Happily, for Christmas this year, there’s been a lot of activity in Snowcatland lately. First off, is the new single by Gilles Snowcat, “Bareta!” The mischievous feline artist has sung this one in his native tongue of Japanese, and with its smooth, poppy sound (complete with a couple of melodic Beatles references) it’s a lot of fun, no matter what language you speak. Amidst pristine production, first rate musicianship, and complex chord changes, “Bareta!” tells the tale of a romantic rendevouz. Gilles says the concept behind the song is “a kind of escape, excitement, rendez-vous and secret date. And booze.” Awesome. The Snowcat’s voice sounds particularly silkier and smoother than usual in this seductive pop tune.
There’s a reason for that. By far, these are the most polished recordings by Gilles Snowcat to date. Gilles explains how this came to be: “ I had made a mix that wasn’t polished at all, it was more in the vein of ‘Mardi Gras Station’, then I sent the tapes to the label and I told them to do whatever they wanted for the final mix, which they did since they focused on the synthesizers and they even auto-tuned my voice, but I said ‘OK.’ It’s fun to have your own song mixed in another perspective. They polished it to the max, they took care of the artwork too, for once I let go of controlling everything. It’s refreshing for me to be so shamelessly commercial.”
“I sent the tapes to the label and I told them to do whatever they wanted for the final mix, which they did since they focused on the synthesizers and they even auto-tuned my voice, but I said ‘OK.’ It’s fun to have your own song mixed in another perspective.” Gilles Snowcat
Also on the single is “Eleganto Ni,” a love song, also in Japanese. The style is soft jazz pop – very nice indeed. “If I had to define it, it would be hotel room music,” Gilles says, “when you’re allowed to steal the towels.” The final track is a naughty live version of “Two Kinds Of Milk,” a song originally from Gilles’ 2012 full length album, “MokoMoko Collection.” And while the first two tracks of “Bareta!” are ready for Japanese radio, in this live version the Snowcat drops an F bomb – which only adds to the naughtiness. The track really shows off the charisma and humor of this intriguing artist, as he delivers an energetic vocal performance while Nicolas “Nikozark” Leroy accompanies him on keyboard.
Going back to his days as a founding member of Belgium’s Awaken, and beyond into his prolific solo career, Gilles Snowcat has released tunes in several languages. Which ones, I asked? “Vietnamese, which is a very interesting and musical language, and long ago I did some French songs but that’s like in a parallel world,” he says. “Vietnamese, Japanese and English match well, French doesn’t. French language doesn’t have the ability to be part of the music. I love lots of French songs but it bores the hell out of me to write some.” I also asked Gilles what informed his decision to release this single in the Japanese language? “A call from It’s Oh! MUSIC, “ he explains. “They wanted to release something specific, and I thought it was a fun challenge, to start from a blank page with a target in mind.”
I asked the mercurial musical feline if this polished sound is a new direction for him. “I don’t waste time looking for directions. Next thing I’ll do will be something else, I don’t know what, just something meaningful and joyful.”
Tips include the rules of rule breaking, how to use the negativity of naysayers to one’s advantage, the value of having a tight deadline, using social media, goal setting, how to advance your musical career while supporting yourself with a day job – and more. There are 21 Rules to Gilles’ Rock Star Paradox in all, including reversals and cautionary principles.
“I can’t walk a place full of musicians without being asked questions on how to make it, as if I was a guru, “ he says. “So I decided to become one.” Gilles Snowcat
Gilles explained to me how the book came into existence: “I can’t walk a place full of musicians without being asked questions on how to make it, as if I was a guru, “ he says. “So I decided to become one.” I asked him bluntly: Sure, advice may help, but isn’t it really hours of practice that makes or breaks a musician? “Practice and technique are a bonus,” he explains, “although until some point they are a necessary evil. But unless you are Yngwie Malmsteen or Lang Lang, they don’t make rock stars. They just make great musicians. And even Yngwie and Lang Lang created their own persona besides the impressive virtuosity they have. Practice can be fun too, drudge work can always be fun, but it’s foolish to think that doing scales all day long will turn you into Rod Stewart.” Hah, well said!
