Monday, 29 April 2019

The Story of Sound Recording

On Saturday the BBC World Service broadcast ‘The Story of Sound Recording’, the first part of a series exploring A History of Music and Technology. I’m a featured interviewee, alongside noted experts Mark Katz, Andre Millard, Greg Milner, Nick Morgan, Sophie Maisonneuve and Sean Williams. It’s a great series and for the second time in my life (following on from the Music on the Blockchain report), I find myself being introduced by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason. The episode can be accessed via this link for the next 29 days.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Name that Timbre

Name that Tune was a quiz that had a long life on radio and television. It first began as a show on NBC radio in America in 1952. In Britain, it was first known as Spot that Tune, which ran between 1956 and 1962 on Granada Television. It was next seen between 1976 and 1983 as ‘Name that Tune’, a segment of the Thames Television show London Night Out, hosted by Tom O’Connor. After that, it became a standalone quiz, hosted by Lionel Blair from 1983 to 1988.  It was then revived on Channel 5 for a show hosted by Jools Holland in 1997 and 1998. The most recent version was witnessed in 2007, as part of ITV’s Gameshow Marathon, helmed by Vernon Kay.
            The premise was simple. Contestants would compete to name popular tunes in as few notes as possible (‘I’ll name that tune in seven’, ‘I’ll name that tune in five’ etc.). Rather than playing a record, the tune would be played live by musicians in the broadcasting studio. If singers were featured, they would replace the words to the song with ‘la la las’. The show was dependent on a shared knowledge of popular hit songs. It would not work effectively unless the contestants’ musical expertise found an echo in that of the viewers and listeners at home. The quick familiarity of melodies could be startling.
            Melody is not our speediest musical recall, however. We’re much faster with timbre, particularly the timbre of recordings. If I switch on the radio and a record I know is playing, I can name that sound within microseconds. The same is true if I’m in a club or a bar, and the DJ has cued up a familiar record. I will know it and I can name it immediately. I’m not alone in this ability. Most of us are startlingly fast.
            One of the few times that this ability has been captured on screen is in T2: Trainspotting. Early in the movie, the main character, Renton, returns to his childhood home and puts a record on the turntable. From the label we can guess that it is Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’. He plays a tiny burst of the record before snatching it from the turntable as he is haunted by the memories it conjures.
What is brilliant about this scene is that the filmmakers have the confidence, not only that the cinemagoers will recognize ‘Lust for Life’ from this brief excerpt, but also that it will take them back to the more extended use of the same record in the original Trainspotting movie, where it soundtracks a scene in which Renton is chased through the streets of Edinburgh. (There is also a neat joke. In the first film the use of ‘Lust for Life’ is non-diegetic, meaning that Renton will not have heard it himself. Somehow, though, the record and its associations have seeped into his consciousness by the time of the second film.)
            We need more of these moments on screen. How about a very brief quiz show called Name that Timbre? And how about pitting it against Name that Tune? The timbral contestants would surely be quicker than the tuneful ones.
As well as being entertaining, this could help us think again about musical hierarchies. Melody is prioritised in the law and in value judgements generally. One of the reasons why classical music maintains its elevated status is because it is melodically and harmonically rich in comparison with much popular music. But popular music wins on timbre. What then, if it is revealed that timbre is the fastest, most resonant and deeply penetrating musical quality of all?

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Brexit Ambivalence at the Brit Awards

UK in a Changing Europe is a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and is based at King’s College London. It has as its remit the promotion of ‘rigorous, high-quality and independent research into the complex and ever changing relationship between the UK and the European Union’. To that end, I was invited to write a piece about last night’s Brit Awards. The text to is as follows:

