In contrast to the first post in the series by Mark Davidson, which looked at how we have branded Alan Lomax, Parker Fishel‘s post considers how Alan Lomax fashioned himself—as both a collector and a publisher of other peoples’ music. The complexity of this task is inherent in the social and political ramifications of “saving” sound by making it “ours,” both in terms of singular ownership of singular recordings that had previously “belonged” to a community as well as the extent to which this practice brought these sounds to the wider culture.
Here, Fishel invites the reader to consider this complicated history that surrounds collecting and copyrighting folk music, what (and whom) the practice has excluded as well current performers who have been inspired by this preservation of our sound culture to perpetuate the practice: making it “theirs” and “ours” once again.
— Guest Editor Tanya Clement
The more one listens, views, and reads the work of pioneering folklorist Alan Lomax, the more inscrutable it becomes. Even if we set aside the sheer size and diversity of his collection, we are still left with a set of materials that eludes easy interpretation. Too mainstream for the academics and too academic for the mainstream, Lomax’s defiant, passionate quest to bridge the two worlds pioneered the study of sound as an embodiment of social and community dynamics. Yet in promoting American vernacular culture, Lomax also fashioned himself a folk hero, leaving us a legacy where the collector threatens to overshadow the collection. As arguably the world’s most famous folklorist, Lomax is responsible for much of the sound understood as authentic Americana.
Consider one vignette of many: the “Southern Journey,” a 1959-1960 recording trip that Alan Lomax undertook with Shirley Collins throughout Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. A world unto itself, the story of the Southern Journey reveals how these tensions shaped Lomax’s work and, to an extent, our understanding of a national cultural heritage.
To begin with, the Southern Journey sounded different than previous collecting trips due to the technological sophistication of the field recording set-up. Starting with a 1933 trip accompanying his father John A. Lomax, Alan Lomax’s previous recording expeditions in the South had relied first on Edison cylinders and then on disc-based recorders that had particular weaknesses in terms of fidelity. Surface noise obfuscated certain frequencies and reminded the listener that his or her experience was mediated. During the Southern Journey though, open reel magnetic tape, excellent microphones, and a mixer were employed to make what Lomax, in his tendency towards self-aggrandizement, claimed to be the “first” stereo field recordings in the South. Whatever the reality, the recordings were early efforts to use stereo in the service of field recording to capture more detail and nuance of a performance and its context.
Writing of the opportunity stereo presented for folklore, Lomax noted that “Folk music which, in its natural setting, is meant to be heard in the round, comes into its own with multi-dimensionality, for more than concert music, designed to project from the stage into an auditorium.” According to this reasoning, a good recording in stereo is more inclusive, grounding the listener’s position inside the soundscape of folklore’s community-based practice.
Yet, by nature folklore recordings have certain limitations. As jazz record producer Orrin Keepnews noted, “Our job is to create what is best described as ‘realism’ — the impression and effect of being real — which may be very different from plain unadorned reality.” This murky dividing line is problematic in the context of ethnographic documentation. In the case of Alan Lomax, it’s further complicated by multiple motivations and goals that transform this line into a shifting set of markers.
Luckily, through diligent scholarship and Lomax’s own documentation, we are fairly aware of how this “realism” tension shaped his recordings in real-time performance and its public reception. Lomax sometimes auditioned performers when arriving in a new area; his book The Land Where The Blues Began (in part an reconstruction of the Southern Journey) was written 30-plus years after the fact from memory and a few scribbled notes on the back of tape boxes. However this knowledge impacts the supposed reality of the field recordings, it would be a mistake to reduce the extensive documentation of Lomax’s decision-making process to debunking. Rather, it is an aid for understanding what we’re hearing. By accounting for ethnographic and popularizing tendencies, what is really being developed is a guide for critical listening.
