Performance and Recording: “Everyone sing the chorus—including intellectuals!”

by John Holbo on July 4, 2011

I just read two books back to back to good effect: Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy and Elijah Wald’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music [amazon]. (This post is stray book-thoughts, a bit weak in the conclusion department; only so-so in the adequate summary of what the authors are arguing department. Read on at your own risk.)

Ong’s book is a classic. Out of date in some ways (published in 1982), but still worth a read for the way it stakes out a para-McLuhanite position on the orality-literacy debate. Wald’s book came out a couple years ago and is a real eye/ear-opener (I’ll let my kids decide whether it’s a classic, when they’re old enough). What makes them go together is that Wald, in effect, rehearses Ong’s argument – unawares, so far as I can tell. This helps me see what’s right and wrong in Ong, who tells the story of how we ended up with this oxymoron, ‘oral literature’. Wald tells the parallel story of how we ended up with ‘live music’ – not an oxymoron, but it would have considerably puzzled our ancestors. Let me just give a thumbnail version of both stories.

Ong writes: “Human beings in primary oral cultures, those untouched by writing in any form, learn a great deal and possess and practice great wisdom, but they do not ‘study’. They learn by apprenticeship—hunting with experienced hunters, for example—by discipleship, which is a kind of apprenticeship …”

He talks about how writing is, initially, not a substitute for speech but an aid to it. “Thus writing from the beginning did not reduce orality but enhanced it.” The ancient study of rhetoric, for example, rests on writings – texts you can memorize and study – but aims at speech. But eventually we reach a tipping point. Writing declares independence, becomes the dominant, culturally privileged mode, to the point where, as aforementioned, its predecessor is reduced to an oxymoronic afterthought, ‘oral literature’. “By the start of the twentieth century, the Scottish scholar Andrew Lang (1844–1912) and others had pretty well discredited the view that oral folklore was simply the left-over debris of a ‘higher’ literary mythology—a view generated quite naturally by the chirographic and typographic bias discussed in the preceding chapter.” But even knowing this, we poor reading apes couldn’t quite wrap our literate brains around it. Ong relishes the story of Milman Parry’s rediscovery of how Homer works: “virtually every distinctive feature of Homeric poetry is due to the economy enforced on it by oral methods of composition.” It really is a great irony: because they themselves could not have functioned without reading and writing, scholars before Parry couldn’t ‘get’ something that is, properly, the human natural default. Primary oral culture. Writing got in the way. Writing is, as Plato said, very destructive of human memory; of species memory.

Ong has interesting thoughts about how writing colonizes inner space. “A literate person, asked to think of the word ‘nevertheless’, will normally (and I strongly suspect always) have some image, at least vague, of the spelled-out word and be quite unable ever to think of the word ‘nevertheless’ for, let us say, 60 seconds without adverting to any lettering but only to the sound.” I don’t think Ong mentions this, but it’s a fun fact that the word ‘word’ is, itself, a literary artifact. Primary oral cultures pretty much never have a word for ‘word’. (Or so I have read.) Also, while I agree about ‘nevertheless’, I wonder whether this would be true of a medieval monk reading scriptura continua, and whether it would be true of an English speaker-reader before there were dictionaries, standardized spelling, all that apparatus.

Ong has a McLuhanite ambivalence towards literary culture. On the one hand, it’s great! It makes possible analysis, critical thought and individualism. On the other hand, there is a spiritual cost in narrowness, isolation and forgetting. Ong, like McLuhan, is pining for preliterary, prelapsarian holism, re-integrated community, the whole ball of wax, before the shapes of letters were impressed upon it. I’ll just scan in a self-reflexive page from The Medium is the Massage (not because the text is adequate, but to show that McCluhan appreciated that brief statements of his view inevitably come off a bit goofy):

This seems a good point to switch over to discussing Wald’s Beatles book. Wald makes the same argument about recorded music that Ong makes about literature. Recorded music (a.k.a. ‘music’, i.e. the stuff on your iPod) starts as a support and adjunct to something else – ‘live music’, as we now call the other thing. Recording comes to be the dominant mode. Live music becomes the exception. Like Ong and McCluhan, Wald sees benefits, of course, but a high cost. We are, each of us, enclosed in our private iPod minds, thus not connecting with others in ways we might be.

It turns out that John Philip Sousa rewrote Plato’s Phaedrus, warning of the dangers of the shift to a new medium. (Here’s a bit by Wald, discussing Sousa.)

But Wald’s point also cross-cuts Ong’s. We can start with the New Yorker cartoon. Wald identifies the cultural moment satirized in the cartoon as the moment before the fall: right after Dylan went electric, after which (be it noted!) ‘acoustic guitar’ becomes an obligatory redundancy; right before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. McLuhan, by contrast, sees this as the moment when, so he hopes, we begin to turn it all around, recovering what went before the fall. So what fell, or was going to?

A bit more about Wald’s argument. For Wald, Sgt. Pepper’s is the tipping point after which we get white art rock. “Rather than being a high point of rock, the Beatles destroyed rock ’n’ roll, turning it from a vibrant black (or integrated) dance music into a vehicle for white pap and pretension.” This is Wald being hyperbolic to get the gist of his point across. He isn’t so dogmatic. It’s a hook to hang his history on. He wants to “explore the effects of evolving technologies, as bandstands and parlor pianos gave way to Victrolas, transistor radios, and iPods and what was once a social lubricant became a way of creating a personal soundtrack.”

Sgt. Pepper’s is important because it’s a studio rock album. It’s music that couldn’t really be properly performed in concert. It’s not music intended to be live dance music. It marks the emergence of a new sort of listening culture. Rock for headphones. It facilitates a new sort of individualistic, Crawdaddy-ish critical attitude: “[those who fixated in this new stuff] tended to be the sort of men who collected and discussed music rather than dancing to it. Again, that is not necessarily a bad thing (some of my best friends …), but it is relevant when one is trying to understand why they loved the music they loved and hated the music they hated.” Thus: “music criticism demands studious, analytic listening, and the people who listen that way tend to value music that rewards careful attention and analysis over styles that are just fun, relaxing, or danceable.” And: “The later Beatles LPs … were treated as musical novels, designed for individual contemplation in their entirety.”

Ward has a great epigraph from Harry Belafonte: “Everyone sing the chorus—including intellectuals!” That’s from 1957, so it’s obvious this whole thing didn’t start with Sgt. Pepper, strictly. Obviously Wald has read Sousa and is aware these worries go back to the beginning of the 20th Century. He focuses on the Beatles by way of drawing a parallel with Paul Whiteman in the history of jazz. He thinks the Beatles ought to be regarded as like Whiteman, i.e. hugely popular but an evolutionary dead-end in certain respects. Wald thinks that black and white music styles were growing together in a healthy way but that an effect of the shift the Beatles brought about was to reverse that tide: we had black music again, and white music. (It’s complicated. I just want to emphasize that Wald isn’t oversimplifying, per se, in picking on the Beatles, and Sgt. Pepper in particular. Read this interview, for example.)

This post is getting a bit long, hmmm yes? Maybe it’s clear where I’m headed. Pretty much all the broadly cultural points that Ong makes about what people are like before and after the shift from primary orality to literary culture have analogs in Wald’s picture of the shift from primary performance culture to recorded music culture. St. Ambrose, reading silently, is like the solitary rock critic, sitting in his apartment, with the headphones on. But obviously there is no shift from ear-to-eye orientation in the Wald case. We still listen to recorded music. So the thing that Wald’s argument shows about Ong’s argument is that it’s two arguments about ‘the medium’ that need to be kept distinct.

First, there’s the question about what it means to shift from ear to eye-orientation, per se. Ong himself emphasizes that there is no such thing as primary visual literary culture, analogous to primary oral culture. When we read, visually, we don’t stop hearing. Visual reading is a sight-sound hybrid. (St. Ambrose was pronouncing silently, even though he wasn’t moving his lips.) But this is a confusing thing for Ong to admit, because it makes visual culture inherently multi-modal and hybrid, and Ong wants to emphasize that literary culture is a matter of narrowing the channel down, thereby producing certain sorts of isolation.

Second, there’s the question of what difference it makes when you get these sorts of stable, reproducible intermediary artifacts: books and recordings. Scholarship goes up, because scholarship now has a steady, representable-in-its-own-right, studiable object in this thing. But amateur performance gets crowded out. Before books, every village has its home-grown Homer. Before recorded music takes off, every town has its local dance band – indeed, many families have the means of making their own music.

Slogans like ‘the medium is the message’ (or the massage) run these two questions together. Ong runs the questions together and, it seems to me, a lot of subsequent scholarly writing on the subject of orality and literacy is still laboring under that conflation.

Pulling it all together: Wald and Ong (and McCluhan) alike have this kind of Apollonian vs. Dionysian thing going on. I’ll just quote the first section from Nietzsche’s book:

With those two gods of art, Apollo and Dionysus, we establish our recognition that in the Greek world there exists a huge contrast, in origin and purposes, between the visual arts, the Apollonian, and the non-visual art of music, the Dionysian. These two very different drives go hand in hand, for the most part in open conflict with each other and simultaneously provoking each other all the time to new and more powerful offspring, in order to perpetuate in them the contest of that opposition, which the common word “Art” only seems to bridge …

In order to bring those two drives closer to us, let us think of them first as the separate artistic worlds of dream and of intoxication, physiological phenomena between which we can observe an opposition corresponding to the one between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.

