Part 1: The Velvet Underground & Nico, Raw Power & Spiral Scratch
It began, like most modern pop phenomena, with Punk. I’m tempted to go back further, maybe to Elvis. But pre-Punk music which bears a stylistic resemblance to what we now think of as Lo-Fi is generally a product of its time & the technology used at that time. Higher fidelity wasn’t an option when Robert Johnson recorded his music. The Velvet Underground & Elvis recorded in the fidelity they could financially afford to. The fidelity wasn’t used as an artistic choice. Nobody celebrated or enthused about the fuzzy, low quality recordings the Lomax’s made for the American Library of Congress. They just accepted the imperfections, which we celebrate & actively pursue in Lo-Fi music, as limitations in the medium.
The evolution of Lo-Fi music as a genre isn’t far removed from the evolution of the Indie Record Label as an entity. The first record to discuss is the legendary Spiral Scratch by Manchester Punk band, the Buzzcocks. Spiral Scratch is a four track EP recorded in 1997 by legendary producer Martin Hannett (credited as Martin Zero. Because Punk). It was recorded on 16-track tape. According to Buzzcocks singer Howard Devoto (who would leave the band after Spiral Scratch), “It took three hours [to record the tracks], with another two for mixing.” The recording is very rough. The term Lo-Fi hadn’t yet been coined. Perhaps rougher than necessary for a 16-track recording in a professional studio. This could be put down to the time spent mixing it or the fidelity required to squeeze four songs onto one 7” vinyl. Self-financed & released, Spiral Scratch is widely considered as ‘year zero’ of Indie music.
I personally believe that the low fidelity of Spiral Scratch was a production choice, possibly made by Hannett, possibly by the Buzzcocks. Many in the Punk scene were fans of records which already had a lower fidelity sound than the commercial Glam Rock flooding the radio in the mid ‘70’s. Both Hannett & the band would have been familiar with The Velvet Underground’s debut or The Stooges Bowie-produces Raw Power. These records, while sonically very different, both exhibit common features of Lo-Fi music.
The Velvet Underground & Nico was produced by Andy Warhol (not best known as a music producer). “The bulk of the songs that would become The Velvet Underground & Nico were recorded in mid-April 1966, during a four-day stint at Scepter Studios, a decrepit recording studio in Manhattan.” (wikipedia). The songs have a raw, overdriven feel & seem to revel in the hiss of the tape & distortion caused by audio clipping. This may partly be because of the decrepitude of the recording studio, but it would be unfair to not consider the possibility that either Lou Reed and/or John Cale asked for this sound. They were both visionary & forward-looking artists. Pre-Velvet Underground, John Cale already possessed avant-garde pedigree & was interested in noise & atmosphere. Later in his career, Lou Reed took guitar noise & clipping distortion to a whole new realm with his divisive but influential noise album, Metal Machine Music.
A few years later in 1973, Bowie’s production of The Stooges Raw Power was less about tape-hiss & clipping viola parts & more about drenching guitars & vocals in distortion to create abrasive & thrilling Rock and Roll. By modern standards, the distortion on Raw Power sounds wild & out of control. It sounds like a force of nature rather than the pedestrian effect used by pretty much every single guitarist today. It’s interesting to note that, despite a few exceptions like Hendrix & The Kinks, this level of distortion was very rare at the time. Guitar tones were either clean or slightly overdriven. Like The Velvet Underground & Nico, Raw Power went on to be a huge influence on the nascent Punk scene & early artists like Buzzcocks would have desired similar sonic effects to achieve similar atmosphere’s.
I think the key takeaway from Spiral Scratch, regarding what would later be known as Lo-Fi, is the DIY ethic. Inspired by seeing a Sex Pistols show in 1976, & with zero interest from any record labels, Buzzcocks reached out to their friends & families, cobbled a bit of cash together & booked some studio time. The Buzzcocks were obviously very ambitious & serious about starting their careers & willing to put the work in to make it happen. Spiral Scratch influenced many other bands, up and down the UK, to record their own music or set up their own small, independent record labels. Indie Music as we know it today, grew from this small, weird, noisy release by a nobody Punk band from the industrial North of England.
Throughout the Punk & Post-Punk era, there were a great number of bands who released records which they’d recorded themselves, financed themselves & distributed themselves. There was still a perception that music had to be recorded in a studio though. It wasn’t truly DIY as long as the artists were relying on engineers & producers to do the recording & production work for them. Luckily, the low fidelity of much of the Punk era would persuade artists to make music with whatever they had laying around. You could just set up your instruments, press Record on your tape deck & play the song through. This was an exciting time for Lo-Fi music & the newly formed Indie label industry was at the forefront of getting this music out to the public.
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