Wednesday, 28 January 2015

A Bit of a Blur

Although the ‘Blurred Lines’ legal case hasn’t been heard yet, it’s still making the news. Today’s Complete Music Update reported on the fact that neither ‘Blurred Lines’ nor the song that it is allegedly indebted to, Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give It Up’, will be played in court. Instead, the case will be decided by analysing the sheet music for each song. This is clearly to Robin Thicke’s and Pharrell Williams’s advantage, as the sheet music for ‘Got to Give It Up’ doesn’t include any of the distinctive backing vocals or rhythmic nuances that inspired the creation of ‘Blurred Lines’.
This reliance on sheet music will strike most popular music fans as being unfair. It is evidence that the legal system is geared towards classical conceptions of composition. On the one hand, it favours melody and harmony. On the other hand, it ignores what Paul Th├ęberge has termed popular music’s ‘primary site of creation’: the recording studio.
There is some sort of legal logic in this, however. Artists don’t usually own their sound recordings; record companies do. It is the composition of ‘Got to Give it Up’ that is on trial, and it is the composition that is owned by Marvin Gaye’s estate. Howard King, the lawyer who is defending ‘Blurred Lines’, has said: ‘A truly fair trial requires only a comparison of the compositions, not the sound recording which is not owned by the Gayes. Given the fact that the compositions have absolutely no substantial similarities, there is little chance the Gayes can prevail at trial or on any threatened appeal’.
Another way of looking at this is that artists should own their sound recordings. They are more obviously the creators of these artifacts than record companies are. Moreover, it is in creating the sound recording that the principal act of pop authorship often takes place.
One final thing. I’m pretty sure that the focus on sheet music in this case is a quirk of American law. I used to work for PRS for Music and the regular advice we gave to songwriters was that, in order to copyright their works, all they needed to do was to post a sealed copy of the recording to themselves and ensure that the received package remained unopened. And so, in the UK the recording can be considered to be the composition. And yet who usually claims to be its author?

Saturday, 24 January 2015

LitPop: Writing and Popular Music

Late last year, Asghgate published the collection LitPop: Writing and Popular Music, edited by Rachel Carroll and Adam Hansen. The book includes a chapter from me, titled ‘Audio Books: The Literary Origins of Grooves, Labels and Sleeves’, which expands upon research I undertook for Vinyl, concentrating on the moments where the packaging of the analogue record drew inspiration from the packaging of the novel. The chapter can be accessed here.


Friday, 9 January 2015

Vinyl reviewed by Roy Shuker in Popular Music

The latest edition of Popular Music (34/1) has a review of Vinyl by the great popular music scholar Roy Shuker. Happily, he likes the book, saying that it ‘makes an important contribution to the now extensive body of work dealing with the development of recorded sound and its cultural implications’, and adding that ‘A wealth of detail is included, with many informative asides and extended footnotes, all in the service of a frequently insightful general account’. In conclusion he states, ‘This study of vinyl as both a recording format and a material artefact is informative, entertaining and thought provoking, showing the complexities which lie behind what are often taken for granted in musical practices and products’.

Monday, 5 January 2015

The Ancient and the Modern

On Sunday I went to the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens. Sometimes I feel as though I’ve had my fill of ancient artefacts. Do I really need to see another broken arrowhead or shard of pottery? Figurines are a different matter, though. There’s something about sculptured images of the human form that cuts through the ages. And this museum has some great examples. It has plenty of Cycladic figures of the ‘canonical’ type. The arms are commonly folded in the same pattern and only the nose is shown in relief. The example below dates from 2800-2300 BC.

Better still, for me, are the Cypriot ‘plank’ figures. Although of a later time period than the Cycladic figures (the example below dates from 2000-1800 BC), they are also more basic. The head and body are blocked out and the only thing shown in any detail is the arms.

This simplicity doesn’t make these figures seem ancient. If anything, they are utterly modern. They remind me of Mark Rothko’s great late works, and help to prove that there’s nothing ‘abstract’ about paintings such as No. 12 (Black on Dark Sienna on Purple) (1960). Instead, as Rothko claimed, his pictures are ‘expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on’.

After the gallery I went to a bar with some friends. In the bar they were playing a compilation of 1950’s Chicago blues tracks. Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightning’ came on. It stopped me in my tracks. Is there a more powerful voice in the history of recorded sound than that of the Howlin’ Wolf? And is there any other singer who has been able to communicate more of his body through his voice? The chorus of 'Smokestack Lightning' hit me with the same force that the plank figures did. And it hit me in the way that I feel when I look at a Rothko. I was confronting humanity head on. For me, there’s nothing postmodern about linking Cycladic art to the Chicago Blues. I also fail to see anything ‘primitive’ or 'naive' in any of this art. Instead, the feeling that I get from 'Somestack Lightning' and from Rothko and from the figurines has more to do with what Greil Marcus once wrote about ‘Holidays in the Sun’: ‘no one has yet seen all the way to the bottom of [it], and probably no one ever will’. But these depths keep on drawing you in and you keep on staring.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Reeling in the Years

Songwriters and producers provide their hits with hooks, but they can never be sure what they are going to catch.
            I saw in this New Year in at a family party in Cyprus, where I heard two songs whose hit potential was surely realised beyond the artists’ greatest dreams. The first was Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’. I have no doubt that he knew at the time of the record’s release that the ‘magic break’, the thundering entry of the drums held back until 3 minutes 40 seconds into the song, was a high point of the recording. And yet he could never have known just how popular this break would become. Over the years it has grown in stature so that it is now the main hook of the song. Collins acknowledges this and in recent concerts has provided a teasing performance in which he parades the stage in the early phases of ‘In the Air Tonight’, making the audience think he won’t make it back to the drums in time for that famous roll around the kit. And who can resist playing air drums along with him? Audiences revel in this moment. And this isn’t just Phil Collins’ fans either. This run around the drums is probably more popular than the rest of his repertoire combined.
            From the sublime to the ridiculous. The second song that I heard was Tom Jones’s ‘Sex Bomb’. We were having a dancing competition, in which various older couples had to improvise routines and be judged by the youngsters in the room. ‘Sex Bomb’ was, of course, hilarious. The couple who danced to it played up to its unsubtle theme and brought the house down. The song was performing as its creators hoped it would. It was working because it is a Tom Jones’ song: it is not quite ironic. Jones’s is being playful with has playboy reputation, and yet at the same time there’s no way that he’d want people to think that he’s not a sex bomb. The same thing applies to the people who dance to it. They’re being silly and yet at the same time they want to be thought of as sexy too. Ultimately, however, the main reason why the song was working at our party was because it was a big hit. Its success in the dancing competition was reliant on the fact that everybody knew it. 'Sex Bomb' has done what its writers hoped; at the same time it has had resonance beyond their wildest dreams (could they have envisioned our party in Cyprus?). It has also become more enjoyable than it would be if it didn’t have the ability to provoke public fun. When I first heard ‘Sex Bomb’ on its release in 2000 I thought it was horrible. This New Year, when people were calling it for it to be repeated, I thought for the first time in my life, ‘yes, I do want to hear "Sex Bomb" again’.