Jazz, Versificators and the Reformation of The Beatles

Another “lost” post from contributor Nick Haines…

Upon the successful conclusion of my prior post attention will inevitably turn to lovers of jazz.

In a series of public show trials, aficionados of said ‘music’ will be asked to provide some scrap of evidence that there isn’t an equally anti-social trend, with ‘believers’ deserving of the same fate. 😉

In Orwell’s 1984, he mentions how the manufacture of both popular music and prose had been turned over to mechanical contraptions called ‘versificators’. These machines were able to produce an endless stream of low quality, mass-produced pulp that served no purpose other than to keep the proletariat sedated.

The method had no artistic merit; in fact, the aim of the machine’s creators was quite the opposite. A melody would be on everyone’s lips for a week, only to be abandoned forever in favor of some new and equally mindless creation a week later.

This, and much of the rest of the book is of course a crude burlesque yet, like so much else of what Orwell intended to be a simple parody, it’s on the verge of coming true.

To be more accurate, some very intelligent, quite sane and no doubt well-meaning academics, engineers and computer programmers are working on making such machines a reality. Of course it has long been possible for computers to produce ‘original’ music, but it has never caught on as a viable addition (let alone replacement) to more traditional means since it has always lacked ‘the human touch’, for want of a better phrase.

The human brain is a marvelously perceptive piece of kit and is able to spot a phony within seconds. There is something instinctive within us all that just knows when something artificial is foisted upon us. Drum machine manufacturers caught on to this fact some time ago. There was just something too strict and cold in its time-keeping, something unnatural which is why later machines included a ‘human factor’ option, one that added a random element to the rhythm thereby making it feel more natural somehow.

The latest ‘breakthrough’ is this: Aforementioned, well-meaning men have found a way to replicate the exact styles of long dead classical composers, songwriters, guitarists etc. They have found a way to create new material in exactly the same style as the original artist/composer would have played it, and the results are, apparently stunning. Indistinguishable from ‘the real thing’ word has it, and according to the ‘well-meaning men’, opens many intriguing possibilities. I’m sure it does, and I’m equally sure that I feel uncomfortable in the extreme about the prospect.

Of course I could stand accused of being a musical Luddite, a wrecker of looms and all that stuff…(check out History of the British Trade Union movement on Wikipedia if you don’t know what I’m talking about!) I could be accused of feeling threatened by progress and that if machines can do the job just as well as humans, then why not let them?

It just feels like the thin end of a very large wedge.

For a start the record companies could release a succession of hitherto ‘lost’ recordings by say The Beatles or Hendrix, none of which had anything to do with the artists in question but are so accurate and plausible that it’s impossible to disprove their authenticity.

Secondly, the need to sign new acts could become a thing of the past. Why invest mega-bucks in a band or performer who may or may not give you a return eventually? One who will in all probability dry up creatively after the first or second album, or get hooked on drink or drugs or otherwise fuck things up? Why not create an endless conveyor-belt of totally artificial, highly polished and environmentally friendly computer generated pop stars? *(EDITORS NOTE: They already have a computer that does this, Nick. It’s called, “The Simon Cowell”) No need for lawyers either, because avatars don’t sign contracts do they?

Of course the above can be dismissed as hysterical ranting, that whilst the above may in theory be possible, it could never come to pass. After all, there will always be kids picking up guitars and forming bands, right? And what about live gigs…the festival crowds would prevent such a deception taking place…wouldn’t they?

Well, let’s look at the new bands, and kids picking up guitars point. Learning to play an instrument to any kind of standard is a pain, and increasingly few of us want pain in our lives. Far easier to wig-out along to Rock Star/Guitar Hero on your X-Box or PS3 isn’t it? And even finding a place to practice should you meet up with like-minded folk isn’t straightforward any more. The spare rooms and cellars in pubs, community centers etc that were the spawning grounds for a million bands are disappearing rapidly. No, stay at home, muck about on your games console until the creative urge has passed, then order a pizza.

That’s the modern way.

Live performances are no problem. With the advances in 3D technology and computer graphics it would be quite possible for fake bands to take the stage and no-one be any the wiser.

Think about the last gig of any size you went to. How near the stage were you? Can you be 100% certain that the figures on stage were actually the band you paid to see? Can you be absolutely sure they weren’t just a bunch of look-alikes or some hologram beamed via satellite from some record company in down-town Wherever?

Mick and Keef of The Stones won’t be wanting to gig for much longer will they? (Surely they can’t gig for much longer, can they?) Yet knowing the public still wants to see them live, what’s to stop them simply allowing the tekkies to do all the work whilst they take on ever more sedentary lives in their living rooms?

Of course, as ‘new bands’, and by that I mean new ‘art-ificial bands’ take over, so it will become increasingly difficult to tell fact from fantasy or truth from deception. Even more worryingly, I fear we may not even care.

Just because something can be done doesn’t necessarily mean it should be.

Shouldn’t we look at the motives behind the men and their machines? As I said earlier, I have no doubt that the developers of the new versificators are well-meaning and are conducting a perfectly valid and interesting academic study into just how far they can push the boundaries between man and machine. I’m sure that there will be many practical applications, but as sources of new music?

No thanks.

So, if in 80 years time you’re in Row ZZ of the Beatles reunion concert at the Lunar-Dome on Moon Colony 6, and Lennon is about to sing “I wanna hold your hand”, just think for a minute….does he? Could he…really?