Music

The Unscene

Bryce Merrill
Photo from Havana Guns

Is it possible to make pop music without concern that it's popular? A look at paradoxes of home recording.

At a coffee shop, I was talking to Charlie, a college student and amateur musician, about recording music at home. He slid a book toward me: The Indie Bible, a guide to DiY band promotion in the manner of Book Your Own Fucking Life, a collection of independent venue contacts, record labels and distributors, and even listings of punk-friendly lodgings for touring bands. Then he shoved a second, similar manual at me, another “sweet” resource for independent musicians trying to make it on their own.

I wasn’t sure what to say, if he wanted me to borrow the books or just look at them. We were meeting for the first and presumably only time, because he agreed to be interviewed as part of my research, but I sensed he wouldn't have hesitated to let me take them. What gave me pause was not that, but the paradox the books presented. Charlie had earlier confessed that his motivation for home recording was to sever ties with the music business, yet here he was extolling the virtues of backdoor guides to the industry. So is he in or is he out?

When Charlie talked about the joys of recording music at home -- a hobby he did ostensibly for no other reason than self-expression and exploration -- his speech quickened and his smile brightened. He talked about teaching his daughter to play drums for his recordings, and he seemed moved almost to tears recalling why he'd written certain songs. In this way, Charlie is like most of the other home recordists I've spoken with. They don't record music as part of plan to become successful; they are not expecting to be the next Moby, Bob Pollard, or Pavement. They do it for the pleasure of creating, for the enrichment of remembering through music, for a musical form of private catharsis. For them, the value of recording is the act of doing it. As Jonathan, another participant in my study put it, they revel in the benefits of “making it, not making it.

Technology changes in recording practices have evolved so quickly that explanations of the movement’s larger social effects are lagging. Observers have generally tended to take either a utopian or apocalyptic view of the home-recording phenomenon. Jon Pareles wrote in the New York Times that artists like Mice Parade and Aesop Rock, who record music in their homes instead of professional studios, represent key players in what he calls a “quiet revolution” in music making. Other scholars are less optimistic: Critic Steve Jones agrees that home recording has affected how pop music is made and sold but has done little to change the core of how the music industry operates. Because little data has been collected on the home-recording movement (if it can be called that), it's hard to assess its impact on the pop-music marketplace.

But the impact of the movement on local scenes are obvious. Scores of musicians alone in basements and spare rooms now make music in previously impossible ways. Armed with small, simple, and reasonably affordable recording equipment, they record when they want and what they want, uninfluenced by professional concerns. Most are emboldened by a DiY ethic, and they are typically antagonistic toward pop music’s productive machinery. With control of the means of musical production, some home recordists believe they reclaim a part of their humanity by seizing the reins of expressive creation. Their songs are not commodities to be alienated from their creator and sold; they are compositions of the soul, to be heard and appreciated by only those who matter to them, who bring to it a similar spirit.

These musicians make up a new musical scene, but one that intentionally lacks notoriety. Their music is mostly unheard, and they are visibly absent. Enabled by technology and birthed by countercultural ethics, they eschew the public performing, the networking with other musicians, and the endless loitering in clubs (and arguing with club owners) that make up most local music scenes for something altogether new: an unscene.

Hidden in plain sight, home recordists make a virtue of their inconspicuousness amid the prefabricated pop manufactured by the culture industry. However, their stories suggest that they are not immune to the lure of ambition or blind to the shining light of attention. When I ask Charlie if he ever thinks about performing his songs live, Charlie says without pause, "Oh, yeah. I’d like to play for people. I don’t want to play anywhere massive like the Pepsi Center, but, you know, I could really see playing somewhere like Red Rocks or the Fillmore." The scope of his hopes stunned me -- Red Rocks is a historic amphitheater that holds nearly 10,000 people, and the Fillmore auditorium in Denver holds 3,600.

But Charlie’s ambivalence about obscurity was less hypocrisy than an admission that separating pop music from popularity is not so straightforward. In spite of an independent ethos and the technological means to realize it, home recordists cannot completely untangle the knot that ties popular music to mass culture and, more tightly, to audiences and commerce. Despite the authentic experience they have in making the music, a psychological inertia pulls their practice toward commerce and popularity. They are making popular music, even if this music never reaches a populace. Though they often subvert pop music structures -- verse, bridge, chorus, repeat -- they also use such structures liberally. The song structures they use are often derivative of common genres (country, jazz, rock, hip hop), and the lyrics generally formulaic. They know nothing beats a slow ballad about love lost or an anthemic chorus announcing victory. They may be in the margins of music, but they are not off the page.

Physically removed from local music scenes, home recordists work instead for the generalized appreciation of an imagined audience. They wonder if their laptop compositions would translate well to a live performance, or if organic sounds performed by other musicians would dutifully replace their sometimes automated, synthetic ones. Even if they do not actually seek a reception, they fantasize about how their songs might be received and are free to imagine as big and enthusiastic a reception as they choose. Charlie likely will never play Red Rocks, but no real failures will ever compromise his fantasy.

The home recordists' revolution won't be televised, but it does have a MySpace profile. Along with innovations in recording technology, the means of distributing music to public audiences has also evolved strangely and quickly. Numerous free-use sites on the internet offer home recordists a place to share their music with a vast, anonymous group of potential listeners. They may not ask directly for an audience response, but they are by no means keeping their music private. This act of technocultural participation runs contrary to the typically and explicitly private nature of home recording, again raising the question of whether they are in or out.

Here is one answer: While home recordists may be physically and ideologically distant from audiences and commerce, they are not detached. Nor is such detachment possible. Making music, even alone, is inherently a social act. And like all social acts, the creator and the creation cannot exist in isolation. Enabled by technologies that are also reshaping the public spheres of science, politics, and commerce, home recordists resist commercialization, but they cannot remove themselves from the commercial sphere altogether. Their definition of authenticity is not merely contradicted by their simultaneous desire to share their songs with others and, in some cases, to be discovered as talent in the rough; it reveals the inevitable tensions between resistance and submission to the culture that makes it possible for musicians to create.

Darren, another home recordist, spoke to me about how he vacillates uneasily between finding comfort in creating anonymously and also inspiration in this process to trade basements for rock clubs. “I go back and forth,” he confesses, “between feeling empowered and maybe even righteous because I’m doing this recording on my own terms and thinking that I really should see if other people might like what I’m doing…play some shows or something…But then I play a show and realize how much I hate it and why I started doing this in the first place!” We both laugh, acknowledging that the desire to make music in the margins are real, but so are the challenges to this ideal.

For every YouTube-video question posed to a potential presidential candidate, there are countless amateur video makers whose projects will never be seen. For every Nebraska, there are innumerable albums made with a four-track recorders, that will never be heard. But because the unseen users of these of creative technologies no doubt dwarf the number of notables, we must keep them in mind to understand how technology has and continues to change us -- our music, our art, our politics, and our society. To comprehend the true character of the information age, we have to pay attention to the unscene.

Bryce Merrill is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He can be reached at merrillj@colorado.edu.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

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Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

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