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Sound Effects in Popular Music: Sirens, Squeaks & Skronks

By Edited Jun 15, 2016 3 4

Listen Up!

The sounds of the world change the mood and setting of any experience.  In daily life most people tune out the extraneous background noises that continually bombard the ear – traffic, incessant human chattering – focusing and giving attention, instead, to only those things of importance.

In popular music there have been many occasions when the incidental sounds of life – the ambulance’s siren, the police radio call, the rumbling of a train – have been used to great effect to heighten the drama of a song or to alter its mood.  Such sounds are attention-getting – they immediately grab the listener and place him or her within the context of the story being sung.

Sound FX
Old Foley
Sound effects in popular music are not a new concept.  Such addenda were used over the millennia to enhance a musical performance.  The wailing of a chorus in the background of a Greek tragedy might instill an ominous sense of dread in the audience.  In symphonic music of the late 18th to early 19th Century it was not uncommon for composers to score sound effects into their compositions along with the music.  Many live concert performances featured gunpowder cannon fire (in an enclosed space, this had to be very dramatic), gunshots, and other “real world” sounds to heighten the drama or to add a mild comedic element where warranted (such as a donkey’s bray or a woman’s laugh).

Sound effects in music is not the same as using a “found” instrument (such as a clanging lead pipe or percussive wood block).  “Found” instruments are those everyday items from which some musicality can be derived – banging on a garbage can lid, for example, can make an excellent percussive sound.  The intent in using such noises is to create music, not to enhance it, and such found objects are usually played in time, on pitch (where possible), and with expertise.

Radio, available to the masses for the first time in the 1920s, brought the listening audience to a new level of intimacy with sound.  Radio shows featured music but they also featured dramas and comedies.  To convey a true sense of place, these non-musical shows had to engage the listener, enticing him or her to use his or her imagination to create a scene in the mind’s eye. 

Sound effects’ work in radio became a true art form at a time when motion pictures were still silent.  For those with the skill and imagination to translate the mechanics of using “found” objects to create a sound evoking a familiar one (the small, sand-filled box tamped with coconut shells or metal cups creating the rhythm of hoof beats springs to mind) the work could be creatively fulfilling.  The sounds created also elevated the radio listener’s experience.

The film industry, however, lagged radio for sound.  The first canonically accepted movie featuring sound (though other fragments of sound movies have since been discovered that predate it) was 1927’s The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. 

Universal Studios desperately needed to compete in the sound market once Warner studios released The Jazz Singer.  Jack Donovan Foley (1891-1967) had been in Universal’s employ since 1914 (during the silent era).  Universal called for any of its staff with radio experience to help create a sound crew. 

Jack Foley made Universal’s originally “silent” musical, Show Boat, into a sound film (and it became a classic).  Microphones on set at the time were not very sensitive – actors had to stand near them for dialogue and they could not pick up ambient sounds (such as door slams, clothes rustling, or the wind outside).  These ambient sounds had to be added in later. 

To do this, Foley and his small crew developed an array of sound-making devices to simulate the noises needed to enhance the movie.  In sound editing he projected the edited film and painstakingly recorded a single track of audio to synchronize the sound effects in real time as seen on the screen. Timing had to be perfect so that footsteps and closing doors would jibe with the movie’s action.

Jack Foley’s techniques pioneered an industry-within-an-industry, and today sound people are called “Foley artists”.  These are the technicians who put the “bang” in the slamming door on screen and who produce the off-screen siren of approaching police.  Modern films credit a “Foley artist” on every movie (unless it is silent or has no effects); the person involved is the creative mind behind the ambient sounds and special sound effects heard in the film.

Novelty
With such radio dramas as The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, The Untouchables, and with comedies such as Fibber McGee & Molly (the sound of the contents of his infamously all-too-cluttered closet crashing to the floor every time Fibber opened his closet door) the people working as sound engineers had steady jobs. 

