuter pathways in the country; I know people in Riv who will make this 60-mile drive 5 days a week, 51 weeks a year, for decades (I have also met people in Los Angeles who had never made this trip east, and who used to look askance at my 951 cell number, in the same way that my current 323 area code causes looks of consternation to New Yorkers). For many people coming of age in the Inland Empire, Los Angeles exerts a tidal pull, and we make many trips there before hitting the commuter treadmill—in family cars, in our imaginations, in movies, in books, on school busses and tour busses, in broken-down band vans, in hoopties borrowed from our friend’s uncle that may not make the return trip—and some of us make that 60-mile move West and never really come back, like me. I ended up living on St. Andrews instead of only singing about it.

Riverside 60But you never know, The Riv has a deep hold on people. I closed Off the 60 with a band from Riverside, old friends of mine Chicano punk rockers the Voodoo Glow Skulls, because one second you are going to law school in Queens or Dap-Toning with Sharon Jones and the next you are back, public defending in San Bernardino or married with big fam filling a house by Mt. Rubidoux, respectively. True stories. But I am already taking a detour Off the 60, in the hopes that the music on this mix invites you to do that. Unlike J.Lo’s subway, you can’t stay on the 60 and really get to know Riverside, Los Angeles, or all the many places in between that are intertwined socially, historically, culturally and economically with both cities: Glen Avon. Corona. Chino. Diamond Bar. Rowland Heights. La Puente. Hacienda Heights. El Monte. Montebello. East L.A. Boyle Heights.

A sonic exit ramp of sorts, Off the 60 is a mix-tape in digital format, crafted in the old style: a painstaking arrangement of songs really familiar and much beloved to me, listened to obsessively throughout the process to create fresh transitions that are laden with significance—and of course, car tested L.A.-style until smooth like butter.   For Off the 60, I deliberately picked songs without the aid of Wikipedia or any of the copious L.A song lists, sitting down with just a blank page, my memory, and a sharp pencil (as I hope you can tell by many of the songs, I’m kinda old school) to come up with a set of songs that aren’t necessarily about L.A., but of it. This is a small, symbolic sample of the music that once scored my life in the Southland from the 1970s-the 2000s through the perspective of my current “home away from home” in New York. Now, in what my colleague and homegrrl Karen Tongson (another Riversidean, now turned proud Silver Lake home owner) has poignantly dubbed “remote intimacy” in Relocations (New York University Press, 2011).  And these sounds still make me feel L.A. even though I often feel like I live “a million miles away.” I hope you feel it too.

9297628099_7ab788f0a8_bThe songs on Off the 60 are arranged to speak to each other, sometimes sonically, sometimes thematically, sometimes historically (and occasionally I pull off the trifecta! Listen carefully!). I designed the mix to flow along with the narrative rhythms of a timeless (yet intentionally dated) Saturday in L.A., from waking up with the sound of Friday night still in your ears to basking in the warm afternoon—which can feel so good you almost get knocked off your game—until the purplish-orange twilight descends, with its regret and uncertainty, on into the pulsing promises of the night. Sonically blending vulnerability with hardness—and revealing both where you least expect them—I hope the songs on this mix share an overall L.A. vibe that is more than merely the sum total of the musical parts, a feeling that’s ephemeral and hard to put your finger on, but—paradoxically—one whose resonance lasts.

And because I am a sound/music scholar in addition to a product of the 714 909 951, you’ll get plenty of L.A. music history through this this mix. All the bands featured are based in L.A. or Riverside, except for two artists whom I have awarded honorary Angeleno status: Smokey Robinson and Debbie Deb. Never mind the fact Motown had already moved to L.A. by the time Robinson’s “Crusin’” was released in 1982 and he used to host one of my favorite radio shows on 92.3 in the 2000s, but these two songs have bumped out of so many cars, clubs, backyard parties and Art Leboe sets that both Smoke and Deb own some symbolic real estate in Southern California, at least in my heart.

In putting the work of so many different L.A. artists together, I challenged myself to create a coherent musical feel without placing songs from similar genres, scenes, or time periods right next to each other. I worked hard to create a sense of the diversity of the Los Angeles area without being either gratuitously culture clash-y or post-multiculti Velveeta, but using sound to make palpable both the dissonant tensions and the productive energies of everyday encounters in the city in a way that “represents” without claiming to be representative. Think of Off the 60 as a flash-sample of what you might hear while whiling away a scorching Friday night in traffic, when everybody’s got their windows open, cooling off the outside with their tunes. As a result, you’ll hear classic L.A. musical sounds in conversation—mariachi horns, surf guitar, nasally Val-Speak, fat funky synth, staccato punk growls, metal licks, downtempo samples, polyrhythmic percussion, and that power pop tone that my Vox amp calls “Cali Clean”— calling and responding across genres and decades: re-mixing, recontextualized, distorting, hyperembodying those terribly glamorous L.A. sounds, across this town, our town. Por vida.

