The news that Pink Floyd will release a new album this October shocked me so much that I could barely breathe. My thoughts raced, comparing the possibilities. Although I had just stopped at the library to do some rarely available quiet-time work, I knew that the first thing I would do was to look up the news on the internet to confirm it. It was the first thing I talked to my kids about over dinner, and I made sure they were sitting down before they heard the news. I was really glad that I had not heard the news before the lunch date I had just come from, since I would have talked of nothing other than Floyd. That probably would have been the end of that friendship.
My first set of thoughts was basically “Is Roger going to be on this album? Are they seriously going to produce an album of new material with Roger? What would that sound like?” Right away I realized that this was a ridiculous idea. Roger would totally swamp the other members beyond the point of having them there. Roger Waters has been doing his own thing for close to thirty years, and has made it clear that although he’s willing to reunite with members of the old lineup, he’s not trying to be Pink Floyd anymore. I’ve seen him perform twice, and it was mostly Pink Floyd material, but it was clearly the Rogerest of the Pink Floyd repertoire (in fact, once it was The Wall).
These thoughts of “reunion” vanished when I looked up the news and found that instead of a reunion they were actually doing something far more interesting. They still have material from the Division Bell sessions, including songs written by the late Rick Wright. After thinking about Roger, I immediately thought “Oh, how are they going to do things without Rick?” He will be there in Notorious B.I.G./Nat King Cole form, it sounds.
Sadly, before I found the actual news article, the first search items returned were a bunch of articles about people whining over a new Pink Floyd album. Pink Floyd, much more than other rock groups, seems to be subject to this kind of complaining from so-called fans. When Led Zepplin reunited with John Bonham’s son on drums, people didn’t complain, they said “Wow, now we can hear more than Page and Plant.” Nobody seemed to notice when Natalie Merchant left 10,000 Maniacs, and when David Byrne accused the remaining members of Talking Heads of fooling the audience, I remember their fans saying “That’s sad; he’s not the whole band.” So Roger definitely helped this happen with Pink Floyd by not only giving interviews about Momentary Lapse of Reason, but by suing Nick Mason and David Gilmour. I was glad that he decided to patch things up for Live 8, but fans don’t ever need to get involved in that kind of behavior.
Here’s why: musicians are not static entities, and neither are rock bands. Musicians are people, for one thing, and artists for another. They like to try new things, experiment and they don’t stop working, especially not when they have the creative skills of members of Pink Floyd. Musicians are always trying to produce something beautiful, and they would do it no matter what label you slapped on it. Consider that David Gilmour has been a member of other groups, and lent his studio and guitar skills to some of my other favorite artists, like Bryan Ferry and Kate Bush, and produced two (no wait, three) solo albums that are also great to listen to. Nick Mason and David Gilmour (and once Rick Wright) have twice toured as David Gilmour’s solo band, rather than Pink Floyd. The Division Bell is a great album: it increases the dynamic and harmonic range of one of the most dynamically and harmonically challenging rock bands, and also has moments of drama and comedy. The fact that it was the subject of a bitter feud between two people who you’ve never met has little to do with the content of the music (although one of the songs does come awfully close to making this matter).
When people complain about a new album not having the lineup they want, they are not complaining about music. I have always been puzzled by people at concerts who are not listening to the music, but might be looking at the stage persona of the performers (most of them are facing away from the stage or drinking beer). For many people, rock and roll is not at all about listening to the music itself, but about personalities. Again, I say, the personalities involved rarely have an effect on the music, save for changing the personnel that produces the music. I got over the lineup problem a long time ago when I realized that even in bands valued for their lineup, e.g. The Beatles, their albums contained scores of other performers, some of whom are very skilled, and some who are never credited. What matters is the content of the music, and it’s sure interesting who produces that, but it’s not the most important thing. Music is not baseball.
Imagine if Floyd had (a) “stayed together for the kids” and (b) kept on producing sequels to Dark Side of the Moon. They could have done The Darker Side of the Moon, followed by The Even Darker Side of the Moon. But they didn’t. None of their albums sound quite similar when listened to carefully. The only two that are fairly similar are Animals and Wish You Were Here, but neither of those sound anything like Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall. Do you want them to? If I’m really on a DSOTM kick, I can listen to the original, bootlegs and recent live versions. I don’t need the band to reunite so I can have more versions of a masterpiece.