I think it would have have been useful for Ong to step back and say: I’m letting my remarks about visual literary vs. primary oral culture get infused with a bit too much of that old timey Apollo vs. Dionysus religion. Likewise, Wald on live vs. recorded music culture. All the same, these are two great books.



Vance Maverick 07.04.11 at 6:39 am

Weird that even Sousa doesn’t notice that musical notation has most of the properties he decries in recording. Not that Wald is wrong — the coming of recording did change “live” music — but there was already a strong stream of music oriented around a means of reproduction, starting way back and reaching very wide diffusion in the century before Edison. Maybe the difference is that there wasn’t a well-attested lapse from the Time Before Notation to the sad days when one could buy the same Sousa sheet music in Cincinnati and San Francisco.


Neville Morley 07.04.11 at 7:43 am

I haven’t read Wald’s book, but it will be interesting to see how much, if at all, he’s drawing on Jacques Attali’s Noise, whose arguments clearly foreshadow these ideas about changes in the production and reception of music (including the effects of the introduction of notation and then the coming of recording). I’m really not convinced by what you’re suggesting he’s doing with Paul Whiteman, however: popular, yes, but really only with white audiences and with no serious suggestion that he was doing anything remotely progressive or evolutionary – his place in the history of jazz is pretty marginal, whereas the Beatles (i) were seen at the time as offering the/a way forward, even if it’s proved to be problematic and (ii) are unavoidable in the history of popular music, whatever you think of them.


Hidari 07.04.11 at 7:47 am

if you are interested in these issues one book you may wish to check out is The Domestication of the Savage Mind (I know terrible title) by the great anthropologist Jack Goody. He argues that ‘our’ oh-so-important distinction between ‘civilised’ and ‘primitive’ societies is in very large part related to the development of writing and our view of those who have developed writing and the uses to which it is put. It’s based on his own empirical work and it’s all about the development of literacy as opposed to orality.


Gaspard 07.04.11 at 7:47 am

2011 and we’re still talking about the Beatles?

Whereas for some time now, dance rhythms are created in the studio, and are only reproducible on stage via a DJ or similar pre-recording or sampling, whereas white (rock, folk, indie) music can be reproduced on stage just with instruments. White people even still go to hear authors read their books out loud. This distinction does not look very robust.


chris y 07.04.11 at 8:20 am

The earliest instance I know about of somebody worrying about how current trends in music were stopping people dancing is Count Basie saying approvingly that at least rock and roll, in contrast to bop and cool, was getting the kids dancing again. But I bet it wasn’t original, even then.

There is, has been and will be always Johann Sebastian Bach improvising toccatas where you have to concentrate on every note and have them blow your mind with their complexity; and there is, has been and will be always Johann Sebastian Bach writing funky minuets to get people moving on the floor.


Michael Drake 07.04.11 at 10:34 am

“Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” (I guess one man’s Dionysian is another’s Apollonian…)


bert 07.04.11 at 10:37 am

Wouldn’t want to live in a world without Abbey Road.
(Serving suggestion: get rid of ‘Maxwells Silver Hammer’.
‘Something’ followed by ‘Oh Darling’ is the natural order of the universe .)

In ’04, the candidates were asked about their favourite records.
Kerry picked Abbey Road. Bush picked Wake Up Little Suzie by the Everleys.


Chris Bertram 07.04.11 at 10:54 am

Agree about Wald. I read it last year, terrific book.


Walt 07.04.11 at 11:20 am

Gaspard, it’s 2011, and we’re still talking about: the French Revolution, the Reformation, the fall of the Roman Empire, the birth of Christ, the fall of the Roman Republic, the fall of Troy, and the end of the last Ice Age. Generally the past is thought to cause the present, and therefore is still relevant to it.


Gaspard 07.04.11 at 11:45 am

“Generally the past is thought to cause the present”

Well indeed, but the question is, does the focus on the Beatles making a “studio” album really have anything to do with dance beats, whiteness, class, or any of the other sub-Q magazine dichotomies being proposed. Talking about the Beatles now in a world where many young people pay to watch one person and a couple of turntables is like having a debate on whether paperback books cheapen literature.


bob mcmanus 07.04.11 at 12:39 pm

It’s music that couldn’t really be properly performed in concert. It’s not music intended to be live dance music. It marks the emergence of a new sort of listening culture.

One word: crooners

In the 20s they discovered that a softer, quieter delivery was best suited for radio announcers, followed in the late 20s by singers softly performing ballads in isolation from the band, very close to the microphone in a volume and tone not so far from conversation created a pseudo-intimacy that was sexy and could not quite be duplicated, but only imitated, on the dance floor.

IOW, an electronic reproduction that adds a kind of asociality, not intellectual, to mass music consumption.

those who fixated in this new stuff] tended to be the sort of men who collected and discussed music rather than dancing to it

This shouldn’t be discussed without bringing in be-bop and intellectual (Ellington) jazz meant to be listened to rather than danced to, especially because in my experience the rockers who went for high-brow rock (challenging psych, prog, singer-songwriter (Mitchell)) were the same kind of people who would listen to be-bop and art-jazz, and often listened to both.

And obviously integrated dance music came back in the 70s with disco.


Adrian Kelleher 07.04.11 at 12:39 pm

There’s only one way to win these arguments….


Ben Alpers 07.04.11 at 12:41 pm

I take it that this isn’t the crux of Wald’s argument, but why Sgt. Pepper? I’d have thought that Revolver (whose very name, incidentally, calls attention to its recorded medium) is their first truly only-in-the-studio album.


jim 07.04.11 at 12:57 pm

I don’t think Ong and Wald are quite talking about the same thing. Wald is, I think, talking about the irreproducibility of studio rock. I no longer have Geoffrey Stokes’s Star Making Machinery, which followed Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen for a year or so, so may be garbling the anecdote, but at one point the keyboardist found himself unable to play the piano part for a particular song at the tempo the record producer wanted. So he played the left hand part, that was recorded on one track, then he played the right hand part, that was recorded on another track, then the producer mixed the two tracks and the separate tracks of the other instruments and vocals to create the studio version of the song. In concert, presumably, the keyboardist played some maimed version of the piano part. A band that tours is in performance alluding to the definitive versions of their songs as enshrined on their records; their fans applaud the allusion (and, indeed, applaud as soon as the allusion is recognized). A touring band becomes, in effect, its own tribute band: a fate the Beatles refused, which is what makes them iconic.

Literature composed to be read, on the other hand, is still orally performable. Cigar factories used to employ readers to read books aloud to their workers. Victorian households would spend their evenings reading aloud to each other. As a child I was made to memorize and recite poems. Poems are still performed at “readings”. There is a substantial sale in recorded books. The text is the text whether read silently or aloud whether absorbed from the page or from recitation. Ong’s focus is on the changes in composing texts. Wald’s focus is on the changes in the social experience of them.


Neville Morley 07.04.11 at 1:30 pm

@bob mcmanus: interesting point re different genres of jazz, bringing in bebop and Ellington. Worth noting, however, that according to Scott DeVeaux’s brilliant The Birth of Be-Bop, bebop appears as this highly abstract and intellectual, not-to-be-danced-to music only in retrospect, as that’s how for various reasons it ended up developing. Many of its leading figures saw the future, for the music and their own careers, as lying in dance bands on the same lines as those of the swing era. The fact that bebop lays the foundations for the later dominance of small combos, emphasis on the jam session ethos, music for nodding one’s head to rather than dancing etc. doesn’t mean that this was pre-determined or inherent in this new style of music.

Come to think of it, DeVeaux also has interesting things to say about the changing role of recordings, from being effectively adverts for gigs to being the primary means of consuming jazz – not to mention the impact of the 1942-4 recording ban on the development of bebop…


Brian Weatherson 07.04.11 at 1:45 pm

My first reaction was what Ben Alpers said – this is much more plausible as a claim about Revolver than Sgt Pepper’s. I think one of the big changes between the two is that by Sgt Pepper’s, they were much more clearly drawing on the English music hall tradition, i.e., a distinctively live tradition.

And as many commentators above have pointed out, the live/recorded issue cross-cuts the black/white issue pretty strongly here. Revolver was pretty strongly influenced by black music, notably the bass-heavy mix which was motivated by listening to Wilson Pickett. The music hall influence on Sgt Pepper’s is a much whiter influence, but made (those parts of the album so influenced) easier to perform live.


Chris Bertram 07.04.11 at 2:00 pm

Turns out we had an earlier discussion (2 years ago rather than last year) when I blogged on an exerpt from Wald in the FT, which prompted me to get the actual book:


Chris Bertram 07.04.11 at 2:03 pm

And click through from the above link to read the excerpt in the FT, which also dates the shift to when the Beatles stopped touring in 1966 (i.e. more or less the same time as Revolver).


David Moles 07.04.11 at 2:13 pm

What does Wald have to say about Jimi Hendrix?