Off the 60 is dedicated,  Art Leboe-style,  to my SGV homegirl Melissa Contreras-McGavin for always (even though she lived off the pinche 10 for so long). Mwah.

Off the 60: Track Listing–Click to Jump to Track Description

1. “This Town” by The Go-Go’s
2.
“Del-Tone Rock” by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones
3.
“La Bamba” by The Plugz
4.
“Chango” by Ozomatli
5.
“Unyielding Conditioning” by Fishbone
6.
“Blessings” by The Visionaries and the Beat Junkiez
7.
“All Day Music” by WAR
8.
“Concrete Schoolyard” by Jurassic 5
9.
“Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson
10.
“It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube
11.
“A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls
12.
“I Can’t Stand it Anymore” by Union 13
13.
“Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction
14.
“Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons
15.
“Look Out Weekend” by Debbie Deb
16.
“West Coast Poplock” by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People
17.
“Make Ya Neck Lock” by Medusa and Feline Science
18.
“This Town” by Ceci Bastida with guest Tim Armstrong
19.
“Here Comes the Sun” by Voodoo Glow Skulls

  1. “This Town” by The Go-Go’s (Beauty and the Beat, I.R.S. Records, 1981): The Go-Go’s were formed in Hollywood in 1978 by members of the early L.A. punk scene and this song reflects their lives in that moment. The Go-Go’s initially consisted of Belinda Carlisle (vocals), Jane Wiedlin (guitar, vocals), Margot Olavarria (bass), and Elissa Bello (drums). Members Charlotte Caffey (guitar), Gina Schock (drums) and Kathy Valentine (bass) were added by 1981, after founding members Margot Olvarria (bass) and Elisa Bello (drums) were fired. The Go-Go’s were the first female band writing and playing their own music to reach number one on the Billboard Charts.   This was the first record I purchased with my own money.

  1. “Del-Tone Rock” by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones (The B-Side of “Let’s Go Trippin’,” Deltone Records, 1961): Dick Dale was born in Boston, Massachusetts and came to Southern California in 1954—Orange County, but we’ll let that slide—where he was one of the innovators in the “Surf Music” genre that many still associate with Los Angeles. “Del-Tone Rock” was the B-Side of the alleged first surf song ever, “Let’s Go Trippin.’” An avid surfer, Dale sought to imitate with his guitar the sounds that he heard while riding waves—and he pushed his equipment to the max while doing so (Fender guitars, another Southern California staple, designed several custom guitars and amps for Dale and still sell a “Dick Dale Custom Shop Stratocaster” model). My dad once got in trouble for sneaking out to see Dick Dale play a “stomp” at the Riverside Armory in 1963. I saw him play at the Dragonfly in 1996.

  1. “La Bamba” by The Plugz (Electrify Me, Plugz Records, 1979): The first rock and roll version of this Mexican folk song was of course recorded by Richie Valens of Pacoima in 1958—he was first known as “Little Richard of the Valley”—and his life and music inspired countless musicians after his untimely death at age 17 in a plane crash in Clearlake, Iowa. The Plugz’ punk-rock version both pays homage to Valens and signifies on the outsiderness of his music career—his manager insisted he whiten his surname by changing it from Valens to Valenzuela, for example. The Plugz formed in 1977 in East Los Angeles and their version of “La Bamba” was recorded with the original line-up: Tito Larriva (lead vocals/guitar), Charlie Quintana (drums), and Barry McBride (bass/backing vocals). The Plugz were staples in the early LA punk rock scene, but they challenged its Hollywood-centricity with a sound that also had firm roots in Chicano garage rock from bands like Thee Midnighters. I first heard The Plugz on the soundtrack to Repo Man, and I can’t tell you how many batteries I went through fastforwarding from “El Clavo y Cruz” to “Hombre Secreto” and back again.

