Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How's Your Shadow Puppetry These Days?

One famous Sunday evening, gathered around our television sets, many in my "Boomer" generation were convinced that we’d had revealed to us our mission in life. When Ed Sullivan famously announced, "And now…here they are…" and four mop-headed Liverpool lads waved their fretted wands about and casted their spells on us, the music stores next day were selling guitars like snow shovels after broadcasted blizzard warnings. As we passed the showroom window of a Denver music store, I remember my parents asking me what instrument I would like to play. I answered, "Drums." to which mother remarked, "That's not an instrument." No offense to drummers; I'm quite sure she intended that as drums are not typically melodic instruments, especially as she'd heard them played through the cacophony of screaming teen girls on Ed Sullivan.

I remember that before we were treated to the headlining Beatles, we had to endure spinning plates to the tune of Khachaturian's "Saber Dance". The farther we traverse away from that time period, the more it seems incredible that plate-spinners, musical spoon-players, Señor Wences, and the like could actually get booked on the same venue along with great fab four. Then one wonders if the Beatles were viewed as just entertainers by booking agents: Rock Band/Plate-spinners…six for half-a-dozen.

Well, they weren't all that great at the time. They were figurative "emerging cicadas" singing along with every other bug emerging from their subterranean dwellings of obscurity. And at that time they had all replaced other acts for which interest had dwindled. Somewhere, a talented shadow puppeteer moaned his silent woes to his faithful shadow dog on the wall next to him.

Today many of us "real musicians" feel as though the times have passed us by. The complaints probably echo those of the stable people when it finally dawned on them that that newfangled horseless carriage thingamabob was here to stay. Progress happens. And I'm a fine one to complain. It might be said that I am a plug-in monster. I fondly remark on the subject that I can more easily page through an expansive music gear catalog and point out what I don't own than the more arduous prospect of listing what I have and hold in my DAW environment(s)*—I work with 5 of the most popular of said.

Martin Niemöller is perhaps best remembered for the quotation:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.

I do not at all mean to marginalize its importance with such a comparatively frivolous circumstance, but it is in a way like what we MIDIots experienced when even pre-MIDI, the drum machine came to town.

Hymn 353…

Oh Dunderbeck, oh Dunderbeck, how could you be so mean
To ever have invented the sausage meat machine?
Now long tailed rats and pussy cats will never more be seen,
They`ll all be ground to sausage meat in Dunderbeck`s machine.

Until Roger "Dunderbeck" Linn unleashed his infernal beatbox on an unsuspecting music world, the harmonic/melodic musicians and drummers and percussionists lived in (for lack of a better word) harmony. There was “Drum Drops”, literal needle-drop vinyl lps with full stereo tracks of live drums. And the old Lowery electric organ type—funkily made famous by Sly Stone. The early Roland offerings (which were variations on the fake sounding beatbox themes) never came close enough in realism at that time to provide a threat.

When the Linn Drum hit the streets—with its sequencer and manipulatable actual recorded drum sounds, it had two dramatic effects on the studio eco-structure. One: the obvious, it offered a viable alternative to session drummers. Two: because that drum tool was readily adopted by non-drummers, they created a "new" drum sound and style. For instance, instead of fully dynamic high-hat rhythms like those generated by Steve's Ferrone, Gadd, and Wonder, we got clickity-ticking that sounds like the "60 Minutes" clock. That came with two dynamic flavors: loud and softer. …three, if you count "off".

Enter the eighties and the Minneapolis sound: Prince and "his courtiers" devoured the early eighties music atmosphere with the Linn Drum sound. Of course Hip-Hop hipster/hoppers played their part in it, but Pop success makes gold, and he who holds the gold makes the rules. When imitation becomes idiom, the rules have changed. After "Red Corvette", good luck with trying to pitch a tune (wordplay intended) with heartfelt soulful Sonny tapping knowledge to ya on a live kit.

Then the Empire struck back with the infamous Phil Collins gated drum sounds. "But this is good, right?" It would seem so Watson, but only to the casual observer. For you see, Watson… While it brought the live drummer back into the game, it did as well set the (mono)tone for the uni-dynamic banality that its push-button predecessor established. The sub-cultural infestation continues to this present time in current music practices. We're in a Kurt Vonnegut "Harrison Berge…"-run de-evolved world where sameness is highly honored and recognized for being contemporary. Meanwhile, an overly individualized "Indie" market searches out the most non-conforming Pop music counters. It has become something akin to the two-party them-o-cracked/repugnant-canned dynamic. Those who are passive consumers of the goop dished out on their figurative trays will accept whatever is served to them with a smile. The cultural rebel sees "greatness" in anything opposite of popular. But don't be fooled by the label "Indie"; where it used to infer independence, it's now an open idiom grazed upon by both true independents and their sound-alikes signed to major labels.

Personally, I have artists—and I'm loathe to utilize that much overused noun lightly–who pester me about trending more toward styles created by those of lesser talent: singing, composing, songwriting, playing instruments, etc. I understand. They see some lightweight singing half-talent suddenly raised to prominence with a string of chart-near-toppers, and they gather that the off-pitch whiney over-embellished greasy vocal delivery is what sells. How are they expected to understand that the success they covet comes as a result of heavy major-league promotion to make sure that the lesser talents sells? If the game is about talent, anyone with talent gets to compete. But if the game is based on campaign coffers, deep pockets will usually win. A royal flush is a great hand; but if the holder can see when his opponent raises, the pot goes to Daddy Warbucks over there. From the point that mediocrity became an accepted norm, when drum machines took over for drummers, presets took over for programmers, sound-alikes took over for innovators, rappers took over for singers (as rappers and as Antares Autotune-enabled robotic crooners), and common became a comfort, the days of a competitive commercial high-culture music industry were numbered.

Is it tragedy or is it the natural way of things? Maybe tragically it's just the natural way of things. At one time, like the shadow-puppeteers of times gone by, the gifted musicians fascinated masses of audiences who would hardly settle for anything less. And who knows; as trends are cyclic, maybe one day talent will again rule the charts as a rule. Be warned though; shadow-puppeteers and plate spinners are ahead of us in that line.

How's your shadow puppetry?


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