Friday, November 18, 2016

Soundbreaking, Episode 4: Electronic Instruments (Higher Ground, Show of Force, PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The fourth episode of Soundbreaking — an obvious pun on “sound” and “groundbreaking” — dealt with electronic instruments in general and the electric guitar and the synthesizer in particular. Fortunately, instead of pretending as if the whole pre-rock history of music didn’t exist, they started with the true pioneer of the electric guitar, jazz giant Charlie Christian, who in a brief two-year career (1939 to 1941) — like Jimi Hendrix, he died in his 20’s with much of his potential frustratingly unfulfilled — established the electric guitar as a legitimate instrument with very different capabilities from an acoustic guitar. There were other electric guitarists in jazz before Christian — Ceele Burke played the pedal steel guitar on Louis Armstrong’s “I’m Confessin’” and “I’m in the Market for You” (oddly, this instrument was the first to have the pickup system that would later become the basis for electric guitars, but it took several years for any instrument maker to think of putting pickups on a normal guitar instead of a lap or pedal steel guitar) and Eddie Durham experimented with a “resonator” on his guitar on Jimmie Lunceford’s records of “Hittin’ the Bottle” and “He Ain’t Got Rhythm” (though I’m not sure whether the “resonator” was an actual electric attachment or simply a metal device to make an acoustic guitar louder like the kind National used on their metal guitars favored by country blues musicians, or the Douglas Brothers used on their “dobro” — the name makes it sound like an entirely separate instrument but it’s just a resonator-equipped guitar and “dobro” was simply an abbreviation for “Douglas Brothers”) — but he was the first one really to explore the possibilities of the electric guitar, not only volume (for once a guitarist could play a solo line over a big band and be heard — previously there’d been guitar solos on big-band records but the arrangers had to quiet the band down and only use a few other instruments so the guitar would be audible) but also sustain.

Christian’s debt to saxophonists in general and Lester Young in particular is quite apparent (at least to me); in using the sustaining quality of the electric guitar he began the process Jimi Hendrix finished, of basically turning an inherently staccato instrument like the guitar into a legato one. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd remembered going to his college graduation dance and the featured band was Cream — Eric Clapton on electric guitar, Jack Bruce on bass and vocals, and Ginger Baker on drums — and that night Clapton invited a special guest to sit in with them: Jimi Hendrix. (The fan arguments over whether Clapton or Hendrix was the guitarist of the age was reminiscent of the arguments that had divided swing fans in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s over whether Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw was the greatest swing clarinetist — though as I’ve noted in these pages before, Hendrix “won” the argument — quotes definitely intended — by dying young and thereby putting himself beyond criticism.) The show tracks the history of the electric guitar but jumps past pioneers like Aaron “T-Bone” Walker (who actually took lessons from Charlie Christian but decided to focus his career on blues because he thought it would pay better than jazz, and who pioneered many of Hendrix’ most flamboyant gimmicks, including playing guitar behind his back and picking the strings with his teeth — tricks Hendrix learned from playing the chit’lin’ circuit in bands that were opening for Walker) and Wes Montgomery (the real missing link between Christian and Hendrix and one who, like them, died too young) to focus instead on Muddy Waters and the other Chicago bluesmen who basically created the “urban blues” sound by adopting electric guitars and playing the old Mississippi Delta licks with electric instruments. The story mentions that, like a lot of other sorts of music, urban blues crossed the Atlantic from the U.S. to Britain and British artists like the Rolling Stones (who began as exclusively a blues cover band) played the songs of Waters and his contemporaries (oddly, Howlin’ Wolf, Waters’ great contemporary and rival, is not mentioned here) brought the Black blues to white audiences first in their homeland and then in the U.S. (You wouldn’t know from that print-the-legend version of the history that Muddy Waters had toured Britain as early as 1958.)

