The Culture Club
An excerpt from 'The Culture Club' (2007)
Listen Like Thieves
Pierre Schaeffer puts sound under the microscope
In 1948, Pierre Schaeffer was working as a radio engineer at Radiotelediffusion Francais. One day in the studio, he scratched a record, but instead of leaping up off the couch to move the needle along, he listened to the scratch—the same sound, over and over again. Schaeffer called the resulting loop a ‘sillon ferme’ or closed groove, and it changed the way he thought about sound forever. The closed groove, by endlessly repeating the same musical phrase, had put the music under a microscope. Because the music was no longer moving forward in time, it became possible to hear it as pure sound, a collection of noises and textures with their own special and complex relationships.
For Schaeffer, the loop led to an entirely new method of musical composition called ‘musique concrete’. If music can be treated as pure sound, might not any sound become music? Would it be possible, he wondered, to make a symphony out of sirens, coconuts and bicycle horns? Schaeffer went straight to work on the station’s record collection, later that same year he completed his ‘Etude aux Chemins de Fer’ (railway study), composed by manipulating turntable recordings of steam trains. ‘Etude’ features loops made from the clattery, metallic sounds of wheels over tracks, punctuated by bursts of steam-whistle and an odd piano-like sound, moving in the same rhythm as the train. Schaeffer wondered at the time whether it was even necessary for him to do anything to these sounds, whether it might be possible to broadcast three minutes of steam train on the radio, and have people enjoy it the way they enjoyed Mozart. Schaeffer saw himself more as a curator or organiser of sounds than as an artist—he only wanted us to listen, to hear the noise of the world the way that he had heard it that day in the studio with the scratched record, just as Russolo had hoped that his noise-concerts would one day help people enjoy traffic jams.
Pierre Schaeffer might now look like some kind of pre-historic DJ, coaxing radical noises out of his turntables and reorganising his record collection into new musical forms with his primitive loops and samples – but he has nothing to do with the history of Hip-hop. Schaeffer, the original turntable scientist, never played a block party, and rap stars never give him props on their albums. Nevertheless, his sillon ferme is the basic currency of hip hop, and, because of the genre’s enormous influence on pop music in the 80s and 90s, at least half the music on the radio, from Beyonce to Boards of Canada, is largely made up of loops. Thanks to the cast-iron imperatives of the dancefloor, (keep the crowd dancing or lose the gig), the early hip-hop DJs came to the same conclusion as Schaeffer by quite a different route, and in the process, made it possible for any kind of noise to be understood and enjoyed as music, and did so on a scale that Schaeffer could only have dreamed of.
Sometimes I’ll put a loop on and let it play for, like, two or three days… When you do something like that, you get to hear all the different parts and pieces and elements of it that you never really heard before… It probably sounds strange to a lotta people, but you get to hear stuff that the musician didn’t try to put in there. You know what I mean? It’s just in there.
DJ Kool Akeim, 2004, quoted in Joseph G Schloss, ‘Making Beats’
The loop is the basic unit of hip hop. Method Man’s Bring The Pain from his 1995 album, Tical ,5 (to pick out one example of thousands), is mostly composed of a short loop from soul singer Jerry Butler’s Mechanical Man - a great loop, from an unexpected part of the song, where Butler hums wordlessly over the drum break. Caught in the loop of RZA’s sampler, Butler’s throwaway vocal mannerism is magically transformed into a funky earworm. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Looping is the easiest thing in the world. It was fairly easy in Schaeffer’s day, when it was simply a matter of cutting out a piece of magnetic tape and joining its beginning to its end, and it was even easier for the RZA, whose sampler would include a ‘loop’ function as part of its built-in features. If there were some way to compare timesheets, a log of hours spent in the studio by Jerry Butler and RZA respectively, to see who worked harder, Butler would come out on top by a long shot. And yet, to many people Bring the Pain actually sounds better than the song it’s excerpted from. It’s as though RZA has taken a fragment of Mechanical Man’s DNA and from it bred a faster, stronger more intelligent version of itself. Listening to Mechanical Man now, it sounds OK, like one of any number of classic-sounding funky American soul records of the seventies. But the moment we recognise those four beats from Bring the Pain, the whole record springs inexplicably to life. Why does that little break sound so good? Because, thanks to RZA sampling it and looping it, (and to Missy Eliot’s use of the same loop on her cover of Bring The Pain from her 2003 album, Under Construction),6 you’ve heard it hundreds of times; you’ve become intimately acquainted with every second of that tiny fragment of music in a way that would have been inconceivable before the loop. RZA has made us dance – but he’s also made us listen, as he does, to music on a microscopic level. The hip hop producer is alive to the minute possibilities of sound, steeped in arcane knowledge about snare sounds, producers and bpms, as well as the other, more mysterious qualities of a record, the stuff that, as Prince Akeim says, “the musician didn’t try to put in there”. This expertise, the ability to pick the right moment from the right record at the right time by weighing up and considering all these possibilities, is considered part of the job, and reflects the roots of the hip hop producer in the DJ.
