Marshall McLuhan and the Sounds of a Generation

“If it works, it’s obsolete.” – Marshall McCluhan

Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian social scientist/prophet who lived from 1911 to 1980 and published most of his work from 1950 to 1970. He once famously said, “The medium is the message.” Gallons of ink have been spilled about what he really meant, but if you have ever read any of McLuhan’s work, the meaning of this phrase would be clear enough.

He did not intend to say that the content of a message was of no value, although many of his critics took it that way and he was often called a charlatan. What he did intend to say is that we consistently overlook, or underestimate, the transformational effects that any new technology has on us and our culture.

Marshall McLuhan holding a mirror. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While studying for a Masters degree in Communications in the early 1990’s, I read nearly all of McLuhan’s work and was captivated by it. He didn’t discuss history as a string of people, places, events and dates as most scholars did. He saw history as a series of technological advances each one bringing with it a whole new way of understanding and interacting with our environment. Any change in technology changes the way we experience our world, which changes the way we think, which in turn changes us at a fundamental level. – you might even say at the species level.

“The medium is the message…the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” – Marshall McCluhan

He proposed that the nature of any civilization is shaped by the form of its communications technology and that the “how” humans communicate is ultimately more consequential than the “what” that is communicated.

A real discussion of McCluhan’s theories would require an entire book, of which there are many. I wanted to begin this post by mentioning him only because when thinking about something as simple as the music devices in my lifetime, it is interesting to see how his theories play out even if they remain somewhat abstract. McLuhan includes all types of technology in his theories, but I will look mainly at my personal experience with sound and music media here. I write only from my own experience, but know that much of it will be familiar to anyone in my generation who loved music and the radio.

Radio and TV

“The new electronic independence re-creates the world in the image of a global village.” – Marshall McCluhan

Like most of us, my earliest experience with electronic music was the radio. Being born in 1961 meant that the radio was a firmly established technology everywhere and had been since the early 1900’s. There were car radios, radios in the living room, kitchen radios, bedroom radios, portable radios, and radios in stores and public places.

I can remember three important radios in my life. The first one was an RCA Victor solid state tabletop model that was in my family’s living room. My parents were a bit old fashioned and didn’t allow the TV to be in the living room. All of our TV watching was done in the basement. The living room did have this radio however, so I would spend evenings sitting on the floor (and later a beanbag chair) curled up next to it listening to the top 40 sounds of WLS in Chicago on the AM band and later to WKQX on the FM band.


RCA AM/FM Radio from around 1970. Photo by M.J. Murphy

I still have this radio today and am still amazed by how warm it sounds. I turn it on once in a while just for old times sake and to see that awesome golden glow from the bulb that lights up the dial. A bulb, by the way, that is still the original – has never been replaced and still works.

Radio and TV opened me up to a world of music, but also to the unavoidable, brief news reports from places like Vietnam, and of course, the moon. I can remember the only time a TV was allowed in our living room was when my Grandpa insisted that we watch the moon landing upstairs. He was too old to hobble down the stairs so Dad brought up the TV for that one.

As for music on the radio. At first it was the big band and jazz that my Mom listened to in the kitchen, and then it was the top forty. It was what all the kids were listening to. I soon found that I could talk to others at school about this or that song. I could talk to kids I couldn’t otherwise talk to. I could be part of a new crowd.

New years eve was a huge radio event for my friends and family because Dick Clark would count down the top 100 songs of the year in ascending order and we could all hang out and try to guess which song would be next on the list.

The Transistor

“Darkness is to space what silence is to sound, i.e., the interval.” -Marshall McCluhan

The second memorable radio was a small transistor unit handed down to me by one of my brothers or sisters. It was so great to be able to put on headphones and walk around the yard, or ride my bike, or do chores while I listened as loud as I wanted without bothering anyone else.

The best part about the transistor was listening at night while falling asleep with the radio under the pillow. I would listen to music, or to sports like the Cubs or White Sox baseball games, or to Blackhawks hockey games. On a clear night I could even pick up stations from St. Louis, Milwaukee, or Atlanta. I’ll never forget how exciting those games were, lying in the dark and imagining being at the stadium.

The games took place visually inside my mind and were just as vivid if not more vivid than actually being there. I can remember more than a few nights being wrapped up in hockey games and being amazed by how loud the crowd was inside Chicago Stadium. During those times I was there in those stadiums, not home in bed. It was that simple.

