Ghost Music

Jimmy page recently complained about the sound quality of mp3s. He told Kerrang! Radio: “They (the Led Zeppelin albums) were mixed in stereo with a depth-of-field to them, with everything in focus,” he says. “To have it squashed down is not how it was intended to be.” He lamented the sad fact that all of the painstaking work he had recently done on the Zeppelin remasters would be ruined by todays technology; tech that is geared toward today’s listening culture. But is sound quality the only thing we’ve lost with the advent of the mp3?

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Backstory. If this blog is ‘about’ anything, it’s about backstory. A song, an album, or even an entire discography has always been but a part of a larger story. Music without a backstory is one-dimensional; flat. Like wallpaper. Doesn’t the saga and setting of Deep Purple’s ‘Machine Head’ sessions inform the way the you perceive the record? Wouldn’t your listening experience differ significantly if you thought ‘Perfect Strangers’ was DP’s debut, and not a reunion album? The guitars sound different on ‘Come Taste the Band’… Is this Blackmore? If not, who is it? And where’s Ritchie?

To me, backstory is essential. And a significant portion of whatever backstory we were able to put together before the internet era came from all of the minutiea that accompanied physical media. Musicians, songwriters, producers, locations, dates, even ‘thanks’ lists. All of this information directly effected our perception of the music we listened to; enriched it, colored it, deepened it. Think about it: Most of us spent countless hours listening to records and staring at the packaging, reading every word, desperate to know whatever there was to know about what we were experiencing. You probably even know what an album cover smells like. What does an mp3 look like? Feel like in your hands? Smell like?

It’s ironic that, in the ‘Information Age’, we get so little information with our music. You download an ‘album’… and there’s a file folder showing on your screen that’s really not a file folder, it’s just a group of pixels representing a pathway to a cluster of digital information… How UN-rock n’ roll is that??? We get ‘tags’ indicating a song title, an artist, an album title… but that’s all. Mp3s are intangible phantoms with neither form nor shape, and the minimal ancillary information they carry does nothing to enhance our enjoyment. Who wrote these songs? Who’s in this band? When was it recorded?

Mp3s devalue art. But they go even further than that; they disrespect artists. Rock music changed the world; it has saved lives, transformed global culture, inspired millions. The very least you could do is tell us the name of the fucking bass player. Are the people who create music really irrelevant, their names insignificant? Take all the names and dates out of your kids’ history books. What will they learn? “Some stuff happened. Some of it was pretty cool; most of it was boring.” This, my friends, is the future history of Rock and Roll. By presenting music this way, without any credits attached whatsoever, we are being told that none of that information matters; that it makes no difference who created the art they are enjoying. And to many, sadly, this is true. I’m here to tell you that it’s not true; that it does matter.

Yes, my attitude is party the result of growing up with tangible music: LPs, CDs, and cassettes, with artwork and credits and, if you were a KISS fan, stickers and love guns and tattoos. Kids today are growing up with easy access to free portable music, anytime, anywhere… but just the music. They don’t even know there’s anything behind the wallpaper to care about or to be interested in. Yes, there will be some curious, adventurous kids, who, by some fluke of nature or accident of genetic engineering, find the antiquated sound of hard rock from the 70s and 80s appealing. And when those kids start digging on the internet for ‘that old shit’ (because where else would kids in the future look for anything?), all they’re going to find are mp3s. Misspelled artist’s names and incomplete song titles. Bits of digital code with no tether to the rich musical history from which they originated. Ghost Music. Cheap wallpaper. That’s all.

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Check out Nazareth’s songwriting credits. Three of Naz’s six Top 20 UK singles were covers, including ‘Love Hurts’. In fact, Nazareth made a habit of including a couple of well-chosen covers on each of their classic-era albums; interpretations of songs by Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Little Feat, Nils Lofgren, Bob Dylan, JJ Cale, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Woodie Guthrie, The Byrds, The Beach Boys, The Yardbirds, and more, indicating a wisdom and depth rarely seen in the glut of dime-a-dozen hard rock bands from the 70s… Maybe there was more to this band than we thought… but if you’re downloading Nazareth’s discography from Napster, you’re not gonna know any of this, and you’re not gonna be able to fully appreciate this smart and tasteful band.