That dress. In an echo of Geri Halliwell’s iconic Union Flag outfit, worn at the height of the Britpop era, Dua Lipa took to the stage at the Brit Awards last night wrapped in a European Union flag.
            Or did she? It is a measure of the British music industry’s ambivalence towards Europe that nobody is quite sure. According to the Daily Express, it ‘seemed she was making a Brexit reference’. The paper added, ‘Many thought the sartorial choice could have been a political one – even if accidental’. The Twittersphere is divided. Some people are asking where they can buy similar EU outfits to wear on 29 March. Others are pondering if a European reference was being made. Dua Lipa, born in London to Kosovan-Albanian parents, has made no comment.
            And nor have the other winners at the ceremony. The Brit Awards can be a forum for politics. Tony Blair attended in 1996, ahead of his election as prime minister, and received a ringing endorsement from Oasis. Labour came out less well in 1998, when the punk group Chumbawamba threw a bucket of ice water over deputy prime minister John Prescott. In 2014 Davie Bowie urged Scottish voters to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Last year’s ceremony was replete with references to the #MeToo movement. Brexit appears to be a trickier prospect. The subject was not broached in any of the acceptance speeches last night.
            It is tempting to say that this is because this year’s ceremony was dominated by pop. There has long been a divide at the Brit Awards. When pop artists win they keenly take to the stage and thank the industry people behind them. They do not talk about party politics. When edgier, leftfield artists win they shamble forwards and can make provocative pronouncements. However, when the Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn attempted to do this about Brexit in 2018, he ended up being just as vague as Dua Lipa’s dress:
This country, believe it or not, is quite a small little thing, right. It’s a lovely place and it’s part of a beautiful world. What I want to say is don’t let it become isolated. Don’t let yourself become cut-off, you know. Considering our size we do incredible things in music. You know what I mean, we’ve got a real spirit and a real soul. And don’t let politics get in the way of all that shit, right.
What is it that makes Brexit so hard to discuss openly at this ceremony? Some artists have pronounced upon the subject elsewhere. Annie Lennox and Paloma Faith (both Brit Award winners) are among the signatories to a letter calling for an alternative solution to Theresa May’s policies. It states:
In the Post-Brexit UK, there is a clear risk that reaching consumers and fans will be more expensive, and international markets will be harder to access. Live events will run the danger of being delayed or even cancelled, which would undermine the financial and cultural benefits that this vibrant sector brings to UK PLC.
This is not the sort of analysis that would go down well at an awards ceremony. It talks about economics and what the British music industry can get from the Continent. It does not speak of a cultural embrace.
            And therein lies the problem. The reason why it is difficult for UK artists to talk about Europe at the Brit Awards is because the ceremony – from its name through to its most iconic dress – is all about celebrating the home countries. It does offer international awards, but these are given to American artists who fail to turn up. In its entire history the Brits has never awarded an artist from the Continent.
            The one explicit reference made to Brexit last night is telling. Introducing the international trophies, the host Jack Whitehall commented, ‘As you all know Britain is a very outgoing country, which loves the rest of the world. Well, not Europe, but the rest of it’. And maybe this points to a reason why 52% of the British public chose to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. Political decisions are regularly informed by cultural preferences. Britain has rarely voted for European pop.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Dave Laing (1947-2019)

The great Dave Laing has died. He was a father figure of popular music studies. His book The Sound of Our Time was published in 1969. It can be regarded as the first scholarly book about popular music written by an insider and fan. He was one of the founding editors of Popular Music, the first academic journal devoted to the subject. His 1985 book One Chord Wonders offered one of the first, and still one of the best, scholarly analyses of punk rock. Dave was also one of the most knowledgeable and perceptive writers about the music industry. He was a person to turn to whether you wanted information about the founding of this industry or if you wanted to assess the transformations of today.
            Yet Dave achieved most of this outside of academia. He did not hold a university post until 1996. Before that he was a freelance author, journalist and lecturer. Between 1972 and 1984 he contributed to Time Out, Sounds, Let It Rock, the Radio One History of Pop and many more besides. In 1984 he assumed a post as Research and Press Officer for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). From 1987 to 1996 he worked as an editor for the music industry journals Music Week, Music Business International and Financial Times Music & Copyright.
            The popular music studies community is devastated by his passing, with numerous emotional tributes appearing on email threads over the last day or so. We are all saying the same thing. He had a unique knowledge of popular music, he was exceptionally generous with this knowledge, and he was phenomenally good company. I always made a beeline for him at conferences, relishing his incisive intellect and wit.
            I first got to know Dave ten years ago when he was one of the examiners for my PhD thesis. He was rigorous, picking me up on what other examiners might pass by (I was reprimanded for detailing the wrong year for Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, listing the date of the German language publication rather than the translation I had used). He also improved the work tremendously. The structural changes he recommended helped me turn the thesis into Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record. Subsequently, Dave worked with me on the first PhD I supervised. Over the past two years we have been co-editing a book together. I knew that he was ill, but he had kept from me just how serious things have been.
            To say that Dave will be missed is an understatement. He is irreplaceable. His passing has taken me back to Laurie Anderson’s ‘World Without End’, which has one of the most devastating lyrics in all of popular music:
            When my father died we put him in the ground
            When my father died it was like a whole library had burned down