This same transistor radio would expose me to bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Yes, and to acoustic songwriters like Jim Croce, James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel. And then there were the one hit wonders; I remember titles like “I’m So Dizzy”, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia”, “Jackie Blue”- that amazing slide guitar solo….(Why do I remember THOSE specific songs right now, I don’t know?).

There were so many places that radio went with me. I wasn’t stuck in this room or that. I wasn’t even stuck in the house. Lying in bed at night this music could work it’s magic on me where I was truly succeptable to its powers – in the dark and barely conscious.

“For tribal man space was the uncontrollable mystery. For technological man it is time that occupies the same role.” -Marshall McLuhan

The Shortwave

The third radio was a shortwave radio that my brother had built from a kit. It was housed in a metal box and had an eerie green light up dial that I loved. Because it was a shortwave I had the added adventure of running all kinds of crazy configurations with antennae wire. I remember stringing it all over the room and needing to run a ground wire out the window to the back yard where I had attached it to a metal stake pounded into the ground. I even had a pair of headphones that my Dad had used as a radio operator in the air force during WW II. (Not that I ever pretended to be an American spy who single handedly brought down the Nazis with my powers of deduction and ability to tune in any radio transmission in the world or anything like that…)

I would stay up all night turning the dial and listening for far off stations. I would hear foreign languages and try to guess what they were. I didn’t stay too long on them unless they were playing some exotic music. When I found a music station I was captivated by how strange yet familiar it was. I usually didn’t know where it was coming from so I would try and listen to the lyrics and to the announcers and try to guess at what the language was.

I got a kick out of the movie “Contact” based on the Carl Sagan novel when Jodi Foster’s character was doing the same thing. She was way more into it though – she had a two way radio – and had the great idea of marking each station she contacted on a giant world map on the wall.

With these radios, the world was getting stranger and smaller, and yet more familiar and bigger at the same time.

The Console Record Player

In addition to the radios, there were of course the record players. Things are a bit fuzzy for me here but the first one I remember using was mounted in a big square cabinet with four legs and a hinged lid. One by one, you could stack records up like pancakes, and when one was done playing the needle would move out of the way and another would drop on top of the turntable and begin to play. If you were jumping around too much, the vibrations from the floor would make the record skip. We fixed this by placing a penny on top of the needle to add some weight to it and keep it more firmly in the groove. A high tech solution for sure.

With a record player, you could play the records you wanted to play, not just what the DJ’s were playing.

“Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.” – Marshall McCluhan

The Portable Record Player

Another early record player I remember was a portable one that was my grandfather’s. It was contained in what looked like a small suitcase. I think it arrived with him when he moved in with us after his stroke. I discovered it one day in the basement along with boxes of records. There were some 45’s, some 33’s, and lots of 78’s too. They were mostly classical which to me just meant old people’s music, but I was curious so I dug in for a listen whenever I could.

I can’t remember too many of the records I found there but I do remember a few. There was a special one called “Peter and the Wolf” complete with a booklet that described all the instruments and which animals they represented. There was also a Disney record called “The Sorcerers Apprentice” with some pretty awesome artwork too. I’m pretty sure there was some opera, because I passed on those, and I know there was lots of Beethoven and Mozart and Stravinski, because those became some of my favorites.

This music was from another world. It was ancient, strange, and usually had no words. Though I had heard things like it before on TV and in the movies, it was very different to be just listening with no pictures. Everything about it said it was from another time and place. Listening to these records was like having a time machine in the basement.

A Personal Stereo

When my older sister went away to college (she was the eighth of ten and I was the ninth) there was just me and my little sister. My older sister must have gotten a new stereo to take with her because I was handed down my own system and could put it in my own room. This was a big day. The prize was a Panasonic combo AM/FM receiver turntable with separate stereo speakers. The turntable had a tinted plastic hinged cover, a glowing tuner display, and loads of knobs and switches on the front to twiddle – always the best part.

I started buying my own albums and listening to whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I think the first album that I ever owned was the first Boston album. My brother bought it for me one Christmas. (He’ll probably never forgive himself). I loved that album and played it until the grooves were as wide as the grand canyon. It was the start of my personal record collection. I still played plenty of records borrowed from my siblings, but from then on I was on a mission to get my own.