Then there’s the question of authenticity: some people would claim that only the original lineup is worth being called Pink Floyd. Again, Roger actually made this claim. For some people only Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett is the real Pink Floyd. Now come on! I was puzzled with yet another reporter referring to Pink Floyd as a “psychedelic rock” band, which they haven’t been since 1968. This is just an extreme form of golden-age thinking.
All of these claims and complaints ignore the fact that the people involved don’t need to listen to your idea of what they should do. And again, I don’t think you would want them to. How could they produce anything interesting if they were doing it by polling their fans? Real artists surprise people, and I applaud Pink Floyd for doing just that. Roger Waters surprised me by how he put on the shows I saw — I never expected to hear “Dogs” live and I would have been disappointed if he had just replayed The Wall they way I listened to it at home. No, instead I got to see G.E. Smith and Snowy White on the same stage. I never expected that.
As for me, I’m still digesting what David Gilmour did in the eighties. I haven’t even gotten to his later solo work or work with Elton John and B.B. King. He was also a member/producer of Arcadia and Dream Academy, and I still don’t have any of their albums. The chance to hear new work from David Gilmour and Nick Mason together is a great opportunity, especially when I had thought it would never happen. Why bother to complain? Anybody who complains thinks they want Pink Floyd to be what they were in the seventies. However, if you had a time machine and could go see them, you’d probably be shocked at what you saw. It would probably far surpass your expectations in terms of great music and a great show, just guessing from the bootleg recordings that were available. However, a Pink Floyd record on its own is also a work of art that you can listen to any time, and there’s no reason that Nick Mason, David Gilmour, or Roger Waters need to produce another one. However, it’s awfully nice that they will, so let’s not complain.
Here’s an interesting idea: let’s not charge our customers an exhorbitant amount of money for a mediocre product! Music lovers have always known that compact discs cost about $0.25 to produce, and therefore paying more than seventy-two times their production cost has never made sense. However, adding another order of magnitude of stupidity, record executives have been screaming like victims for over ten years, and threatening their customers over peer-to-peer file sharing putting a dent in their profits.
My favorite example comes from a personal (or should I say “impersonal?”) experience: I’m sittin’ at my desk mindin’ my own business one day and receive an email on the local bluegrass music mailing list from Ken Irwin, the founder and president of Rounder Records. Ken was very excited to tell all of us that the Japanese government had sentenced a man to prison time for file sharing. His message was basically “Thank you Japanese government! This is what should happen to people who steal my money!” with the news article attached. How would you react to that? I took it as a threat, and even if it wasn’t, I emailed him back to tell him he was an asshole and I thought he was above such stupid record-executive behavior.
I got a slew of replies saying “Hey, Ken’s a nice guy,” and people willing to agree with him that file-sharing was the problem that was failing to put enough Sushi in Ken Irwin’s mouth. I reminded these people that I handn’t bought a compact disc in years because I DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY. Nor have I paid to download music from $Tunes because on-the-whole downloaded music sounds terrible. In other words, music lovers know that downloading music is not an alternative to buying physical media, however they are still not buying physical media because it costs too much money. It’s not worth it. It’s one thing to buy a Mobile Fidelity digital remaster on vinyl for $60 if you have the right equipment; it’s quite another to pay $18 for a CD that sounds terrible no matter what.
I would rather pay $5 for an amazing sounding record, or a used CD, explore my existing record collection, or use Youtube as an internet jukebox (it sounds like $hit, but it’s free, all I’m losing is musical credibilty). I’m not downloading music peer-to-peer and I’m still not contributing money to the record industry. The other problem is that I can’t buy new CDs because I can’t shop for them: (a) I have little kids who can’t really shop with me, and shopping is half the fun, and (b) the stores barely carry the music I would buy. They hardly carry any music half as old as me (i.e. most of what I listen to).
