Thursday, November 24, 2016

Soundbreaking, Episodes 7 and 8: “Sound and Vision” and “I Am My Music” (Higher Ground, Show of Force, PBS, 2016)

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

Over the last two nights I’ve watched some of PBS’s “Fall Arts Festival” programming on pop music, particularly the last two episodes of the Soundbreaking series, “Sound and Vision” (about the rise and, as far as music is concerned, the fall of MTV) and “I Am My Music” (about the various formats recorded music has been packaged in, from 10-inch 78’s to 45 rpm singles to LP’s to CD’s to downloads and now streaming services). The “Sound and Vision” show introduced Tom Freston, the executive who was picked to run MTV (the initials stood for “Music Television” but today there’s almost no music on MTV, thanks to the curse of tacky “reality” shows that were put on originally to supplement its programming and later replaced videos) because he previously knew nothing about TV — a management philosophy that seems to have produced our next President. When the corporate overlords of MTV decided to launch a music channel they had virtually nothing to put on it — just a few videos from Europe, where music videos were already an established format, including endless ones of Rod Stewart, sitting in front of a fireplace strumming an acoustic guitar as his hits played in the background. (In 1981 Yoko Ono did a memorial video for John Lennon, based on his song “Woman,” and when Barbara Walters aired it on ABC she had to explain to the audience what a music video was!) The show offered a brief history of music on film, including a clip from the spectacular “Shadow Waltz” number from Busby Berkeley’s film Gold Diggers of 1933, but it ignored the so-called “band shorts” that had actually been the first talking films ever made in the early 1920’s (among Lee DeForest’s experimental films to test his sound-on-film system in 1923 were three-minute performances by Eddie Cantor and other “name” entertainers and bands of the day) and by the mid-1930’s had developed into an art form of their own. Duke Ellington’s A Bundle of Blues (1933) and Symphony in Black (1935) are artfully staged performances that anticipated the music videos of the 1980’s in their attempts, not merely to depict a band performing, but to show images that communicated with the music was about. In the early 1940’s a company called Sonoco invented a self-contained projector called a “panoram” and used it to show “Soundies,” three-minute clips of popular big bands and entertainers (including Liberace, who made his film debut on one) which you could watch by dropping a coin in a slot and selecting the film to project — a sort of video jukebox.

The MTV show leaped forward to the way rock music was presented on TV in the 1950’s, with American Bandstand and its imitators; though Bandstand was presented as if the musicians were performing live, they weren’t. Instead they were simply lip-synching to their recordings, and often you could tell because their electric instruments weren’t plugged in to anything. The real start of rock music videos came, as with so much else in modern rock, with the Beatles, who once they stopped performing life in 1966 decided to make short films accompanying their songs which could be shown on TV as promotion for their records — and I can vividly remember what a sense of occasion surrounded every time a new Beatles video was unveiled, like the night they picked the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour as the venue by which they would introduce the U.S. to “Hey Jude.” The Beatles’ movies not only pioneered the use of video as a way to promote music, they also established the filmmaking style that would come to dominate rock videos: elaborate productions, quick cutting and an abstract presentation instead of any attempt to simulate a live performance. Once MTV launched — with a defiant gesture, a song by Thomas Dolby called “Video Killed the Radio Star” — they scrambled for material, especially since Freston and the other people running it had decided that their core audience was young white rock fans who wanted to see young white rock musicians … and no one else. Not until CBS/Sony Records threatened to pull all their videos from MTV if the channel didn’t start playing Michael Jackson did MTV start playing Michael Jackson — whose videos became so incredibly popular they helped launch his album Thriller and push it from just another successful record to a phenomenon. (Actually I suspect Thriller was launched as much from Jackson’s famous “moonwalk” performance on “Billie Jean” from the Motown 25th Anniversary Special than from his videos getting on MTV — though one Black musician and producer recalled stopping whatever they were doing in the studio every hour because MTV had the full 14-minute clip of “Thriller” on at the same time every hour, and he and his band loved it so much they insisted on breaking off their own work to watch it whenever it was on.)

