The Medium Is the Massage (1967)
Did you know that Marshall McLuhan recorded a prog album?
The album consists of two tracks, each one taking up a whole side of a vinyl LP: track one is 19:21 in length, and track two is 23:15.
You may wish to classify it as Spoken Word Prog, since the focus is arguably on McLuhan’s words. But there is such an interesting blend of music, other voices, and sound effects, that — by design! — the LP seems to defy that categorization. Perhaps it is better simply to classify it as Proto-Prog, because of the date at which it was recorded.
Mcluhan wrote his stunningly prescient monumental work, one of twelve books and hundreds of articles, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in 1964. He followed up with The Medium is The Massage: An Inventory of Effects in 1967. The record you hear arrived after that, but it embodied the same ideas. The baseline subject that would preoccupy almost all of McLuhan’s career was the task of understanding the effects of technology as it contextualized popular culture, and how this in turn affected human beings and their relations with one another in communities. For him, everything was connected. Because he was one of the first to sound the idea that electronic media and pop culture were eerily interconnected, McLuhan gained the status of a cult hero and “high priest of pop-culture”.
Acoustic space, pattern recognition: boundless, infinite play of text and thought — that’s what you need to think about when you listen to this album. The record version of the “Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects” project was meant to embody some of the issues that the graphic design and radical use of new fonts and images to enhance the text of the book and create a dynamic linkage between how the collision of fonts and graphics would work and how they could be represented in sound. The whole thing is presented as an audio collage focused around McLuhan’s own voice reading parts of the book. There are other “character” voices—’the old man’, ‘the Hippie chick’, ‘the Irishman’, ‘Mom’, ‘the little girl’, etc.—who utter McLuhanisms, snatches from Pop culture, and excerpts from Finnegans Wake and The Iliad. Weaving amongst these is a very 1960s selection of jazz, classical, and psychedelic pop musics. This is all topped off with incursions from the recording engineer, backwards tape effects, sped-up and slowed-down voices, ambient recordings, and a whole jungle of other Foley and sound FX. One could argue that the book was as much about the graphics as it was about creating a place where the images could embody the philosophy graphic design that Mcluhan advocated — the record was the audio version of the same process. As Mcluhan once said: “For tribal man space was the uncontrollable mystery. For technological man it is time that occupies the same role.”
The record version of the “Medium is the Massage” presents that as a DJ mix — it presents the entire book as a series of samples, just like a mix-tape.
Think of this record as a collection of some of Mcluhan’s spoken texts recorded, collaged, cut-up, spliced, diced, ripped, mixed, and burned. It’s a mix tape made in a different era — before the rise of digital media files, but it has the same kind of resonance of a mix of any current sound art project one could care to name.