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THE BEAT GOES OFF
How technology has gummed
up rock's grooves

By Mark Hunter

Harper's Magazine / May 1987


Among the recordings discussed in this essay:

Elvis Presley, The Sun Sessions. RCA. AYMI-3893.
The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Capitol. SMAS-02653.
Otis Redding, The Best of Otis Redding. Atlantic. SD2-801.
The Police, Outlandos d'Amour. A&M. SP-4653.
Madonna, Like A Virgin. Sire. 25157-1.
Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks. Warner Bros. WBK-3147.


Not long ago I borrowed a car, loaded it with 211 phonograph albums that had been sent to me by record companies over the past three years, and drove to a secondhand record store, where I sold them for about $150. This was illegal; the albums were plainly marked "demonstration - not for sale" (though every record company knows that many of the critics on its mailing list derive a sizable share of their income by selling these albums). I didn't set out to break the law; but I'd offered a dozen or so people as many records as they could carry away, and I'd gotten no takers. Selling the records seemed somehow better than simply dumping them in the street - or keeping them.

Of the roughly 500 albums I've received in the past five years, maybe thirty were worth keeping. It's not easy for me to say that. Since the age of thirteen - that's twenty-one years ago - I have lived with and for rock-and-roll. I have spent incalculable hours around stereos and in rock clubs, listening, dancing, performing, falling in and out of love. I believed, as a California dance-hall queen told me once, that "rock-and-roll will keep you young." That the music itself would one day grow old was beyond imagining. Yet from what I hear, and I have heard an awful lot, the great creative period of this music is over.

What has aged rock music isn't merely or mainly laziness or a lack of imagination - though there has been more than enough of that. The overwhelming problem is the new technology behind the backbeat and the changes it has set in motion, changes that demand an entirely different approach to music from the one that initially made rock a fresh and exciting form. Technology, in music as in every other field, has its imperatives as well as its possibilities. For rock, the imperatives have proved deadly.

I am fully aware that most rock fans, let alone most critics, could care less about the technology involved in making records. But given the extraordinary extent to which rock music has penetrated our lives - a number-one pop hit today could be defined as a song that nearly everyone in the world will hear at least once - one might well take an interest in how it was recorded, and how this in turn shapes the kind of music being made. The fact is that what might be called the content of rock - the songs, the sound - follows to a great extent from formulas imposed by recording techniques. And these formulas are giving us music that is murderously dull.

The worldwide rock explosion began in 1963 when the Beatles set off what would become, within a decade, a doubling of global record and tape sales (to about $2 billion worth). The Beatles represented something new in pop music, but it was not their beat that was new so much as the fact that they were a self-contained composing, arranging, and performing unit. In this way they were quite different from the stars of the 1950s, who recorded material written by pop composers and arranged by record label A&R (artist and repertoire) directors. The great bands of the "British Invasion" of the mid-1960s - the Who, the Animals, the Rolling Stones - were similarly self-reliant, as were literally thousands of rock bands that sprang up in England and the United States in the wake of their success.

The Beatles and the other great British bands arrived on the scene just ahead of a profound changed in recording techniques - the move from monophonic taping, in which all the instruments used in a composition are recorded simultaneously on the entire width of the tape, to "multitracking," in which each instrument is recorded on a separate band of tape and then "mixed down" into the final product. The shift to multitracking took time, and its progress was reflected in the argot of the recording studio. In the 1960s, when a recording artist or engineer spoke of a "track," he meant an entire song (as in the Stones' Keith Richards' famous description of a typical pop album as "a hit single and ten tracks of shit"). Since the mid-1970s, "track" has been used to describe one instrumental or vocal part of a composition.

In the monophonic era, recording a song meant gathering an ensemble in a room, putting out one or more microphones, and recording the music in one "take," live. If you didn't like the take, you did it over, period. This was how Elvis Presley's epochal first recordings for the Sun label were made in the early fifties, and it remained the standard technique (there were some exceptions) through the mid-sixties.

The advantage of this method, in retrospect - at the time, engineers and producers simply had no other methods available - was that players could inspire one another to the kind of extra effort that comes only in ensemble work. If you have ever played in a good group, you know what those moments are like: suddenly, each musician seems to be hearing the music before it is played. That's what happens on Elvis's "Mystery Train"; Scotty Moore (on guitar) and Elvis (singing) anticipate each other's phrases, arriving together just ahead of where the ear would expect the beat to fall, driving the song forward to a mounting excitement. There is no drummer on "Mystery Train," but that doesn't keep you from dancing to it.

