How Feedback Became the Coolest Sound in Rock
Kerrraaang! came the sound from behind my wall, in my older brother's bedroom. It was his first weekend home from college and he'd returned to our small Indiana town with new toys: a CD player and a copy of Nirvana's Nevermind.
The noise, which started when Kurt Cobain struck a power chord on his Fender guitar, continued to swell -- even as it decayed. It seemed if the wail grew any louder, it would envelope our brittle house, just as silence had after my brother left for school.
This was feedback: Electronic music's original sin; God's (or was it Zola's?) finger-wag at the increased decibel level at which people were suddenly living in the 19th Century -- the sound so unloved by the engineers who discovered it that George Beauchamp, in his original 1932 patent for the Rickenbacker, provided instructions for how to avoid its scourge.
Yet, here I was, nearly a hundred years after feedback's discovery, my fingertips receiving its vibrations through my wall; my forearm trapping a plush monkey in a headlock, no doubt. I was completely taken by its otherworldly power. What happened? How did this phenomenon evolve from a nuisance of the Technological Revolution to the coolest sound in popular music?
It took a long time for feedback to escape the inventor's lab and find a happy home in the rough and tumble world of pop. When finally it did, it was on the back of the electric guitar's meteoric rise, from a quirky musical novelty in the 1920s to a cultural icon by the '60s. In the meantime, the growing boldness with which guitarists nudged their volume up -- first on Big Band records during the war years, then on R&B sides in the early '50s -- gradually acclimated audiences to the warm overtones electricity lent their instruments.
The breakthrough finally came with rock 'n' roll, though more than a decade would pass before feedback entered the charts. That brief trickle -- the drop which announces the Beatles' 1965 hit "I Feel Fine" -- signaled the flood to come. By the end of the '60s, feedback was the signature sound of "the new rock" (now, minus the "roll"). The Who, the Velvet Underground, and the Yardbirds all made records whose sonics were grounded in overdrive and overload. An ex-Yardbird named Jimmy Page spent much of the late '60s in London recording studios, developing techniques to capture the guitar on audio tape in a way that seemed to place the listener inside the amplifier. Today, we hear the first Led Zepplin album as the first fruit of Page's research and the moment rock fully embraced its electronic fate. Though, arguably, feedback's legitimacy as an expressive tool was proven to most of the remaining doubters during Jimi Hendrix's performance of "The Star Spangled Banner" on the last day of Woodstock. Those who complained Hendrix's version was vulgar only spoke for feedback's eloquence.
What changed from Marconi's day to Marc Bolan's that allowed us to hear feedback as music? It was the same society-wide adaptation that, around the birth of rock'n'roll in the '50s, also allowed us to see the beauty in a monochrome painting or hear the poetry in everyday speech. This was the urbanization of our senses. And thanks to the mass moment begun at mid-century by television and an unprecedented conglomeration of media corporations, you didn't have to live in the city to be touched by it.
All feedback is a coda, a goodbye to our sonic innocence. And when we listen to it -- really listen -- what we hear is a concession of sorts. Like the bell tower and the train whistle before it, the advent of electronic feedback marked a point of no return in the history of silence. Once we learned to amplify sound to a volume loud enough that it would turn on itself, it was a given we would quickly gobble up more of this planet's quiet. But feedback is only a messenger from our empire of cacophony. And in the awful truth it tells us, we hear beauty.
In feedback, as in the best of art, we hear a plea for our attentiveness more than for our attention. It implores us to sit up and take notice of the quiet that's left; it tingles our spine as it straightens it. When feedback starts to swell from within a pop song's otherwise rigid structure, we hear, quite literally, a siren for system failure: we hear a revolt against the songwriter's authority. We hear a triumph of a pure now-ness over the planning and future-thinking of a well-written tune, its verses and chorus and its cleverness. We hear a burst of presence from behind our wall, a reminder that our brother is home, but will be going away again soon. That noise we hear? Against all odds, it's music.