But if you really want to know why PBS is evil let me offer Exhibit A: American Masters. To Wit: Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built
I flipped over to one of my local PBS stations during a commercial break in Heroes and caught the beginning of the American Masters documentary on Atlantic Records. I got so sucked into it that I never went back to Heroes.
A 90-minute documentary about making music? I. Am. So. There.
Sure, it was a little bit of a fluff piece on Atlantic Records and Ahmet Ertegün in particular, but overall it just comes up awesome.
Of note that was glossed over: A lot of the the R&B artists (primarily black artists) had to fight like hell to get the money owed them — not just from Atlantic but also from other record companies. Also glossed over, Atlantic's raid via legal loophole on Stax Records during the 60s, and Ahmet's womanizing and drug use to an extent.
But know what? I don't care. The documentary was made of pure awesome.
Of course, I'm also an unabashed fangurl of the early Atlantic R&B sound so maybe I'm hella biased on this score. And seeing Atlantic start in its one-room studio with a roster of blues acts almost entirely made up of black solo artists and groups and on to its inclusion as part of the Time-Warner empire was riveting television. And I mean riveting.
Hearing those vintage recordings reminds you of just how much we've lost (sound-wise) with CDs. There's a depth of sound, or maybe I mean a "fatness" to it, that really brings out the soul of the performance. There's no technical perfection here, but that's not to say that the recordings themselves aren't perfect. The recording rises — or falls — on the performance itself and that's where the perfection lies. I'm not saying the engineers didn't employ their own tricks, but the technology was there to serve the performer and not the other way around (if that makes any sense).
What I'm trying to say is this: Upon listening to the music, you could honestly believe that the music itself had a soul that was separate and distinct from the individuals involved in creating it. Almost like, I dunno, that a group soul somehow got formed in the recording studio that was greater than the sum of its parts and captured for posterity.
And now I sound crazy. I should just buy my 100 cats now and go with it.
It's one of those 90-minute documentaries that lifts you up, not just because of the music, but also because you're listening to the monsters of British Invasion rock turn into drooling fanbois over these otherwise obscure (at least today) performers. I swear that Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Jimmy Page could recite chapter and verse what note was played by a particular blues guitarist at a specific concert — these guys know their shit and they worship musicians that most of us never even heard of. At the time I was watching the documentary I was shocked.
Yet on reflection, I probably shouldn't have been. I supposed even rock gods have to worship at someone's altar, hunh?
But in another way, the documentary was somewhat depressing. There are performers out there with the potential to capture that same warmth, that same sense of musical soul, but thanks to technology and increasingly compressed recording techniques the only way to find it is to hear it live and direct from a concert stage.
And even then, they might be lip syncing.
Lemme tell you something: None of these dude and dudettes were pretty (although Aretha Franklin was a stone cold fox in the 60s...Jesus I'd've switched teams for her in a heartbeat), but what they lacked in pin-up material they more than made up for it in talent. None of them were easily packaged and sold, and that's if they could be packaged and sold at all. They were weird, possibly crazy, and definitely driven by demons.
Then they turned around and gave us a language that we could all share, regardless of national origin.
We have compromised too much in terms of quality. And in exchange for what? MP3 files, iTunes, and CDs — all the better to make throw-away music at 99 cents a pop, my dear.
And we have come out poorer for the deal, I think. We have lost something within our musical language. That is a shame.
Note to self: Raid daddy-o's 45s collection and start slapping the platters on the turn-table, because, Lord, I do miss that classic analog sound of the needle on vinyl.