Part of that involved bringing in the recording industry. Starting with the 1939 Musicraft release of Leadbelly performances on 78-RPM discs, Lomax consistently used record companies as one means of bringing folklore to a wider audience. Commenting on the flurry of activity that accompanied Lomax’s 1959 return to the United States after nearly a decade abroad, noted folklorist Roger Abrahams commented, “To this writer it would appear that Mr. Lomax stayed up nights thinking of ways to sell folk-things to publishers, record companies, etc., ergo to the public.”
The Southern Journey was one such project, bankrolled by Atlantic Records. From nearly 80 hours of recorded material, Lomax curated two sets of releases in 1960, a seven LP Atlantic Records collection named the “Southern Folk Heritage Series” and the 12-LP “Southern Journey” series for Prestige International. In notes for reissues of the Atlantic set, Lomax admitted, “The set reflects, to some extent, what the Erteguns [Ahmet and Nesuhi, founders of Atlantic] felt might best reach their pop audience.” Examining how these recordings became canonical is to look at how new modes of cultural transmission affected folklore traditions.
We can hear another tension being negotiated in the way Lomax celebrated performances, which today justly rank alongside those of the Great American Songbook. Yet, to see them that way negates the core strengths of folklore: flexibility to situation and contingency to community. In the field, Lomax asserted that “every performance is original, a fresh and intentionally varied re-creation or rearrangement of a piece.” At the same moment, however, Americanizing processes were transforming these flexible local improvisatory practices into fixed inscriptions of national character. With his public visibility and prestige, the pieces in Lomax’s books and records carried weight as definitive versions – claims Lomax perpetuated in order to unify some of his cultural theories. (It also didn’t hurt that the practice of early folklorists was to copyright these compositions, giving them a financial stake in perpetuating those performances as examples of exceptionalism.) As a result, the public adopted a set of arbitrary songs and sounds as markers of authenticity.
These concerns remain important in the music’s continuing, living traditions. Groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops or The Ebony Hillbillies perform the full, eclectic spectrum of early African-American string and jug bands traditions. While Jerron ‘Blind Boy’ Paxton forges similar terrain using the African-American songster and blues singer as a model, Frank Fairfield addresses Anglo-American folk traditions. All of these projects remind listeners of the arbitrary divisions of authenticity forced on musicians practices by the race recording industry, which partitioned sounds as white and black and led to our modern taxonomy of genres. These performers use folklore to expose parts of the under-documented past, re-appropriating musical styles and often re-creating that world through the adoption of early 20th century language, clothes, and mannerisms.
Other contemporary performers handle these issues differently. Megafaun, Fight The Big Bull, and Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver) form the nucleus of Sounds of the South, a “loving reinterpretation of the sound, structure, lyrics, and spirit” of the Southern Journey recordings. Engaging both the African-American and Anglo-American traditions documented on that trip, the group finds its sound in their overlap. This a space shaped in part by the popularizing processes Lomax set in motion, a space where generations of listeners have been introduced to Mississippi Fred McDowell through a Rolling Stones cover. Approaching the music from this perspective and not from the background of a Forest City Joe or an Almeda Riddle, authenticity necessarily exists in a different realm: re-interpretation. The resulting arrangements, such as that of Estil C. Ball’s sacred composition “Tribulations,” give one illustration of how these dynamics play out sonically within the world of folklore and music that Lomax left behind.
For this particular piece, the words and melody of Ball’s “terrifying meditation on the end of days” are kept as links to the original recording. This frees the ensemble to follow its muse into the musical landscapes of the intervening 50-plus years, shaped as they were by the introduction of the vernacular into the mainstream (and vice versa). Ball’s melody evokes an archetype, the high lonesome sound of Appalachia; a trope it inspired in the first place. Yet, in this cultural confluence, there is also space for something like Matthew E. White’s soul-influenced electric guitar. In introducing of a style, tradition, and sound beyond the original recording, a color line is crossed that, while maybe not explicitly heard, was certainly present in the Jim Crow context of the Southern Journey. For Sounds of the South, authenticity exists beyond mere re-creation.
