Self-Retrospect #2: ‘Never Knew Your Last Name’

And now for the second installment of Self-Retrospect, where I look back at my silly younger self, the often silly songs I wrote and the inspiration behind them.

The first edition of this series dealt with ‘Breaking’, the earliest song I chose to include on the Projects compilation. That song was special to me as it was the first time I’d put real, honest emotion into a song. The second earliest track I put on Projects was ‘Never Knew Your Last Name’, a simple three-chord song written and recored in August 2001. This was, I think, my first ever attempt at a narrative song, recounting a holiday non-romance from that summer.

The story itself was also quite simple. Again, this was the case of me liking a girl, but then not getting anywhere (I wonder what proportion of all songs have been written on this theme…). Unlike the tortured yearning-from-afar that underpinned ‘Breaking’, though, this was a far more lighthearted, fleeting affair. The whole story took place over the course of a few hours.

Never Knew Your Last Name - Chords

That summer, I was invited by my friend Andrew and his family to join them on their annual trip to France. The invite-a-friend strategy was Andrew’s parents’ attempt to get him, now 17 and having pretty much outgrown the family holiday, to come. Andrew himself was quite surprised (disappointed?!) when I accepted the invitation. The bulk of the vacation was spent at a resort in the south, where we spent most of our days at the pool and evenings drinking. Fairly standard, but enjoyable, holiday fun.

We had travelled by car, so the distance was definitely too much for a one-day journey. We stopped off for one night at a place near Paris on the way down and on the return trip, we stayed at the same place for two nights. The first of those nights, we got to know these two Dutch girls. They were both quite attractive, but somewhat aloof. There certainly weren’t any sparks flying for me anyway, so I didn’t pursue anything.

It was the second night at this place – the last night of the whole holiday – that the events depicted in the song unfolded. Andrew and I were in the bar, playing pool, something we did a considerable amount of on the trip (and in general, during that period of our lives). There was a Scottish family, who had just arrived, sitting at a table nearby. I noticed that the daughter of the family was about our age and was very cute. She also appeared to be a bit bored. I obviously needed to intervene. So, I headed over to the table and asked her if she wanted to play pool. I think I also spoke to her parents, explaining that she’d be in safe hands, etc.

In retrospect, this was a fairly ballsy move on my 17-year-old self’s part. I must have been at least tipsy at this point. Regardless, we weren’t seen as a threat (more likely seen as idiots) and she joined us for a game. She and I flirted a bit, although she did mention that she had a boyfriend back home. I’m not sure if the Dutch girls were around at this point. They may have been. There were definitely, however, two Danish guys who showed up and joined our little party. This kind of threw a spanner in the works, as they began to compete for her attention.

Never Knew Your Last Name - verse two

Did they have an edge? I’m not sure. I think the fact that I’d had a head start of an hour or so gave me a slight advantage. There was the hand-holding action to prove it! In the song I say “I stumbled just to hold [her] hand”, which sounds a bit too ridiculous to be true. Did I actually stumble? Stumble might be a bit of an exaggeration, but, yes, I did actually engineer some kind of slight tripping incident, which resulted in me grasping her hand for support. I know it was silly, but I was young – give me a break! I’m sure it was not at all as subtle or as smooth as I thought it was going to be and, ok, it was somewhat manipulative. But the important thing is that, in spite of the fake fall lasting a split-second, in spite of the Danish presence, even though I gave her every opportunity to relinquish the bond, she continued to hold my hand. And to slightly drunk 17-year-old me, that meant everything.

Ultimately, though, that one bit of physical contact did not lead to anything further. Our night was cut short when Andrew’s mother came to tell us we needed to get to bed soon as we had an early start the next morning. I may have placed the blame on this interruption at the time, but deep down I knew it was a lost cause. What went wrong? Well, the Danes were starting to gain more ground as the night went on. But, naturally enough, it was the boyfriend at home that was always there, standing in the way. In fairness to her, she did notify me of his existence early on in the evening – and shame on me for trying to get in there anyway. Still, I can’t say I wasn’t hopeful that something might happen.

Regarding the last name: no she didn’t tell me what it was. But I never asked, so that wasn’t a big deal. The song just needed some kind of lyrical hook! We didn’t exchange any details at all. I left her with the Danes and was gone early the next morning. That was that. I’ll I had was a lingering memory of holding her hand. And a first name, of course.

AND a photograph. The line in the song, “I took a picture of us both” – that happened. Well, I didn’t take the picture myself. Andrew probably did. It must be somewhere in my room in my mum’s house in Bray. I haven’t seen it in years. I should have looked for it for further research purposes when I was digging up the handwritten notes in these pictures. If I remember correctly, it’s the two of us sitting on a wall or fence, smiling. I think I might have had my arm around her shoulder (so there was more physical contact!).

Never Knew Your Last Name - end

As for the music… Well, let’s have a listen:

As I said, it’s just three chords. Pretty simple stuff, although they were three 7th chords (ooh, fancy) and I used a capo on the guitar – the first song on which I used it, I believe. I don’t think anything more complex than that would have suited the song and probably would have ruined it.

There were a few other firsts on this song, too. It was the first song on which I used my (then brand new) ukulele. My friend Steven, whom I talked about in my post on Fugazi’s The Argument, got me into the whole uke scene. The uke definitely fitted in with/added to the playfulness in the song. This was one of the first songs I’d arranged where the bass part wasn’t just the root notes of the guitar chords. It was mostly improvised, too, including the little solo about a minute in, after the not-at-all-improvised guitar solo. I was quite pleased with how it turned out. Finally, it was the first song in which I’d attempted any kind of harmony vocals. I’ll admit the vocals were still pretty terrible, but at least I was trying to embellish them a bit!

I still quite like this song, even if it also acts as a reminder of how pathetic I was back then. It’s pretty cheesy, but it knows it’s cheesy and doesn’t shy away from it. It has a bounce to it. It’s fun. It has a ukulele in it! What’s not to like?!


Top Ten Albums of 2000-2009: #9 – The Argument

Continuing the series in which I explain why I elected to include certain albums on my somewhat spur-of-the-moment best of the last decade list. This time, it’s those revolutionary, not-so-young-anymore men from Washington, D.C.

The Argument


I got to know Fugazi through my friend, Steven. I’ve got to know a lot of music through Steven. We have quite a long, shared musical history: introducing different artists and bands to one another; going to gigs; watching films about music; having lengthy discussions about music that would probably be mindnumbingly tedious and/or incomprehensible to anyone in the room with us (over the years we’ve even managed to develop a vocabulary of nonword vocalizations and hand gestures to describe certain emotional reactions to music). I think Steven is the only person I’ve ever had a telephone conversation with which consisted entirely of musical discourse.

Steven might correct me, but I believe this music-based camaraderie started when were about 15, when we realized we had similar listening habits. By that I don’t mean we listened to same bands, but we had a similar attitude to music. In particular, we both took an active approach to discovering new artists and to learning more about the artists we did listen to – something most of our classmates didn’t seem that interested in; or at least were not vocal about.

So this realization lead to some lunchtime symposia and CD exchanges. When, in the summer of 2000, I bought a secondhand bass guitar, he was the first person I ever played music with. He came over to our house and we played some Pixies and R.E.M. songs. That was the day he got me into The Clash, too.

And we’ve been great friends ever since. Aww!

Funnily enough, although that all began when were 15 or so, we’ve known each other since we were 7 or 8. In the early years we didn’t really get on at all. Hate’s a very strong word, but for exaggerated emphasis I’m going to go ahead and say we hated each other. I guess we can file this under the bridge-building power of music…

My introduction to Fugazi came from one of those early jam sessions in 2000. We were picking out songs to play and Steven suggested ‘Turkish Disco’ from the Instrument Soundtrack, because of its brilliant bass line:

After that piqued my interest, he leant me the 13 Songs compilation and Red Medicine. The former I found it difficult to get into. It was a little bit too “punk” for me at the time. (At least, that’s what I thought at the time. Thinking about it now, that was a somewhat unusual reaction to have.) Well, obviously I loved ‘Waiting Room’. But it’s impossible not to love ‘Waiting Room’:

Red Medicine was a different beast altogether. For one, it had possibly the best, most abrasive opening 50+ seconds to any album I’d heard:

And the songs were rich, varied, exhilarating… And I realize I’ve spent nearly five hundred words not talking about the album I’m supposed to be talking about. I really need to cut down on these extended introductions.

I will have another quick aside though: Instrument, directed by Jem Cohen, is THE BEST FILM ABOUT MUSIC EVER MADE. No exaggeration. I’ve watched it about half a dozen times and it never fails to inspire me. I heartily recommend buying it.

The Argument, their sixth – and, in all likelihood, their final – studio album, came out in October 2001. Steven got his straight from Dischord. He lent it to me shortly after. Like Red Medicine, this album has a 50(-ish)-second introduction. The intro on The Argument, untitled and not at all abrasive, gets its own dedicated track. The sound of radio transmissions and static with a simple cello part on top, it certainly sets a different tone from the openings to the other releases in their catalogue. It’s soft, almost ethereal.

The first song proper is ‘Cashout’, sung by Ian MacKaye. That sentence doesn’t seem especially surprising, but in the context of their earlier work, it’s a minor shock. Up to that point, Ian MacKaye wasn’t really known for his “singing” – in the traditional sense, at least. The division of vocals in Fugazi was, if you oversimplified it, Ian does the shouting, Guy (Picciotto) does the singing. Of course there were exceptions along the way. It’s not like we didn’t know Ian could carry a tune (and Guy has done his fair share of wailing). Still, there was something odd about the first vocal you hear being Ian cooing melodically. Although sonically soft, the lyrical content is still hard-hitting, as you’d expect. Halfway through [spoiler alert!] good old shouty Ian does make a return to hammer the point home. But set alongside the tuneful opening, it’s much more dynamic and feels fresher because of it.

Almost the exact opposite happend on the following song, ‘Full Disclosure’. This one careers along, Guy screaming “I want out” repeatedly over buzz-saw guitars and a groovy rhythm until – BOOM – an upbeat chorus with “oooooh” backing vocals. And then full-on harmonies in the middle eight. This running theme of juxtapositions continues on the next song, ‘Epic Problem’, where stop-start, shouty-Ian (and brilliant, by the way) verses and choruses give way to an almost folky breakdown, with just guitar and voice. The rest of the band comes back in, loud and hard, but the melody in the vocal part is preserved.

In the opening section of the album, they somehow managed to confound expectations and hark back to the strengths of their older material, all the time maintaining this excitement. It’s brilliant.

Things go a bit more left field over the next couple of tracks. ‘Life and Limb’ is probably  my favourite on the album. Its verses are skeletal: Brendan Canty with a tight, restrained beat and guy playing an intricate but “light” guitar part and singing. When bass comes in, with the female backing vocal, it brings this amazing warmth. But at the same time, it has a very unsettling, nervy quality as all. This could be Guy’s ability to turn on the creepy stalker vibe (see the ‘Rend It’ demo on the Instrument Soundtrack). The track’s coup de grâce comes straight after the second chorus, where Guy sings “right away” and there’s short build up to a pause, which leaves you dangling precariously for four beats before …a guitar solo! Like Ian’s singing, guitar solos aren’t usually part of Fugazi’s repertoire. They allow themselves this rare one and it’s a treat. The whole song’s a treat:

‘The Kill’ and ‘Strangelight’, the two longest songs on the album, keep the sparse eeriness going. Especially ‘The Kill’, bassist Joe Lally’s lead vocal effort. Things get back to “normal” then, with ‘Oh’, ‘Ex-Spectator’ and ‘Nightshop’, before we end on ‘Argument’, probably the most radically different song on the album. Radically different for the band, in that features Ian MacKaye singing melodically through the whole thing!

It seems I’ve short-changed the latter half of the album. I think this is just a simple case of me being too tired to continue writing, unlike in my look back at XTRMNTR, whose second half just isn’t quite as good as its first.

In October 2002, Steven and I saw Fugazi play at the Red Box (now Tripod) in Dublin. Due to technical difficulties, there was a considerable delay before they went on. But when they did they were incredible. Thinking back, it just adds to the disappointment that, like the prospect of a new album, the chances of seeing them on stage ever again are incredibly slim.

So, no more of this:

or this:



The Dissertation Files #3: Lessig’s More

In which I try to remain focused while describing my difficulty remaining focused.

Experience has taught me – and everyone, I suppose – that the freedom of choice is a double-edged sword. The more choices you have, the sharper those edges get. Faced with two or three possible flavours of ice-cream, making a choice is usually quite stress-free (you obviously choose to have a scoop of each). However, given a selection of 31, things get a lot trickier. Even after you eliminate the ones you have no intention of even sampling, like banana (something that should only ever be consumed as an actual piece of fruit, never a flavour), you still end up torn between a few great possibilites: ones you’ve had before and know you like, or ones that look/sound so good you’re sure you’ll love them.

What you want to avoid, at all costs, is that regret: thinking that, okay, this flavour is pretty good, but what if another one would have been better? Like the one my friend got instead. The one I am now enviously coveting.

I imagine people might go through a much more intense version of this when faced with decisions of considerably more importance than dessert, such as choosing what house to buy, or whether or not to get married.

The decision I had to make was probably a lot closer in weight to the dessert choice than marriage – what topic to select for my dissertation. The range of options I had were vast, though. Of course it had to be related to digital media in some way, but that could have been any of hundreds of things.

As it turned out, however, the decision was a lot less difficult than I’d expected. This topic stood out, well above the other possibilities, dwarfing them as they futilely attempted to compete for my attention below. For possibly the first time in my life, I was able to choose a topic of coursework for myself that I had a truly immense interest in, something I was highly passionate about.

There was only one edge to this sword! The good edge, too! Or so I thought…

I have since discovered that there is a downside to working on something you find incredibly captivating: It is incredibly captivating.

Over the last few of weeks I have been ingesting so many books, articles, interviews, essays and videos on how copyright laws and digital sampling technology affect creators and consumers of art and it’s all just so fascinating.

That sounds like a wonderful thing. It certainly sounds a lot better than slogging away at a project or essay about something you find unendurably tedious. But is it really? I know that boring material can drive us to external distractions, but usually you’re able to pull it together and get the thing done, even if you don’t enjoy the process.

Here, I find myself getting almost hopelessly distracted by all these things that are actually relevant to my end goal.

Well, I suppose that sentence is a little misleading. A lot of the problematic, distracting material isn’t wholly relevant. It’s just that it is very very closely related (with a few measures of relevance mixed in) – and hence crops in almost all of the same books, articles, videos, etc.

I’m talking here about things like piracy, peer-to-peer file-sharing, record industry associations suing dead grandmothers for downloading music, how the industry in general reacts to possible cases of copyright infringement (including sampling in music), etc.

But, David, all those sounds like things that you should be researching, aren’t you going to include that kind of stuff in the dissertation?

Yes and no. Really, the difficulties with choosing to do a paper on something you’re really interested in aren’t the direct result of it being interesting, it’s that the format of this project has limitations.

The dissertation has to be 12,000 words. When I first learned of this, I found the idea of writing something of that length incredible daunting. Again, because I had done exactly zero essays in my undergraduate studies. I still find the idea of writing 12,000 words on this topic quite daunting, but it’s because I have to squeeze all these ideas into just 12,000 words. With that limitation, I had to narrow it down. And because so much existing literature concentrates on corporations battling average consumers, Internet piracy and so forth, I chose to focus mainly on how sampling affects the artists themselves.

Hmm, perhaps I should start imposing word limits on these blog posts in order to force me to be more concise; get to the point a bit quicker. That said, I’ve probably made my point in this one already – and I’m under 780 words so far. Shortest post yet! Go me!

…and now I’ve gone over that.

I did want to say something about Lawrence Lessig, if only to justify the pun in the title.

I’ll let his official site’s info page tell you who he is, if you’re unfamiliar. I first encountered him when I watched RiP: A Remix Manifesto (which you can freely watch or download), a documentary-ish film about copyright which will most likely end up in my dissertation’s bibliography. He also features in Good Copy, Bad Copy, another film I will inevitably be referencing.

I’m currently reading his latest book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Unlike most of the other books I’m looking at for this paper, I’m not scanning it, hunting down the most relevant snippets of info. No, I’m actually reading it. Because the man writes well. And he’s persuasive. I sometimes feel like I’m nodding along as I read, as if he were in the room talking to me. Maybe I am actually nodding. But that would make reading text a bit tricky, so I’d have noticed if I was.

Lessig’s all about balance. Unlike some of the activists in this area, who are fighting for its abolition, Lessig believes that copyright is a good thing. There’s just a (significant) lack of balance in its current implementation. His aim is to strike that balance: between protecting authors of works, while allowing others to reuse, reinterpret and remix those works without fear of being sued.

To that end he (co-)founded Creative Commons, “a nonprofit organization that develops, supports, and stewards legal and technical infrastructure that maximizes digital creativity, sharing, and innovation.” Creative Commons offers licences, which artists use to let people know what rights they have in relation to using the work. The default one is the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (BY-NC-SA) licence, which allows the public to share the work and to remix it, provided they attribute the source, do not sell it and share any remixes they make in the same fashion. At first glance, it sounds like a something only nerdy amateurs would be messing around with. But some nerdy famous folk have been at it too. And with rewarding results.

Creative Commons will definitely feature if/when I discuss alternatives to copyright in the dissertation, so I may end up writing more about it here. Or not. Time is of the essence and these blog posts, while helpful (for me at least!), are obviously not as high on my priority list as the paper itself!

I shall leave you with Lessig’s 2007 TED talk. Enjoy! [it seems Universal Music Group doesn’t want people embedding this in blogs – how hilariously apt! You can watch it on Youtube here.]
(He also did one last year. It is here.)


Non-Album Tracks #1: ‘Tightrope’

In this series, I’ll highlight some of my favourite non-album tracks, i.e. songs artists have released in some way other than on one of their canonical studio albums. For example: standalone singles, B-sides, songs on soundtracks, those new tracks on greatest hits/best of releases, etc.

First up, my favourite song from one of my favourite bands of the last couple of years.

Yeasayer – ‘Tightrope’

Released on:
Dark Was The Night [Compilation – 2009]


I was first drawn to Yeasayer when I learned of their involvement in Two Suns, Bat for Lashes’ 2009 album, which happens to be in my top ten of the last decade. This was probably in April or May of that year, while I was still in the initial stages of my obsession with the Bat for Lashes album. This spurred me on to get All Hour Cymbals, Yeasayer’s first – and at that time, only – album. The first song, ‘Sunrise’, grabbed me immediately, as I’m sure it does most who hear it. But the rest of the album, even the mighty ‘2080’, just seemed a bit too hippie-ish for my tastes at the time.

Fast forward about seven months and ‘Ambling Alp’, with its completely insane (and NSFW) video, was gaining a lot of traction. When I first listened to it, I was expecting some more of the same long-haired, flowery stuff. How wrong I was. The song was utterly phenomenal. Suddenly, I had an upcoming album release to get very excited about.

Yeasayer’s second album, Odd Blood, was released in early February 2010. However, several weeks earlier, it leaked online and the Internet pounced on it. I won’t lie, I was already very familiar with the album by  the time the official release date came round. ‘O.N.E.’ was my new favourite song in the whole world (it ended up with a wacky video too, but its edit of the song is so disappointingly inferior, I’m not linking to it!). This premature familiarity and love encouraged me to get a ticket for their mid-February show at The Academy in Dublin.

On a buzz about the upcoming show, I was keen to (re-)familiarize myself with their back catalogue. This mainly meant giving All Hour Cymbals another try. Which I did. And it certainly grew on me. Not nearly to the extent that Odd Blood violently infected me, but it grew, particularly ‘Forgiveness’ (my pick of the album) and the choral closer, ‘Red Cave’.

It also meant getting to ‘Tightrope’:

This was the band’s contribution to Dark Was the Night , a two-CD compilation released in February 2009 by the Red Hot Organization in order to raise money and awareness for HIV and AIDS. The compilation was one of the numerous releases I had got in 2009, but never got round to listening to, due to my lifelong tendency to be overwhelmingly fixated on one artist at a given time. It’s like a kind of serial monogamy with music. It has always been extremely difficult – almost impossible – for any “various artists” compilations to break through that. The only successful one I can think of is the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World soundtrack and that obsession (which was mainly just an extension of my obsession with the film) didn’t last very long.

So yes, I did have Dark Was The Night. But even though I was a big fan of several of the artists featured on it (e.g. Feist, Arcade Fire, Yo La Tengo), I hadn’t given it a chance. In early 2010, though, Yeasayer was quickly becoming my new exclusive partner and I was determined to let ‘Tightrope’ into my life. I listened to it. It was very good. I went to the gig. They played it. It was very good.

