Thursday, July 15, 2010

Form Determines Content: LP to CD

It's almost become a truism to say that form determines content; that is, any message is altered by the form used to express it. As a Literature teacher I use this phrase regularly. Here today I'm reflecting again on the change from LP to CD and how that has impacted the artwork (by this I mean the total package, sound and liner notes and image) involved.

My selected example is the Beatles' Abbey Road album. I've been listening to the remastered version recently and thinking about the overwhelming shock of silence that comes at the end of the LP's side one. Let me take you back: the last track of side one as originally envisioned and issued was Lennon's I Want You, seven-and-a-half minutes of desire and its aftermath. The band gets into a lazy, compulsive, hypnotic riff that feels like it could go on forever. Apparently-- I remember reading at the time-- The Beatles weren't sure how best to end the track so they simply cut the tape (btw, I later discovered that the South African cassette edition had a fade-out instead: which was a horrible perversion of the original). Well, that sudden silence always came as a shock, and with the original vinyl that shock lingered and bled into a moment or longer of pondering it and indeed some thinking about the whole of side one. You see, the music quite literally stopped at that point. If you wanted to hear some more you had to get up, walk over to the record player, and turn the album over.

In literature terms, the silence was followed by white space-- the space between stanzas or the space of a chapter break. I Want You was intended to be followed by silence.

But this is not so any longer: I Want You is now followed after a very short pause by Here Comes The Sun and the brilliant segueing drama of the album's original side two.

As useful and convenient as this might be, it obviously does damage to the original artwork. It is like repainting a canvas of Renoir's or reshaping a hand of Michaelangelo's David.

Nowadays Abbey Road can be played in the background, on continuous replay, as an aural wallpaper.

This, for sure, is a pity.

On the other hand, of course, Abbey Road becomes almost a new work. That could be a good thing.

In any event, form determines content.

Furthermore, and more obviously, the imagery of the cover doesn't carry the same weight and impact as with the original LP. Abbey Road's cover is now iconic; but the CD age has diminished the power of the packaging. When The Byrds first flew to rarified heights of influence and glory, their leader, Roger McGuinn, said that LPs were 'electronic magazines'. It was a useful way to think of them then. The newer CDs are obviously of a different kind: more pamphlets than magazines.

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