In the 1940s sound technology was changing.  The earliest experiments in inexpensive stereo sound reproduction were conducted.  The 33-1/3 rpm lightweight vinyl record (“long playing” or “LP”) was gradually replacing the cumbersome “albums” of 78 rpm recordings on heavy Bakelite. [One LP held the same amount of music as six 78s, usually stored in a binder filled with paper sleeves, hence the term “album”].

Into this realm came a true crank, Spike Jones.  A man with a crazed mission, Jones was a seasoned huckster and musician.  He was born Lindley Armstrong in 1911 in Long Beach, California.  He got his start in radio playing drums for house bands.  It was during his drumming days that he began incorporating anarchically comical sounds such as car horns, cowbells, and anvils to his percussion.  In 1942 he formed Spike Jones and His City Slickers

With this group, Jones skewered every political and pop culture target he could find.  The band soon had a hit recording with “Der Fuehrer’s Face.”  It was a vicious slap in Hitler’s face, reducing his rhetoric to that of a buffoon spewing trite aphorisms.  It features crazed instrumentation and not-too-subtle flatulence noises. [The studio version of the song also contains a sly reference to homosexuality.  In response to the straight-sung line in a “German” accent about Germans being the “superman”, a lispy, effeminate male voice responds, “Sooper-dooper superman!”  The intent is clearly to question the “superman’s” sexuality.]   

Jones’ debut, however, created some controversy when it was released.  The “mouth music” featured – called a “Bronx cheer” in those days – was considered too risqué for the times, and it was banned from airplay by many radio stations.  Nonetheless, it secured Spike Jones and His City Slickers a place in pop music history.   

He took hit songs of the day and reworked them in his idiom (which included farting and spittoon-spitting sounds – on time and on pitch! – crazed skronkings on “found” instruments, and the noises of human ululations).  Many of his tunes were like small radio plays (a horse race in one – complete with all expected sound effects – and a lost-love lament featuring a mock commercial jingle in the middle of it in another).  Jones’ abuse of these tunes still sounds amazing (and his particular take on Vaughan Monroe’s popular version of “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”—sung by what sounds like two wheezy, old Jewish men—is hysterical). 

He and His City Slickers continued to make parody records, satirical discs, and novelty tunes into the 1950s.  He also had his own TV show in that decade.  He later shifted gears and moved his band into the realm of Dixieland jazz, making some recordings in the 1960s.  He died in 1965.  Spike Jones (like his spiritual godson Weird Al Yankovic today) created novelties.  His material was never serious, and he used sound effects to great purpose, exaggerating the mock tragedy of a piece or blowing it up completely for comic effect. 

He was not the only one using such tricks, however, in the 1940s.  Other artists took their cues from the radio sound effects with which they were familiar.  Legendary R&B artist Louis Jordan, with his combo, recorded a song whose title, “Open the Door, Richard”, became a catch phrase in the mid 1940s.  The song has a gang of people trying to get up to Richard’s apartment and features door knocks and a woman yelling up from the street for effect. [There is an earlier, more risqué, version of the song recorded in 1941 wherein Richard is not alone in his apartment, but he has a woman up there while his wife is out of town, and his friends, according to their plaints, want a “piece”, too.]

Rockin’ the Bells
While not unheard of in the 1940s, sound effects were not terribly common in pop music of the day, restricted mostly to novelty tunes.  It took rock ’n’ roll, though, to bring gunfire into the home of the teen listener. 

The Olympics’ late 1950s’ hit song, “Western Movies”, opens with a gunshot followed by a ricochet effect.  As the song lopes along with a rollicking Western-style swing beat, the singer laments the fact that he can’t get with his girl because she’s only interested in sitting around watching TV Westerns. In one stanza, he sings, “I called baby on the telephone / To tell her half my head was gone / I just got hit by a great big brick / She said, ‘Thanks for reminding me / It’s time for Maverick’” (a late-1950s’ TV Western starring James Garner in the title role).

