Plastics and rubber are not only remarkable materials that inspire developers and engineers to make technical or application-specific innovations. Polymers also prove to be inspiring for art and culture. Today's Topic of the Month looks episodically at the influence and use of the term plastic in and around music.
Grammophone. Source: istock / Antonio-BanderAS
There is no one who wants to write about the special relationship between plastics and music. We are talking about "black gold". To avoid misunderstandings, we are not talking about oil, at least not primarily, although oil is one, if not the most important source of hydrocarbons as a starting point for the production of polymer materials. Black gold, in the context of music, does not refer to oil, but to records. For the conservation of music, the record, this circular black disc with a hole in the middle, was for a long time the most important sound carrier.
In gramophone times the record (source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schallplatte#Formate) was made of shellac, a natural polymer obtained from the excrements of the varnish scale insect Kerria lacca. Later shellac was replaced by the cheaper synthetic polyvinyl chloride (PVC). It is this plastic material that the record owes its abbreviation "vinyl" to. Record lovers take precious discs out of the record cover with white gloved hands, that due to its size offers a lot of space for pictures and texts - and that is considered a work of art in its own right from case to case.
The special enjoyment of music
Tape recorder. Source: istock / Magnillion
One thing seems certain: the record "lives" and is right on trend. According to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), records are enjoying greater sales than the CD, the compact disc [as of February 2019]. The CD, made of plastic polycarbonate, came onto the market in 1979 as a product competing with the LP. The digital sound carrier is characterised not only by its large storage capacity, but also by its particularly pure sound, which, however, suffers just as much if the surface of the small silver-looking disc is scored like that of the LP. For musicians as well as for music lovers, vinyl records usually have a higher value.
Example: A collector paid 110,000 euros for an originally packed copy of the Beatles album "Yesterday and Tomorrow" from 1966 (source: https://www.musikexpress.de/die-acht-teuersten-schallplatten-der-welt-340177/). The whoop-sound alone, which pops out of the loudspeakers when the needle touches the record, followed by an expectant crackling sound, which the pickup produces when it slurps through the millimetre-deep grooves in the vinyl in search of sounds and tones, rhythm and music, round after round, makes many a record lover hold his breath for moments and go into rapture.
Plastic and music
Cassette recorder. Source: istock / tarras79
But not only are records made of plastic. For a long time it was impossible to preserve music without plastic. Tapes and music cassettes made of plastic came onto the market. The world of art and culture would be much poorer without polymeric sounding bodies.
Plastic, however, does not sound as a sounding body alone, but is itself the very essence and content of music. Music, like literature - which we will talk about later - and the other performing arts, is always a mirror of the times, as singer Diana Ross suggests, and thus reflects, not surprisingly, the decades-long presence of plastics and rubber. Would you like some examples?
How about the album "Plastic Beach" by the virtual cartoon band "Gorillaz"? Behind the drawn characters who embody the band are Damon Albarn, singer and musical head of the British rock band "Blur", as well as comic artist Jamie Hewlett. The image on the album cover shows a towering island somewhere in the ocean, drawn in drastic colours. The song On Melancholy Hill draws an apocalyptic world view: Survivors cross our planet in submarines without really finding refuge, a new home. Plastic palm trees on the island as a symbol of the past and the new art world.
Cover of the album "Plastic Beach" by the band "Gorillaz". Source: Archives
Plastic is part of the band´s name "Plastic Ono Band" founded by ex-Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. Their debut album of the same name, released in 1969, was John Lennon's first album after the Beatles declared the end of the band. With songs like Give Peace a Chance or Happy Xmas (War Is Over), Lennon and Ono paved the way for peace activism, which ended for Lennon on 8 December 1980. The ex-Bealte was shot dead in the streets of New York City by Mark David Chapman. After Lennon's death, maintaining his works became one of Yoko Ono's most important tasks. By the way: According to legend, the word "Plastic" in "Plastic Ono Band" refers to her work before she met Lennon: Yoko Ono had performed in a show accompanied by plastic stands equipped with four cassette recorders, which led John Lennon to call her "Plastic Ono Band".
