Hard Beats and Spacey Bleeps

Dave Haslam

  • Will Pop Eat Itself?: Pop Music in the Soundbite Era by Jeremy J. Beadle
    Faber, 269 pp, £7.99, June 1993, ISBN 0 571 16241 X
  • Present Tense: Rock & Roll and Culture edited by Anthony DeCurtis
    Duke, 317 pp, £11.95, October 1992, ISBN 0 8223 1265 4

In October 1991 Moby baffled Top of the Pops with a performance of ‘Go’, a dance record – a techno dance record – and solo composition by Richard ‘Moby’ Hall, created on his computer at home in New York. During its almost lyric-less six minutes and 30 seconds of fast beats, atonal bleeps and melodic keyboard lines, you hear ‘go’ shouted 37 times, ‘yeah’ 23 times, and ‘hold tight’ (I think) seven times; these words have been recorded from various sound sources, manipulated, edited and spat out again by a digital sampler. The Top of the Pops director insisted that Moby should sing the words, even though there was no pretence that it was his voice on the record. Moby was as baffled as the TV audience. In clubs and discotheques – where demand for the record had sent it high into the charts – ‘Go’ sounds like a touch of genius, but on Top of the Pops it looked like music from a distant planet: no narrative, no real instruments, no band. The kind of music Moby was playing, and the method by which it was created, are both products of the striking technological progress pop music has made in the last decade. There could have been no ‘Go’ ten years ago.

In his unashamedly subjective Will Pop Eat Itself? Pop Music in the Soundbite Era, Jeremy J. Beadle analyses the history of British chart music in the Eighties, focusing especially and inescapably on the importance of the digital sampler, invented early in the decade. Beadle is a man with strong opinions. At one point he describes Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as ‘possibly the most over-rated album of all time’. His attitude to changes brought about by new music technology is generally positive.

Samplers are the most important of the new writing and recording tools, and also the most controversial. Their ability to lift, record, store, change and regurgitate sounds, notes, beats, riffs, voices and horn blasts has made the recording process cheaper, and to some extent easier. It has also changed the way musicians write music, which, as Beadle suggests, is now as much to do with bricolage as it is with anything else. That it’s now possible to create a song by putting together somebody else’s drum pattern, a stolen voice and notes and sounds from other records, upsets the ‘pure music’ lobby. Beadle deals with the copyright issues clearly and at length, but most opposition to the sampler is not for reasons of copyright infringement (this is usually resolved by obtaining clearance, for a fee, from the holders of the copyright), but because technical mastery of the traditional pop instruments – guitars, drums, bass and keyboards – is now a thing of the past. Far from viewing technology as a threat, Beadle insists that the music-makers who, since 1987, have come to the charts carrying samplers have brought life to a music scene starved of ideas.

Sampling can be discreet, and can be used simply to grab someone else’s snare-drum sound in order to augment an otherwise traditionally recorded track. But a sampler can record and distort any sound from any source: recent records have sampled car doors slamming, Eastern tablas, disco bass-lines, astronauts talking to NASA, Martin Luther King’s speeches and Donny Osmond singing ‘Someone Help Me’. And, thanks to an Akai S900 sampler (cost price around £2000), the KLF’s album Chill Out includes the sound of sheep baaing.

The KLF (or the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, as they were first known) was a protean project which Beadle calls ‘a new blueprint for that old warhorse “the pop group” ’; their initials supposedly standing for the Kopyright Liberation Front. Pop theorists have to come to terms with the fact that much pop music in 1993 – and certainly most dance music – isn’t made by people who play live, who rehearse on a Sunday, who aspire to poetry in their lyrics, or who you’d recognise in the street. Beadle places the new musicians in the tradition of writer/producers rather than artists. Although their releases are sometimes fronted by a singer for videos and photographs, they remain faceless production teams, remixers, engineers and techno-boffins. They are international pop pioneers: Snap in Germany, Swemix in Sweden, Perfecto in London and Moby in New York.

Beadle perhaps underplays the chasm that has crashed open between rock culture and computer culture, between multinational major label attitudes and street-level independent labels, between the old guard and the vanguard. The grassroots rise of this new generation of music-makers has happened despite open hostility from establishment figures in the music industry (musicians like Roger Daltrey and George Harrison, executives like BPI bigwig Maurice Oberstein). The revolution is all the more threatening to rock culture because music-makers operating in black and club music (notably hip-hop and house) have plugged into the new technology with enthusiasm, whereas for white rock culture disco music has always been the enemy.

