Playlist: Off the Grid
The term unplugged is closely associated with music, most famously in connection with the long-running cable TV series MTV Unplugged. For this playlist, I’ve played with the idea of unplugged a bit.
With recordings from artists thriving outside of established circuits, and others from musicians who have intentionally disconnected to spark creativity, we’ll take a broader look at what it means to be unplugged when making music.
The cliché about making it big, especially in the music industry, is that it’s all about who you know. While there are definitely advantages to having a seat at the table in Los Angeles and New York City, sometimes creating away from power centers is where the good stuff really happens. These are a few cases where that rings true.
By the mid-seventies, after a string of successful records, David Bowie found himself unhappy and unhealthy in LA. Seeking to reclaim his health, clarity, and anonymity, Bowie found a sanctuary-like base in Berlin and created some of his strongest, most celebrated work. Removing himself from pressures and trappings his success had brought in London and LA, Bowie found time, space, and inspiration from a new generation of Berliners redfining their city in the post-war era.
Bowie isn’t the only well established artist to intentionally create their work far from the industry machinery it will eventually meet. The avant-rock band Sigur Rós writes and records in Sundlaugin, a drained, abandoned swimming pool from the 1930s in a remote area of their native Iceland. The unique acoustic qualities of the space serves to inform and inspire their ethereal, otherworldly music. And metal pioneers Black Sabbath headed to Clearwell Castle, a gothic mansion deep in the English counrtyside, to write and rehearse in the castle’s dungeon. It’s impossible to tell how much it influenced the record itself, but boy is that a good story.
Before I get too ahead of myself by congratulating enormously successful artists on their brave decisions to escape to castles away from dynamic metropolises to work on their craft, let’s explore some artists and labels that flourished far from the mainstream from their earliest days.
While the major record labels of Midtown Manhattan were counting up sales of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and working to get “Staying Alive” on the playlist of every radio station in the known world, something new was happening a few miles up the street in the Bronx. Originating in block parties in housing projects, hip-hop music formed as a pure expression of community, identity, and fun. What would become a global phenomenon began in the disenfranchised communities of the Bronx a million miles from the studios and skyscrapers of Midtown.
In the wake of punk in the late-seventies, a network of micro-publications, zines, record labels, and DIY touring infrastructure spread globally. Quirky scenes from Olympia, Washington to Athens, Georgia nurtured some of the most interesting music of the time. Even further afield, Postcard Records from Scotland (represent here by Josef K) and Flying Nun Records in New Zealand (see The Chills) have made a lasting impact. These labels, and the records they released, still hold influence for people looking to create something unique and innocent.
The Numero Group, the wonderful Chicago-based record label, specializes in reissuing unforgettable records that could have, should have, and never did. Now approaching 300 releases, Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label is where it all began - their first full release and first volume in the stellar Eccentric Soul series. Founded in Columbus, Ohio by Bill Moss, a local musician and DJ, Capsoul released just a dozen 45’s and one highly sought after LP resulting in a few regional hits. You’ll find the opening track here - “You’re All I Need to Make It” by Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr - which to my ears is as strong as anything from that era.
The Numero Group aren’t alone in doing amazing work to uncover incredible music that didn’t connect the first time around. Soundway Records (represented here with The Petch Phin Thong Band’s “Soul Lam Plearn” from an awesome compilation of Thai tunes, The Sound Of Siam), Analog Africa, and Awesome Tapes from Africa are seemingly endless sources of unique sounds and stories.
But about the more familiar use of “unplugged” when it comes to music: I’ve always loved hearing versions of songs with acoustic instrumenation and how it can reveal something new about the song and the artist. Cat Power’s The Covers Record not only changed the instrumenation and arrangements of the original songs, but transformed the meaning of many, including the Rolling Stones classic “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Iron & Wine’s take on “Such Great Heights” reveals the strength of the original composition by adding a layer of intimacy, while Nirvana’s legendary appearance on MTV Unplugged stripped the volume, distortion, and physicality of their plugged in performance only to reveal how great their songs were and what an exceptional performer Kurt Cobain was.
Give this a listen when you’re unwinding or working late. Maybe it’ll spark a thought, help you change things up, or realize what’s possible by just staying put.
Listen here on Spotify.
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