Brainz 07.04.11 at 3:34 pm

The word you’re looking for is “retronym,” as in “live music,” “2D movies,” “silent movies,” “Coca-Cola Classic,” etc.


Chris Bertram 07.04.11 at 3:52 pm

#19 He only discussed him briefly, in the context of a discussion of the “whitening” of rock-n-roll between 1964 and 1967. At the beginning of the period it is a biracial genre, but at the end only Hendrix, Richie Havens and Sly Stone are black rock artists with a mass appeal, of whom Hendrix and Havens appeal to white audiences mainly, with only Sly Stone having a mass black and white audience.


Ed 07.04.11 at 3:56 pm

What Gaspard said. It really is very odd to think that you can be taken seriously as an authority on popular music or rock’n’roll while apparently having no understanding at all of any developments in the past 45 years.

To take just a few examples, black musicians have in fact been enormously influenced by “white” music over the past four decades, from psychedelic soul, through the studio experiments of Stevie Wonder, to the cataclysmic impact of Kraftwerk on black America, to the use of rock samples since the 1980s.

Nor is the distinction between “live” black musicians and “studio” white musicians remotely tenable in the age of Timbaland, the Neptunes, Kanye West, and the rest.

The assertion that modern studio-constructed music is inherently asocial and atomising would not survive 30 seconds of Beyonce’s performance at Glastonbury, either. In general, the boom in festivals and live music performances suggests that these modes have proved highly resilient to advances in recording technology. The Beatles were an extreme aberration in retiring from touring, as a quick scan through the ads in the back of Mojo magazine will show. One might modestly propose that the culture would be stronger if a few more bands followed their example.

John suggests that Wald’s argument is more sophisticated than the summary makes it sound, but on this evidence I cannot see why it might be worth reading.


nnyhav 07.04.11 at 3:59 pm

Somewhat obliquely, speaking of FT, Brian Eno.


Mrearl 07.04.11 at 4:02 pm

How would Wald deal with the film Let It Be, in which the band is recorded, visually and aurally, recording (performing) the record Let It Be?


Ed 07.04.11 at 4:10 pm

If you are interested in Wald’s argument, there is an earlier, more engaged, more musically rigorous but less sociologically ambitious, and ultimately more convincing, version in Joe Carducci’s ‘Rock and the Pop Narcotic’.


hartal 07.04.11 at 4:13 pm

But didn’t Soul Train and discos bring black music back into the live dancing halls and house parties? The music may not have been live but the dancing was. How does dance figure into the argument? P-Funk, Go-Go were dance music; people still go through their days with Gloria Gaynor playing in their heads. Now MJ’s dancing was of course not as great as the Nicholas Brothers’, but he did get people to move rather than marvel at acrobatics. So how does dance figure into the account of the musical shifts?
As for the Beatles & Cat Stevens,Serge Lang (the mathematician) had an idiosyncratic take. He claims that they were jumping over the classical period to the Renaissance to recover a music of spontaneity (partly the effect of the accent on the second beat) and lyricism. He thought that “the composers of the rock period knew that their antecedents were of the Renaissance period because they give hints, they quote it in their own words. I mean, ”My Lady d’Arbanville” is a title that refers directly to the French Renaissance. The trumped in Penny Lane, it’s obvious, it’s the same style as the Renaissance trumpet. The Beatles quote ”Green Sleeves” in ”All You Need Is Love” so they quote these antecedents. So they tell you ”we know what our musical ancestors are! It’s not the classical period, it’s those people from the Renaissance.”
Not sure what to make of that.


Substance McGravitas 07.04.11 at 4:22 pm

On the tour after Revolver came out The Beatles played no songs from Revolver. Not sure why Pepper should be a tipping point.


bert 07.04.11 at 4:35 pm

Hendrix’s status as a “black” artist was part of the wearying racial banter in ‘White Men Can’t Jump’, IIRC. This is a sign that Wald’s claims about authenticity may be part of a wider discussion about American racial politics. What’s more, Hendrix’s reception in England, like Miles Davis’ in Paris, may be a sign that American racial politics has a narrowing effect on discussions about music.


JRoth 07.04.11 at 4:49 pm

It’s hard for me to take anything Wald says after his tiresomely contrarian Delta blues book. Apparently, because itinerant black singers in the 20s played Tin Pan Alley stuff as well as traditional and original songs that we identify as the blues, we should give equal weight to the importance of the former and not privilege the latter. I guess because we’re bound to honor and replicate the aesthetic judgments of dead people?

Basically, it’s a book-length expansion on the message that Elijah Wald likes the blues in a better way than those middle aged white guys at blues festivals. Personally, I only listen to the Beatles’ cover songs.


Neville Morley 07.04.11 at 5:27 pm

@Ed #22: “…the cataclysmic impact of Kraftwerk on black America…”: that does sound as if you think it was a bad thing…


Chris Bertram 07.04.11 at 5:43 pm

I think one of the things the thread is missing is that quite a lot of Wald’s arguments are about what people actually played and listened to at a given moment. So the fact that record or artist X turns out to have been fantastically influential on some later artists may feature as a key fact in a musical history that’s more teleological than Wald’s, but not in his (hence a lot of the attention given to almost forgotten – by non-specialists – figures like Whiteman who sold a lot of records at their time). So I’m guessing that Wald would handle the alleged “cataclysmic impact of Kraftwerk on black America” via a survey of the evidence about black listening at the time, and would find the impact, well, less than cataclysmic.


Watson Ladd 07.04.11 at 7:23 pm

Wald is just plain wrong about art music being white. He’s ignoring the history of jazz and its evolution into the avante-garde free jazz of Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Ornette Coleman etc. from hard bop, an evolution taking place concurrent with the British Invasion. Jazz has been mentioned before, but its not that art music jazz stopped existing after the British Invasion. Despite the existence of Kenny G, jazz survives to the extent any avante-garde music form does. Electronic music was also pioneered in the black church: the Hammond Organ was designed to be a cheap alternative to a pipe organ, and was quickly adopted by a wide variety of musicians. What Pink Floyd and the Beetles are is the last resurgence of art music as popular music, and in that sense they represent (as Adorno noted about the popular music of the 1930’s) the end of an ability to appreciate music as a totality, and with that the decline of aesthetics more generally.


Chris Bertram 07.04.11 at 7:32 pm

I love these book thread where more than half the commenters obviously haven’t read the book (the last comment being a case in point – he says that art _rock_ is a white genre) but feel entitled to pontificate authoritatively about its content and to impress us all with the fact that they’ve read Adorno!


P O'Neill 07.04.11 at 7:36 pm

There’s this band called “Led Zeppelin” …


David 07.04.11 at 7:47 pm

@Chris, 33: yep/nope, haven’t read the book. If the summary isn’t too distorting, however, the premise is absurd on the face of it and doesn’t get any better on closer look. Even disallowing the existence of prior art, albums that are perfectly playable (and even danceable) abound and have abounded since Sgt Pepper. Now, you critics get off my lawn!


bianca steele 07.04.11 at 7:51 pm

This struck me in the OP: Before recorded music takes off, every town has its local dance band – indeed, many families have the means of making their own music.

Vonnegut complains about this too, but most people today aren’t too impressed with the idea of local music traditions, any more than they are with Morris Dancing.


Zora 07.04.11 at 8:01 pm

Original post: “When we read, visually, we don’t stop hearing. Visual reading is a sight-sound hybrid. (St. Ambrose was pronouncing silently, even though he wasn’t moving his lips.)”

Many people don’t pronounce silently when they read. They read much much faster than anyone could talk. They also “know” words that they can’t pronounce. I’m one of those fast readers. I much prefer to read a transcript of a talk, which I can read at my usual headlong speed, to listening to the talk, which drags on and on.

There can also be a visual dimension to reading — the arrangement of words on a page — that is completely lost when the text is spoken. Concrete poetry.


Adam 07.04.11 at 8:06 pm

@ bert #28 –
As another data point, there’s Sasha Frere-Jones’s “A Paler Shade of White”, which struck me as so focused on the black music/white music distinction that it winds up saying dumb and demonstrably false things about actual music.


Alexei McDonald 07.04.11 at 9:04 pm

@JRoth #29

Surely your approach leads to that which you claim to be arguing against, though the aesthetic judgements you’re privileging in this case are of those long-dead white record company executives who ultimately decided which black musicians would be able to make records and what kind of songs they would be able to record. I think it’s a lot more helpful to try and consider these musicians in the round, what they actually played in performance, and what kinds of music their audiences required of them. Also, I like the idea of Memphis Minnie singing the Woody Woodpecker Song…


Ed 07.04.11 at 9:15 pm

Neville @30: Erm, yes, I became over-excited in my search for a synonym for “really REALLY big.” There are people who think it was a bad thing, of course, but I am not among them.

Chris @31: When you talk about “the evidence of black listening at the time”, I guess the argument depends on what you mean by “at the time”. Certainly I would think the evidence as presented by the charts – and I can’t think of any better source – would show the influence of Kraftwerk growing in prominence through the 1980s, and becoming dominant by the end of the decade.