Casual rock fans rock fans of the future will come to the conclusion that drugs were the best thing that ever happened to Aerosmith, because the albums they released after getting sober are all fucking terrible. But it’s wasn’t the drugs, or lack thereof; it was the writers. There are only 3 songs written exclusively by members of ‘Smith on their first ‘sober’ album, ‘Permanent Vacation’ (and one’s an instrumental); the remaining 9 were written or co-written by outside ‘song doctors’. Without the songwriting credits, A-smith takes the blame for the cheesy, pop-infused, overwritten crap polluting their records up to the present day, when blame should instead be placed with Desmond Child, JIm Vallance, Mark Hudson, Jack Blades, Tommy Shaw, Richie Supa… even Lenny Kravitz. And, yes, also on Aerosmith, for allowing these collaborations to happen at all… while sober! You’d have to inject me with drugs to get me to write a song with Jack Blades.

The early albums by Germany’s Accept had their fair share of clunkers, but go back and revisit a song called ‘I’m a Rebel’ from their album of the same name. ‘Rebel’ sticks out like a sore thumb from the rest of the record, and for good reason. A glance at the songwriting credit reveals that the song was written by ‘George Alexander’, a pseudonym for Alexander Young, one of the brothers Young, as in Malcom and Angus. Young’s ‘I’m a Rebel’ was originally recorded in 1976 by AC/DC but was shelved; three years later it was offered to Accept, who recorded a cover version based on AC/DC’s recording. Without that songwriting credit, it’s just more awkward ‘early Accept’.

Not that they need it, but does it not lend a bit of extra badass credibility to Motorhead’s ‘Overkill’ and ”Bomber’ albums after you discover that they were produced by Jimmy Miller, the man who produced The Rolling Stones’ ‘Beggar’s Banquet’, ‘Let it Bleed’, ‘Sticky Fingers’, ‘Exile on Main Street’, and ‘Goat’s Head Soup’?

The story of Cheap Trick’s catalog is largely one of producers: Jack Douglas wanted their debut to sound live; Tom Werman cleaned them up for rock radio; desperate attempts to replicate Budokan’s sales led the hiring of George Martin (‘All Shook Up’), Roy Thomas Baker (‘One on One’), and Todd Rundgren (‘Next Position, Please’). All of those albums sound markedly different. Doesn’t an awareness of their ‘Next Producer, Please’ syndrome explain these differences, and lend a better understanding of the CT story, allowing one to appreciate the arc of their recording career in greater depth?

So you think you might download some Whitesnake? The ‘Snake line-up responsible for the ‘Ready an’ Willing’ album features Ian Paice, Jon Lord, and David Coverdale; that’s three fifths of Deep Purple, Mks III & IV… If you count producer Martin Birch, that means four of the six folks responsible for DP’s ‘Burn/Stormbringer/Come Taste the band albums do their thing on ‘Ready an’ Willing’, perhaps making it the Whitesnake album to gamble on, if you’re curious. But if you’re browsing iTunes, how do you know who plays on what? You might end up buying ‘Slip of the Tongue’, or even worse: ‘The Purple Album’. Buyer beware!

Minutia is a big deal. Listen to ‘Under My Wheels’ from Alice Cooper’s ‘Killer’ album. Now listen again, with the understanding that the guitar solo at around the 1:00 mark was played by Rick Derringer. It’s a different experience, isn’t it? In a few short years, no one will know this; no one will care. No one will be able to fully appreciate Scorpions’ ‘Lovedrive’ album because they will not know that UFO’s Michael Schenker played on it… Nor will they care that they guy who sang the majority of Ted Nugent’s ‘Free-For-All’ album later had several hit singles afterwards, including ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ and ‘I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’, adding a hefty dose of irony to the Nugent experience. And won’t Sharon be pleased when, in a future without songwriting credits, the world finally recognizes Ozzy Osbourne for the musical genius she’s always wanted us to believe that he is?

Even ‘Thank You’ lists reveal nuggets of useful information. Perhaps the most infamous Thank You in the history of Metal, Black Sabbath’s ‘Vol.4’ thanks “the great COKE Cola Company of Los Angeles”, perhaps lending some level of understanding as to why that classic album sounds a bit ragged, edgy and rushed. Or, sometimes they add to the overall character of the album they appeared on: Motorhead’s Thank Yous always lend a little levity to the proceedings. On 1987’s Rock and Roll, Lem announces the return of Phil Talyor to the band with “Welcome Home Philthy! And by the way…If you had a face like mine, you’d punch me right on the nose… And I’m just the guy to do it!”

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iTunes attaches reviews from the All Music Guide to most of the albums available in their store, because they know buyers require at least a little bit of background information when making buying decisions. They also post customer reviews, as does Amazon. These reviews are rife with misinformation, uninformed opinion, and factual errors, just like the rest of the internet, so they are not to be trusted. Just like the rest of the internet. Streaming services offer nothing in the form of performance or production credits. If you hear a song you dig, all you get is the title of the song, that title of the album it originated from, and the name of the artist. Kids growing up in this listening culture will not care or wonder about anything else.

