There’s a track on Dire Straits’ eponymous first album (the good one) called ‘Six Blade Knife’ that needs very careful attention. It glides along in moderately paced common time propelled by Pick Withers’ brushed snare drum and John Illsley’s simple bass line and is punctuated by Mark Knopfler’s Dylan meets Tom Waites vocal lines and stabs of solo guitar. The mix of this track has de-emphasised the rhythm section and made the guitar licks much louder by comparison. This creates a dynamic tension between the rhythm section and the guitar lines - a trick used all the time in later Dire Straits songs. The lack of any rhythm guitar or keyboards means that the underlying harmony of the song is carried in the bass line only, or so it seems. But if you listen very carefully, you can just make out David Knopfler’s strummed rhythm guitar adding colour to the chord structure. It is very, very faint, almost as if he has turned his amplifier down to the absolute minimum, but it is there nevertheless. In fact, when the main guitar solo starts you can hear..
‘So, what’s your view on that then, Martin?’
‘Err, sorry, what are we talking about?’
Yes, I’ve been caught out again. I’ve fallen into the embarrassing trap of listening to the background music at a dinner party, rather than following the conversation. This used to happen all the time, until I stopped receiving invitations to such events. It is a major problem for us music obsessives, we just can’t help listening to music and it doesn’t really matter where we are, nor in what circumstances.
But the real question is; why do we play music and then talk over it as if it wasn’t there? What is the point of playing a CD at a gathering of friends when no one is supposed to listen to it? There doesn’t seem to be any rule of social etiquette that covers this sort of thing. Yet, to me it seems disrespectful to talk over something that artists, musicians, producers and studio staff have sweated blood to produce. Just as great works of fiction deserve to be read, rather than bought in order to sit on a shelf as an indication of intellectual prowess, so music deserves to be listened to rather than talked over. It also makes the decision as to what to play at these sorts of social gatherings so much harder. Does one play the sort of stuff that you, as host, like, or do you pander to the tastes of your guests? And does it really matter, as everyone will talk over it anyway? I once knew someone who would cut through all this social nicety by bringing his own music with him, removing the host’s choice and then playing his stuff to anyone who would listen. This applied to home visits, car journeys and any other opportunity for music to be played and who is to say that this is not the correct approach?
The absence of rules also affects all public places, hotels, restaurants, shops and airports. Do artists really create art (for that is what it is, despite what you may think from time to time) so that it can be forced upon people, such as when they take a ride in a lift, or studiously ignored, such as in a restaurant? Somehow, I just can’t just see Roger Waters and Dave Gilmour sitting down to write ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and thinking: ‘this will be ideal for playing in the toilets at Gatwick Airport’.
Brian Eno, perhaps, but not Roger and Dave.
One of my more recent CD purchases has been ‘Is This It?’ by the Strokes. Track seven is called ‘Last Nite’ and it is fairly representative of the album as a whole in that it belts along at a fair pace with noisy guitars, pounding drums and thumping bass underpinning Justin Casablanca’s gravely growl.
The last time I heard this track was in my local Superdrug store where I was the only customer except for an aged woman who was trying to work out how far her pension would stretch. I can’t imagine that a blast of the Strokes was actually improving her shopping experience and quite frankly it wasn’t helping mine either. The piping of music into the store in this instance was quite pointless and may even have helped reduce the turnover of the shop by irritating its customers beyond endurance, so why do it? It also angers me that someone else has decided when and where I should listen to music. If I am to pay the sort of attention that music deserves, then it should be my decision as to when I am ready and able to give that attention. We live in a noisy world. Anyone who has tried to listen to a personal music player out of doors will know that noise from road traffic, trains, aircraft, construction works and a host of other sources is constantly intrusive. What we don’t need is unnecessary music to add to the din.
I read somewhere that the advent of background music in every walk of life coincides with society’s fear of silence. The theory goes that no one can bear not to hear a continuous noise in case they are forced to think. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Copyright Martin Warminger 2006-2017
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