The song is both funny and a good piece of studio work for The Olympics – the gunshot effects appear throughout but are not overkill, just enough to get the point across.  The song would be less effective without them.

Bobby Darin’s late 1950s’ hit “Splish Splash” opened with a gurgling akin to a bathtub draining its water.  The Big Bopper’s smash, “Chantilly Lace” (from about the same time), used a telephone sound effect and a one-sided phone “conversation” as he chortles, “You knoooooww what I like!”  [J.P. Richardson, a/k/a: “The Big Bopper”, also wrote a song called “Running Bear”, a hit for Johnny Preston that highlighted “Indian” grunting, whooping, and chanting as part of its vocalizations.]

When the British band The Tornados went into the studio to cut a song evocative of the coming space age, they included futuristic sound effects at the front of the record (simulating a launch) and other “futuristic” squeaks and skronks toward the end of the song (everything was done in an analog studio).  The result was 1962’s “Telstar”, a great piece of instrumental surf/space/rock music with just the right touch of studio sound effects to make the record memorable.  [This was also the first tune by a British act to top the US record charts.]

Phil Spector was an “all-but-the-kitchen-sink-and-then-I’m-throwing-that-in-too” producer whose “Wall of Sound” filled spaces – in mono!  Stereo recordings were still too expensive too produce for the masses, so Phil made his mono records as big as he could, layer upon layer of guitar, vocal, and other orchestrations. 

George “Shadow” Morton (Sep 3, 1940 – Feb 14, 2013) was an upstart, wannabe music producer/songwriter as the 1960s opened.  Taking his cue from the wildly successful Spector, he filled up his recordings with sound, big sound.  Working with the then-unknown girl vocal group, the Shangri-Las, in the early 1960s he came up with several unique spins for some of their songs.  For 1964’s “Remember (Walking in the Sand)”, simulated sounds recreate the cries of gulls on a beach (sounds revisited in 1967 by Otis Redding in “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay”, a song that also featured wind and surf noises).

But Shadow Morton’s coup de grace with the Shangri-Las in terms of over-the-top drama was “Leader of the Pack” (also in 1964).  It relies heavily upon sound effects.  It features revving motorcycle engines, the cacophony of a vehicular accident, breaking glass, and the hysterics of a girl shouting over the mix, “Look out, look out, look out, look out!”

And, finally, in 1966 the Beach Boys released their seminal album, Pet Sounds, which featured just that: sounds of animals and other things woven into the song structure.  This was an experimental stretching of musical muscle for Beach Boys’ resident genius, Brian Wilson.  For many fans of the Beach Boys this is their favorite disc.  It also ranks as one of rock music’s Top 100 recordings of all time (usually falling within the Top 10, many times at #1).

Sirens of the Seventies
For sheer silliness, only because the artists themselves took the material so seriously, the 1970s was tough to beat for sound effects on records.  Marvin Gaye used background party noises in his classic “What’s Goin’ On?” (early 1970s).  Telephone sounds underscored ELO’s 1976 hit, “Telephone Line” and opened Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone” (1978).  Queen used the tinny chinking of cheap bicycle bells to color its 1978 chart-topper, “Bicycle Race”.

The crowning glory of all records in the decade of the 1970s using sound effects for musical enhancement, though, was Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979), a double-disc narrative of one

The Wall (LP cover)
 man’s descent into madness. This set features birds singing, chopping helicopter blades, a screaming jet engine, breaking glass, telephone and television noises, as well as ambient effects to create a sense of physical space in the singer’s environment (best heard in “One of My Turns”).  It is a magnificent achievement, a coherent and monumental work, made particularly more noteworthy since all the effects were generated in the pre-digital age.

Despite the wealth of other sounds available (and their effective use by many artists) it seemed sirens ruled the decade.

The British band Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died” opens with a keyboard-generated siren effect, creating a sense of urgency for the disc.  The tune narrates a night in Chicago during an early 20th Century gangland-style war against police (with real gangsters, not bitch “gangstas”).  Again, this record would be nothing without the sound effects; anyone hearing that intro “siren” on the radio at the time it was a hit immediately recognized the upcoming song. 

