Field Recordings from the Inside

Joe Bonomo

February 22, 2017 
The following is from Joe Bonomo’s essay collection, Field Recordings from the Inside. Bonomo's books include This Must Be Where My Obsession with Infinity Began, Conversations with Greil Marcus, AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Installations, and Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band. A five-time Notable Essay selection at Best American Essays, he teaches at Northern Illinois University.

My younger brother had developed a phobia of listening to records played at the wrong speeds. We’d be listening to a 45 or an LP, and if I moved the RPM knob one way or the other and the song lurched into nasal, pinched hysteria or growled down to a menacing dirge, Paul would cover his ears, his eyes flashing. Sometimes he’d dash from the room; sometimes he’d cry. I can’t claim largesse these many decades later, manfully acknowledging that I soothed my younger brother in his distress—once in a while I’d torture him, quickly switching a record to the wrong speed to see his (predictable) reaction. Older-Sibling Job Description, maybe, but an unkind responsibility not without its trails of remorse. Inside of me: that a record could be insidious, that music has an interior darkness I didn’t know about. Look what it can do.

In the spring and summer of 1975, “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc was in regular rotation in the Top 40, reigning for two weeks at number one on the U.K. charts and peaking at number two on Billboard. Composed by Eric Stewart and Graham Gouldman, the song is famous for its haunting tones and otherworldly choral effect, studio-created by massing more than 250 vocal harmonies, a mammoth, labor-intensive undertaking in the era before digital sampling. Band members Stewart, Gouldman, Kevin Godley, and Lol Creme each sang a single note in unison that was then mixed, dubbed, and re-dubbed across sixteen tracks, looped, then played in a heartbreaking descending-then-ascending melody via keyboards and faders. An airy construction, the song begins in medias res, the instrumentation spare throughout: a Fender organ in the left channel mutters softly, a bass drum thumps quietly in the center, a strummed acoustic guitar whispers in the right. The effect might be the closest a pop song has ever gotten to reproducing a dream, the loose ends of experience beyond language. “I’m Not in Love” is less a tune than a field recording from the inside of your body, your heart chambers’ vérité.

There’s tension in the deceptively sweetly-sung lyric: self- absorbed, defensive sentiments threaten to pop the bubble of that ethereality, casual but controlling barbs insisting that the singer’s detached, too uncaring to be in love, that your photo’s only covering a stain on the wall, you’ll wait a long time for me and if I call you don’t make a fuss and don’t tell your friends. Is that 10cc’s game? Subverting the dream with cool indifference? Nothing so ghostly gorgeous can last long when, beneath it all, there’s an insecure man threatening to destroy it. (When R.E.M. composed their striking quasi-homage to “I’m Not in Love”—“Star Me Kitten” on 1992’s Automatic for the People—they morphed these tensions into post-punk lewdness, Michael Stipe later revealing that the “star me” in the title was the equivalent to an asterisk demurely blotting out the phrase “fuck me.”)

I knew what “I’m Not in Love” was about, when I couldn’t possibly have known. More: I understood the tensions and psychologies among the callousness of the words, the icy distance in the vocals, the dreaminess of the melody and arrangement— before I could understand such grown-up things. Is it possible for an epiphany to be scored? What is knowledge in a pop song? William Hazlitt: “You know more of a road by having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world.” I’m not so sure. At age nine or so, I hadn’t yet journeyed down the roads of infatuation and heartbreak when I first heard “I’m Not in Love,” far from it; I hadn’t even imagined them sentimentally from my bedroom window. I was puzzling over smiling teases from girls on the playground, my older sister’s crushes, and countenances that hinted at a language beyond the one I spoke, stumbling words that clearly failed as choral “ahhhs” from the radio transcended.

Around the time that “I’m Not in Love” was on the radio entrancing and frightening me, my parents purchased a double album, The Beatles 1962–1970. But this was an album not by the Beatles, sadly, but by Kings Road, and not on the cheery bright-green Apple label but on a label called Pickwick. What I didn’t know then: Pickwick was a notorious budget label borne in the 1950s from the ashes of a children’s music label. By the late 1960s/early 1970s, president and owner Cy Leslie was raking it in from issuing compilations mimicking the top hits of the year by bands like Kings Road (other out ts were Mirror Image and Top of the Pops).