Record cover "Liverpool Sound Collage". Source: Archives
Speaking of the Beatles: On 21st August 2000, band co-founder Sir Paul McCartney released the song "Plastic Beetle" on the album "Liverpool Sound Collage". Can one really speak of a song? Basically, it is an 8:23 minute long musical collage of word and sound snippets that were recorded during the Beatles' numerous recording sessions but never before released. Although there is no clear source, it is believed that the title of the song "Plastic Beetle" is a reference to a conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney died in a car accident in 1969 and was replaced by a double. In her book "Plastic Macca: The Secret Death and Replacement of Beatle Paul McCartney" published in 2019, author Tina Foster dealt with McCartney's alleged death
CD cover "Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen" (You forgot the color film). Source: Archives
Leap forward in time to the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In 1974, the singer Catharina Hagen, better known under her stage name "Nina Hagen", landed her first big hit with the song "Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen". Its story is quickly told: Everything is so beautifully colourful here on holiday, but because "Michael" has forgotten the polyester colour film required for the camera, there are no photos, so they can’t show it to anyone. The chorus goes accordingly: "Now nobody believes us, how beautiful it was here, ha-ha, ha-ha". Apropos: The cradle of colour film is in Wolfen, a small town with 17,000 inhabitants belonging to Bitterfeld in Saxony-Anhalt. Wolfen owes its development into a chemical site to the film factory founded by the Aktiengesellschaft für Anilinfabrikation (Agfa). It was here that colour film was invented in 1936. In 1945, American troops confiscated the patent and handed it over to the US company Kodak.
Cover from "Fake Plastic Trees". Source: Archives
In 1985, the British rock band "Radiohead" experimented with different sounds in the studio, producing music that could not be clearly classified, at best somewhere between classical, alternative and experimental rock. Frontman of the band Thom York is characterised by a distinctive falsetto voice, which inspires other musicians. In the song "Fake Plastic Trees", a deeply sad ballad, part of their second studio album, Radiohead illuminates the lives of lovers who believed they had found the great, real happiness, which in the end always turned out to be a beautiful illusion. The artificiality of life - represented by various plastics as a metaphor. Excferpts from the lyrics: A green plastic watering can / For a fake Chinese rubber plant / In a Fake plastic earth“ ... „She lives with a broken man / A cracked polystrene man / Who just crumbles and burns“ ... „She looks like the real thing / She tastes like the real thing / My fake plastic love“. In real life, plastics faithfully and reliably meet the expectations that are placed in them and, above all, those that have been designed beforehand.
Record cover "Barbie Girl". Source: Archives
The song "Barbie Girl" by the band "Aqua", a Danish-Norwegian Eurodance group (Eurodance is a musical style within electronic dance music), which was founded in 1989, is also about beautiful appearance. The Barbie fashion doll is, by the way, one of the best selling dolls in the world. Barbie and her plastic friend "Ken" are real toy classics, box office hits for manufacturer Mattel. Speaking of which: Due to Ken's call "Come on Barbie, let's go party" in the music video, which documents his actual (sexual) intentions, Martell has sued the music companies Vivendi Universal and MCA Records. The suit was dismissed by a Californian court of appeal on 24 July 2002. The reason given was that the song, as a parody with social content, was protected by the right to freedom of expression.
Plastics and music at a rapid pace
In his song "Plastic & Concrete", Iggy Pop served plastic and concrete with a dash of mayonnaise and salad, Frank Zappa in "Plastic People" dealt with the increasing artificiality and uniformity of people, and the band Jefferson Airplane in "Plastic Fantastic Lover" dealt with the colour television introduced in the 1960s and the addictive omnipresence of television that came with it. According to legend, the late "Poly Styrol" (Marianne Joan Elliott-Said), front woman of the English punk rock band "X-Ray Spex", came to her stage name when she was flipping through the Yellow Pages in 1976, looking for a "name of the time, something plastic" ("name of the time, something plastic"). (Source: https://www.spiegel.de/kultur/musik/x-ray-spex-saengerin-punk-ikone-poly-styrene-ist-tot-a-759090.html ).
We could give many more examples about the relationship and interweaving of plastic and music, two really very interesting things: The one combines tones, sounds and rhythm in an artistic way. The other is an artistic composition of polymeric building blocks, as they can be found in nature. More of "both in one" can be found