Editor’s Note: Even though this is officially Osvaldo Oyola‘s final post as an SO! regular–his brilliant dissertation on Latino/a identity and collection cultures is calling–I refuse to say goodbye, perpetually leaving the door open for future encores. He has been a bold and steadfast contributor–peep his extensive back catalogue here–and we cannot thank him enough for bringing such a whipsmart presence to Sounding Out! over the years. Best of luck, OOO, our lighters are up for you!–J. Stoever-Ackerman, Editor-in-Chief
As several of my previous Sounding Out! Blog posts reveal, I am intrigued by the way popular music seeks to establish its authenticity to the listener. It seems that recorded popular music seeks out ways to overcome its lack of presence as compared to a live performance, where a unified and spontaneous sense of immediacy seems to automatically bestow the aura of the “authentic”—a uniqueness that, ironically, live reproducibility engenders. Throughout my time as a Sounding Out! regular, I have explored how authenticity may be conferred through artists affecting an accent as a form of musical style, comparing their songs to other “less authentic” forms of music through a call to nostalgia, or even by highlighting artificiality through use of auto-tune.
One of the ways that artists and producers get past a potential lack of authenticity when recording is through call outs to “liveness.” I am not referring to concert recordings (though there are ways that they can be used), but elements like counting off at the beginning of songs or introducing some change or movement in a song. There is no practical need to count off “One, two, three, four!” at the beginning of a recording of a song if it is being pieced together through multiple tracks and overdubs. These days a “click track” or adjustment post-recording can keep all the players in time even if not necessarily playing at once; even if a song is being recorded as a kind of studio jam, the count off could be edited out. It is an artifact of the creation, not a sign of creation itself. Instead, the counting can become an accepted and notable part of the song, like Sam the Sham and the Phaorahs performing “Wooly Bully,” giving it an orientation to time—the sense that all these musicians were present together and playing their instruments at once and needed this unique introduction to keep them all in tempo.
Similarly, sometimes artists call out to other musicians, giving instructions when no instructions are needed, assuming that most popular music is recorded in multiple takes using multiple tracks. In Parade‘s “Mountains,” Prince commands the Revolution, “guitars and drums on the one!” when clearly they had rehearsed when putting together the song, and ostensibly knew when the drum and guitar breakdown was coming up. Prince, furthermore, joins artists as varied as the Grateful Dead and the Beastie Boys in mixing concert recordings with studio overdubs to capture a “live” sound on songs like “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night” and “Alligator.” Even something as ubiquitous as guitar feedback is a transformation of an artifact of live performance into a sound available for use in recording—something that was purposefully avoided until John Lennon’s happy accident when in the studio to cut “I Feel Fine.” Until then, playing with feedback was a way to demonstrate performance skills through onstage vamping.
These varied calls to liveness provide a sense of authenticity to music made via the recording studio, denoting what I understand as the spontaneous sociability of music. Count-offs and studio shout-outs provide a sense of unified presence to a performance, especially if the performance has actually been constructed piecemeal and over time. This is something of a remnant of an old-fashioned notion that recorded music is measured in quality in comparison to live performance. It’s any idea that hung around both implicitly and explicitly long after bands started experimenting in the studio with effects that ranged from the difficult to the impossible to replicate on stage, and reinforced through recordings by performers who purposefully referenced their lauded live performances.
For example, James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” is built on this conceit. The entire song is a conversation, a call and response between James Brown and his band, the J.B.’s. From the opening line, Brown introduces the song as moment in time in which he is compelled to do his thing, but he demands both encouragement and cooperation from the band in order to achieve it. When Brown asks Bobby Byrd, “Bobby! Should I take ’em to the bridge?” we as listeners are invited to play along with the idea that it has suddenly came into his head to have the band play the bridge—as it might’ve happened (and thus been practiced) countless times in his legendary live shows. It suggests a form of spontaneity that the reality of recording would otherwise drain from the song. Sure, according to RJ Smith’s The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (2012), “Get Up” was recorded in only two takes–already fairly amazing–but the very nature of the song makes it sound like it was recorded in one, even if it had to be broken up into two sides of a 7-inch. That reality doesn’t matter—what matters when listening is the feeling that we, as listeners, are being allowed to partake in the capturing of what seems like one unique, and continuous, moment.