I asked him what take away message would be: “Link your personality to your music,” Snowcat says. “It’s the very essence of a rock star. Accept that your ego is big, inject it into your music and stop giving a f*#@ to naysayers, and you’re miles ahead of your fellow complaining musicians.”
After leaving school at an early age, British-born DJ/ business consultant/author Cyrus Bozorgmehr traveled Europe as part of a musical collective staging rave concerts. These experiences, plus two decades negotiating projects in the business and art worlds, prepared him for a key role in the conception, financing and sale of Wu-Tang’s controversial album “Once Upon A Time In Shaolin,” the secret, never-heard single-issue CD set. The album, nine years in the making, packaged in a finely crafted metal and mahogany box with a 174-page parchment book, sold in 2015 for $2 million dollars to notorious businessman Martin Shkreli, who turned around and put it up for sale on eBay this summer. I spoke with Cyrus via Skype from his home in Marrakech, Morocco about his adventures and his new book “Once Upon A Time In Shaolin: The Untold Story of The Wu -Tang Clan’s Million Dollar Secret Album, The Devaluation of Music, and America’s New Public Enemy Number 1.”
How’s everything in Morocco over there? Cyrus: “It’s all pretty fluid to be honest, because I’m kind of self-employed, so it can vary. It can be anything from watching the latest [controversies] from Donald Trump’s America to actually doing some work.”
So what in your background prepared you for this adventure with the Wu-Tang Clan? Cyrus: “I left school at 16, never went to college, anything like that. I ended up quite heavily into the illegal rave culture for about 10 years and I kind of traveled around Europe doing huge warehouse raves and festivals, they were all for free. All very kind of idealistic at the time and countercultural. Weirdly, I did have, should we say, a fairly privileged upbringing, in the sense that my parents had lost all their money but we still had good connections. So those times that I would occasionally pop out to London and need to work I was lucky enough not to go and work in like Burger King, but I was lucky enough to get into opportunities like commodity broking, to working in a P.R. firm. I just kind of had these weird things. And one of the guys I met, when I was like 21, nearly 20 years ago, was the guy who invested in this.
Mr. S.? Cyrus: “Yeah, I know that this comes across awfully mysterious, he just didn’t want his name in this. I’ve occasionally done bits and pieces for him, where the idea that he was investing in didn’t fit any obvious business thing and had more of a kind of creative, music world, art worldly type bent. I’d done maybe six things for him. This was like the biggest, and I went fully native on this one, in the sense that it didn’t take long for me to stop feeling like I was really representing anyone. And just like being in the trenches with the other two guys. So it kind of evolved like that.”
So it all started when you met Cilvaringz at an art event in Morocco? Cyrus: “Cilvaringz, somehow, it was so weird, we met — Marrakech is not a big town, you know what I mean. It’s not the town that you would expect –I don’t think that I’ve ever been involved in a project internationally with somebody who ended up being from Marrakech as well.”
“I just didn’t buy him at all. Literally, He was looking all preppy, you’re in a Moroccan villa, and some guy..the thing is, you meet your fair share of hustlers here..both local and expats. Like the expat community here is full of people with a big, very difficult to prove story. I put him straight into this category.”
You didn’t believe him at first, you thought he was just a guy with a story. Turns out he was really affiliated with the Wu-Tang Clan. Cyrus: “Yeah, totally, I just didn’t buy him at all. Literally. He was looking all preppy, you’re in a Moroccan villa, and some guy…the thing is, you meet your fair share of hustlers here..both local and expats. Like the expat community here is full of people with a big, very-difficult-to-prove story. I put him straight into this category.”
Back to the ’90s for a minute. In what capacity were you doing the raves? Cyrus: “We were very much a collective, I grew up with a collective called Spiral Tribein the UK, so basically there were about 13 of us, everything from sound technicians to lighting guys. We had a mobile studio, releasing records and playing live electronic music, back in the days when it didn’t all go through a computer. You were playing a mixing desk. It was great. I used to love it . I used to have a Mackie 16 channel mixing desk, drum machines, synths, early samplers, the first Akai MPC that came out, all of that. We basically used to travel around, you basically break into a warehouse and fill it with three or four thousand people. And just do it till the cops came.”
