Saturday, 26 January 2013

Vinyl is Final

Besides listening to the radio in the back seat of the family car, my earliest memory of recorded music is the vinyl record. I remember tagging along when I was about six or seven with my dad when he went to visit his friend Ron. They hung out and listened to records and chatted about things. Wow... It's almost like they were real people! I would casually listen to the records they were playing, but never really approved. I came to realise that before you can discover your own music, first you have to suffer through what your parents are listening to.

My dad wasn't really much of an audiophile, but seeing as I was a kid in the 1970s, I distinctly remember dad having a very large and cumbersome brown wood-grain quadrophonic audio system featuring speakers that he had made himself. Of course, having a system like this meant you had to own music that could be appreciated on such a system, which unfortunately meant that my dad owned a lot of records that had very lofty ideas about their own importance by bands such as 'Yes' and 'The Allan Parson's Project.'

Yes 'Tales From Topographic Oceans' cover

As a Star Wars fan, I was in two minds about these records. I loved the fantastical sci-fi and fantasy imagery that appeared on a lot of Yes albums by artist Roger Dean that spread out in multiple gatefold sleeves, but the po-faced seriousness and pretentious virtuosity of the music itself mostly left me cold. There were musical exceptions, of course, that to me seemed to have the whole package. Pink Floyd had great artwork by Storm Thorgerson and their music had enough surrealism and Monty Python-esque English quirk to make them a little more accessible to my young ears. I also don't mind the Allan Parson's song 'Eye in The Sky'. He produced a lot of Pink Floyd albums and it would appear that some of their pop sensibility rubbed off on him (at least for this one song).

Pink Floyd 'Animals' cover

When I finally started buying music myself, I didn't really buy vinyl. By this time it was the 80s and the cassette tape seemed to be the way to go, with the Sony Walkman being the technical marvel of the day. Mix tapes and portability seemed more important than the ritual of sitting down and stroking your chin whilst contemplating intricate sonic tapestries. The only drawback with cassettes is they just don't last long and there's nothing more depressing than hearing the weird frequency modulation of a favourite cassette that has just been played too many times.

When the compact disc came along it solved this problem because the sound was a digital file and couldn't be altered from being played too much (unless you scratched the disc). Audiophiles lamented at the time that the sound quality was nowhere near as good as vinyl, but I couldn't really tell the difference. The square shape of the CD cover did, however, remind me of the once-great importance that album cover-art had as part of the overall package and how it had become emasculated by this new medium.

It was only when MP3s came on the scene that I really started to think about how I listen to music. Being the capitalist that I am, I felt kind of cheated by having to pay for music that just existed on my computer or iPod and I didn't feel like I physically 'owned' it. I think it might just be a psychological thing, but to me MP3s didn't sound as good. Once again, though, I'm no audiophile and all I can say is there seemed to be a 'vibe' missing.

One thing that I know is true is that a lot of modern recordings are over-compressed or 'brickwalled' so they sound louder on the radio. For this perceived payoff, the result is less dynamics in the music. This is why if you buy a vinyl recording of something like The Rolling Stones' 'Exile on Main Street' it's going to have a lot more dynamics than a version that has been remastered for CD or MP3. They didn't brickwall recordings in the 70s and vinyl recordings sound more like the artists originally intended - with more 'air.'

A lot of vinyl detractors will say they don't enjoy listening to vinyl records because of the surface noise and the pops and scratches detract from the listening experience. I disagree with this. I love the sound of surface noise because it feels like the record has been enjoyed. I would even go so far as to say I love how every time I play the Blondie album 'Eat to the Beat' it always skips during the song 'Union City Blue.' This song is my all-time favourite Blondie song and to me the fact that it skips during this song means the last person that owned this album also loved this song. Sure - it is annoying not to hear my favourite song all the way through - but at least it's an interesting loop!

The other great thing about vinyl is that now I can cheaply re-purchase vinyl versions of all those cassettes that I destroyed in the 1980s. These mostly consisted of artists such as Roxy Music, David Bowie and T-Rex, which are all readily available from second hand record stores throughout the western world. I can also purchase things on the cheap such as Dr Hook records and claim that I was being 'ironic', when, in fact, I would have happily paid full price for them! One of these days someone is going to cotton-on to how truly ground-breaking 'The Hook' were and re-issue their albums at full price, but until then it will be our little secret (*wink*).