R. Dean Taylor’s song, “Indiana Wants Me”, also uses police sirens for effect.  The tune is tripe of the worst kind: the singer killed a man for saying “bad things” about his woman.  There is no remorse.  The singer explains matter-of-factly, “if a man ever needed dying, he did”.  The only regret is that the fugitive isn’t with his woman; he cares nothing for his crime (in his brain it was justified), only that he can’t go back to Indiana to be with his girl. Toward the end of the tune, the drama heightens with the addition of an overdub: a voice intones, “This is the police.  We have you surrounded  . . . ” using a megaphone to mute and alter the speech.  It sounds real enough.

Fear of nuclear attack and of other unknown things causes the studio version of REO Speedwagon’s “Ridin’ the Storm Out” to rise above something as goofy as “Indiana Wants Me”.  While the song dates to 1973, it garnered much airplay in the mid 1970s.  The air raid (keyboard) siren that opens the track is ominous, and for those who lived through the Cold War, they know the sound well. 

The studio track did not feature iconic lead singer Kevin Cronin – he had quit (or been kicked out) during the early sessions of the same-titled LP but returned after two more albums (which is why on any REO Speedwagon “greatest hits” package only the “live” version of the song, with Cronin on lead vocals, is ever included).  “Ridin’ the Storm Out” was a minor hit for REO Speedwagon, though, and it helped open a door for them as they moved into the late 1970s; by the 1980s they were a superstar act. 

Ooga-Chaga-Ooga-Ooga
The strangeness of what goes into recorded music can sometimes leave one with a confused and head-scratching feeling. 

B.J. Thomas, a singer/songwriter, scored a really big hit with “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”, featured in the early 1970s’ film, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.  Before that, though, in the late 1960s he had a minor hit with this song:

As it stands, it is a nice piece of pop music, a bit heavy on the sentimentality and straying into maudlin ground, but it has a great “sing-along” feel to it.

And then there’s this:

While the introductory “vocals” on Blue Swede’s early 1970s’ version of B.J. Thomas’ saccharine-sweet love song are not technically sound effects, they are sounds used for effectWhat effect is not clear to this day, except anyone hearing that choogler noise in the song’s opening knows immediately what is about to be played. 

Blue Swede actually does a great job with the song, showcasing horns where the original had none, and because of the band’s lack of English speaking fluency, the lead vocals come out a bit staccato in places, which is also fun. [And their “ooga-chaga-ooga-ooga” vocals gained new life when they were used many times in hallucinatory sequences featuring a dancing CGI baby seen only by the lead character in the 1990s’ TV series, Ally McBeal.]

Hip Hop, No!
The Clash opened the decade of the 1980s in January 1981 with Sandinista!, an epic and sprawling 3-disc set.  The music on this landmark features jet engines, distorted human voices, drummer Topper Headon’s dog barking (on “Somebody Got Murdered”), skronking guitar work simulating the urgency of police pursuit for “Police on My Back”, and a squeaking sound emulating sheep’s bleating on the Pink Floyd-esque instrumental, “Shepherd’s Delight”.  These are but a few among dozens of other sound effects spread across its 30-plus tracks. 

Metallica incorporated the sounds of war to set the stage for 1988’s “One” (from their iconic metal set . . . And Justice for All).  The track is a musical retelling of the cult movie classic Johnny Got His Gun, the story of a horribly wounded war vet, trapped inside his body and unable to communicate with his caregivers.  Metallica’s brief use (in the studio LP version) of the sound effects of combat places the listener in the action; the song is brilliant in its arrangement, scope, subject, and aural impact. 

Sonic Youth, the alternative “No Wave” band, was the other notable Eighties’ group using sound with forethought and studied aplomb. 