The disadvantages of this method were considerable, however, and evident even at the time - in particular, the difficulty in getting a distinct sound colour, or timbre, for each instrument, and in capturing a performance in which every musician and singer was at a peak. Producers went crazy when one verse on a take was poorly sung but the rest was superb, because there was no way to cut out the bad and keep the good. Engineers went crazy trying to keep the sounds of drums and amplified guitars from ending up in the singer's microphone. It could be done, but it was hard, and it became even harder in the 1960s, when the electric bass came into wide use and made possible a rhythm-section sound of extraordinary power.

Engineers developed techniques that ameliorated these problems, but they could not solve them entirely. By recording the instruments first, for example, and then rerecording this tape onto another, simultaneously with a live take of the singer, the problem of instruments fouling up a brilliant vocal could be eliminated. Unfortunately, every time sounds are transferred from one tape to another, there is a loss in quality. Producers tried to get as much of the sound on tape in a single take as possible, and to limit the number of times they made additions to the original performance. That is why Phil Spector introduced bigger rhythm sections to pop, and why he used such innovations as "massed pianos" on the sessions he produced for the Crystals in 1961 and 1962. The only way to achieve orchestral depth was to record an orchestra.

All this changed with the invention of stereo machines with three recording heads (or "capstans") in the early sixties. Now an engineer could not only record the vocals and instruments on separate tracks, he could "punch in" a performer at a given moment on a recording, and then "punch out" in confidence that the new punched-in sounds would be in sequence with the rest of the composition. Simply put, it was no longer necessary to record a song from beginning to end. "Synchronization" opened the way to true multitrack recording.

The pop album that most profoundly signaled the shift was the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967. The album was recorded on a four-track machine, the best then available, and the shock it caused when it was released, for rock musicians and listeners alike, was manifold.

To start with, all the lyrics are comprehensible on first listening - this was a rock rarity in 1967. Moreover, by recording the various parts - bass, drums, vocals, horns, guitars - on separate tracks, stopping periodically for "pre-mixes" in order to combine several parts on one track, then "mixing down" to the final stereo product, the Beatles achieved a precision and clarity of each instrument and effect that was unprecedented in pop. When next you hear this album, note how McCartney's bass line on "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" is distinct from the rest of the sound; on the Beatles' earlier records, the bass blends in with the drums and rhythm guitars, an angry roar at the bottom of the sound.

In essence, the techniques used to make Sgt. Pepper allowed the Beatles to compose an album, instead of performing it as they would onstage. When it soared to number one on the charts, those techniques became a commercial imperative. (Think of the Stones, who rushed onto the market the slipshod Their Satanic Majesties Request - a hash of psychedelic effects and chopped-up song structures.) In the wake of Sgt. Pepper, rock performance and rock recording became sharply divided domains. Eventually, that gap became the gulch where rock ran dry.

With multitracking, all the musicians involved in making a record no longer had to be present at the same time (a point underlined by the Beatles in 1969 in the making of Abbey Road; rarely were all of them in the studio together). Once the bass line was on tape, the bass player could go home. Conversely, if one player made a mistake, only his part needed to be rerecorded. Moreover, thanks to the process of overdubbing, which allows the engineer to record over selected portions of a track, the performance of a given player on a song no longer had to be continuous. If one verse was no good, the singer could re-take it. And the engineer could "treat" the sounds electronically during the recording or mixing to alter their timbre.

These techniques all but eliminated what had always been an essential element in rock, the concept of ensemble spontaneity. Cream's marvelous recording of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," for example, contains some notes that might as well not have been played, but one hardly notices them because the three musicians (Eric Clapton on guitar, Jack Bruce on bass, and Ginger Baker on drums) adapt their individual intensity and attack to one another's work, moving in and out of the lead as the moment demands. In multitrack work, where musicians take turns recording their parts, it is nearly impossible for an individual player to alter the ensemble's direction in this manner. A mistake will sound like a mistake, instead of a cue for the rest of the ensemble to incorporate an accident into a larger effect.