David @35: Indeed. I admit that my comments were based not on the book, but on what Wald and others have said about it. But if I am told: “although in any précis this book seems manifestly ridiculous, it is still worth reading,” I am afraid I am unlikely to be persuaded.


Substance McGravitas 07.04.11 at 9:37 pm

When you talk about “the evidence of black listening at the time”, I guess the argument depends on what you mean by “at the time”. Certainly I would think the evidence as presented by the charts – and I can’t think of any better source – would show the influence of Kraftwerk growing in prominence through the 1980s, and becoming dominant by the end of the decade.

Please show that evidence then. I like Kraftwerk and it’s obvious they’re influential, but it seems to me to be fairly crazy to imagine the Kraftwerk influence dominating the charts at the end of the late 80s.


Ed 07.04.11 at 9:50 pm

Well check the R&B number ones for 1990, for example: they are dominated by synth and drum machine based music from Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Bell Biv Devoe, Keith Sweat and others.

Admittedly, Kraftwerk are not the only source for the use of the technology in that way. Others, such as Giorgio Moroder, also loom pretty large. But through hip-hop, via Afrika Bambaataa in particular, Kraftwerk had a huge effect on all that music.

(Note that the R&B charts are a proxy here for “black listening at the time”, which was the point at issue.)


Substance McGravitas 07.04.11 at 9:52 pm

Admittedly, Kraftwerk are not the only source for the use of the technology in that way.

In other words, no the charts were not dominated by Kraftwerk-influenced artists, they were dominated by people who used synthesizers and drum machines. I mean, WHITNEY HOUSTON?


bert 07.04.11 at 10:09 pm

I can’t cite scholarly sources, but my impression is that the Beatles gave up live music not because they wanted to whitify their music in the security of the recording studio, but because they were fed up of not being heard. There’s a McCartney interview in one of the documentaries where he describes how the tannoy system in Shea Stadium was completely swamped by an audience that was determined to scream as loudly as possible. Not only were they not being heard, they weren’t being listened to.

If it wasn’t already obvious, I’ve not read Wald.


spyder 07.04.11 at 10:35 pm

Sgt. Pepper’s is important because it’s a studio rock album. It’s music that couldn’t really be properly performed in concert. It’s not music intended to be live dance music.

When you get a bunch of longtime session rockers from Athens GA out in the world, they do a very admirable rocking, dancing, zealous version of all the Beatles’ oeuvre. I would suggest that they do indeed bring the rock of the Beatles to a live dance audience. I am blessed to see them in OR this week at the Oregon Country Fair.


bert 07.04.11 at 10:39 pm

Kraftwerk always get namechecked by the founding fathers of house music. People like Derrick May in Detroit, or Larry Heard in Chicago. These people were completely marginal in terms of chart success. But they achieved godlike status in clubs in the UK and elsewhere, and inspired a whole musical culture which has since been reexported back to the US.
There’s a great scene in 24 Hour Party People where Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson is describing the rise of the Hacienda. “This is the moment when even the white man starts dancing. ” Now that was a cataclysmic impact.


Substance McGravitas 07.04.11 at 11:08 pm

Kraftwerk always get namechecked by the founding fathers of house music. People like Derrick May in Detroit, or Larry Heard in Chicago.

Sure, and they should get their due from those guys. But for other purposes, the influence of Kraftwerk is much less than, say, the influence of the price and portability of the instruments involved. A TR-808 is less smelly than a drummer, consumes less alcohol, and shuts up at the touch of a button.

Here is a documentary of Kraftwerk that I enjoyed. (Only one ex-member of the band interviewed.) And here is Whitney and Kraftwerk.


spyder 07.04.11 at 11:09 pm

And, because it was mentioned, here is Los Lobos (neither black nor white) performing a little dance number from Revolver.

I’m sorry that i only have the live performance on VHS, from a show back in ’93 at a West Sacramento Music Fest. It really does rock your socks off.


spyder 07.04.11 at 11:10 pm

oops, link not working; sorry, damn.


Ed 07.04.11 at 11:47 pm

@43 Yes, absolutely Whitney Houston. ‘I’m Your Baby Tonight’ was produced by LA Reid and Babyface, who borrowed heavily from Teddy Riley, who started out producing Kool Moe Dee, who was at the heart of that early B-boy scene as a member of the Treacherous Three. There is a good account of the origins of hip-hop, giving due credit to the Kraftwerk influence, here:

@46 That transatlantic cross-fertilisation is fascinating, I agree. It goes back to the Beatles and earlier, and continues to this day: listen to the way that recent tracks from Rihanna and Kelis have been influenced by euro-dance. The Wilson quote is a bit daft, though. What about jive, rock’n’roll, Mod, skinhead, Northern Soul, rare groove etc etc etc….? The idea that white people can’t / don’t dance without E is just silly.


John Holbo 07.04.11 at 11:54 pm

Wow, lots of comments. I didn’t really expect the post would get that many. Thanks! But now I feel a little bad because, as Chris B suggests, I haven’t really done Wald’s argument justice with my little thumbnail sketch, and so I feel I’ve invited some invalid – or at most half-valid – attacks on him from some commenters. Maybe I’ll do a follow-up. Anyway, thanks for all the good comments. Since everyone else is tossing out links, I’ll just mention that NPR, All Songs Considered, had Brian Eno on as guest DJ a couple weeks back – you can find it in their archive – and he talked a lot about what influenced him growing up. He is a good example of the sort of musician Wald doesn’t like: white art rock. But, amusingly, he is also a good example of the sort of musician Wald says has been replaced. Apparently he attends this little informal singing group every week or so. And one of the rules is: no recording. It was an interesting hour or talk


Substance McGravitas 07.05.11 at 12:00 am

Yes, absolutely Whitney Houston. ‘I’m Your Baby Tonight’ was produced by LA Reid and Babyface, who borrowed heavily from Teddy Riley, who started out producing Kool Moe Dee, who was at the heart of that early B-boy scene as a member of the Treacherous Three.

Is there a weaker “absolutely” outside matters of faith? Go listen to “I’m Your Baby Tonight” and isolate the bits of Kraftwerk in it. Then restate the claim of the dominant influence of Kraftwerk on the charts.


Ed 07.05.11 at 12:33 am

@51 Yes: more please! This thread has had the effect of making me want to check out Wald for myself, so it has certainly succeeded there.

@53 A couple more good pieces on the Kraftwerk influence on hip-hop:


and this from Dr Dre:

“I’m just keeping my ear to the concrete,” Dre explained this past Spring. “I’ve been listening to a lot of old 60s and 70s music. Things like Kraftwerk and Parliament Funkadelic. I’ve really been listening to a lot of Kraftwerk… Kraftwerk had a really big inspiration on the beginning of Hip-Hop.”


Gene O'Grady 07.05.11 at 12:35 am


given that the last Beatles show in the US was in Candlestick Park, I think you’re on to something. Whether that was better or worse than the previous tour when they played the Cow Palace I can’t say. One can be heard in places like that, but you have to make your music pretty simple and uncomplicated. And for the Beatles lose a large part of their appeal, which was the mix of slower quieter songs with the upbeat. Rather like Otis Redding, but he had the benefit of playing for much smaller crowds in places like the Fillmore Auditorium.


np 07.05.11 at 12:51 am

This is the sort of thing that gives white guilt a bad name.


Substance McGravitas 07.05.11 at 1:02 am

Ed, I agree that Kraftwerk was an inspiration to early hip-hop. I was listening to it. Every article that mentions Afrika Bambaataa rehashes what I already know to be true. But that is a far cry from claiming chart-dominance for Kraftwerk’s influence in the form of Whitney Houston (who, it must be said, was a model and was looking good). Dr. Dre in particular, when he made his name, liked real instruments played by musicians because he thought samples were crappy quality-wise. This is neato, but it too sounds like Dre’s had someone rerecord it.


Davis X. Machina 07.05.11 at 1:02 am

Ong himself emphasizes that there is no such thing as primary visual literary culture, analogous to primary oral culture. When we read, visually, we don’t stop hearing. Visual reading is a sight-sound hybrid.

For more on this see Ivan Ilych’s 1993 In The Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary on Hugh of Victor’s Didaskalion. in which he attempts to ‘deal with the epoch of bookishness which is now closing’.

Very interesting read against the book by Fr. Ong, whom I first met via his articles on Horace, of all things.


Lee A. Arnold 07.05.11 at 1:11 am

Western culture is still predominately oral and now televisual. At least half of the people do not choose to read, although they may be able to read, and have even graduated college, and are quite smart. I am a plumber on the west side of Los Angeles, a pretty smart crowd lives here, I have been in more houses than you will ever be in for the rest of your life, and I would estimate that less than 30% of the households have any books in them.

In writing, I think that the loss of the oral accompaniment to writing may contribute to the misleading modern reification of words. Writers become separated from their referents and start to write as if words are objects that can be recombined like math symbols, and things like “alienation” are manipulable objects which cause other things to happen. Their first causative link may be valid, but soon they are often lost in absolutely unreal gibberish of the sort that Alan Sokal satirized.

Literature seems to have been written to be read aloud at least to the end of the 19th century, with some true hangers-on into the 20th, such as James Joyce. Much of 20th century writing is tone-deaf and unrhythmic when read aloud. This is true in both fiction and nonfiction, and is true of even a great stylist such as my favorite, Mencken, who has lovely and memorable phrases but many orally unwieldy sentences. The fact that older writers like Dickens wrote to be read aloud is forgotten. It is very odd to find that many, if not most, poetry lovers today would not think of reading Paradise Lost aloud. Yet that text is merely the “score” for the real experience. And yet, no one but a musician would think of reading a Beethoven score instead of hearing it.

Joyce went the other way, and may be the only great writer so far who has taken it one step further, and made ear AND eye BOTH absolutely necessary to the story, in Finnegans Wake. It must be sounded aloud but the variant spellings carry additional and crucial meanings. Unfortunately you have to study it in order to read it aloud, and there are sometimes many different voices on the same page, and so we are going to have to find some trained actors and train ’em some more, and thus it is a deal-breaker for all but crazies like me.

I’m not so sure that the Beatles made pop music into a mature art form, so much as they were among the first great beneficiaries of what is really a completely NEW art form: multi-track studio production. Of course they were also prolific, sophisticated melodists, which is also quite rare, and adds to their profound and timeless impression, and places them with Tin Pan Alley and Schubert. But what seems to be the point here is that they also came alongside a new technology, and it is not simply “recording”. You cannot begin to discuss the impact of sound recording without understanding that the 20th century falls into two distinct halves, and they are very very different: before and after multitrack. Before, studios were capturing live performances of musicians playing together in the studio; any orchestral or jazz recording for example. Any mistake, and you went back to the beginning. (Occasionally someone like Glenn Gould was so rhythmically and tonally controlled that they were able to cut together different performances into the same movement of Bach. Cutting mag tape!)

After multitrack, tracks were recorded separately, if the musicians were playing together they might be playing in different rooms so each instrument was miked the best way possible, then the tracks could be processed with different timbres and other effects, and even combined with additional sounds. That is the new art form.

The impetus came from Les Paul’s home inventions in multi-track recording, and was picked up by an astonishing person named Tom Dowd, whose earlier history was working on the Manhattan Project (atom bomb) and recording the likes of Coltrane and Charlie Parker at night. If you have to pick one person who was most central to the sound of 20th-century recording after mid-century, it was Dowd. The Allman Bros, Derek and the Dominoes, and much more. There is an excellent documentary about Dowd, and it will be a revelation to all sound-lovers:

I don’t see or hear that the new development is crowding out amateur performance, however. Every town still has its local dance band, because real performance (as well as the audience mating ritual) will never die. What every town now has also is a very young producer who is good with producing software like Garage Band and is being sought out by the local musicians, to record. One thing I find interesting is that many young musicians I have talked to, don’t think or want to do it themselves. Studio producing has become a separate job title, down in the basement.

Most interesting are the newer combined formats. Consider the case of Kutiman, a young Israeli musical artist who has started something unique. He finds instrumental home videos on YouTube, of course there are hundreds of thousands, he analyzes the sounds, writes his own completely different songtracks, then uses only the instrumental sounds from the videos to make the music, and then cuts the synched videos back into a montage so that the original musicians appear to be “playing” the song. And the outcome is that they are all tickled to death to have been included.

It might be easier just to look at one than to describe it: It is important to understand that the musicians you are watching are playing the notes, but not the song, you hear. Each Kutiman vid has a list in the YouTube text underneath of all the contributing vids with their own links, so you can go and hear the original stuff too. Kutiman is a phenomenally talented person. His finished tracks are in different genres and they are great. My favorite is “The Mother of All Funk Chords”: 1.3 million views:


Dave Maier 07.05.11 at 1:22 am

Since others have made some very good substantive points, I’d like to speak from the heart if I may, responding to this:

“Rather than being a high point of rock, the Beatles destroyed rock ’n’ roll, turning it from a vibrant black (or integrated) dance music into a vehicle for white pap and pretension [= white art rock].”

You say Wald is being hyperbolic here to get his point across. Okay, fine. But just for the record, while I have nothing against “vibrant” (god I hate that word) black dance music, and am not particularly concerned to defend the Beatles in this context (Hendrix being the key figure for me here), I will say that you will tear my white art rock recordings (not to mention my white electronic music recordings) only from my proverbially cold dead hands. (Philistine.)


Tom Hurka 07.05.11 at 1:23 am

I thought the other Beatles wanted to keep touring but George said no — he didn’t like it.


polyorchnid octopunch 07.05.11 at 1:33 am

Gaspard at 4 has clearly never heard of a Handsonic.


John Holbo 07.05.11 at 2:19 am

“I will say that you will tear my white art rock recordings (not to mention my white electronic music recordings) only from my proverbially cold dead hands. (Philistine.)”

For the record, nearly all my favorite records falls under the white art rock ban, too. But I still liked Wald’s book.


Dave Maier 07.05.11 at 2:37 am

For the record, nearly all my favorite records falls under the white art rock ban, too.

That’s funny (and I wasn’t attacking you btw), as all the music you ever talk about here is just as poppy as the poppiest music ever popped. Not, as the saying goes, that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just that you don’t sound like a guy with the complete Heldon discography (on LP natch) a-mouldering in your basement.


Tom Hurka 07.05.11 at 2:39 am

Actually, didn’t a guy called Don McLean do Wald — whom I haven’t read but now will — 40-odd years ago? (“We all got up to dance/ But we never got the chance …”)


rm 07.05.11 at 3:12 am

Okay , I got tired and skipped some more recent comments, so forgive me if it’s been said, but


regarding live vs. recorded music. Recording artists like Beyonce perform live, so that means a cultural shift towards recording hasn’t happened??? BUT ALL THOSE PEOPLE SHOWED UP TO HEAR BEYONCE. They did not PICK UP THEIR OWN DAMN INSTRUMENTS and play music for themselves. THAT’s the difference, you lawn-encroaching punks. The Beatles are just a handy illustration of a turning point in what is really a long process. Today’s composition through digital mixing and sampling is farther long a continuum in that process, a postmodern elaboration on the Beatles’ modernist tape experiments. (Again, they were not the only ones, just a good example.) If you think forty years ago is a long time in cultural history, you are looking through the wrong end of the telescope. We’ve had one little century of time in which music could become a text; it’s worth thinking about on a bigger scale than some of y’all are using.



rm 07.05.11 at 3:21 am

And now that I’ve read Lee A. Arnold’s comment, thanks for that. That was illuminating.


JP Stormcrow 07.05.11 at 3:50 am

Everbody danced on the veldt.


Ed 07.05.11 at 3:50 am

@65 I’m sorry: I think I’m still missing it. Is the point now that relatively more people are consumers rather than producers of music today compared to, say, a century ago? Is that really true? I am prepared to be convinced, but I’d like to se the data. My impression is that there is still an enormous amount of music-making going on, from kids on their Playstations to the choir of Brian Eno’s mates. The Internet is absolutely stuffed with music, most of it made by amateurs.

And if people do consume more and make less music, surely that has less to do with the sophistication of post-George Martin production techniques, and more connection to the rise of TV, technological change creating competing attractions for leisure time, economic pressures, social fragmentation and the decline of organised religion.


nic 07.05.11 at 6:26 am

Kraftwerk was quite popular among certain black listening groups. I’m not sure if it counts, but the interpolation of trans europe express in planet rock would be a pretty wide reaching example. However, beyond that, numbers, trans europe express, and other songs were quite popular within the early hip hop and later disco (and later house and techno) scenes. I can’t give any chart data (which should be questioned as a fundamental measure of listenership) or firm demographics but if you listen to urban radio recordings or djs mixes (aka or the mixes on or some old mixes from dr. dre or jeff mills) from those time periods you will hear those songs all the time. Of course in some areas like detroit this influence was more pronounced and has now been reified to the point where kraftwerk holds a special place in techno and house histories as Bert describes. Even today, hip hop djs often play kraftwerks breaks and from the reaction of the crowds I’ve seen (particularly older crowds who grew up in the 90s) it’s clear that these are songs that the audience are often quite familiar with.


nic 07.05.11 at 6:41 am

Here are 239 primarily hip hop examples of kraftwerk being sampled which actually understates the number as more obscure records are overlooked and clever disguises of kraftwerk samples are sometimes not noticed (not to mention mixtape blends or freestyles.) Furthermore, there are tons of 12″s that sample kraftwerk in edm genres where sample spotting culture isn’t as large as in hip hop, and as such are not represented on stuff like the-breaks or whosampled.


Ed 07.05.11 at 8:37 am

@69 and 70 Thanks! I’d not heard of; it’s a great site.

The fact that a European band trained at the Robert Schumann Academy, fans of Stockhausen, were so popular with black Americans is a central narrative – arguably the central narrative – of music in the late 20th century.


chris y 07.05.11 at 9:02 am

“Rather than being a high point of rock, the Beatles destroyed rock ’n’ roll, turning it from a vibrant black (or integrated) dance music into a vehicle for white pap and pretension [= white art rock].”

