Better than Real

On January 13, 2012, in Culture, by psu

Today a trailer for a documentary film about a band I have never heard of reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write down. Since the thought was too long to fit into twitter. Here we go.

First, this band LCD Sound System apparently came into being, published its body of work, and flamed out prematurely before I had even managed to obtain any hint whatsoever of its existence. I think this says more about me than the band, or the music scene, but I found the situation a bit disturbing.

Second, while I was watching the trailer I decided that it didn’t matter that I’d never heard of the band, because this film will inevitably be better than having seen the last show live.

At this point you are saying “that psu, he’s nuts like always.” But bear with me.

In my mind, rock and roll shows are primarily about two things. First, there is the visual and physical spectacle of the stage show itself. Second, there is the auxiliary ritual pleasure of hearing the band play songs you know over again for you, even though you have heard them dozens of times.

I say films do both of these things better.

Consider another concert film from a long time ago about another band that I had barely heard of until I had already lost the opportunity to see them live at their peak. Stop Making Sense, which documents the Talking Heads tour behind the album Speaking in Tongues has become one of the iconic films of the genre. There are two reasons why.

1. The film lays down a visual tapestry that you can only capture by being allowed to carry a camera around on stage and through the crowd. The Heads shows were renowned for a lot of lighting and on-stage effects, but the way they are captured on film and then edited together into pleasing sequences simply destroys anything you’d be able to see while stuck to a single seat in the room.

2. The film sounds better. Let’s be clear: rock and roll shows sound like shit. I have admittedly only been to maybe a dozen shows in my life, but the only one of those dozen that did not sound like shit was put on by They Might Be Giants at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum last year. Why did it not sound like crap? They had to save the kids’ ears, so they did not turn the sound system up so high that the sound actually distorts off the walls of the room.

A year later I saw TMBG live in Downtown Pittsburgh at a show for large children (adults). This time they played full blast, and it sounded like shit. Even the words of songs I’ve heard dozens of times were so frazzled and broken apart by the distortion that I could not really hear them at all. This all served to mask undeniably great musicianship (in particular, the band made Jonathan Coulton sound like a semi-amateur geek dilettante). So it’s sad. Why do they not want to allow me to hear how well they play?

Anyway, I am sort of sad I never heard of LCD Sound System. They sound kind of interesting. But, I’m glad I’ll be able to actually hear what their music sounds like if I see this film. Because I’m pretty sure I’d have missed it seeing them live.


7 Responses to “Better than Real”

  1. peterb says:

    I was at both of those They Might Be Giants shows, and you’re absolutely right. I actually walked out of the adults’ show after the first intermission, because I couldn’t fucking hear anything beyond a vague undifferentiated muddy roar.

  2. Adam R says:

    It totally depends on the venue (and the sound technician). I love live music, and one thing that the concert films don’t capture is the intensity of being there. It’s similar to going to a play or watching one on Masterpiece Theater — the version on PBS may allow you to pause or see a different view, but sitting there in the theater also has its advantages.

    And I *was* at that final LCD Soundsystem concert. Madison Square Garden is a shitty venue in so many ways, but it was still hands down my best live concert experience last year. I went to more than 60 concerts in 2011 and it easily trumped them all. (Runner up: the first Wild Flag show at the Black Cat in DC, before their album came out and the audience didn’t know what to expect.) I’m eagerly looking forward to their concert film as well as this documentary, but they’ll supplement rather than replace my memory of that experience.

  3. Chris C. says:

    They Might Be Giants learned how to play their instruments?

    They played in the UC at CMU when I was a grad student. I had never heard of them before going to the show, but my friends assured me they were good.

    Now, the show was a lot of fun — everyone in the room got jumping up and down, and we learned what it was like to destroy a sprung ballroom dance floor (while it flexed up and down by 4″ or more…). But the musicians in the band? I’ve heard better amateurs. They had trouble singing in tune, and could barely pick out a simple melody. Doug B. played one of their recordings for me after the show, and I didn’t recognize the songs I had just heard — their recordings are way better than anything they did live.

    That is, except for the bass player. He was a ringer, and quite skilled. In one song they made the mistake of giving him a solo — and he started thrashing, totally schooling the other members of the band. Until the lead singer glared at him, and he switched to cheesily picking out a variant of pop goes the weasel as his solo.

  4. Akiva Leffert says:

    Stop Making Sense is an awesome movie, but I saw David Byrne live a few years ago. It was probably the best show I’ve ever been to and it blew the socks off the movie.

  5. Ian McC. says:

    I’m a “rock concert guy.” I’ve seen hundreds of them. Adam R touched on this briefly, but the truth about concert sound is this: Good sound is *possible* in virtually any venue. Good sound is *expensive* and *very difficult to achieve* in all but the very best venues (typically Opera House/Theater type places). This state of affairs is made even worse by the fact that many acts/engineers try to make up for inferior sound, or a bad room by increasing the volume. I have an interesting example:

    (As a preface to the rest of this, I should mention that I’ve worn earplugs at almost every concert I’ve seen after Page & Plant in the summer of 1998 when I didn’t hear right for 4 days afterwards. I’ve had my hearing tested by an audiologist recently (2011) and thankfully I still have “above average” hearing.)

    I saw Bob Dylan open for a Phil & Friends (a Grateful Dead offshoot) at the Civic Arena in 1999. It was the most awful sounding show ever — a muddy, unintelligible assault on my ears. The backslap in that building was astoundingly bad. I concluded that the Civic Arena just had irreparably awful acoustic properties (which it probably did). I had to wear earplugs, and the sound was so bad that I actually considered leaving the show (but didn’t.)

    Then, four or five years later, my housemates offered me a ticket to go see the Rolling Stones in the same building. I was blown away by how good the sound was. I took my earplugs out, and found it very comfortable to listen without them. The volume was entirely reasonable, still extremely present, and very listenable. There was NO detectable backslap at all, and every instrument was easily identifiable with great separation and clarity. Of course, the sound system that the Stones toured with was way oversized for that room, which is one part of it (it’s always better to have an oversized PA than an undersized one). But it also had clearly been deftly tuned to compensate for all the room effects.

    There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that the march of technology increases the “quality per dollar” of sound systems. Some acts will take advantage of that to put on shows with better sound. The bad news is that many others will take advantage of it to cut touring costs and boost their touring profit margin. I suspect that truly awesome sound will continue to be limited to top-eschelon touring acts and stationary installations (like big festivals, etc.)

  6. psu says:

    I guess next time I’ll bring ear plugs. Or maybe those big headphone shaped ear protectors. That would be a nice look.

  7. bhudson says:

    First off, if you’re in your seat at the rock concert, you’re doing it wrong. Either it’s good so you should be moving to the music, or it’s bad so you should be moving to somewhere else.

    Second, most of the US cranks the volume stupidly high. Wear earplugs so you can still hear your kids when you turn 50. And put earplugs in their ears.