MusicQuake: The Most Disruptive Moments in Music (Culture Quake)

MusicQuake: The Most Disruptive Moments in Music (Culture Quake) September 20, 2022

Author in the category "Miscellaneous"
  1. Robert Dimery

Discover music that dared to be different, risked reputations and put careers in jeopardy — causing fascination and intrigue in some and rejection and scorn in others. This is what happens when people take tradition and rip it up.

MusicQuake tells the stories of 50 pivotal albums and performances that shook the world of modern music — chronicling the fascinating tales of their creation, reception, and legacy. Tracing enigmatic composers, risqué performers, and radical songwriters — this books introduces the history of 20th century music in a new light.

From George Gershwin and John Cage to Os Mutantes and Fela Kuti; from Patti Smith and The Slits to Public Enemy and Missy Elliott — by discussing each entry within the context of its creation, the book will give readers true insight into why each moment was so pivotal and tell the stories surrounding the most exciting music ever produced. Some were shocking, others confusing, beautiful, and surreal; some were scorned on release, others were chart toppers; and yet more inspired entire movements and generations of new musicians.

These cutting-edge works, which celebrate novelty, technology, and innovation, help define what music is today — acting as prime examples of how powerful songs can be.

This book is from the Culture Quake series, which looks into iconic moments of culture which truly created paradigm shifts in their respective fields. Also available are ArtQuake, FilmQuake and FashionQuake.


The whole premise of this book is the overturning of expectations. Sometimes that goes hand in hand with uproar – a concert-hall riot, say, or the outcry at an uncomfortable lyric, or plain disbelief at what is being presented as ‘music’. But the 50 explosive moments covered here pushed the art form forwards, redefined and renewed it, whether it was appreciated at the time or only later.

Such moments don’t spring forth fully formed out of a vacuum. Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 score for the ballet The Rite of Spring borrowed from traditional folk songs, not least in its jarring rhythms. And by around 1910, Arnold Schoenberg was well on his way to instigating the most radical shake-up in musical theory for centuries, but had once composed in the Late Romantic style and was influenced (and championed) by Gustav Mahler.

Many of these turning points were made possible by advances in technology, and we’ll look at these in tandem. The change from analogue recording, onto cylinders or primitive disks, to electronic recording in the 1920s boosted audio clarity – important when a soloist is making history. (Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven studio sessions straddled the change-over.) The introduction of microphones allowed for greater subtlety and nuance in a vocal performance; magnetic tape laid the ground for multitracking.

This book also examines how technological innovation can bring about unexpected shifts in the zeitgeist – witness the ructions Napster wrought and the threats to the hegemony of the music industry. And when it’s ‘mis- used’, technology can open doors we weren’t aware were even there: sound recordings slowed down, cut up and edited by the likes of Pierre Schaeffer, Steve Reich or Tom Moulton (all discussed in the book) become orphaned from their original context, alien and intriguing. In the Bronx sometime in the 1970s, inspired DJs evolved new sonic possibilities by ‘scratching’ with vinyl records. And the ready availability of budget samplers such as the Akai MPC series in the late 1980s further transformed music-making, enabling untrained musicians to collage together snippets from existing recordings, a breakthrough that forged the iconic textures of old-school hip-hop sound.

In the 1960s, forward-thinking minds found new and thrilling ways of ‘mis-using’ recording studios too, repurposing them from a means of faithfully recording live performance into an Aladdin’s Cave for creating new aural worlds that couldn’t be reproduced on stage. You can hear this in the extraordinary sound palettes dreamed up by technically savvy, maverick spirits such as the British producer Joe Meek, Daphne Oram, who founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and Delia Derbyshire, who worked there.

Exceptional female creatives such as Derbyshire often found their innovations underappreciated, and her role in the evolution of electronic sound was acknowledged only in retrospect. A microcosm of historical injustice right there: ‘Women are the glue,’ Björk told Pitchfork in 2015. ‘It’s invisible, what women do.’ Flick through this book and you’ll notice that some of its most uncompromising artistic statements were made by women, from Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ (1939) through Brigitte Fontaine’s Comme à la Radio (1969) and Patti Smith’s Horses (1975) to the Slits’ Cut (1979). Over the last 50 years, few artists have been as daringly innovative, while operating within pop’s parameters, as Kate Bush and Björk. Today, the balance is somewhat redressed with the bold statements (musical and otherwise) of formidable female artists such as Beyoncé – a pop-culture deity who introduced a socio-political edge to what was already a stellar career, and added a new dimension to her art in the process.

As Jimi Hendrix permanently changed perceptions of what a guitar could do, so others altered the fabric of music so radically that the reverberations of their legacy endured for years, some still resonating today. John Cage questioned musical conventions rigorously, engineering new tonalities for the piano and upturning accepted ideas of what constitutes ‘music’. Kraftwerk’s retrofuturistic synth pop influenced such disparate artists as David Bowie and Brian Eno (who was also deeply indebted to Cage’s radical artistic philosophy), Bronx hip-hoppers Afrika Bambaataa and the fledgling Run-DMC, pioneers of Detroit techno including Derrick May and Juan Atkins, and Daft Punk, who themselves reshaped dance music at the turn of the 21st century.

You’ll also discover how a stimulating cross-pollination of ideas makes for unlikely kindred spirits. Stravinsky’s development of a new rhythmic language – involving syncopation and unexpected accents – as well as harmonic innovations in The Rite of Spring resonated warmly with jazz musicians. Charlie Parker assimilated the opening notes of the Rite into his solo on ‘Salt Peanuts’ during a performance in Paris in 1949, and delighted the composer when (without acknowledging his presence) he dropped the opening notes of Stravinsky’s 1910 suite The Firebird into the second chorus of his song ‘Ko-Ko’ at Manhattan’s Birdland Jazz Club.

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s interest in producing sounds from unorthodox sources – and blending electronically generated sonics with acoustic ones – famously impacted on the Beatles’ Paul McCartney (for whom Gesang der Jünglinge was ‘my big favourite plick-plop piece of his’). And Stockhausen peers out from the cover of their 1967 opus Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a brooding face behind the shoulder of comedian W.C. Fields. That marriage of avant-garde risk-taking with a pop sensibility characterizes some of the most influential works discussed here, from the Velvet Underground & Nico’s debut album (1967) to Jimi Hendrix’s scorching reinterpretation of the US national anthem (1969), the dizzying production games on Missy Elliott’s ground-breaking Supa Dupa Fly (1997) or Radiohead’s wrong-footing Kid A (2000).

Most of these pivotal 50 events are recordings, although there’s space too for a handful of extraordinary live performances that caused quakes of their own. You’ll also find a series of features running through the book as a complement to the main entries, offering further insight into them, or into a related area. Part of this commentary involves tracing the revolution in the way we listen to music, and how this has affected music-makers. Among the issues this throws up is the role of the album in the 21st century – whether it still has relevance, how its format has evolved to include visual complements, and how artists have experimented with the process of an album release.

Think of this book as a tale of 50 phoenixes, rising blazingly new from the ashes of the everyday: 50 fifth columnists within pop’s castle; 50 windows into the future.
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