  1. “Chango” by Ozomatli (Ozomatli, Almo Sounds, 1998): Ozomatli was formed in Los Angeles in 1995, after meeting through their affiliation with the Peace and Justice Center. A multiethnic, multiracial collective that, at the time “Chango” was recorded was comprised of Wil-Dog Abers (bassvocals), Ulises Bella (clarinet, guitar, tenor saxophone, vocals), Chali 2na (MC), Cut Chemist (DJ), Raúl Pacheco (guitar, vocals), Justin Porée (percussion), Asdru Sierra (trumpet, vocals) and Jiro Yamaguchi (tabla, cajón, other percussion, vocals), Ozomatli is unabashedly and proudly political through and through: in their lyrics, in their brilliantly miscegenated music—described by Bella and Yamaguchi as “that crazy blend that’s going on between that cacophony of sound” on the streets of L.A. (NPR, 2007)—and in the shows they choose to perform. Ozomatli famously played their cumbia-funk-hip hop-salsa-merengue jams in front of the 2000 Democratic Convention in Downtown Los Angeles and continued to record after the LAPD shut them down and began to shoot rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray paint balls at the peacefully gathered crowd (the footage opens their second record Embrace the Chaos). I included this particular song to also give props to the way in which Ozo has politicized collective dancing—and dances their politics—I have seen them play in many diverse venues from the Cal Plaza to the Warped Tour and I have never seen them fail to move the crowd in more ways than one. Bravo, Ozo!

  1. “Unyielding Conditioning” by Fishbone (Give A Monkey A Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe, 1993): One of the best (and most virtuostically versatile) bands from Southern California, hands down, Fishbone was formed by high school buddies John Norwood Fisher (bass, vocals), Kendall Jones (guitar), Phillip “Fish” Fisher (drums), Angelo Moore (vocals, saxophone, and theremin); “Dirty” Walter A. Kibby II (vocals, trumpet); and Christopher Dowd (keyboards, trombone, vocals) in South Central Los Angeles in 1979. Their coming together is a very 1970s L.A. story; everyone but San Fernando Valley local Moore was bussed from Compton to the overwhelmingly white high school, an 100 mile round trip that you can hear in their music. If you have never heard of this wonderful fusion band—everything from heavy metal to ska to funk to soul to punk—but find that this song sounds teasingly familiar, consider even just the LA-area bands that have stood on these giant’s shoulders: the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, No Doubt, the Skeletones, the Voodoo Glow Skulls, Hepcat. While it has always burned me up that Fishbone has never seen the level of fame that many of these acts have—too bad you can’t pay the rent with respect—I refuse to talk about them as a failure, especially not as an act who has unceasingly worked so hard to portray Los Angeles they live in story and sound. In a recent interview with the Japanese Metropolis, Norwood Fisher stated: “you know we came from gang-related neighborhoods, so for me the violence of punk made sense. There was a big cross-cultural surge, everybody was listening to everything—mod and ska and new wave—everybody could enjoy it, and for a moment it didn’t matter what color you were.” To create that “one moment,” Fishbone has never stopped telling the stories of the numerous moments where it does matter—the tensions embodied in “Unyielding Conditioning”—and that is why I will always love them. By the way, these veteranos still tour so please support Fishbone whenever they come to home to play.

  1. “Blessings” by The Visionaries and the Beat Junkiez (Galleries, Up Above Records 1998). This virtuostic Los Angeles hip hop super group in the tradition of multicultural, multiracial Angeleno musical collectives like WAR and Ozomatli, blends the MC talents of Visionaries 2 Mex, LMNO, Lord Zen, Dannu, Key Kool, and DJ Rhettmatic with the legendary turntablist crew the World Famous Beat Junkies (who were formed in Orange County in 1992 by J-Rocc) and whose members over the years have included Rhettmatic, Curse, Melo-D, D-Styles, Red-Jay, Havik, Tommy Gun, & What?!, Symphony, DJ Babu (also of Dilated Peoples) and Mr. Choc. The cream of the backpack crop, this group was the sound of L.A. underground positivity for myself and so many artists, writers, and musicians I knew in the 2000s. Not to mention that this amazing downtempo beat also reminds me of dancing with my best girls at turn-of-the-millennium late night chill spots all over the city—after long days grinding hard, working toward our Ph.D.s in American Studies and Ethnicity at USC—life-affirming spots like the Little Temple, Carbon, Bounce Rock Skate, the Dub Club, the Root Down, and Nappy at the Roots at the Fais Do Do.

