Wired for Sound (2/3)

On the album cover of Wired for Sound Cliff Richard has his head tilted back presumably in aural ecstasy.

In my memory I usually conflate Cliff’s album cover with the Footloose album cover and I imagine that he, like Kevin Bacon, is listening to headphones, but he isn’t. In fact, there is a microphone in shot and what Cliff is doing is pretty unclear. If you wanted to I think you could easily do a quite interesting reading of this album cover, but let us tastefully move away from such things and leave them merely to hang in the air like an erect microphone near a singer’s mouth.

In fact, although there is a shot of some headphones on the inner sleeve of Wired for Sound, the strongest connection between the Walkman and Wired for Sound is that song’s video.

Wired for Sound was released in 1981 so this video was at the then only slightly blunted cutting edge of audio technology, and marks Cliff as being momentarily cool. Naturally when it comes to Cliff Richard any cool is going to be borrowed and temporary. He stole Elvis’ moves to have a hit in 1958, he used rock’s associations with the devil to finally secure a hit in the USA in 1976 with Devil Woman (even though he is a Christian), and in 1981 he was simply stealing a SONY advertising campaign to be cool once again.

***

One thing that you can learn when you read SONY by John Nathan is that the headphones were about as revolutionary as the Walkman itself when this product was first released in Japan in July, 1979. The early campaigns emphasized the lightness of the headphones and the stylishness of the earpieces compared to the bulky, earmuff look of the conventional earphones (which are now back in fashion),

In every case, the [advertising] images reinforced the notion that the Walkman and its stylish headphones were fashion statements.

The Walkman it seems was actually more of a brilliant marketing intuition than any kind of technological innovation. In fact portable tape recorders were how SONY started out when they released their first (bulky and costly) Model G tape recorder in January of 1950. Initially the Walkman developed out of one person’s desire to have some way to listen to music on long-haul flights. The SONY engineers took a standard mono-tape recorder, took out the recording mechanism and filled the space with a stereo amplifier and circuitry,

When the altered player was connected to headphones, the high quality stereo sound it delivered surprised everybody.

SONY was founded by Ibuka and Morita, and both of them were connected with the Walkman’s genesis. It was Ibuka who requested the tape player for long haul flights, and it was Morita who realised the new toy’s potential and demanded that it be produced for market and targeted at young people. The deadline was so tight that there was no time to develop new technology; all of the parts were lifted from already existent models. SONY had taken a hammering as its Betamax had been driven out by VHS, and they needed a money-maker.

Some had doubts about the Walkman especially its isolating effects. In response to these concerns the first models of Walkman had dual headphone jacks so two people could listen to the tape, and a button that muted the sound in case someone started talking at you. Of course it turned out that nobody gave a stuff about this, in fact the isolation was one of the selling points. Foreigners also didn’t give a stuff that the word Walkman was Japanese English, and the early attempts to have the Walkman branded as a Sound About, or a Stow Away in America and England were rapidly abandoned.

By the end of 1998 Sony had sold close to 250 million units, but the man who was in charge of the corporation for much of the 80s, Ogha, had almost no interest in the device:

“I could never be bothered because it had no technical interest. When they showed it to me in the hospital I was preoccupied with CDs and optical laser technology, which was much more difficult and more interesting. Frankly, I couldn’t see why Sony should make a product that was boring technically. And that is the major difference between me and Mr. Morita. He had the merchant’s intuition that allowed him to see what it would become.”

I suppose that I had always thought that the Walkman represented a technological breakthrough, but it is clear to me now that it was actually a signal of a social change. It was the first step towards private and autonomous consumption of music which, it transpires, is the direction music consumption has gone in ever since. Your life could have a soundtrack now, one that suited your view of the world, and not the view of some corporate DJ. It was liberating and mobile and, well, youthful. At some level, Morita understood this instinctively, and it showed in his marketing.

