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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Drum Crazy!

I was sent an amazing clip of Fred Astaire playing drums as part of a song and dance routine from a movie, (not sure of the name of the original movie - maybe someone can enlighten me?). As usual with Astaire the sheer technical skill of the dancing is incredible - playing the drums while dancing and miming to the soundtrack. And if you look at the clip, in a four minute section there are only about four camera angle changes, so at the most there are four edits - extraordinarily few for something as technically difficult as this.

You can see the Fred Astaire clip here

The song and dance guys of this era, at the pinnacle of popular culture, had the most amazing technical skills, and it's educational to compare them to their counterparts today. I always see Robbie Williams referred to as the 'great entertainer', but even allowing for the total change in style and music in the intervening years, it's clear that Williams couldn't even get close to this level of song and dance expertise - the technique just isn't there. But lack of technique in music isn't a bar to stardom any more, the technology available today compensates for the general lack of true technical skill in performance across all the performing arts.

The ability to edit and manipulate film by computer, and the ability to edit and manipulate sound via Pro Tools and the like, has had a profound effect on the technical skills of popular artists. Whereas in the pre-computerised era it would be impossible to have a career as a singer unless you could sing, or as an instrumentalist unless you could play, that's now all changed. You can be made to sound good and look good, aided by a battery of music and image computer editors, whose technical skill ironically is usually of a far higher level than the people whose work they are editing - or enhancing would be a better word perhaps.

I always notice when listening to or watching old video footage of earlier pop and rock groups, that the people creating the music are actually playing the instruments and singing in tune. To have a music career in that era demanded an ability to be able to sing or play. That's not the case now of course - as was proven when the huge selling Milli Vanilli had their Grammy revoked in 1990 when it was shown that they didn't sing on their own records and mimed in their live performances. How shocking! But of course the reality is that much commercial pop music of recent years is so heavily manipulated by computers both in the studio and on stage that the performers' claims to being the originators of the sounds that the audience are hearing doesn't stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny.

But does this matter? Only if you care about the fact that this kind of audio/visual sleight of hand allows the marketeers to burrow even deeper into the lives, pockets and subliminal psyches of millions of people. They do this by creating stars in an image they believe will sell most merchandise, (of which the actual music plays a very small part), and feeding their creations to the audience, irrespective of the performers' abilities as musicians. In this Wall Street driven, marketing-created world how you look is everything, and how you sound doesn't matter - that can be fixed by the real talent in the organisation - the producers and editors. Of course movie and record companies have always tried to do this, but the technology available now have given them the ability to create whatever kind of musical Frankenstein monster they want.

Another sad aspect of this is that genuinely talented people can be denied a career in popular music because they don't look right. If you look at Astaire in this clip, he was physically unremarkable in terms of what would be considered glamorous good looks, yet he was a huge star because of his talent. A modern day Fred Astaire, looking the way he did wouldn't have a hope as a front line star - the most he could hope for would be a part in the backing dance troupe to some company-manufactured mannequin. And of course allowing the suits to decide who should succeed in pop music and what kind of music they should play has helped to make the pop scene the sterile musical joke it has become. Brave New World!


  1. I'm not entirely sure, but I think that Fred Astaire scene is from a film called Easter Parade:

  2. Great Paddy - I think you're right - thanks for the info!

  3. Sometimes I wonder if the ratio of trash to mediocrity to genius is constant in all eras but that today's worldwide instant media lets us all experience it whether we want to or not. In 1927, a dire performance or performer in a provincial town in Minnesota or Scotland (for example) would vanish without a trace or at most become the subject of short-lived local lore. Today it might go viral on youtube and be downloaded by the millions before a day has passed.

    I would posit that someone like Astaire who was a star in his own time, has actually become something more than that with the passing years. Talent and genius, like truth, will out.

  4. Does anyone know how MGM got the cane to spring up in Fred Astair's Putting on the Ritz (from the film Blue Skies)? Was there a spring in the floor, or trick photography?


  5. I came across your article just now.

    Havig read it I instantly remembered a song that made me smile a couple of days ago: "Calypso Hooray". A funny and a little sarcastic hymn to the mass music industry. Words and music by FA.

    It could've been written true.


  6. Its really amazing clip and i like the style of playing drum. I am also a drum player but not like him. Fred is really a awesome drum player and can play every type of drum. i have to add this video on a website