In addition to what everybody else has said, this is a historical travesty. The artist who turned rock’n’roll from a vibrant dance music into yadda yadda was in fact Bob Dylan (Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited). John Lennon went on record as saying that it was Dylan who explained to the Beatles that it was possible to write more lyrically complex songs at the cost of omitting the “It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it” factor.


bert 07.05.11 at 9:40 am

#50: The Wilson quote is a bit daft, though.

You know, harsher things than that have been said about Tony Wilson.
One of the publicity posters for the movie showed headshots of Shaun Ryder, Ian Curtis and Wilson. The tagline read “Poet. Genius. Twat.”
Here’s the scene I mentioned:

Yes, he was really like that.


Chris Bertram 07.05.11 at 9:59 am

_so popular with black Americans is a central narrative – arguably the central narrative – of music in the late 20th century._

Well that’s a strong claim. Is it borne out by, say, the number of records Kraftwerk sold in the relevant market?


Neville Morley 07.05.11 at 10:03 am

I’m feeling slightly bemused by all the rather reductionist explanations of cultural change being presented; surely we wouldn’t be nearly so crude in our interpretations if we were talking about any other sort of historical development? To take the developing Kraftwerk controversy, it’s not simply a matter of a tradition of influence as one group of inspired geniuses inspires another group, nor is it a simple matter of technological determinism, as the price and portability of synthesisers and drum machines makes drum kits and other band members obsolete. At the very least it’s an interdependent relationship – Kraftwerk show what’s possible with electronic music, that creates a market for the kit and so helps push the price down and drive new developments, making it possible for a wider range of artists to engage with Kraftwerk’s contribution, making synthesisers still more popular etc. More likely, we also have to factor in the changing contexts of performance and listening, the development of the record industry complex and so forth. [Jumps up and down waving a copy of Scott LeVeaux’s The Birth of Bebop as epitomising this multi-stranded approach to writing cultural history].

And of course it’s also all bound up with various cultural-ideological ideas and ideals, such as (in certain contexts) the obsession with ‘authenticity’ – not just the idea that live performance is better than and/or preferable to recorded music, but also the idea that guitars are ‘proper’ instruments compared with synthesisers, and that a performance that is clearly different from the record, whether because of glitches or improvised sections or a general ramshackle quality is or isn’t superior to a performance that perfectly reproduces the record…


bill benzon 07.05.11 at 11:42 am

@spyder, #49: Thanks for the link. Wonderful!


bill benzon 07.05.11 at 12:02 pm

John, you might want to do some reading on plainsong (aka Gregorian chant). It’s where Western notation got a start, as little squiggles written above the words. If you already knew the melody, then the squiggles would be enough to jog your memory for the whole thing. If you didn’t know the melody, the squiggles wouldn’t have been of much use.


Bill Benzon 07.05.11 at 12:52 pm

Also, there’s Clint Eastwood’s film on piano blues in Scorsese’s PBS blues series. A lot of the music there isn’t blues by any reasonable (ethno)musicological definition, but neither Eastwood nor anyone else tells us that. But it’s all piano music, and a lot of it owes as much a debt to Chopin and Czerny as to backwoods blusers.

Note that New Orleans had the first opera company in North America.

& WC Handy was musically literate, etc.


rm 07.05.11 at 1:45 pm

Ed @ 68: Is the point now that relatively more people are consumers rather than producers of music . . . ?

No, and I would guess more people do produce music now that it’s so easy, just as they read more since the internet (but don’t read more long books) and more people are educated (but not in Latin). And I certainly do not want to join in any judgement of the current world as fallen and bad in comparison to a lost “authentic” golden age. I don’t think a discussion of change has to be that way.

Instead, I think the point is that once there was no such thing as capturing a performance as a text. Once it became possible to do that, a lot of other things changed. Some of you young whippersnappers are not even imagining what the pre-recording experience of music would be.*

And though Ong is just one (important) scholar in a large field of literacy studies, I do think Holbo’s analogy to the oral-literate change is interesting and valid. One thread that hasn’t come out a lot yet is that the binary division of oral = performative and literate = fixed text is not as simple as it might seem, and in some sense oral performance is more “fixed” than recorded/written text because it cannot be edited or taken back. In some sense writing and recording are more performative/playful because you can write and rewrite, edit and revise. And as technology changes our writing and recording are becoming more performative and speechlike (exempli gratia, what we are doing right now, and also YouTube).

* don’t you miss it . . . don’t you miss it . . . some of you people just about missed it**

** The fact that that mental sample replays in my head is an example of what I’m talking about up there at “*”.***

*** Another way of saying this is that now we can separate the dancer from the dance. Turns out there is an app for that.


Adrian Kelleher 07.05.11 at 2:07 pm

@bianca steele, 36

Well delta blues started out as folk music. Very arguably, the hacienda (@bert, 46) was a modern folk phenomenon; certainly it didn’t spring from academic elites or commercial marketing power.

So long as it’s not petrified as ‘heritage’ — a word that always puts me in mind of mammoths trapped in Siberian permafrost — genuinely popular music can retain power and relevance. I really like this inter-war anarchist song (English speakers may appreciate it better having first listened to a translated version here (track 2)). What’s essential is that it stands on its own merits — the folkishness is incidental but unapologetic.

Also surprising is the enduring appeal and power some popular music of long-dead peasants can still possess. For example when Thomas Moore set an old folk tune to lyrics and it became The Minstrel Boy it was well on its way to becoming kitsch, but a sort of kitsch that would give rise to many strange and wonderful outcomes.

It became both a pro- and anti-war song and an anti-slavery anthem. Paul Robeson sang it and if Star Trek is to be believed it’ll still be sung in distant parts of the galaxy in the far future. A version by Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros played over the credits at the end of Black Hawk Down.

The old tune went through far wierder transformations than this, however. The messianic hymn “The Son of God Goes Forth to War” was set to the same music for the (excellent and entertaining) John Huston film “The Man Who Would be King”, which was based on a Kipling story of the same name. Wikipedia quotes Roger Ebert as writing that “it’s been a long time since there’s been an escapist entertainment quite this unabashed and thrilling and fun” in his review, but I’m not certain Ebert didn’t sell Huston short on this one. The characters’ inordinate self-confidence and pride in their Britishness leads them to heroic follies but also makes them remarkable and proud individuals. The song comes once more at the very end of the movie (start watching at 2:01:00, but really the film is so entertaining it’s worth setting aside an evening to watch; Pity Donald Rumsfeld never did).

This new arrangement has taken on a life of its own. This version on youtube isn’t the most dramatic or polished but the oddly modest and human delivery of the messianic lyrics makes for a fascinating 47 seconds. I love it. Though quite alien to modern tastes, I feel it retains some of the power Christianity held over its adherents in its heyday, when it was as natural and universal as air instead of something to be clung to defensively. It’s not possible to comprehend European history in all its horror and glory without reference to such relics.

Also essential to retained vitality is the intersection of popular and elite culture; there doesn’t have to be an attempt to be exclusive or academic as such, rather to be particular about an ideal listener. I suppose Captain O’Kane belongs to the past but it was a past where folk music was just music, be it good bad or indifferent, and not something introverted or backward looking.


On art music, my fear is that the ability of the critical elites to distinguish quality from dross has almost vanished. There’s more literature, more art, more music and so on than ever before but the territory remaining to be undiscovered is shrinking all the time.

I listen to a lot of classical music, Baroque mostly. One modern album I’d classify as music of great importance (please take a moment to practise uttering these words with appropriate gravitas) would be “Music for Babies” by Howie B (fragments on youtube, but really it plays like a suite; you’ll just have to buy it!). Sadly nobody is listening it seems. It’s entertaining and very easy to listen to after a bit of getting used to, but also uncompromising and brilliantly original. I reiterate my claim: important.

Hardly less bold is Benny Benassi, for example Satisfaction. My feeling is that Kandinski or Mondrian would react to this with excitement but the middle classes reject such music. I don’t expect Howie B or Benassi will be featuring alongside the likes of Miles Davis in the favourites lists of the great and good anytime soon, let alone as part of a modern orchestral repertoire. More’s the pity.


nic 07.05.11 at 3:33 pm

@Chris Bertram 74

It is difficult to find those numbers. As taken from wikipedia soundscan was not implemented until 1991. “Previously, Billboard tracked sales by calling stores across the U.S. and asking about sales – a method that was inherently error-prone and open to outright fraud.” In fact, some accounts of the rise of indy labels in the 90s feel this is a key factor as it allowed markets that billboard underestimated was not aware of to develop (I have no idea how true this claim is.) Furthermore, it is difficult to estimate the number of bootleg copies made (either straight up copies or dj edits,) which although I do not know is the case for kraftwerk, was pretty widespread in NY for many hip hop breaks and disco records.

At any rate, I do agree that “so popular with black Americans is a central narrative – arguably the central narrative – of music in the late 20th century” is an overstatement and I agree with Neville Morley’s critique of the discussion.


Phil 07.05.11 at 4:14 pm

Before recorded music takes off, every town has its local dance band – indeed, many families have the means of making their own music.

For ‘many’ read ‘most’, or possibly ‘all’. Before the first form of mass-market recorded music – which was of course the piano roll – the only way to hear a piece of music was to play it (or sing it), or else have someone play (or sing) it to you. Playing music and singing songs was normal in a way that it hasn’t been since – it had to be, or where would all the music have come from? People like music; in the absence of other less demanding distractions, people will make music just to pass the time. (This statement is harder to test than it used to be.)