  1. “All Day Music” by WAR (All Day Music, United Artists, 1972) The title song from their first album after changing their name from “Eric Burdon and WAR,” “All Day Music” is a musical manifesto of sorts for the multiethnic 7-piece funk/soul band that came together in 1969 in Long Beach (although the core of the band had been together since 1962 as The Creators). The new line-up was comprised of Howard Scott (guitar, percussion, vocals), B.B. Dickerson (bass, percussion, vocals), Lonnie Jordan (organ, piano, percussion, vocals), Harold Brown (drums, percussion, vocals), Harold Brown (drums, percussion, vocals), Papa Dee Allen (conga, bongos, percussion, vocals), Charles Miller (flute, sax, percussion, vocals), and Lee Oskar (harmonica, percussion, vocals). The gentle strains of this song always take me right back simultaneously to the parks I have loved and loved in in Los Angeles—Pan Pacific Park, Lincoln Park, MacArthur Park, Elysian Park, and Echo Park.

  1. “Concrete Schoolyard” by Jurassic 5 (Jurassic 5, TVT/Interscope, 1998) Jurassic 5 formed like Voltron back in 1994, from the wreckage of two earlier hip hop groups,Rebels of Rhythm and Unity Committee, and was made up MCs Charles Stewart (Chali 2na), Dante Givens (Akil), Courtenay Henderson (Zaakir), Marc Stuart (Mark 7even), and disc jockeys Mark Potsic (DJ Nu-Mark) and Lucas Macfadden (Cut Chemist)—both Cut Chemist and Chali 2na were also in Ozomatli until 2000. J5 cut their teeth at L.A.’s legendary “Good Life,” a South Central health food store owned by B. Hall that became an influential hotbed of rhyme in the early 1990s, hosting a “no cursing” open-mic night that nurtured innovative acts like J5, Medusa, the Pharcyde, and the Freestyle Fellowship. While I didn’t make it to Leimert in time for The Good Life, I loved Thursdays at Project Blowed, the next incarnation of the hip hop workshop held at filmmaker Ben Caldwell’s community arts, multimedia, and performance space, KAOS Network, which he founded in 1990. It is still held every Thursday night at 43rd Place and Leimert Blvd., and will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary on 12/29/14. Follow @Blowdians for the latest.

  1. “Cruisin’” by Smokey Robinson (Where There’s Smoke, Motown/Tamla 1979) Smokey Robinson was already quite famous as a Motown originator by the time he scored this throwback hit at the end of the disco era. Motown had been based in Los Angeles since 1972, and this song—an instant classic in the Lowrider Oldie genre co-written by Robinson and fellow Miracle Marv Taupin—shows just how much L.A. had impacted the label, especially Latino car culture. Now a staple on Art Laboe’s “Killer Oldies,” a long-running Los Angeles radio show famous for playing “Oldies but Goodies” by special request. Give your loved one a musical shout out by calling 800-681-2121 M-F between 7pm-Mid and Sun 6pm-Mid PST.

  1. “It was a Good Day” by Ice Cube (The Predator, Priority Records, 1993) Born O’Shea Jackson in Compton, Ice Cube took on his famous moniker when he joined old school rap group CIA in the mid-1980s (the group sang backing vocals on “Cabbage Patch”—remember that?) and then became a member of legendary hip hop group NWA in 1986. He went solo upon NWA’s break up in 1989 and produced club bangers for a good many years. I almost picked “Bop Gun” for this compilation—I love the George Clinton reference and the way it so perfectly captures the best vibes of the 1990s—but there is a world of LA knowledge embedded in the way in which the minor key sample from the Isley Brothers’ beautiful 1977 hit “Footsteps in the Dark” subtly undercuts Ice Cube’s Southern California fantasy that it could only be this song. Not to mention the long afterlife of “Good Day”: while I usually shy away from gross generalizations, I think I am safe to say that everyone who grew up in the L.A. region in the 1990s has a special love for this song. It is the day by which many of our good days are judged. People have such enduring love for the song that someone at the blog Murk Avenue spent many many hours using context clues to determine once and for all that this legendary good day was in fact, January 20, 1992. While you may have missed its twentieth anniversary, it’s not too late to order up the blimp for the 25th in 2017.

  1. “A Million Miles Away” by The Plimsouls (Everywhere At Once, Geffen, 1983) Formed in Paramount, from the ashes of the power pop/punk trio The Nerves in 1978—who performed the killer original version of “Hanging On The Telephone,” covered more famously by New Yawk’s Blondie—the classic line up includes singer, guitarist and songwriter Peter Case, drummer Louie Ramírez, guitarist Eddie Munoz and bassist Dave Pahoa. Their first break came when Long Beach promoter Stephen Zepeda signed the group to his Beat Records label for a five-song EP called Zero Hour, whose title song received a lot of KROQ airplay. Their second crack at fame occurred when they were hired as the “club band” in the film Valley Girl (1983), which my little sister and I watched over and over again, thanks to ON Television and lax babysitters.As a result, this song was the soundtrack to some of my earliest LA dreamings, and it—plus a very young Nicolas Cage as the rough guy from “over the hill” in Hollywood—gave punk rock boys permanent real estate in my heart.

