In my “FAQs on the Theory and Practice of Literature” class the other day, we were reading this essay by historian of science Michel Serres called “Turner Translates Carnot.” The essay looks at Joseph Turner’s paintings as capturing the paradigm or “epistemic” shift brought about in Europe by the Industrial Revolution.
He argues that the new model of knowledge in Turner’s wake depends on the awareness, scientific calculation, and harnessing of stochastic forces, which can be juxtaposed with an older model of knowledge and technology based on the understanding and application of fundamental laws and principles of nature (think Bacon and Newton, and Kant’s 1st critique here). Horse vs. horsepower. Of course, it need not be said that in this respect, Serres’ interpretation of the Industrial Revolution parallels Marx’s interpretation of social revolution in the nineteenth century: “the revolutions of the 19th century” he said in 18th Brumaire (I’m loosely paraphrasing) “have to let the dead bury their dead. Before, the phrase exceeded the content. Now, the content exceeds the phrase” (sic). In a similar vein, Foucault had a longer (and long-winded, but also good!) extrapolation of this idea in Les mots et les choses. Out of the analysis of wealth, natural history, and the study of grammar come the three “positivities” of labor, life, and language, by which the “human sciences” are organized: economics and management, the health sciences, and philology.
Anyway, I was looking around to find an easy illustration of a “stochastic” art in popular culture. Computer generated art seemed boring, so I turned to the use of feedback in rock music. I played them a song by My Bloody Valentine called “To Here Knows When,” where Kevin Shields uses a couple of pedals creatively to create a force field of sound, almost like a tsunami wave, that he directs in these pulsating modulations of feedback.
Needless to say, it’s best played loud, it’s like this sonic roller coaster. It got me thinking: when did musical artists start incorporating feedback into their music as a central element in the composition? My first guess was Jimi Hendrix, although he can’t have been the first….
I’m going to have to do some surfing and research on this question. In the meantime, though, I flipped through my playlists and played one of my all-time favorite Beatles tunes you’ve never heard, because they never play it on the radio: “It’s All Too Much,” written by George Harrison. Interestingly, even though it was Paul McCartney who first came up with the idea of fooling around with tape loops, which the Beatles used in an original way in “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver, I think it was George Harrison who found the most creative ways to incorporate the feedback drones and screams, as well as tape looping, into his music [postscript: I read a recent thread where someone said it was actually Paul who played lead guitar on the song, although someone else claims that some of the feedback was pre-recorded and then played backwards]. My theory is that he saw them as compatible with his new exposure and taste for Indian music and Indian tonal systems. Both represented a radical departure from the Western tonal system, but could be combined with it in different ways. Listening to “Only A Northern Song” and “It’s All Too Much” off the Yellow Submarine album, you can hear George trying to put all these elements into conversation.
You would probably ask: “who has the time to come up with all that?” But the Beatles did: after years of playing ridiculous hours in German pubs and then cranking out albums only months apart, they told the world to f— off and spent the last half of the 60s in music studios experimenting with music and sound. Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles should occupy two chapters in the history of feedback, their success at making feedback an actual aesthetic that was picked up and developed by psychedelic bands all over the world. All the indie bands of the 80s and 90s like Sonic Youth, Pavement, the Swans, and Mission of Burma (but also Prince) all loop through that bizarre transculturation of Indian music and the stochastic art of drone and feedback. It’s a trip.
(Postscript: Well, I didn’t have to go far in my research! Here’s the Wikipedia post for “Feedback”:
Early examples in popular music
According to Allmusic‘s Richie Unterberger, the very first use of feedback on a rock record is the introduction of the song “I Feel Fine” by the Beatles, recorded in 1964. Jay Hodgson agrees that it was the first chart-topper to showcase feedback distortion, created by John Lennon leaning a semi-acoustic guitar against an amplifier. The Who‘s 1965 hits “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” and “My Generation” featured feedback manipulation by Pete Townshend, with an extended solo in the former and the shaking of his guitar in front of the amplifier to create a throbbing noise in the latter. Canned Heat‘s “Fried Hockey Boogie” (off of their 1968 album Boogie with Canned Heat) also featured guitar feedback produced by Henry Vestine during his solo to create a highly amplified distorted boogie style of feedback. In 1963, the teenage Brian May and his father custom-built his signature guitar Red Special, which was purposely designed to feedback.
Feedback was used extensively after 1965 by the Monks, Jefferson Airplane, the Velvet Underground and the Grateful Dead, who included in many of their live shows a segment named Feedback, a several-minutes long feedback-driven improvisation. Feedback has since become a striking characteristic of rock music, as electric guitar players such as Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Dave Davies, Steve Marriott and Jimi Hendrix deliberately induced feedback by holding their guitars close to theamplifier. Lou Reed created his 1975 album Metal Machine Music entirely from loops of feedback played at various speeds. A perfect example of feedback can be heard on Hendrix’s performance of “Can You See Me?” at the Monterey Pop Festival. The entire guitar solo was created using amplifier feedback.