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thinking through music, sound and culture

Notes On Bob Stanley’s “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”

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Imagine you’re a bird flying high above a vast landscape. Now imagine that the landscape–forest, mountains, rivers, roaming animals, small towns–is the history of popular music stretched out below you. You’re not flying alone. Next to you is another bird named Bob. Bob knows this territory well, pointing out the important sights below and explaining to you how everything relates to everything else.

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Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is a remarkably engaging history of pop music from the 1950s to about 2000. Over some 600 pages, musician and writer Bob Stanley touches on most of the pop musical styles, movements, and artists over the past fifty years–from Bill Haley, Elvis, the Brill Building scene and the Beatles to folk, country, punk, funk, heavy metal, disco, new wave, Motown, soul, electro and hip hop, and so much in between. His writing is succinct, insightful to the point that it reads as if the author was somehow there for every musical moment he describes, and utterly engaging. Like a street corner observer who witnessed history shuffle by and then remembered and distilled the good and juicy bits, Stanley has knack for telling the sprawling story of pop. Rarely has a book gone by so effortlessly for me. Bravo Bob!

The book takes a chronological approach to pop history, patiently moving from year to year and including dates of noteworthy songs in parentheses. One of Stanley’s go-to structuring techniques is to anchor his narrative around important and/or hit songs from the year as kinds of signposts indicating points of widespread critical admiration. Hit songs tell us what a lot of people were listening to and enjoying at various moments in time. We can understand how these moments work when Stanley tells us that what makes great pop is “tension, opposition, progress, and fear of progress.” Fortunately for us, the author himself seems to appreciate just about every pop subculture out there for what it has to tell us about the human experience. Whether it’s folk music or glam rock, Stanley sees the modern pop era as an “endless, interchangeable jigsaw puzzle.” This makes him a fascinating tour guide who on each page goes on explaining to us how all these sounds and styles and artists fit together and relate to one another.

If Stanley has a bias it’s that he likes good music, quality music–music that takes chances, music that embraces the full potential of what it is meant to be. And in addition to being a pop musical generalist, Stanley is a populist too, quick to value the underdog, the overlooked, and the marginalized rather than simply rehash the merits of a few canonic favorites. (Please, no more Zeppelin.) This is what allows him to explain how, for example, in pop “noise and overexcitement became values rather than marks of low quality.” It’s easy to forget the value these kinds of artistic contributions that often come to the mainstream from the margins.

The history of pop is, among other things, a history of technology, and Stanley observes that pop would not exist without recordings. In fact, pop innovated the idea that music can exist first and foremost as a recorded form. Here, we learn about the British producer and studio wiz Joe Meek, who in 1960s “was the first to manipulate every element of the track, imagining the record as a complete production.” Meek was also “the first to argue that records didn’t need to directly mimic a live performance.” This powerful idea would be famously taken up by The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and others who came to recognize the recording studio as pop’s natural habitat.

One of Stanley’s most compelling qualities as a writer is his range of interests and the way he is able to say incisive things about so many different musics. Whether he’s talking about country music (“the underside of modern pop…on every level, country music remains a mass fantasy”), Jamaican reggae (“Marley fitted a preconception about Jamaican culture that suited a white audience”), soft rock (“managed to be both countercultural and crushingly conservative …It was also unforgiving, very male, and very straight”), punk (“stripped of pretty much all black influence”), or post-punk (“the sound of postwar architecture itself. It was abstract, sometimes confused, frequently surprising”), Stanley tells you what is important to know about the place of a style within the broader historical narrative.

And rarely is the author dismissive of a music. Instead, he finds a way to validate it. For example, he describes metal as “not out to test your faculties, it was there to dim them, to blot out that teenage shit with sheer volume…It is about a state of being, Being Metal. Almost no other music has this raison d’être.” Stanley also locates quotes from the musicians themselves that give you pause. About punk, for instance, we hear from the Ramones’ original drummer Tommy Ramone explaining lucidly what his group was trying to do: “The hypnotic effect of strict repetition, driving the music like a sonic machine…it’s very sensual. It was a new way of looking at music.”

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One of the most interesting aspects of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! is how it validates pop’s shift towards electronics (synthesizers, drum machines, computers, etc.) and explains how this shift radically changed its soundscape. As Stanley matter of factly describes the shift: “It had become apparent by the turn of this century that rock–the vocals/guitar/bass/drums setup pioneered by the Crickets, Shadows, Beatles, and Led Zeppelin–had become as fossilized and ancient as Dixieland jazz was in 1952.”