  1. “I Can’t Stand it Anymore” by Union 13 (East Los Presents. . ., Epitaph Records, 1997) Formed in Boyle Heights in 1992, and influenced by punk rock, hardcore, metal, and their shared Mexican—Central American upbringing, the original lineup on this recording consisted of Edward Escoto on vocals, José Mercado and Ben Sandoval on guitars, Jerry Navarro on bass, and Louie Villareal on drums. I eventually spent so much time with these guys, in vans and in clubs on both sides of the border, that even though I haven’t seen them in years, I still think of Union 13 like family—even more so after they played a show in my backyard in Riverside and they got into a friendly brawl in the front. Ah, brothers!

  1. “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction (Nothing’s Shocking, Triple XXX Records, 1988): This band came together in Venice in 1985 out of the remains of Psi-Com, the first LA-area band of Queens transplant Perry Farrell (government name Peretz Bernstein) and included Dave Navarro (guitarist), Eric Avery (bass), and Stephen Perkins (drums). Both this song and the band were named after the struggles of Farrell’s drug addicted roommate, Jane Bainter, whom he lived with on Wilton Street in Hollywood in the early days of the band’s history. My first history with this song begins with high school subjection coupled with a lustful yearning for the sound of the bohemian unknown; I remember my best friend was almost suspended for wearing a Nothing’s Shocking T-Shirt to school because it featured plaster casts of naked women with their hair on fire—“but the female body is beautiful” I remember her saying, as she reluctantly turned the shirt inside out. The second is of moving to Los Angeles and living in Koreatown, on the fabled St. Andrews street mentioned in the song, and though the intensity of my feeling sfor this band had long since faded, “Jane Says” would pop into my head at least once a day as I headed out to hit the red line, find a coffee shop, walk past the Wiltern on my way to the Sav-on, or grab some Pho 2000 in the middle of the night. And I would stop, look up at the gently waving palm fronds, and remember that no matter what was going on in my life—high drama, money struggles, the mundanity of getting older—“at least I live in Los Angeles.”

  1. “Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons (Spring Session M, Capitol Records, 1982) Missing Persons, a new wave staple on the radio and MTV in its infancy, were founded in 1980 in Los Angeles by Warren Cuccurullo (guitar), Dale Bozzio (vocalist), Terry Bozzio (drummer) and later Patrick O’Hearn (bass) and Chuck Wild (keyboard). While this song is much lesser known that “Walking in L.A.”—which I still get asked about occasionally out here on the East Coast. . .”is it true?” . . .um, once and for all, “NO!”—I think it really captures a particular alternative New Wave sonic alterity that scholar, poet, and Highland Park native Wanda Alarcon describes in an SO! post entitled “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life” as having told her “there were options out there. . .and that was all I needed to survive—to save my queer soul.” Sometimes not knowing your destination can be truly liberatory.

  1. “Look Out Weekend” by Debbie Deb (single on Jam Packed Records, 1984) While the bad ass Deborah Claire Wesoff-Kowalski (known of course as Debbie Deb) was born in Brooklyn and raised in Miami, she is an honorary Angelena as far as I am concerned. Her music was the soundtrack to many an Aqua Net set as my friends and I teased our bangs to untold heights to hit Roller City 2001, or later to attempt to rule the dance floor (and work out our Riverside-ness) at Hollywood’s Florentine Gardens—a basketball gym-sized dance floor replete with go-go dancers, a taco bar on the patio, a dress-to-impress crowd and a broad spectrum of ground effects in the parking lot. We loved it so much we claimed the sound of Miami freestyle as “L.A. Disco.” To this day, when I throw on Deb at a party, I can’t help but smell Drakkar Noir and the scent of burning eyeliner pencils—well, how do you soften it to make your Cleopatra-eyes?. Then, as now, I used Deb’s pounding beat, synth stabs, and tough girl vocals to armor myself for life’s increasing challenges—to transform “Oh, what now?” into that world-famous and oh-so-necessary L.A. challenge “So now what?” And I thank her profusely for that.