What might Lomax’s reaction to the Sounds of the South project be? Reflecting on the 1960s folk scene, Lomax wrote, “The American city folk singer, because he got his songs from books or other city singers, has generally not been aware of the singing style or the emotional content of the folk songs, as they exist in tradition.” On the other hand, Lomax might be heartened that many, whether cultural heritage institutions or record labels, are following in the footsteps of his own Association for Cultural Equity. Working on the scale that digital resources facilitate, these organizations are providing access to field recordings and their context in ways never before possible. (What remains to be seen is how this might impact the process of codification discussed above.)
In another way, the Sounds of the South marks a return to tradition. While the Southern Journey recordings are the primary inspiration, Sounds of the South member Joe Westerlund describes the project as something larger: “We wanted to include everything that we’re into, not just the traditional folk music that’s on this box set…We’re doing our whole experience as musicians.” That experience involves collaboration with folk artists like the Blind Boys of Alabama and Alice Gerrard, as well as investment in their local cultural communities of Durham, NC, Richmond, VA, and Eau Claire, WI.
Lomax’s pedagogy of folklore situates authenticity as a function of these very types of activities. “Folk song lives in a rather mysterious world close to the heart of the human community and it is only through extended and serious contact with living folk traditions that it can be understood.” The particular tradition in which one participates makes little difference; rather emphasis is on the process of engagement and contact, which replicate older patterns of folklore transmission. So even if Lomax may have claimed there was a bit too much bel canto to suit his tastes, one can imagine his appreciation for Sounds of the South’s dedication to the meaning and spirit of the music.
Considering Alan Lomax, his work, and his legacy is a complex and often frustrating enterprise. Yet amidst parts that give us pause, there remain bits of enduring wisdom. Addressing a gathering of folklorists, Lomax asserted that “Underneath we are all morally, emotionally and esthetically involved with our material, and so all of us are artists and cultural workers, and there is no escape from that.”
Few of us devote ourselves to this kind of music (or any kind of music for that matter) as a detached academic exercise. It can take an example of the living tradition like Sounds of the South looking backwards and forwards to remind us of the full scope of our responsibilities. I can’t think of any more fitting tribute on the occasion of his centenary than to re-commit ourselves not to Alan Lomax, but to what caught his ear in the first place: the transcendent experience of sound.
Parker Fishel is an archivist, writer, and researcher living in Brooklyn, New York. Presently he is the archivist at Grey Water Park Productions and an occasional DJ on WKCR-FM. As co-founder of Americana Music Productions, Parker is the producer of a forthcoming set of music, photographs, and scholarship documenting the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival. He is also at work on Georgia Griot, a bio-discography of jazz musician Marion Brown. While getting an MSIS from the University of Texas at Austin, Parker worked with the UT Folklore Center Archives and the John Avery Lomax Family Papers at the Briscoe Center for American History.
Featured image: “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender” by Flickr user Bee Collins, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
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“Ain’t Got the Same Soul” — Osvaldo Oyola
Six Years in Nodar: Sound Art in a Rural Context — Rui Costa
EDITOR’S NOTE: This post, a personal essay concerning an endangered archive of radio recordings in Detroit by University of Michigan Professor Derek Vaillant, has been temporarily embargoed due to a security concern regarding a specific location discussed in the post. It will be restored as soon as possible, with additional details from the author. — Special Editor Neil Verma
Welcome to our new series Sculpting the Film Soundtrack, which brings you new perspectives on sound and filmmaking. As Guest Editor, we’re honored and delighted to have Katherine Spring, Associate Professor of Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. Spring is the author of an exciting and important new book Saying it With Songs: Popular Music and the Coming of Sound to Hollywood Cinema. Read it! You’ll find an impeccably researched work that’s the definition of how the history of film sound and media convergence ought to be written.