Maybe this is why you resonated so well with this project designed to put an emphasis on the devaluation of music. RZA said he really believed that they were making something that would be like a Picasso or the Mona Lisa. Cyrus: “I mean, I’m slightly more skeptical than that. I wouldn’t go that far, I’d hesitate to compare it to a Picasso or something like that myself, but I do think it was a really important symbolic point….weirdly enough, my experience in the illegal rave scene informed a lot of my opinions on this. We had this very idealistic creed, no one payed, there was a donations bucket on the door, it wasn’t about profit, and actually, over the space of about 10 years, I saw that get very badly abused. Where you were then judged – the more you gave away for free, the less people valued it. The more they just kind of expected you to – if you went a played a club gig to supplement your income, you were somehow a sellout. People … didn’t want to pay five bucks to support the people who were doing this. So a lot of this informed how I felt about this.”
“I’d hesitate to compare it to a Picasso or something like that myself, but I do think it was a really important symbolic point….weirdly enough, my experience in the illegal rave scene informed a lot of my opinions on this.”
The concept is partly about the lack of economic structure for musicians and artists. Cyrus: “And just the weird psychology that when something’s free, people stop valuing it. They don’t think, ‘oh wow, this is free, that’s really nice of them. This is great, I’m really going to appreciate this.’ It somehow erodes the kind of value you put on that. In an experiential way. Which is really weird.”
What became of the rave scene and your involvement in that? Cyrus: “I never made the transition to computers. I had a Novation Bass Station, one of the early [Korg] Electribe synths, a Digitech Quad effects unit, an Akai MPC, a Boss 660, that kind of stuff. But after that to be honest, the difference was I think, production quality became as important as musical quality. And that’s when, in the ’90s, especially with dance music, you didn’t compress every last snare and high hat, you just got on with it…My relatively recent stuff is mostly DJ stuff [under the moniker ‘Sirius’], because I never really got properly back into the production.”
“And if you look at the way Martin behaved with us, he never screwed us once. He always kept his word. Meanwhile, he’s doing things that I find morally outrageous, and that’s a real dichotomy. A real dichotomy.”
One of the many things I liked about the book, is when you characterize people, even Martin Shkreli, you humanize him, you changed the way I felt about him. I actually felt sorry for him. Cyrus: “It was really weird, I’ve often found this. It’s one of those things I think that when you grow older, you accept more and more that nothing’s black and white. When I was 25, I saw things very much in binary terms. Things were good, or they were bad, or these guys, it was us and them, it was all of that. It was also the fact that we were tied in with him. We did sign this contract, and we were going to have to work with him. No matter how much of a clusterf**k was playing out. And like so many situations, when you’re looking at someone in the eyes, and you meet them personally, generally it doesn’t completely gel with either their public perception or even their actions. It’s one of those really weird things. And if you look at the way Martin behaved with us, he never screwed us once. He always kept his word. Meanwhile, he’s doing things that I find morally outrageous, and that’s a real dichotomy. A real dichotomy. But equally, I found a lot of his conduct pretty similar to what a lot of other pharmacy companies were doing, but they were just a lot more discreet about it. And I think there was a lot of hypocrisy there, matched only by his desire, you know, to become the poster boy for it.”
“It’s really weird, I had more empathy for him, cause I wrote the book, very shortly, at the end of 2015, I think that’s why it comes across that way. I’ve had a lot of criticism, ‘this isn’t journalism,’ but I’m not pretending it was. This is a memoir. And so it is emotional, it is skewed, it is a perspective, I’m not pretending to analyze this from every possible side and being really objective. It’s kind of a story that I would tell my friends over three bottles of wine sort of thing.”
You had this experiment to see what would happen to the album if it was a priceless single copy release. How does the sale by Shkreli on eBay in September change the outcome of the experiment, or validate or dis-validate it? Cyrus: “It’s a really weird one. I think there’s several things. One, I guess the fact that there’s people out there paying money for it still — seven figures for it, I guess that’s a validation. It was always going to be an open question especially with Martin Shkreli as a buyer whether this had any resale value at all. Or whether this was just going to be kind of ‘oh this is in the news, I’m going to buy this,’ but as for reselling it as a piece of art, it will retain investment value, that wasn’t sure at all. I’m not sure what’s happened around this sale, because he went to prison the day before the thing expired, I mean that was just drama you couldn’t script. I think now the people who won the auction are wondering what the f**k’s going on.”
