Ever since I tripped over Tiddles while I was carrying a pile of discs into the studio, I’ve known it was possible to get a laugh out of gramophone records!
In 1978 the music critic Lester Bangs published a typically pugnacious essay with the fighting title, “The Ten Most Ridiculous Albums of the Seventies.” Before deliciously launching into his execution of Uri Geller’s self-titled album or Rick Dees’ The Original Disco Duck, Bangs asserts that because that decade was history’s silliest, it stands to reason “that ridiculous records should become the norm instead of anomalies,” that abominations should be the best of our time (Bangs, 1978). This absurd pretzel logic sounds uncannily like Jacques Derrida’s definition of the “post” condition, since for it to arrive it begins by not arriving (Derrida 1987, 29). Lester is thinking like a poststructuralist.
The oddness of the most singularly odd album out in Bangs’ greatest misses of the seventies had nothing to do with how ridiculous it was, but the fact that it even existed at all.
The album was entitled The Best of Marcel Marceao. Produced by Michael Viner the album contained four tracks, with two identical on both sides: “Silence,” which is nineteen minutes long and “Applause,” one minute. To underline how extraordinary this gramophone record is, John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing (1959) is cacophonous by comparison. While Bangs agrees with popular opinion that The Best of Marcel Marceao the “ultimate concept album,” he concluded that this is “one of those rare records that never dates” (Bangs, 1978). This tacet album is a good way to start thinking about the Classical Gas project, and the ironic semiotics at work in it (Tofts & Gye 2011). It too is about records that are silent and that never date. First, the album’s cover art, featuring a theatrically posed Marceau, implies the invitation to speak in the absence of speech; or, in our terms, it is asking to be re-written. Secondly, the French mime’s surname is spelled incorrectly, with an “o” rather than “u” as the final letter. As well as the caprice of an actual album by Marcel Marceau, the implicit presence and absence of the letters o and u is appropriately in excess of expectations, weird and unexpected like an early title in the Classical Gas catalogue, Ernesto Laclau’s and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.
Like a zootrope animation, it is impossible not to see the o and u flickering at one at the same time on the cover. In this duplicity it performs the conventional and logical permutation of English grammar. Silence invites difference, variation within a finite lexical set and the opportunity to choose individual items from it. Here is album cover art that speaks of presence and absence, of that which is anticipated and unexpected: a gramophone recoding without sound. In this the Marceau cover is one of Roland Barthes’ mythologies, something larger than life, structured like a language and structured out of language (Barthes 1982).
This ambiguity is the perfidious grammar that underwrites Classical Gas. Images, we learned from structuralism, are codified, or rather, are code. Visual remix is a rhetorical gesture of recoding that interferes with the semiotic DNA of an image. The juxtaposition of text and image is interchangeable and requires our imagination of what we are looking at and what it might sound like. This persistent interplay of metaphor and metonymy has enabled us to take more than forty easy listening albums and republish them as mild-mannered recordings from the maverick history of ideas, from Marxism and psychoanalysis, to reception theory, poststructuralism and the writings of critical auteurs. Foucault à gogo, for instance, takes a 1965 James Last dance album and recodes it as the second volume of The History of Sexuality. In saying this, we are mindful of the ambivalence of the very possibility of this connection, to how and when the eureka moment of remix recognition occurs, if at all. Mix and remix are, after Jean Baudrillard, both precession and procession of simulacra (Baudrillard, 1983). The nature of remix is that it is always already elusive and anachronistic. Not everyone can be guaranteed to see the shadow of one text in dialogue with another, like a hi-fi palimpsest. Or another way of saying this, such an epiphany of déjà vu, of having seen this before, may happen after the fact of encounter. This anachrony is central to remix practices, from the films of Quentin Tarrantino and the “séance fictions” of Soda_Jerk, to obscure Flintstones/Goodfellas mashups on YouTube. It is also implicit in critical understandings of an improbable familiarity with the superabundance of cultural archives, the dizzying excess of an infinite record library straight out of Jorge Luis Borges’ ever-expanding imagination. Drifting through the stacks of such a repository over an entire lifetime any title found, for librarian and reader alike, is either original and remix, sometime. Metalanguages that seek to counter this ambivalence are forms of bad faith, like film spoilers Brodie’s Notes.
