Noise has been a part of recorded music since its earliest days. Our resident curator of rare discs digs out a few examples that use noise to make music. or are they just noisy records?
It’s not always easy to distinguish between noise records, and records that are noisy. I’m not quite sure which is which. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were interested in noise. Their ‘Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins’ is pretty much a noise record, and there are elements of noise on both ‘Unfinished Music No. 2: Life With The Lions’ and ‘Wedding Album’, both released in 1969, though they got less noise-oriented with each release. An obvious and well-known noise record is Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’, which is four sides of pretty uncompromising noise. He called it music, and I do see it as music. To me, noise sounds normal, I’ve always been drawn to it. The B-side of ‘I Got The Fear’, a really early Meat Beat Manifesto single, was sheer noise, and on a recent run of live dates one of the tracks we played was noise. It was like an intermission. I’ve been doing stuff like that as far back as 1981.
I remember seeing Adi Newton from Clock DVA do live show at the ICA in the 1980s, it was his Fabricata Illuminata side project, which used noise. The audience was in the round, and the band burned hair and released CS gas to make the atmosphere awful, and there was a guy with some device strapped around his shoulders and headphones who kept barging into you, knocking your pint all over your face. It was all about intimidation and aggression, and it was one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen.
As far as records go, I certainly have some noise in my collection. For example, Folkways released an album called ‘Sounds Of The Junk Yard’ in 1964. But it’s not really noise record as such, it’s just recorded really badly. It’s so badly recorded that the sounds of heavy industry machines in a junk yard, at ear-splitting levels, could be construed as being a noise record, but it wasn’t supposed to be. What point do you draw the line? ‘Junk Yard’ always gets listed when people talk about industrial noise records, and it fetches $100 or more when it comes up for sale, but it’s completely unlistenable.
‘This Is IT’ by Alan Watts and friends, including Henry Jacobs, was released in 1962. Basically they were on drugs and made a bunch of noise. It came out on Henry’s label, MEA, which was based in Sausalito, near where I live in the Bay Area of San Francisco. They were using instruments to make a bunch of noise and screaming and yelling, and actually calling it a musical “happening”, that’s quite an early example of that word being used in this kind of context. Alan Watts was a English philosopher who drank himself to death. He made a couple of records, pre-hippy, not so much a beatnik like Henry was. Henry was running his website up until when he died last year, he was a big influence in his life.
Further back than that is a seven-inch released in 1958 by Fritz Enkel who was associated with the electronic studio that was established in Gravesano, Switzerland. It’s amazing to think that as Elvis Presely was getting going, this guy was making noise records. It was part of a series of records put together by a highbrow magazine. It’s science explorations really, psycho-acoustic electronic experiments, sound synthesis. It’s difficult to listen to, but it blew my mind. For some contemporary noise, the best is Merzbow.