Tuesday, September 12, 2006

DJ Culture (Part 3)

By Homefront Radio

It was 1989, and my friend Keaton had bought the Number One record in the country, a waste of vinyl called ‘Swing The Mood’ by a fictitious group named ‘Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers’. If you haven’t heard it, be very glad. It’s basically a bunch of sampled sections of early rock and roll songs and Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” played over a cheap drum machine rhythm.

“This is the coolest record ever,” he said, somewhat hyperbolically, as he put it on.

After hearing it for about 40 seconds, I couldn’t help myself. “Why?”

“It’s *sampled*,” he said, as if that would explain all.

“It just a medley.” I couldn’t see the difference between it and the Weird Al Yankovic Polka Medleys that our mutual friend Morrissey seemed to find unexplainably hilarious.

“Yeah, but this is *Sampling*,” he said again. “It’s the future”.

I snorted. “No it’s not! It’s ‘Stars On 45’”. These were a series of records that were hugely popular when I was small, that were sound-a-like medleys of famous artists singing their most popular songs, over a disco-and-handclaps drumbeat that was relentlessly unchanging. (My sister was fond of the Beatles Medley one, that inexplicably lead off with ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by the Archies).

“It’s Number One, so it must be good,” Keaton said. This was always his argument for buying awful records, like Rick Astley and the Cockroaches, (who were so rubbish, they changed their name to 'The Wiggles' and targeted the undemanding children's market). He saw it as a ticket to being popular, when logic dictated that buying a record everyone was likely to have already wouldn’t win you as many friends as buying one they wanted to borrow because they didn’t have it.

I remained unconvinced. “It’s just like those stupid ‘Hooked On Classics’ records Dad would play”. (Which it was).

"You don't know anything".

"Swing The Mood" ended, (or more accurately dragged itself into its deep dark cave to lick its wounds and whimper), and I remember thinking if I never heard that piece of crap again, it would be too soon.

Of course, Keaton put it on again.


Some of you might be aware of the Beatles / Beach Boys Mashup Album, “Sgt Petsound’s” by DJ Clayton Counts, which has been somewhat generously described as a ‘Noise Rock Experiment’. EMI is suing him for breach of copyright, (which I find hypocritical, considering the content of the Beatles’ own recordings), and which is odd timing, since what’s left of the Beatles and their Estates are currently suing EMI / Capitol for fraud, with an aim of reclaiming the ownership of the recordings, thereby meaning EMI might be suing over something it may soon no longer have any claim to.

Looking at the Beatles' work, there’s obvious examples of Proto-Sampling at play: the loops in ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’; the calliope cut-up in ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite’; the radio play of King Lear in ‘I Am The Walrus’; the snippets of classical recordings, (such as Sibelius and Beethoven), found in ‘Revolution 9’. Were any of these sources financially reimbursed for use?

There’s also a process I’d label as ‘Mental Sampling’. McCartney mentally samples both Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys in ‘Back In The U.S.S.R’ without using physical samples. Isn’t George Martin’s string score for ‘Eleanor Rigby’ just a mental sampling of Bernard Herrmann’s score for ‘Fahrenheit 451’, which he watched during the period and pointed to as an influence? Is the general sound of ‘Penny Lane’ just mental sampling of the Beach Boys ‘God Only Knows’? (Listen to the piano and bass). Didn’t McCartney choose the piccolo trumpet solo for the same song by mentally sampling David Mason’s performance in the second Brandenburg Concerto, which he heard on the BBC?

Where's the line between imitation and theft? Is there one?


In 1991, English Synth-Pop Band the Pet Shop Boys released a single called ‘DJ Culture’, that was remarkably prophetic. Faced with the onslaught of pro-war rhetoric surrounding first Gulf War, singer Neil Tennant explained the song in this manner:

"The essence of the song is in the first place insincerity—about George Bush who acted like he was Winston Churchill. He referred to World War II and, as a matter of fact, he sampled things Churchill said, just like artists do with records from the past. That is why it is called 'DJ Culture'."

In all honesty, the song is very vague. I only know the intention behind the song because I’ve heard them speak of it. However, some valid points stand out:

The song speaks of people ‘pretending to believe’ and ‘living in a satellite fantasy’. It’s the culture of the modern media, where a speech is stripped back to the simplest sound bite, then repeated ad nauseum, like the, (somewhat aptly), stuttering ‘Sex Crime’ phrase in the Eurythmics song of the same name. Constant repetition leads to belief of statement as somehow Inherently True.

'DJ Culture' is mostly a spoken-word piece, but the highlight is a lovely, wandering middle-eight:

Now as a matter of pride
Indulge yourself, your every mood
No feast-days, or fast-days, or days of abstinence intrude

Shut yourself off, believe the lie, and create your own reality. As Mr. Tennant politely asks “…Let’s Pretend…”

Imagine a war which everyone won
A permanent holiday in endless sun
Peace without wisdom
One steals to achieve
Relentlessly pretending to believe

I’m sure you can see the irony here. We’re still ‘fighting the war’ we supposedly won back when this song was released. Statements made in the media at the time have been ‘Sampled’ and reused for our new war.