“Very good” isn’t really good enough to warrant a blog post like this, though, is it? No it’s not.

(Interestingly enough, the above determination didn’t extend to the Wait For The Summer single’s ‘Final Path’, which they also played at the February gig, the studio version of which I’m listening to for the first time right now…)

So when did it get better than “very good”? It’s something I can’t pinpoint. There definitely wasn’t any big Eureka moment where it all just clicked and I suddenly loved it. I liked the song from the very first time I heard it. I just liked it more each time I heard it again. This appreciation just increased so slowly, that I never realized that the transition from liking it to being completely in love with it even happened. I was the frog that was boiled alive! I may have been the only one for whom it was slow burner, as many of the reviews of Dark Was The Night singled the track out for praise.

Where did ‘Tightrope’ come from?

According to an interview with Drowned in Sound, the song was conceived at the same time as ‘Wait for the Summer’ and other tracks from All Hour Cymbals and they have been playing it live since before that album was released. In February 2008, they performed it as part of their Take-Away Show, where they were interrupted mid-song by pesky neighbours. Chris Keating references that event in a specially recorded session in Brooklyn (also filmed by Vincent Moon) to promote the release of Dark Was The Night:

We played this song already a little bit – got interrupted by neighbours in Paris when we were doing it at one point. Then we kind of wrote it for real, recorded it up… now it’s a real song.

Those two versions are clearly stripped down, compared to the studio version. The latter one differs even more significantly, with it’s odd instrumentation, more relaxed pace and slightly altered melodies. These variations reveal just how simple the song is at its core. The whole thing rests on a simple, mellow, unchanging four-chord progression. It’s what goes on around it that gives the song its magic.

While I do like the piano from the Paris version and the banjo and melodicas from the Brooklyn one, it’s the studio version – which forms the basis of its usual live renditions – that really gets me. Key to this is the rhythm of the drums, which manage to march along, but as though they were slightly unsteady, always on the verge of stumbling. Most of all, it’s Keating’s vocal performance. Yes, the song features some of the band’s trademark harmonization, but it’s the lead here that stands out a mile. This is especially true with the second verse, where he cries out the first and third lines pleadingly, then dismisses them (reassuringly) with a load of never minds in the second and fourth.

Yeasayer played at the Academy again in October. Overall, the show wasn’t as good as the February one. I don’t know the reason(s) why exactly; it could have been as mundane as it being on a Monday night, while the February gig was on a Friday. One thing that was far better, though, was my appreciation of ‘Tightrope’. I literally squealed when those drums kicked in (an all-too-early four songs into the set). They held out the beat for what seemed like an age, before the keyboard intro started. And when Keating got to that second verse, I cried out along with him.

Here’s hoping they keep playing it at their shows. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t. As this reviewer states, it’s “interesting to hear the group play a song that was stashed away on a compilation, although it’s really too good not to play.”

It really is.


The Dissertation Files #2: Katz Captures Sound Capture

What I learned from reading (select chapters of) a book. That introductory sentence probably wasn’t necessary. That explanatory one probably wasn’t either.

Mark Katz is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, according to its back cover, “explores how recording technology has encouraged new ways of listening to music, led performers to change their practices, and allowed entirely new musical genres to come into existence.” I took this book out of the college library in mid-November, but didn’t open it until a few days ago. Yes, I have renewed it.

I was mostly concerned with the seventh chapter of the book, entitled “Music In 1s and 0s: The Art and Politics of Digital Sampling”. The chapter actually addresses a significant portion of the questions my chosen topic raises. Possibly too many?! I have some worries that this particular may become a crutch of some kind. I’ll definitely have to prevent any reliance on it.

Katz introduces the concept of digital sampling with the example of Clyde Stubblefield’s drum break in James Brown’s 1970 song ‘Funky Drummer, Part 1 and 2’, which is supposedly the most sampled break in popular music. He says the break “enjoys a promiscuous, chameleonic existence”, appearing in quite a wide and varied range of songs, having been manipulated using digital technology. “In each example … something of the original sound is maintained, yet its meaning changes in every new setting.”

Stubblefield is also one of the subjects in a documentary called Copyright Criminals, which I will inevitably draw on while doing this dissertation. Although his performance has been appropriated so frequently, he apparently has yet to received any credit or compensation for any of these samples. What’s interesting is that this isn’t because all these artists have used the sample illegally – though I’m sure some have, it’s because Stubblefield was just a hired hand in the studio. James Brown is credited as the composer of the song, including this drum solo. So, even if every one of these cases of sampling were all “legitimate”, the credit and the cash would be heading to the James Brown estate, not the actual performer whose performance is being used. As such, it would be disingenuous to claim that the samplers are somehow depriving Stubblefield from potential revenue – a kind of argument oft used by proponents of strict copyright laws and protection.

Anyway, back to Katz!

He goes on to describe what digital sampling is, namely “a type of computer synthesis in which sound is rendered into data, data that in turn comprise instructions for reconstructing that sound.” He likens sampling a jigsaw puzzle: “a sound is cut up into pieces and then put back together to form a digitized ‘picture’ of that sound.” In this process, the sound is not captured in its entirety. Instead, at a certain rate (e.g. 44,100 times a second), the amplitude of the sound rate is measured, with this measurement stored as a number. In order to reconstruct the sound, “sampling can … be fast and fine enough so that the human ear perceives a continuous and faithfully rendered reproduction.”

When a sound is captured like this, it can then be altered and shaped in many different ways. This is the advantage of digital sampling.

Tempo and pitch can be increased or decreased in any increment, and the two can be manipulated independently… Sounds can be reversed, cut, looped, and layered; reverberation can be added; certain frequencies within a sound can be boosted or deemphasized. Noise can be removed to make an old recording sound pristine, or even added to make a pristine recording sound old, as can often be heard in recent popular music. All of these manipulations can be visited upon any sound, musical or otherwise, and on any length of sound that can be recorded. A sample can be a fraction of a waveform, a single note from an instrument or voice, a rhythm, a melody, a harmony, or an entire work or album. Although sampling, particularly when done well, is far from a simple matter, the possibilities it offers are nearly limitless.

Katz explores the roots of digital sampling, “as a form of musical borrowing.” He cites various instances of such borrowing over the last millennium: medieval chants borrowing earlier ones; Liszt and Rachmaninoff using ‘The Day of Wrath’; Bach reworking Vivaldi; Gounod reworking Bach; etc. Then he asks:

Yet isn’t there something fundamentally different between such traditional acts of borrowing and digital sampling? It is sometimes said that while a quotation is simply a representation of another piece, a sampled passage of music is that music. But that depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.

As we saw above, after sampling a sound, one is left with but an approximation or ‘picture’ of the sound, not the sound itself. Okay, so the approximation might be one so good that a listener may not be able to distinguish it from the source – but it is an approximation nonetheless. So, “if sampling represents sound, we cannot say that a sampled passage of music is that music.”

However, this representation is in a completely different league from those historical examples. Gounod certainly wasn’t able to capture the sound of the air in the room when Bach was composing his Prelude in C Major, whereas a digital sample of Stubblefield’s drum break can recreate, in great detail, how the space in which he was drumming sounded. Rather than borrowing just a piece of work, sampling allows us to borrow “a unique sound event”: a specific performance.

Katz uses three case studies to examine different uses of sampling. The first is Paul Lansky’s ‘Notjustmoreidlechatter’, a piece built from samples of his wife reading Jane Eyre. The piece is quite startling. You can clearly tell the sounds are that of human speech, but it is nigh on impossible to pick out what words or phrases the sounds have come from. Indeed, the chances of someone oblivious to its origins listening to it and picking out the text that was used would be nil. If, instead of taking a novel from the public domain, Lansky had used a contemporary, copyrighted piece of writing, I would find it hard to believe that its author would accuse him of any kind of theft. Have a listen and see if you agree (headphones advisable):

Of course, the question I’m asking is: what if it were a copyrighted piece of music?

The second and third case studies do use audio resources, in different ways. Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’ centres on the unaccompanied vocal part that opens of Camille Yarbrough’s ‘Take Yo’ Praise’:

Wait, unaccompanied?! Yes, this surprised me too. I had assumed the vocal and piano were from the same source. Admittedly I never gave it a very close listen – and hadn’t listened to it for a long time. Listening now, with that knowledge, it seems obvious. But back then, Norman Cook had 15-year-old me completely fooled. I suppose it helps that the opening of the song (the piano and vocal) is so clearly distinct from what happens when the whole thing kicks off a minute into it. Also, I was probably distracted by the Spike Jonze video.