These albums confound me now. Tacitly of the K-Tel/Ronco era, they ended up on the doors of basements and bedrooms, spun on the family stereo or in private by disenchanted kids who’d been stoked while unwrapping the album to have a collection of Top 40 hits. What did we kids know about licensing? About “cut-rate?” About the bottom line? Moments after the needle drops on the first song—the latest smash by Carly Simon or Bread or Johnny Nash—you know that something’s not right. The timbre of the voice, the flatness of the playing, the squashed production conspire within moments to say to you, You’ve been ripped off. Welcome to another adolescent disappointment. Whatever satisfactions that barely dressed, smiling hippie girl on the brightly colored front jacket provided, they were short- lived. This sucks, I’d say to myself, watching the turntable spin.

Around this time, a group of kids at Saint Andrew the Apostle School during recess linked their hands and danced in a circle crying, “The witch is dead, the witch is dead!” They were mocking the memory of an unpopular substitute teacher to whom we’d been ghastly, and who’d moved to Florida and, we heard, died there. My friends’ glee made me nauseated and gloomy, though I likely joined the chanting. I felt a similar nameless misery listening to Kings Road: intuiting the sadness of vulnerable grown-ups, a weakness that all kids witness eventually in the movement between ignorance and knowledge. Kings Road was a virtual band, comprised of session musicians cobbled together to knock off a stack of songs-per-session, on time, under bud- get. As the musicians bluffed their way through “Please Please Me,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Michelle,” “Hey Jude” (which they dutifully, dreadfully aped for nearly six minutes), “The Long and Winding Road,” and solo tracks like “Junk,” “My Sweet Lord,” and, improbably, the emotionally raw “Mother,” my brothers and I guffawed, breaking up at the lame singing and playing, so obviously “not the Beatles!” An earnest attempt at gaming consumers turned into a half-serious aural joke that soon morphed into something beyond funny, into surreal wretchedness. Listening to Kings Road, I felt unnamed pity for the musicians even as I was making fun of them.

In particular I remember their soft rendition of “Revolution,” the amateur screeching, the compressed, white fury of Lennon’s Epiphone Casino guitar reduced to something that sounded like the anemic buzz of a malfunctioning electric razor. The ferocious drumming? Overturned oatmeal canisters struck with pencils. (And out of time, at that.) The performances were hilariously inept, and now I wonder at the premise of such budget LPs: to whom were they marketed? Certainly Pickwick cared more about moving units than disenchanting kids, but the executives in their boardroom didn’t consider the effects such albums would have on the gullible. What was meant to sound like earnest tribute and celebration fell on my ears as desperate and embarrassing. This much I understood as the album spun around and around: Kings Road were the weary substitute teachers of pop music.

“Intellect confuses intuition,” says Piet Mondrian. On long afternoons when I wasn’t down in the rec room puzzling over Kings Road, I was listening to Elvis: As Recorded at Madison Square Garden. At the time I wasn’t a big Elvis fan— no one in my family was, really; we imitated him (we had a compilation album of Elvis sound-alikes, too). I wouldn’t come to appreciate him for many years. I was a kid, and I thought that his bright-white rhinestone-studded bell-bottom jumpsuit on the album jacket was the coolest thing in the world, his legs-splayed, finger-snapping pose a kind of foreign language, and I liked the up-tempo songs. (A recording of a performance from June of 1972, the album was, in Colonel Tom Parker’s “Taking Care of Business” style, on sale in record and department stores little more than a week after the concert. I have the album still, the cover held together with Scotch tape.)

I especially loved the way the record opened. Ascending from the vinyl’s clicks and pops: the dramatic notes of Richard Strauss’s tone poem “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” known popularly as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Decades later, these grandiose gestures of brass-and-tympani extravagance were read as the epitome of ’70s bombast, self-mythologizing elevations of rock and roll to Symphonic Spectacle, a fan-blinding staging of Rock Gods, what critic Dave Marsh memorably described as “pseudo events.” The Rolling Stones would have fun with such gestures, opening their 1975–76 American and European tours with a snippet from Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, but Jagger’s backstage smirk is practically audible; you know that he’s reveling in the self- mocking, poking fun at the pretentiousness of Rock Shows.

