The Perfection of Imperfection

2000px-Yin_yang.svg

That’s a picture of the Yin Yang. It’s one of the most identifiable and iconic graphics in the world. It’s beauty is its simplicity. It encapsulates the ideas and belief of Taoism in a single circle, a curvy line and two dots. I won’t go into the overall Philosophy of Taoism but as the Yin Yang shows it means in its basic form that everything has two sides but contains part of each and are inseparable yet distinct i.e. everything contains its opposite. One of the great ideas this ideology imparts is that for something to be perfect it must be imperfect, by which I mean that which makes something truly great is its fallibility.

I have known this since I was a kid. I liked finding mistakes or problems in things I liked because if I still loved it after that then it HAD to be good. For me this is most evident in film and music. There are plenty of films that have significant problems that only stand to make me love it more but what I really wanted to write about was the music side of things.

My brother recently wrote this post on his own blog about the difference in ‘Clean’ and ‘Dirty’ blues. Now I fall pretty heavily on the Dirty side of this particular Yin/Yang argument, my favourite Blues musicians, in fact any musicians/songwriters/albums, are the dirtiest. My argument is that it is the errors that makes it more human and sympathetic. The implication in the Clean and Dirty argument is that the dirtier it is the more visceral it is, more emotion, more power but less refined, slightly ‘uglier’ because of it. The clean music on the other side is more accurate, more refined, more thoughtful but more sterile and less emotional. My favourite two examples in Blues at the moment are Gary Clark Jr and John Mayer. Gary is de-facto dirty whereas Mayer is the most pristine clean you can get. He uses Dumbles for crying out loud. Now Mayer sites Ray Charles as a big influence which is evident in his vocal style, Charles being another artist I’d call ‘clean’, but if we start looking at older recordings a bit more closely the dirtier they become.

Pre the ice-barren sterile age of the 80s (and even during) there are so many examples of errors and distinct uncleanliness in most recordings and this set me thinking. I wonder how many errors you could find in some truly classic recordings. I’m not talking about fly-by-nights or garage bands, I mean number one singles and bona fide classics. It turns out, it’s harder to find recordings without any mistakes. I took to Twitter to ask the hivemind what they could think of as examples. The examples I gave were the wonderfully jarring honk from a trumpet in Move On Up, the oddly out of tune brass in Stevie Wonder’s Uptight, the early saxophone on Land of 1000 Dances by Wilson Pickett and the clangourous humdinger of a wrong chord in Hound Dog. The cause was kindly taken up on Twitter and fast became an avalanche of recommendations on some truly glaring errors and fumbles on some truly classic and legendary recordings. I won’t list them all but some of my favourites were: “Fuck!” Loudly from the drummer in Louie Louie by the Kingsmen, Sting hitting the piano and laughing in Roxanne, various incidents of unwelcome phones ringing, Brian Wilson’s cough during the Organ solo in Wendy, the UTTERLY bizarre knocking in Beat It by Michael Jackson, the ‘you-can’t-unhear-it’ pop at the start of EVERY CHORUS in Paper Planes and likewise the painfully out of tune guitar on Jackie Wilson’s Higher and Higher.

The most ‘hits’ came from The Beatles. Now for the band that have undergone the most scrutiny over time this doesn’t surprise me and quite a few are well known but many had completely passed me by. For instance: ever noticed the really obvious “fucking hell” in the middle of Hey Jude? Or McCartney’s hilarity inducing bail out of a note in If I Fell (no link because the youtube versions are suspiciously doctored. Find a CD or record version)? Or when John & Paul bugger up the lyrics in I’ll Get You? We’re talking arguably the greatest band in the world and number one hits here.

I discussed this briefly the next day with my brother as we debated the lore and apocryphal stories surrounding these bloopers and errors and then realised that this sort of thing is going the way of the Dodo with digital technology and the ability to erase even the smallest recording error, or auto tune a flat vocal, or generally smooth out the audio of anything. And instantly you have lost something. Whether you argue for or against ‘cleanliness’ there is instantly a loss of mystery, there can be no discussion on what the knocking in Beat It is because it would be edited out but I think we can all agree that song isn’t classed as one hit wonder or a B-Side. The dud bass note in Born to Be Wild didn’t stop that becoming a worldwide hit (the movie might have helped though).

What am I getting at? Well I’m certainly not saying add in a fuck up in post but nor am I suggesting we leave every recording untouched by the digital wand of pro-tools. What I am saying is that we live in an era where humanity, emotions and what some consider a soul are being actively distanced through a way of living. I am not knee-jerkingly accusing the internet or social media as I love them but at a time when it took the photo of a dead child drowned on a beach to mobilise certain people in our society and acknowledge this is a problem that’s knocking on our door and won’t go away, I think the small rebellion of leaving in the faults, “warts and all” in the things we create so we can recognise our own foibles and problems is only for the good. There has always been the notion of something being too perfect and it is always seen as a negative. If we look at a robot immaculately replicating our face and expressions we are repulsed by it, it’s called the uncanny valley effect. Perfection is actively refused by our conscious mind. Humans are a messy and disorganised race and our art is no different. When it comes to Blues then, the most deep down howl of despair and melancholy and anger, this should absolutely be the messiest and wrong and error filled music to listen to or it, for me at least, isn’t capturing that sense of our humanity.

So the next time you wish to ‘find fault’ see that as a good thing. We can only ever improve if the errors are pointed out and besides we’ll never create something faultless and utterly perfect. We’re only human after all.

P.S. Twitter amazed me with its suggestions the other night. I storified the whole list of replies if you want a laugh and some truly gob smacking how-did-I-not-notice-that moments. Thanks to Danny Baker and Moose Allain for getting the ball rolling.

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