Recordings as Works of Art

I was always slightly disappointed with all the performers I saw, from Little Richard to Jerry Lee. They never sound exactly like their records. I like “Whole Lotta Shakin’,” the 1956 take on the record, but I’m not interested in a variation on the theme. When Gene Vincent did “Be Bop A Lula” in Hamburg, he didn’t do it the same. It was a thrill to meet Gene Vincent and see him, but it was not “Be Bop A Lula.” I’m a record fan.

— John Lennon
The Beatles Anthology

Art and Artist

In many modes of artistic expression, there is little question about what constitutes a work of art. A painter produces a painting. A sculptor creates a statue. A writer publishes a novel. In all of these forms, there is a simple one-to-one relationship between an artist, the output created by that artist, and the work enjoyed by the public.

In other types of artistic expressions, these relationships are more complex. A classical composer creates a symphony, but only as a score on paper. An intermediary, in the form of an orchestra, is required before anyone can hear the work of art envisioned by the artist. Similarly, a playwright puts words on paper, but a director, actors and a whole drama company are required to make the play come to life before an audience. In both of these cases, it is clear that the artist is the composer or author, and the orchestra and dramatic company are merely interpreting the work of art.

Twentieth century art forms have made these relationships even more complex. A jazz performance typically starts with a popular song that would normally be considered a work of art on its own, but then creates an elaborate series of improvisations that merely use the composer’s original material as a starting point. John Coltrane’s famous recording of the Rodgers and Hammerstein number, “My Favorite Things,” is a case in point. Coltrane and his band make the song their own, going far beyond mere interpretation of the original piece.

To make matters even more confusing, jazz musicians strive to continually create new embellishments to the original, seeking to never play the same thing twice. Coltrane reworked “My Favorite Things” over his whole career, continually creating new works based on the original song. We can say, therefore, in the case of jazz, that each performance stands as a unique work of art.

Film offers an even more complex situation. The movie To Have And Have Not represents a considerable artistic achievement. It is based on a story by Ernest Hemingway, and its script included work by William Faulkner, so its screenplay included contributions from two of the preeminent American novelists of the 20th century. But its director, Howard Hawks, chose the starting point specifically to prove to Hemingway that he could make a great film from his worst story. And Hemingway admitted that he had written the original story when he was hard-pressed for cash. Faulkner freely admitted that his work as a Hollywood screenwriter was wasted, and was a mere distraction from his real work as a novelist and short story writer. The film features wonderful performances by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, as well as many character actors. So who is the artist, and what is the work of art? In film, it is clear, the resulting movie is more than just an interpretation of the original story, novel or screenplay. And while modern theory credits a film’s director as its auteur, or author, the final work certainly depends on close collaboration by a number of creative individuals working in distinct fields.

A Permanent Record

Woven throughout all these examples are issues of permanence and mutability. While there are clearly some cases where the work of art is transient, as in the case of a jazz performance, there is a distinct bias towards choosing a form that endures without change. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been performed many times, with each performance different, and few recorded in any permanent way. Yet the great bard’s play is immortal, living on throughout the centuries, delighting generation after generation, with appreciation for the work building over time. So we say that the written form of the play is the primary work of art, and Shakespeare is the artist.

Creative Spontaneity vs. Careful Editing

It is tempting to think of great artists as being divinely inspired, of channeling a muse, with finished works of art passionately pouring out of them, all of a piece. Since it is the nature of art to create an organic whole in which all the parts seem to fit perfectly, the illusion is that the work, its parts, and their relationships are timeless and eternal.

Yet when actual artists in almost any field are observed at work, the divine spark is almost always found to be tempered by careful editing. In truth, the creative process includes both activities: raw creation and focused refinement. So most of our greatest works of art have been produced in media that allow such refinement and editing. Shakespeare’s plays could not have been produced from a strictly oral tradition: the final products depended on the ability to write words down, and to rewrite them. Beethoven’s symphonies could not have resulted from musical improvisation during live performances, but depended on the ability to create musical scores. And Howard Hawks’ films were not made from the first takes of every scene, nor without careful post-production editing.

Musical Recording as Work of Art

So in rock music, who is the artist, and what is the work of art? I will argue that, in a way similar to film, the final recording is the primary work of art. More specifically, I will contend that the work of art is a particular track, or cut, or recording of a song.

Part of the reason for this contention is that the track is the only form that lends permanence to the artist’s work. Live performances are transitory. Even when recorded, they are only a snapshot of an artist’s work on a particular night. And, as has been amply proven in recent years, the album, or collection of tracks, has little permanence. After all, as greatest hits collections, boxed sets, and MP3 downloads become available, the one constant is the individual track.