In how much of his own grandiosity did Elvis have faith? Maybe I even believed that he hummed Strauss to himself during Graceland mornings as a kind of heartfelt, if pompous, soundtrack to his druggy days. Before intellect confused things, before I learned Irony and Camp, I listened to the opening of Elvis: As Recorded at Madison Square Garden and imagined The King backstage, waiting, elevating, testing his jumpsuit wings, larger than life as Strauss’s octave-ambitious score filled the venue and my head with pomp, my chest thumping with Joy, Sunrise, Passion, Great Longing. Those musicians in the dark must be pretty important to require such fanfare. I believed. I was hooked. Though I can’t listen to Elvis’s entrance anymore without a wry half-grin, I admit to loving its stirring mock-seriousness no less now than I did when I was a kid in a suburban basement ushered into spectacle, drifting without a guidebook somewhere between sincerity and satire.

“Certainly recorded music haunts us almost by definition,” says music critic Michelle Banks. “Technologies of recording allow the past to remain, to stay, and in some ways usurp and challenge the very usual and powerful notions of chronology; disembodied and nostalgic, recorded music perpetually carries with it both wanted and unwanted presences. And sometimes such presence can seem, at least for a moment and with varying levels of intensity, to occupy our whole bodies, our whole selves, metaphysically embodying blood for us. These are those songs that for whatever individual reasons, carry. They are the ones that take us back, pull us on, and rest waiting for us sometime again in the future.”

I mean, I knew what “love” was. I loved my mom and dad, and my dog Molly, and my bike and cherry-coke Slurpees and baseball cards—so I’m not in love as a declaration resonated with me. I understood the negation there, maybe even the fear. But not much beyond the words’ surface. The roads that led to puberty and the complications and losses beyond puberty were roads that 10cc showed me through the rec room stereo and the transistor radio at the Wheaton public pool. The haze of that melody filled my chest each time I listened and it was somehow meaningful, disturbed with presentiment, the singing and the arrangement, the graphic, major-minor mood changes—the poignant rainfall of those tear-jerking choral notes, and me—all inside a bright room Before Knowledge. What will I learn? That love is a tightening in the throat, love is expressed as dreams, love is a song on the radio.

And this: big boys don’t cry. That sentence in the middle of the song (whispered by a receptionist at 10cc’s Strawberry Studios in Cheshire, England, where the song was recorded) cut through the dreamy mystery, and chided me in a mother’s disembodied voice. I was worrying about crying on the playground and in the classroom, and though that struggle was at times overwhelming, I sensed through the misery that there were larger complications looming, something unspecified yet fully felt in the grown-up singer’s complexities, tensions that the music, in its twilit, atmospheric wash and yearning wordlessness, somehow defined for me.

Unburdened by taxonomy, we listen for the first time to a song as it says to us what it knows—in words we might soon sing along with, but also in chord changes, tempo shifts, eighth notes, in unseen sonic details that translate the calm or the bedlam of our inner lives—and when we listen as kids, when, after Mondrian, our minds haven’t yet caught up with sensations, we trail the language and knowledge of songs wherever they take us.

Music enters us in many ways, through dreams, through spectacle. And through fear. The discordance of a record played at the wrong speed is different from the melancholy of, say, the Doppler effect, what Brian Wilson intuited and employed as the last, distressing noises at the end of Pet Sounds, the sounds of dejection and loss. Playing a record at the wrong speed was transgressive, hostile, chaotic in the ways that I’d imagined “bad trips” on LSD must have felt like, the inner horrors of disunities, of centers not holding, the stuff of nightmares. I didn’t articulate to myself at the time that I didn’t like, but that I also loved, that I could manipulate the turntable in such a way, let loose into stable suburbia a frightening new language that spoke of instability and disorientation. Rotating the RPM knob, sending my brother careening from the room, I turned music inside out, learning, without intending, the dark inside of a pop song. Another lesson at so many revolutions per minute.



From FIELD RECORDINGS FROM THE INSIDE.  Used with permission of Soft Skull Press. Copyright © 2017 by Joe Bonomo.

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