Volume 32 Number 8
[Don't Get Me Started]
Salt and Pepper
By David Platt | August 2017
We’re currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of the classic Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (SPLHCB). Its beautiful strains brighten my office atmosphere as I write these words. Other writers may address its groundbreaking musical effects (see the interview with the recording engineer at bit.ly/2rEetU0), or its place in the evolution of rock music. Or its spoofs, from Doonesbury (bit.ly/2sjceHR) to National Lampoon (bit.ly/2sHvCAN). But contemplating Sgt. Pepper today makes me notice the ways in which changes in listening technology have driven changes in musical artistry.
At the time of SPLHCB’s release, essentially all music was sold on LP albums. You had to buy the whole package, and listen to all of its songs sequentially. The progression to cassette tapes and then to CDs didn’t change that constraint. Therefore, the artist had to carefully compose the sequence of songs on the album, as their influence on each other was inescapable. The Beatles placed George Harrison’s introspective, sitar-laden “Within You, Without You” ahead of Paul McCartney’s whimsical “When I’m Sixty-Four,” driven by its trio of clarinets. Reversing that order would have induced entirely different feelings in even a casual listener. They carefully slotted Ringo’s “With a Little Help From My Friends” into the second track, where it would do the least damage, and gave it introductory applause effects to pre-dispose the audience’s perceptions toward approval.
The digital revolution—the liberation of pure thought-stuff from the profane physical medium on which it resided—undid these artistic decisions. Online stores such as iTunes and Amazon sold individual songs, so you didn’t have to buy the bad ones. Any listener could easily rip CDs to disk, composing playlists that mixed and matched tracks and artists in any order. We lost that part of the artist’s intention.
And that liberation/loss doesn’t solely affect the album’s song sequences. It also ripples through the content of individual songs. An artist releasing an album today can’t know which track the listener is hearing before or after any song. Therefore, each song needs to be an island unto itself, rather than part of an artistic whole. How can anyone compose or play the final orchestral crescendo in “A Day in the Life” (bit.ly/1LLne4Z), terminating in the world’s most famous piano chord, without intending to signal the end of the larger work to which it belongs? (That remains my biggest dilemma on playing Sgt. Pepper from end to end: What the heck do I play next?)
Sometimes this liberation from pre-imposed order is good. When I search Spotify for an artist, it will by default play a shuffle of that artist’s most popular tunes. If I’m introducing my daughters to the Grateful Dead, that’s not such a bad thing. But sometimes it’s not so good: allowing them to reach the age of majority without experiencing the spare, wandering piano at the end of Bruce Springsteen’s “Incident on 57th Street” segueing straight into the first crashing chords of “Rosalita” would be abdicating my duty as a parent. They ask me, “Daddy, what was all the fuss about the Beatles’ White Playlist?” and I’m not sure what to tell them. Some things are worth digging for.
I can hear you thinking: Plattski, you always were a Luddite in this industry, failing to worship technology for its own sake as we all do, insisting on a practical benefit before you’d jump on any bandwagon (see, for example, my March 2016 column, “The Internet of Invisible Things,” msdn.com/magazine/mt683803). But now you’re going positively Amish on us. Your nostalgia for the original artistic sequences is like an old jeweler moaning over the loss of those beautiful metal components in a mechanical watch, when a simple quartz oscillator keeps far better time for a tenth of the price.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t make your own playlists, I certainly make mine. (Try my Trop Rock playlist that Spotify automatically exports to my Facebook page.) But the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper reminds me to carefully examine the original artists’ chosen sequence and content, especially for albums which predate easy ripping and self-composition. I expect some cheers for this idea now, and even more in two years, when we celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Abbey Road.”
David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.