McGuinn and his things
In Swedish Public service broadcaster SVT’s series about important pop and rock songs, Roger McGuinn yesterday retold his story of how Mr Tambourine Man was developed. As told so many times there is always the mix of how the Dylan original song, some Beatles beats, a twelve-string guitar, and Mr McGuinn himself, together created the Byrds’ sound. Here one of many from Youtube:
As many musicologists and media scholars have noticed – I suppose they have, and they should have done that – writers of ‘classic’ songs have to be good storytellers. Television, and radio, seem to have made founding myths of popular songs mandatory not only as music historiography, but part of the songs.
How many times have not heard Neil Sedaka told the story of Oh! Carol, here including analysis of Billboard pop charts, some Villa-Lobos, the popularity of female names as song titles, his girlfriend’s name, and voilá, The Song. And then we have Keith Richards waking up playing what would become Satisfaction etc. Richards and Sedaka confirms two opposites in popular culture historiography – inspiration and analysis. Both are examples of how particularly television, but surely radio too, have internalised a kind of genealogical impulse. Or rather, a commodification of genealogical desires.
McGuinn is more interesting. His story does not only involve inspiration and analysis. It is depended upon media technologies. There is a failed Dylan recording. Listening to Beatles on the radio. And of course the twelve-string Rickenbacker. The transformation of folk music and Bach becomes subordiated to the technologies. Thereby, his own creative work is not ‘purely’ inspirational and/or analytical, it becomes a quintessentially 1965 pop music engineering.
I suppose it is not that much work to make a McGuinn story collection. I leave that for some student essay writers…
Since so much of (popular) pop music history tend to be pretty romantic, great artist making great art, McGuinn is almost archaeological in his approach. Even if the narrative is linear, the linearity is not the point. The combination of involved objects (I am trying to escape a Latourian terminology) which relate to each other seem to be more important than the order of events.
So, the sound could not have been created with another guitar. The Bach intro is on the one hand a proof of McGuinn’s musical knowledge, but could on the other hand perhaps also be attributed to the twelve-string guitar, perhaps even to it being suited for radio. The relationship between the Beatles beat and Bach therefore combines the radio with the guitar.
McGuinn’s story makes the ‘electrification’ of Dylan into a more complex media technological-music historical-LA music people relations where the technology becomes as important as the roles of McGuinn, Dylan (and Crosby in the background).
Thus it is probably impossible to write (popular) music history of the last 50 years, particularly the canonised part of the history, without acknowledging the power of television (as well as the music technological objects involved). For media scholars this rather obvious. But, looking at how television helped shape this history, television may also help revealing the creative myths surrounding popular music.
The question is if historians of popular music are sustaining the myths, while television repeatedly reveal what stories like McGuinn’s already has revealed: there is nothing ‘behind’ the story, there is only the events and the objects that are ordered differently if listen to the stories, read the musicologists, or watch television.