Does the new technology of mix 'n' splice mean the end of Popular Song as we know it? Or the start of a new open-ended dance afterlife? The death of the Original, or the birth of the infinite version? David Toop looks/locks into a brand new time lapse. This article originally appeared in The Wire 103 (September 1992). David Toop reflects on writing the essay below.
I have only the faintest memory of writing "All Mix & No Master" so it comes as a shock to realise its role as a blueprint for Ocean Of Sound, published three years later. I do remember this as a time of turmoil. My first marriage was falling apart, there was a huge upsurge of change in musical life and around this time I had my first view of the internet. Everything felt raw, new, horrible and thrilling. I’m also amused to see the close connections between these ideas and the ideas in my most recent Wire essay, Mellow Soul. This moment right now could be as significant a shift as the industrial revolution; for me, the early 90s was when the first intimations of that shift started to emerge and so the piece is a notebook of my early reactions.
"…whoever doesn’t like what I did, 20 years from now they can go back and redo it." Teo Macero, discussing his method of recording Miles Davis in Ian Carr’s biography of Miles Davis.
In February 1965, James Brown and his band interrupted their lengthy bus journey to a show by stopping off at a studio in North Carolina, for barely an hour, to record "Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag". The song dragged for nearly seven minutes as the musicians, including guitarist Jimmy Nolen, struggled with fatigue.
The track was means to be a hip, dance-craze R&B on the cusp, reaching back through history to the swinging, jazz inflections of Wynonie Harris, Little Willie John and Louis Jordan, looking back even further to rent parties and fish fries, but at the same time groping towards the disco cyborg future. Whatever was latent in the weary grooves, somebody heard it, for as Cliff White and Harry Weinger wrote in their notes for the James Brown Star Time CD box of 1991: "In a brilliant post-production decision, the intro was spliced off and the entire performance was sped up for release."
Razor-blading a huge pop hit, this taut amalgam of street slang, loping beats and nervous punchy accents, the first moment of modern soul, out of something that started as a flatfoot grind; this was momentous. Brown's quoted reaction reflected his glimpse into a future, our present, in which songs are titles, source points, initialisations, indicating the beginning and the reference point for a process of continual transformation. "It's a little beyond me now," he confessed. "I'm actually fightin' the future. It's - it's - it's just out there."
The peculiar aspect of the story is that most of us have only become aware of the unpromising origins of this fabulous, pivotal track 26 years after the event. Were it not for the current obsession, via CD reissue, for the alternate-take, and hence the release of "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag" in its complete and previously unreleased, unedited, slow form, we'd be none the wiser.
I had always been amused that one of the guitarists from The Ventures learned to play by frantically trying to copy Les Paul's artificially accelerated and overdubbed guitar solos; now I realise that I've been fooled by technology too.
But if technology is one key to the deconstruction of songs over the last four decades, improvisation is another. In the 20th Century, how to separate the two? For Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the song was its chords. "To make things tough for outsiders," bebop drummer Kenny Clarke has said, talking about the cutting contests at Minton's, "we invented difficult riffs. Some of our tunes used the 'A' part of one tune, like "I Got Rhythm", but the channel came from something else, say "Honeysuckle Rose". The swing guys would be completely hung up in the channel. They'd have to stop playing." (Bird Lives, Ross Russell)
Improvisation was the method that elevated often mediocre popular songs onto planes of sublime invention. How much were these inventions bounded and influenced by the recording technology and duplication formats of the time? Recording allowed for retakes in the studio, yet 78rpm discs bounded the length of an improvisation, and perhaps the degree of captured deconstruction, within a certain minimal time frame.
With the availability of long play records, improvisations on popular songs could turn into beheadings, disembowelments, autopsies. Live tape recordings of Charlie Parker or Lester Young jam sessions prove that jazz musicians had been skinning and stretching pop tunes in after hours clubs for years, but the commercial release of these explorations made the process publicly available. Thus it was, between 1960 and 1966, we could all hear examples like the Ornette Coleman Quartet's dissection of "Embraceable You" and the John Coltrane group's Village Vanguard immolation of "My Favourite Things".
But to experience the full, populist assassination of the pop tune during the 1960s, we would have to be in the recording studios, the discotheques and the psychedelic ballrooms, rather than the jazz clubs. The song was still iconic in pop, rock and soul - a launch pad, a connection with the audience and history, a symbol of the object to be dismantled - but the song as inviolate consumer product, radio soundbite and pleasure pill (to be popped) was under threat.
The imperatives of late 50s/early 60s dance craze fundamentalism (do the swim, come on and mashed potato, it's twine time, now!) suggested that music could be enchained as the master and slave of body movement.
Less than a decade later (under the spell of psychedelics or other drugs, electronics, Indian and African music) Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, "1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)"/"Moon, Turn The Tides… Gently, Gently Away" by Jimi Hendrix, Terry Riley's Rainbow In Curved Air, Sly and the Family Stone's "Sex Machine", The Temptations' "Run Away Child, Running Wild", La Monte Young's "Sunday Morning Blues", Velvet Underground's "Sister Ray" and John and Yoko's "Revolution No.9" all predicated organically multiplying, fractal soundfields of music in their different ways, rather than music as evolving sculpture, the closed and preset cellular structure of verse, chorus and bridge.
Again, recording technology played a significant role in the evolution of this open form music. "Now there's no 'take one' etc," Teo Macero told Ian Carr about the Miles Davis sessions of the late 60s. "The recording machine doesn't stop at the sessions, they never stop, except only to make the play back. As soon as he gets in there, we start the machines rolling." As Carr additionally pointed out: "In his recordings from now on, Miles wouldn't start with the idea of set pieces; instead he would simply explore some fragmentary elements and edit them into a cohesive piece of music afterwards."
In Kingston, Jamaica, sound engineer King Tubby, the proprietor of Tubby's Home Town Hi-Fi sound system, was following the same route at roughly the same time to very different ends. "The dance lasted for hours," wrote Steve Barrow in his sleevenotes to King Tubby’s Special 1973-1976 (Trojan), "with those four Treasure Isle dubplates as the only music, dubbed up live and differently ever time and with U Roy, the High Priest, toasting new lyrics for every version."
The end of the 60s also marked the subcutaneous growth of gay Latin and black dance clubs in New York, marking the origins of disco mixing. Performance-based music erased the song through improvisation, repetition and extension. Dub and disco colluded with the song, enveloping it in its own environment, hinting at its continued existence, melting it into a semi-anonymous web of pulse and chant.
After its first formative years, during which the global soundbanks were plundered for empathetic records, disco began to work on the principle of decomposing songs into modular and interchangeable fragments, sliced and repatched into an order which departed from the rules of Tin Pan Alley. This new order was designed to suit the nocturnal rhythms of a participatory, ecstatic audience, rather than any sense of consensual, concise, classic proportions demanded by pop listeners.
"I've noticed that the contrast has a funny reaction on people," pioneer disco mixer Tom Moulton told Black Music magazine in 1976, discussing his criteria for re-editing an already existing song. "It's a hard driving thing, but all of a sudden there's all this beauty there at the same time. I notice things like that really turn people on. And what I also do is put in breaks if I can, 'cause that takes people even higher. It's down to flow."
Yet within the liquid flow of sound systems and discos, dub and disco lived in symbiotic relationship to the song, offering deconstruction as an piquant alternative or a parallel experience to source material. So there was the original song, followed by the voiceless version and a theoretically endless chain of dubs, or there was the radio edit (the concentrated pleasure pill), to compare and contrast with the extended disco remix, the alternative mixes, the instrumental and the dub mix.
Gradually, such decomposing agents have taken the ascendent. After repeated plastic surgery, songs barely survive. They have been pulled into strings and globs of interchangeable matter, dissipative systems whose authors have been relegated to peripheral usefulness (or entirely forgotten) in the transformative sequence of versions. Songs survive, of course, because they can encapsulate big thoughts in small vessels, yet they are harder to write than ever and somehow, in their certainty and logic, less necessary than ever after all the years of disassembly. Nothing ever settles at a point of rest. Nothing is ever finished. For the time being, nothing is complete.
As songs have been dismembered, digital sampling has redistributed the amputated fragments. For a moment, technology captured human capabilities and locked them into machine behaviour. Inevitably, song evolution now encompasses the human imitation of the machine. Just as The Ventures once aspired to technological impossibility, so such musicians as The Future Sound Of London record session singers in order to sample their voices, while singer Sheila Chandra imitates sample loops in order to avoid the hiatus that machine glitches impose on studio atmospheres. True or false? In 1988, James Brown sang "I'm real", but the razor blades and speed controls had already long thrown that desperate claim into doubt.