  1. “West Coast Poplock” by Ronnie Hudson and the Street People (Single on HouseJam Records, 1982) In this multi-layered song by early Los Angeles B-Boys, Ronnie Hudson and the Street People, you can hear the echoes of earlier hits—lyrical shout outs to “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Gang (1979) and Zapp and Roger’s “So Ruff, So Tuff” (1981) as well as a killer hook borrowed from Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Bootleg” (1965)—and some really excellent futureshocks of the many L.A. acts to later sample it in songs like Mixmaster Spade and the Compton Posse’s “Genius is Back” (1988), N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” (1988), Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” (1992), and Tupac and Dr. Dre’s much beloved monster hit “California Love” (1994). But you can also listen for the way its soundscape takes you back to the days when pop-locking ruled the scene so hard that Ronnie Hudson made a special version called “East Coast Poplock” to take the moves created by Don Campbell, a commercial art student at L.A. Trade Tech, all the way to the other coast.

  1. “Make Ya Neck Lock” by Medusa and Feline Science (Undaground Crewed, Project Blowed, 2002). Another amazing fusion artist who should not be an LA-area secret,Medusa (also known as Baby NeNe, Triple Kahlua, Sister Monet, Medusa, Microfro, and that “cool-playa-pimp nigga Sean”)began her long Los Angeles reign as a 16 year old pop-locker with the Groove-Atrons and honed her rhyme talents at The Good Life Café (and later Project Blowed) in Leimert Park, along with Freestyle Fellowship,Yo Yo, J5 and the Pharcyde. Medusa, along with her live back-up band and hip hop crew Feline Science—which includes a DJ, drummer, bassist, keyboard, percussionist, guitar and background singers—has reigned supreme on the L.A. club circuit for many years, most famously transforming the Fais Do-Do on West Adams into her own personal queendom called “Nappy at the Roots”—a fecund female and queer-friendly performance space for innovative acts that fused musics from across the city like Quetzal, Wozani, and Burning Spear—where she always brought down the house. I can vouch—I was a devoted subject for all of the years I lived in L.A.

  1. “This Town” by Ceci Bastida with guest Tim Armstrong (Veo La Marea, EMI, 2008). Ceci Bastida has been an integral part of the transborder music culture circulating between Tijuana and Los Angeles since age 15, when she joined what would become one of the most classic Rock en Español bands, Tijuana NO!, as a singer, keyboardist and songwriter. While with TN!, Ceci collaborated with bands like Fishbone and Manu Chao. After leaving the band in 2000, she played with Julieta Venegas’s band for seven years, whereupon she started her solo turn, from which this track is taken, a bi-lingual, multi-genre revisioning of the Go-Go’s 1980s Valley soundscape, one that reminds listeners that the founder of the Go-Go’s was actually Chicana punk rocker Margot Olvarria (who was eventually kicked out of the group for refusing to conform to the band’s shift from punk aggression to power pop harmonies). I’ll forgive her the guesting by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, because I love this song so much, especially its movements from English to Spanish to Spanglish, its deft juxtapositions of sounds and musical styles, and the way it manages to be celebratory and confrontational all at once. It’s might be our town, but it’s still “so ruff, so tuff out here, baby.”

  1. “Here Comes the Sun” by Voodoo Glow Skulls (Who Is This Is?, Dr. Strange Records, 1994) Founded in La Sierra (an unincorporated area in Riverside County), Inland Empire Chicano punk-ska-metal band the Voodoo Glow Skulls have been at it since 1989. The “classic” line-up has a trio of brothers at its heart: Frank Casillas (Vocals), Eddie Casillas (Guitar) and Jorge Casillas (bass), with a pulse provided by Jerry O’Neill (drums), and the unique warped mariachi-1950s rock bop horn sounds provided by Joe McNally (trumpet), Joey Hernandez (sax), and Brodie Johnson (trombone). Confession: I have known Joe since elementary school and Brodie since he was a high school metal head and, even though I have some personal rough water under the bridge where VGS is concerned—an ex, and that’s all I will say about that—I haven’t stopped loving this song, a speeded-up Beatles cover that embodies the tensions, excitement, danger, and hope in California’s eternal promise of new beginnings. It’s rapid-fire chant calls to me now to remind me that “Little Girlie, it’s been so long since you been here.”

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Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief  for Sounding Out! She teaches African American literature and sound studies at Binghamton University and was a former Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (2011-2012). You can catch her full CV at stoeverackerman.com.

Featured image borrowed from Flickr user Daniel Orth.

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