Illegal download sites are even worse, as you might imagine. While doing internet searches for blog material, I have seen Foghat’s ‘Slow Ride’ attributed to Kiss on more than one torrent site… April Wine’s ‘Roller’ credited to Queen… Frank Marino’s ‘Dragonfly’ tagged as a Pat Travers tune. I found a song called ‘Harley Davidson’ that was attributed to AC/DC… But guess what? It wasn’t AC/DC. It wasn’t even Krokus. Misinformation abounds out there in the illegal downloading underground, and maybe misinformation is worse than no information at all. As music becomes less and less important, so will accurate information.

Do you have any idea who designed the wallpaper in your living room? When or where it was manufactured? Which wallpaper company produced it? Probably not. In the near future, people’s interest in their music will be no different. For the listeners of tomorrow, there will only be two kinds of music: Good and Bad. Perhaps artists’ names and song titles should just be done away with, and download sites and streaming services should just label their wares with generic genre tags; ‘Rock and Roll’. ‘Jazz’. ‘Heavy Metal’. Before another mp3 of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ by the Rolling Stones is downloaded to someone’s iPhone… More Ghost Music, doomed to roam the internet for eternity, haunting the playlists of the uninformed.

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2 thoughts on “Ghost Music

  1. Lots of food for thought (as usual) in your brilliant article.
    I think there may be a ‘type’ of person who is interested in the minutae of music; the artwork, the sleeve notes, song writing credits, musicians etc
    I’m one of ‘those’ myself, i love all that stuff, it greatly enhances my enjoyment of the music & puts it into some sort of perspective to know all that stuff.
    However, there also exists another breed for whom none of that stuff matters, they tap their toes to a song on the radio and that’s all they need to enjoy it.
    They’ve always existed, and i fear they have done so in greater numbers than their more studious (some might say anal) counterparts.
    How else can you explain the popularity of musical non-entities like U2 or Nickelback?
    I think that it’s always been around, but in the non-physical medium it becomes that much more obvious that the masses care not a jot about the history, art & lyrics that accompany the music. Digital is the perfect medium for these people because they no longer have to bother with all that peripheral stuff. No need to traipse into a record shop, put up shelves to store those physical artifacts, clean records or any of those other arcane activities which are all a part of the ritual of enjoyment to those of us who get off on such things, but a tiresome chore to our counterparts.
    Neither group is ever likely to persuade that their enjoyment of music is lesser or wrong, so i suppose we must find a way to co-exist for the future of the music.
    Until recently i worked in a rehearsal studio, and spent my days listening to a constant stream of young bands blundering their way through a depressingly narrow selection of the ‘classics’ and their own hopelessly derivative ‘originals’.
    Initially, through a combination of my own musical snoberry and that general feeling of being ‘old & in the way’ that i get around youngsters, i kept my interactions with the musicians to the bare professional minimum.
    However, over time i got to know many of them pretty well, and was amazed & heartened to find that their knowledge and love of music was every bit as strong & dedicated as my own, and that their influences came from a lot of different times and areas beyond the obvious.
    Turns out that they’re actually going online & researching older bands and seeking out their music & the accompanying back stories, and if you know where to look it’s all out there.
    During a recent conversation with a 19 year old guitarist about ’70s Southern Rock the cheeky little upstart had the temerity to attempt to correct me on which Molly Hatchet albums Jimmy Farrar sang on.
    And you know what? I was wrong & he was right!
    He then recommended me a vintage Texan band i’d never heard of who apparently played in a similar style. I dutifully logged on later, and prepared myself to be resolutely unimpressed by some barely-related-to-our-conversation band of hacks, only to be blown away by Too Smooth, a brilliant Southern Rock band who’d somehow slipped under my radar.
    I was, and continue to be impressed.
    Those of us who care about this stuff are still out there it seems, we’re ‘a breed apart’, and it doesn’t appear to be a question of age, or how we listen to our music. It’s just that we were probably always a tiny minority of the music buying public, it’s just more apparent now because those casual listeners don’t have to step into our world at all any more to get their toe-tapping jollies.
    If you’re one of ‘us’, regardless of era or medium, once you get a taste for music, it’s a thirst that has to be slaked.
    For that reason the true joys of that broad love of music are not only safe for the moment, they’re downright future proof.

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