Since getting back into the turntable it occurs to me that I've been trying to educate my daughter about what I consider good music by playing her things like Devo, David Bowie, Kraftwerk and Roxy Music. She's almost the same age now as I was when I first listened to music with dad and Ron. Maybe I should be playing her the same stuff that I was subjected to so she will end up having similar tastes to me... 

Maybe Yes weren't that bad after all... 

I wonder what dad and Ron are up to these days?...  

We should hang out!


Tuesday, 22 January 2013

David Byrne: How Music Works

I can always rely on Santa to bring me a good book for Christmas and this year he didn't disappoint. David Byrne's musings on the unique place music holds in culture is simply titled  'How Music Works'. It's not your average rock biography.

Byrne explains in the introduction that you need not have any knowledge of his personal musical career to enjoy the book. This is true, but I think the most fascinating aspects are derived from Byrne's unique perspective as a performer who has managed to last 30 years in the cut-throat music industry. It's hard to think of too many who have managed such a feat and, sadly, I think it is probably becoming harder to sustain a career in almost any artistic pursuit.

The book begins with Byrne explaining how music evolved to suit the environment it is played in: Tribal drums filling the vastness of an African savannah, orchestras projecting a sense of awe in concert halls and the simple bombast of stadium rock to reach the ears of those in the back rows in outdoor arenas. It's when he talks about the appeal of the tiny punk club CBGB's (where Byrne's band Talking Heads got their break) that he really starts to develop his own musical thesis.

CBGB's was a struggling biker bar on the wrong side of the tracks in Manhattan when bands such as Blondie, Talking Heads and Television started out. These bands had nowhere to play and CBGB's had nothing to lose by putting them on. It was a match made in heaven. The music played (out of necessity) was devoid of pretense and theatricality and while the musicians were not necessarily virtuosic, the club was a nurturing and non judgemental environment for bands to develop. Byrne points out that music in many forms represents what CBGB's offered: A sense of community, a shared cultural understanding and (for performers) a chance to express themselves creatively and communicate in ways that they might not be able to in ordinary life.

Of course, Talking Heads outgrew this tiny little club and I think one of the reasons that Byrne continues to be vital as a performer is because he continues to be open minded about music and does not slip into dogma that scenes such as punk in the late 70s clung to. He discusses 'the myth of authenticity' that punk bands championed which favours 'rawness' over theatrical performance. Talking Heads initially were raw simply because they were three shy friends testing the musical water on stage, but Byrne's open mindedness and increasing interest in other art forms such as Kabuki and Javanese shadow puppetry transformed an awkward club band into a massive ensemble with lighting and choreography (as well as a big suit) for the concert film 'Stop Making Sense'. Byrne rightly argues that music can also be spectacle.

He also discusses music technology and how it is only a recent phenomenon to be able to listen to recorded music. He explains how technology has changed an audience from primarily enjoying the live experience to being one that expects bands to reproduce their recordings perfectly on stage. He is refreshingly not snobbish about the quality of MP3s and considers them important in the same way mix tapes were to introduce people to new music. I agree with him wholeheartedly when he laments that recorded music has turned people from participants in making music to simply being passive consumers. There surely was joy to be had from family sing-alongs around the piano! - even if it was corny.

It's when he discusses the songwriting process and recording techniques that it becomes helpful to have at least a passing acquaintance with Byrne's oeuvre. Talking Heads started out as a band that made pretty straight ahead and sparse pop songs, but as they developed, so too did their stage show and they started to work more collaboratively using studios and technology in innovative ways, as well as incorporating what might be called 'automatic writing' techniques when it came to developing song ideas and lyrics. There are also interesting questions answered from a fan's perspective as to why after years of experimentation they suddenly reverted to a more straight ahead pop approach for the albums 'Little Creatures' and 'True Stories'. It turns out that Byrne needed to write songs in order to get funding for his 'True Stories' movie. I suppose for Talking Heads it was experimental for them to dabble with mainstream pop.

