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Enoch Light: The genius stereo sound pioneer who ruined the world


During the industrial revolution, masses of rural poor began to migrate from the countryside to the booming cities. And out the back door, to some new realm called ‘the suburbs’, slipped the emerging middle class. For aeons, this new space between the upper-class grandeur of the countryside and the highs and lows of city life remained a scarcely populated dominion.

However, gradually, as financial fortunes began to change and the population billowed, the great swathe of land outside of the city was fertile ground to forage for the huge housing explosion needed, and the emerging band of people straddling the line between the working class and lower-middle thanks to social mobility. 

Slowly but surely, skilled traders, middle managers, plucky coupon winners and the likes all began to forgo the bustle of the city for a quieter life in the leafy fresh-aired middle-ground. New builds and greenery promised a utopia in reach of work. However, the downside was that all the culture they had relished in nightly was suddenly out of reach. Thus, this newly housed army opened up a market for somehow bringing Carnegie Hall to Cranford, NJ or The Royal Albert Hall to Royston and so on.

After all, culture was cheap in the 1950s, and if you’ve just been watching Enoch Light’s jazz band blow your mind in Harlem, the stillness of the suburbs might have proved a bit too quiet at first. Fortunately, the technological age was upon us, and help would imminently be at hand. This was pre-postmodernism, and science suddenly had an answer for most things. In time, the lucky lot scrambling the city to cushy homes having cashed in on a windfall sought to spend their disposable income on new-fangled record players. Suddenly, you could hear Harlem greats in your living room while plays were beamed in through your TV. 

Alas, something wasn’t quite right with the records. All recorded in mono, they sounded like the real thing but lacked all of the emersion. And that wasn’t just the emersion of a fizzing atmosphere, but rather the sound itself was queerly opaque. It took someone like Enoch Light, a jazz bandleader who had been around live sound his whole life, to figure out the problem.

Light quickly realised that there was only one source for the sound. While multi-speakers would be a mind-bending stretch too modern to comprehend, picking up sounds from various microphones was a rather more manageable thought. You see, when Light was on stage, he heard all the sources of sound flooding towards him in a joyous unspooling cacophony. With mono, all that melody was a little too linear to be anything like the real thing. 

While the stereo sound might be so ever-present these days that it’s almost subconscious, back then, it was as inconceivable as the moment the uber driver first told you, ‘No, you’ve already paid’. As the liner notes for the album boast: “The first time you hear this record will be one of the most startling experiences of your entire life. For the very first time, you will hear sound that is completely liberated, sound that is totally free—pure, full, honest sound with no mechanical restrictions whatsoever.”

Although it took a lot of time to reach the point of Light’s record, when he created what could be considered the first stereo album that sounded something like music, a seismic shift was underway. By no means is the sound itself worth something akin to a retrospective review, but the reverberations that followed, on the other hand, changed the world ineffably… And not just in terms of George Martin and The Beatles, and all the Pet Sounds wizardry of science and artistry colliding that followed. But in the way we live our day to day lives. With his trailblazing stereo sound ways, Enoch Light helped to bring forth one of the greatest art explosions in history, but he also ruined the world. As the man once said, sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you. 

As it goes, Light managed to plant the seed of something that brought the immersive sound of a concert home. In the process, he figurately penned what could be classed as the tagline for the suburbs itself – ‘From the comfort of your own home’. Suddenly all sorts of sofa-propped notions sprung up: What if TV could be more like the real thing? What if restaurant food could be delivered to my door? 

Suddenly the suburbs were awash with culture, but sadly, it was all imported, a facsimile of the real thing, a big, giant box office cannon condensed into four walls with no need to experience the full-fat original recipe. This was all fine, of course, in fact, it was brilliant. It was so good that ‘just like the real thing’ happened to be good enough. What proceeded in the suburbs is what David Bowie described as follows: “In suburbia, you are given the impression that nothing culturally belongs to you. That you are in this sort of wasteland.”

Thus, when Bowie got the chance, he fled from Bromley to London and never looked back. He had been inspired by Bob Dylan, who had trodden the same city faring path, and Dylan, in turn, had been inspired by Jack Kerouac, who spends the entirety of his seminal novel On The Road hightailing it through America, trying to escape the massive concrete sprawl of the suburbs and the comfortable trappings of commercialism for the up-and-down wonders of the banality eviscerating real thing, whatever that is, in jazz bars and juke joints, halfway houses and terrace-perched tents.

Trapped between the highfalutin ideals of the upper-class country and the great poetic dirge of the culture in the city, the suburbs simply imported the best of both. This, of course, was all well and good for a time. After all, Bowie himself is one of the most significant cultural forces of all time, and he came from Bromley. Likewise, Dylan heralded from the sleepy comfort of Hibbing, and near enough everyone else since. In fact, the same people setting up new lives in the suburbs could cram in more culture than they could ever afford in the city. However, as Bowie said, it was never a culture to call their own.

Now, the hubs of recreation that were set up in these new greenbelt areas were Social Clubs in Britain, Bowlo’s in Australia and whatever the equivalent is from where you are. In each of these, the entertainment on offer is usually a parody in some way, like a daft laugh send-up to the great acts that reside in record collections back home. Progressive art has never besieged these flat-roofed establishments, it has to flee to the city and be piped back in a decade or two’s time. 

C’est la vie, you might say, and I might be tempted to join you. Novelty acts are brilliant, flat-roof pubs are often better than stadiums when it comes to watching sports, and a lot of modern art is pompous shit that perhaps might be rightfully ripped off the walls. But there is an argument, and it is admittedly a bit of a leap, that the ‘from the comfort of your own home’ box office that has ensued in suburban life since the sprawl began has sort of insulated us from the vital subversive force of visceral culture at the cutting edge. It’s one thing to have Dylan extolling virtues to better society at a click, but it’s another thing entirely to hear him rattle the message home firsthand surrounded by a galvanised community.

For the most part, the suburbs now belong to the working classes, but it would seem in recent times we have lost the cohesive ideals we had in the cities when unions called for equality, and the exciting fluxes of people saw the benefits of immigration, and progress not parody was the aim of the game. It seems the armchair is a less empathetic viewpoint so sit in judgement of the world than the bowels of the beast at some shoulder-rubbing cultural event where it’s joyously apparent we are all fellow passengers to the grave after a bit of exultation and not a race of separate creatures bound on other journeys.

In short, the genius Enoch Light had no idea the mass indifference he had begotten when he magnificently dotted microphones around the room and blew our tiny minds. Culture inherently calls for collectivism that Light’s armchair revolution of individualism curtailed. But the paradox is that as a near-lifelong denizen of the working-class suburbs myself, and having found it to be mostly a pleasurable lark, you simply have to pat the bastard on the back for the boon of the brilliant music that soon followed his Promethean feat.