Accordingly, this essay sets out to explain some of the generic conventions of Classical Gas, as a remix project in which an image’s semiotic DNA is rewired and recontextualised. While a fake, it is also completely real (Faith in fakes, as it happens, may well be a forthcoming Umberto Eco title in the series). While these album covers are hyperreal, realistic in excess of being real, the project does take some inspiration from an actual, rather than imaginary archive of album covers. In 2005, Jewish artist Dani Gal happened upon a 1968 LP that documented the events surrounding the Six Day War in Israel in 1967. To his surprise, he found a considerable number of similar LPs to do with significant twentieth century historical events, speeches and political debates. In the artist’s own words, the LPs collected in his Historical Record Archive (2005-ongoing) are in fact silent, since it is only their covers that are exhibited in installations of this work, signifying a potential sound that visitors must try to audition. As Gal has observed, the interactive contract of the work is derived from the audience’s instinct to “try to imagine the sounds” even though they cannot listen to them (Gal 2011, 182). Classical Gas deliberately plays with this potential yearning that Gal astutely instils in his viewer and aspiring auditor. While they can never be listened to, they can entice, after Gilles Deleuze, a “virtual co-existence” of imaginary sound that manifests itself as a contract between viewer and LP (Deleuze 1991, 63). The writer Jeffrey Sconce condensed this embrace of the virtual as something plausibly real when he pithily observed of the Classical Gas project that it is “the thrift-bin in my fantasy world. I want to play S/Z at 78 rpm” (Sconce 2011). In terms of Sconce’s spectral media interests the LPs are haunted by the trace of potential “other” sounds that have taken possession of and appropriated the covers for another use (Sconce 2000).
While most albums are elusive and metaphoric (such as Freud’s Totem and Taboo, or Luce Irigaray’s Ethics of Sexual Difference), some titles do make a concession to a tantalizing, mimetic literalness (such as Das Institut fur Sozialforschung). They display a trace of the haunting subject in terms of a tantalizing echo of fact or suggestion of verifiable biography. The motivation here is the recognition of a potential similarity, since most Classical Gas titles work by contrast. As with Roland Barthes’ analysis of the erotics of the fashion system, so with Gilles Deleuze’s Coldness and Cruelty: it is “where the garment gapes” that the tease begins. (Barthes 1994, 9) Or, in this instance, where the cigarette smokes.
A casual Max Bygraves, paused in mid-thought, looks askance while lighting up. Despite the temptation to read even more into this, a smoking related illness did not contribute to Bygraves’ death in 2012. However, dying of Alzheimer’s disease, his dementia is suggestive of the album’s intrinsic capacity to be a palimpsest of the co-presence of different memories, of confused identities, obscure realities that are virtual and real.
Beginning with the album cover itself, it has to become an LP (Deleuze 1991, 63). First, it is a cardboard, planar sleeve measuring 310mm squared, that can be imprinted with a myriad of different images. Secondly, it is conventionally identified in terms of a title, such as Organ Highlights or Classics Up to Date. Thirdly it is inscribed by genre, which may be song, drama, spoken word, or novelty albums of industrial or instrumental sounds, such as Memories of Steam and Accelerated Accordians.
A case in point is John Woodhouse And His Magic Accordion from 1969.
All aspects of its generic attributes as benign and wholesome accordion tunes are warped and re-interpreted in Classical Gas. Springtime for Kittler appeared not long after the death of its eponymous philosopher in 2011. Directed by Richard D. James, also known as Aphex Twin, it is a homage album to Friedrich Kittler by the PostProducers, a fictitious remix collective inspired by Mel Brooks whose personnel include Mark Amerika and Darren Tofts. The single from this album, yet to be released, is a paean to Kittler’s last words, “Alle Apparate auschalten.”
Foucault à gogo (vol. 2), the first album remixed for this series, is also typical of this archaeological approach to the found object.