The basic thesis of “Sound and Vision” was that the existence of music videos and MTV as a showcase for them not only changed the audience’s understanding of music — one anti-video holdout, Tom Petty, said he resisted making videos for a while because he didn’t want his listeners to be locked into an association of a song with one and only set of visual images — but altered who got signed to record contracts. A singer like Madonna, with a serviceable voice but a great sense of theatricality and a willingness to reinvent herself constantly, became a huge star in the 1980’s largely on the strength of her videos as well as the songs they portrayed. (She did a video to “Material Girl” that was a flat-out copy of the scene of Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — and the Los Angeles Times’ editorial cartoonist, after one of President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union addresses, pictured Reagan as Madonna as Monroe singing, “We’re living in the material world/And I am a material boy.”) The show really didn’t go into much detail as to why MTV so totally abandoned videos in its programming — today it’s almost all tacky so-called “reality” shows plus an occasional Video Music Awards or some such show that hearkens back to its glory days — though it noted that music videos have migrated, like so much else, to the Internet, where people seek them out on YouTube. (Barf.)

Episode eight, “I Am My Music,” briefly toured through not only 78 rpm records but also the original gramophones, graphophones and Victrolas that played them (though actually much equipment in the 78 rpm era, particularly towards the end of it, was considerably more sophisticated than shown here) and briefly touched on the so-called “Battle of the Speeds” between CBS/Columbia, which developed a long-playing 33 1/3 rpm record that could last up to 25 minutes per side; and RCA Victor, which developed a short-playing 7-inch 45 rpm record with a large spindle hole (to accommodate the high-speed changer that would allow several records to be stacked and played in succession). Both formats survived, since the small size of the 45 rpm player allowed teens to carry both a supply of records and the equipment to play them on and set them up virtually everywhere, while the 33 1/3 rpm LP became the bastion for more serious music, not only classical but also artistically adventurous pop forms. Two LP’s from the 1950’s got special mention on the show: Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours (in which he responded to the breakup of his marriage to Ava Gardner by making a whole album of heartbreak songs and carefully sequencing them so the mood built up over the entire span of the LP) and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (five extended performances by an all-star jazz band with Miles, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb — actually Miles had innovated the long-form jazz LP eight years earlier with his Prestige Records release Dig, but Kind of Blue was on a major label, Columbia, and it was also artistically innovative in that it was based on modal songs, which use scales instead of chords as their basic underlying organizing principle).

The show also included clips of Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton performing “Hound Dog” and an interview with the song’s co-author, Mike Stoller (he wrote it with his usual writing partner, Jerry Lieber, and drummer/bandleader/producer Johnny Otis), followed up by a clip of Elvis Presley singing his heavily remodeled version (which, according to biographer Albert Goldman, he got from another Black act, Freddy Bell and the Bellhops, who rewrote the Thornton original so it could be sung by a man) in which Otis’s name magically disappeared from the songwriting credits (and Otis, done out of his rightful share of royalties from a record that sold 10 million copies, was naturally pissed). It then mentioned the rise of Top 40 radio and its crucial importance in “breaking” rock records in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and the tyranny of short running times it imposed — whereas a 10-inch pop 78 could accommodate 3 minutes 20 seconds, and a 45 could be longer than that, if you wanted it to get played on the radio you had to keep it between a flat two minutes and 2:30 — which was broken when Bob Dylan recorded “Like a Rolling Stone” with a full band. Columbia, Dylan’s label, made two 45 rpm versions available — one split down the middle like a typical two-part record and one with the full six minutes on one side of a 45 — and enough stations played the full-length version it cracked the charts, vastly expanded Dylan’s audience and also made the horizons of rock that much broader. All of a sudden, as one interviewee put it, rock was serious — and instead of just one good single and trashy filler, rock LP’s like Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band were works of art in their own right, presenting songs of uniformly high quality and depth. The “concept album” invented by Sinatra on In the Wee Small Hours came to the rock world with Sgt. Pepper and to the soul world with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, in which he not only wrote and presented a series of songs dealing with political themes — war, the environment, the counterculture — he faded them into each other so each side of the record was a continuous piece of music without audible breaks between songs. The show mentions that Motown owner Berry Gordy didn’t want Gaye to make What’s Going On — he wanted to keep the image of his company safe, pop-oriented and decidedly noncontroversial — and it does not mention how Gaye got to make the album. Just before he started work on it, Gaye had had the biggest hit of his career, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (which had begun as an impromptu studio jam on a song that had already been a hit the year before for Gladys Knight and the Pips), just as his record contract with Motown was expiring. With the bargaining power that comes from having had your all-time biggest hit just when your contract comes up for renewal, Gaye laid down the law to Gordy and told him that if Gordy wanted him to stay with Motown, he’d let Gaye make What’s Going On.