Another reason for asserting the primacy of the track as the unit of artistic production is the ability of an artist to edit his performances in the studio. Prior to rock, musical recordings were primarily snapshots of musical performances that were created away from the studio — the results of musical scores, rehearsals, or live performances. But in rock music we see the artists using the studio itself as the medium of composition. Skeletal ideas are developed in front of the microphones, adding additional details to the starting concept. Additional instruments are added on separate tracks, playing along to recordings, and not to live performances. The resulting music is carefully mixed and edited, sometimes combining pieces of two different performances to create the final work of art.

Alternatives to the Track

Are there other alternative forms that could arguably be the primary ones for works of rock music? I can think of three. The first is the song. I am referring here to the composition that can be written down on paper, usually consisting of lyrics, melody and chord changes. This is in contrast to a track, or a particular recording of a song.

In rock, though, the track has the same relationship to the song as a film has to its screenplay. Both the song and the screenplay are just starting points. In some cases, the original screenplay may be quite literate and reflect much of the vision of the final work. Just as in some cases, the song can be quite moving, even when performed by others. In other cases, screenplay and song can be quite skeletal. Frank Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life, which appears on many critics’ lists of the top films of all time, was based on an original story published as a Christmas card! And many rock songs began as simple riffs, that were fleshed out in the recording process. In both cases, works of the cinema and of rock achieve greatness by adding details to the bare bones of the original composition, details that become inseparable elements of the final work, without which the final work of art could not take form.

Paul McCartney gives an interesting example of the difficulty of transcribing a Beatles recording, indicating the difference between the recorded track and the published song.

Once, when George Martin was figuring out what a particular note was in “A Hard Day’s Night,”… I remember his saying to John: “It’s been a hard day’s night and I’ve been working… Is that a 7th, or another note, or is it somewhere in-between?” John would say, “It’s between those two.” And George would have to put down “blue note” or something. (Beatles 2000)

The second credible alternative to the track as the primary artistic form for rock music is the live performance. And while it is true that many great rock artists were also great live performers, others such as Brian Wilson rarely if ever performed live (at least during the height of his recording career). In any case, live performances lack the advantages of permanency and the ability to edit the final work. We will see that the best rock artists took advantage of both of these attributes of studio recordings.

Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones had this to say about live performances as compared to studio recordings.

People say that [concert] audiences are listening now, but to what? Like the Rolling Stones on stage just isn’t the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra. It’s a load of noise. On record it can be quite musical but when you get to the stage it’s no virtuoso performance. (Rolling Stone)

The third possible alternative to the track would be the album, or CD: a collection of tracks. Certainly many of the best rock artists produced entire albums of good material, and many of these albums had a thematic and musical unity that made them worthy of consideration as works on their own.

This effort to make albums into works of art ultimately resulted in the attempt to produce “rock operas” — collections of songs sharing the same characters, and repeating musical themes from one song to another. While some of these albums produced good tracks, none of them were as compelling in their entirety as other collections that were less strained. The Who’s Tommy, for example, was not as good an album as either the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead or The Band’s self-titled second album.

Ultimately, albums are best considered equivalent to books of poetry. Both are convenient means of publication and distribution, and in both cases the collections may take on lives of their own: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and William Blake’s Songs of Experience come to mind as examples. But in both cases, individual works are often excerpted from the original collections and anthologized in other forms. Most people who have read Blake’s poem, “The Tiger” did so out of an anthology, and have not read all of The Songs of Experience. And when poetry is aesthetically evaluated, it is generally individual poems that are analyzed and appreciated. Similarly, it is the individual tracks, like the individual poems, that must finally stand or fall on their own artistic merit, irrespective of the material that accompanied them on their initial publication.

Phases of Sound Reproduction and Distribution

The evolution of recording technology over the years has resulted in an evolving relationship of the musician to the medium of recorded sound.

Technology Artistic Implications Examples
No recording capability Although music was enjoyed via interpretive performance, music was composed and shared with others only through musical notation, or by passing styles and songs down directly from one generation to another via musical performance, in oral traditions. Classical Music, Folk Music
Early sound recording and reproduction, with distribution via radio and vinyl For the first time, music could be enjoyed and shared via direct sound recordings. Sound quality was not good enough, though, to make a recording a work of art in and of itself. Instead, for listeners, these were poor substitutes when actual live performances could not be enjoyed; for musicians, they were aids to learning another artist's repertoire and styles. Blues, Jazz
Stereo and High-Fidelity For the first time, the quality of the sound reproduced was good enough for the recording to be considered a primary work of art. However, recording technology still required a track to be recorded all at once, so recording engineers and producers were essentially recording live performances under carefully controlled conditions. Later jazz, rock'n roll
Multi-track Tape Recording Multi-track tape allowed different instruments and voices to be recorded on separate channels, introducing the possibility of editing the track between its recording and its final distribution. Rock music

Rock Recordings

Let’s look at some examples of rock artists’ use of the recording studio to produce their works.