“…. it kind of went from high culture to popular culture. And I think the eBay thing ties into that. I quite enjoyed seeing that happen. It was like another random twist to this whole thing.”
Did the eBay sale cheapen the mystique? You guys started out talking to Sotheby’s, and Christie’s and it ends up on eBay? Cyrus: “I think it would have done, when we were doing it. We were using a set of symbols that were making a point. I think now that Martin’s got it, the whole thing’s gone so bizarrely tabloid anyway, that in a weird way, what I liked about it, something I say near the end of the book is that it came out of our very tightly controlled shaping of this concept, and then once it got sold and suddenly there’s memes, and fake Bill Murray hoax clauses, and all kinds of crazy sh*t, and Martin Shkreli’s calling people out, it kind of went from high culture to popular culture. And I think the eBay thing ties into that. I quite enjoyed seeing that happen. It was like another random twist to this whole thing. Yeah, I was alright with it. I don’t think it always needs to be with those high end mahogany hallmarks, it’s almost like it’s into a new phase now.”
In your book, you compare selling the album to an Edenic loss of innocence. How did that play out? Cyrus: “It’s a really weird one. It’s a strained metaphor again. There was conflict around this album. Not everyone was happy that performed on it. How it panned out. I can’t pretend that it was paradise from the beginning, it definitely did the transition from our high ideals sort of thing, which probably did need a certain amount of piercing, I think that’s fair, just going from that, to when this was all just an idea, and an idealistic one, to like the poster boy for the evils of capitalism getting involved and this almost anyone who’d been skeptical about this project from the start suddenly just had it all reinforced by the fact ‘of course a complete @^$% bought it, who else did you think was going to buy it?’ There was a lot of that.”
What’s your role on the album? Cyrus: “I play a spoken word thing, a very short segment, pretending to be a news reporter. It was like a news report with sound effects in the background and stuff.”
Along the way, there were a lot of lucky breaks and saves, especially around the airport at JFK and stuff. Was the whole project blessed in a way – you just told me that it wasn’t perfect, but the Wu-Tang Clan must be really lucky in a way, that things seemed to come together for them. Cyrus: “Yeah, it was an interesting one, a lot of people think that the Wu-Tang Clan, all of this, it’s like a great big commune, it’s not really. They performed on the album, RZA has always basically decided how things get marketed, sold, he controls the name, etc. So there were almost two phases to this. There was the production of the album, which I didn’t have much to do with. Then there was the conceptual side. From ‘should we do a single copy?’ to how this was actually going to work. And I think a lot of the other members of the Clan left it up to RZA and Cilvaringz and then by extension me, to kind of handle this, but they hadn’t fully signed on for all the blowback. I think in one way it’s been great publicity for the Wu-Tang Clan, if nothing else — it’s been straight on the cultural icon map since the story came out. But I think a lot of them kind of felt, slightly, that they’d been associated with someone or something that they didn’t want to be, that they didn’t really get consulted on toward the end, do you see what I mean?”
“Everyone got paid what they asked; if the thing hadn’t sold, everyone would have still been paid, and the only ones out of pocket would have been RZA and Cilvaringz. There is an element of ‘who takes the risk?’ involved.”
There have been recent rumors that it’s actually a Cilvaringz album. Is that accurate in any way? Cyrus: “To be honest, that’s just utterly sensational journalism. If by that, they mean that Cilvaringz produced the album, well then yeah. That was never any secret. If they mean by that, did they know at the beginning, no one said ‘guys, we’re going to sit down and make a Wu-Tang Album,’ that’s not how it happened – it evolved. And I mentioned that. It’s a production thing. All of the Wu-Tang Clan are on the album. It is a Wu-Tang artist album.”