Just as the idiosyncrasies of ‘Go’ failed to fit the staid Top of the Pops format, so the music scene it sprang from fails to fit most rock and pop discourse. Beadle’s book could be welcomed solely on those terms; it’s not another book analysing Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. Even the leading music journals – New Musical Express in Britain, and Rolling Stone in the USA – have found it hard to adjust to the new era; like the rock industry itself, rock critics are primarily interested in stars or guitars.

A song combining computer-generated sounds and 37 shouts of ‘go’ isn’t, I suspect, what turns on Anthony DeCurtis. DeCurtis, a senior features editor at Rolling Stone, and editor of Present Tense: Rock & Roll and Culture (an anthology which includes some excellent essays and, thankfully, reveals a broader range of views than the editor’s), confesses in his introduction to the collection: ‘It [is] hard to convey to someone who has grown up in the late Seventies and Eighties how much rock & roll mattered in the period between, say, 1962 and 1972. Every album by Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones during that time seemed infused with messages about how to live.’ Such writing seems misty-eyed to the point of simple-mindedness – with LPs reduced to the level of self-help manuals – but DeCurtis is doing no more than articulate the conservatism that lies at the heart of both rock criticism and the music industry. ‘The Times They Are A-Changin” and it’s not what they wanted after all.

The idea that pop music was something serious, as a source both of spiritual guidance and lifestyle tips (apparently much needed), and as something out of which money could be made, grew up in the Sixties. The record labels got fat focusing on the kind of white male rock acts in DeCurtis’s roll-call. Now the one-time drop-outs look back on their version of a golden age from their current positions of power. Us poor unreconstructed types born fifteen or twenty years too late have our misfortune compounded by Richard Branson launching a ‘new’ radio station dedicated to playing classic rock tracks, the newspaper arts pages going in for extensive Velvet Underground retrospectives, and BBC controllers taking us, yet again, through The Rock & Roll Years.

The sampling generation, on the other hand, has grown up during an era of rapid technological advance, and Beadle could usefully have made more of this. The generations too young to have attended Woodstock have lived through the years of space travel, the advent of CDs and Virtual Reality, the innovations in art and design made possible by computer graphics and so on. Meanwhile, the irony of the entrenched position of rock’s establishment is obvious, and was noted over five years ago in Q magazine by DJ Mark Moore of S-Express: ‘It’s the same reaction old fogies had when rock & roll first started.’

For the Sixties generation, however, the electric guitar is a more authentic instrument of human expression than a digital sampler. Thus DeCurtis, in a summary of pop music as it goes into the Nineties, comments: ‘Bruce Springsteen, U2 and REM played an essential role in preserving the human element of rock & roll at a time when technology threatened to overwhelm flesh and blood.’ Rock critics love this loaded terminology. Nik Cohn has described the Sex Pistols in their Sid Vicious era as ‘close to the real thing – they had balls, real power’. Elsewhere DeCurtis describes the music made by synthesisers as ‘anaemic’, and thus the lines of battle are drawn.

The real thing in traditional rock culture is a flesh and blood, raw, male guitar band engaged in the manful struggle of live performance. The differences between the power chords, drug habits and rebel poses of the Sex Pistols and the Who, say, are very few (the Pistols even covered the Who’s ‘Substitute’ and ‘I’m A Boy’). The Pistols, children of more desperate times, were a more incendiary version of bands we’d heard before; punk was the roar of rock biting its own tail.

Like punk, the various new musics created by computer-age music-makers are grassroots phenomena that have evolved through networks uncontrolled by the multinational major labels. Like punk, the sampling revolution is (to steal Greil Marcus’s phrase) ‘a new kind of free speech’. As Beadle says: ‘It was a way into music-making for non-musicians.’ But what is happening now constitutes a bigger and more significant revolution than punk: this is a wholesale reappraisal of pop music. As Robert Ray writes, in his illuminating essay in Present Tense: ‘Sampling and sequencing, go the current complaints, make musicians unnecessary ... we can detect here the historical complaint against every new technology and every avant-garde movement that embraces it; the new technology makes things too easy. What previously was possible for only a few ... becomes possible for many.’

Beadle’s concentration on chart history means we get plenty on the likes of Bomb The Bass and on the Stock-Aitken-Waterman stable – writer-producers responsible for a string of high-gloss hit singles – but less on the underground roots the chart-toppers feed off, although he rightly acknowledges the democratisation of music evident in the groundbreaking days of early hip-hop, which was to be reinforced by new technology. The classic DIY hip-hop set-up of a DJ with two decks cutting drum breaks from disc to disc, and thus creating a homemade rhythm track for the rapper to rhyme over, served as a prototype for the isolation and repetition of drum breaks that a sampler makes easy.

What Beadle misses by covering just the mainstream is how early, pre-successful hip-hop musicians and fans loved technology, revelling in their space-age computer gadgetry, their walkmans and ghetto blasters, and occasionally even calling themselves after their favourite bits of studio equipment – like Davy DMX paying homage to his Oberheim DMX – as 808 State later took their name from the Roland 808 drum machine. This love of technology is in marked contrast to rock & roll’s fear of technology overwhelming flesh and blood (a technophobia taken to an extreme by Eric Clapton on his recent acoustic LP Unplugged, the by-product of an MTV series featuring appearances by rock acts without their amplifiers).

Hip-hop culture’s technophilia meant that hip-hop musicians were eager to use any new piece of recording equipment, and this led directly to an early variant of hip-hop, electro – a mainly instrumental, stripped-down form of hip-hop influenced by European machine-age groups like Kraftwerk and embracing advances in Casio keyboards, synthesisers and drum machine technology – an important link between early Eighties rap and late Eighties acid house.

Hit songs like ‘Pump Up the Volume’ (which features heavily in Beadle’s book) – or the work of acts like the Pet Shop Boys and New Order, who draw on disco and computer culture – don’t spring out of nowhere; they grow out of other less commercially successful versions, out of a maelstrom of ideas evolving through underground clubs, street sounds and small label releases. A chart history misses these roots. Thus Beadle spends pages on writer/producers like Trevor Horn (Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s musical mentor), but neglects Adrian Sherwood, whose work with Tack Head and Keith LeBlane was truly pioneering. Having said that, his coverage of house music’s debt to the (predominantly gay) high-energy scene is strong.

Beadle is wrong when he says that ‘Rap, right from the start, was about anger. It was a vehicle for anger.’ From Grandmaster Flash to De La Soul, rap has been about a much wider range of self-expression: good times, girl trouble, boy trouble, iconoclasm, assertiveness, humour, as well as anger. It’s a genre riven with internal debates about violence, the sex wars and even about sampling. Stetsasonic had a club hit in 1988 with ‘Talkin’ All That Jazz’, which justified rap’s plundering of funk’s past by claiming to be taking samples in order to give a new relevance to old black music (thus beginning an important and continuing dialogue between jazz and rap). In his essay on rap in Present Tense – one of the best things in the collection – Alan Light writes that rap is ‘the genre that speaks most directly to and for its audience, full of complications, contradictions and confusion’.

Beadle ignores the fast-moving complexities of rap in order to concentrate on Public Enemy, rap’s prime exponents of ostentatious sampling and chaotic noise collages. Certainly, in Public Enemy’s case, rap and sampling technology is used as a vehicle for anger and raw power. It’s not a coincidence that Public Enemy are the influence most frequently cited by rock acts who turn to rap for inspiration (including Beadle’s favourite band, Pop Will Eat Itself). It’s almost as if Public Enemy prove their validity to Beadle because they share rock’s balls, unlike other hip-hop acts like Main Source, De La Soul and The Goats, or soft-focus, sample-heavy ambient artists, or diva-fronted Italian house acts.

‘The charts are a barometer of popular taste,’ he says, justifying his concentration on them. But they are a very small part of the picture, and they make pop seem even more chaotic and arbitrary than it really is. He’s forever trying to see patterns in pop by examining the entrails of the weekly Top Thirty, a rag-bag of invariably commercially diseased singles, enlivened by the odd gem, but full of cover versions (pop repeating itself), novelty records and hits kept alive by reformatting the release via remixes (pop reheating itself).

Public Enemy serve Beadle’s purpose because there’s an obvious narrative in their work. He also studies serious intentions in songs by the KLF and Pop Will Eat Itself, intention manifested in messages, or what Beadle calls ‘layers of meaning’. Much of his text is an examination of how samples have been included, juxtaposed and echoed in songs, a process resulting in the creation of works that are more than the sum of their parts. His careful dissection of ‘All You Need Is Love’ by the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu is ample evidence that the JAMs, though faceless, were far from mindless.

But in his concentration on songs with narrative thrust, Beadle undervalues the significance of the computer revolution. It’s been about new noises, and journeys into sound. ‘At one point in November 1991, half the Top Ten consisted of more or less purely instrumental dance music,’ he tells us; yet, like DeCurtis, he prefers to get definable messages from his music. DeCurtis makes a plea for rock & roll to ‘assume again a progressive role in American culture’. Music at its best isn’t so earthbound or prosaic; it can be six and a half minutes of hard beats, spacey bleeps and 37 shouts of ‘go’.