This has sod-all to do with the Beatles, but I’m not convinced the Beatles – or the replacement of live-in-the-studio with sub-Pepper sound sculptures – made that big a difference.


Phil 07.05.11 at 6:25 pm

Interesting that Cosmo Street-Jorkins takes off from the observation that Arcade Fire do a lot of the big soaring stuff but don’t, ultimately, groove. I posted criticisms of Arcade Fire quite similar to Pongo Smith-Credible’s a while ago, although my point was that they don’t, ultimately… well, reel. I think Rory Grime-Tollemache is on to something wrt that band (and others in the Big Soaring Rock genre), but it’s got nothing to do with skin colour.


Harold 07.05.11 at 10:16 pm

Anthropologist Edmund Snow Carpenter, a disciple, like Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan (whose close friend and collaborator he was) of Canadian scholar and pioneer of the field of communications, has just died.


Harold 07.05.11 at 10:17 pm

disciple of Harold Innes — I meant to write.


John Walter 07.05.11 at 10:45 pm

“Ong, like McLuhan, is pining for preliterary, prelapsarian holism, re-integrated community, the whole ball of wax, before the shapes of letters were impressed upon it.”

While McLuhan was more conservative and skeptical of the electronic world, neither he nor Ong longed for a “preliterary, prelapsarian holism, re-integrated community.” Even in *Orality and Literacy* Ong offers qualifiers to indicate that he’s not favoring orality over literacy (or literacy over orality as some people have also claimed). A reading of *The Presence of the Word* and his many post *Orality and Literacy* publications, the last of which were published in 2003, finished and submitted before his death, will clearly demonstrate a much more nuanced and ever developing understanding of these issues, thereby giving your own developing ideas greater depth and nuance. I’ll conclude by noting that he intentionally titled the 1982 book _Orality *and* Literacy_ rather than _Orality *versus* Literacy_ because he understood this as a continuum, something he argues in *The Presence of the Word* back in the late 1960s. (See the section on overlappings and complications.)


Ed 07.05.11 at 11:37 pm

Chris @74: The claim is based not on sales, but on lasting influence. Look at today’s Billboard Top Ten, as a random example. (Yes I know the charts can’t be trusted yadda yadda, but they are the best data we’ve got.) Right now we have one song that is essentially sixties soul (Adele), one seventies pop-reggae (Bruno Mars), and eight that are in some way shaped by Kraftwerk: two electro dance (LMFAO and Lady Gaga), three poppier versions of the same (Katy Perry x2, Maroon 5), and three hip-hop (Pitbull, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne.) The electro dance is rooted in Kraftwerk and disco; the hip-hop in Kraftwerk and James Brown.

Neville @75: Yes, exactly. I am not trying to claim that all black pop post-1980 was a carbon copy of Kraftwerk. In the case of Whitney Houston, as cited upthread, the vocals are more Elisabeth Schwarzkopf than Florian Schneider. Nor were Kraftwerk anything like the only influence on hip-hop and techno. But as has been established quite conclusively, they were an important influence and inspiration for musicians who were themselves extremely influential on pop music in general.

And if that isn’t the central narrative of western pop in the past four decades – to narrow my claim down a bit – then what is?

I don’t think I even need to prove that Kraftwerk were the most influential band of the past half century, although they probably were. Bob Dylan and James Brown are contenders, but they were a solo performer and a bandleader respectively. Among rock and pop bands, I suppose Black Sabbath, the Beatles and maybe the Sex Pistols come close.

rm @79: “the point is that once there was no such thing as capturing a performance as a text”. Yes, but as several commenters have pointed out, notation puts that era a long time before the recording of ‘Sgt Pepper’, and indeed before recordings of any kind. As you said in an earlier comment, it “is really a long process”. Much longer than a century, in fact.

While we are on the subject of the impact of recording technology, I would be interested to hear how Wald’s argument relates to this highly-regarded study of “the ways in which the phonograph and its cousins have transformed our culture”:


Substance McGravitas 07.05.11 at 11:46 pm

eight that are in some way shaped by Kraftwerk: two electro dance (LMFAO and Lady Gaga), three poppier versions of the same (Katy Perry x2, Maroon 5), and three hip-hop (Pitbull, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne.)

I say they are influenced by Giorgio Moroder and that Giorgio Moroder’s influence dominates the charts.

I don’t think I even need to prove that Kraftwerk were the most influential band of the past half century

Yes you do. Using drum machines is not the same thing as being influenced by Kraftwerk.


Ed 07.05.11 at 11:50 pm

OK, I know I have been going on about this too much, but just two quickies for your further listening pleasure. This looks like an album-length refutation of Wald, with lots of great music on it:

And, as Adorno almost certainly didn’t say, this one both makes its point and rocks the house:


bianca steele 07.06.11 at 1:12 am

Adrian Kelleher @ 80
Yes, “heritage” is another way of describing what I had in mind–I’m not sure how far the accusation should be allowed to apply, though. This isn’t consistent, but folk music seems generally to evade those charges when its practitioners are non-white (and in a few other cases as with Celtic music, though I don’t know how many bargoers in South Boston take up fiddle), as with your blues example. Otherwise, what’s new is often preferred.


Harold 07.06.11 at 2:28 am

Black church music still continues to nourish secular rock music.


hartal 07.06.11 at 2:37 am

I haven’t followed the discussion of Kraftwerk; my wife whose aunt worked on the show tells me they appeared on Soul Train. But I can’t find it on YouTube. I did not do a thorough search in part because I am now really paranoid about doing google searches after reading Cranky Observer’s post on the google thread!


Delicious Pundit 07.06.11 at 2:54 am

@Lee A. Arnold: I am a plumber on the west side of Los Angeles, a pretty smart crowd lives here, I have been in more houses than you will ever be in for the rest of your life, and I would estimate that less than 30% of the households have any books in them.

I have to tell you this story, which did not take place here on the Westside, though it could’ve, but in New York: My first boss in TV had, as one does, books in his office about stuff he was interested in — the Rat Pack, the St. Louis Cardinals, etc. And one day his boss (a former agent) is in his office, and she starts looking over his shelves. And finally she says, “Who does your books?”


David 07.06.11 at 3:49 am

@John Holbo, #51: Well, you’re still not doing Wald any favors. He strikes me as having a broken guitar neck up his ass. Great discussion, though.


Chris Bertram 07.06.11 at 7:07 am

_Chris @74: The claim is based not on sales, but on lasting influence._

Well exactly then, but since Wald explicitly eschews that teleological style of music-history writing and focuses on what people listened to _at the time_ rather than distorting our image of an era by boosting what seems important to us in retrospect, your objections are largely moot, it seems to me. You could write a history of rock music that rightly gives the Velvet Underground their due, but they wouldn’t have much of a place in a history of popular listening habits at the time they were at their peak.


Chris Bertram 07.06.11 at 7:11 am

Also, the Velvets have a better claim to influence than some of the rest of your list.


Chris Bertram 07.06.11 at 7:25 am

UK readers should have a powerful sense of the divergence between what the masses listened to and what the cool kids then listened to (and what we now think of as important) if they’ve ever tuned into a re-run of mid-seventies TOTP. An example is here:

(though I don’t advise clicking the link, if you value your mental health).


Neville Morley 07.06.11 at 8:21 am

Cf. also the continued popularity of Hansi Hinterseer in the land of Kraftwerk, Neu!, Can et al. Someone should do a mash-up…


bert 07.06.11 at 11:01 am

There were some nice Beatles covers posted earlier in the thread.
Here’s Kraftwerk:


Watson Ladd 07.06.11 at 2:05 pm

@95: Which means giving up on writing a history of music as a history of art. Would anyone read an art history book in which Thomas Kinkade and MC Esher take precedence over Salvador Dali, Matisse, and Jasper John? Absent teleological discussion, the past makes no sense.


Neville Morley 07.06.11 at 2:19 pm

And seen in teleological terms, the past becomes wholly present-centred and, effectively, destroyed; only what currently matters to us is seen as important, and everything is seen to be leading up to our present. Nietzsche, Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie fuer das Leben passim.


Sam Dodsworth 07.06.11 at 2:21 pm

@100: But if you wanted to write a social history of art and popular taste then it would be a very good approach. And art history without social context is just taxonomy.


bert 07.06.11 at 3:17 pm

Visiting Paris at the start of the year I didn’t bother with the category-killer Monet megashow at the Grand Palais. Went instead to the Musee d’Orsay, which was countering with a big Gerome retrospective. Gerome was once the main man at the academy, and he schemed successfully against the impressionists. He was very popular in his time — a lot of the loans for the show came over from the States, where he sold heavily, particularly to Hollywood types. He’s now almost universally sneered at. I’d say his reputation ranks above Kincade (whose doesn’t?) but below Escher. I don’t see the Paris show changing that, but I don’t regret having seen it. Ridiculous kitsch; interesting all the same. As Neville says, take teleology too far and you end up with solipsism.


