Fact Checking Soundbreaking

If it sounds too good to be true...

At the risk of undermining my own position, PBS’ Soundbreaking is a series I would easily recommend to anyone who wants an intro into the history of music production and a light overview of post-1930s popular music.

But… the editors of this show have a nasty habit of including hyperbolic interview clips which even a Wikipedia-depth fact check or 101-level understanding of music history would reveal as misleading or outright false. A giant asterisk needs to be inserted whenever you hear the word “First” or the phrase “The first time we…”

Eleanor Rigby’s Danceable String Section

Discussing “Eleanor Rigby”, Producer Tony Visconti comments, “For the first time, you’re hearing a string octet and you’re tapping your foot,” conveniently hand-waving several centuries of popular European dance music for orchestra, Duke Ellington, Gershwin, Copland, etc. etc.

Bing Crosby Finally Makes Lyrics Relatable

Writer Gary Giddins tells us that “Crosby was the first pop singer to make you hear, and understand, and contemplate the meaning of a lyric.” This quote is in reference to Crosby’s revolutionary use of microphone technique and popularization of the “crooning” style of singing. It also effectively negates the contributions of every vocalist who ever delivered a popular song prior to the year 1931…

One wonders why a vaudevillian would even bother purchasing and performing one of the thousands of popular works from the Tin Pan Alley publishers, seeing as though any delivery of these songs would be met with a resounding shrug and yawn by an audience incapable of hearing or contemplating the lyrics’ meaning.

Presumably at least one vocalist delivering one of Edvard Grieg’s light songs, or an aria from one of Mozart’s light operas might have prompted a listener to consider the lyrics of the material.

The Beatles Blow The Orchestra’s Mind

George Martin remarks that when he instructs the orchestra to play a sliding passage with indeterminate pitches during the recording of The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”, “[They] hooted with laughter. All their lives they’d tried to play as one man, and it only took a few minutes with The Beatles to change all that.”

While it’s possible they might never have performed this sort of material, presumably the members of a professional pickup orchestra would have at least a passing familiarity with contemporary orchestral works.

Iannis Xenakis employed graphical scores, indeterminate pitches, and soundmass writing for orchestra as early as 1953. Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody drew international attention at its premier in 1960 and won the UNESCO award the following year; it was widely known in both the music and the broader art communities. Cage, Young, and the Fluxus #squad were well-known for using chance and other musical ~weirdo stuff~ in solo and ensemble settings well before ’67; and Ives was doing orchestral weirdo stuff pre-WWII (although his work wasn’t recognized until much later).

Wait… Is That Really How A Talkbox Works?

The editors of Soundbreaking decided to use Singer/Songwriter Ben Harper’s explanation of a Talkbox… which is fun, but completely wrong. Even a 1-line email or quick chat with literally any musician who uses one would have informed the editors how bonkers his explanation of this item is. Here’s how it actually works:

  1. You plug your instrument into the box.
  2. The box has a small amplifier and a small speaker.
  3. The speaker is hooked up to the plastic tube which goes into your mouth.
  4. What goes through the tube is not electricity, but soundwaves in the form of air. You use your mouth to form the words, in effect using your head as a resonator.

This is why Talkbox players still get up on the mic when they’re performing. They’re super fun to use, and will vibrate your skull a bit — but if you have “an electrical current” shooting down your throat, it means something has gone terribly wrong and you need to check the grounding on your mic or something. Sheesh!

The Beatles Invent Tape Manipulation

Radiohead’s longtime producer Nigel Goodrich comments, “On ‘Rain’, it’s the first time there’s anything backwards on a record — and you could say that from that moment on, the rulebook’s out the window.”

Perhaps he is simply unaware of the work of Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh, or French composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, who (among others) were experimenting with tape manipulation through the 1950s (El-Dabh as early as 1944).

In Closing

Don’t get me wrong: I love The Beatles. They were/are phenomenal musicians and songwriters, and their openness to incorporating material from the orchestral tradition, experimental techniques, and beyond the western sphere made an enormous and lasting impact on popular music — but there’s no need to muddy the impact and reach of these artistic decisions with inaccurate and hyper-inflated claims. In many cases, the real history is actually much more interesting.

In Soundbreaking, Tape’s origins are left a mystery — as if this medium simply descended like mana from heaven; rather than being a part of an ongoing series of fascinating fits-and-starts, including a detour into some WWII-era intrigue.

The discussion of synthesizers begins with Moog, leapfrogging the bizarre early experiments in electronic instruments, including machines like the near-200-ton Telharmonium; and more relevantly, Moog’s primary early influence: Léon Theremin.

Nowhere in the episode about electronic music do we hear about Bell Labs, CCRMA, or IRCAM, where exciting and ~far out~ experimentation was being done in digital audio and synthesis. Just because these engineers and musicians weren’t making pop music doesn’t mean their work doesn’t count.

These comments are focused on early 20th century and electronic production because that’s simply the stuff I know offhand. Soundbreaking does a reasonable job of covering the blues, jazz, and gospel roots of popular music… but I lack the historical background to respond to those subjects in an immediate way. I’d be interested to hear from people knowledgeable in these areas.

In any event… I would hope that in the future, the editors of Soundbreaking and PBS would take a moment to consider weather the clips they are running are accurate (or at least “truthy”), instead of just picking the snappy sound bytes. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is — there’s no need to bring internet-level clickbait quotes into these already rich narratives.