In the 1970s, disco was the first threat to the rock canon. (Remember the “disco sucks” rallies in Chicago?) Thanks to disco, “for the first time the pulse of pop became the most important factor in a hit record, and that hasn’t gone away.” This steady pulse also marked “the beginning of pop’s internationalization.” While it is perhaps easy to ridicule some of disco’s biggest stars such as the Bee Gees (humorously described as “aliens who had been given tiny scraps of information about what pop music was all about and were bravely trying to piece it together”), the idiom also brought us real innovations such as the remix and the idea of extending the rhythmic breaks of songs. This would in turn influence the breakbeats of hip hop. Not long after disco, electro funk “gave American pop a new sense of space, as New York producers mixed dub with Korg and Roland’s evolving keyboard and beatbox technology, and created something undeniably futuristic.” Electro would soon bifurcate, one half fueling techno and house musics (“house and techno were the first truly international sounds of modern pop; they could be easily mimicked, exploited, expanded by musicians in any country”), the other driving hop hop and its investigations of “texture and persuasive powers of dialogue and flow.”

Since that bifurcation, pop has continued many of its guitar-based ways (indie, post-rock, grunge, alt-country), but increasingly the most interesting music is that made in idioms free of shall we say, six-string constraints. An early example is New Order’s “Blue Monday,” a song that “physically bridged the gap between rock and dance culture in that it was only available as a twelve-inch single, the chosen format of DJs.” Another example is the idiom of contemporary R&B. As Stanley notes about this music from the mid-90s to middle of following decade: “A swathe of auteur producers emerged, happy to take the most oblique rhythm, the most exotic instrumentation, and deliver the most outré chart hit.” Much of the most interesting pop today–rhythmically, texturally, timbrally–grows out of the template set by these R&B producers.

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! ends amidst this cultural moment–a point in the history of pop where producers using little more than computers and software are creating big, engaging sounds. Stanley doesn’t mourn the half-passing of the guitar-bass-drums-vocalist pop template because he still believes in great songs in whatever form. At heart, he’s a true fan, in love with Quality pop, yet tempered by a sense of realism. “We have entered a different era, the digital age, in which great records will continue to be made,” he tells us near the end of the book, “but, with such a choice of influences readily available, it will be much harder to create a brand-new form of music.”

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

“We’re not in the music space, we’re in the moment space.”

2. An article about field recording.

“The idea of objective recording in the field, thankfully now problematised and rejected, still lingers though like a spectre haunting the ways many listeners consider recordings.”

3. An article about how we read in the digital age.

“‘Reading’ may not even be the best verb for reading, since the words we encounter on screens large and small usually come interwoven with images, videos, and other media. Do I read my Twitter feed? It feels more like I use it or consume it or maybe absorb it.”

 

Linking Two Modalities: Lewis Lapham On The Essay And A Roy Haynes Drum Solo

In his introduction to a piece about artists and scientists in their 80s (including drummer Roy Hayes, age 89) in The New York Times, “Old Masters at the Top of Their Game,” former Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham explains how essay writing is a way of knowing:

“The essay proceeds from the question ‘What do I know?’ and doesn’t stay for an answer until the author finds out what he means to say by setting it up in a sentence, maybe catching it in the net of a metaphor.”

In a musical analogy, here is a video of drummer Roy Haynes playing a solo that is another way of knowing:

Brett’s Sound Picks: Glenn Kotche’s “Anomaly: Mvt. II”

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There’s a wonderful rhythmic insistence to this music–a rolling 6-beat feel with shifting accents that blends the sounds of string quartet (Kronos) with a multi-percussion drumset part. In its positive energy it evokes the homespun of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts mixed with the shimmer of Indonesian gamelan…

On Web Searches That Brought You Here

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What is the relationship between music and discipline?

A great question! While it’s a cliché that in music, practice makes perfect, and that steady, mindful practice requires discipline, perhaps less remarked upon is how the act of playing music is itself a form of discipline. Making music disciplines one’s mind to focus on the sounds here and now, the notes on the page, or the interaction of oneself with one’s band mates. Making music is also discipline for the body to travel and re-travel certain paths along one’s chosen instrument(s), in the process developing a finely tuned sense of one’s capability to do musical things.

Wallace Stevens music.

The American poet Wallace Stevens did touch on music in his poetry. As I wrote in this blog a few years ago, “Stevens was quite interested in musical experience, writing about the power of music to encapsulate the unseen and unsaid. For Stevens, meaning is never a given, but rather something created, and he used music–that presence between body and spirit–as a figure for a desire of spectral power.” You can read more here.

