Recordings as Creative Input

Here’s the sort of record we need to make. There’s a black man living in the outskirts of Opelousas, Louisiana. He works hard for his money, he has to be tight with a dollar. One morning he hears a song on the radio. It’s urgent, blusesy, authentic and irresistible. He can’t live without this record. He drops everything, jumps in his pickup and drives twenty-five miles to the first record store he finds. If we can make that kind of music, we can make it in the business.

— Ahmet Ertegun, Founder of Atlantic Records
Rolling Stone

A rumour reached town one day that there was a man over the hills who had the record “Searchin’” by The Coasters. Colin, the drummer with John’s skiffle group, knew him and so there was a great trek to find the man, and indeed we found him. And relieved him of it. It was too big a responsibility for him to keep.

— Paul McCartney
The Beatles Anthology

One of my key contentions about rock music is that it was fundamentally different from earlier music forms — and different in ways that were only made possible by new technology.

The influences of scientific and engineering advances on art are clearly visible in another 20th century art form: the cinema. Film, of course, is a medium that only came into existence through the invention of new technology. Over the course of the century it is easy to see how this new art form evolved as technological advances added sound and color to the filmmaker’s palette.

Technological influences on the development of rock music were more subtle, but just as important. Ultimately, what we came to know as rock music would not have been possible without these technical enablers.

The first of these enablers I want to examine is the ability of one artist to influence another through musical recordings.

In the 1950’s, rock’n roll emerged as a distinct musical style. In many ways it was the offspring produced by marrying rhythm & blues — music made almost exclusively by black Americans — with country & western, which was conversely the product of white Americans. The resulting hybrid was performed and listened to by both blacks and whites.

Elvis Presley contributed to this marriage of two different styles of music with his first single, “That’s All Right, Mama,” released in 1955. Listen to what William McKeen says about it in the preface to his anthology, Rock And Roll Is Here To Stay.

Elvis Presley isn’t thought of as a “political” artist, but his first single was a Statement because it combined the music of black America with the music of white America. Radio was segregated in 1954, but when Sun Records released that single, Elvis’s reinterpretation of rhythm and blues led listeners to the original sources. Those liberating radio waves didn’t recognize whether listeners were black or white. The air did not honor Jim Crow laws. (McKeen 2000)

This union of two distinct cultures occupying the same geographical space was made possible by the technology of radio. The AM airwaves knew no segregation. Stations playing music for and by blacks were right next door on the AM dial to stations playing music for and by whites. So it was easy for adventurous members of both groups to eavesdrop, as it were, on what the other was doing. (Whites had an unfair advantage, though, in that it was possible for them to easily attend black clubs to hear and observe rhythm & blues performers in person, while similar cross-over privileges were still denied to blacks in many parts of the American South at this time.)

As a further object lesson in the revolutionary possibilities afforded by this technical advance, this ability for one artist to learn from another via sound recordings, I want to look at a particular historic event: the British invasion of the American airwaves that began in 1964.

Let me set the stage. By the early sixties, rock’n roll was starting to look like a fad that had run its course. The plane crash that sent Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens to their fiery deaths in 1959 was partly to blame. Another cause was the co-opting of the most popular early Rocker, Elvis Presley, whose hits by now had retreated from their early adventurousness into a more predictable popular style. Other early rockers had seen their careers sidetracked by legal problems.

Then, at the start of 1964, something entirely unprecedented took place. One week, Billboard’s list of top-selling singles was headed up by “Dominique,” recorded by the Singing Nun. A couple of weeks later, it was replaced by “There, I’ve Said It Again,” a schmaltzy pop tune by Bobby Vinton.

Then it happened. Suddenly, the top spot was taken over by a rock group from England. “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” by a group called The Beatles, thundered across the airwaves, and into the ears, bodies and souls of American teenagers. Seven weeks later, this song relinquished the top spot, but only to another song by the same group: “She Loves You.” And two weeks later, yet another Beatles song, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” made the top of the hit parade. Soon other British rock groups, including the Animals, the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks were vying for the attention of American listeners.

