ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Art of Noise —

This entry is somewhat self-indulgent and much more of a multi-media youtube link fest than I normally would find myself doing, but the opportunity to talk about something important to me and my personal influences is just a tad too great, and after all, in today’s copyright-violating internet goulash, it’s just so simple to dip a ladle into it to demonstrate what I’m talking about.

Everyone has their own musical journey, the experience of what bands influence them or which ones make them realign their relationship to the world. For some it’s social, for some it’s the music itself, and for some it’s the personalities of the band or the personalities of the fans who like the band. Maybe it’s even the places you first heard the bands. There’s a lot of different paths, but the template is generally the same: person + music = changed person.

At 11 and 12 I didn’t get along with a whole lot of people and moving to Brewster, New York, I got along with even less people than before. I didn’t like how life was going, and while I was smart enough to know that suicide would provide me with even less possibilities, I didn’t see much chance for escape or a greater happiness. One exception, of course, were computers; along with the amazing machines themselves came a beguiling and interesting world portrayed in computer magazines, advertisements and game covers that promised me that once I got out of this fucking dump, there’d be really cool people I would want to be with, somewhere. Probably California. Still, growing old and ending up somewhere isn’t really escape in the sense that a pre-teen really expects, so I instead was rather erratic in my behavior and outlook on the world.

Musically, I was somewhat limited, but I did see MTV on the first day it came out and I listened a little to various pop music that was out there, as well as the standard bands like Twisted Sister or Duran Duran that saturated the landscape. I didn’t buy much in the way of albums because my money didn’t flow that way (I had little of my own) but I knew there wasn’t a whole lot I wanted to run down and scoop up, either.

That changed one day when I saw the following music video on MTV. I could waste three paragraphs describing the room I saw it in, the memory is so vivid. The junky zenith, the TV in the corner, the cramped second floor bedroom we all shared to save money. And this wonderful little thing:

Is it possible, 25 years later, to explain how wonderful this was for me? I can try. The sound, a combination of samples of things like cars starting, screeching, and a woman’s voice, along with a musicality beyond mere noise, was unlike anything I’d heard up to that point. Oh, I’m sure in music libraries there were gabillions of precursors, but I didn’t have the opportunity to hear them. And the direction of the video itself was strange even by MTV standards. A strange girl-woman, semi-threatening men with tools destroying musical instruments, clipped editing of actions, all on some sort of destroyed industrial landscape. You can bet I ran to the TV and carefully memorized the name of the band and album in the corner when the video ended.

The name, of course, was The Art of Noise and the song was called Close to the Edit, although at the time I was not entirely sure which was which. The director was named Zbigniew Rybczynski and I quickly forgot that, instead trying to reconcile what I’d just seen. I knew I needed this song, this album, whatever it was part of.

Throughout my life I’ve seen breathtaking things, tracked them down and found them less than breathtaking. That’s the risk you take and I was no stranger to disappointment even then. I just knew I had to find this album, though, at all costs. I started browsing record stores for it. Perhaps this is another chance to describe the difference between then and now; it was weeks, weeks and weeks, before I found this album. I was visiting my grandparents, and I went to every record store I could reach up there in that little town of Hudson, New York, and one of them had the album: “Who’s Afraid of the Art of Noise?“. Imagine weeks of lag and latency between hearing a song and knowing how to get it or being given the option to get it. Those days are gone.

So I finally got this album, and bear in mind that I bought it and couldn’t listen to it for some time, until we returned from our visit and I could get my hands on a record player, and then, and only then, could I sit down with a record player and my headphones and listen. I hoped, beyond hope, this would not be garbage.

Oh, it was so heavenly. From the first moments of “A Time For Fear (Who’s Afraid)”, I knew I was listening to a new way of doing such music, such sounds, that these surreal sonic landscapes were the cut-up excitement I was looking for in my world, to give me hope and inspiration, and so it did.

The band was composed of producers, composers and engineers for the Zang Tumb Tuum label, a UK-based production house and label that included a number of people who would go on to some very great things (and in fact had already gone off to some great things). The official “band members” of this Art of Noise were Horn, Morley, Langan, Dudley, and Jeczalik. More on them in a moment.

As part of the 2004 Prince’s Trust concert, Horn and Dudley performed the song live. The description claims this is the first time it’s been played live, and that’s certainly not true, but it’s the first time that Alan White (of yes), the original source of the drum sample, plays along. (He’s one of the two drummers in the background and the video doesn’t really concentrate him him much.)