But before rushing back to the early days, stick around here on SO! for the first of our three installments in Sculpting the Film Soundtrack.
It’s been 35 years since film editor and sound designer Walter Murch used the sounds of whirring helicopter blades in place of an orchestral string section in Apocalypse Now, in essence blurring the boundary between two core components of the movie soundtrack: music and sound effects. This blog series explores other ways in which filmmakers have treated the soundtrack as a holistic entity, one in which the traditional divisions between music, effects, and speech have been disrupted in the name of sculpting innovative sonic textures.
In three entries, Benjamin Wright, Danijela Kulezic-Wilson, and Randolph Jordan will examine the integrated soundtrack from a variety of perspectives, including technology, labor, aesthetic practice, theoretical frameworks, and suggest that the dissolution of the boundaries between soundtrack categories can prompt us to apprehend film sound in new ways. If, as Murch himself once said, “Listening to interestingly arranged sounds makes you hear differently,” then the time is ripe for considering how and what we might hear across the softening edges of the film soundtrack.
– Guest Editor Katherine Spring
Composing a sound world for Man of Steel (2013), Zack Snyder’s recent Superman reboot, had Hans Zimmer thinking about telephone wires stretching across the plains of Clark Kent’s boyhood home in Smallville. “What would that sound like,” he said in an interview last year. “That wind making those telephone wires buzz – how could I write a piece of music out of that?” The answer, as it turned out, was not blowing in the wind, but sliding up and down the scale of a pedal steel guitar, the twangy lap instruments of country music. In recording sessions, Zimmer instructed a group of pedal steel players to experiment with sustains, reverb, and pitches that, when mixed into the final track, accompany Superman leaping over tall buildings at a single bound.
His work on Man of Steel, just one of his most recent films in a long and celebrated career, exemplifies his unique take on composing for cinema. “I would have been just as happy being a recording engineer as a composer,” remarked Zimmer last year in an interview to commemorate the release of a percussion library he created in collaboration with Spitfire Audio, a British sample library developer. “Sometimes it’s very difficult to stop me from mangling sounds, engineering, and doing any of those things, and actually getting me to sit down and write the notes.” Dubbed the “HZ01 London Ensembles,” the library consists of a collection of percussion recordings featuring many of the same musicians who have performed for Zimmer’s film scores, playing everything from tamtams to taikos, buckets to bombos, timpani to anvils. According to Spitfire’s founders, the library recreates Zimmer’s approach to percussion recording by offering a “distillation of a decade’s worth of musical experimentation and innovation.”
In many ways, the collection is a reminder not just of the influence of Zimmer’s work on contemporary film, television, and video game composers but also of his distinctive approach to film scoring, one that emphasizes sonic experimentation and innovation. Having spent the early part of his career as a synth programmer and keyboardist for new wave bands such as The Buggles and Ultravox, then as a protégé of English film composer Stanley Myers, Zimmer has cultivated a hybrid electronic-orchestral aesthetic that uses a range of analog and digital oscillators, filters, and amplifiers to twist and augment solo instrument samples into a synthesized whole.
Zimmer played backup keyboards on “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
In a very short time, Zimmer has become a dominant voice in contemporary film music with a sound that blends melody with dissonance and electronic minimalism with rock and roll percussion. His early Hollywood successes, Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Days of Thunder (1990), combined catchy themes and electronic passages with propulsive rhythms, while his score for Black Rain (1989), which featured taiko drums, electronic percussion, and driving ostinatos, laid the groundwork for an altogether new kind of action film score, one that Zimmer refined over the next two decades on projects such as The Rock (1996), Gladiator (2000), and The Pirates of the Caribbean series.