After that the show segues into the development of the cassette and its rise as a music medium, both in pre-recorded form (I vividly remember buying the cassette instead of the LP of the Police’s final album, Synchronicity, because the cassette had an extra song, “Murder by Numbers”) and because it could be used for home-recording. This led to the rise of the “mix tape,” in which people put together songs from several albums to create a personal mix of their own, often shared with friends or actual or potential romantic partners. It also led to the phenomenon in the punk world (oddly, of all eight Soundbreaking shows this is the only one that so much as mentions punk!), in which bands recorded their own music, put it out on cassette because it was far easier and cheaper to do so than master a vinyl disc, and advertised it in punk ’zines. Dave Grohl, drummer for Nirvana and later leader and guitarist of the Foo Fighters, recalls buying tapes from ’zine ads but doesn’t mention that Nirvana’s first recording was distributed that way: it was called Fecal Matter and came out well in advance of their first commercial recording, Bleach, on the Sub Pop label. The show also does a digression to the Grateful Dead and the fan base they attracted of people who recorded their shows and traded them with each other, and realizing that they couldn’t stop it, the Dead not only allowed people to record their shows but even set up a special section for tapers so their microphones wouldn’t get in the way of everybody else’s line of sight. After cassettes came CD’s, which were originally marketed as a high-end audio product — few people (including me) expected them to displace both LP’s and cassettes, but they did — and one spectacularly wrong prediction I made about CD’s was that, by eliminating the side break in between the two halves of a record, they’d encourage more artists to do album-length works and concept albums. Instead the opposite happened; the feature CD listeners glommed onto was the ability to pick just one song out of a CD and play it, ignoring the rest — and music fans found themselves forced to buy a whole $15 to $20 CD containing 17 songs they didn’t like to buy the one they did. The solution came in the form of .mp3, a computer format for compressing music so a song could be transmitted over a telephone line in the early days of the dial-up Internet connection; .mp3 was invented by German engineer Karlheinz Brandenburger, who did various tests as to how much he could compress digital music files without creating distortion (the “3” in .mp3 denotes that the third attempt was the best in terms of the compromise between quality and file size); Napster and other free (and illegal) “peer-to-peer” file-sharing services allowed fans to download music for free and only get the songs they wanted, though the dangers included low quality, songs that stopped in the middle and the possible infiltration of malware on your computer. That changed when Apple introduced iTunes and offered high-quality downloads for just 99 cents a song (though the price for most current material has gone up to $1.29), and iTunes and its competitors put the illegal file-sharers out of business by offering consistent quality at a reasonable price.

Only now the trend is away from downloading and towards “streaming,” so instead of buying individual songs in either physical or electronic format, you pay a monthly fee to rent access to music so you can hear any song from the company’s playlist you want at any time. The show presents this as a trendy new way for young people to listen to music, but it has two other factors driving it, both highly problematical. One is the modern-day media industry’s interest in shifting all content purchases from buying to renting — a trend that started with the sale of computer software (where the traditional “first-sale doctrine” of copyright law — that you can’t make copies of a copyrighted work you purchased legally but you can do anything you like with that one copy, including resell it, give it away or cut it up into pieces and reassemble them as a new work — specifically doesn’t apply) and is now being applied to everything. Computer software is now being sold as a “service,” meaning that instead of owning a copy of the program you rent it month-to-month (so if you stop paying every document you created with that software becomes unreadable and useless), and electronic files of books, songs and movies are sold under a so-called “End User Licensing Agreement” that severely limits what you can do with them. The idea is to end the entire idea of collecting media forever — instead of distributing physical copies whose buyers own them outright, both media and tech companies want us simply to rent them under increasingly stringent user conditions that govern what we can and can’t do with them. The other factor that is putting an end to the whole idea of a record collection is the increasing redistribution of wealth and income upward, and the rising level of economic inequality. More and more young people are either forced to keep living at home with their parents or to accept multiple-roommate situations or live in very small spaces; one interviewee in this program mentions being particularly impressed by a friend who had a massive collection of CD’s, cassettes and over 4,000 LP’s. Few young people today can afford to do that; not only do they not have the money to buy that many physical products, they don’t have the money to rent enough living space to accommodate them.