Playing the bass is Trevor Horn, the producer of so much music, and one of the leaders of Art of Noise. If he looks like one of the guys with glasses in the original video, you’d be right: that’s Jeczalik, Langan and Horn destroying the instruments. (The director has said in interviews he wanted to make concrete the way the Art of Noise was repurposing music with technology.)

If you do enough searching for “Art of Noise”, you will now, instantaneously, be face to face with buckets of reviews, lore, interviews and delights about this band. I want to just focus on two other situations related to them.

Now in love with the band, I started trying to acquire every single record, album and single I could related to them. Realize what this entailed: any time I found myself in a city, I would go to every record store I could find, walk over to the “Pop” or “Pop/Rock” section, and look at the Art of Noise folder (rarely) or the A folder (not rarely). Inside would either be nothing related to Art of Noise, something related to Art of Noise, or a new Art of Noise thing I’d not seen before.

I did this for years. Years and years. I later added more bands to this roster and tour, but I was always looking for one more Art of Noise single, one more picture disc, one more rarity. And my hundreds of visits to record stores did yield significant reward.

There are some rare productions indeed buried in this pile. Some of them cost me all my spare cash at the time (No ATM machines for me to go to, no checks for me to be able to write with, no credit cards). Some of them are versions of songs that aren’t anywhere else. Some are really weird cut picture discs (note that really odd “hand holding AON” custom-cut disc I’m holding). This was how it was done, if you were young and of little attachment to the record “scene” and just wanted one more amazing thing from your favorite band.

The second story is so weird and surreal I’m glad I have evidence of it, in this office, at this very moment, otherwise I don’t think people would believe me.

Art of Noise went through a lot of upheaval and changes and directions over the years, like any band would. But in 1999, they released a new album, called “The Seduction of Claude Debussy”. It was, in many ways, a sort of strange return to the older days, but also a reflection of the work of Trevor Horn, who was a lush, involved producer who made all sorts of now famous records, including albums for Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Yes, and Seal. I thought the album was pretty good, if not like the originals, and was just happy this wonderful band was still in business.

But then I heard of the tour.

Now, realize, how completely fucking random this tour was. It had, I swear to you, four stops. FOUR. Los Angeles, New York, Boston, London. I am still aghast at this. And it was so utterly random I happened to see this was going on. I learned about it a week before it happened. I learned they’d be in Boston. In a week. Out of nowhere. I could have been scheduled for a life-saving transplant that night and you’d bet I’d have been running through the streets, trailing wires and tubes, to get into the Paradise Rock Club to see the band.

So off I went to see this, this miracle, this performance of Art of Noise in a tiny, tiny rock club, in my own town. The price was cheap. There was no way not to have a perfect view. I was there hours early.

Sitting with a friend who coincidentally had shown for this event, I was showing him a couple rare Art of Noise discs I’d brought along, maybe to get signed, maybe just to show how much of a real fan I was. A couple people noticed my collection, including one older gentleman, who looked at the picture disc and said “Ah, that brings back memories.”

I said, and I still remember this, “Yeah, that was during the Paul Morley Artistic Showoff Period.”

“Artistic Showoff,”, he smiled, and thanked me for bringing that neat stuff along, before heading away.

I looked at my friend. “Now, watch that be Paul Morley”.

It was Paul Morley.

The band performed wonderfully, as I’d hoped they would. Anne Dudley was there, Trevor Horn, Paul Morley in front with a hammer and a strange outfit, and they did a great show. I was delighted.

When it was over, I got the attention of Morley and said “I’m really sorry.”

He said it was no big deal. And invited me backstage.

So that’s how I met a band that 20 years earlier had had such an influence on my childhood. I was hanging out back with Anne Dudley, Trevor Horn, and the rest. I introduced myself as their second biggest fan, behind one of my own heroes Ernie Longmire, who had done an even better job than I collecting obscure Art of Noise stuff. I found Trevor a ton of fun to talk to, while Anne seemed a bit tired but friendly. And yes, they ultimately signed the first album for me!