The question then arises: What about recorded music that does the opposite, that makes a point of highlighting its artificial construct—the impossibility of its spontaneous performance? While there are examples that date back at least to the 1960s, does this shift highlight a difference in aesthetic concerns by the pop music audience? If calls to “liveness” suggest a spontaneous sociability to music, what do the meta references to their songcraft suggest about what is important to music now?
The classic example is Ringo Starr’s bellow, “I GOT BLISTERS ON MY FINGERS!” at the end of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” an exclamation made after umpteen takes of the song recorded on the same day, but there are more contemporary and even more obvious examples. Near the end of Outkast’s “Prototype,” (at 4:21) Andre 3000 can be heard talking to his sound engineer John Frye about the ad libs, “Hey, hey John! Are we recording our ad libs? Really? Were we recording just then? Let me hear that, that first one. . .” There is an interesting tension here between the spontaneity of an “ad lib” and listening back to pick the best one or further develop one when re-recording, and Andre in his role as producer decided to keep it in as part of the final product. The recording itself becomes part of the subject of the song as a kind of coda. The banter is actually a brilliant parallel to the content of the song, which undermines the typical “we’ll be together forever” love song trope for one that highlights the reality of serial monogamy common in American culture and lessons each relationship potentially provides us for the next. Rather than pretend that a romantic relationship is a unique and eternal thing, the song admits the work and changes involved, just as it admits that the seemingly special spontaneity of a song is developed through a process.
Of course, hip hop as a genre, with its frequent use of sampling, tends to make its recording process very evident. While it is possible to play samples “live” using a digital sampler or isolating sections on vinyl via the DJ as band member, the use of pre-recorded fragments means that rap music relies on the vocal dynamics of rap to carry the sense of spontaneity. Yet, in 1993’s “Higher Level,” KRS-One opens with a description of the time and place of the recording—“5 o’clock in the morning” at “D&D Studios,” establishing forever when and where and thus how the recording is happening. Five o’clock in the morning places the creation of the song with a context of working and rocking all through the night to get the album completed. The song may or may not have actually been recorded last, but its placement at the end of Return of the Boom Bap, gives it a sense of a last ditch effort to complete the collection of songs. The fact that “5 o’clock in the morning” is likely also among the cheapest available studio times potentially highlights budgetary concerns in the recording itself. This is a rare thing to include in recording, though the Brand New Heavies cap off the dissolution of their 1994 track “Fake” into pseudo-jazz-messing-around with one their members chiding, “a thousand dollar a day studio!” This is a different kind of call to authenticity, as a budgetary concern is an implicit to a “realness” defined by being non-commercial.
One of my all-time favorite examples is a few years older than “Higher Level”—“Nervous” by Boogie Down Production: “written, produced and directed by Blastmaster KRS-One,” which includes an attempt to explain how a song is put together on the “48-track board.” Instead of calling instructions to a band, KRS points out that DJ Doc is doing the mixing and instructs him to “break it down, Doc!” just before a beat breakdown (listen at around 1:40). He explains, “Now, here’s what we do on the 48-track board / We look around for the best possible break / And once we find it, we just BREAK,” and then the pre-recorded beat seems to obey his command, breaking down to just the bass drum and a sampled electric piano from Rhythm Heritage’s “The Sky’s the Limit.” Later, he says, “We find track seven, and break it down!” and the music shifts to just the bass guitar and some tinny synth high-hats.
So how does highlighting the recording circumstances, or just bringing attention to the fact that the song being listened to is a multiple-step process of recording and post-production benefit the song itself? Is it like I mentioned in my 2011 “Defense of Auto-Tune” post, that this kind of attention re-establishes authenticity by making its constructed nature transparent? I’d say yes, in part, but I also think that–through its violation of the expectation of seamlessness–the stray track or reference to recording within a song is a nod to a different kind of skillfulness. Exhortations such as “Take it to the Bridge” give an ironic nod to the extemporaneous to call attention to the diligent workmanship and dedication demanded by studio songcraft. Traditionally, live audiences may appreciate a flawless or nearly flawless performance and understand a masterful recovery from (and/or incorporation of) error as the signs of a good show, but, these moments that call attention to the recording studio situation claim there something to appreciate in the fact that Ringo Starr endured 18 takes of “Helter Skelter” until he had painful blisters, or that KRS-One and DJ Doc worked out the proper way to “feel around” the mixing board to make a grooving collage of sounds as disparate as the theme from “Rat Patrol” and WAR’s “Galaxy.”