Like any Sample, this practice seems to have three side effects:

a) the sample is taken out of the context of the original song, and recontextualised in a different environment, which suggests the nuances of the rest of the song have been ignored in the sampling process, since everything but the sample is therefore discarded, therefore the song is broken down to its basest, simplest level, effectively dumbing a complicated message down and turning a four minute song into a ‘sound bite’;

b) with continued reuse and overuse of a particular hook, the sample is itself sampled, leading to distortion of the original signal, and the memory of the original intention of the song becomes less clear;

c) sampling is most commonly used to provide a rhythm for a song that lacks one, or a hook to make the people pay attention when the song lacks a clear hook of its own.

The case of The War In Iraq is a perfect example: a badly-written, lethargically played song that no-one wants to dance to. It lacks a clear hook, so we sample from the past such sound bites as ‘freedom’, ‘liberation’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘liberty’ that are easy for a mass public to grasp onto. It needs a driving rhythm, so the soundbites are looped over the recurrent beat of post 9/11 thought: Your way of life is under threat. The beat is timestretched, and slightly distorted. Menacing. And like any popular beat, it is prone to overuse.

But, like ghastly English 80’s Hitmakers ‘Stock, Aitken and Waterman’, (who specialized in faceless Hi-NRG pop music with a revolving stable of interchangeable, faceless singers), the songwriters of the War will see no reason to change their formula. As Pete Waterman once stated, (and excuse the paraphrasing here), “Why would you change a sound you know is successful? The public likes it. You change the sound when it stops being an effective sales tool”.

‘9/11’ is the James Brown ‘Funky Drummer’ sample of modern culture. Some of us will love it and dance to the song, whilst others of us will just hear an annoying, overused gimmick that has been clumsily slotted into place. It is The Excuse, The Justification. Get used to hearing it, because even after 5 years, the hook is still effective.

So if the Iraq war just a resampling of the Gulf War, then this begs the obvious question: Isn’t Bush just a resampling of his father? (Personally, I prefer to think of him as a bad cover version). Lacking a real villain to justify a war in Iraq, we simply sample Saddam Hussein again.
Why not? As Pete Waterman would suggest, he worked the first time around.


This problem is inflicting culture on a wider scale, and seems to be where we’re heading as a culture, to the extent I feel like I’m gradually slipping back in time to my childhood in the 1970’s.

The songs I hear on the radio seem to be the same, although I’ll admit I’m far out of the popular music loop lately. True, they’re frequently not literal cover versions, but Kelly Osborne calling her song “One Word” doesn’t change the fact that it’s just “Fade To Gray” by Visage, without being honest enough to acknowledge the source. There was another one I didn’t catch the name of where a girl sang about going ‘Downtown’, which sounded suspiciously like The Knack’s “My Sharona”.

The movies are being repeated, to the extent I have little urge to go to the cinema or video store anymore, because I’ve seen all these movies before, and they weren’t good the first time around. Movies I particularly loathed as a child, and spent many tedious hours sitting through, (usually when well-meaning friend’s parents would pack us off to the movies), are now considered worth my time as an adult: Superman. The Bad News Bears. The Omen. The Fog. Dawn Of The Dead. King Kong, (sampling both the 70’s and 30’s versions). We’re being sold back stories we long discarded, and in a lot of cases I’m sure is the key reason for the lack of success of a lot of these films.

The process is speeding up. Our celebrities, lacking any real depth of their own, simply sample the icons of the past. Jessica Simpson wants to appear sexy and feisty, so tries to mentally sample Nancy Sinatra. Robbie Williams and Michael Buble both sample Frank Sinatra. Madonna sampled, amongst others, Deitrich, Monroe & Eva Peron, (and she may call her new single ‘Sorry’ but I hear ‘Can You Feel It?’ by the Jackson 5). Paris Hilton tries to convince us she’s both a sex symbol and a singer, despite having the awkward body of a pubescent boy in a growth spurt and no obvious vocal talent, by sampling Rod Stewart, with unintentionally hilarious results.

Christina Aguilera is desperate to be taken seriously after the perceived failure of her sexed-up second album, so she now tries to imply 'Quality' to her product by sampling the look and style of an earlier age. Is she sampling the past due to being faced with the truth that, artistically she might have no ‘hooks’ of her own? Or is she just sampling the career of Madonna, whose taught a generation of female singers they have to constantly 'Reinvent' themselves, (if a change of hairstyle and frock can truly be classed as a 'Reinvention'), to hold the public's interest.

Are we seeing a deliberate sampling of a sample?

I’m sure I wasn’t the only Beatles fan who looked at the recent, (and supposedly of ‘huge cultural import’ for Some Vague Reason), photos of Suri Cruise, and thought “I’ve seen this before”. I obviously wasn’t the only one:

What’s going on here? Are we perhaps just sampling the past because there’s comfort and safety in the familiar and where we're been, and we’re all damn scared of the unknown and where we might be? Shouldn't the point of learning from the past to be *not* condemned to repeat it? Shouldn't we pride ourselves on continually moving onwards?