These events are by now so well known and so taken for granted that it is hard to realize their significance: for the first time in history, a generation of musicians had assimilated their influences almost exclusively through the study of recordings. Eric Clapton is a good example, as described by Christopher Sandford in his book Clapton: Edge of Darkness.

The trips to London introduced him to a second tier of musicians — Junior Wells, J. B. Hutto, Hound Dog Taylor — for whose work Dobell’s [record store] was the sole British outlet. Clapton also possessed a reel-to-reel Grundig tape recorder with which, night after night, he honed his technique. According to Rose Clapp’s son Adrian, “[Clapton] swore and cursed till he could copy the sounds exactly, from as many records as he could get hold of.” (Sandford 1999)

So you had Eric Clapton able to perfectly mimic black American blues guitarists simply by listening to their recordings time and time again. In a similar way, you had Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones studying blues recordings by Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, John Lee Hooker and others, and producing music sounding “blacker” than most American music of the period. You had the Beatles listening to Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and other Rockers of the fifties, and then creating music of their own that matched and improved upon their American prototypes. For a while, things got so confusing that a thoroughly American group such as Doug Sahm’s had to cloak itself in British trappings, calling themselves “The Sir Douglas Quintet,” in order to get any airplay.

Let’s consider the artistic significance of this. Prior to rock music, there were essentially two types of popular music. Tin Pan Alley and the recording industry turned out hits that were intentionally bland to appeal to the largest common denominator of the listening audience. Most of the rough edges were removed from this music to enable its appeal to as broad a group as possible.

The other alternative was regional music. This was more interesting, because it retained its local characteristics. Regional music, however, had limited mobility: first because it relied upon the passing of musical tradition through live performances; and second because it depended on the presence of a local audience. Country & Western, Blues, Rhythm & Blues and Jazz all began in this way, in that they depended on local influences and local audiences. For example, the evolution of the Chicago style of blues depended on the migration of black performers and audiences from their rural homes in the South to the more industrialized urban areas of the North.

The music produced by the Beatles and other British groups of the sixties fell into neither of these categories. It was not watered down by commercial concerns to make it palatable to a wide audience. Neither was it the result of local influences and local audiences. Instead it was something radically different: musical artists from one part of the world attaining immense popularity in a distant land, having been influenced in many cases by foreign artists who had never achieved such wide appeal in their own homeland.

The artistic implications of these developments were far-reaching. Recording artists no longer had to be limited by local traditions. They could draw from the entire palette of musical influences available on record. The resulting recordings made by this new generation of musicians could appeal to global audiences. And their appeal, instead of being based on the ability to emulate and subtly improve upon prior regional works, was instead based on the ability to generate new and different sounds that transcended their local origins. The degree of artistic freedom that these developments allowed was enormous and tremendously liberating.

Let’s return for a minute to that first single by Elvis, and other early rock and roll recordings that combined musical influences from black and white America. Listen to this conversation between Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese, taken from Scorsese’s film about The Band, The Last Waltz, talking about the Memphis area, home to artists such as Muddy Waters, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.

Levon Helm: That’s kind of the middle of the country right there. So bluegrass, or country music, if it comes down to that area it mixes there with rhythm, and, if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all these different kinds of music—country, bluegrass, blues music.

Robbie Robertson: The melting pot.

Martin Scorsese: What’s it called then?

Levon Helm: Rock and roll. (McKeen 2000)

So artists like Elvis Presley and The Beatles and countless others were able to listen to recordings from both black and white sources, and make music that drew upon both. Yet the way that these diverse musical sources reacted with each other in the minds of these artists is critical. One possible way would be to make music based on the lowest common denominator of these sources. This is exactly what some of the mainstream record labels and recording artists did, with little artistic success to show for it. Another way to combine them would be to add the effects of both together, creating some sort of simple hybrid. And certainly some early rock and roll worked in this way.

But ultimately, these different strains of music combined in yet a different way, and a way that accounts for the astonishing success of what followed. Blues, and gospel, and rhythm and blues, and bluegrass, and country all became points on a musical map. What all these styles of music had in common were the human voice, the piano and the guitar. And yet, given these basic ingredients, the effects to which they were put ranged from heavenly devotion, to devil worship to expressions of human despair. What rock artists learned from listening to all this was that, not only could you use these vehicles to reach these specific destinations, you could use them to reach all points in between.

