'80s Tech Nostalgia, '70s Jazz

This week’s newsletter takes a look back at CD+G, a 1980s CD bonus that you may have sitting on your CD shelves unaware. Then a review of a classic jazz album produced by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

Plus links to stories on Judy Garland and Stonewall, The 100 Most Iconic albums by African American women, the roots music compilation that never happened, how the music industry works, the death of Berlin’s nightclubbing, and how country music whitewashed some of the black musicians who helped create the genre, and a track from Bob Dylan’s new album “Rough and Rowdy Ways”. The only way out is forward!

CD + G: 1980s Music CD Bonus

If you're into karaoke then you probably know what CD + G (CDG) is: an extra track of data on a CD Audio disc that can contain low-resolution graphics, used to provide the lyrics to songs for karaoke singers. The format, developed by Phillips and Sony in 1985 (the audio CD became available in 1982) is the de-facto standard for karaoke to this day. 

But, of course, when you're talking about music people, there's more than one way to use any piece of technology that comes along. Warner Brothers, under its Warner New Media banner, used CDG to release a number of graphic enhanced music CDs by major artists as well as a number of classical releases.

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If you were buying new CD releases between 1985 and the mid-90s you might have an example of CDG in your collection without even realizing it. That's because most regular CD drives didn't play the graphics track. There were limited players you could use at the time, with the biggest being the Philips CD-i, Sega Saturn, Amiga CD32, and Atari Jaguar CD. Some CD-ROM drives would also access this data, and since the early 2000s some DVD players support the format, but it's pretty random.

This is what the CDG logo would look like on these CDs, which would be helpful except for one thing: it was occasionally reprinted onto later issues of the disc that did NOT contain the graphics files.

So, what's a collector to do? And how can you see these videos if you're not planning on getting a CDG-compatible player anytime soon, not to mention hunting down some of the discs? 

CD + G file: Emmylou Harris/Bluebird Wine from ‘Pieces of the Sky’ album

That's where the Museum of CD + G comes in. Created by Steve Martin (not that one) and Orlando Arroyo, the museum features a list of the albums released with extended graphics as well as help identifying the original releases that actually contain the graphics data. The duo has also launched the Museum of CD + G channel on YouTube featuring the videos themselves, both individually and as playlists, one for each album. 

Talking Heads/Nothing But Flowers from ‘Naked’ album

So what kind of CDs received the +G treatment, and what type of graphics were included? Albums include Lou Reed's classic New York, Anita Baker's Rapture, Jimi Hendrix/Smash Hits, Ella Fitzgerald/Things Aren't What They Used to Be, as well as releases from Van Dyke Parks, Emmylou Harris, Talking Heads, a series of classical music titles, and the first CDG release, Firesign Theater's Eat or Be Eaten. 

So what do these graphics look like? A few of the CDG rips are included here for your review, but overall they're like video games at the time. Many of the CDG releases include lyrics, which is pretty natural, some use photographic images, others use transitional effects (think fade, swipe, or erase). Others show the chord progressions for popular songs and still others use the graphics area to tell a story or give info about the band.

Lou Reed/Romeo Had Juliette from ‘New York’

Some, like the Jimi Hendrix (only graphics available) or the compilation Psychedelia: Preview of an Album are like an early Grateful Dead light show or a Peter Max animation, which is pretty cool considering programmers were working with sixteen colors and a resolution of 288 by 192 pixels. 

Of course, the graphics look primitive and dorky today, but they were a cool thing back then. MTV went on the air in August of 1981, too, so people were hungry for visual images to pair with their music. Video games were coming online as well, and the folks at Warner New Media were surely looking at developing this aspect of the technology as well.


 ‘Apogee’ revisited

In 1978 saxophonists Warne Marsh, a ‘cool’ disciple of Lennie Tristano and Pete Christlieb, a more ebullient player who worked on Steely Dan recordings as well (he played the iconic tenor solo on Aja’s “Deacon Blues), went into the studio with Becker and Fagan at the boards and recorded the album Apogee.

