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(Credit: Phil King)

Music

The era Neil Young described as the "dark ages of recorded sound"

@SamWKemp

If there is one thing Neil Young hates, it’s modern technology. In the past, he’s bemoaned the rise of everything from music streaming to Google and beyond, engaging in what can only be described as a lonely quest against modernity. So it comes as no surprise to discover that he once went on a tirade against the now comparatively quaint compact disc.

“‘Everything recorded between 1981 and say, 2010 will be known as the dark ages of recorded sound,” Young began. On the surface, his distaste for the CD seems a little over-dramatic, but he had a number of important reasons for disliking the format. The compact disc took over from the cassette tape in the early 1980s and was released in tandem with stereo players fitted with the newly-invented programming button, allowing the listener to reorganise album tracklists to suit their own tastes, essentially giving the middle finger to the intentions of artists such as Young, who believed so strongly in the sanctity of their artistic vision.

But for Young, the CD heralded something much worse – the dominance of digital sound. “It’s almost like torture,” he argued. “Digital makes you think that you’re hearing it better than you heard it before [but] you’re hearing a facsimile of it, you’re only hearing the surface of it,” he continued. He’s got a point. Digital sound – unlike analogue formats like cassette and vinyl, which are physically imprinted with recorded sound waves – are often regarded as mere representations of recorded sound.

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According to Young, the rise of digital sound formats like the CD changed the way people listened to music, marking the end of that repetitive form of listening that was endeared by the broad spectrum of audio inherent to analogue formats. According to Young, what people are listening to when they put on a digital audio recording are: “Binary numbers being spat out of a digital converter that recreate the sound of music…You hear a CD once and you’ve heard it. You’re not going to go deeper because there’s nowhere to go.’”

If the period between 1981 and, say, 2010, represented the dark ages of recorded music, where are we now? I’ve got to say, Young’s whole argument feels a little bit arbitrary. To me, his comments about the deterioration of music quality feel like the whinings of a curmudgeonly old fogey who has become so embittered with the world around him that he’s completely forgotten how to enjoy himself. Instead, all he can do is point out why things aren’t as good as they used to be.

Young’s dismissal of digital music on the basis that it is a representation of sound rather than an original etching is, again, a completely arbitrary distinction. All recordings are acts of translation. Just because something has been translated using new technology doesn’t mean that it is somehow less valuable. I agree that the rise of digital formats has changed the way we listen to music, but change isn’t always a bad thing. Just because I would have thought a man who lived through one of the most turbulent periods in modern American history would understand that. Then again, perhaps I’m being overly optimistic.

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