There was a time when I would have hated this. Adolescence is a hotbed of pretenses and idealism, a time for making a Halloween costume out of yourself and wearing it all year long in the hope that people will eventually forget that it’s a costume. It’s an an age when we cling to the tragically microscopic but massively important amount of order and understanding we’ve discover in the world during our previous decade or less of sentience. And we are direly committed to stopping up our ears against anything that might threaten that order.
I hear you saying, “But, Jason, that’s not just adolescence.”
Well, you’re probably right. And perhaps life — life in the long-haul or magical quest sense — is about knocking as much detritus from our ears as time and vanity allow in the hope of someday hearing the world as it really sounds, not just as we want/need/beg it to sound.
When I was a teenager, I had very high ideals about music — and about punk in particular. And that’s why I would have hated everything that follows. Like most of you I discovered a kind of sonic haven, an aural cave where I could nuzzle my head into a pillow of sound, escaping the dismal reality of chores, homework, harassment, no girlfriend, pimples, body, braces, awkwardness, Dostoevskian drawing-room debacle that was my life.
The idea that when I listened to a song it was anything other than the actual band actually making those actual sounds as if they were actually standing right here, right now, would have caused me to clench my teeth and ball my fists in rage. I assumed recording an album meant corralling a band in front of a microphone and letting them play their songs. Listening to a recording was a kind of Camera Lucida of sound. Studio tricks were dishonest, the musical graft of sell-out pop stars and techno bands. There existed an inverse relationship between the level of production and level of musical integrity.
Punk rock meant honesty.
Of course, I was pretty mistaken about that.
If you frequent museums you know that a person has to learn to see. And if you listen to music, you know the same is true of hearing. The distinctions between genres of music, between bands playing within those genres, between types of songs that those bands play — all need to be learned. To the uninitiated music might offer just a bland and indistinguishable continuum, but to the initiated there is a vast cosmos of meaning. There’s a whole world of sound which you can hear without ever actually hearing. The edits, loops, and punch-ins referenced in the title of this post are an admittedly small part of that world, but pretty interesting nonetheless.
My adolescent counterpart, with his embarrassingly naive conception of how a song was recorded, would have bristled at the notion that the performances of the individual members of a band might not be recorded simultaneously but rather one after another and in such a way that a performance marred by imperfection needn’t be scrapped entire but might be salvaged by “punching-in” the performer at a certain point slightly anticipant to the marring portion of the original recording; or that two recordings can be edited together, giving the deceptive appearance that there is one performance whereas in fact there are two halves of two performances; or that a song need not be recorded whole, but only one small segment of the song which can be looped like the beat of a hip hop song as ad infinitumly as tape or hard drive allow.
These little sound-seams impart the moral of the Holy Mountain without requiring you watch two hours of the Holy Mountain. They’re like when you see the shadow of the boom mic on a filmed wall. It doesn’t mean the movie is a bad movie. It’s just a reminder that the movie is a movie, that there is this whole elaborate system of magic tricks whose purpose is to lull your mind into accepting what you are seeing as a linear series of events, rather than a cut together series of tableaux recorded randomly by people pretending to be other people in places that aren’t always real places.
Incidentally, I hope no one reading this will take this as condescension on my part, as if I’m saying, “Follow me and I shall open your ears, you deaf jerks!” I know you all know how music is recorded, and that recordings — even purportedly “live” recordings — are not without their alterations. And I imagine most of you have already heard most of what I’m going to point out. I’m not so much trying to point out that these seams exists, but to ask what it might mean to us to hear them.
I’ve set things up in such a way that, just in case you haven’t heard the song or noticed the seam before, you can listen to the song and try to hear for yourself where the suspect seam is. Underneath each video is a picture of the band. Hovering over the picture will reveal an explanation. Try it on the image below.
Got it? Good.
So without further ado, lets “zoom back” . . . uh, microphone?
The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever”
The most celebrated editing job in music history?
The short explanation is that this song is two different versions of the song cut together. Here’s a slightly longer but still somewhat incomplete explanation:
The first fifty-nine seconds are a basic live recording with various overdubs, one of which is the vocal performance. The vocal performance was recorded with the backing track played fast, so when the full recording — music plus vocals — was slowed back down to normal speed, the vocal recording would be pitch-and-tempo shifted down from its natural, or live, pitch-and-tempo, lending a sort of “slurry” quality to the vocal
performance recording. The last words of this portion of the song were lifted from a different part of the vocal performance and edited in to complete the transition into the second portion of the song. Finally, this whole half-Frankenstein is slowed down so that it would fit key-and-tempo with the second part of the song, which itself is sped up so that the two halves can be married in the same key-and-tempo, resulting in a song — or an aural experience, at least — that could never have been heard live.