Substance McGravitas 07.06.11 at 4:57 pm

He was very popular in his time

What might that mean for painters then? What was the size of his audience?


bert 07.06.11 at 5:37 pm

What often gets quoted are his sales figures.
He was smart: he married the boss’s daughter at bigshot art dealers Goupil & Cie.
Theo van Gogh would have worked there at the time.


bert 07.06.11 at 5:42 pm

Here you go:
“… artiste parmi les mieux payés de son temps”
The article says Jack Nicholson collects him.
I remember hearing Nicholson is also a big buyer of Jack Vettriano.


Adrian Kelleher 07.06.11 at 7:06 pm

@bianca steele

Though hardly folk music, Pass Time with Good Company by none other than Henry VIII is as much of an earworm now as the day it was written. It has the structure of a pop tune which is exactly what it was. Henry Tudor may have been a sociopath and his family values weren’t above reproach but by God he knew how to develop a melody to a satisfying resolution (and the value of a rhythm section).

Now it’s getting on for five centuries later and it has to be accepted that the musicians’ toolkit has expanded over time. This thread is full of examples of outstanding modern work. Purple Haze didn’t send ripples of excitement through the conservatories of the world back in 1967 but this exhibited only psychological defensiveness.

This point cuts both ways, however. A lot of old music is undermined by connotations that are often imaginary. Thus Bach=brainy (or insane), Vivaldi=posh, Mozart=right posh and so on, just as the Henry Tudor piece=olde worlde. TV and films use music especially roughly in this regard. But these associations have nothing to do with the music, which hasn’t gotten any better or worse or changed meaning since it was written down.

Just as the range of musical expression was not complete in Bach’s time, it isn’t now either only now it’s because certain forms of expression have ceased. All emotions are …big: despair, elation, rage, love. Music is now a statement about the listener and mere sadness or simple affection don’t communicate a clear brand message and have disappeared. Likewise, Bach etc don’t have market muscle and their brands have become tainted with simplistic connotations.

Advertisers construct heroic individualist identities for us, but the complete disappearance from music of emotional states that surely still exist shows it’s a limited sort of individualism. People don’t proclaim a love for Bach because they fear it would be interpreted as a crass statement. This alone is enough to demonstrate that we’re not as individualistic or genuine as we’re flattered into believing.

PS I believe The Leprechaun Brothers are touring the East Coast at the moment. Take appropriate precautions.


Ed 07.06.11 at 7:25 pm

Chris @95: Well just because Wald eschews the teleological style, that doesn’t mean I have to, I think. (At least, he claims to eschew it. More on that later.) My argument was aimed specifically at a claim he seems to be making in that Time interview: that after the Beatles, black musicians stopped being interested in what white musicians were doing. That isn’t really true even in the case of the Beatles, and it is even less true for some of the white art rock that came later.

Obviously I will have actually to read Wald to see for myself (obviously!), but I am sceptical as to whether his “look at what was most popular at the time” approach really is more productive than the “look at what was most exciting, innovative and influential” methodology used by most critics for rock music (and most other arts, as the comments above make clear.) If you are really interested in what was most popular, the ‘Guinness Book of Hit Albums and Singles’ does an excellent job for the 1950s onwards, without any tendentious claims about who “destroyed” what.

(Incidentally, the Nietzsche quote cited by Neville @101 makes a good point about how teleology can make for bad history. But the story of how the Beatles persuaded white Americans to stop listening to the Marvelettes and start listening to ELP is in itself surely a present-centred view of history, albeit of a Golden Age-ist rather than Whiggish variety.)

@96: Yes, that’s a good point. The Velvets have been the textbook case of “tiny sales / huge influence” since that Eno quote about “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought one formed a band.” It is true they have been very influential through David Bowie and Roxy Music, punk, the Smiths / R.E.M./”indie” continuum and – of course – Kraftwerk. But I wonder how much you hear their legacy today, compared to that of, say, Black Sabbath, whose children are everywhere.

Try this for size: the clearest descendent of the VU now working in pop is Beyonce, thanks to the chain of influence that runs: the Velvets -> Kraftwerk -> hip-hop -> modern R&B. I like to think LaMonte Young would enjoy ‘Run the World (Girls)’, anyway.


Substance McGravitas 07.06.11 at 7:33 pm

I salute the troll.


Ed 07.06.11 at 7:52 pm

@109 Sorry: I should have replied to you earlier. You are dead right about Moroder, of course; I had him in an original draft of that comment, but edited him out because I thought he was covered by the reference to “disco”. Although, IIRC, while he was huge for House and Techno, he was never such a big deal for Hip-hop. Some of the early Hip-hop figures (eg Chuck D) were explicitly anti-disco.

Anyway, my point was not really Kraftwerk vs Moroder; it was to demonstrate how the interchange between black and white musicians remained fertile and exciting long after Sgt Pepper. Moroder, as a white Italian who lived for many years in Germany, makes that point just as well.


David 07.06.11 at 9:09 pm

This is probably newly relevant as it mentions Bob Dylan.


rm 07.06.11 at 10:38 pm

Ed: Yes, but as several commenters have pointed out, notation puts that era a long time before the recording of ‘Sgt Pepper’, and indeed before recordings of any kind.

Yes, but . . .

Yes: As we do with the evolution of print, we can take the long view and see long developments. Let me just mention Richard Lanham on that and take the rest as said.

But: Notation does not capture performance. Notation is composition; every performance is a fleeting event. You can sing your Gregorian chants following the notation of past generations of monks, but you can’t hear the actual voice of the guy who first sang them that way. Notation is langue and performance is parole. But recording and playback technology (definitely the playback is the crucial part, come to think of it) muddies up that division in many ways. It is, if not a turning point, a major leap or inflection point. Multi-track studio work is a less huge change, but still a moment of transition.


Harold 07.07.11 at 2:00 am

Van Gogh did not sell a single painting during his lifetime. Bach and Vivaldi were forgotten. Keats’ name was ‘writ on water’. Surely, it is simplistic to go by “what is popular”.


Harold 07.07.11 at 2:23 am

Even in classical music notation is only part of the story. There is much that notation cannot capture that is conveyed by oral tradition, transmitted from one teacher to another over time, down the generations. It is a curious thing that the invention of the phonograph set off a crazy for playing “only what was written on the page” — but this was never how it had been done in the past, when it was the rule to improvise. The improvised additions and ornamentations, were one-time events that didn’t translate well to recordings designed to be played over and over, however.


Substance McGravitas 07.07.11 at 3:56 pm


LeeEsq 07.07.11 at 4:27 pm

I’m a bit late to the thread but I’ve been thinking about another important aspect of Sgt. Pepper’s lately. A little over a year ago, I started to learn how to dance. Knowledge how to actually dance things like swing, foxtrot, or various other dances used to be much more widespread. At least in the States, dancing knowledge was considered important enough for schools to offer it as an elective when my parents were in the public schools. This would be in the early 1960s. Than knowledge of dancing sharply decreased.

My personal theory is that Sgt. Pepper is symbolic of this. Before Sgt. Pepper, rock music was more danceable to, partly because it was meant to be listen to live and with others rather than at home as Wald argued. At concerts, people would dance with each other. However, from Sgt. Peppper and onward, rock music grew more sophisticated musically and lyrically and considerably less danceable. Since a good chunk of pop music and danceable music experienced a split, knowledge of how to dance decreased rapidly.


Robert 07.07.11 at 4:39 pm

Both arguments, while interesting, seem pretty arbitrary, and based on some kind of Golden Age nostalgia for the idea of the village. There are numerous ways that, with increasing population, forms of communication and interaction have grown more stratified, producing layers of abstraction, particularly for specialists. It’s just as true of institutions like education, religion, and government as it is for forms of personal expression like writing and music. Are there drawbacks to these layers of abstraction? Sure. But a) there are also benefits, and b) the abstract layers don’t preclude the other layers.

In other words, Radiohead can exist at the same time as a flourishing dance music culture (or any of the various live, acoustic musical traditions, if you prefer), and, amazingly, the exact same people can enjoy both. David Foster Wallace, and complex forms of critical theory, can c0-exist with all the ordinary forms of oral communication (which is now and has always been very strong on story telling laced with colorful, poetic metaphors). And so on.


LeeEsq 07.07.11 at 11:12 pm

Attn Robert @ 117: I think when people are lamenting the demise of dance music culture, more focus should be placed on dance rather than music. Its helpful we divide dance music culture into encompassing two types of dancing: (1) moving in time with the music and (2) specific dances like fox trot, hustle, or swing. At least in the dancing community, when people mourn the death of dance music culture; the really mean loss of common knowledge of specific dance types among the general population. How many people know how to swing or fox trot these days unless they get into the dance scene?

Thats generally how I view eulogies about the death of dance music culture, its more about lamenting the fact that most dancing these days is free-style and that even that sort skill isn’t that widespread.


Western Dave 07.08.11 at 5:28 am

Can I just watch the come dancing video by the Kinks over and over again? Or do I have to read the damn book before I teach my 60s class this spring?


David 07.10.11 at 5:33 am

Max Roach: Great drummer. Full of bullshit when it comes to theory or music appreciation. I truly would not want to live in a world where his attitude determined much of anything.

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