The Soundbreaking program on electric instruments divided neatly into two parts, the first about electric guitars and the second about synthesizers, whose introduction into pop music they date from the experiments of Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, who bought synthesizers from Robert Moog and other pioneering inventors and laid them out in a crowded studio room. At the time the synthesizer was a huge contraption that looked like a music keyboard plugged into an old-style telephone switchboard; the great advantage of synthesizers was that you could change the timbres (much like changing the stops on a pipe organ, which itself is a sort of analog synthesizer), but the great disadvantage of them in the early days was you could only do that by pulling one set of cords out of their plugs and plugging in another set. Cecil and Margouleff put out two synthesizer albums under the name “Tonto’s Expanding Head Orchestra” (though the Wikipedia page on them says “Tonto” was not a reference to the Lone Ranger’s sidekick but an acronym for “The Original New Timbral Orchestra”), and they impressed Stevie Wonder. Wonder was dissatisfied with the formulaic records he’d been making at Motown, he had just turned 21, had won his contractual independence (though he turned down big offers from Columbia and other majors to stay on Motown because he wanted to be on a Black-owned label) and was looking for a new sound. Just how a blind man could maneuver on the incredibly crowded studio space Cecil and Margouleff rented him is a bit of a mystery, but Wonder came in with literally hundreds of songs he’d written, recorded them one by one on the Tonto synthesizers and dubbed all the other parts, including drums (there’s a clip of Wonder playing drums here), then added vocals and created deathless records like “Superstition” and the other tracks on the Music In My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’s First Finale LP’s that were part of the streak in which Wonder won the Album of the Year Grammy Award three out of the four years between 1973 and 1976. (When Paul Simon won in 1975 for Still Crazy After All These Years, one of the people he thanked was “Stevie Wonder, for not putting a record out this year.”)

Later Robert Moog would develop a more compact version of his pioneering synthesizer called the Mini-Moog, which still had a lot of outside patch cords but was relatively small and easy to set up so it could be used in live performances, and while this show proclaims the New Wave band Devo as “the kings of the Mini-Moog” my recollection of the first album to use it was Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention’s Mothers Live at the Fillmore East 1971. (Zappa is one of the many musicians who has got short shrift on this series even though he was one of the most incredibly innovative figures of the period as well as a killer guitar player who frankly, at least to me, deserved to rank alongside Hendrix and Clapton as a 1960’s guitar god.) The show also discusses the rise of disco (though, once again, they have not covered the rise of punk, another late-1970’s phenomenon!) and the centrality of synthesizers to disco; producer/songwriter Giorgio Moroder is interviewed about Donna Summer’s record “I Feel Love,” which he produced completely by himself, synthesizing all the instruments and only bringing her in at the end to create and sing a lyric. One nice thing the show did was showcase two different versions of the Rolling Stones’ song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” the Stones’ original early on during the segment on them and the electric guitar (the narration delivered by Dermot Mulroney claims that “Satisfaction” was the first Stones’ record on which Keith Richards rather than Brian Jones played the lead riff, which seems a bit hard to believe given that then, as since Richards and Mick Jagger wrote all the Stones’ originals and Jones never got a composition of his recorded by the band) and Devo’s cover later on via a clip of them performing it on Saturday Night Live. I’ve never cared for Devo’s version of “Satisfaction” — and it’s not that I mind that it’s quite different from the Stones’ original (a record I remember vividly from my own childhood because my mom passed it down to me after she decided she couldn’t stand it; I played it to death and rejoiced that finally I had achieved the adolescent rite of passage of embracing music my parents couldn’t stand: my mom had liked the Beatles and Bob Dylan and indeed had introduced me to the latter!); I had a 1970’s version by the San Francisco art-punk band The Residents and loved their take on “Satisfaction” even though it was farther removed from the Stones’ original than Devo’s!

The show closes with some modern-day artists, including singer-songwriter-electric guitarist St. Vincent (a woman) showing off her skill at using guitar effects pedals to create synth-like effects and a brief segment at the end about EDM — Electronic Dance Music, the now-popular genre that is essentially the evolution of disco into a heavily synthesized offshoot in which some of the most popular performers, like D.J. Skrillex (whose name sounds more like a prescription drug than a person), neither play instruments nor use live musicians but can create appealing textures merely by mixing and sampling pre-existing recordings. (Skrillex is interviewed briefly in this show and boasts that he can literally compose anywhere, including in a taxi, since all he needs is a laptop with its hard drive full of samples he can access and mix on the spot.) Soundchasing is an odd series that has made me feel old in one respect — it’s made it obvious how little sympathy I have for a lot of the music being made today even though I like quite a few modern artists (including Adele, Lorde and Maren Morris, to mention just a few whose CD’s I’ve purchased recently) — I guess just as the modern movies I like are the ones that seem to have the qualities I like about the older movies from Hollywood’s classic era, the modern records I like are the ones that most successfully troll the territory from older musicians even if they put a modern “spin” on it, and the ones that still tell stories and touch me emotionally rather than just displaying their command of technique.