Multitracking also changed the dynamic flow of individual performances. All music achieves its effects through contrast; soft moments set up the tough ones, which in turn give way, relax. This follows naturally from performing a song in its entirety.

In the version of "Try a Little Tenderness" that Otis Redding and his backup band, the Bar-Kays, recorded in the mid-sixties, Redding keeps a certain power in reserve until the final measures, where he pleads outright with the listener to "love her, please her, never leave her," while the band rises behind him to a frenzied crescendo. In the multitrack era, when a musician will cut an entire track and then go back to "correct" certain passages, often phrase by phrase, performances tend to settle at a single dynamic level. Vocalists in particular seem to lose a sense of overall dynamic flow. Listen to Madonna's "Material Girl": the final chorus sounds just like the first.

Along with this loss of dynamism there is, on an overwhelming number of records, an absense of rhythmic invention. On one disc after another is the "boom-BOOM" of a thudding bass drum followed by a snare enveloped in reverberation - a "handclap" effect. Part of the reason for this awful sameness is that multitracking has led musicians and producers to think of rhythm as a domain unto itself, which it decidedly is not. When you listen to the records Marvin Gaye made for Motown in the monophonic era, records like "Ain't That Peculiar," you can't help but notice that piano, bass, guitar, and drum sounds blend into a single timbre. It is practically impossible to hear the sound of the bass drum separately from the sound of the bass guitar on this record, which is no doubt why the drummer chose to rely on his sharply percussive snare drum to set the beat. The way the timbres of their instruments would eventually come through on tape forced the musicians to think of rhythm as being the domain of no one instrument, but rather as an element emerging from a dynamic equilibrium among the members of the ensemble.

When multitracking made it possible to record the bass and drums separately, and to hear them distinctly even at high volumes, the role of rhythm musicians was deeply altered. Their sound was no longer far back in a percussive cloud, but could be moved right to the front of the mix - which works just fine in discos and dance clubs, where you listen mostly with your feet, but not at home in front of the stereo. You can hear the difference on a collection of "never before released masters" recorded by Gaye in the mid-sixties and early seventies and put on the market last year under the title Motown Remembers Marvin Gaye. Some remembrance: on nearly every song new bass and drum parts have been added through multitrack overdubs and mixed into the forefront. You can follow the beat more easily - even a deaf person could feel the impact of the bass drum - but its texture has been impoverished, cut off from the rest of the sound.

Before multitracking came along, a "groove" meant the sense of swing inherent in an entire arrangement. On Wilson Pickett's "Midnight Mover," for example, the bass guitar opens with a four-measure pattern, constantly shifting in accent, that first descends an octave, then holds firm around the root chord while the rhythm guitar knocks out a two-bar phrase that counterpoints both halves of the bass-line, in time and harmonically. Today, bass and drums are typically recorded first, and are thus obliged to play in a way that will not complicate the recording of subsequent tracks. A groove now means a two-bar phrase of bass and drum notes (often "played" by an electronic drum box) that repeats without changing, as on David Bowie's tiresome single "Let's Dance." Rhythm, once the backbone, has simply become the flat bottom.

Multitracking has flattened rock in other ways. For one thing, it cut short a revolution in the creative politics of the music industry. The people who rose to the top of the industry in the sixties, people like Clive Davis of Columbia, believed in letting rock bands "do their own thing" in the studio. That made sense when what counted on a record was the ensemble creation. It no longer made sense with multitrack machines.

Aside from the fact that the entire ensemble is no longer needed to finish a record, multitracking has made bands more dependent on producers and engineers, who understand the new techniques better than most musicians do. Moreover, anyone who has recorded both monophonically and multitrack will tell you that it takes far longer to make a record one sound at a time. In the studio, time is money, and in the multitrack era time costs more money than ever: studios have to update their equipment constantly to remain competitive, and the price of the investment is passed on to musicians and their record companies. In the early sixties, the cost of recording a typical "commercial" album - that is, one whose sound quality appeals to radio programmers and the average record buyer - was a few thousand dollars; the cost rose to $100,000 in the mid-seventies, and now often reaches twice that figure. With that much money at stake, most contracts now specify that the record company has the right to choose the producer; and, to an extent unmatched since the pre-Beatles days, those producers tend to impose proven commercial styles on artists.

