Kids today wouldn’t understand why we’d willingly listen to music laced with imperfections. The pops, the crackles, the static hiss when needle meets vinyl. Digital music is brushed free of all imperfection. Nothing but perfectly reproduced digital audio downloaded right to your iTunes library. The digital music revolution has done great things for remastering and other technical wizardry of which I’m probably grateful, but not particularly aware. But therein lies the greatest flaw in all those perfectly aligned zeros and ones: benign and unholy imperfection. Consider your favorite writers, authors that reach a balance between logical progression and unpredictable improvisation. The greatest novels, like the greatest jazz compositions follow logical and regular musical patterns that frame illogical solo improvisation. Consider the music of Coleman Hawkins or the inimitable Thelonious Monk. Consider Colson Whitehead. His novel Sag Harbor was, at its heart, a standard coming-of-age story, but the details of his protagonist’s experience leapt off the page in vibrant three-dimensional color and shape because life, like the protagonist’s experience, doesn’t rise steadily until reaching an ultimate and resolving denouement. Life is chaos, a series of regular routines flanking wild seat-of-your-pants improvisation. Digital music, while it satisfies our innate (but very contemporary) desire to be better, faster, newer — it contradicts the imperfection that makes us human. Vinyl records, in all their humility, awkwardness and frailty echo our own wanting souls. They are our siblings from another mother (or in this analogy another Thomas Edison). The response to a phonograph is visceral, primal perhaps, whereas we recognize with a certain about of sonic intellectualism why digital media sounds “better.” It sounds better because it sounds cleaner. It sounds better because it is more convenient and travels in the brains of thumbnail-sized iPods and doesn’t consume rooms with milk crates. It sounds better because it can be played in Dolby Digital 7.2 surround systems at excessively loud volumes without much distortion. But when you get right down to comparing the sound of vinyl against the sound of a compact disc (forget compressed audio) which sounds more real? That more accurately recalls a time and a place at a subconscious level? Which medium reproduces the sound that echoes life, that sometimes gets interrupted by a hairline imperfection, that skips and repeats and needs regular maintenance and attention? Without that maintenance and attention we slip into sporadic bouts of anxiety, depression and first world malaise. I do not mean to denigrate digital media entirely; I only aim to point out that progress isn’t always a full step forward. More often than not progress proves to be a lateral sashay. There’s a place in our collections for both because we carry out our first world modern lives in two worlds. In the so-called real world we are increasingly forced to be more timely, more exact, more beautiful than is our nature. We also need our media scrubbed clean and portable. People need alarm clocks loud enough to emit sonic boom (yes, this really exists because Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me told me so) just to get out of bed in the morning because our tendencies are toward sleeping in, being late, missing that 8:00am conference call. Our tendencies are toward imperfection. We float through this world projecting, feigning perfection; it is only at home, with our turntables and sweatpants that we can be honest with ourselves and embrace the chaos.
Braggadocio used to be the impetus for 90% of all rap songs. This number is thoroughly researched, I assure you. Just listen to some of the cuts from the Queens/South Bronx rap rivalry between Marley Marl and the Juice Crew (chiefly MC Shan) and KRS-One’s Boogie Down Productions. If you don’t care to revisit the lyrical jabs, the following is a summary of the “Bridge Wars”:
Juice Crew: We’re great. We’re from Queens.
KRS-One: Not only are we better, but South Bronx is the real birthplace of hip-hip.
Juice Crew: Idiot, that’s not what we meant. Sidenote: we’re still better.
KRS-One: I told you the Bronx created hip-hop.
Juice Crew: Your name sounds like a wack radio station. Now go away.
KRS-One: Um… you suck and no.
Juice Crew: Fine. But we’re still better.
Like some old fashioned WWF, both sides played up the feud in the name of self-promotion. Later, it would be revealed the whole thing began because a Juice Crew-affiliated producer (Mr. Magic) called an early KRS-One track “wack.” And to that we now must intone “Oooh. Burn,” (with the appropriate amount of sarcasm) because, well, it all seems so childish. But this is about “rep” and “cred” and many other things with which we most likely don’t have to concern ourselves. When KRS went on to form Boogie Down Productions he took out his frustrations on the more popular Juice Crew by fueling the rap rivalry to sell BDP records.