But what effects do/did Cook’s sampling have on the original recording and its performer? Some argue that the sampling “neuters Yarbrough”, “changes [her] voice in such a way that it is less nuanced than the original” and eliminates the original’s eroticism, rendering her voice asexual. Katz goes on to offer “another possibility, perhaps not mutually exclusive … that Cook is disempowering Yarbrough, erasing her history, identity, and vitality.” Similarly, one could argue that this is “just another example of a white musician appropriating and denuding black culture for profit and fame?”


It turns out that Yarbrough was actually “pleasantly surprised” when she first heard the song. She was pleased that Cook had sampled the hook from ‘Take Yo’ Praise,’ which she considers the emotional core of her song, with an important message to offer… Yarbrough also feels that the gospel quality Cook lent the sample was appropriate, and brought out the spirituality of her song, at least in the opening of ‘Praise You.’ … And although Yarbrough seems ambivalent about what she calls the ‘dance hall’ sound of the remainder of the song, she does not feel that it in any way devalues her work. After all, she points out, ‘I can still do that song as I do it. And so what he did, thats’ on him; what I do, that’s me.’

Cook also gave her a co-writer credit and a considerable 60% of the royalties. Is this Cook being fair? Generous? Or perhaps he wished to avoid a repeat of when Pete Townshend “was given sole composer credit … and 100 percent of the royalties” of an earlier song in which he sampled (a cover of) The Who’s ‘I Can’t Explain’.

As well as receiving money from the sales and licensing, Yarbrough has benefited from Cook’s song in other ways:

‘Praise You’ has brought a good deal of positive attention to Yarbrough and her music, leading to the re-release of her 1975 album The Iron Pot Cooker; two remixes of the song, and a reevaluation of her place in popular music by the press. Cook may have ‘chopped chunks’ out of Yarbrough’s song, but the result hardly seems to have been disempowering.

The third case study is of Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power‘.

The backing track of ‘Fight the Power’ contains dozens of samples, most of which are less than one second long. These individual fragments are “chopped, looped, layered, and transformed” to create a complex, polyrhythmic sound which has a “dizzying, exhilarating, and tantalizing” effect. The sampling also reflects the political message of the lyrics. Chuck D. raps about important black figures’ lack of recognition in America, while accompanied by “samples, literally in the form of digitized snippets, of the work of [Public Enemy’s] underrepresented heroes”.

One of my favourite parts of this section is where Katz dismisses the possibility of this sample-based music being replicated live:

…it would be extraordinarily difficult, perhaps impossible, to reproduce the dense polyphony and distinctive timbres of the rhythm track without digital sampling. Even if the sampled musicians were to perform their chopped and looped parts in concert (an unlikely prospect!), they themselves could not exactly reproduce the original. It is not simply their voices or their playing that is important, but specific and well-known performances as mediated through recording technologies and heard on discs of a certain vintage.

Katz closes the chapter explaining how, instead of requiring traditional forms of notation and people to perform, “composers who work with samples work directly with sound, thus becoming more like their counterparts in the visual and plastic arts.” With that, “sampling has transformed the very art of composition.”


So, almost everything in this chapter directly relates to issues I want to address: what sampling is; how it can be used; how sampled artists react to, may benefit from and/or may suffer from having their work sampled; if sampling can be original or creative; and so on.

The chapters either side of this one were also of interest. Chapter six spoke about turntablism. This clearly has parallels with digital sampling, as turntablists use their equipment and skills to “[alter] existing sounds and [produce] a wide range of wholly new ones.” And, among the community, originality is of the utmost importance, however, it “is not judged on the source of the raw materials, but in their selection, juxtaposition, and transformation.” This chapter also really made me want to re-watch Scratch.

Chapter eight tackled the issue of online peer-to-peer file-sharing, the implications of which (with regard to copyright) definitely relate to my chosen topic.

Alas, I have gone on a bit. And I really need to focus on (so many) other sources of information. But hopefully this has given some more insight into what I’m researching.