Several weeks ago a suitcase was picked up at a flea market in Australia that could have potentially been the sort of thing that would have caused the guy on Antiques Roadshow to gush from every orifice: It was thought to contain Beatles memorabilia, including heretofore unheard recordings. The speculation was that the suitcase had been the property of a man who had worked as a roadie for the band, as well as had spent time working in some capacity in the recording studio. He was reportedly killed by police in 1976. In L.A., not Sydney. Subsequently, a “Beatles expert” came to the conclusion that the contents of the case were not “authentic.” While aspects of the story would lend themselves to novelization by, say, Kinky Friedman, it raises another point, this about how musicians are generally perceived by listeners.
Fundamentally, the basis of general perception is a simple one: We are provided with what is, in the parlance of the industry, “produced.” That term is a good one if you consider the associated term: “manufactured.” An object that is manufactured is not natural, not organic. It may most certainly begin with organic elements (though that is not necessary), but those elements are manipulated and processed to become a “product.” That is what we hear. Something that has been manipulated. Somebody—or more likely, somebodies—makes a determination of what music is released to the market. This is no different than the choices made as to what new car appears in showrooms or which new flavor of Sobé appears on the shelves. The product’s release is predicated on an analysis of success in the market. We hear what is deemed most likely to appeal, most likely to sell. In other words, we know the music of (most) performers after an orchestration of controllable aspects of the presentation. What may seem and sound simple and straightforward may actually be the result of extensively baroque efforts.
(Some people may dispute this by citing “live” performances, but the technology of lip synching has been taken to such levels that it often defies sussing by those aren’t actual CSI-style investigators. And does the term “Milli Vanilli” ring any chimes?)
Let’s get back to the case. The suitcase. What if it turned out that the “unheard” recordings, when heard, were, well, shit? What if what we have long considered to be the music of the Beatles was nothing more than George Martin’s engineering of a group of musicians who were not the four whom we thought we have been listening to? What if the whole thing really is a murder mystery with motive?*
It probably doesn’t really matter. Well, at least not from a musical point of view. Every time we put on a disc, turn on the radio, or download music, we are hearing something that has been produced. Does it matter, audibly, if the music comes from a particular person or a specific instrument being played by one? If you answer that “yes,” then the questions that arise are (1) why and (2) how do you know that the source of the music is what you think it is? After all, it would be as easy to create the “sound” of a particular musician or band as it is to make Fred Astaire dance with a vacuum cleaner in a TV commercial. What is it about personas that are so important when we listen to music? Is it the persona or the performance that is important? Is it the music or the maker? Try to separate the person or the band from the experience. It can’t be done effectively. Hearing a “Beatles” song (or any other band, for that matter) performed by another group, even if it is a note-for-note rendition, you will conclude that it is not as “good” as the “original.”
We listen with more than our ears.**
*Imagine the consequences if it was discovered that the “Beatles” really were fakes. The value of their music would plummet faster than a fraudulent Van Gogh. (Think about the fact of art fakes: Even though there is a finite amount of work from any given deceased artist, even though there are countless art majors and curators and auction-house experts, dodgy works have been found displayed on the walls of even the most high-toned institutions.)
**This is not just the case with music. Let’s say that it was discovered that Hamlet wasn’t written by the man whom we have come to think of as “William Shakespeare.” Whether that other person was Bacon or Marlowe, the play would not resonate as well as it does. If it was written by a complete unknown, chances are, outside of English departments, the play would drop from sight in short order.