Turning the Turntables
Sir Jimmy Saville, Kool Herc and other prehistoric DJs
In the early 1950s, future ‘Top of the Pops’ presenter Sir Jimmy Savile had an inkling of the way things were going. Savile had been hosting ‘Record Dances’ since the forties, where he played Jazz and Swing records on a gramophone hot-wired to a radio valve amplifier. After playing like this for a while, he decided to do something about the awkward silence that inevitably followed each record by orderingtwo turntables from his equipment suppliers. In an interview with Dave Haslam for his history of DJ culture, Adventures on the Wheels of Steel, Savile describes a hilarious exchange with the supplier’s sales rep, who couldn’t for the life of him imagine why anyone would need two record players:
Savile: Ah, when one record plays, I’m getting the other one ready.
Sales rep: Are they in that much of a hurry?
Savile: Yes, my people are.1
In order to keep pace with these newer, faster people, DJs refined their craft over the next twenty years, driven, as always, by the need to keep more people on the dancefloor for longer. Soon they began to investigate the formal properties of the medium in which they were working, doing with record players exactly what Laszlo Moholy-Nagy had proposed back in 1923 – turning the turntables into machines for production, not just reproduction. Some time in the mid seventies, a DJ from the Bronx in New York named Afrika Bambaataa began to notice that there were a very few seconds, sometimes just a couple of bars of a record that really made people dance:
I’d throw on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band—just that drum part. One, two, three, BAM—and they’d be screaming and partying.
Bambaata had started out as a DJ hosting parties in and around the Bronx River Housing Projects. The years after World War 2, as we’ve seen, saw the rise of the modernist tower block, and New York City, under the supervision of Construction Coordinator Robert Moses, had built 28,000 public housing apartments in the years between 1946 and 1959. By the 1970s, the long-term effects of low-income (mostly black) families being crowded into these high-rise apartments were becoming apparent, and the Bronx River Projects were wracked with violence and social unrest. It was here, in what Greg Tate has described as “a crucible of Afro-diasporic rage, rampage and culture”3 that Hip Hop was born. Many young people living in the apartments had joined local gangs like the Black Spades – these, if nothing else, gave kids a sense of purpose and belonging. Bambaata had the idea of forming his own gang- but one with a positive role in the community, which he named The Zulu Nation, incorporating elements from the doctrines of the Nation of Islam, ideas he’d picked up from the 1964 Michael Caine film, Zulu, and the burgeoning neighborhood pastimes of graffiti and breakdancing.
At the Zulu Nation block parties, Bambaata refined his style of DJing, an approach that reflected his own diverse tastes, but that had originally been inspired by a Jamaican DJ named Kool Herc, who’d been hosting neighbourhood parties with his enormous reggae-style sound system since around 1973. Rapper Percee P remembers growing up within earshot of Herc’s sound system while living with his mother in the Patterson projects in the 70s. “My building was right in front of the park”, he told Emily Youseff in August 2006, “so I could look out my window and see what people were doing and hear the music. Around my immediate area in the south Bronx, you could stand on the roof and see other projects two blocks away… so just imagine – all those projects had jams in their parks too”4. Herc had started out playing the Reggae records he’d brought with him, but soon switched to funkier stuff - The Incredible Bongo Band’s cover of the Shadows’ Apache, Babe Ruth’s The Mexican, and Banbarra’s Shack Up. But, crucially, Herc didn’t play the whole record – just the really good bit, usually the percussion breakdown, and this is what caught then 16-year-old Joseph Sadler’s ear. “I like what he’s playing – but he’s not playing it right”,5 said the future Grandmaster Flash. Flash spent close to a year closeted in his bedroom with a soldering iron and an odd assortment of hi-fi equipment perfecting the technique that would allow him to seamlessly mix from one breakdown to the next. Disregarding the Western classical tradition and virtually the entire history of Pop music to date, Flash would figure out how to take the musical fragments first identified and isolated by Herc, and mix them together for an hour of non-stop climaxes—percussion, air, disembodied shouts snatched from his favourite moments of his favourite records, crowd sounds, children’s records, as well as brutal noises wrenched from the machinery of the turntable itself.
