Conference Room Music

Yesterday I was at a conference at one of those ginormous conference centers you find across America.  That means that, during breaks and when waiting for the meetings to start, I’ve been exposed to conference room music.

wasgn_meetings_breakout01There’s a spectrum of music played in public places in America.  At one end of the spectrum — and unfortunately, very rare in my experience — are actual, recognizable songs, whether it’s classical pieces, or rock music performed by the artists who made the songs a hit, or jazz from John Coltrane or Dave Brubeck.  As you move away from that end of the spectrum, generic elements are introduced — for example, by having a song that you know covered by some unknown band whose rendition sucks the life out of the tune and renders it inert, so that it takes a while before you recognize what you’re hearing as a dim, distant version of Foreigner’s Hot Blooded.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is elevator music and telephone hold music — music that is specifically calculated to do nothing except provide soft and low background noise while you are unfortunately waiting to move on to your day.  Conference room music is a notch up from elevator music.  It’s never a recognizable song from a recognizable artist, because the music may have to cut off at any minute when the meeting starts, and they don’t want the meeting participants to be disappointed that they didn’t get to hear the guitar solo on Pink Floyd’s Mother.  So it’s inevitably some random piece, usually jazzy in nature with keyboard and horns, but more upbeat than elevator or hold music.  It’s designed to keep you awake and alert while you sip your generic coffee and glance around at the generic conference room fixtures and decorations, but leave no lasting impression whatsoever.

No one leaves a conference room humming a few bars of conference room music or asking the concierge what was playing before the meetings started.  You’ve utterly forgotten the music the instant the meeting begins, just like you immediately and irretrievably forget the wisps of the dream you were having when you wake up in the morning.

When you think about it, there’s some talent involved in being able to create music that is so consciously bland.  You have to wonder:  do musicians deliberately set out to write conference room music, and do they think with satisfaction that their creation will be the perfect complement to the metal coffee urn, the spread of breakfast pastries, and the always uncomfortable conference room chairs?

Roger Waters And The Wall In Columbus

During the guitar solo on Comfortably Numb

Last night Richard and I, along with a bunch of other friends and colleagues, watched Roger Waters’ performance of The Wall, in its entirety, at the Schottenstein Center.

During Another Brick in the Wall, Part II

It was an awesome spectacle, and I am trying to use those terms with precision.  Waters, who is whippet-thin, was in good voice and good spirits and was backed by a large and skilled band and backup vocalists.  Together they were able to musically recreate the album — not quite note-for-note, but close.  The songs sounded great on an excellent quadrophonic sound system, and soon much of the audience was singing along.  By the time the show reached The Trial, a massive, crushing wave of sound was washing over the audience.

The music, of course, was married with a lot of showmanship and visual effects.  As the show progressed, workers steadily built The Wall brick by brick.  The Wall then served as the conceptual centerpiece for the show and the backdrop for wide-ranging video projections, many of which had overt political themes, before it finally crashed to the ground at the show’s climax.  The show also featured enormous, extraordinary puppets depicting characters in the same disturbed cartoon style found on the album, a crashing airplane, and a huge floating boar covered with advertising and political slogans and graffiti.

The Wall is a weird, disturbing album, filled with pain and misogyny.  This performance of the album sounded similar themes, and at times during the performance of album one the anti-woman messages became unbearable.  For album two the perspective was a bit less anti-female (but only a bit) and more political and anti-war, including a profoundly moving video montage of soldiers returning home to greet their children.  As we reached side four of the album, fascist concepts prevailed, with giant goosestepping hammers projected against The Wall, red and black flags, and Waters clad in a floor length black leather coat with a Nazi-style armband.  Watching the show beginning to end, you can’t help but conclude that Waters must have had to deal with some disturbing issues in his life.

For me, highlights of the night were Another Brick in the Wall Part II, where Waters was joined on stage by a group of children who sang and danced and then went to protest at the feet of an enormous strutting schoolteacher puppet, Mother, where Waters sang a duet with a 1980 video recording of himself that was projected on The Wall, Hey You, Nobody Home, and finally the stunning, irresistible Comfortably Numb, where a guitarist stood atop The Wall as he played the iconic guitar solos from the album.

This show was an experience, and one well worth having.

Roger Waters And The Wall

On Friday Richard and I, and a bunch of other people, are going to see Roger Waters perform The Wall.  According to the tour website, the show will feature Waters, backed by a full band, performing The Wall from start to finish.  Added to the mix will be an enormous wall, state-of-the-art video projections, a quadrophonic sound system, and puppets and inflatable objects.

I’m looking forward to the show because I like listening to live music and because some of the songs on The Wall are among my favorite songs, ever.  The album came out when I was in college, when Pink Floyd was a staple on every stereo system.  Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here were generally recognized, then and now, as two of the very best rock albums ever recorded, and Animals wasn’t chump change, either.  Then years passed without a new Pink Floyd album.  When the word got out that The Wall was in the offing it became one of the most eagerly anticipated album releases ever.  When it finally hit the record stores I immediately bought a copy and listened to it from beginning to end and most of my friends did, too.

After repeated playings I fell into a pattern of listening to the first three sides of the album where my favorite songs — Mother, Young Lust, Don’t Leave Me Now, Hey You, and particularly the epic Comfortably Numb — were found.  Side four fell into disuse, like side four of the Beatles’ White Album.  In a way, listening to Roger Waters and his band perform side four will be like running into an old friend that I haven’t seen for years.