KRS may have once admonished other MCs to “make sure live you is a dope rhyme-sayer,” but clearly he believes liveness—whether implicitly or explicitly—is not the only measure of musical ability. Rather, the highlighting of labor in the construction of a recording becomes its own kind of (anti-)vamping and demonstration of skill, and of a different kind of sociability in making music that these conversational snippets and references to other people in the studio make clear. This kind of attention to the group labor is especially important as various recording technologies become increasingly available to the wider public and allow for an isolated pursuit of recording music. Just as calls to liveness in recording engage the listener in ways that suggest participation as a live audience, calls to anti-liveness also engage the listener, but by bringing them across time and space into the studio to witness to a different form of great performance.
Osvaldo Oyola is a regular contributor to Sounding Out! and a PhD Candidate in English at Binghamton University working on his dissertation, “Collecting Identity: Popular Culture and Narratives of Afro-Latin Self in Transnational America.” He also regularly posts brief(ish) thoughts on music and comics on his blog, The Middle Spaces.
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Experiments in Agent-based Sonic Composition–Andreas Pape
Being a teacher, I can’t resist giving out a summer reading list. Being a researcher, I can’t help but want to share the projects that I am working on–which right now includes excavating the cultural history of the magnetic tape recorder in the United States. So, in honor of the Summer Solstice tomorrow (marking the official start of the season) I compiled a three-part summer series for Sounding Out! that does both: “Play it Again (and Again) Sam: The Tape Recorder in Film.”
My summer sound studies A-V list encourages you to fill your idle hours watching the “top 6” featured appearances of the magnetic tape recorder in film, in chronological order (2 each month, with a bonus “supporting role” nod rounding out each post). Not only will “Play it Again (And Again) Sam” help you beef up your cinema buff credentials, but it will trace a little-known history, asking you to consider how the recorder tangled its thin brown plastic tape so effectively into the warp and weft of our twentieth-century lives. You’ll find that my “top 6” list reveals much more human desire than technological determinism; the representations I examine express a complex mixture of fear and fascination, optimism and regret, change and stasis. Often a tool of the powerful, sometimes a weapon of the weak, the tape recorder was a cold war domestic product that could never truly be domesticated. As you will see in this spoiler-free three part series, interactions with the tape recorder remixed America’s workplaces, schools, homes, public spaces and private moments, ultimately shifting how the world was heard (and heard again and again).
So, load up your Netflix queue, shake up your Jiffy Pop, and take a much-needed couch-break from the heat and humidity with these oh-so-cool black-and-whites from the 1940s and 1950s. Of course, we can’t start our films without some “Coming Attractions”: look for part two on July 18th (spotlight on Walter Murch) and part three (the 1980s) on August 15th.
1. Double Indemnity (Paramount, 1944, Directed by Billy Wilder)
Okay, so it is actually a dictaphone that appears in this film and the tormented insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurry) is “putting it on wax” rather than magnetic tape, but this once ubiquitous, now long forgotten recording device has such a haunting presence and a structuring role in this grim noir confessional that, like Neff himself, I am suddenly willing to break my own rules. Outside of femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson’s (Barbara Stanwyck) elaborately sculptured coiffure, the key image of Double Indemnity is Neff’s lips murmuring his murderous late night confessions into the dictaphone’s horn, a physical and metaphorical stand in for the ear of his hardnosed boss (and the true object of his desire) claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson).
The dictaphone was Billy Wilder (director/screenwriter) and Raymond Chandler’s (screenwriter) deliberate addition to the filmscript; James M. Cain’s 1943 novella was essentially Neff’s scrawled confession to the reader of his almost-perfect plot to kill Phyllis’s husband and reap double insurance rewards. The introduction of the dictaphone transformed the standard noir flashback voiceover into an even-more intimate exchange of anxious aspiration, guilty pleasure, and homosocial desire channeled through Neff’s tense vocal grain and fierce grip on the machine’s cord. A familiar office machine made strange by Neff’s late-night admissions, the dictaphone mediates the entire film, transforming the audience into eavesdroppers, listening in to an act of recording made for Keyes’s ears only. After stumbling into his office and jamming a cylinder into the machine, Neff begins, sternly: “Office memorandum. ‘Walter Neff to Barton Keyes, Claims Manager, Los Angeles, July 16, 1938. Dear Keyes: I suppose you’ll call this a confession when you hear it. Well, I don’t like the word ‘confession.’ I just want to set you right about something you couldn’t see because it was smack up against your nose.” Sound, in the form of Neff’s heated breath pressed through the dictaphone’s curves and into our waiting ears, is the perfect device to exorcise the unseen desire in a film that tests the boundaries of darkness.