Flash was, as his name suggested, fast, and his impatience was key to his style and his success – perhaps because he knew that his audience was fast, too. Jimmy Saville’s people had no time to wait for a DJ to change records between songs, but the crowds at Flash’s shows didn’t even want to wait for the song to finish, and neither did he. “I’m fidgety”, he told Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton in 2001. “I can’t wait for a record to go from the beginning to almost the end and then go into another record”6. The only song he allowed to play in its entirety was a synthesised hymn to the beauty of a steam train, the ‘Etude aux Chemins de Fer of the ‘70s, Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express. ‘Leave that shit alone’, he said, as the track’s synthesised clickety-clack played on, ‘that shit was cutting itself’.7 While this is probably not exactly what was running through Pierre Schaeffer’s mind thirty years previously—as he listened, fascinated, to his closed groove—the sentiment is the same.
Doing The Robot
Kraftwerk, the Futurists, and the Man-machine
Walk in the streets and you have a concert, cars playing symphonies. Even engines are tuned, they play free harmonics. Music is always there, you just have to learn to recognise it.
Ralf Hutter, Kraftwerk, quoted in Mojo magazine, 19971
Trans-Europe Express is one of a series of Futurist tributes to the beauty of the technology that Kraftwerk recorded during their golden period, beginning with Autobahn, a joyous invocation of freeway driving that gave them a surprise chart hit in 1975. But unlike Schaeffer’s Railway Studies or Russolo’s Intonarumori, Kraftwerk’s machine music was intentionally romantic—closer in many ways to Mosolov’s Industrial Ballet, where all the tricks of pre-modern classical music are pressed into service in order to produce a ‘sound painting’ of the modern world. This kind of thing, according to Russolo, is not OK, in fact, the whole business of ‘imitative’ versus ‘pure’ noise music would be a hotly debated topic in Futurist music, and would continue through the heyday of Musique Concrete as well.2 Some found the whole business of manipulating recordings a little too ‘impure’, and after the invention of the synthesiser, a rival camp sprang up, insisting that only synthetically generated electronic sound was suitable for modern music.
Kraftwerk, being literally ‘postmodern’, have chosen all their favourite ideas from this rich tradition of modern art and experimental music, without worrying too much about the ideological divides that separate them.
In 1978, Kraftwerk released The Man-Machine, featuring a sleeve directly inspired by El Lissitzky. On the front, the Kraftwerkers line up on a metal stairwell whose angle is reinforced by a dramatic diagonal arrangement of Constructivist letterforms that spell out the album’s title in French, German and Russian.4
After the war, German entertainment was destroyed. The German people were robbed of their culture, putting an American head on it…we are the first German group to record in our own language, use our electronic background, and create a Central European identity for ourselves.
Ralf Hutter, interview with Lester Bangs, 19755
Growing up in West Germany in the 1960s, the members of Kraftwerk were confronted by the same set of circumstances that Joseph Beuys had been dealing with in the field of visual art, and in his case as much as theirs, it’s complex. When Kraftwerk talk about ‘central European identity’ they are referring to many things at once, but their Lissitzky-inspired sleeve is rich with clues as to what that might mean – not the least of which is the fact that they are facing… east.