The group’s atonal, down-tuned blitzkrieg blastings achieved melody and form through fine composition work.  Sonic Youth also expertly placed the occasional sound effect in their

Sonic youth (1988)
material (most notably in “Providence” from their landmark double-album, Daydream Nation).  [Daydream Nation is so phenomenal that the Library of Congress saw fit to “collect” it in its official archives of the most influential and significant recordings of all time.  To give a sense of the true honor this is, the works archived also include Thomas Edison’s first recordings; King Edward VII’s 1936 abdication speech; speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King; and punk-poetess Patti Smith’s mid-1970s’ debut album, Horses, as well as Presidential speeches and other noteworthy things.]

The British synth band Human League used an electronic sound effect to simulate a booming – and dramatic – “gunshot” midway through its 1982 song, “Seconds”.  Michael Jackson, probably the biggest selling act of the 1980s, employed some special sound effects in his material as needed.  Most Eighties’ music, though, was driven by synthesizer (itself a sound effect, but falling into the category of “found” music), and benefited little from sound effects add-ons. 

The next few decades followed more spared-down trends (bass-guitar-drum), electronica rose to prominence, and there was almost no music featuring the panicked sound effects of, say, either “Leader of the Pack” (or even “Indiana Wants Me”).

Today’s music scene is dominated by hip-hop and things derived from its influence.  It uses mostly what can be categorized as “found” objects to create sounds. Almost no hip-hop purveyors know how to play a guitar or other instrument, nor do they regularly employ bands.  Their music is a studio creation, and these “found” noises are mostly digital in origin. 

Hip-hop uses more sound effects to make its product than any other genre.  A clanging pipe becomes a high-end riff when sampled, looped, and played with repetition.  Tub-thumping on a plastic 5-gallon bucket becomes bass.  This is not done to heighten or enhance what is there, it is the music.  It is not the same thing as using a sound effect for dramatic or even comedic purposes.

And for those few musical acts not succumbing to the hip-hop mash-up, there aren’t too many self-respecting rockers today who would stoop to adding a canned train wreck or a police siren for drama in their tunes (or the histrionics of a girl shrieking “Look out, look out, look out, look out!”). 

Such a thing is probably perceived as hackneyed or out-of-fashion.  But, perhaps, that is the best reason to do it.

Wreck of Old No. 2

***

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Comments

Mar 27, 2013 3:12pm
Imprimatur
Wow! Wonderful! Here is the music. Your article is particularly interesting to me, because my son is an electronic musician who also studies "Media Arts". When he composes his music, he will use the strangest sounds together, but strangely after he does his "magic", something amazing emerges. I also think, that the radio show "Radio lab" is really good with sound effects. You mention how The Clash, used a barking dog for effect. So simple and yet so powerful.
Apr 2, 2013 1:26pm
vicdillinger
I encourage younger musicians explore the aural landscape. Some pieces can benefit (e.g., on the track "Guns of Brixton" from 'London Calling', that strange crunchy sound is the Clash pulling apart the Velcro fasteners from some studio chairs -- while part of the rhythm track and not a true sound effect it added something. Thanks for reading and tell your son to keep rockin'!
Mar 29, 2013 10:06am
mikerobbers
Ooga-Chaga-Ooga-Ooga!!
Excellent post man! Rated and shared.
Apr 2, 2013 1:27pm
vicdillinger
Yeah, that damn Blue Swede thing attaches itself to your brain stem like some kinda parasitic alien organism. Thanks for reading and the sharing.
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Bibliography

  1. "Spike Jones." Britannica Ready Reference 2003. 2002.
  2. "Foley (filmmaking)." en.wikipedia.org. 10/02/2013 <Web >
  3. "The Shangri-Las." en.wikipedia.org. 10/02/2013 <Web >
  4. "Leader of the Pack." en.wikipedia.org. 10/02/2013 <Web >
  5. "Shadow Morton." en.wikipedia.org. 10/02/2013 <Web >
  6. "Pet Sounds." en.wikipedia.org. 10/02/2013 <Web >

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