All of this would be immaterial if the price just went down. If all I had to pay was $1.99, I would go to Amazon.com right now and buy Kate Bush’s first three albums and willingly pay shipping. That’s $12.00 for at least two hours of absolutely brilliant music that would last me for decades. Then I’m giving plenty of money to these recording industry jerks. To do the same with current CD prices, I would be spending a significant part of the week’s groceries, and my family needs to eat more than I need good-sounding Kate Bush media. As Rob Dickens stated (finally!) this is exactly the problem:
“If we lived in a micro-economy, that wouldn’t be a decision,” he added. “You’d just say ‘I like REM’ and you’d buy it.”
The article continues:
Dickens pointed out how albums had become sort of an afterthought for artists in terms of profits a long time ago, Prince having given away copies of his last album for free with various European newspapers and magazines.
Let us also not forget that artists only earn $23.40 for every $1,000 in album sales.
This last statement reminds me of the costs the record industry has really paid for their stupid tactics. The costs of adopting victimhood is losing credibility, and denial — but of course the victims don’t realize that. The other cost is that the real music industry (that is, people who actually make music) has gone to a local level, artists are distributing music on their own terms, and fans are able to connect with their favorite artists through the web.
And since artists are able to have their say when they distribute their own products, vinyl is making a comeback (again). It turns out that musicians love vinyl just about as much as they love making good music. That’s what musicians care about. If they can make enough money to live on and play music, they are happy; just ask The Grateful Dead (they would have been satisfied to make a lot less, actually!).
This morning I heard “Unforgiven” by Metallica on the local modern rock station, and I was struck by how much Metallica were at their best at the time they recorded that song. We all had our feelings about “The Black Album” and how we yearned to be rid of Bob Rock at the time, but as a much better informed, more mature listener, I must say that the quality of the recording and the arrangement is superb. The thought occurred to me that there are different ways to be at your best, and that Metallica in 1991 was at their best because they knew they were good. Metallica in 1989 was at their best precisely because they did not realize how good they had gotten.
Metallica in 1989 had recovered from the loss of one of their original members in a tragic accident, had hired a new, really good bass player, and had finally made the leap into what might be called mainstream visibility. One of the nice things about Metallica pre-1989 (and yes, I remember but I was only 10) was that although everybody knew they were the biggest speed metal band in the world — and often credited with single-handedly inventing the style — they did not do interviews, they did not do videos and they did not pander to anyone. Remember that this was a day in which every show on MTV was required to have music videos in it. This was what was so ironic and obviously contrived about Metallica being named an “MTV Icon.” Yeah, right!
Out of the pressure of watching one of their friends (and a critical element of the band’s sound) die in front of their eyes, and struggling to keep going, Metallica produced what will always be my favorite album …And Justice for All . This album was a huge success, again on Metallica’s terms, and then on top of their normal success, they made a video, something people thought they would never do. It was, of course like everything else they did, a magnificent work of art over ten minutes long. “One” was the biggest song of the year, at least in my fifth-grade world, and notoriously passed over for a Grammy, which instead went to Jethro Tull: a great band, but nobody remembers that song, do they? The important thing is to listen to the whole album and hear how the mostly-genius material on the album is laid out: the title track is basically a jam, executed in characteristic tight Metallica fashion; something that Metallica excelled at were songs that sounded totally fluid and totally rigid at the same time. Above all the quality of the recording was impeccable, at a time when all of us were listening on cassettes: you could hear the beater on the bass drum head precisely when Lars wanted you to hear it. Absolute genius all around. Pressure produced a jewel.
“The Black Album” in contrast, was a shock to us Metallica fans since it contained mostly one riff per song. What the fuck? Where was the complexity that led us to believe Metallica were above every other band in popular music, and liken them more often to Wagner and Verdi? Where was their devotion to speed metal ideals? Nevertheless, something that we all agreed on was that the music was still good: really, really good.
Consider that both these albums are masterpieces but they mark a turning point in the careers of this group of artists. For …And Justice for All Metallica was mostly concerned with doing well in a situation that they would not have chosen and despite all that they produced a masterpiece. They knew what they were doing to some extent, no doubt; however I believe that they weren’t fully conscious of their capability to produce a masterpiece. It was intentional, but at the same time it just happened. It was a retroactive masterpiece. In contrast The Black Album was a fully consciously designed, well-done piece.
