There was a purist school of thought in rock and roll in the 70s that said, no synthesizers! In fact, I think Queen even printed that on the back of their albums: No synthesizers!
But the fact is, musicians love new technology and are always looking for ways to change the sound their instruments make. There isn’t much difference between holding the rubber end of a toilet plunger over the end of your trumpet and sticking a whammy bar on your Stratocaster.
In the past that technology was analog, and subject to the variability of the components used. Those components were often cheap and whatever was on hand, as long as the values were close to being what the schematic called for.
That’s why every old wah pedal or fuzz box sounds different, even if they are the same make and model. In the guitar world, people place a high value on old pickups like the Gibson PAF, and every one of those sound different because the miles of thin wire on the bobbins was wound by hand. By people. So they were inconsistent and imperfect.
What changed everything was the introduction of computers into the mix in the 1980s. Inconsistency and imperfection went out the window and were replaced with microprocessor perfection, which has no place in music.
People have made some beautiful, atmospheric, moving electronic music, and I’ll always listen to what someone like Björk is doing. Because she, and others like her, work from an analog foundation. Her formative years were shaped by traditional kinds of music, including traditional rock and roll.
But in lesser hands, controlled by people who spent their youth surrounded by electronically generated “music,” the outcome of the machine driven foundation is machine music. And not the Lou reed kind.
When I hear modern electronic music like dubstep, all it evokes is an amped up kind of nebulous panic and a desperation that is ultimately hollow and depressing. The sound of grinding teeth completely devoid of any emotion but a forced, sweaty smile.
But I suppose that things like dubstep are the inevitable result of a generation that grew up with a soundtrack consisting of heavy doses of crude 8 bit video game “music.” It makes sense that certain electronic sounds and manic tempos would appeal to them. It’s unfortunate, and it makes me wonder about the future of the world, but it’s understandable.
The best music affects us on an emotional level. There are specific scales and keys that predictably evoke certain emotions. Musicians have known (and exploited) that for hundreds of years. There’s a reason for that human response, it’s built in to us.
The fundamental rhythm of reggae music mimics the human heartbeat for a reason. It’s meant to be reassuring and uplifting. Most forms of music have similar goals, to make you feel a certain way. Relaxed, happy, powerful, miserable – some sort of feeling.
There are kids today playing guitars and making music with old gear, so the human side of pop music isn’t dead yet. I wonder if they are picking up these tools as a reaction to the digital perfection of most dance music, the way the punks did in the 70s to counteract what we saw as the emptiness and sterility of disco music (the irony there is that compared to today’s dance music, 70s disco sounds downright funky).
When I was a kid in I took an “electronic music” class in junior high school, and since it was the very early 70s, our tools consisted of one or two crude sine wave generators and oscillators (the basic components in synthesizers) and magnetic tape. Lots and lots of magnetic tape.
Much of our “music” was made by manipulating that tape. Chopping it up, splicing it, running a 20 foot long loop of it through four reel to reel machines propped up on chairs around the room. It wasn’t really music by any tradition definition. It was avant-garde sound. It was fun to do, but I never felt like I created any music.
Until I got my hands on a guitar. I realize that a guitar is a machine too. But it’s an imprecise and extremely variable machine, that needs human hands to coax imperfect and wonderful sound out of it.
So, I guess what I’m saying is, don’t forget to use your hands, kids.
And don’t forget to buy my new album, The Organ Grinder’s Monkey’s Uncle Come Home To Roost.