When journalists arrived at the Sony building in the Ginza on June 22 [1979], they were escorted onto buses and taken to Yoyogi Park, where each was handed a Walkman and asked to push the play button. While reporters stood under the trees listening to a recorded pitch with background music in stereo, Sony staffers and models demonstrated how to enjoy the Walkman on roller skates, skateboards, or riding a tandem bicycle on a date.

That’s a small market: the tandem bicycle market.

Morita also had a hand in the early print ads, which were aimed at the young and active and emphasised speed and mobility: a girl with long blonde hair bent low on her racing bike, a blond roller skater in summer shorts, a roller-skating couple, hand in hand.

Huh. Sounds familiar.

Quite a bit like a famous video featuring Sir Cliff Richard.

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CDs had a frostier reception than Walkmans.  My own luddite reaction to whatever the latest musical hardware trend is happens to be exactly replicated in the pages of the book on SONY when the director of that time, Ogha, attempted to introduce CD technology to a bunch of record industry executives.

Jerry Moss, then president of A & M records, screamed that CDs would kill the industry…..  At some point, executives stood up in the auditorium and began to chant a slogan… “The truth is in the groove!  The truth is in the groove!”

Musicians were just as unimpressed, and they

Formed a group called MAD – “Musicians Against Digital” – and the recording engineers who controlled the sound studios.  Detractors maintained that digital perfection was artificial and empty.  The singer Neil Young put it as well as anyone: “The mind has been tricked, but the heart is sad.”

Which sounds just plain stupid nowadays, and presumably Neil has financially benefited quite a bit from his back catalogue being reissued on CD, but it represents a stick in the mud attitude that I am usually broadly sympathetic with.  While I happily embraced the CD age I have found it harder to cross into the download age.  I think what the record executives and musicians were reacting against was change, and a creeping sense that something they loved was about to made irrelevant by some horrible technology corporate.

Funnily enough the anxiety of irrelevance plagues the very companies that create the feeling.  At the end of the book on SONY we find the current director looking uneasily towards the future.  Is it possible, he wonders, that hardware companies like SONY are becoming more and more irrelevant, and software and service-provider companies are where all the money is heading?  And with that, you realise that SONY, since it was founded over sixty years ago, has been riding that wave of anxiety that technology creates, ceaselessly trying to keep on the crest of a wave that keeps dying and re-emerging elsewhere.

Much like Cliff I suppose.  He suddenly finds himself surging to the top of popular culture, and then plunging back down to the depths to bemoan radio playlists, and journalists, and unkind jibes until he can find his next thing.

L.V. Martin and Son… “It’s here!”

See also: Wired for Sound (1/3)

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John-Paul

I wrote a book: https://www.seraphpress.co.nz/kaitiaki.html

2 thoughts on “Wired for Sound (2/3)”

  1. I got my first Walkman 25 years ago today – my 12th birthday. It changed my life, mainly in that I could finally clearly hear (and therefore obsess over more intensely) my favourite pop lyrics. I had a very specific requirement: I wanted a Sony Walkman, not one of those “personal cassette players” that other companies were forced to name theirs.

    I had several Walkmans over the years. I bought my last cassette Walkman in 1995, and my last CD Walkman in 2003. It’s probably no big surprise that it was the iPod that killed my Walkmanning.

    I always found the Walkman headphones slightly annoying. They would leave weird dents in my hair (and Cliff shows early stages of this in the video). Earbuds are much nicer. I don’t ever want to be one of those people with big cans strapped to their head. I like a good pair of earbuds, even if I can hear a bit of ambient sound. The outside world is quite nice.

    As for Cliff, I love “Wired For Sound”. He’s an equal opportunity music lover – vinyl and radio get a shout out too. But neither of those would have looked as cool as a Walkman.

    Also, the importance of musical compatibility in a relationship:

    I met a girl and she told me she loved me.
    I said “If you love me, then love means you must like what I like.
    “My music is dynamite.”

  2. Happy birthday.

    I always thought it was interesting that ghetto blasters and the walkman were popular at the same time. Of course the Walkman was really, really popular, and only really the idea of ghetto blasters was popular in New Zealand probably because our breakdancing was a bit naff.

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