Did Mr. S. get his money back? How much did he invest? Cyrus: “Yeah, he did! He got his money back, plus a profit share. This is the other thing that everyone likes to say. In that Bloomberg article they were making a point. They had implied that RZA and Cilvaringz kind of wandered off into the sunset with a cool two million dollars. And that’s just not the reality of it. It cost several hundred thousand to make, Mr. S. didn’t come cheap, his profit margin was significant, there was money given to charity, there was money given to the guy that introduced Cilvaringz to Mr. S, there was money given to me. There was no two million dollar payday, you know what I mean. These guys, the Bloomberg journalists, I was quite disappointed in the way they’d done it….Everyone got paid what they asked; if the thing hadn’t sold, everyone would have still been paid, and the only ones out of pocket would have been RZA and Cilvaringz. There is an element of ‘who takes the risk?’ involved.”
Can you tell me any other guest stars on the album besides Cher?Cyrus: “The Red Woman [Carice van Houten] from Game of Thrones, Barcelona Soccer Players, again it was just one of those totally organic things. The Barcelona Football Team, Soccer Team happened to be backstage at a concert, and it wasn’t like a list of let’s get all these people on as guest stars, it kind of happened organically.”
Can you tell me a funny story that didn’t make the book? Cyrus: “I kind of put it all in – funny stories were kind of factored in as part of the book.”
So how do you top this adventure? Cyrus: “I haven’t got a clue, I swear. I ended up writing The Syndicate because I had kind of the post-Shaolin blues. This happened and got sold, and I wrote a book, then I got a publishing deal, but then there was like a year and a bit of just waiting. And I got really depressed in that period and wrote another book, and you know, my other project’s pretty good, my other main project is company called Arcadia, we’ve got a 50 ton fire-breathing spider built out of recycled military hardware with a kind of Cirque De Soleil style performance show. 50 foot fireballs, lasers, lights, a 360 degree sound field, if you Google ‘Arcadia Glastonbury,’ you’ll see what I’m talking about. We do Miami Ultra every year. It’s like a stage/sculpture/installation.”
Can you tell me about your novel The Syndicate? It’s about this philosophical anarchism that you hint at in the Wu-Tang book?Cyrus: “Yeah, it’s very much like that. I guess that I took an idealistic version of the illegal rave scene in the UK in the early ‘90s. which was very much counterculture, it was very much kind of about kind of revolutionary political models, about taking back public space, and anti-corporate and all of that, and it was a very idealistic movement that kind of managed to self-destruct over time. And I kind of noticed, that this idea was the exact mirror of the early development of the internet– that was this kind of radical, decentralized, open source kind of space, where no one was charged, there was no guiding hand, and this was supposed to be this new liberating paradigm. It kind of half is, and it half isn’t, so yeah, it’s just an exploration of those two things, with plenty of humor and that kind of thing.”
Thanks to Cyrus, and to Steven Boriack at Flatiron Books for setting this up!
In the new book “Once Upon A Time In Shaolin: The Untold Story of Wu-Tang Clan’s Million Dollar Secret Album, The Devaluation of Music, and America’s New Public Enemy No. 1,” author Cyrus Bozorgmehr documents the story of how a long-anticipated album by hip hop superstars Wu-Tang Clan ended up as a secretive single-release item sold for $2 million to much-maligned businessman Martin Shkreli.
As Wu-Tang leader RZA described it in 2014 on Twitter during the album’s production, “We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.”
The tale begins in 2007, with self-proclaimed “ideas consultant/business advisor” Bozorgmehr meeting up with Wu-Tang Clan affiliate Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh in Morocco at an art event. The story unfolds as an adventure and a mystery, involving a shadowy financial backer known only as “Mr. S.,” secretive recording sessions with guests artists including Cher, an intricate metal case designed and crafted by a famous Moroccan artist, legendary auction houses including Sotheby’s and Christie’s, an interrogation by Homeland Security at JFK International Airport, a lost laptop containing the sole copy of the album’s 15 minute preview, an exhibition at Long Island’s MoMA PS1, an eccentric millionaire, plans for a heist involving actor Bill Murray, and so much more.