What is especially intriguing about Zimmer’s sound is the way in which he combines the traditional role of the composer, who fashions scores around distinct melodies (or “leitmotifs”), with that of the recording engineer, who focuses on sculpting sounds. Zimmer may not be the first person in the film business to experiment with synthesized tones and electronic arrangements – you’d have to credit Bebe and Louis Barron (Forbidden Planet, 1956), Vangelis (Chariots of Fire, 1981), Jerry Goldsmith (Logan’s Run, 1976), and Giorgio Moroder (Midnight Express, 1981) for pushing that envelope – but he has turned modern film composing into an engineering art, something that few other film composers can claim.
One thing that separates Zimmer’s working method from that of other composers is that he does not confine himself to pen and paper, or even keyboard and computer monitor. Instead, he invites musicians to his studio or a sound stage for an impromptu jam session to find and hone the musical syntax of a project. Afterwards, he returns to his studio and uses the raw samples from the sessions to compose the rest of the score, in much the same way that a recording engineer creates the architecture of a sound mix.
“There is something about that collaborative process that happens in music all the time,” Zimmer told an interviewer in 2010. “That thing that can only happen with eye contact and when people are in the same room and they start making music and they are fiercely dependent on each other. They cannot sound good without the other person’s part.”
Zimmer facilitates the social and aesthetic contours of these off-the-cuff performances and later sculpts the samples into the larger fabric of a score. In most cases, these partnerships have provided the equivalent of a pop hook to much of Zimmer’s output: Lebo M’s opening vocal in The Lion King (1994), Johnny Marr’s reverb-heavy guitar licks in Inception, Lisa Gerrard’s ethereal vocals in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down (2002), and the recent contributions of the so-called “Magnificent Six” musicians to The Amazing Spider Man 2 (2014).
The melodic hooks are simple but infectious – even Zimmer admits he writes “stupidly simple music” that can often be played with one finger on the piano. But what matters most are the colors that frame those notes and the performances that imbue those simple melodies with a personality. Zimmer’s work on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy revolves around a deceptively simple rising two-note motif that often signifies the presence of the caped crusader, but the pounding taiko hits and bleeding brass figures that surround it do as much to conjure up images of Gotham City as cinematographer Wally Pfister’s neo-noir photography. The heroic aspects of the Batman character are muted in Zimmer’s score except for the presence of the expansive brass figures and taiko hits, which reach an operatic crescendo in the finale, where the image of Batman escaping into the blinding light of the city is accompanied by a grand statement of the two-note figure backed by a driving string ostinato. Throughout the series, a string ostinato and taikos set the pace for action sequences and hint at the presence of Batman who lies somewhere in the shadows of Gotham.
Zimmer’s expressive treatment of musical colors also characterizes his engineering practices, which are more commonly used in the recording industry. Music scholar Paul Théberge has noted that the recording engineer’s interest in an aesthetic of recorded musical “sound” led to an increased demand for control over the recording process, especially in the early days of multitrack rock recording where overdubbing created a separate, hierarchical space for solo instruments. Likewise for Zimmer, it’s not just about capturing individual sounds from an orchestra but also layering them into a synthesized product. Zimmer is also interested in experimenting with acoustic performances, pushing musicians to play their instruments in unconventional ways or playing his notes “the wrong way,” as he demonstrates here in the making of the Joker’s theme from The Dark Knight:
The significance of the cooperative aspects of these musical performances and their treatment as musical “colors” to be modulated, tweaked, and polished rests on a paradoxical treatment of sound. While he often finds his sound world among the wrong notes, mistakes, and impromptu performances of world musicians, Zimmer is also often criticized for removing traces of an original performance by obscuring it with synth drones and distortion. In some cases, like in The Peacemaker (1997), the orchestration is mushy and sounds overly processed. But in other cases, the trace of a solo performance can constitute a thematic motif in the same way that a melody serves to identify place, space, or character in classical film music. Compare, for instance, Danny Elfman’s opening title theme for Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Zimmer’s opening title music for The Dark Knight. While Elfman creates a suite of themes around a central Batman motif, Zimmer builds a sparse sound world that introduces a sustained note on the electric cello that will eventually be identified with the Joker. It’s the timbre of the cello, not its melody, that carries its identifying features.
