Culture Rover

#108 - Dowd's Sound Radiation

There is something uncanny about the link between atomic energy and postwar American popular music, which both mushroomed forth in America at roughly the same time. Nowhere is this fusion more apparent than in the strange career of the engineer and producer Tom Dowd.

As documented in the film Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, Dowd worked in what became the Manhattan Project during World War II, only to be forced out of a career as a nuclear physicist and into a job as the engineer for the burgeoning rhythm-and-blues independent labels of New York City.

Striking up a relationship with Atlantic Records, Dowd went on to record everyone from the Coasters and the Drifters to Mingus, Ornette, and Coltrane to Aretha, Wilson Pickett, and the Stax label to Cream, the Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He pioneered the use of the eight-track recording process, stereophonic mixing, and slide-control consoles. He was a master of microphone placement -- a capturer of noise on the air, of music as creative expression, of hits for the marketplace.

Dowd became a crucial link -- a medium -- for the circulation of energies through invisible forces. He was a particle collider of the disparate, atomized physical, emotional, and social components of postwar America. He was radioactive. He was a vital contributor to what Allen Ginsberg called the Hydrogen Jukebox, with all its fearful quivers of destruction, its needles of pain and outrage, its distorting overtones of transcendent bliss, its fallout-shelter refuge of sonic survival, its supercritical mass of elements, and its rollicking declarations of awesome power compacted into the tiniest, radiating, revolutionary grooves.

06 September 2006

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