“We’re making a single-sale collector’s item. This is like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.” RZA of Wu-Tang Clan
East Coast Hip Hop artistsThe Wu-Tang Clan launched their careers in 1993 with “Enter the Wu-Tang Clan, (36 Chambers)” a platinum selling disc that features innovative use of samples and film audio clips, swaggering raps of producer RZA, Ghostface Killah, GZA, Raekwon, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard (RIP) and others over hip hop beats and state of the art production featuring the groundbreaking AKAI MPC sampler/ audio controller, along with social awareness, lots of humor amidst the macho braggadocio, and an affection for Eastern mysticism in the form of China’s legendary Shaolin Kung Fu Monks.
The brand-new secret album, titled “Once Upon A Time In Shaolin” is said to hearken back to these classic days of the Clan. Bozorgmehr writes: “The album was a testament to the classic Wu sound, a journey back into the chambers, through raw, jagged beats and a dark, stripped-back, liquid funk.”
Throughout the creation of the album, which spread out over five years, and during the auction process, secrecy was crucial to maintaining the exclusivity of the single issue album. Bozorgmehr writes: “Only two people had ever heard the album in its entirety, RZA and Cilvaringz. Not even the mixing or mastering engineers. The Clan had all heard the segments they were individually involved in. And me? Well, with a mixture of purity, integrity, and breathtaking hypocrisy, I simply didn’t want to hear it. Which saved RZA and Cilvaringz from having to lie about only two people ever having listened to it when a third had actually gotten ears on the whole thing.”
“Only two people had ever heard the album in its entirety, RZA and Cilvaringz. Not even the mixing or mastering engineers. ” Cyrus Bozorgmehr
In the end, the two CD set, more than two hours of music across 31 tracks, packaged in three ornate nesting metal boxes, a leather case, and a 174 page booklet printed on parchment, was sold in December 2015 to Shkreli for $2 million, in a deal brokered by up and coming cyber-savvy auction house Paddle8. As a condition of the sale, an 88 year moratorium on releasing the music commercially was agreed to.
One could argue that this is an elitist experiment by wealthy rappers. Yet from the very beginning, the project had a lofty purpose – to raise questions about the value of art in an age when digital media, YouTube and streaming services like Spotify and Pandora have made it possible for millions of musical artists to share their work, while paradoxically making it more difficult than ever for up and coming acts to get heard due to competition. Not to mention the questionable nature of the corporate sponsorship of music, for example Jay Z’s partnership with Samsung or U2’s controversial venture with Apple on the release of “Songs of Innocence.”
As Bozorgmehr put it, in light of the sale to Shkreli, “Maybe this was the ultimate artistic statement. If we don’t support musicians as a society and all contribute to its sustainability, then it will end up in the hands of the most ruthless capitalists out there. There was a certain poetry to it. This had been an experiment in social dynamics, after all, and experiments didn’t have a right answer. Yes. The press would buy that on the day I miraculously became slim and attractive.”
“Maybe this was the ultimate artistic statement. If we don’t support musicians as a society and all contribute to its sustainability, then it will end up in the hands of the most ruthless capitalists out there. There was a certain poetry to it” Cyrus Bozorgmehr
It’s a good read; Bozorgmehr is the perfect tale bearer, a somewhat edgy persona, who having been there from the conception of the project, witnessed it all. One wonders how he and the Wu-Tang Clan will top this adventure. And with the album, still unheard except for one track, up for sale by Shrkeli on EBay (the auction ends on Sept. 15 and has a current bid of $1,001,500), one wonders when it will be heard.
Thanks to Steven Boriack at Flatiron books for the review copy.
It’s a truism that technology can (and should) liberate. The history of rock music demonstrates this axiom quite well, as shown in Ed Ward’s new book “The History of Rock and Roll, Volume One –1920 to 1963” (Flatiron Books, 390 pages, $35). Beginning with folk music and what was called race music, first recorded on phonographic discs in the 1920s, to the birth of the radio and the electric guitar, through the electrifying of the blues, to jukeboxes, early TV broadcasts, and Hollywood films, the book is packed with info about the personalities that created rock and roll, and the technologies that made the genre possible.