What is striking about this editing is how unstriking it is at first. If you didn’t know the cut — and consequent change in audio properties — was there, you would never have heard it. But just like with the following image, once you recognize what it is you’re experiencing — a change in audio quality or an animal — you can never unrecognize it.
Once we hear the cut and hear the change in tone can we still hear the song as a single song, or can we now only hear it as two songs cut together?
Dead Boys – “Big City”
I have a theory about this song and why it’s on this album, which I will tell you about right now if you promise to keep in mind that it might be all baloney.
The album credits “Big City” to both Kim Fowley — a man of various fames and infamies — and one Steven T — who is probably not that Steven T.
Have you ever noticed how much the intro or bridge melody sounds like the chorus melody to the Dead Boy’s “Son of Sam”? Could it be that the Dead Boys anticipated a lawsuit, or some other form of retribution, from Kim Fowley and Steven T for biting their hook? So to avoid any problems they officially and legally licensed the tune, the idea being to create a sort of sonic smokescreen: you can’t sue a band for stealing a melody that they have already licensed. . . . Right?
Anyway, all this is pure conjecture. But lending some credibility to the theory is the fact that “Big City” is the only really forgettable song on the album and Stiv’s vocal performance is pretty lackluster. Perhaps after they flubbed take one, they couldn’t be bothered to go back and perform the song from the top and just started again where they screwed up, spliced the recordings together, and moved on with life. And as far as I can tell they never performed “Big City” at any of their shows.
Like I said, though, this meal has a possibility of high boloney content.
Fear – “I Don’t Care About You”
Then again, if anybody could really make that noise come out of their mouth, it would be Lee Ving.
The Cramps – “Uranium Rock”
The Cramps’ Bad Music for Bad People was one of the first CDs I owned, purchased with my own hard earned cash. I was pretty pissed to find what I assumed was a skip in the CD. But at some point during the last few years I heard either a tape or vinyl copy of the album and heard the same skip.
Velvet Underground – “All Tomorrow’s Parties”
Nirvana – “Something in the Way”
So, you’ve surely heard this story.
During the Nevermind recording session, Nirvana repeatedly tried to get a passable full-band take of “Something in the Way.” They failed. So producer Butch Vig invited Kurt Cobain into the control room and had him play the song on an acoustic guitar, recording the performance. Later the band recorded the choruses and finally a cello melody was overlaid, The result is a close, intimate, and sincere sounding recording.
But the verses are the same recording repeated. You’re not supposed to notice. If you do, the song takes on a strange, robotic quality. The intimacy of the recording vanishes, and you know you’re not actually listening to a man sing but a tape play.
Flipper – “Brain Wash”
A while ago, I played this song for someone, who responded angrily, “They keep playing the same song!” The oddest thing about his response wasn’t that the song had been repeating for about four minutes before he noticed, but rather that he assumed each repetition was a unique performance rather than a replaying of the same recording.
Is there any difference between “Something in the Way” and “Brain Wash”? Both take an identical recording and repeat it, only in the case of Nirvana’s song we are clearly not supposed to hear the repetition as repetition, whereas in the case of the Flipper song we get the feeling that the whole point of the song is to have it drilled repeatedly into our minds. It would be a different song if Flipper actually performed the song twelve times in a row. But it wouldn’t be a different song if Kurt Cobain had performed two separate verses — only, it would. We’re just not supposed to realize that it would.
I think most of these seams are endearing and, in almost all the cases, actually make the songs more enjoyable: Lee Ving’s impossible scream, Lux’s “uh-uh,” “All Tomorrow’s Party’s” little drum “uh-oh” that somehow sounds characteristically Moe Tucker-ish. And would it be an oddball and pretentious suggestion if I said the looping of “Something in the Way” — undoubtedly the most honest and passionate sounding¹ song on the album — is similar to Dorothea Lange’s smudging from existence the thumb of Migrant Mother? Both are artistic illusions created because honesty and sincerity have to look the part.
I like hearing these things. It reminds me that I’m paying attention, that the fabric of reality is a seamed seeming. How much of that reality might we experience without experiencing?
And if nothing else, hearing these seams is good practice in resisting the urge to ball our fists and clench our teeth and fight back against reality. As a kid, I had a strong belief about how music was recorded, and when the world itself counterclaimed my belief, I very probably willfully induced an ear-scotoma, deafening myself to what I heard. I mean, I heard it, but I didn’t hear it.
¹ Of course it’s a standard part of Kurtlore at this point that he didn’t actually live under that bridge, though it’s still a hot matter of debate whether or not he ate the fishes.
All photos stolen from various places, most notably this place, where Lux Interior’s high school yearbook photo can be found.