What is perfect time in music?

There is, of course, no such thing as perfect time in music–unless you’re talking about the tick-tock of a metronome, which isn’t really music. Maybe perfect time in music is that sound that effortlessly flows like a stream, or like autumn leaves blown up and around in circles. Or perfect time is a group of musicians–a band, a choir–who work as one. Or perfect time is a musician who doesn’t need to count, but instead lets the music propel the moment.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

1. A must-see video in which the jazz pianist Bill Evans discusses how to approach making music.

“They would rather approximate the entire problem than take a small part of it and be real and true about it.”

2. A video in which the Turkish musician Gorkem Sen demonstrates his remarkable-sounding acoustic instrument.

“The vibrations from the strings are transmitted via the coiled springs to the frame drums. These vibrations are turned into sound by the membranes which echo back and forth on the coiled springs. This results in a unique listening experience with a hypnotic surround sound.”

 

3. An article about a very young heavy metal band from Brooklyn.

“Music is music, and as long as you can express yourself in a way that you think is good for people to hear then it’s something you should do. I wish everybody could not be afraid to do the things they want to do.”

On Using Voices To Sell

For a few years now I’ve noticed TV commercials using the voices of well-known actors to advertise services and products. I started paying attention to these voices during the 2012 Summer Olympics. It was an ad for VISA, and the reassuring, trustworthy voice was that of Morgan Freeman:

There are other examples too. In an Esurance ad, we hear the voice of John Krasinski, better known as the character Jim from the NBC show, The Office.

In a Verizon ad, we hear the voice of Ty Burrell, better known as the character Phil Dunphy from the ABC show, Modern Family.

And in a TD Bank ad, we hear the voice of Matt Damon, best known as, well, Matt Damon.

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I don’t generally pay attention to what is advertised in these ads–credit cards, telephone service, and banking services aren’t exactly in the sweet spot of my range interests and expertise.

But I do notice voices because voices contain so much subtle information that is impossible not to register. (Is sound more subliminally powerful that visual stimuli?) Listening to the ads I find myself thinking about how strongly voices signify different things and telegraph different affects out into the world. I don’t know Freeman, Kasinski, Burrell, or Damon, but I know their voices. In fact, their voices are familiar enough to me and millions of others through the characters these actors have played in films and on television that it feels as though on some level I/we actually do know them. Here, familiar sound nudges us towards trust. Trust the voice, trust the services and products.

What’s interesting in this regard is how the voices of these actors somehow aggregate together in my imagination into a single meta-voice of a character who is reliable, trustworthy, responsible, smart and a little knowing too (wink wink). Such is the power of sound that even though we don’t see the actors’ faces in the ads, their voices still manage to telegraph a sense of good sense. As I said, I don’t have any particular interest in the companies on whose behalf Freeman’s, Kasinski’s, Burrell’s, and Damon’s voices are speaking, yet the sounds draw me in with reassurance that at least in the case of VISA, Esurance, Verizon, or TD Bank–everything is, or will continue to be, smooth sailing.

Now that’s a sound sales pitch!

Alan Watts On Resonance As Consciousness

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In his book The Tao of Philosophy, Alan Watts (1915-1973) talks about resonance as a form of consciousness:

“when I tap on this crystal, which is glass, it makes a noise. Now that resonance is an extremely primitive form of consciousness…when you hit a bell it rings, or you touch a crystal and it responds, inside itself it has a very simple reaction. It goes “jangle” inside, whereas we go “jangle” with all sorts of colors and lights and intelligence, ideas, and thoughts…” (8-9).

A Spontaneous Conversation About The Pragmatics Of Creativity

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“How did you make this?”

“I made it through making a series of small decisions, one after the other.”

“Oh. But how did you know which direction to go in?”

“Each moment prompted a small decision in need of making, which in turn suggested a path forward along which to travel.”

“Did it take a while to travel along the path?”

“It did actually. A fairly long time. After all, there were a lot of decisions to make.”

“When you finished traveling along the path, had you arrived at a place that you expected?”

“No.”

“Were you expecting anything in particular?”

“Not really.”

“So how then did you know you were finally done with your making?”

“It felt done. Plus I had a deadline and I just ran out of time.”

An Article About Electronic Music Fandom

My article “Autechre and Electronic Music Fandom: Performing Knowledge Online through Techno-Geek Discourses,” is available in the journal Popular Music and Society. You can view an abstract of the article here.

 

 

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