Decades ago, long before techno-pop artists adopted popular music forms, filling stadiums with shows featuring banks of electronics, laser lights and towers of amplified speakers, a rip-roaring night on the town may have consisted of heading down the road to hear a simple unamplified guitar, banjo or fiddle accompanied by a vocalist. Folk, country and western, blues, gospel, rhythm and blues, pop and rock all come into play, across the decades in Ward’s detail-rich book. It’s a page turner, ideally next to your computer, smartphone or tablet (YouTube has pretty much all the tracks he mentions), so you can follow along while listening. All the characters that transformed a diverse array of genres into the world’s (arguably) most influential music genre are presented, and Ward doesn’t disappoint those who prefer their music history served with a side dish of gossip (Colonel Parker was an illegal immigrant, Chuck Berry went to jail for violating the Mann Act, John Lennon was a popper of pep pills, etc.). Oh My!
Decades ago, long before techno-pop artists adopted popular music forms, filling stadiums with shows featuring banks of electronics, laser lights and towers of amplified speakers, a rip-roaring night on the town may have consisted of heading down the road to hear a simple unamplified guitar, banjo or fiddle accompanied by a vocalist.
As the resident rock and roll historian for NPR’s Fresh Air, Ward’s encyclopedic knowledge serves him well here, and offers up more than mere gossip. Along the way he covers the clubs, the rise of the labels, the record stores, the DJs, the managers, and the stars they created, along with Billboard stats of hundreds of songs making it convenient to listen as you read. There’s an emphasis on the United States, with a few chapters devoted to Britain, which reacted to this uniquely American creation in a variety of interesting ways.
It starts with the music presented in traveling medicine shows, which allowed new sounds to spread from town to town, and eventually, when radio caught on, it spread even faster. When things really start to take off in the ’50s, the book goes deeply into vocal groups, the beginning of Motown, pop groups and rock groups, as well as the role of the electric guitar, mentioning the Fender Stratocaster at least four times (Fullerton shout out!) as well as continuing to follow the second and third careers of those who started out in the ’30s and ’40s. Lots of background info here, along with the wonderful songs that are still staples on oldies stations today (and many others that should be).
Ward’s book ends in January of 1964, just as the Beatles are set to take the United States by storm. Ward spends more than 50 pages on the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and a good number of pages to the beginning of Elvis’ career as well, but only after setting up these pop/rock phenomena in the context of the decades of blues, gospel, and folk artists and others who started it all. Highly recommended.
When Thomas Dolby hit MTV and the airwaves in 1982, the world discovered a new kind of electronic artist, someone quite different from the typical synthpop performer selling songs about romance and despair. On his first album, “The Golden Age Of Wireless,” Dolby presented a parallel sci-fi universe of retro technology, youthful idealism and Cold War politics with motifs that were nearly mythological in their grandeur, condensed into masterfully engineered three and four minute pop tunes. I was all of 18 in 1982; I admit to having been more than a little perplexed by the paradoxes present in his style and image. What to make of his compelling synthesis of past and future, of traditional singer/songwriter tropes intertwined with an honest fascination for humanity’s complex history and faith in our better natures, wrapped up in some of the most ear-pleasing techno pop ever created?
1984’s “The Flat Earth,” Dolby’s second album, confronted listeners with its soulful style, driving home the fact that Dolby’s romantic optimism and willingness to depart from formula put him in a class apart from the hordes of synth-wielding popsters on the radio. Dolby didn’t merely pose with electronic instruments as artwork – for him, technology coupled with our common humanity represented a way forward, the dawning of a new paradigm. With its exploration of jazz and the paradoxically synthetic/acoustic sounds of the Fairlight CMI electronic workstation, the album was a sophisticated departure from the techno pop of the day. 1988’s “Aliens Ate My Buick” delved further into funk-flavored electronica, causing confusion and frustration for record executives and promotion people who found it difficult to categorize and market Dolby’s music.
