Relay: Back To My Plough

Here was yet another classic song remade with cheesy, synthesized drums and bass

   I met Elton John once. He had come to Quad Studios to play on a session for Mary J. Blige’s 1999 album, “Mary.”
    The song “Deep Inside” is essentially the two-chord riff of Elton’s “Bennie and the Jets,” with Ms. Blige singing/rapping over it. In the penthouse studio high above Seventh Avenue, he recorded a piano overdub, playing hot licks from the “Bennie” riff with one hand as he adjusted the headphones that kept slipping off with the other.
    I’m not really a fan of hip-hop or contemporary R&B, but I had to admit, it was pretty cool. Ms. Blige is a fantastic singer, and she was very nice. I was grateful for the experience.
    But it also made me depressed. Here was yet another classic song remade with cheesy, synthesized drums and bass, and various additional keyboard-generated noises thrown into the mix.
    By that point in pop-music history, the actual had fully, finally given way to the virtual. The capture of natural sound waves — the thump of a bass drum, the crackle of a snare, the vibration of a stringed instrument, even an electric guitar’s amplifier — was out; recording was now characterized almost entirely by digitized samples and ersatz emulations of every imaginable sound.
    Today, a virtual orchestra can reside within a personal computer, the vocal tracks on almost every hit song have been manipulated by pitch-correcting software, and popular music is marked by unfeeling, unchanging loops and sterile samples.
    That session also got me wistful about long-ago Thanksgivings. Every year when I was a child, my family would drive from Montauk to my aunt and uncle’s house in Calverton, where my uncle was the pastor at Baiting Hollow Congregational Church.
    The church had an adjacent building used for Sunday school and other activities. Inside was a huge, open room, boomy with long reverberations, and in one corner stood an old jukebox. There, in the lull between Thanksgiving dinner and dessert, my brother and I would explore its many offerings, over and over.
    All the little 45-rpm records stood vertically in a rack. By punching the right buttons, a mechanical arm grabbed the selected disc and lowered it onto the turntable. The needle dropped and glided through the groove, sound pouring forth from the big mono speaker, and lifted when it reached the end. The arm lifted the platter and put it back into its slot, and then moved on to the next selection. It was mesmerizing to watch.
    Today, I can remember just one song from that old jukebox, though I must have played all of them. It was Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” from the album of the same name (which also featured “Bennie and the Jets”). A reference, of course, to “The Wizard of Oz,” the lyrics of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” suggest a rejection of opulence and yearning for a return to simplicity.
    The plaintive falsetto wail leapt from the scratchy vinyl disc: “You can’t plant me in your penthouse/I’m going back to my plough.”
    I still get goose bumps at the memory, kneeling in rapt attention in front of that big old jukebox as the beautiful sounds filled the huge, empty room. But that was a long time ago.

    Christopher Walsh is a reporter for The Star.