Please. Take my hand. Step forward into the future with me. I’m sure it’ll be a place full of wonders, or otherwise we as a society will be continually resampled and dumbed down to the basest archetype, where our lives are just a bad cover version of the sum of our mutual experience.

Let's create our own hooks.


Blogger Kevin Wolf said...

I like the idea of "sampling" as a symptom of a larger cultural malaise, Simon. I think to a great extent that's true, though I don't think sampling as a technology is the culprit. As with anything else, it's the lazy minds who abuse these tools that are to blame for the lack of "fresh hooks."

Sampling moves from the construction of new material (by its originators and innovators) to deconstruction (by the crappy pop market) to destruction (by the MSM shilling war). This is progress?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006  
Blogger Bobby Lightfoot said...

Nice. That was awesome. You've encapsulated all my feelings about how irritating it is when my music is considered "retro".

I wish things were th' way they were between our generation and our parents', where our musics were alien to one another.

Hey- the brass band in "Yellow Submarine" was lifted off a march record! Get the Geoff Emerick book about recording the Beatles- it's awesome. After all these years of being on the artist's side of the glass booth at Abbey Road you're suddenly looking from the other side and the paradigm shift is wilder than you'd think.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006  
Blogger teh l4m3 said...

Yes, but look what happens to, say, Björk every time she and her collaborators try to drag us forward: Everyone writes her off as "weird" and ships her off in a boxcar to the art-fag ghetto...

Thursday, September 14, 2006  
Blogger fgfdsg said...

Actually, although i enjoy her work, I've never understood why Bjork was seen as some kind of vanguard of experimentalism. She strikes me as being relatively straight-forward enough to be hugely popular, (which she was):

1) her songs are pop songs at heart, and follow verse / chorus / verse structure for the most part;

2) they're usually harmonically sound: 'Army Of Me' might sound clattering and disjointed but the synths are implying the chords;

3) a lack of rhyming structures in the lyrics might strike listeners as unusual, but it's far more common in popular music than people might have realised. (I mentioned 'Eleanor Rigby' in this post, sing the chorus. 'From' and 'Belong' obviously Don't Rhyme).

4) Her phrasing is interesting, but not unprecedented: Morrissey is a good example. Little Jimmy Scott is another one.

5) They're dance songs at heart, which means there's the safety and familiarity of a strict repetitive time structure.

I guess I grew up on early Kate Bush. Bjork seems pretty damn tame compared to 'Sat In Your Lap', which has to be the weirdest song to ever hit the top 10, closely followed by 'Suspended In Gaffa'.

Thursday, September 14, 2006  
Blogger Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

I always thought it would be funny if some big-name artist would sample Lennon's "Imagine" without permission. Then, when they get sued, they can point to the lyrics, which say "imagine no possessions." It's the kind of thing I might do myself just to be an ass, though no one would ever hear it, I wouldn't get sued, and thus it wouldn't be funny.

Thursday, September 14, 2006  
Blogger fgfdsg said...

BSUWG - It's a great point, and incidentally one I originally thought of when I read about the trouble over 'Sgt. Petsounds', (which is much better in theory than practice). Unfortunately I'd forgotten about it by the time I came to write this post.

Are you familiar with Elvis Costello's song 'The Other Side Of Summer'? It has the lyric:

"Wasn't it a millionare who said 'imagine no possessions'?"

Thursday, September 14, 2006  
Blogger Blowing Shit Up With Gas said...

I wasn't familiar with that tune; I'll have to check it out. For some reason, I never got into Costello -- though I know he's beloved by so many. I bet I know only two or three of his tunes, including his big hit "Veronica." Someday I'll do a post about all of the music I'm still unfamiliar with (but shouldn't be) and/or all of the music I don't like (but should, according to everyone else). Shocking stuff, my friend...

Growing up where I did, I'm surprised I ever even heard "Imagine," now that I think about it. When they did play it (on classic rock stations -- all we had available), the idiot DJs would invariably say something inane like, "Great tune, man... Now, let's kick-start the next hour with an all-Skynyrd rock-block." Trust me, there's little on this earth worse than U.S. Sothern rock.

The way people like those DJs completely miss Lennon's appeal for world peace reminds me of how our political leaders always visit churches for photo ops while we're simultaneously killing tens of thousands in other countries.

BTW, I *meant* it when I said all we had was classic rock. I remember starting college in 1987 and hearing Modern English for the first time. I thought "Melt with You" was a new release & it was 5 or 6 years old.

Friday, September 15, 2006  
Blogger teh l4m3 said...

Fair enough. My point wasn't that she is, objectively, bizarre and inaccessible and utterly unique -- far from it. Nevertheless, there is that perception (at least in America); when I say she and her collaborators (some of whom should get much more credit than they do) try to "drag us forward," I meant to imply that she makes an effort to push pop (emphasis there on 'pop') music in a forward direction, to enrich it and bring the masses (not just a few kids in the Mission or in Queens) heretofore unheard of stuff, as opposed to forever circling back, and creating things that are entirely rehashes of what's been done before. And for this she tends to be dumped in favor of crap like Train and Gonorrhea Aguilera...

Friday, September 15, 2006  

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