No one with a serious interest in the unfolding form of 20thC popular music is likely to underplay the importance of technology in the evolution of that florid canvas. Significant commentators from Frith (1988) to Jones (1992), Chanan (1995) to Peterson (1990) have reflected on the power of industrial innovation in the shaping of production and consumption patterns. Presley, Dylan and the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, Public Enemy and Nirvana may appear to lead the headline charge but it is just as likely to be a detail of hardware – the jukebox or the transistor radio – or software – the vinyl 45 or the MP3 file – that stretches the boundaries of the music and heralds a new age for artist and listener.
So far, popular music study has engaged with the power of the performer and the potency of the technological but rarely to date has there been an adequate connection between the two points on the graph. Histories mention tech developments, of course, but generally as abstracts; technical texts tend to treat the mixing desk or the microphone, the Moog or Cubase, as tools for a specific task, a means to an electronic or digital end rather than part of the composing intent.
In short, the relationship between the production process and the aesthetic one has not been well addressed. Evan Eisenberg’s The Recording Angel, a rather earlier attempt, went some of the way but in Timothy Warner’s Pop Music - Technology and Creativity, a determined effort is pursued to bridge the gap. For over 100 years, popular music has been rarely made without the intrusion, positive or otherwise, of machinery but Warner (no relation) argues that in the last quarter of the last century, technology’s role in the creation of rock and pop, dance and soul, has become an over-riding factor in the shaping of the recorded sounds we hear: it is no longer merely the mediator, but rather, very often, the medium.
Put simply, the role that technology performs in the studio is now so central to the process of music-making that, in a vast range of recorded examples, the line between artistic inspiration and the encoding of digital symbols on a computer disk drive is remarkably difficult to draw. And if any man has been responsible for this re-positioning of the studio as a creative tool rather than barrier or impediment to a singer or musician’s authentic essence, then that individual is very probably called Trevor Horn, embarking on a string of projects where the band or the vocalist became virtually subsumed by the producer’s trickery; the true work done not by the instrumentalists but the team on the other side of the glass.
From the latter 1970s to the mid-1990s as digital methods essentially superseded analogue approaches to recording sounds, Horn led the way with a series of ground-breaking singles and albums which not only spanned a remarkable range of styles – bubblegum and electronica, pop and disco, prog rock and soul, hip hop and world – but also won critical and commercial recognition on both sides of the Atlantic. The sub-title of Warner’s volume stresses the importance of this producer’s part in a key shift in the way records were constructed, a strategy that proved not only successful but also widely influential.
The book falls into three principal sections – a useful, layperson-friendly account of the way studio technology has become, increasingly, a creative vehicle; a detailed consideration of seven artists whose output was sculpted by Horn and his engineering posse; and an extended author interview with the man himself. For the non-technically minded, the volume rarely loses sight of a general audience. Furthermore, Warner decides to eschew the use of close musicological analysis via traditional methods of notation so that he is, once again, able to keep a wider readership on board.
For me, the first part of the book was particularly informative. A useful preamble, in which the author examines the binary distinctions of pop and rock, allows him to set out his stall: this is primarily an account of pop music-making rather than rock music-making although a description of an intriguing crossover between these two territories joins the analysis later on the book when Yes, archetypical symphonic rockers of the late 1960s and early 1970s, present a rather different face to the world when Horn not only produces but also joins the band.
Two passages in the opening forays I found quite fascinating: they allowed me to understand better pop phenomena that I had simply taken for granted over many, many years of passive listening. The fade-out is a familiar device applied in hundreds, no, thousands, of pop singles, which has sometimes been regarded as a an emblem of lazy writing or slipshod production but which Warner asserts has meanings and functions that transcend those simplistic interpretations.
He points out that such a device is “an obvious example of a sound characteristic of pop music that bears no relation to acoustic reality. This characteristic has no real parallel in any genre of acoustic music: in live performances of pop music, for example, the song often ends with some kind of traditional cadence producing a strong sense of finality ” (p32).
But he adds that not only is a successful fade-out “in reality, quite difficult to achieve” but it is also “acoustically impossible” to attain outside the realm of the studio. Warner says that the fade-out not only echoes the technique of the radio DJ but might, of itself, be regarded as “an assertion of the technological nature of recording”. More than that, the fade-out has functions that go beyond the technical: it also “acts as a kind of goad encouraging the listener to listen to the record again – and consequently might be regarded as a purchase incentive” (ibid).
The other, more recent feature of the pop landscape which the author examines, sampling, raises different aesthetic questions and some of the answers provide intriguing reasons for artists sourcing vocal lines or drum rhythms from the aural archive and re-applying them in post-digital recordings. The tactic permits a human element – for example, breakbeats from recordings of live musicians – to be brought back into play. “Sampling”, says Warner, “in spite of its background in digital technology, offers ways of countering the sonic impact of purely machine-driven and machine-generated music and reintroducing […] human-made sound” (p30).
When Warner embarks on his track by track, album by album, examination – The Buggles, Malcolm McLaren, Yes, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the Art of Noise, Propaganda form an amazingly eclectic stable of groups under the microscope – he offers not only an overview of the key songs, analysing schematically key pieces such as “Buffalo Gals”, “Relax” and “Slave to the Rhythm”, but also an interpretation of the visual and cultural signifiers, videos and album sleeves, that became part of the distinctive Horn style, particularly when he created work under his own ZTT imprint in the 1980s.
We may argue with minor points in this survey – surely hip hop had entered the UK consciousness via the Sugarhill Gang some while before McLaren’s remarkable Duck Rock with Horn his essential sideman in 1983 – but in broad terms this account is rich in detail and revealing in its broad sweep, privileging technology and the producer as the driving force in its story, and specifically the impact of the digital era, a development that Horn reflects on, often amusingly, in his conversation with the writer.
Describing the arrival of an early generation sampler, the Synclavier, Horn explains: “it was such a big thing, it was difficult to assess what it was capable of in just one or two records. It was also very slow and time consuming. I put on a stone in the first three or four months that we had it because of the length of time I had to hang around why people did things. The whole game of being a record producer began to shift away from being a sociable boss of a group of musicians having an exciting time making a record to being somebody who visits people programming” (p144).
Chanen, Michael (1995) Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music (London: Verso)
Eisenberg, Evan (1988) The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa (London: Pan Books)
Frith, Simon (1988) “The industrialisation of music” in Music for Pleasure (Cambridge: Polity Press)
Jones, Steve (1992) Rock Formations: Music, Technology and Mass Communication (London: Sage Publications)
Peterson, Richard (1990) “Why 1955? Explaining the advent of rock music” in Popular Music, 9/1