When Albums Ruled the World (BBC4 documentary, Feb 2013): a review of sorts

Welcome back to Sunday’s version of S-A-T radio, and I hope you have–or have already had–a proper day of rest or play (or both).

I’m grateful for Tim @ TheClashBlog for bringing this excellent documentary to my attention. (I look forward to also reviewing “The 12 inch Single,” an audio programme by Paul Morley, who is too smart for his own good.) Steve O’Hagan of BBC, The Guardian, et. al. takes a break from his documentary film on Central America’s Christian civil war to provide us with this comparatively light-hearted ditty–although to those of us who came of age in this era (or a wee bit later), the stakes rarely seemed light-hearted at all. O’Hagan and his crew offer a compelling narrative of the different strategies of album composition in the old sense–i.e., putting it together–both in terms of the studio recordings (Hendrix at the mixing board for Electric Ladyland), the artwork (the excess of Yes) and, when things got rough financially in the mid-seventies, the relative affordability of the live album (see Frampton Comes Alive–or not, depending upon where your affinities lie).

The story begins with Bob Dylan’s break from traditional to modern folkie. For his 2nd album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan  (1963), Dylan flipped the strategy from his first album, which only contained two originals. Here there are only two covers, and Dylan thus charts a path that will eventually be trod by Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards, and Pete Townshend. The Beatles, for example, turned in a no-covers LP on their 3rd go round (A Hard Day’s Night), but the pressures of the assembly line (2 albums and 4 singles a year, I believe, were the initial expectations) drove them back into the business of covers on Beatles For Sale and Help!. Ray Manzarek of The Doors gets a good quip in on his first impression of the LP cover for Rubber Soul: “Oh, The Beatles have been psychedelicized!”

O’Hagan, too, does a fine job of drawing the thread from Sgt. Pepper’s through Marvin Gaye’s battle with Berry Gordy over What’s Going On (eventually 2M in sales its first year) and onto the conceptual brilliance of LPs by George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. One interview subject imagined Funkadelic as the black American version of The Grateful Dead, and I think they meant it as a compliment.

What doesn’t get captured in this documentary, which is a breezy 93 minutes or so, is the long shadow cast by Western concert music (or “classical music”) on the domain of rock. This influence weighed heavily upon George Martin and, in turn, upon The Beatles and on the subsequent direction of rock and the emergence of punk. George Martin, as you may know,  earned his music performance degree at London’s Guildhall School of Music, as an oboist with considerable ability on the piano. He possessed the cultural capital prized in middlebrow and upper-middlebrow circles, which were occupied by–among others–music critics of The New York Times. The Times’ Theodor Strongin, for one, argued that The Beatles drew upon more than the usual pop repertoire to build their own repertoire. In 1964, Strongin writes:

“The Beatles have a tendency to build phrases around unresolved leading tone. This precipitates the ear into a false modal frame that temporarily turns the fifth of the scale into the tonic, momentarily suggesting the mixolydian mode. But everything ends as plain diatonic all the same.”

The value of pop was recognized in terms of Western concert music, and this condition would reach its apex with Sgt. Pepper’s, Beggars Banquet, and What’s Going On.

In brief: Martin maintained the duty of LP sequencing, subject to final approval by The Beatles (Summer of Love: 128). In one version, Martin gave cursory regard to this duty, noting that he simply assembled the tracks randomly a few times, and the order on the LP is the order in which they sounded best. I consider this suggestion rather disingenuous, and reflective of Bourdieu’s concern with the “ideology of natural taste”:

“[Taste] naturalizes real differences, converting differences in the mode of acquisition of culture into differences of nature; it only recognizes as legitimate the relation to culture (or language) which least bears the visible marks of its genesis, which has nothing “academic,” “scholastic,” “bookish,” “affected” or “studied” about it, but manifests by its ease and naturalness that true culture is nature—a new mystery of immaculate conception.” (Distinction 1984: 68)

I think Bourdieu’s after how taste erases the history of how something is deemed good–it simply is good, and if you can’t recognize that, then you must not be a cultured person. The songs on an album might be arranged in a host of ways: alphabetically; tempo, slow to fast; harmonically; or by songwriter. For Martin (or any producer, for that matter), to impose such a “bookish” scheme onto the LP would be unnatural, especially for a classically trained musician, who of course wanted the LP itself to sound great–i.e., like a multi-movement composition in the Western concert tradition. I’ll pick up this thread in full next Sunday, and flesh out these claims a bit more.

Other highlights from “When Albums Ruled the World”:

29:00 — Jimmy Page’s refusal to release a single off LZ II.

51:00 — from prog rock to P-Funk

54:00 — the audacious, effectively unlabeled, LP cover for Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon

70:00 — the beginning of the end of free-form radio: tight playlists through corporate ownership of radio, and how this development produced the odd composition history  of “More Than a Feeling” and the group deemed Boston, for the purposes of live concert revenue

I hope 900+ words is enough for today’s ditty, and that you found it worth your while. Have a lovely, lovely week!