Christmas 2017 – Still Stuck in the 1960s

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 25, 2017

Much can be revealed about myself from examining my Christmas presents this year.

  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – Blu-ray
  • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) – 2-CD 50th Anniversary edition
  • The Complete Monterey Pop (1967) – 3-disc Blu-ray edition
  • Trouble No More by Bob Dylan – live recordings 1979-1981

I already own various versions of these works. This is the fourth time I’ve acquired Sgt. Peppers (LP, CD, remastered CD, and now remastered again 2-CD).


I wish I could say my wife knew me well enough to have picked these out, but they were all put on my Xmas-2017 wishlist at Amazon by me. Susan actually knows what I like, she just can’t keep up with what I buy. All the other items on my wishlist, except the Arduino starter kit, were pop culture items from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Is being stuck in the past a sad state of psychology, or just normal for a 66-year-old guy? One reason why I keep rebuying the past is to get higher resolution recreations of art  I resonated with from my teen years. I generally never got to experience the Sixties directly except for a few exceptions. For example, I got to see Cream live on their Farewell Tour in 1968 in Miami. I never got to see The Beatles, The Byrds, or The Beach Boys in the 1960s. I didn’t attend Monterey Pop or Woodstock. I got to see a lot of legendary bands in the 1970s and later, even ones who got their start in the 1960s, but that’s not the same.

Until I started getting Rolling Stone Magazine in 1968, most of my news of rock and roll pop culture was highly delayed. It was mostly gossip told by DJs or news items in Life, Time, or on television. The Beatles were always in the news. Most of my favorite bands didn’t make it to television except for cheesy fake performances on The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971), American Bandstand (1952-1989), Shindig! (1964-1966), Hullabaloo (1965-66), The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-1969). I remember one time catching a great segment on Jefferson Airplane on the Today Show, where they demonstrated the liquid light show. Made me want to run away to San Francisco.

In a way, buying these old recordings is like trying to return to the past. I know that’s impossible. Maybe a better way of looking at it is to say I admire artwork from a particular era. That too is revealing. I feel closest to all forms of pop culture from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I also love work from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and stuff from the 1980s through today, but there’s a powerful affinity for art created for us Baby Boomers. I’m in-sync with modern television and movies but completely out-of-sync with the contemporary music scene. (Maybe I’ll catch up one day before I die.)

It’s interesting that one of my Christmas gifts is from the 1979-1981 era when Bob Dylan was going through his Christian phase. Back then I bought Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981) as they came out. I even saw Dylan live during this time period. But I didn’t feel for this era Dylan like I did for 1964-66 Dylan or 1961-1963 Dylan. Listening to this new bootleg series of 1979-1981 performances I realized I had missed out on something great. Dylan had left me behind, and now I’m catching up.

Am I really hearing the 1960s again? This time when I played the new version of Sgt. Peppers it was both the same and subtly different. In 1967 when I first heard the album, I played the LP on my little console stereo. That technology defined the sound for back then. Today I played it on a Denon AV receiver through four floor standing Infinity speakers. The sound filled the room and Susan and I felt like we were in the middle of the soundstage.

I’ve always admired Sgt. Peppers as a concept album, and loved many of its songs, but I’ve never played them heavily in repeat fashion like I do all my favorite tunes. Sgt. Peppers feels like a music hall performance that needs to be listened to from start to finish. It never sounded better than it did today. This remastered edition felt airier than the last remastered edition, and I thought in a few places I heard things that weren’t there before. Of course, that’s probably tricks of memory. I rediscovered once again what a wonderful work of art this album represents for The Beatles and the 1960s. Just buying Sgt. Peppers again and taking the time to listen to it intently with no interruptions makes it worth the dollars.

Merry Christmas! What did Santa bring Y’all?


Beyond the iPod

Because the iPod and iTunes has had such a fantastic impact on the music industry, I have to wonder if another industry shaking revolution like it is possible?  I’m reading The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria, where he praises the U.S. for economic innovation, so I assume for us to stay ahead of the pack we’ll have to keep inventing new tech to market.  We’ve seen a lot of technological change in the last 50 years, but does that mean we’ll see constant growth in the next 50 years?

And will other emerging capitalistic markets start beating us at our own game?  Zakaria claims that America is not declining but the rest of the world is rising.  That means both new markets and new competitors.  But will anyone anywhere create another product like the MP3 player to change the marketing of music again?

I remember the days before video recorders – where few people saw the advent of the VHS revolution coming, but once it was underway it was very easy to accept a steady stream of new tech acronyms like CD, PC and DVD.   The MP3 was even more revolutionary and economically disturbing because music moved from physical objects to bits, bytes and electrons.  There was no need for any of these inventions other than convenience, which shoots down that old theory about necessity being the mother of invention.  We’re now into the HD and Blu-Ray upheavals.

I originally started collecting music by buying 45s and LPs.  Then I had to start over with CDs.  And for a short while a few years ago I had started moving to SACDs.  I’m hesitant to make another move, but I’ve finally committed to the MP3 format.  The question is, will I have buy my favorite songs all over again in another format in the future?

But back to my questions about iPods.  Assuming that the iPhone is really an iPod merged with two other revolutionary technologies, a cell phone and a computer, is there theoretically room for a new paradigm shifting music device?  If Steve Jobs sanctioned subscription music there would be a slight bump in the iPod road, but not much.  People would still be listening to music with white plastic buds in their ears.  Once you get rid of the physical media where is there room to invent?   Sure, we could talk science fiction and imagine ESP delivered music, but we have to stay somewhat realistic.