The music was starting to define how I saw myself. My clothes got a little weirder, my hair got a little longer, I started to learn guitar…

“American youth attributes much more importance to arriving at driver’s license age than at voting age.” – Marshall McLuhan

The Eight Track and Cassette

In high school my neighbor and friend who was a couple of years older had a car and would give me a ride to school. He had a job at the local grocery store too and had lots of money to buy 8-track tapes. We could listen to whatever we wanted (or could afford to buy) in the car. We played Rush, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Yes, Genesis.. We would leave for school early and take the long way just so we had enough time to listen to our favorite songs.

When I finally got my own car it didn’t matter that it burned oil by the quart, or that I had to pull over and crawl under it every once in a while to tighten a bolt on the transmission linkage; what mattered was that it had a killer stereo system in it and I could park it anywhere, open the windows and crank the tunes.

My friends and I would drive round aimlessly for hours at a time just to listen to each other’s tapes, and nobody told us to turn it down.

We were mobile.

Before long the cassette came along and now we were buying LP’s, taping them onto blank, recordable tapes and sharing them with friends. We didn’t need to buy the albums, we could borrow them and record them. I would spend hours cueing up tapes in the cassette deck on the home stereo, lowering the stylus, pressing play and record, and while the album was playing I would carefully copy the album information onto the cardboard inserts: the album title, the artist, the song names… Sometimes I would create tapes with a mix of songs from different albums – a mix tape. Other times I would record shows off the radio like live concerts or interviews or album sides.

Then there was the boom box. I recall reading somewhere that this was the fastest selling gadget of all time. It could go anywhere, was way loud enough, and played AM/FM shortwave and cassette. It was truly the Swiss army knife of music. More than any other player, this is what I used to learn guitar: listen, pause, copy, play, repeat. I wore out several boom boxes this way, but it was well worth it to learn how to play guitar by ear.

My friends and I weren’t just listening anymore, we were recording LP’s, producing mix tapes, recording songs off the radio; the record companies would say we were stealing. Don’t they always?

“Publication is a self-invasion of privacy. ” – Marshall McLuhan

The CD

By the time CD’s came out I had amassed several hundred albums and was wondering what all the fuss was about. I was happy with the quality of vinyl LP’s and cassettes. To be honest I wasn’t really interested in buying everything all over again. I bought them anyway as record companies phased out vinyl, but would never have as many CD’s as LP’s.

I ended up losing my whole collection one day anyway in a freak accident (left my leather 200 CD library case on the roof of my car and drove away from a rest stop somewhere between Chicago and Springfield. I ended up with a bunch of empty jewel cases on my shelf at home. I always hated jewel cases. For some reason, the CD’s seemed to hate them to: they were never together. Oh well.

CDs were supposed to be higher quality than vinyl, and were supposed to be indestructible. Right. You can argue for the sound quality, but they were far more fragile if you ask me. A scratch on an LP and you got an annoying pop. A scratch on a CD and the entire CD became unplayable.

Liner notes and artwork on CD’s became so small as to be unreadable (at least to my aging eyes) so I was happy to see the birth of the MP3, at least at first….

“Obsolescence never meant the end of anything, it’s just the beginning.” -Marshall McCluhan

The MP3 and Streaming Audio

This has turned out to be a long story, I know, but here we are in the age of the Mp3 and steaming internet audio. We can now play any song, any video, or view any printed document, anytime anywhere on our computers, laptops, cellphones, or tablets. I have to admit it. Some of the magic is lost without that great album art.

We can also self publish, distribute, give away or sell, our own recorded music, or pictures, or voice, or videos, or novels, or anything else that can be digitized on this global web of data. We are connected instantly in high definition from one point on the globe to any other point on the globe.

Today we witness political revolutions that were organized using networked “social media”. We are the global village that Marshall McLuhan said we would return to.

Are we wiser, happier or somehow more evolved for all this technology? Does it matter what the “content” of all this communication is. Who knows?

Are we different as human beings because of this technology? That’s an easier one to answer; and that is what McLuhan was exploring. He was simply trying to wake us up to what was happening in the hope that we could make decisions about whether we really wanted the effects a certain technology would bring or not. Today we assume that the ways of technology cannot be stopped or altered in any way. Maybe they can; maybe they can’t. Who would get to decide?

It does make you wonder who is in control? Us, as individuals born into this maelstrom, or the technology we set in motion long ago that seems to be dragging us headlong to somewhere…else.

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” -Marshall McLuhan


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