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.

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