What made this expansion of the musical landscape possible, of course, was the extraordinary presence of such different cultures, such different experiences, as those of blacks and whites, in the same country, the same geography. People have pointed to one source or the other as being the real “roots” of this extraordinary music, but I think this misses the critical point: what made rock possible was not one particular source or another, but the presence of such different sources, such different cultural experiences, such different modes of expression, all at the same time, all accessible via the same musical instruments. For these multiple sources allowed rock artists to claim ownership of the entire space containing them.

Later developments in rock saw these trends continue to bear fruit. Only a few months after the British invasion, Bob Dylan gave up his primarily folk audience in order to win new popularity as a rock musician. Dylan expanded the musical terrain of rock yet again, broadening it to include both folk music and modern poetry. From the folk tradition, drawing upon the work of giants such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Dylan brought a wide-ranging set of lyrical concerns — including songs of protest and topicality — as well as a narrative vocal tradition — the ability to use simply a guitar and a single human voice to tell a story, to draw a listener in, to weave a fictional, mythical universe.

From the work of modern poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Dylan brought the ability to use words in novel and unusual ways, to employ diverse and surreal imagery, and to transcend the merely linear and literal story lines of traditional song forms.

And so rock continued to expand its range of influences. Folk rock, country rock, “raga” rock (influenced by music from India), blues rock, jazz rock, all followed suit. The significance here was not in any particular combination of formerly regional styles, but in the ability of the rock musician to easily draw upon and combine such a diverse set of influences. For example, British rock artist Elvis Costello remembers: “One time, my dad gave me a stack of albums he’d been listening to: Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, Charles Mingus’ Oh Yeah, a Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell record and the first Butterfield Blues Band album. In one go, I was exposed to more records than any one boy deserves.” (Costello 2002) As rock musicians soaked up all these formerly distinct styles available to them on record, they began to look upon these different sounds as elements of their artistic palette. Under the new rules of rock music, the only goal was to maximize the power and impact of a recording, by using whatever techniques and effects could best contribute to the artistic success of the effort.

Nowhere was this merging of distinct influences available on record more apparent than in the vocal stylings employed by rock. All genres of popular music preceding rock were identifiable by characteristic uses of the human voice. From the twang of country, the rasping of blues, the nasal whine of bluegrass and the crooning of pop singers, to the distinctive harmonies of gospel and doo-wop, each style had its own characteristic vocal sound. Rock music, however, drew on all these influences and used them according to the needs of the individual song and the abilities of the performers. So while The Rolling Stones’ vocals most prominently featured the heavily blues-influenced voice of Mick Jagger, their track “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” employed the services of the London Bach Choir.

This new-found freedom to draw upon a wide range of musical influences is, of course, entirely consistent with, and representative of, rock music’s overall theme of liberation. Rock musicians were liberated from merely regional influences and local audiences, to a new ability to pick and choose devices and influences from a multitude of musical genres.

Rock was not the only musical form to make use of recordings as a transport mechanism for ideas from one artist to another. Jazz musicians, in particular, took advantage of recordings as a way of learning what other artists were doing, and as a means of passing traditions from one generation to others that followed. But no other form took this mechanism to the extremes that rock did. For example, despite the tremendous popularity of jazz in Europe, and the lack of any language barrier, jazz has always been viewed as a uniquely American art form. While Europeans and other nationalities have played it, nothing like the British invasion in rock ever occurred in jazz or any other modern musical form.

As rock musicians of the sixties began to rely on recordings as their primary musical sources, this infection mechanism had another significant artistic impact: a new respect for the recordings themselves. Musicians who had learned their craft by observing other artists in person quite naturally viewed live performances as the primary means of artistic expression. But John Lennon, Keith Richards and others assimilated their influences through repeated study of the records, not of the live artists. And so, as we will see in the next chapter, they were predisposed to view the recordings they made, and not the performances they gave, as their primary units of artistic output.


The following recordings are particularly good examples of this element in action.

Next: Recordings as Works of Art