To texture the sounds in Man of Steel, Zimmer also commissioned Chas Smith, a Los Angeles-based composer, performer, and exotic instrument designer to construct instruments from “junk” objects Smith found around the city that could be played with a bow or by hand while also functioning as metal art works. The highly abstract designs carry names that give some hint to their origins – “Bertoia 718” named after modern sculptor and furniture designer Harry Bertoia; “Copper Box” named for the copper rods that comprise its design; and “Tin Sheet” that, when prodded, sounds like futuristic thunderclaps.
Smith’s performances of his exotic instruments are woven into the fabric of the score, providing it with a sort of musical sound design. Consider General Zod’s suite of themes and motifs, titled “Arcade” on the 2-disc version of the soundtrack. The motif is built around a call-and-answer ostinato for strings and brass that is interrupted by Smith’s sculptural dissonance. It’s the sound of an otherworldly menace, organic but processed, sculpted into a conventional motif-driven sound world.
Zimmer remains a fixture in contemporary film music partly because, as music critic Jon Burlingame has pointed out, he has a relentless desire to search for fresh approaches to a film’s musical landscape. This pursuit begins with his extracting of sounds and colors from live performances and electronically engineering them during the scoring process. Such heightened attention to sound texture and color motivated the creation of the Spitfire percussion library, but can only hint at the experimentation and improvisational nature that goes into Zimmer’s work. In each of his film scores, the music tells a story that is tailored to the demands of the narrative, but the sounds reveal Zimmer’s urge to manipulate sound samples until they are, in his own words, “polished like a diamond.”
Ben Wright holds a Provost Postdoctoral Fellowship from the University of Southern California in the School of Cinematic Arts. In 2011, he received his Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art and Culture at Carleton University. His research focuses on the study of production cultures, especially exploring the industrial, social, and technological effects of labor structures within the American film industry. His work on production culture, film sound and music, and screen comedy has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. He is currently completing a manuscript on the history of contemporary sound production, titled Hearing Hollywood: Art, Industry, and Labor in Hollywood Film Sound.
All images creative commons.
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Welcome back to Start a Band, our two-part series on Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, focusing on what the band’s sonic provocations mean for sound studies today. Last week, we heard from Jake Smith, who introduced us to a way of thinking about the Velvets that emphasized the “haptic” qualities that emerge so often while listening to them. Following that idea, Smith took us on a kind of journey from the skin to the musculature and the viscera through a deep analysis of key songs in their catalog — “This is your body on the Velvet Underground.”
This week, we’re delighted to welcome to Sounding Out! a writer whose work we’ve been eager to feature for a long while — Tim Anderson, Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University. Tim has written extensively on popular music and sound, and is currently a leader of the Sound Studies Scholarly Interest Group at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, one of the scholarly groups associated with the SO! Thursday stream. It’s such a pleasure to present this sensitive and personal account of the Velvet Underground — and of learning to listen.
Reports of Lou Reed’s death came on a Sunday. Even though he was 71, it was still a shock. To many present-day friends and colleagues Reed’s Velvet Underground are a band that they understand are important, but just don’t get. In the case of an artist like Lou Reed, an artist who never had a top ten charting single and only two gold albums, you could see their point.
Still, I obsessed. Rattled from my travels in Washington, DC, I called my wife and we talked about his music for about an hour or so, after which I took a long walk to the Washington Mall. It was a sunny fall day, October 27, 2013, and I walked past the Smithsonian with its prominent memorials, such a clean space for so much past, some of which the nation has buried and some of which we don’t even bother to think about. The deceased have always done the most important work in our nation’s capital.