The album, which is as straight-ahead post-bop as it gets, was released by the Warner Bros. Jazz department as a result of Becker and Fagan’s enthusiasm for the project. Becker and Fagan were flying high, with Aja having spent a number of weeks on the Billboard album charts. Even so, getting a major label to release a straight-ahead jazz recording with no gimmickry was a pretty big accomplishment. My guess is that these guys wanted to recreate one of those fantastic blowing session albums from Prestige or Blue Note that pitted two tenor sax players against each other: Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis or Sonny Rollins & John Coltrane (Tenor Madness) or Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray.

Warne Marsh & Pete Christlieb/Apogee (1978) Full album

In any event, the album is a classic, especially since many of Marsh’s recordings are hard to come by (though this has improved in the digital age). The pairing of Marsh and Christlieb hardly seems intuitive, but they turn out to be very complimentary players, and according to Robert Palmer’s liner notes, they came up with the idea of recording together themselves. “Tenors of the Time” is a high-powered blowing session worthy of any of those aforementioned tenor battles while “Magna-Tism” finds the two horns intertwining in a fine filigree of notes before they untwist for separate solos and rejoin for a couple of final choruses that are joyous indeed. The two also cover the standards “I’m Old Fashioned” and “Donna Lee” as well as a bebop composition by Becker/Fagan entitled “Rapunzel.”

At the time of its release, Fagan commented that the album was basically “for tenor freaks” and that is pretty much true. Since neither Christlieb nor Marsh was over-recorded, Apogee is a unique document that exists largely because of the success of Steely Dan and their ability, for that brief window in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to do whatever they wanted.


Bonus Tracks

  •  If you're not familiar with the 331/3 series of brief books, each of which covers an individual album chosen by the writer, you should be. One of the most recent books in the series is Manuel Betencourt's book on the Judy Garland recording Judy at Carnegie Hall. In this article, he debunks the myth that the Stonewall Riots grew out of frustration and grief at the death of Garland nearly a week before

  • Over at Medium's Zora publication, a group of panelists has put together a pretty impressive list of the 100 Most Iconic Records by African American Women. Encompassing jazz, gospel, rock, hip hop, and more, I would be hard-pressed to disagree with the inclusion of any of these records. 

  • 'The Roots Album That Never Got Made' is a fascinating account of the author's attempt to put together and release a recording of  Surinamese Maroon groups, and some of the roadblocks that kept the compilation from being released. It points out the difficulties in selling and promoting 'world music' while maintaining ties to the music's roots. 

  • An excerpt from the documentary 'Artifact' explaining how the music industry works in relation to recording artists. And although some of the details may change, it's the same for writers, visual artists, photographers, dancers, and other art performers. Someone else is making the money and the artists are getting the crumbs.

  • In light of protests and calls for a dismantling of systemic racism in all areas of life, country music has called out repeatedly for its deliberate writing out of black musicians who helped create the musical genre in the first place. This was partially the result of record companies believing they could only sell certain music to white listeners and other music to black listeners. This piece, in the Michigan Daily, is a good summary of country's ugly past and problematic present.  There's also a nifty Twitter thread from @1824Official that uses infographics to explain the history of country and the writing out of key black musicians in the development of country music. 

  • Of course, the music industry, in general, has a lot of equity issues to look at, with equity for black musicians, songwriters, performers, etc. being of immediate concern. That won't come quickly or easily for an industry mired in a tradition of exploitation of artists and of the theft of black musical styles with no compensation or even acknowledgment for original artists. Two solid pieces from this week: The Music Industry was Built on Racism from the Stamford Advocate and The Music Industry Wants to Fight Racism from Bloomberg

Leaving you this week with "My Own Version of You" from Bob Dylan's first new album in eight years, 'Rough and Rowdy Ways'

Have a great week, and thanks for reading and sharing New Directions In Music

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