If you think about it, this sort of thing is fairly common in artists, particularly musicians, who come to achieve mastery in some way. David Gilmour of Pink Floyd has stated that “we were really crap when we started” probably referring, not to before Syd Barrett left the band, when they were definitely crap, but right after: between A Saucerfull of Secrets and Atom Heart Mother. They weren’t terrible, but they did their best and produced some really great music despite learning along their way. By the time Meddle came out, I believe Pink Floyd were fully aware of their own capabilities. There are notable exceptions: Kate Bush has widely been regarded as a masterpiece of her own since before she released her first album, despite her style changing radically a few times. Then there are the people who record critics automatically regard as masters, who produce masterful works once in a while, like Bruce Springsteen. Then, of course, there are groups who never have a chance to do anything else, like The Sex Pistols.
Hearing “Unforgiven” brought up all these thoughts mostly because right now I feel like scientists can go through the same thing. Right now I feel like a total failure as a scientist. However, I feel like we can never know really what a particular time will produce and the best we can do is our best, and hope that the future will produce some reward for that. Jerry Garcia described an experience in The Grateful Dead Movie where he was playing on a particular night where he felt like “everything was a struggle.” He described getting really pissed off from feeling like a terrible guitar player and throwing Phil Lesh down a small flight of stairs. Then he listened to tapes of that night a few weeks later and was astonished to find that the band was on fire! In his words “the music was crackling with energy.” I thought it was interesting at the time, but much more interesting after I experienced the same thing, with the exception of throwing the bass player down a flight of stairs. I have had many performances where I felt like the worst banjo player in the world, like I should just give up and I was embarrassing myself; then I listen to a recording and think “Wow, these guys are really good!”
Basically I’m saying I don’t know what my scientific career will say about my time in grad school. Perhaps I will always view it as a colossal waste of time where I spent more time on clever, philosophical blog postings than in working on my research. However, it could be the opposite: I don’t know. The best I can do is keep at it and go through the motions when I’m finished. Who can know what reward the future holds for the work we’re doing right now? Who the hell knows going in to graduate school what he’ll have accomplished at the the end?
I just hope that after working hard in graduate school, working hard after mastering something at a postdoc, that I won’t put out the scientific equivalent of Load as a young assistant professor.
Postscript: I originally peopled this post exclusively with Wikipedia links just as a product of laziness, then in the spirit of the post realized how masterful it was, since Metallica and particularly Lars Ulrich have totally screwed their fans and declared themselves enemies of freedom.
Check out this awesome piece of audio. People don’t make records that sound like this any more: wait, yes they do. At least people called my brother. Even on Youtube this sounds like a fresh piece of vinyl. I love it!
I may need to start a new blog for music!
My favorite media player right now is Totem or “Movie Player” as it appears in the menus. I’ve been listening to music at work using Totem for weeks now and I like it better than Rhythmbox or Amarok, or any of the mpd or xmms2 clients.
My other major music player has been Mozilla Firefox, where I can look up plenty of videos with good sound quality on Youtube. My current favorite performer, Kate Bush, has tons of live performances and videos on Youtube with (as I said) good sound quality. Not great, but listenable. The biggest problem, however, is that I can’t use my keyboard “media” buttons to control the videos in any more than the volume, and pausing them requires switching to another desktop. This wouldn’t be so if Youtube hadn’t done away with the popup player; they’ve brought it back for some videos, but it doesn’t quite work the way it used to, which was annoying. At least with the popup player I could search videos from a small window and keep them on the same virtual desktop as my work. This is not so much so I can see Lady Gaga prancing around, but just to be able to control the videos and maintain my precious economy of motion.
However, today I discovered the Youtube plugin for Totem. I can’t even remember what I was looking for — I think it was visualizations — but “yum search totem” turned up the Youtube plugin, and away I went:
# sudo yum install totem-youtube
(remember that I’m using Fedora). Now you can search and play Youtube videos directly from Totem, play and pause them with the media buttons. Excellent!
Check out this beautiful video of people in Peru speaking about what they are gaining from the One Laptop Per Child program. I am really glad that this video doesn’t portray these children as “consumers,” especially since there are people in this world who see OLPC as just another business opportunity (i.e. a niche market).
See if you can recognize the music!