The Man-Machine had made his first appearance in Revolutionary Russia in 1912: Kasimir Malevich’s The Knife Grinder shows the man and his machine as having already merged—it’s hard to tell where the one ends and the other begins. The knife grinder’s pumping legs are made of iron cylinders while his piston-like arm moves back and forth across the sharpening wheel as though it were part of the mechanism.6 Malevich is so in love with technology that he makes his human subject more like a machine, as if to bring him up to date with the new century. This aesthetic revolution dominated the Russian avant-garde in the 1920s, and even found its way into music. The Constructivist composer Alexander Mosolov serenaded the beauty of factory work with his Iron Foundry ballet of 1927. Mosolov’s strings hiss like steam-valves while the horns and percussion lock together like assembly-line workers, stamping out machine parts with mechanical precision.7 The message of all this is clear—the new human being, assisted by his shiny new machines is, as Malevich himself put it, ‘seizing the world from the hands of nature to build a new world, belonging to himself’.
Describing their Kling Klang studio to Lester Bangs, the group evoke Malevich’s Knife Grinder when they suggest that the whole studio, including all the equipment within it, is in fact one big machine, of which the group themselves are just another component.3 In a move calculated to enrage advocates of real Rock - the kind of highly subjective rock that puts a premium, above all, on personal expression, Kraftwerk portrayed themselves as factory employees. Following this idea to its conclusion, Kraftwerk brought about their own obsolescence in 1978 when they introduced complete automation to their power-plant and replaced themselves with robots. These made their debut, according to former Kraftwerk percussionist Wolfgang Flur, on a German TV show in May 1978. The robots performed the first song from the soon-to-be-released Man Machine album, featuring the lyrics; “ja twoj sluga. Ja twoj rabotnik”, which in Russian translates as; “I am your servant. I am your robot”. “It was obvious that we had to build this sentence into our show”, says Flur in his memoir, I was a Robot, “particularly after Ralf (who had once studied Russian at school), found out that ‘robot’ translates in Russian as ‘rabotnik’, meaning ‘worker’”.4 Up until this point, being ‘like a robot’ was about the worst thing you could say about a pop performer – Kraftwerk would transform it into a compliment of the highest order. This is the very same reversal of the conventional standards of art (expressive, natural, human = good / artificial, manufactured, mechanical = bad) that caused such a stink when Laszlo Moholy-Nagy first showed up wearing his workers overalls at the expressionist Bauhaus in 1923. A year earlier, he had written:
The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction, and maintenance of machines. To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century. It has replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras.5
Moholy himself was, as we’ve seen, a product of his times, subject to the same historical impulse that had led the futurists to make a claim for the car as being more beautiful than the oil painting.
The Futurists, had they heard it, might have written off Trans-Europe Express6 as too imitative, with its ‘clickety-clack’ percussion, and they would have had even less time for the lyrics of Europe Endless—‘Parks, Hotels and Palaces’? Marinetti would have liked to see them all flattened by a bulldozer or a war. But Metal on Metal, despite being, in a sense, an update of Mosolov’s factory music, would have turned Russolo green with envy. Here, Kraftwerk have created a symphony of noise from the Kling und Klang of steel girders—with a deftness that Russolo could only dream of—and, whether triggered from synthesisers in their live shows or blasting out of Grandmaster Flash’s sound system at a New York block party, at a decibel level that would put the Intonarumori to shame.
Schaeffer, for his part, would have approved of Kraftwerk’s meticulous recording and cataloguing of sounds—the group apparently ‘researched’ Autobahn by making field recordings of engines, freeways and car horns,7 but would have been nonplussed by their attempts to supplement these perfectly good sounds with synthesisers on the finished product. Listening to Trans-Europe Express back to back with Etude aux Chemin de Fer, the difference is clear. Kraftwerk’s train music uses the sounds and rhythms of the railway as a framework for a song, with a melody and lyrics over the top. In Schaeffer’s musique concrete, the train is the music, the composer has arranged the sounds of machinery with an ear for melody and rhythm, in order to show us the melody and rhythm that exists in the sounds themselves.
Schaeffer, like Russolo, was writing music for technology that did not exist. Just as the Futurist was already dreaming of a way to collect and combine the noises of the world when recording was in its infancy and magnetic tape was just a gleam in an engineer’s eye, Schaeffer, in 1948, was calling for the invention of a keyboard organ which would house within it all the sounds he’d been so laboriously cataloguing on tape, and would be capable of playing them back at the touch of a key—forward, backward and at any pitch he desired.8 What Schaeffer wanted was a sampler, and it would be another twenty years before anyone figured out how to make one.
Learn more about the Art of Noises
Read an interview about The Culture Club here,
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