The Hiss

And so, poisoned by the zeitgeist, little by little things once known became un-known.

Old jazz recordings became silent first, instrument by instrument. Some retained the gentle swish of brushes on hi-hat for a while, or perhaps the lonely plucking of a double bass. But soon, all that was left was the hiss. The legendary torch-singers, those vocalists whose interpretations of the great mid-century American songs had become standards, were erased.

But it was when the Elvis and Beatles recordings were affected that the tabloids took note. In ever-shriller tones, they asked why? What was happening to all they held dear?

The King vanished; his songs became instrumentals and only the ghostly vocals of backing singers punctuated the music. Even they were affected: the ravages of age on the vocal cords rendered their harmonies weaker, day by day.

First Lennon, then Harrison, too, disappeared. She Loves You was infected before Get Back, of course. The early songs were reduced: to a rhythm section and faltering harmonies which backed vocals that had un-sounded as the recordings aged.

Across the world, MP3s were re-ripped; CDs tried on other machines; vinyl inspected for blemishes and flaws. Even tapes were brought out of attics and fed through cassette players. No recording had escaped; all showed signs of ageing.

An orgy of criticism briefly flared as mid-period Beatles songs wasted away, leaving their constituent elements open for inspection. Shorn of Lennon’s vocal or piano, the loops, the effects, and the layered channels of sound remained for a short while. Exposed like archaeological findings, they were pored over feverishly until finally they, too, degraded.

Nothing was immune. The sneering rage of punk could not withstand the rigours of age, and in time their fury dropped an octave, or shrivelled into muted croaking.

Nor did technology escape. Chicago House and Detroit Techno – recorded on machines already vintage – detuned and fused; dropped out and faded away. Rap followed, and Acid House and Drum ‘n Bass. Vast expanses of silence were punctured by leftover samples; set adrift of their moorings they hung like staccato ghosts.

Soon, no proof was left of the advances these genres had once made. Only reviews and analyses remained – hyperbole and bias – but the art had succumbed to time.

Then, voices began to doubt these things had ever existed; or, admitting at least that much, argued over their form, their style, their intent and meaning. Voices – shrill voices – rose to decry and to deny them.

And so now we start again, in the knowledge this time that the songs will not outlive us; that each riff will age and die, crippled by palsy; that chord progressions will be felled like stroke victims. That what we thought had been said for all time was, after all, open to question.


Image courtesy Pokpok