2. Blackboard Jungle (MGM, 1955, Directed by Richard Brooks)
Most people remember Blackboard Jungle for its seductive visual representations of juvenile delinquency, stoked by the sound of Bill Haley and the Comet’s “Rock Around the Clock,” the 1952 song that opened and closed the film (and became a smash hit as a result, as I discussed in a previous archival blog post here). I’d like to add an often-overlooked image to the film’s legacy, that of teacher Mr. Dadier (Glenn Ford) plunking a bulky case down on his desk and triumphantly announcing “This is a tape recorder!” A cutting edge device at the time—magnetic tape was only introduced in the states after World War II, largely through the efforts of Bing Crosby and Les Paul—Dadier’s recorder is part and parcel of the technological milieu of the 1950s, which evoked positivistic fascination with “progress” even as it was shaped by existent fears and inequalities.
At the point of almost giving up on his surly working class, ethnic, inner-city students to seek a cushy job in the segregated suburbs, Dadier brings in the reel-to-reel as a Hail Mary attempt to quell his students’ noise and remake them into good Cold War citizens once and for all. As he tells them, “We all talk, but nobody listens.” From the moment he enters the classroom, the students continue to defy the white male authority embodied in Dadier and housed in his machine—“Did you bring your cosmetics to school, Chief?” taunts one student (Gregory Miller, played by Sydney Poitier)—and they undermine his assignment by selecting the “noisiest” student in the class to make a recording: Puerto Rican Student Pete Morales. As I have discussed on this blog and in print, the concept of “noise” has a racialized edge, particularly in the 1950s, when Cold War cosmologies of colorblindness and “enemies within” ruled the day. Sound was an efficient way to separate “Us” from “them”—the noisy dissident from the quiet citizen—without making explicit reference to visual markers of race. And, let me tell you, Morales’s obscene, heavily-accented speech—peppered with “stinkin’”s, 14 of them in total—really makes Dadier’s spools spin. To hear more on the tape recorder in 1950’s American life and this film, see my essay “Reproducing U.S. Citizenship in a Blackboard Jungle: Race, Cold War Liberalism and the Tape Recorder” forthcoming in the American Quarterly special issue on sound (September 2011).
And. . .in a supporting role:
Kiss Me Deadly (Parklane Pictures, 1955, Directed by Robert Aldrich)
The byzantine stairwalks and gingerbread Victorians of Los Angeles’s defunct Bunker Hill neighborhood are not the only ghosts you will encounter in the noir classic Kiss Me Deadly. Our first glimpse of Mike Hammer’s (Ralph Meeker) space-age Wilshire Boulevard bachelor pad includes a shot of his wall mounted, reel-to-reel answering machine, quite a technological marvel in 1955; it would be over 15 years before Phone Mate introduced the first commercially viable home model in 1971. His recorder manages to look both ridiculously large yet streamlined–and to twenty-first century audiences, old yet futuristic. However, it also allows the hunted, haunted private detective to take just a little more control of his tailspin of a life. After the jarring ring of a telephone call, the spools spin, and a sultry female voice intones: “This is Crestview 5-4124. Mister Hammer, whom you are calling, is not available at present. If you wish to leave a record of your call, please state your message at the sound of the tone.” His back inevitably against the wall, Hammer brings a suave tension to an act that has now become mundane: call screening. Removing the small surprise of who’s on the line, Hammer uses his recorder to listen just a step ahead, pacing an increasingly mysterious world given over to the dangerous riddle of the “whatsit” that leaves so many in the morgue by the film’s end. For a more general take on sound in this film (with a brief mention of Mike Hammer’s tape recorder), see Noira-Blanchè-Rougi’s November 2009 blog post, “The Use of Sound in Kiss Me Deadly.”