The most eye-opening section of the book deals with the financial realities of recording in the 21st century. Byrne bravely details his expenditure and subsequent profits from two recent albums: The solo outing 'Grown Backwards' and the collaboration with Brian Eno 'Everything That Happens Will Happen Today.' Byrne explains that he spent most of his hefty advance from the record company to record 'Grown Backwards', which made it difficult to make a healthy profit,  even though it sold quite well, whereas 'Everything That Happens' cost very little to make, sold well and was distributed independently which essentially cut out the record company middle-men. Songs from 'Everything That Happens' were also licensed to the Oliver Stone movie 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps', which also would have added substantially to the coffers. Byrne is cagey about his licensing arrangements, but I suspect it is probably his biggest source of income these days, especially when every movie seems to use 'Once in a Lifetime' as lazy shorthand to denote that a movie is set in the 1980s. Byrne is adamant that he never licenses songs to commercials.

Byrne uses the 'Everything That Happened' album as an argument that it is still possible to make money from recordings in a digital age and I do agree with him to a certain extent. He concedes that it is easier for him because he already has a public profile and audiences were keen to hear another collaboration with Eno. It is a bit beyond Byrne's scope to say how an amateur would fare independently, regardless of the quality of the material they present.  I think the one redeeming feature of having a record deal these days is the label can deal with the marketing and leave the creative decisions to the musicians. Other than that I think the traditional record company is a dying business model.

Byrne argues that it doesn't hurt to have a good business head on your shoulders, but I would argue most musicians are attracted to music so they can get away from the business world. The romanticism of being in a band is as important as the music itself. The Beach Boys would not be half as interesting without the mythology surrounding Brian Wilson and I bet most of the people who worship Brian Wilson's music also secretly wish they could spend a year in bed eating fried chicken, or else record farm animals in an expensive Hollywood studio on the record company's dime. When you consider the excesses of the past it is hard to get excited about some kid sitting at home with his laptop on weekends while he holds down a boring 9 to 5 job. Without the romantic appeal of the travelling musician you might as well just forget music and become a futures trader if you want to make money - or better yet - a games designer!

Looking at all the ways music can be obtained these days it still occurs to me that most music I listen to still reaches my ears via recommendations from friends or else artists I admire mentioning their influences in interviews.  There certainly are a lot more choice and an overwhelming quantity of music that was certainly not previously available. To me - and I suspect a lot of people - most of this music does not 'work', but I bet Byrne would argue that there is as much good stuff around as ever (and he'd probably be right). That's why I love David Byrne... he's forever the optimist!

Friday, 4 January 2013

What I Did On My Holidays

I've just returned to Melbourne after a couple of weeks in Queensland. During that time I visited two very different sea-related attractions that both had strong, yet seemingly opposite ideas about style and presentation when it came to 'family fun.'

The first attraction was located in Hervey Bay and was called 'Vic Hislop's Shark Show.' After my family and I walked through the massive set of shark jaws that also doubled as the front door, the attendant played a short video presentation featuring Mr Hislop describing what we might see inside. I enjoyed Hislop's overly-serious yet un-emotive presentation style, combined with the campy eighties-style production values, so I figured the exhibit was worth a shot. Besides, there were two more movies inside as well as a giant frozen Great White Shark.

The walls were adorned with preserved pieces of shark, gruesome photos of shark attacks, newspaper clippings and letters written to government conservation agencies by Hislop. We watched a video presentation in one room where Hislop claimed sharks were 'misunderstood.' This is where my latte-sipping inner-city Melbourne brain expected to hear an impassioned plea for conservation, but, to my surprise, Hislop instead went on a Captain Ahab-like tirade about what a menace sharks are and how they should be wiped-out. Perhaps he has a point about over-fishing by humans causing increased shark attacks, but his defensive style and ego-centric nature does not help to get his point across.

The preserved Great White Shark was impressive and scary, but it seemed an inauspicious end for such a terrifying and elegant creature to end up in what appeared to be a 1970s caravan that had been turned into a deep freezer.

