HAL on Earth

Good afternoon, Gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it, I can sing it for you.

Sci-fi fans will recognise the “dying words” of HAL, the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL goes mad, you see, and murders all but one of the crew of a spaceship. The one survivor shuts HAL down, and as his circuits die HAL sings “Daisy Bell” not especially well.

The film was made in 1968, when 2001 seemed a very long time in the future. It is full of guesses about what computers might be like in this glittering space age, and some things are wildly excessive – HAL can lip-read, from side on. Other things are pure 1968. HAL, like the computers of that period is HUGE, a giant mainframe the size of a small house. That’s how computers were back then. They were enormous, and very expensive, so there were not many of them. A university, a government agency or a large company might have one.

Something else about the computers of the late 1960s. Their information capacity was tiny, pitiful to modern eyes. A standard smart phone has about 64 gigabytes of memory. A gigabyte is 1000 megabytes. A megabyte is 1000 kilobytes. And the big, expensive computer you are about to meet could store 32 kilobytes of data.

0278 a

The ICL 1905 computer had a massive 32 kilobyte memory.

Let me introduce the ICL 1905. It was a computer, which was used by the Queensland Main Roads Department. And, in January 1969, it starred in a recording. Someone, the equivalent of HAL’s Mr Langley, had programmed it to play music. What does it sound like? Pretty much what you would expect from a computer with a 32K memory: truly awful.

But the fact that someone went to the trouble of pressing a record, to preserve this ghastly beeping for posterity, shows that getting a computer to play music was a real accomplishment, something exciting and new in 1969.

And now? It sounds like HAL on Earth. But it is fascinating, and truly weird. Just listen!

Side A

Side B

  • Artist: MRD [Queensland Main Roads Department] Computer ICL 1905 32K
  • A Side: Brahms: Waltz in A Flat
  • B Side: B1 Wagner: Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, B2 Colonel Bogey
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: custom pressing
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: none
  • Year: January 1969

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A homogeneous plastic mass

When I was growing up, there was a thing called “Kraft Cheddar Cheese”. This revolting, yellow foodstuff was nothing remotely like cheddar. In fact, it did not have much to do with cheese, either. As kids, we called it “plastic cheese”, and we were actually close to the mark. The origins of Kraft Cheddar lie with either sacrilege or ingenuity – depends on your point of view. During the First World War, James L. Kraft, a Chicago cheese seller, began shredding all the husks and rinds and discards from the cheddar he sold, mixed in sodium phosphate as a preservative and – voila! – gave the world the wonder that is “American process cheese”. This is the stuff which, to this day, limply sags in the fast-food take-away hamburger.

kraft-singles-cheese-646

When it was first being produced, the people who made actual cheese went to court demanding that Kraft not be able to call this new substance “cheese”. They were half-successful. What came to be known as “American cheese” was defined as “a stable concoction of natural cheese bits mixed with emulsifying agents” which would form, in legal language “a homogeneous plastic mass”. (I am indebted to David Clark on Mental Floss for this background.)

All of which is completely irrelevant, except that when I first heard of the German experimental group Kraftwerk, I immediately thought of Kraft and plastic cheese. And in a strange way, the association is a good one. In the 1970s, Kraftwerk were pioneers in electronic music – pushing the new technologies of synthesised music into a deliberately machine-made minimalism. Their subject matter was, deliberately, the mundane products of modernity. Repetition, mechanical reproduction, the future: these were Kraftwerk’s themes.

And the amazing thing? It works! It takes a little getting into, but there is real art here, a jazz-like restraint amid minimalist self-parody. Kraftwerk takes “machine modern mundane”, takes Kraft singles (a plastic box of plastic cheese, each slice wrapped in plastic) and turns it into art.

No, I didn’t believe it could werk. But take the time to listen, more than once. This stuff is addictive, subtle, worth revisiting. Unlike Kraft Cheddar Cheese.

 

  • Artist: Kraftwerk
  • LP Title: The Man Machine
  • Side 1, Track 2: “Spacelab”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Capitol Records
  • Catalogue: ST-11728
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1979

Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.

 

 

The good old Futurist days

Synth-pop was new and exciting once. To appreciate the music of the High Eighties, you have to get the freshness, the sense of possibility opened up by synthesisers. Some of it was a bit thin, a bit tinny, but at its best it had an energy, a zip. One of its best practitioners was Vince Clarke.

You know his work, even if you don’t know his name. He was a keyboard wizard, with a magic touch which made synths sing. He was one half of Yazoo (“Only You”) and early on with Depeche Mode (“Just Can’t Get Enough”) and later teamed up with another singer, Andy Bell, to form Erasure.

0039 labelThe thing about Clark, he loved – true l’amour– analogue synthesisers. This was before they were fully digital beasts. To record them you had to link everything up with cables and control voltage (CV) gate switches, hard at any time but nigh impossible when different manufacturers were involved. Things got easier in 1983, when an industry-wide standard system, MIDI, was introduced. It is the mark of the near obsessive-compulsive nature of the true musician that while Clarke used MIDI, and very well, he disliked it.

CV and Gate is tighter. I can hear and feel that it’s tighter than MIDI … Because everything is clocked simply, it arrives bang on the beat. … I think that ‘feel’ has been lost with MIDI sequencers. No matter what you do with MIDI, the music will never sound as good as it did in the good old Futurist days.

Strange to feel nostalgia for a Roland MC4, but eccentricity and creativity are often partners. And the main thing: Vince put all his circuits and keyboards and cables together and made something fabulous. It is tight, it does arrive bang on the beat. This is one of Erasure’s hits. Have a listen.

  • Artist: Erasure
  • Single title: Oh L’Amour
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, stereo
  • Label: Mute
  • Catalogue: MUTE 3000
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1986

 

 

Who killed Eleanor Rigby?

According to the song, Eleanor Rigby

… died in the church
And was buried, along with her name

How did she die? The song gives no clues, though I used to be suspicious of Father McKenzie. But I now have a new theory. Eleanor Rigby was killed by a Moog.

moogThe Moog (which is pronounced to rhyme with Minogue, as in Kylie, rather than moo, as in cow) was the first synthesiser to be widely used. There were earlier machines – one of them, the Novochord, appeared on a recording in 1949 – but the Moog was the first one to be commercially viable, and in the late 1960s it became popular to set well-known tunes to Moog arrangements.

And so Marty Gold, a veteran arranger and producer with RCA Victor, recorded Moog Plays the Beatles. It was released in 1969. The Beatles were still together, the Moon landings were big news, and the Moog must have sounded exciting, space-age, the wave of the future.

And now?

Well, have a listen, with open ears, and make up your own mind. Was Eleanor Rigby was murdered by a Moog?

  • Artist: Marty Gold
  • LP Title: Moog Plays the Beatles
  • Track: Side 1, Track 1 “Eleanor Rigby”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Summit
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1969

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs