It’s NOT what you think!
The year was 1969. The venue: Woodstock. Over 400,000 people came to watch 32 acts perform, including the Grateful Dead, CCR, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix.
The official last act on the playbill was Jimi Hendrix. If you’re thinking I’m talking about his rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, you’re wrong.
It was after Hendrix’ set that the great musical innovation was played. It wasn’t a Rock act at all. No, it wasn’t Ravi Shankar with his sitar, either. An unknown roadie named Marle C. Chapmud, who had serious musical aspirations, and who’d grown world-weary of music just trying to sound pretty, did the unthinkable. While Hendrix’ microphone was still live, he brought out a tape player, set it on a stool, and pushed a button. What came out was a recording he’d made earlier of a toilet flushing. It was amplified so loudly that every head turned.
It was as if the mother ship had descended upon Yasgur’s farm. People who were finally going home exhausted after days of camping at the festival and taking in an overwhelming amount of music were shocked into alert attentiveness. They thought they’d heard everything. But the sound of that single flush changed the trajectory of music history forever.
The people realized that nothing musicians were capable of creating could compete with the unintended perfection of pure sound coming from a mass-produced, industrial object. After that single flush, everyone knew that “the song” as a musical form was dead. No NEW song could be made. Originality and authenticity were no longer possible. It didn’t matter if musicians went to India to learn from sages (real or imposters); if they tripped on psychedelics into other planes of awareness; if they were drafted into the military and fought and killed for reasons they later found were specious; or if they were trying to live in a new way on a commune… None of that was new or genuine.
The musicians stopped making songs and abandoned their instruments. They realized that anything else other than songwriting was superior to songwriting. And anything other than playing instruments was superior to actually playing instruments. Auditoriums were thereafter filled with people coming to hear synchronized police sirens; the sound of a 2-ton buzzer; jackhammers used on the floor of the stage; or a chicken coup with a fox let loose into it. Later, avant-garde musicians realized that “songs” could be used again, but only as long as the musicians didn’t make them up themselves, or play them themselves. And they definitely couldn’t be good songs, because that would look like they believed in songs again. They looked to popular media for ready-made songs to borrow, and used hired musicians to perform and even compose hyper-real versions of them. Some of the best music was made by Fej Snoko, who, among other triumphs, hired the world’s best brass ensemble to play “Old McDonald” forte fortissimo for a gripping four hours.
And this is why no serious musicians write songs anymore.
“It changed everything. Suddenly, art could be made out of anything.” ~ Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor, discussing Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, “The Fountain”.