on music covers, and false ethnographic memories

Pictured (left): Le Rhône, Lyon, France. (C. Lardy 2017)

Music covers and misremembered guitar solos

I’ve long been interested in music covers; originally because the psychology behind them confused me – are you covering this song as an hommage to a beloved artist? but by advertising your cover, aren’t you in essence saying your version is better than theirs? Lately, I’ve mostly been trying to find songs which not only were covered multiple times, but were well covered, that is, whose different versions each offer a unique take on the original melody (rather than over-warbled vocals dubbed ‘an emotional rediscovery of blah’). One such song is ‘Turn the Page’, first performed by Bob Seger in 1973. If you have an hour to spare, I link six different versions below; but if not, I’ll try to give a succinct description of the differences between each take (bear in mind that I have very little knowledge of proper musical vocabulary…).

The very first studio version of ‘Turn the Page’ is featured in Bob Seger’s 1973 album Back in ’72, and opens on a haunting saxophone solo, before Seger starts singing in a gravelly, pared down tone. As the first chorus starts, a bouncy piano accompaniment comes in; and while Seger’s vocals stay level and rather minimalistic, the overal effect highlights the jangling keyboard. Seger then transitions into a higher octave for the final chorus, before the saxophone returns to end the song.

This original recording was later eclipsed by a 1976 live rendering by Seger himself with the ‘Silver Bullet Band’. Much smoother, this version loses the rhythmic (and grating) keyboards of the original, and the tempo is only given by discreet drums and the occasional quiet cymbals. More importantly, the 1976 version’s appeal is tied to the increased presence of the saxophone, which now plays almost continuously as a backdrop to Seger’s voice; and comes into the forefront at intervals with a repetitive and poignant musical phrase.

This 1976 version of ‘Turn the Page’ sparked a series of covers, the most well-known of which is, of course, Metallica’s 1998 version which did more to popularize the song than anything Seger had produced himself. Keeping the same tempo as Seger’s, Metallica nevertheless transform the song into hard rock, and notably highlight what used to be the saxophone’s part by replacing it with a high-tone slide guitar which comes in after each verse and chorus.

My main interest in bringing up these successive recordings of ‘Turn the Page’ is this: Metallica’s iconic guitar part is such a simple and memorable melody that I cannot, in fact, listen to any of the other versions without expecting the guitar to play. I cannot think about any of the other covers – with their unique styles, which I will come to in a minute – without copy-pasting onto them Metallica’s guitar tune.

While some covers, such as Golden Earring’s slightly-faster recording from 1995, closely ressemble Metallica’s version, others take the song into entirely different music genres. Waylon Jennings made it into pure country music in 1985: the rolling rhythm mirrors the original keyboard tempo of Seger’s 1973 studio recording, and the saxophone is absent, its melody replaced by a twanging country guitar. Even more obviously, the 1974 cover by Jon English (which features interestingly bouncy strings) predates the 1976 introduction of the large saxophone part on which Metallica’s guitar is entirely based. Nevertheless, when I absently hum ‘Turn the Page’ with Waylon Jennings’s country tempo (for some reason it’s the one that sticks to my mind most), I often catch myself adding Metallica’s guitar solo after each chorus.


False memory and retrospective ethnography

Yesterday, a good friend told me about the ‘Mandela Effect’, a phenomenon first described by Freud but whose name was coined by ‘paranormal consultant’ Fiona Broome in 2015. Upon Mandela’s death in 2013, Broome and, she argues, “thousands of others”, reacted with violent denial: they all strongly believed, indeed remembered, that Mandela had already died in prison in the 1980s (Broome then talked around this cognitive dissonance by explaining that she must have unwittingly transitioned to an alternate reality in which Mandela was still alive into the twenty-first century).

I didn’t think about ‘Turn the Page’ immediately, but later wondered if my intellectual – and indeed auditory – certainty that these songs include a guitar solo could qualify as a Mandela Effect (minus the alternate reality bit). This in turn led me down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia, and I wasted far too much time reading up on false memories.

In 1974 and 1975, Elizabeth Loftus conducted two studies to investigate the diverse ways in which humans retrospectively misconstruct their own memories. She first targetted the effect of language on the development of false memories, and concluded that using different verbs when asking individuals to recall a video influenced the participants’ responses. For instance, asking them to recall a video of a car ‘smashing’ into another vehicle (or, for others, ‘hitting’ it) led them to quote a greater perceived speed for the car, and to erroneously remember broken glass at the crash site. This first conclusion – that language, and ‘post-event information’ more generally, retroactively interferes with memory – led her to develop the skeleton theory. She explains that recalling a memory involves two processes, both of which are subjective and easily tampered with: the memory must first be acquired, and later retrieved.

The acquisition process includes three steps, and here let me quote Wikipedia:

First, upon the original encounter, the observer selects a stimulus to focus on. The information that the observer can focus on compared to the information in the situation is very small. In other words, a lot is going on around us and we only pick up on a small portion. Therefore, the observer must make a selection on the focal point. Second, our visual perception must be translated into statements and descriptions. The statements represent a collection of concepts and objects; they are the link between the event occurrence and the recall. Third, the perceptions are subject to any ‘external’ information being provided before or after the interpretation. This subsequent set of information can alter recall.

The retrieval process, in turn, must regenerate one or several of the visual or descriptive perceptions – prompting a recall through the use of specific words, or within a particular context, may provoke the rise of an ‘externally re-written’ statement, a false memory, rather than the original image.

The existence of false memories is a problem for an ethnographer who would rather take notes ‘after the fact’, say, in the evening, rather than throughout the day as the action is unfolding. A good work ethic and the best of wills cannot help you, if you misremember an informant’s words or actions.

Neuroscientists such as Martin Dresler, Nils Müller, and Boris Konrad have studied the mental gymnastics performed by the world’s highest-ranked ‘memory champions’, including Konrad himself. They argue that the technique of the mental palace, which was popularized by the third-season finale of the TV-series Sherlock, truly renders fragments of memory easy to access. Konrad describes the technique as partially physical, as one first walks through a place to become intimately acquainted with it, and mostly intellectual, as memories are deliberately pictured and ‘stored’ in this place:

You really walk through a place and then later you visualise the location to place an object there. You’re not just wandering around in your crazy mental palace.

Such a method sounds appealing for the anthropologist, whose fieldwork is often centered around a single place: would it be possible to train oneself to dwell in a fieldsite physically, but to also cultivate it as a mnemonic ‘mind palace’ wherein the quotes and behaviours of informants would become readily accessible?

My own method of retroactive note-taking includes a weaker version of this, as I picture myself re-walking through the day and re-holding conversations, in the hope that such a chronological, film-like visualisation will evoke entire quotes and true memories. However, not being trained in any proper memorisation technique, I cannot help but be worried: am I still unwittingly inserting guitar solos into my retrospective accounts? And if so, how would I even know, and how should I proceed in future in order to make certain that what I write about my informants actually occurred?

Bibliography:

  • Dresler, M. et al. 2017. ‘Mnemonic Training Reshapes Brain Networks to Support Superior Memory’. Neuron 93 (5): 1227-1235.
  • Loftus, E. 1974. ‘Reconstruction of automobile destruction – Example of interaction between language and memory’. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 13 (5): 585-589.
  • Loftus, E. 1975. ‘Leading questions and eyewitness report’. Cognitive Psychology 7 (4): 560-572.
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