An exception here proves the rule: in 1979, when the Police made their first and, in terms of dynamic variation, perhaps their best album, Outlandos d'Amour, they recorded each song as an ensemble, overdubbing only vocals and a few lead parts. In an attempt to retain control of their sound and hold down costs the group recorded the songs in a sixteen-track studio. (The standard number of tracks is now twenty-four; Yoko Ono has actually recorded on ninety-six tracks.) In effect, the Police made a multitrack record by a monophonic method. (By contrast, consider the fate of the Humans, an idiosyncratic Santa Cruz band whose first - twenty-four track - album, Happy Hour, has a flat, compressed sound quite unlike the group's roaring surf-meets-psychedelia live sound, but quite like their producer's last hit. Not surprisingly, it bombed, taking the Humans down with it.)

Multitrack technology long ago altered the terms of live performance as well as audience expectations. In the sixties, rock bands typically amplified each instrument individually; this was true whether you were talking about the neighborhood garage band or the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The result was a changed, erratic, stormy sound. But when multitracking took hold, the rock public began to demand that live concerts sound as "clean" as studio recordings, and so stage amplification moved in the direction of complex live-mixing systems that could faithfully reproduce studio sound. These mixing systems sent the cost of concert production through the roof. And, in so doing, they drove a wedge between the thousands of local groups that constitute the amateur base of the rock movement and its better-heeled professional practitioners, who are the only ones who can afford the new equipment.

The punk movement of the mid-seventies angrily attempted to restore sonic amateurism to rock. When you listen to the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, it is like having hot metal poured over your head. But punk didn't sell - not much, anyway - and the New Wave music that followed (and drew on punk) confirmed the takeover of the technicians. New Wave, above all, was a clean-sounding music.

And as went music, so went the clubs where it was played. Rock club owners began to realize that their expensive sound systems could be amortized - without the hassles and expense of hiring musicians - simply by using them to play records for people who didn't care how the sound was made, so long as they could dance to the beat. The result was that the club scene sharply declined. Today, no major city boasts more than a few live-rock clubs of any distinction. And almost all rockers now mix records for dance clubs, which have become a crucial promotional route. The most pronounced sound on these "disco mixes" is the monotonous domination of bass and drums.

The decline of the club scene has wiped out the major training ground for rock musicians, and destroyed whatever claims rock had to the status of modern-day folk music. Folk music is, above all, local music made by musicians playing their own arrangements of a broad standard repertoire as well as their own compositions. That is precisely how the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or Bruce Springsteen, for that matter, got their start. These artists began by copying songs from records, then changed the arrangements to suit their own ideas and talents. A good example is the way the Band rearranged "Mystery Train," substituting Rick Danko's stuttering bass for the guitar that drives Elvis' classic. By the time these musicians started writing their own material, they had already developed large repertoires and coherent, instantly recognizable ensemble styles. And they had been able to refine their styles over time before live audiences.

In the mid-1980s, such an apprenticeship is no longer possible for new bands. With club space reduced to a few showcases in major cities, most bands don't have the opportunity to play four sets a night in the same club for a week. They have to play forty-five minutes' worth of music - enough to prove to any record company executives in the audience that they can make an album. When Spandau Ballet, one of the aurally anonymous "New Romantic" English bands of the early 1980s, was awarded its first recording contract, the members of the group had been playing together for six months, and knew one set of material. (Not coincidentally, instead of touring, the group promoted the album with disco singles.)

It should not surprise us, then, that we have "rock bands" today that are made up of as many machines - synthesizers and drum boxes - as young men and women, or that the audience for rock watches for their favourites on TV.

Many recent rock movements, like the New Romantics, have been based not on a distinct musical style or, better yet, the ability to create new styles - the Beatles were masters of this - but on a look, in the fashion sense of the term. There is even a term for this, "visual bands." No one would deny, of course, that the visual aspect has always been crucial to a pop star's success; that was true for the young Frank Sinatra as well as for the Beatles. But these artists' visual presence served mainly to dramatize their music, rather than to distract from its hollowness.

Close your eyes the next time you watch an MTV video, and you'll realize that the band could be anyone, which is to say no one. What rock video has confirmed is that rock music no longer requires an emotional - let alone physical - engagement on the part of its audience. It is merely something one watches, passively, without noticing its constituent elements. It is no longer worth listening to.

[Mark Hunter writes about music for the International Herald Tribune.]