The erasure and replacement of pre-existing text in a similar font re-writes an iconic image of wooing that is indicative of romantic album covers of this period. This album is reflective of the overall project in that the actual James Last album (1968) preceded the publication of the Foucault text (1976) that haunts it. This is suggestive of how coding and recoding are in the eye of the beholder and the specific time in which the remixed album is encountered. It doesn’t take James Last, Michel Foucault or Theodor Holm Nelson to tell you that there is no such thing as a collective memory with linear recall. As the record producer Milt Gabler observes in the liner notes to this album, “whatever the title with this artist, the tune remains the same, that distinct and unique Foucault à gogo.” “This artist” in this instance is Last or Foucault, as well as Last and Foucault. Similarly Milt Gabler is an actual author of liner notes (though not on the James Last album) whose words from another album, another context and another time, are appropriated and deftly re-written with Last’s Hammond à gogo volume 2 and The History of Sexuality in mind as a palimpsest (this approach to sampling liner notes and re-writing them as if they speak for the new album is a trope at work in all the titles in the series). And after all is said and done with the real or remixed title, both artists, after Umberto Eco, will have spoken once more of love (Eco 1985, 68).
Foucault à gogo is suggestive of the semiotic rewiring that underwrites Classical Gas as a whole. What is at stake in this is something that poststructuralism learned from its predecessor. Taking the tenuous conventionality of Ferdinand de Saussure’s signifier and signified as a starting point, Lacan, Derrida and others embraced the freedom of this arbitrariness as the convention or social contract that brings together a thing and a word that denotes it. This insight of liberation, or what Hélène Cixous and others, after Jacques Lacan, called jouissance (Lacan 1992), meant that texts were bristling with ambiguity and ambivalence, free play, promiscuity and, with a nod to Mikhail Bakhtin, carnival (Bakhtin 1984). A picture of a pipe was, after Foucault after Magritte, not a pipe (Foucault 1983). This po-faced sophistry is expressed in René Magritte’s “Treachery of Images” of 1948, which screamed out that the word pipe could mean anything. Foucault’s reprise of Magritte in “This is Not a Pipe” also speaks of Classical Gas’ embrace of the elasticity of sign and signifier, his “plastic elements” an inadvertent suggestion of vinyl (Foucault 1983, 53).
This uncanny association of structuralism and remixed vinyl LPs is intimated in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale. Its original cover art is straight out of a structuralist text-book, with its paired icons and words of love, rain, honey, rose, etc. But this text as performed by Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians in New York in 1956 is no less plausible than Saussure’s lectures in Geneva in 1906. Cultural memory and cultural amnesia are one and the same thing. Out of all of the Classical Gas catalogue, this album is arguably the most suggestive of what Jeffrey Sconce would call “haunting” (Sconce, 2000), an ambivalent mixing of the “memory and desire” that T.S. Eliot wrote of in the allusive pages of The Waste Land (Eliot 1975, 27). Here we encounter the memory of a bookish study of signs from the early twentieth century and the desire for its vinyl equivalent on World Record Club in the 1960s. Memory and desire, either or, or both. This ambivalence was deftly articulated by Roland Barthes in his last book, Camera Lucida, as a kind of spectral haunting, a vision or act of double seeing in the perception of the photographic image. This flickering of perception is never static, predictable or repeatable. It is a way of seeing contingent upon who is doing the looking and when. Barthes famously conceptualised this interplay in perception of an between the conventions that culture has mandated, its studium, and the unexpected, idiosyncratic double vision that is unique to the observer, its punctum (Barthes 1982, 26-27). Accordingly, the Cours de linguistique générale is a record by Saussure as well as the posthumous publication in Paris and Lausanne of notes from his lectures in 1916.
(Barthes 1982, 51)
With the caption “Idiot children in an institution, New Jersey, 1924,” American photographer Lewis Hine’s anthropological study declares that this is a clinical image of pathological notions of monstrosity and aberration at the time. Barthes though, writing in a post-1968 Paris, only sees an outrageous Danton collar and a banal finger bandage (Barthes 1982, 51). With the radical, protestant cries of the fallout of the Paris riots in mind, as well as a nod to music writer Greil Marcus (1989), it is tempting to see Hine’s image as the warped cover of a Dead Kennedys album, perhaps Plastic Surgery Disasters. In terms of the Classical Gas approach to recoding, though, this would be far too predictable; for a start there is neither a pipe, a tan cardigan nor a chenille scarf to be seen. A more heart-warming, suitable title might be Ray Conniff’s 1965 Christmas Album: Here We Come A-Caroling.
Like our Secret Gestural Prehistory of Mobile Devices project (Tofts & Gye), Classical Gas approaches the idea of recoding and remixing with a relentless irony. The kind of records we collect and the covers which we use for this project are what you would expect to find in the hutch of an old gramophone player, rather than “what’s hot” in iTunes. The process of recoding the album covers seeks to realign expectations of what is being looked at, such that it becomes difficult to see it in any other way. In this an album’s recoded signification implies the recognition of the already seen, of album covers like this, that signal something other than what we are seeing; colours, fonts etc., belonging to a historical period, to its genres and its demographic.
One of the more bucolic and duplicitous forms of rhetoric, irony wants it both ways, to be totally lounge and theoretically too-cool-for school, as in Rencontre Terrestre by Hélène Cixous and Frédéric-Yves Jeannet.
This image persuades through the subtle alteration of typography that it belongs to a style, a period and a vibe that would seem to be at odds with the title and content of the album, but as a totality of image and text is entirely plausible. The same is true of Roland Barthes’ S/Z. The radical semiologist invites us into his comfortable sitting room for a cup of coffee. A traditional Times font reinforces the image of Barthes as an avuncular, Sunday afternoon story-teller or crooner, more Alistair Cooke/Perry Como than French Marxist.
In some instances, like Histoire de Tel Quel, there is no text at all on the cover and the image has to do its signifying work iconographically.
Here a sixties collage of French-ness on the original Victor Sylvester album from 1963 precedes and anticipates the re-written album it has been waiting for. That said, the original title In France is rather bland compared to Histoire de Tel Quel. A chic blond, the Eiffel Tower and intellectual obscurity vamp synaesthetically, conjuring the smell of Gauloises, espresso and agitated discussions of Communism on the Boulevard St. Germain. With Marcel Marceao with an “o” in mind, this example of a cover without text ironically demonstrates how Classical Gas, like The Secret Gestural Prehistory of Mobile Devices, is ostensibly a writing project. Just as the images are taken hostage from other contexts, text from the liner notes is sampled from other records and re-written in an act of ghost-writing to complete the remixed album.
Without the liner notes, Classical Gas would make a capable Photoshop project, but lacks any force as critical remix. The redesigned and re-titled covers certainly re-code the album, transform it into something else; something else that obviously or obliquely reflects the theme, ideas or content of the title, whether it’s Louis Althusser’s Philosophy as a Revolutionary Weapon or Luce Irigaray’s An Ethics of Sexual Difference. If you don’t hear the ruggedness of Leslie Fiedler’s essays in No! In Thunder then the writing hasn’t worked. The liner notes are the albums’ conscience, the rubric that speaks the tunes, the words and elusive ideas that are implied but can never be heard. The Histoire de Tel Quel notes illustrate this suggestiveness:
You may well think as is. Philippe Forest doesn’t, not in this Éditions du Seuil classic. The titles included on this recording have been chosen with a dual purpose: for those who wish to think and those who wish to listen. What Forest captures in this album is distinctive, fresh and daring. For what country has said it like it is, has produced more robustesse than France? Here is some of that country’s most famous talent swinging from silk stockings, the can-can, to amour, presented with the full spectrum of stereo sound. (classical-gas.com)
The writing accurately imitates the inflection and rhythm of liner notes of the period, so on the one hand it sounds plausibly like a toe-tapping dance album. On the other, and at the same time, it gestures knowingly to the written texts upon which it is based, invoking its rigours as a philosophical text. The dithering suggestiveness of both – is it music or text – is like a scrambled moving image always coming into focus, never quite resolving into one or the other. But either is plausible. The Tel Quel theorists were interested in popular culture like the can-can, they were fascinated with the topic of love and if instead of books they produced albums, their thinking would be auditioned in full stereo sound. With irony in mind, then, it’s hardly surprising to know that the implicit title of the project, that is neither seen nor heard but always imminent, is Classical Gasbags.