When I learned a few weeks ago that Dolby’s memoir, “The Speed Of Sound: Breaking The Barriers Between Music And Technology” (Flatiron Books, 277 pages, $27.99) was due for an October release, I eagerly got my hands on a copy. It’s a gripping read, as Dolby recounts his rather quick journey from working musician to pop superstar, and beyond. It’s not surprising to discover that Dolby is a gifted storyteller, given that from the beginning his albums have been filled with cinematic tunes with stories from imaginary historical narratives.
The idea of adding to the general chorus of syrupy pop chatter and unrequited love songs filled me with loathing. I was determined to go full-on with my own peculiar brand of dieselpunk music and visuals; and if I couldn’t crack the big time, I would go down behind enemy lines in a blaze of glory.” Thomas Dolby
It turns out that Dolby’s early style and content choices were based on solid convictions and instinct.
He writes: “If I’d stopped for a second to reflect on the fact that my obsessions with science fiction, ham radio and the Cold War might prove a little unsuitable for the delicate pop sensibilities of the mass record-buying public, I’d have chosen a different path. I could have written catchy songs about jealousy and teenage angst, I might have joined the ranks of the smiley poster-boy singers of the early 1980s, got my hair cut at Antenna and bought my clothes on South Molton Street. But when I turned on BBC Radio 1, or watched Top of the Pops, there was nothing, absolutely zero that appealed to me. The idea of adding to the general chorus of syrupy pop chatter and unrequited love songs filled me with loathing. I was determined to go full-on with my own peculiar brand of dieselpunk music and visuals; and if I couldn’t crack the big time, I would go down behind enemy lines in a blaze of glory.”
The anecdote-packed narrative tells the tale of Dolby’s brief time at the top of the charts, followed by his increasing disillusionment with the recording industry and his subsequent ventures into producing, film scoring, and the world of Silicon Valley startups. Dolby’s public image has always been carefully cultivated, so it is quite revealing, after 35 years to encounter the actual person behind the boy genius image. What is surprising is that he is more or less an ordinary fellow, albeit one gifted in the arts, and apparently business as well. It turns out that the same ear for musical innovation guided his forays into the tech world, where Dolby had a hand in transforming the way music is heard on the internet and cell phones.
Dolby writes: “In 1994, investment started to pour into small Internet start-ups from San Francisco to San Jose. If you were an eager young entrepreneur with a germ of an idea, you could take several meetings in a week with angel investors and VCs. Anyone who could sketch out a plan for world domination on the back of a paper napkin was a strong contender for an infusion of cash. A hundred and fifty years after the first hungry speculators poured into the Bay Area, the new Gold Rush had begun.”
Yet Dolby did much more than merely sketch plans on a napkin. In the early days of the Internet, Dolby’s company Headspace Inc., with their Beatnik Audio Engine, allowed web browsers to play back audio with ease, thanks to code that made it possible to compress large audio files. This technology was soon bundled into the Sun Java Platform, found on virtually every PC. Headspace (now Beatnik Inc.) followed up on this success by creating a version of the Beatnik Audio Engine that eventually ended up on billions of cell phones. Yet ever the perfectionist, Dolby was somewhat unsatisfied with the way things turned out.
“When I was on the charts with ‘Blinded Me with Science,’” he writes, “I was known as a sonic innovator, the man who put warmth and humanity into synthesized music. I was embarrassed that now I was the guy people would blame for the global ringtone plague. Had I unleashed a monster? I couldn’t wait for phone power and storage to increase so we could improve the way ringtones sounded. I badly needed Moore’s Law to kick in.”
And indeed, Moore’s Law did kick in – the powerful smartphone we have today was only a few years away. Meanwhile, despite his Silicon Valley successes, at the beginning of the 21st century, Dolby couldn’t ignore his hunger to create new music. Longing for his childhood homeland, Dolby left Northern California with his wife and three children, settling again in England. Always the innovator, he set up a state of the art recording studio in a restored 1930s lifeboat, and got down to the work of once again creating stunning electronic music. 2011’s “A Map Of The Floating City” is his most recent musical endeavor.
“The Speed Of Sound” is recommended for anyone who enjoys a good music industry story, and though the final third of the book recounts Dolby’s adventures in Silicon Valley, it’s loaded with entertaining and humorous details, as he brushes elbows with some of the leading figures in the computer revolution.