The day after, I really don’t remember doing much. I took a train home, read everything I could online about Reed, and thought a lot about his records. The ones I liked —New York and The Blue Mask—the ones I learned to like —it took me years to enjoy Transformer—and the ones I loved —The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light, White Heat, The Velvet Underground and VU. Those four records, more than any records I can remember, altered me, many of my friends in my teens and in college, and almost every rock musician I admired in the 1980s. Velvet Underground records were simply foundational. Writing about Reed’s death, rock critic Greg Kot summed up the Velvet’s influence by claiming that they were “as influential as The Beatles” and if you named “just about any left-of-centre band or artist since the ‘70s”, some of whom like R.E.M., U2 and Talking Heads “became mainstream giants”all of them would “acknowledge a deep debt to the Velvet Underground.”
This influence is the reason that the collective mourning of such a marginally popular figure swelled to such a crescendo. However, to paraphrase the words of one of Reed’s most storied rivals, Lester Bangs, on the death of John Lennon, this was not the mourning of a person. Most of us never met Lou Reed. Instead, we were mourning ourselves. To lose Lou Reed was tantamount to losing the author of a proverbial urtext of a kind of secret rock language that has been passed down since the late 1960s on how to be cool. It was a language of composed of style, gestures, and reactions. It was one that was filled with a fun that was not of the obligatory “hey-dude-let’s-party!” party. The Velvet’s overdriven guitars repeatedly underscored that teenage kicks included other aesthetic pleasures such as contemplation and melancholy. Most importantly, the Velvet Underground offered a language of listening passed down from one rock underground to another.
Because pop fans of all stripes must learn how to be a fan, learning how and what to listen to is a taste-defining social exercise. Simon Frith once explained that, for him, “one aspect of learning how to be a rock fan in the 1960s was, in fact, learning to prefer [original records made by black artists of the 1950s] to covers [made by white artists of the same era]. And this was, as I recall, something that had to be learned [by Frith]: nearly all the records I had bought in the late 1950s had been the cover versions” (Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, 1996). In my case, learning to listen also meant learning what to listen to while listening to The Velvet Underground, a process involving peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews.
As a young rock fan who began first collecting cassettes —that’s right, cassettes —this process would begin through an obsession with R.E.M.’s Murmur, a cryptic, odd inscrutable cassette with no lyrics, a black and white picture and layers of reverb. The copy I found had been severely discounted in a ma and pa record store in Globe, Arizona. In Summer 1983 I read a rave review in a copy of Rolling Stone and at 14 had purchased a cassette unlike anything I had ever heard; I wasn’t sure I enjoyed it. Why did so many reviewers seem to fall over themselves about this record? To solve this puzzle, it meant learning how to listen to music invested in tone rather than ostentatious chops. It meant paying attention to drones rather than solos. It meant following those features to Velvet Underground records after peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews made a point that Murmur reminded them a bit of VU records.
Murmur was also the first record I ever purchased that embraced what Jacob Smith so wonderfully identifies as a distinctive trait of all Velvet Underground records. For Smith, these pop records are part of a genealogy that “stress evocative timbres, idiosyncratic voices, and signature sounds over structural or lyrical complexity.” The distillation of this pop ethos onto record was one of the reasons that so many musicians whose abilities may have been limited but whose tastes tended toward the poetic found The Velvets so influential. As Jonathan Richman explained, “I didn’t start singing or playing till I was 15 and heard the Velvet Underground. They made an atmosphere, and I knew that I could make one too!” (Quoted in Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, 61). Indeed, Smith notes that the deceptive complexity of VU Records “can be found more on the level of timbre than in musical structure or instrumentation” and “lyrics often encourage a blurring of listening and touching”; his post actually reads like many of the conversations and reviews surrounding R.E.M.’s debut LP. The same could also be said of records released by other 1980s and 90s artists such as The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, Opal, Mazzy Star, Radiohead, The Dream Syndicate, Galaxie 500, The Rain Parade, Green on Red, New Order, Joy Division, The Feelies, Spacemen 3, Sonic Youth, The Pretenders, The Sisters of Mercy, Ministry, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and The Violent Femmes, to name but a few who drew water from the Velvet Underground well. Bands sonically inspired by the Velvets often providing feedback before solos, drummed without cymbals, and portrayed dark themes sung in monotones that sounded sophisticated and obscure.