Liner notes elaborate and complete an implicit narrative in the title and image, making something compellingly realistic that is a composite of reality and fabulation. Consider Adrian Martin’s Surrealism (A Quite Special Frivolity):
France is the undeniable capital of today’s contemporary sound. For Adrian Martin, this is home ground. His French soul glows and expands in the lovely Mediterranean warmth of this old favourite, released for the first time on Project 3 Total Sound Stereo. But don’t be deceived by the tonal and melodic caprices that carry you along in flutter-free sound. As Martin hits his groove, there will be revolution by night.
Watch out for new Adrian Martin releases soon, including La nuit expérimentale and, his first title in English in many years, One more Bullet in the Head (produced by Bucky Pizzarelli). (classical-gas.com)
Referring to Martin’s famous essay of the same name, these notes allusively skirt around his actual biography (he regularly spends time in France), his professional writing on surrealism (“revolution by night” was the sub-title of a catalogue for the Surrealism exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1993 to which he contributed an essay) (Martin 1993), as well as “One more bullet in the head,” the rejected title of an essay that was published in World Art magazine in New York in the mid-1990s. While the cover evokes the cool vibe of nouvelle vague Paris, it is actually from a 1968 album, Roma Oggi by the American guitarist Tony Mottola (a real person who actually sounds like a fictional character from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America, a film on which Martin has written a book for the British Film Institute).
Plausibility, in terms of Martin’s Surrealism album, has to be as compellingly real as the sincerity of Sandy Scott’s Here’s Sandy. And it should be no surprise to see the cover art of Scott’s album return as Georges Bataille’s Erotism.
The history of the gramophone represents the technological desire to write sound. In this the gramophone record is a ligature of sound and text, a form of phonographic writing. With this history in mind it’s hardly surprising that theorists such as Derrida and Kittler included the gramophone under the conceptual framework of a general grammatology (Derrida 1992, 253 & Kittler 1997, 28).
Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology is the avatar of Classical Gas in its re-writing of a previous writing. Re-inscribing the picaresque Pal Joey soundtrack as a foundation text of post-structuralism is appropriate in terms of the gramme or literate principle of Western metaphysics as well as the echolalia of remix. As Derrida observes in Of Grammatology, history and knowledge “have always been determined (and not only etymologically or philosophically) as detours for the purpose of the reappropriation of presence” (Derrida 1976, 10). A gas way to finish, you might say. But in retrospect the ur-text that drives the poetics of Classical Gas is not Of Grammatology but the errant Marcel Marceau album described previously. Far from being an oddity, an aberration or a “novelty” album, it is a classic gramophone recording, the quintessential writing of an absent speech, offbeat and untimely.
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Bangs, Lester. “The Ten Most Ridiculous Albums of the Seventies”. Phonograph Record Magazine, March, 1978. Reproduced at http://rateyourmusic.com/list/dacapo/the_ten_most_ridiculous_records_of_the_seventies__by_lester_bangs.
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---. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.
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---. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987.
---. “Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce,” in Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Eco, Umberto. Reflections on The Name of the Rose. Trans. William Weaver. London: Secker & Warburg, 1985.
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---. The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Volume 2. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1985.
Gal, Dani. Interview with Jens Hoffmann, Istanbul Biennale Companion. Istanbul Foundation for Culture and the Arts, 2011.
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Marcus, Greil. Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. London: Secker & Warburg, 1989.
Martin, Adrian. “The Artificial Night: Surrealism and Cinema,” in Surrealism: Revolution by Night. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1993.
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---. Online communication with authors, June 2011.
Tofts, Darren and Lisa Gye. The Secret Gestural Prehistory of Mobile Devices. 2010-ongoing. http://www.secretprehistory.net/.
---. Classical Gas. 2011-ongoing. http://www.classical-gas.com/.