To start with, let’s consider the work of Phil Spector in the early sixties. Spector was the most vocal proponent of the producer-as-auteur school of thought. As record producer, he exerted the dominant artistic control over the tracks he produced. Many of the songs he recorded were of relatively little merit on their own. But Spector embellished them with his famous “wall of sound” production techniques, using an army of musicians in the studio, playing classical instruments as well as rock, carefully shaping the sound so that the instruments blended together to create a single sonic effect. Spector even resisted the introduction of stereo recordings, preferring the monolithic effect of his “wall of sound” over the separation of instruments available in stereo.

Spector’s work was among the most influential of the early sixties, and was admired by later artists, including The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys. Yet his work existed, and was appreciated, only as sound recordings. His work could only have been produced in the recording studio. The idea of Spector performing his work live was inconceivable, since the nature of his work, as with a film director’s, lay so much in the particular nuances of a take, and the editing together of the bits and pieces into the final work.

As our next example, let’s look at the later work of The Beatles. By 1967, the group had stopped touring and devoted themselves entirely to making music in the recording studio. On the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as their most extreme example, the individual tracks were elaborate recordings that the group could not possibly have performed live. Not only did they rely on overdubbing — the practice of recording different layers of a recording at different times — they used large groups of classically trained musicians to lay down much of the music. Their efforts were so impressive that fellow artists such as The Jefferson Airplane went back to the studio to do further work on their new albums after hearing The Beatles’ latest effort. The following reflection from Ringo Starr clearly indicates the way in which The Beatles used the recording studio.

Pete [Drake] was in London for George’s album. Somehow he ended up in my car and saw all these country tapes. He said I ought to go to Nashville and do an album. But I thought, “Oh no, I don’t want to go to Nashville for six months.” Because that’s what it used to always take us to do an album — six months.

But Pete said, “What do you mean, six months? We did Nashville Skyline in two days.” Two days? I couldn’t believe it.... (Rolling Stone)

But even if we consider earlier work by The Beatles, it is possible to make a sharp distinction between the songs they wrote and their recordings of them. Lennon and McCartney were skilled pop composers, and their compositions were extensively covered by other performers. Most of the cover versions of their songs, though, were not by other rock musicians, but by older, more mainstream performers. In fact, almost without exception, the hundreds of cover versions based on their work were uniformly awful by rock standards. Whereas The Beatles merely started their creative process with interesting compositions, and then used those songs as the foundations for masterful recordings, pop artists tended to simply showcase the tunes themselves, as if the accompanying instrumentation and vocals were at most mere ornamentation. The results were pretty, at best, but almost never compelling.

Rock musicians avoided covering Beatles tunes, I think, out of respect for the original recordings. They were aware that The Beatles’ own recordings of these songs were so complete and perfect that they left little room for other artists to perform interpretation.

As further examples of the distinction to be made between song and recording, let’s consider a couple of works by the Rolling Stones. In 1969 they released two separate recordings of essentially the same song. One was called “Country Honk,” and was released on the album Let It Bleed, while the other was called “Honky Tonk Women,” and released as a single. Both recordings have essentially the same lyrics, melody and chord structure. Yet the tracks are clearly two different works of art. “Country Honk” is played in a laid-back country style, with acoustic guitars and restrained vocals. The version released on the single is much more dramatic, prominently featuring electric guitars playing the intro, rhythm guitar, and a heavy riff that accompanies the lyrics. It is interesting to note that the Rolling Stones even fly in the face of traditional musical convention by giving the two recordings different names, though they are clearly the same song. This is further indication that the artists themselves considered the two recordings two distinct works of art.

It is also instructive to watch the Jean-Luc Godard film Sympathy for the Devil (an alternate cut of the film is called One Plus One). In it you get to hear the song “Sympathy for the Devil,” from the Rolling Stones album Beggar’s Banquet, as it actually developed in the studio. As you watch and listen, the song evolves from a simple acoustic guitar number into the final form that appeared on record. The transformation is stunning, offering further evidence that the recording is the ultimate work of art being produced, and is much more than just an interpretation of the song.