Something Similar to Alan Parsons Project (Pt. 3)

In addition to what Dad posted, here are some albums I think are similar to the Alan Parsons Project’s I Robot.

1. Jean Michel Jarre, Oxygene. Oxygene, released in 1976, is more electronic and less rock than I Robot, and it’s not exactly a concept album, but it has a similar sound and sensibility.

2. and 3. Pink Floyd, Animals and The Wall. Pretty much any Pink Floyd album from the 1970s is as close to Alan Parsons as you can get. In fact, Alan Parsons was an engineer for Dark Side of the Moon, so he probably influenced the sound for that album and was influenced by Pink Floyd’s sound. Like I Robot, both Animals and The Wall were concept albums and were also sort of funky.

4. The Who, Tommy. Tommy‘s sound is different than I Robot‘s because it was made in the late 1960s, but both are concept albums about an anguished protagonist and both have lots of good songs.

5. The Talking Heads, More Songs About Buildings and Food. This isn’t a concept album, but it reminds me of I Robot because it, also, seems to be a mix of new wave, electronic, classic rock, funk and disco. Actually, pretty much anything by the Talking Heads in the late 70s would qualify.

Something Similar To . . . Alan Parsons Project (Cont.)

Russell was right.  I did get a big kick out of his unexpected, early morning post about I Robot, and not just because I like to see postings on the family blog.

I think I Robot is a classic album, and Russell’s tale of listening to that album at the close of an college all-nighter had some real resonance with me.  I’m pretty sure that, back in 1978 or 1979, I pulled another all-nighter to finish classwork and write a column that had been the subject of unseemly procrastination and listened to I Robot when 4 or 5 or 6 a.m. rolled around and I needed some inspiration.  In those days, of course, there were no Ipods or personal computers with CD players or, for that matter, decent headphones — so when the wee small hours came you needed to dial back the volume on the stereo and replace, say, Exile on Main Street with a more quiet, contemplative album like I Robot.  Reading Russell’s post was like being time-warped back to the grim, green-carpeted kitchen at 101 W. 8th Avenue in the spring of 1979.  More on that later, perhaps.

To answer Russell’s specific question — of course I Robot didn’t spring into life, Athena-like, from the fertile creative brain of Alan Parsons.  The ’70s were filled with “concept albums,” a genre that probably started in 1967 with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  “Synthesizer rock” became big in the ’70s, but it also traced its roots back to the ’60s, and to bands like Procol Harum and Whiter Shade of Pale.  And albums that combined some vocals with long, instrumental sections were a staple of the “alternative” stations of the ’60s, where long songs like Inna Gadda da Vida by Iron Butterfly were the norm.

So what is like I Robot — a ’70s album with a theme, some synthesizers, and some longer songs?  I can’t come up with an exhaustive list, but with the help of my friend JV, I’ve come up some suggestions, in no particular order:

1.  The Beatles, Abbey Road — Side one of the album is pretty damn good, side two — with its blended together songs and snippets, ranging from the simple acoustical purity of the intro to Here Comes the Sun to the fine harmonies of Sun King to the humor of You Never Give Me Your Money, and all of the other fabulous tunes — is just otherworldly.  It is, I think, the best album side ever recorded as well as the best “end of the all-nighter” music ever conceived.

2.  Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon — The classic album of my college days, with songs that ran seamlessly together, music that sounded like the soundtrack to a dream, and lyrics that caused any thoughtful college student to sink into a reverie — until the alarm clock abruptly rang.

3.  Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here — An even dreamier (and in my humble opinion, musically superior) Pink Floyd album about the mental breakdown of Syd Barrett, a former member of Pink Floyd, that includes one of the greatest, longest split-up songs ever recorded, Shine On You Crazy Diamond.

4.  Electric Light Orchestra, Eldorado — Another dreamy concept album that supposedly had an internal theme, but one that was pretty elusive to mere mortals.  It featured a bunch of great songs, like Mister Kingdom and Nobody’s Child. Side two of the album was a killer.

5.  Yes, Yessongs — Yes was perhaps the quintessential synthesizer/keyboards band of the ’70s (sorry, Emerson Lake and Palmer), and I think Yessongs was their masterpiece.  A two-album set, the second disk consisted solely of terrific, extended, drawn-out songs, like I’ve Seen All Good People, Long Distance Runaround, and Starship Trooper.

6.  The Moody Blues, This Is The Moody Blues — I admit that this double album was a kind of greatest hits album, but it really captured the blurry, ethereal music and thoughtful lyrics of The Moody Blues (as well as their somewhat over-the-top pretensions).  This was another college early morning hours favorite that was packed with excellent sun-coming-up tunes.

I think any one of these would serve you in good stead at 5 a.m., Russell!

Where Have All The Horn Bands Gone?

The other day I was driving, listening to the radio, and heard Chicago’s Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? It’s a great song and it got me to thinking:  Where have all the horn bands gone?  That is, why aren’t rock bands that feature trumpets, and slide trombones, and saxophones popular any more?

There was a time in the late ’60s and early ’70s when horn bands dominated the airwaves.  On the FM rock stations, you had bands like Chicago and Tower of Power.  On the AM dial, you had acts like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and Blood, Sweat and Tears.  There also were many songs where horns were prominently featured, like All You Need Is Love and Penny Lane by the Beatles and Pink Floyd’s Us and Them.

I liked the horn bands because they had a different sound.  It was a bit crisper, a bit cleaner, and a bit brighter than the sound produced by the standard four-man band with two guitars, bass, and drums.  It was a great change of pace, and now that sound seems to be totally gone from popular music.  Why?