In the “Roots of Electronica” series, we will be exploring pioneering figures in electronic music, detailing their accomplishments, and providing notes on how their influence, both conceptual and technical, has touched the artists of today. This week, we look at recording legend Les Paul and his groundbreaking single “Lover”.
A cursory listen to Les Paul’s 1948 guitar instrumental “Lover” yields little initial interest, especially for the modern EDM consumer. Les Paul’s playing is quick and appealingly flashy, but heard without due diligence,
“Lover” comes off as a standard, old-timey jazz jaunt: sepia-hued documentary soundtrack material.
Listening to the song more closely, however, strange qualities begin to reveal themselves. The phrases bend and squeak in unnatural ways and the playing is a bit too fast and synchronized. Some of the time, the guitar parts sound curiously un-guitar-like; notes stretch too high, or strike too flatly, as if the strings have lost their resonance. “Lover” may not be an obviously weird or “electronic” song, but there is something undeniably inorganic about it, something that feels, in simplest terms, off.
In fact, “Lover” is one of the first popular songs to take full advantage of electronics in its composition and production, and slight and breezy as it might seem, it’s one of the few tracks without which modern electronic music could not exist in its current form.
To understand how “Lover” came to be, one must peer into the fruitful and fascinating life of its principal arranger. Les Paul, born Lester William Polsfuss, is probably best known today as a virtuoso guitarist and the namesake for Gibson’s iconic guitar model (sported by legends from Keith Richards to Slash), but his true legacy extends much further than a single instrument.
Outside of Phil Spector, Les Paul might actually be the most important individual in 20th century sound engineering, thanks to a staggering variety of technical breakthroughs in areas like overdubbing, phasing, reverb, pitch-shifting and recording technology. Even that “single instrument” has been more deeply affected by Les Paul than might be commonly known; the name attached to the Gibson Les Paul Standard is far more than a nod to him as a player, it’s an accreditation to him as the inventor who, in the early 1940’s, developed “the Log”, one of the first solid-body electric guitars ever made.
From primitive “flanging” to the advent of “close-miking”, it would be an overwhelming task to try and list all of Les Paul’s innovations in a single article, seeing as the man never retired and began his dabbling in musical invention during childhood (legend tells that, as a young boy, Les Paul fashioned his own xylophone out of the balusters of his staircase). Suffice to say, the myriad of Les Paul’s breakthroughs can be seen as united under a single artistic mission: a mission to change sound, and to alter the way that traditional instruments appeared on record. Les Paul had a uniquely modern awareness that recorded music was its own medium, not simply a facsimile of live performance. His studio-trickery may not always come off as obvious with casual listeners today, but when played against his contemporaries, Les Paul’s records feel far more forward-thinking and unusual.
By the late 40’s, Les Paul was established as a talented guitarist and arranger, but he knew that he had reached a ceiling within the parameters of traditional music. A remark from his mother that his playing was indistinguishable from the other guitarists on the radio prompted Les Paul to seek out a “new sound”, a sound that he would test first with the aforementioned “Lover” single.
The construction of “Lover” is the first major innovation of the song, due to its pioneering use of multitracking. The multitrack recording schema, familiar to anyone who’s ever used Garageband, originated in an actual garage, where Les Paul recorded multiple guitar parts onto a variety of discs before manipulating certain sections through pitch-shifting and tape speeding. It’s almost impossible to imagine a time when such an approach would be considered experimental, but in 1948, live, untampered productions were still the norm, and the idea of a one-man electronic music storm was something of a novelty. WC Fields remarked that Les Paul’s multi-track songs sounded as though an “octopus” were playing them, due to the avalanche of individual parts running at once; one can only imagine how mind-blown he would have been at even the most disposable of modern electronic singles.
The multitrack technique employed on “Lover” helped birth a whole new way of making music, and a whole new conception of “music” in general. A case could be made that, on “Lover”, Les Paul is something of a primitive DJ; a lone figure completely uninhibited by the technical limitations of “organic” music, driven as much by an interest in sound quality as melody, autonomous over every element of his composition, and free to explore any possibility of song-craft without regard for “talent” in a traditional sense. Anybody could recreate “Lover” with the right technology, so it’s appeal was not in the musicianship, but in the imagination behind the arrangement. Wrought in a playful frenzy of virtual experimentation, Les Paul conceived of an extra-dimensional version of music that was like nothing that had come before, a version of music that is still formally, if not aesthetically, the standard for all electronica today. Essentially, it was music to be built, rather than played; not music that was recorded but a recording that was music. Every bedroom composer, every isolate laptop odyssey, and every song incapable of existing in a “playable” form was birthed here.
Sonically, “Lover” has a sense of excitement absent from your dusty Django Reinhardt records; its modulated ultra-fast playing has enough of a gimmicky attraction that it could impress a room of mildly open-minded people with the right explanation. The “song” itself is only OK, but the affected sections still sound pretty cool some 70 years after they were recorded. Before there was any material to vindicate his theory, Les Paul seemed to be aware that textural idiosyncrasies would age far better than “melodies”, and in this way, he precipitated modern musical trends by turning his ears towards the broader, more atmospheric elements of songs, elements that had previously been disregarded by fellow musicians. Les Paul also saw beyond the superficial limits of instruments, aware that the vessel for a particular sound was not necessarily confined to that sound; with the help of electronics, one instrument could be infinite. Considering the fact that the vast majority of electro-pop songs today have a hook built of a reshaped vocal fragment, a natural sound twisted into uncanny new shapes, it’s safe to say that the influence of his idea persists.
If there is any overarching concept that unites electronic artists throughout history, it is the idea of making music out of music. An outfit like Nicolas Jaar’s Darkside uses traditional instruments like the guitar and piano, but the music is still electronic in nature because the original playing has been manipulated to produce new sounds. In electronica, the “song” is really a marriage between the “song proper” and the “sound”, the synthetic x-factor that makes the music virtual. Such a format is too broad and big to credit a single figure with, but were the task necessary, Les Paul just might be the appropriate one. If anything, his old-but-somehow-modern songs prove that however, wildly different the aesthetics of different musical eras might be, a conceptual kinship closely unites the forward-thinking figures.