The Loudness Wars


Today I’d like to chat about why so much modern popular music sucks so bad. (Yeah, I know. Should have been ‘badly’. I don’t care.)

I’m going to try to not be boring, but I realize that not everyone shares my particular obsession with music.

First of all, modern music isn’t recorded in the Sixties (which lasted until about 1976), and that’s three strikes right there.

During the Sixties, the various popular musical genres were tossed into a blender which was then set on ‘Shred’. Musicians assumed control of their product in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Radio stations weren’t trapped in the rigid formats that they now are, and music could easily cross boundaries that are now almost impenetrable, resulting in an explosion of hybrid vigor that is rare today.

There are a myriad of examples of this, but the one that comes to my mind immediately is the Byrds. Their ‘Eight Miles High’ is one of the two or three most intensely psychedelic songs ever recorded, but they also made a classic country album when they cut ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’. Check out this performance of ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’, from that album. It’s transcendental. (And Earl Scruggs on banjo proves that this is a pure country song.)

Blues, returned to America by bands such as the Stones, and infused with a rock sensibility, was also central. Dylan scandalously and permanently fucked up acoustic folk music at Newport with the help of the Band, who were subversively wide-ranging themselves. (Dylan also wrote ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’. How’s that for cross-pollination?) I could go on for a long time, but that isn’t the focus of this essay.

Increasingly, as the record labels conglomerated and merged, the bean-counters took control and the focus shifted to making money more greedily than ever, so that music became even more product than art. Bands no longer get a chance to learn their craft and build a fan base. They better hit a home run within their first few albums, or they’re out of the game.

As the Sixties drew to a close, in 1976, musicians began to once again lose control of their music. Bad things happened.

Along came Pro Tools, and, shortly thereafter AutoTune, and it became possible to hone and rearrange and retune and clean up songs, down to the millisecond level, until all the breath and life and glorious imperfection has been wrung from them.

Back in prehistoric times, when vinyl records roamed the earth, there was a limit on how loud they could be at any given place on the volume slider. Too loud, especially in the bass area, and the grooves in the record would be so deep that the needle would bounce out of them. The rise of CDs and digital music in general ended that limit.

These factors all converged, and the Loudness Wars started.

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It’s Only A Game…

When I was still a dewy-eyed young thing, I moved to Austin.  (This was a looong time ago.) I’d recently rediscovered comic books, and one of my first outings upon getting settled was a trip to Austin Books to pick up my weekly fix of funny books.

When I returned the next week, Ron Tatar, the manager, offered me a job.

One afternoon, about a month after I started working, two guys came into the store.  One was a tall, thin job and the other was a shorter guy with a beard.  They were buying their weekly fix of funny books and we struck up a conversation.

This is how I met The Dude.

Now I didn’t know he was going to be The Dude when we met.  There were many complicating factors in the way of our eventual romance, none of which I’m going to detail here. (Oh, I know you’d like me to, but, no, I’m taking the high road.  Which will leave most of you who know me completely baffled, I know.)

Flash forward to a year or so later.  I’m still working at Austin Books, when one day I get offered a job working at Steve Jackson Games as Assistant Marketing Director.  (The title is so they don’t have to pay me as much as they would a secretary.)  I take the job.  I show up for work, and who should be there but The Dude.  Turns out he’s Editor-in-Chief.  

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Ooh La La

For about four months after I broke my leg in February, I didn’t sleep once in my bed. It was just too difficult to get up and down and go from room to room. I also needed to keep my leg well-elevated all night to try to decrease the edema.

I pulled my living-room couch close to the computer, and slept on it so I could more easily visit the InterTubes whenever they got lonely for me.

Rather than transplanting my alarm clock, I set up my computer to awaken me with a blasting song at seven a.m. every morning.

One of my favorites was Goldfrapp’s ‘Strict Machine’, which can be found here. It was their big dance-floor hit, and you should probably take two ounces of psilocybe cubensis an hour before viewing the vid. Make that four ounces if you going to also watch ‘Fly Me Away’, which has that Sixties psychedelic pseudo-meaningful vibe nailed to perfection. Plus, it has motorcycles in it.

I was going to post ‘Strict Machine’ for my video today, but while rummaging around YouTube when researching this post, I came across ‘Ooh La La’, which seems more appropriate for EOB.

It’s a jumping take on John Lee Hooker, as filtered through the sensibilities of a decadent, pretentious Euro-electronica band. It rocks hard. Click the pic and play it loud.