Maybe I’m not imaginative enough, but no matter how much I rack my brains I can’t imagine a new gadget for music.  I can imagine variations on the current iPod, lots of them in fact, but they’re all just improvements:  larger hard drive, larger flash memory, better sounding headphones, tiny built-in Hi-Fi speakers, SACD quality files, better filing systems, but nothing that offers drastic change.  I feel the same about personal computers and televisions.  Once you go beyond the physical medium of DVDs like DVRs, improvements are more of a matter of storage space and video quality.

Gadget junkies are going to need to look elsewhere for big society-changing technology.  Before long I think the geekiest of geeks will be buying home solar power generators.  If you can generate a significant portion of your own power, getting into a plug-in hybrid cars is the next gizmo that’s going to change society.  Now those two technologies are going to be huge game changers.  It will be like the iPod – you won’t need to buy that much gas to run your car – or at least not much compared to how things are now, and the secondary fuel may not even be gasoline.  See the trend – away from the physical.  Think 1950s movie science fiction where all the aliens did everything with glowing balls.

Mechanical evolution is moving towards fewer moving parts (hard drive to flash drive) and away from the physical (CD to MP3).   Electric cars have a lot fewer moving parts, and fewer parts in general.  Solar energy panels, LCD TVs, iPhones don’ have any moving parts.  If computers move to flash memory storage and became completely net oriented, they could even jettison the optical drive, and the only moving parts would be in the keyboard.

There’s a chance that Blu-Ray won’t even catch on because we’ve already gone beyond the physical with online movies and DVRs.  I would buy a Blu-Ray player now if it was $99.95 and get discs from Netflix, but if they don’t bring down the price soon they will have competing products that distribute HD video over the web, or cable companies will figure out a way to distribute HD programs on demand.  Cable companies are already teamed up with Rhapsody and other subscription music services to provide songs on demand.

My guess is the end is near for revolutionary gadgets for music, movies, television, audio books, e-books and other media that can be digitized.  What we will see is refinement in software.  Putting a cell phone, GPS, camera, computer into an iPod styled package isn’t revolutionary, just evolutionary.  What makes the new iPhone 3G so exciting is the software.  Now that the iPhone is opened up to developers it becomes very promising for endless speculation of what it could be, but it’s still the same old gadget.  That’s why Google saw the Android phone as such a big deal – open development – build it and they will come.

If a person could ask his iPod to play the ten most played songs on iPods in America during the last 24 hours, that would effect the music industry.  If she could ask for the top iPod songs from Russia, India or Dubai, that could have a new kind of impact too.  Or if you’re on a road trip and could ask your iPod to play the most popular songs of the towns you are passing, that would be another interesting variation.  The Zune song sharing feature is very cool and Apple and others should copy it.

All those features effect the distribution of music, making music more global and making it more social.  Sheet music was the technology for spreading music in the early days.  The first gadget to change the world of music was the phonograph.  Then came the radio, creating the mass audience.  To understand the impact of radio watch Ken Burn’s Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, which you can buy from Amazon or rent from Netflix, but if you want even more details, track down the out-of-print book by the same title written by Tom Lewis.   The phonograph went through many refinements including the CD, but ultimately, the ethereal MP3 player replaced it.

At first the MP3 file technology, combined with technology to play the file set music free.  Bad for the industry.  The goal of the music industry is to sell music as widely as possible.  Illegally free MP3 music has a wide distribution, but it’s not necessarily the best way to promote music.  Kid’s pretty much stole what they already liked.  Radio has always been the best medium to educate people about new music, and it’s always been free too, because it came with programming and promotion.

What will be the next big revolution in the music industry won’t be a gadget but software.  The networked computer part of the iPhone and iPod Touch has the ability to promote music in ways never possible before.  Whether you buy songs 99 cents at a time, or subscribe to them at $15 a month, getting you to commit ear time to a song is the dream of all musical artists.  People have complained about the stale rotation of Top 40 music for decades, but with a world of hundreds of countries and thousands of cultures, and all their musical history, there’s a lot of music to discover and play.

Let’s say you want to get into music history, wouldn’t it be fun to tell your iPod to start with 1950 and begin playing the Top 100 Hits of that year and move forward in time, and then use your click wheel to rate the songs.  Or buy a future edition of “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” from the Teaching Company and have it play full pieces while it instructs you about the history of music?  Or buy a special edition of Richie Unterberger‘s history of folk rock and whenever you hear the narrative mention a song, it pauses to play the song.

Just remember, it’s not about the iPod stupid, it’s about music.  What we want is great music.  What we want is for as many composers, performers, producers and publishers to become wealthy or at least make a good living as possible.  We want music to stimulate the economy.  We want it to be a driving force in culture and art.  Every decade needs their own Beatles, Springsteen, Madonna and Prince.  Modern pop music is produced like candy and not art.  It needs more new waves like Rap and Hip-Hop before they got tired like rock, jazz and country.

I’m willing to call it quits with the development of MP3 music technology.  I don’t need any more convenience.  What I miss is the excitement I got from music back in the 1960s when I was growing up.  What I love is discovering a new song that I’ll play over and over again for two weeks.  It’s been a long time since I’ve found such a song.  Susie and I are watching The Beatles Anthology, an eight part DVD documentary and it’s riveting.  I don’t need or want a new generation of iPods, what I want is the new Beatles.