The Day the Music Died

"Phonograph, n. An irritating toy that restores life to dead noises."—Ambrose Bierce (in The Devils's Dictionary, Dover, 1958)

It is an essential rule of thumb when judging hi-fi equipment that the better component is one that opens your ears to new music. A sign that you have made a worthwhile improvement in your hi-fi system, therefore, is when you find yourself buying more records and CDs, spending more time seeking out garage sales for discarded LP collections, or browsing the aisles in that increasingly hard-to-find specialist record store. But even as you feed your recorded music Jones, doesn't it sometimes seem that the sound was more vivid, your involvement with the music deeper when you didn't have so many records, when you made do with a basic record player and cheap speakers? Didn't the music speak more directly to your soul when to be able to play records at all, perhaps just in mono, was a major achievement?

I remember the first classical concert I ever went to, when I was 15, which included a performance of Dvorák's "New World" symphony. By the time it reached the walking boogie-bass passage in the final movement, I was on an emotional high that I can't remember quite ever reaching again, certainly not from any of the recordings I now own of that work and can play on my multi-thousand dollar system at the drop of a stylus or laser.

Stereophile's Music Editor Richard Lehnert has put forward the idea that being an audiophile is fundamentally unmusical (footnote 1), (as does Keith Yates in this issue). To become aware that there is such a thing as "Sound Quality" works against you responding to the music on as pure and open terms as when you were more ignorant. Me, I think that the increased difficulty in achieving joy through music is merely a sign of maturity, of the fact that you can never go back to a virginal state of mind.

But while you can never recapture your youth, it doesn't hurt occasionally to try to turn the clock back a couple of decades. I write these words having just returned from an enjoyable afternoon's open-air music-making courtesy of Crosby, Stills & Nash, who lowered us into a warm bath of musical familiarity. The following weekend, we will be taking in a double-bill with Little Feat supporting the Allman Brothers (footnote 2), a concert that again will probably have more in common with visiting a museum than with moving forward the state of the musical art. In that sense, such events are not that different from attending a typical classical concert.

But then I read the letter from Bowen Simmons on p.39 of this month's issue, accusing Stereophile of devoting its rock review section to "artists who are artistically dead, career-dead, and even dead-dead." I looked through a few issue's worth of our record reviews, and Mr. Simmons has a point. We do devote a lot of space to reviews of records by bands and singers who've been around a while; "wrinklies," as my teenage niece refers to them. Some have been making records as long as I've been buying them.

Stereophile is not alone in its concentration on rock music's past. The record industry is mining its own tailings, with box-set compilations apparently being where the hot sales action lies. The release of Eric Clapton's Crossroads set two years ago was followed this year by collections devoted to Chess artists Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and Willie Dixon, to the Stax/Volt singles, to Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, and the Byrds, with more to come from Crosby, Stills & Nash, Ray Charles, King Crimson, Howlin' Wolf, Phil Spector, and even Aerosmith, the Carpenters, and the Monkees! Graham Nash likens these box-set re-releases to "memory coffins": "You put on a tape and it's like somebody opened a door and all this memory comes flooding out" (footnote 3).

"Why was the music of the 1960s and early '70s so much better than what we are being offered now?" is a question Michael Ross offers in a record review this month, exploring the answer that it was more deeply rooted in the black blues and soul tradition that underlies American musical culture than the popular music of today. This thesis is echoed in David Marsh's excellent book on the American single, The Heart of Rock & Soul (footnote 4). "The '60s are indisputably the most creative period in rock and roll," he writes, explaining why fully half of the 1001 singles discussed in his book are from that period. Radio, of course, was the prime mover in singles sales, but with the 45 dead in the '90s and the current polarization of radio into tight-format "narrow-casting" that downplays the new in favor of the safe, the predictable, the comfortable (footnote 5), it would seem unlikely that there will ever again be the freedom for the unexpected, the unsafe, the uncomfortable to evolve into the new paradigm, as happened throughout the '60s.

Footnote 1: See "Mono, Stereo, Digital," Stereophile, Vol.10 No.7, October 1987, p.58.

Footnote 2: Following Pink Floyd's creaking "Momentary Lapse of Reason" tour a few years back, my wife refers to such events as "pension tours."

Footnote 3: In Rolling Stone No.615, 10/17/91.

Footnote 4: Plume Books, 1989.

Footnote 5: See Ken Barnes's excellent essay on the state of radio broadcasting, "A Fragment of the Imagination," in Simon Frith's Facing the Music, Pantheon Books, 1988.