We Shape Our Tools…and then…
Jerry Lucky Commentary March 2017
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2017 All Rights Reserved
I recently read a great book by Will Romano simply entitled Prog Rock FAQ, with the sub-title: All that’s left to know about rocks most progressive music. It’s an absolutely great read and probably one of my favorite Prog related books. The book is published by BackBeat and came out in 2014. At 370 pages Romano covers a lot of ground using a variety of essays, commentaries and interviews with prog artists old and new, known and obscure. Lots of great reading and as I say one of my favorites. There is a section in the book where he talks about the band Rush specifically referring to their synthesizer era from 1982 to 1989. This was a time where the guitars began playing second fiddle to keyboards, Romano references some thoughts from the band’s drummer Neil Peart who said something to the effect –and I’m paraphrasing here - “freedom and responsibility are preferable to a reliance on machines.” This observation then prompted a personal comment from Romano who puzzled how Rush could have strayed so far from their musical roots to at that time come to so heavily rely on programmable machines.
Now I have to admit, I’m a fan of this era of Rush. I like keyboards and I liked what Rush was doing with them. I thought it made their overall sound more impactful. None-the-less, it was an interesting comment and it got me thinking once again about how technology has impacted Progressive Rock specifically because more than most genres, I think Prog has always looked to new ways of making new sounds and there is no question technology has a hand to play in this.
Back in about 1987, George Harrison was interviewed for the documentary, It Was Twenty Years Ago Today and during the interview they were talking about the challenge the Beatles had in creating some of the music for the Sgt. Pepper album. Harrison went on to say reflecting on the making of that album twenty years on that, and again I paraphrase that “it was easy, TOO easy (in 1987) to get the sounds you want now.” There is much to think about in Harrison’s comment. In the mid-eighties I was the Production Manager of a small independent FM radio station and we had the simplest of recording equipment to make our commercials. We had the sound board and a couple of Revox tape machines but no rack-mounted processing equipment. Any special effects we had to create came from our own creative ingenuity. For example if we wanted to have the sound of a “slowed-down” voice, I would wrap some tape on the machines capstan drive while making the initial recording which essentially made the tape pass the recording heads faster and then remove the tape for playback making the recorded voice sound slow for effect. I attempted to encourage the staff by saying “there is a special creativity that is born out of adversity.”
To add to this thought-line specifically as it relates to keyboards…Rick Wakeman made some comments in an interview with Record Collector a few years back, suggesting that the seventies were the last time a keyboardist was AHEAD of the technology. In both these cases the “concern” being expressed, if indeed it was a concern, was that the artist, the creator of the music was no longer in as complete a control of the creative process as they once were. Now the musician was having to deal with technology in a different way and in some cases the technology was perhaps leading the creative process. So off the top of my head I thought about just a very few specific areas where this march-of-invention has impacted the musical creative process.
I don’t think it’s much a stretch to suggest that keyboards have seen the biggest impact of new technology. I remember a synthesizer I bought in the mid-eighties had a “guitar” sound setting. How much it actually sounded like a guitar (either acoustic or electric) depended on how well you played the keyboard like a guitar. In some ways keyboards even replaced the bass guitar either with the actual keyboard or with bass peddles. Take a band like Saga for example that has used both. Sure they still have a bass player…but it could just as easily be programmed. Even drums have taken to technology as midi technology has allowed all kinds of sounds to be triggered by drum technique or special gear. I’ll never forget watching a Steve Hackett video concert with my daughter and there is a part in the song “Circus of Becoming” where the drummer uses electronic pads to trigger sounds…I’ll never forget the thought I had watching it for the first time…wow, THAT’S how they did that. Now again these are just a very few examples where the technology has impacted the creation of the music in some ways allowing musicians to do things or create sounds they could not have done a few short years before.
I’m pretty sure you can come up with your own examples of technology’s impact on the musical creative process, but even with these few it’s easy to recognize the impact changing technology has had on keyboards, bass guitar and drums. Yet in many ways this barely scratches the surface because now technology allows all of the sounds produced by these instruments to be crafted by one person! The one-men-band never sounded so good. Again how good depends on the skill of the creator. Interestingly the one instrument that has been impacted the least seems to be the guitar. Sure it makes more sounds than ever before and can also be used to trigger midi effects or even keyboards…but there seems to be no replacing the guitar.
So what’s my point here because there will be a good many out there who will suggest the genie has been let out of the bottle and we can’t turn back the clock to ignore the technological developments that have taken place. And while all of that is true I think it misses one very important aspect of the creative process – the aspect of choice. Just because we have the technology doesn’t mean we have to use it. We can choose to use as much of technology as we want in the creative process. But I’m not here to say which is better. Some of the new technology I like and some I don’t, but that’s just me. In the end it comes back to the skill of the person creating the music.
By the way, the title of this commentary is a rough quote from Canadian Media Professor Marshal McLuhan and it’s a favorite of mine because it says so much about us. Let me complete the quote for you: “We shape our tools and then Our Tools Shape Us! (emphasis mine)That’s a very profound observation he made back in the sixties and yet never more relevant than today. Down through history we’ve created all kinds of technology and in almost every case after we’ve shaped that “thing” it has gone on to shape us…to change us in some fashion. Sometimes that change has been for the good and sometimes not. At least that’s what I think.