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Tuesday, May 17th, 2022  

Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson

Apple TV+, July 30, 2021

Aug 03, 2021 Photography by Apple TV+ Web Exclusive
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“That’s a scream from 1619,” is how Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid describes Jimi Hendrix’s iconic 1969 rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” played on his electric Stratocaster, pummeling with distortion but not void of gentler, melismatic flourish. The scene is featured on a particularly poignant moment of Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson, the latest docu-series from Apple TV+. The six-part series traces the untold stories behind music creation and the happy accidents in new sounds brought forth by the birth of new technology. As Ronson listens attentively, Reid explains, “The way Hendrix used feedback was a scream … that found its voice through a Marshall amp and a Fuzz Face,” and then goes on to give props to rock n’ roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe and a host of other unsung Black artists that built on distortion as a sound that gave voice to their struggle. Reid articulates how African Americans have been employing music and the blues from the beginnings of slavery as a tool for freedom and self-expression, placing these artists on a continuum that exists as forcefully in today’s charged socio-political climate. Ronson chats to Reid about distortion—the topic of the final episode—and the use of it in their song “Cult of Personality.” Ronson mentions how the song, which begins with a Malcolm X soundbite was powerful in the way that its political message was piped into homes all across America. But of course, at the time, we didn’t think of traditional hard rock as a space where any Black musicians operated in—a hint at the entrenched racism and segregation of the music industry and beyond. A quick peruse on YouTube, will deliver several reaction videos featuring folks of all colors and stripes—and whether they’d heard previously heard the song or not—shocked that “Cult of Personality” was by a Black band. Watch the Sound does a commendable job at highlighting voices and perspectives that have been historically overlooked. In the episode titled “Synthesizers,” the pernicious stereotype that women don’t like math or aren’t good with numbers or electronics is blown out of the water when pioneering composer Suzanne Ciani discusses the work of other successful women in the field. She sites BBC composer Delia Derbyshire—who helped compose the Dr. Who theme song and proclaimed herself a feminist before feminism. Ciani believes, “Women were attracted to synthesizers or electronic music because they didn’t need a traditional band.” She also adds that, “Women have a sensitivity that is very helpful to electronic music.” The same episode does well in centering the voice of a female synth historian, Emmy Parker as she sheds light on other unseen players in the field—a pivotal one being Wendy Carlos, a trans woman whose most well known work is the Clockwork Orange soundtrack. Carlos first came to prominence with Switched on Bach, an album of classical music made with only synthesizers, which went on to make Moog hip to rock musicians like the Beatles. The series is expansive in the artists (Paul McCartney, Public Enemy’s Hank Shocklee, Questlove, Dave Grohl and King Princess, among others), decades and music genres it covers. At the same time, it never loses sight of each episode’s title and narrative focus: “Auto-tune,” “Sampling,” “Reverb,” “Synthesizers,” “Drum Machine” and “Distortion.” The series is directed by Academy Award winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom). Individual episode directors include Mark Monroe (The Dissident and Icarus) and Jason Zeldes (Romeo Is Bleeding). This brain trust and meticulous Midas touch is evident in the structure and over-arching themes of the show. Ronson is a knowledgeable and endearing host, guiding us around sometimes complex subjects that can be boring for non-audiophiles. On one sonic adventure, after discussing the merits of bathroom reverb with Angel Olsen, they visit a studio in the Capitol Records Tower to find out more about the cavernous reverb rooms located in the subterranean floors of the famed building. Also in this episode, Ronson slides nervously down an MRI-like shute in Inchidown, Scotland, into a vast disused oil storage tank, to record the longest reverb. This recording will likely become a plug-in for Audio Ease, a software company, whose products are widely used in the audio industry. Ronson is the glue that holds it all together, threading through his childhood, early interest in music, professional experiences (his recollections of his time with Amy Winehouse are to be savored) and personal geekdom (after Questlove breaks down Prince’s drum sample in “1999,” Ronson’s builds on it with his gleeful explanation of Prince’s wrong use of the drum machine in “When Doves Cry”). Each episode ends with a song that Ronson constructs using the chosen theme, which, thankfully, it never gets in the way of the story telling and doesn’t come across as gimmicky. The only time the series gave me pause was when Kathleen Hanna, best known for her Riot Grrrl band, Bikini Kill, mentions that all the questions she ever gets asked are about, “What it feels like to be a girl in band?” I’m sure there’s many a female music journalist out there who would love an audience with her, and aren’t the least bit interested in asking that question. (www.tv.apple.com/us/show/watch-the-sound-with-mark-ronson/)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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