Early rap wasn’t primarily about guns, drugs, hustlers, pimps and hoes (though there was certainly a smattering of all that). Old school rappers were more concerned about their stage reputation as innovators and entertainers. While BDP and the Juice Crew played out their public rivalry in call and response lyric banter, another early pioneer of the genre soldiered on, proclaiming himself to be the greatest without significant recourse. I am now speaking of the original human beatbox – Doug E. Fresh.
From Doug E. Fresh’s 1988 album The World’s Greatest Entertainer, “Greatest Entertainer” opens with the lyrics:
Got more juice than you get in your container
But to say fresh, as we are fresh
And leave everyone with a smile
I thought the proper thing for me to do is to come back doin’ the beatbox
Harmonica Style… Bust it…
Shortly thereafter, Doug E. Fresh fell out of favor. His 1992 effort Doin What I Gotta Do became a commercial failure despite being a solid record with moderate critical success. The hip-hop world had left the human beatbox and his unique skillz in the 80s. It wasn’t that Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew had lost their game or their desire to proclaim themselves to be the best; it was that 1992 marked a demonstrable shift in the rap universe. Gangsta Rap had appeared in the mid-80s under Ice-T and NWA but had never succeeded in crossing over into the mainstream until Dr. Dre’s The Chronic flipped the entire industry on its head with “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang.” Braggadocio just wasn’t enough to sell records any more. The old-school pioneers had to change their game or get left in the 80s… like Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew.
It just so happens that the same day I received my vinyl copy of The World’s Greatest Entertainer (which sadly isn’t a particularly easy record to track down), Radiohead finally delivered their Limited Edition Vinyl “Newspaper” package for The King of Limbs to my doorstep. And after sifting through the swag contained within I’ve come to the conclusion that Thom Yorke also believes himself to be the world’s greatest entertainer.
the world’s greatest entertainer cannot be capitalized or italicized. Thom Yorke would never proclaim himself to be the world’s greatest anything. The rules aren’t the same for indie rock bands as they were for classic hip hop. Modesty, ambivalence and obscurity rule the day. Doug E. Fresh could get up on a chair and challenge anyone to a beatbox-off right then and right there. And clearly he’d be the greatest. He’s Doug E. Fresh. And he had the Get Fresh Crew to back him up on that incontrovertible fact. Thom Yorke doesn’t have that luxury. Radiohead must assert their greatness through alternative venues. Like selling their “Newspaper Album” package for The King of Limbs or offering In Rainbows for whatever you wanted to pay.
Contained within the package I found The King of Limbs newspaper. The Early Edition, if you were wondering. I don’t know if it’s meant to make me feel like I’m living in a George Orwell novel or not; but I’m concerned someone’s monitoring my thoughts, scanning my most guarded and secret opinions. I’ll be exposed as a fraud, a false proponent of music that is good and worthwhile. As I’ve already confessed to finding a certain illogical appeal in Captain & Tennille, I presume I have nothing more to fear from the thought/speak police. Clearly, I can be trusted with brutal honesty. Therefore, I’m just going to come right out and say it. I’m not sure about the new Radiohead record and I don’t get the point of the swag: the newspaper, the artwork, the sheet of hundreds of tiny little perforated pictures.
Doug E. Fresh on the other hand I understood. He asserted his greatness in his lyrics. He just came out and told me. And he said it in a way that I totally believed. In the good old days I’d listen to The Bends or Kid A and Radiohead used to bring the same kind of Doug E. Fresh confidence. Even In Rainbows reached out, took me by the throat and told me it was the best goddamn record of the year. The music spoke for itself. Now, however, we’re subjected to The King of Limbs. Still a great record. But it’s not taking me by the throat; it’s showering me with reverb and inexplicable artwork. The newspaper tells me “Sell Your House and Buy Gold” among many other things. As a collector the two clear vinyl 45s tickle me in all the right places, but the rest of the package is trying to impress me with its inaccessibility, like modern art or Thomas Pynchon novels. With this release Thom Yorke just got up on the chair, referred to himself in the third person and challenged the world to an indie-rock off… or not, you know, because he doesn’t really care either way. He then played The King of Limbs vinyl on a turntable shaped like a narwhal while reading aloud the pages of his newspaper in falsetto. After he’d flipped or changed the record for the third time, he kicked over the narwhal to a stunned silent crowd and exited the room. No Q&A necessary. Before leaving Jonny Greenwood proclaimed Abingdon, Oxfordshire to be the birthplace of glitch/ambient/intelligent dance/orchestral/post-modern/new-wave/guitar rock. And all those other phony glitch/ambient/intelligence dance/orchestral/post-modern/new-save/guitar rockers can suck his nuts… or not, you know, because he doesn’t really care either way.
And it was all done in the name of self-promotion. The less I understand, the more I’m supposed to admire it, the more I’m supposed to talk about it, the less Radiohead has to call attention to themselves because we’re doing it for them.
So after a full day with my two greatest entertainers, I just have one final thing to say: I’ve got more words in my little finger than you’ve got in your senior thesis. Thirty Hertz Rumble is the birthplace of the bl-g and all you arbitrary bloggers are just jealous of my frequency (though probably at least as qualified and able to bl-g). Word to your female parental figure. Also sign up for my mailing list to await the official announcement of my Canasta Chicken Limited Edition Vinyl Collection: a 5 LP set of unpublished short stories on yellow vinyl (read by a really cool guy named Vernon who does a great Foghorn Legorn impersonation), accompanied by a sheet of sixty pinhead stickers depicting me in the various stages of a Canasta game and instructions on how to turn a $1 bill into an origami chicken with George Washington’s face. Consider the gauntlet thrown… or not, because either way I really don’t care.
Huey Lewis and the News Discography:
1980 – Self titled
1982 – Picture This
1983 – Sports
1986 – Fore!
1988 – Small World
1991 – Hard at Play
1994 – Four Chords and Several Years Ago
2010 – Soulsville
Is it possible that the most memorable conversation about Huey Lewis and the News takes place during a brutal axe murder in the excellent but flawed adaptation of American Psycho? (I’m unable to embed the video but I’ve inserted a short little sound clip without the blood below.) Over the years it seems as though the band has slipped into a punchline for a joke that nobody told. Was it because of Huey’s purple suits? Current and future generations may only remember their contributions to the soundtrack for Back to the Future — if at all. Really. I know some of these kids. They haven’t seen Back to the Future and they couldn’t identify John Cusack in a lineup. And then there’s always the scene from American Psycho. Continue reading Huey Lewis and the News – Sports→
We are defined by the things in our lives. Do not confuse “defined” with “owned by” – this is not a rumble about materialism or the depravity of consumerism. Whether we knowingly signed the contract with the things in our lives or not, they are how we are portrayed to the rest of the world as we connect the alphanumeric dots of our day-to-day lives. Whether you, in particular, are concerned with your thing-defined identity is irrelevant because the world is watching and, unfortunately for us all, you are the minority. Continue reading Subaru and Sensibility (and Turntables)→
Follow me on Twitter to receive links to essential vinyl available online. I’ll post links to essentials, curiosities and new recommendations as they occur to me. If you weren’t following me yesterday, for example, you missed my promotion of Belong,
the new album from The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. It’s on heavy rotation at the moment and needed a plug.
Today, on the other hand, I stumbled across a listing for the Vision Quest Soundtrack on Lisa Sumner’s Rare Vinyl shop on Etsy (to which I can’t seem to link textually… odd. Anyway go here for a great assortment of used vinyl with reasonable shipping costs: http://www.etsy.com/shop/rarevinyl?ga_search_query=rarevinyl&ga_search_type=handmade&ga_facet=handmade). And while the soundtrack is jam packed with quality 80’s acts like Madonna, Dio, Foreigner, Journey and Don Henley (which is reason enough for purchase), I made the recommendation because, well, you can’t have too many record sleeves featuring Linda Fiorentino (or Matthew Modine, really).
The point of this entry is that you should follow me on Twitter because you might find some gems and on the other hand, you might not. But is one really all that much more enjoyable than the other?
Epic playlist to follow.
A bl-g about classic and not-so-classic movies, music and nostalgia by James David Patrick