Recording Studio as Musical Instrument

Rock music was the first in history to rely primarily on a carefully controlled and sonically accurate sound recording as its unit of artistic expression. This new medium liberated artists from the constraints of musical notation. Freed from the necessity to meticulously record their compositions on paper, they were able to focus their creative abilities on the details of the music that could not be recorded in conventional music. The particular sound of an electric guitar, or of a bass drum, became as important as the notes being played. Recordings such as Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” or Phil Spector’s Christmas album, demonstrated how thoroughly the artistry of performer and recording artist could completely transform original compositions into distinctive new works of art. And just as the cinema created a new art form from the old elements of actor and play, rock created a new form based on the old elements of performer and song. In both cases, the ability to control in great detail the presentation of the old elements created new forms, in which artistry found new room for creative expression in these very details: the lighting on an actress’ face, the shadings of a singer’s voice. In the case of the cinema, these were details that could only be captured on film. In the case of rock, these were details that could only be captured in a recording.

Here is how Paul McCartney remembers the period when The Beatles started to make time in their schedules to really stretch out in the recording studio.

It’s as if we were painters who had never really been allowed to paint — we’d just had to go selling our paintings up and down the country. Then, suddenly, we had someone telling us, “You can have a studio and you can paint and you can take your time.” (Beatles 2000)

And here’s how George Harrison remembers some of the opportunities afforded by the recording studios at Abbey Road.

In Studio No. 2 there is a steep staircase that goes up to the control room. Underneath is a cupboard where they used to keep all kinds of different equipment. There were strange tambourines and Moroccan drums and all kinds of little things. The studio itself was full of instruments: pedal harmoniums, tack (jangly) pianos, a celeste and a Hammond organ. That’s why we used all those different sounds on our records — because they were there. So when we’d get to an overdub we’d look around the cupboard and see if there was something that would fit, like the funny drum sound on “Don’t Bother Me.” (Beatles 2000)

Ringo Starr recalls the pioneering use of an Indian sitar on one of their tracks, “Norwegian Wood.”

It was such a mind-blower that we had this strange instrument on a record. We were all open to anything when George introduced the sitar: you could walk in with an elephant, as long as it was going to make a musical note. Anything was viable. (Beatles 2000)

Ringo also remembers the way in which The Beatles’ use of the studio began to evolve as they spent more time there.

He [George Martin, producer] was very good. In the early days he’d had an assistant who’d go through rehearsals with us and George would just come in for the take, to press the tape button. That changed and he was there all the time; and then, as we went on, we would just be playing, and playing great, and we’d say, “Did you get that, George?” I believe we taught George Martin how to keep the tape rolling. He lost that old attitude that you only press the button when you are going to do the take. We began to have the tape rolling all the time and we got a lot of good takes that way. (Beatles 2000)

But creating in the studio was not just a luxury afforded the most successful of rock stars. The Jimi Hendrix Experience worked this way even on their first album, before achieving any kind of financial success, as Sean Egan recounts.

By now, the Experience were settling into an individual recording style. Chandler, nervous of studio costs, had booked them into a rehearsal room... but it quickly became apparent that the Experience didn’t need hours of prior rehearsal: they were more than capable of improvising entire arrangements as they went along. Even so, it was not far short of astonishing that the songs that eventually appeared on Are You Experienced — with the exception of “Hey Joe” on the US release — were never played by the band either live or in a rehearsal situation before they were recorded. (Egan 2002)

So for The Beatles and other rock groups, the studio was becoming more than just a place to capture their live act in pristine conditions. Instead the studio was the place where the primary act of creation took place.

Relationship of Artist to Audience

The other significant impact of the recorded medium is on the relationship of artist to audience.

In earlier musical forms, the primary connection between musical artist and listener was through the medium of live performance. However, the nature of the venues where the music was performed clearly impacted the content of the art. Live performances were almost always in public places, to relatively large audiences. Jazz and blues musicians often performed in bars, or in other venues where their music had to compete for attention with other activities. In many cases, listening audiences were also dancing audiences, and so the rhythms were often more important than the lyrics.

As musicians such as The Beatles began recording, however, they connected to their audiences primarily through their records. No longer was the music fashioned to communicate to a large crowd in a public venue: instead it could be created with the confidence that listening might often be a more personal, private affair.

“Rock does this thing to you,” Lou Reed told me in 1987. “You get directly to someone, unfiltered. This person doesn’t have to go to a movie theatre. This person will be listening, alone, maybe at five in the morning.”

“What was important,” he said of the Velvets’ real agenda, “was the records going out, going out to people. These people were going into their homes and apartments with these records and really listening to them. And we were always writing on a one-to-one level. So if you listen to the record, it’s like somebody sitting across from you.” (David Fricke)


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

Next: New Forms of Collaboration