I wondered what made Hislop so defensive as I walked through the exhibition. I suppose conservationists don't care much for self-proclaimed 'shark-hunters', but I thought it odd that Hislop didn't celebrate the shark. Even if he hunts them, they are still how he makes his living. I can think of a number of fascinating things about sharks off the top of my head that were not mentioned at the exhibition at all. Most of the plaques on the walls began with the pronoun 'I', so it is probably fair to say that the exhibition is more about the promotion of Vic Hislop, rather than the celebration of sharks.

Also, a lot of letters on the walls seemed to indicate that Hislop is fond of litigation, so maybe this is a good place to end my discussion of 'Vic Hislop's Shark Show.'

* * * * * 

Of course, the granddaddy of all marine-related theme-park experiences is Sea World and we went there  again this year to amuse our four-year-old daughter Clementine. We actually took her last year as well, but she didn't seem to understand much out of it. We were hoping this year she might. Who can say if she actually did?

The first noticeable thing about Seaworld is the massive sprawling carpark which is hotter than Hades, with no markings to identify where your car might be parked at the end of the day. 

The second thing you notice when you get in the gate is the massive crowd, which consist of distraught parents, over stimulated children, sulking tweens and confused-looking tourists. I didn't see any stoned teenagers ironically skulking-about, but they may have been at Dreamworld that day.

Seaworld is all about 'synergy' these days. Instead of the water ski show I remember from my youth, there is now a Spongebob Squarepants water show presented by Nickelodeon, with accompanying products that can be purchased from a conveniently located pavilion. All the attractions are set up in this manner, but Spongebob annoyed me the least because I'm actually a fan of the show and it occurred to me while watching the Spongebob show that a giant water-skiing foam replica of an animated talking sea-sponge was probably the most self-aware thing in the park.

I genuinely enjoyed the sea lion show and the dolphin show. The animals were impeccably well-trained and the corny story shoe-horned into the sea lion show at least had a message of conservation. Unfortunately, this reminded me of 'Vic Hislop's Shark Show' and I wondered if PETA and conservationists ever got on the case of Seaworld for mistreating animals during the training process in the same way they seemingly harassed Hislop. I wish I could have just enjoyed the shows for the simple entertainment that was intended, but I've always been suspicious of theme parks ever since finding out that Walt Disney was a Nazi sympathiser. 

My daughter Clementine seemed to enjoy Dinosaur Island the best, which, in her typical style, was the one exhibit she almost blew a gasket about and made us promise not to take her to. Go figure.

The most uncomfortable aspect about the park in summer is the relentless heat. This, combined with almost no shade, teeming crowds and sprawling areas of paving or bitumen, make escape almost impossible. It is easy to see why the air-conditioned penguin enclosure and the water park are among the most popular attractions.

I couldn't get the sun off my mind for the whole day and I found myself casually checking the skin of other patrons to see if they were prone to any imminent melanomas. I was horrified to find that the back of one middle-aged woman looked like a relief-map of the planet Mercury, with dark-spots and fissures that looked like tectonic plates shifting under intense volcanic activity. I felt like mentioning that she should probably get this checked out, but I didn't want to spoil her day.  

Besides the animal shows, I also enjoyed the monorail ride, not because of the ride itself, but moreso the fifty per cent of passengers who seemed to remember and sing 'The Monorail Song' from The Simpsons.

The attraction I was most looking forward to was saved until last. The water park at Sea World features a water  slide several stories high which I predicted would be the perfect way to end an exhausting, sweaty day. I was slightly annoyed that there was a five dollar cover charge on top of the exorbitant entry fee to the main park, but nothing was going to stop me from achieving my goal of conquering the aquatic tower of terror... except my daughter. She refused to wear the wrist band that indicated we had paid the entry price and even though we assured her it was not compulsory, she refused to enter the water. Stooping with arms hanging limply by my sides, I sulked my way out of the park. Through sheer serendipity we somehow managed to stumble across our car in the parking lot.

I ultimately had a good day at Seaworld, but that night I had a restless sleep. The unconquered water slide haunted my dreams and teased my troubled mind in the same way as the fires of Mordor must haunt Frodo Baggins' dreams, or else the Great White Sharks must haunt Vic Hislop's... 

Perhaps Vic and I aren't that different after all!