However, actually hearing a Velvet Underground record in 1983 and 1984 was a significant problem for newer fans, as their MGM catalog was out of print. Many understood these records to be effectively buried by label president Mike Curb’s infamous axing of the act from MGM along with seventeen others who allegedly promoted and exploited “hard drugs through music” (Tiegel, Eliot “Mgm Busts 18 Rock Groups.” Billboard, November 7 1970, 1, 70). As Lou Reed himself once noted, “it’s depressing when you’re still around and your albums are out of print.” I have often wondered if this was one of the reasons that The Velvets catalogue would have such a profound effect on so many of us. Sure, I had found a copy of Loaded, the band’s fourth official release, but its bright tones had none of the subversive menace that so many reviewers alluded to when speaking of the Velvets. Even in a mountain town in Arizona, I had a better chance of finding used copies of The Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood or Blues for Allah than I did The Velvet Underground and Nico. In other cities, in other record stores, when I did find those records they were used and prices started at $15 and up. They were records I simply could not afford to listen to.
All that changed after 1985, when every MGM Velvet Underground record would appear in my life for less than $25. Bill Levenson’s efforts as Polygram’s then A&R manager to reissue the buried and lost MGM catalog on Verve provided me and every other young person who had only “heard of The Velvet Underground” the chance to finally to listen to all of these records at once. Indeed, the moment of the catalogue’s reissue was simply a sonic flood, one where sounds filled in gaps that had been cut deeply by conversations, descriptions and my own imagination. Writing at the time about these reissues and the unveiling of a lost album’s worth of material that would be titled V.U., David Fricke argued that “rock historians and fans alike owe Bill Levenson, the executive producer of V.U., a debt of thanks for resurrecting these tracks and for giving the band’s first three LPs the proper reissue they’ve long deserved. At $5.98 list price, The Velvet Underground and Nico,White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground are essential purchases —certainly essential listening for any study of Seventies and Eighties punk evolution. As for V.U., the Great Lost Velvet Underground Album is no longer lost. It is simply great” (Fricke, David. “The Velvet Underground – V.U.” Rolling Stone, March 14 1985).
Is it too much to suggest a that the pent up desire to hear a secret history sparked by The Velvet Underground’s reissues created the 80s/90s iteration of “alternative rock”? Perhaps, but history is filled with desires asserted, accepted and denied. Indeed, most of those aforementioned 80s alternative acts I came into contact with had been performing and recording and releasing records years before 1985. However, there is no doubt that the VU reissues turned a number of ears predisposed to hearing in a certain way onto new ways of listening to the Velvets concentrated doses of moody darkness, modes that earlier Velvet Underground fans simply had little access to.
Ignoring the impact of the sonic flood of VU material that fell upon my ears during this period turns away from a specific history of listening that, while personally unique, was an opportunity available to so many of my contemporaries. Indeed, if sounds have histories because their traces persist, then listening must have histories guided partially by testimonial. To hear these histories we might ask ourselves to remember how, why, and with whom did we listen, and to trade in this information. If we did so, we might better understand how we learned to listen: especially what to listen to and why it was important. And, without these testimonials of our pasts as listeners, we just may lose sound’s crucial other half.
Featured Image: “Velvet Underground Yellow Label Mono” by Flickr user Simon MurphyThe Velvet Underground – Yellow label mono
Tim J. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University where studies the multiple cultural and material practices that make music popular. He has published numerous book chapters, refereed journal articles, and two monographs: Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) and Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy: Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry (Routledge, 2014). His latest research project focuses on recordings, musicians, listeners and the public sphere. His website is timjanderson.weebly.com and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.