I also got to swipe a poster in the hallway announcing this album; a huge poster that I include some of my office in for scale:

I smile through a lot of bad times when I think of my incredible luck that night, how many circles of my life have been happily completed and closed. I don’t expect everyone reading this to particularly like the Art of Noise; I’m sure you could replace their name with many others for a band that touched you like this, that drove you in a certain direction; I know the use of cut-up and sampling of Art of Noise prepared me, mentally, for bands like Yello and Negativland that came afterward in my life. But I hope that maybe, in my own way, I’ve given a taste of how important something as simple as a few songs can be, to someone who wants to have something to dream about.

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  1. Josef Kenny says:

    Jason – I had no idea you were into the Art of Noise! I discovered them a few years back and I have to say they are probably my favorite band. The use of sampling, the sonic collage, the entire LOOK of the band – a band that seamlessly integrated art and collage and an insane amount of musical inspiration really appeals to me personally. As a musician myself I am hugely inspired by them and their legendary use of the Fairlight CMI (or should that be plural? I heard they had 3 onstage once). As a 15 year old who has never owned a record player and was obviously not alive at the time they were most famous, I have no picture disks, no Paranoimia ’89, but I do have the experience of the sheer amount of creativity they embellished their albums with; the experimentation and uniqueness that make them a cult favorite. I recently noticed the existence of and picked up ‘And What Have You Done With My Body, God?’, which was like a dream come true – bits and pieces of unfinished tracks and various versions of old favorites, such as the many evolutionary stages of Close to the Edit and the hidden multitrack parts of Moments in Love. This is a band that will have undoubtedly shaped me as a musician if it has not shaped me as a person and reading your entry today made my day. Thanks.

  2. Flack says:

    It really was different, being a fan of music “back then.” When I was fourteen I got a job at a local concession stand that paid a lot more than any fourteen-year-old should be making. Once a week I would take my concession stand earnings and ride my motorcycle down to either Sound Warehouse, Rainbow Records or Midnight Music. With cash in hand I’d flip through the stacks of cassette tapes, literally gambling with my money based on a band’s name or their artwork. Sometimes it paid off; other times I’d end up with a $10 dud.

    The best feeling in the world was discovering a new band. In the early days, a spin on the radio or a video on MTV was often enough to get me to drop some cash on an album and check out a band. I’d thumb through music magazines, making lists of albums to buy based on the bands featured on the t-shirts my favorite bands were photographed wearing. Later, shows like Headbanger’s Ball and Metal Shop featured metal bands both big and small.

    I’m not sure kids do “tape trading” anymore — if they do I don’t suppose it’s in the literal, physical sense. I remember in seventh grade I spent the night with a kid named Ross. I brought my Fat Boys albums (yes, vinyl) and he had a couple of Run DMC records. We spent the night listening to the records and dubbing ours onto tape for the other one (most would say I got the better end of that deal). Yes, I listened to metal. I also listened to rap. I also listened to alternative. I also listened to “pop,” if you want to call that a category as well. I had no problem going from the Beatles to Beastie Boys, Fat Boys to Faith no More and from Duran Duran to Depeche Mode to Danzig. To me good music was good music, categories be damned.

    And once you found one of these bands … my god, there was so much to take in. With each paycheck came more albums, VHS concert releases and more. There were t-shirts, there were posters, there were magazines … none of it free. I felt more strongly about music back then than I do today; perhaps it’s because I had as much financially invested in the bands as I did emotionally. Did I like Motley Crue? You bet I did — I had a couple of their albums on vinyl, bought the first five or so on cassette (replacing the vinyl), rebought some of the tapes when the sun warped them after leaving them on my dash, and eventually replaced them all on CD. That doesn’t count the concert tickets, t-shirts, posters, and videos. I may have single-handedly funded their drug habits for at least a day — I’m such an enabler.

    So yeah, I was there too — signing up for the Columbia House tape club just to get 11 new albums for a penny, trading cassette tapes among friends and paying money to go see bands I’d never heard of. I’m not sure if it was the era or my age, but times were certainly different back then.

  3. Herr Doktor Professor Deth Vegetable says:

    I remember spending the summer of 1987 trying to find someone, anyone, to sell me a Camper Van Beethoven tape. Eventually I ended up ordering it from the one and only record store in the town I lived in, and waiting eagerly for about three weeks for it to arrive.

  4. I love Art of Noise!

  5. Ross O says:

    Thanks Jason.

    Your journey here reminded me of a similar journey that I had, together with my spouse, with Depeche Mode.