The Infinity Hook: Quicksilver Messenger Service, “Who Do You Love?” (1969)

One of the most important sonic appeals in rock is reverb, and Peter Doyle has written a wonderful book on what it means called Echo and Reverb:  Fabricating Space in Popular Music, 1900-1960.[1]  Doyle is interested in how reverberation implies a certain space to be in, along with the associations of that space:  maybe a concert hall but maybe a lonesome canyon or empty city street at night.  Noting how by the 1950’s reverb had already been used for expressive effect in horror movies and thrillers as well as in pop recordings by the likes of Patti Page and Les Paul, Doyle proposes that in general “reverb indicates a kind of pregnant off-center space, neither fully occupied nor truly empty.”[2]

Doyle is right that reverb conveys a sense of place in the sonic signature of a certain array of surfaces, and he’s right also about reverb’s evocative ambiguity.  I just want to dwell on one other, post-1960 thing:  heavy reverb can immediately signify a complete transcendence of all surfaces and meanings.  Reverb can be the out-and-out infinity hook.  When the lead guitarist of a San Francisco band played an opening note circa 1967 like, say, James Gurley or Sam Andrew did in Big Brother and the Holding Company (“Combination of the Two,” “Ball and Chain”), the significance of the sound went beyond all description.  That is not the sound of being in the Avalon Ballroom.  It’s the sound of being in a boundless energy field.

“Cosmic,” they would say.  They wanted it to sound like we are in the cosmos—which, in reality, we are.  But this is one of those great decisions we get to make about how to understand what we’re hearing:   Are we in the most interesting of all places, the cosmos?  Or are we interestingly transported beyond all “place” whatsoever by the rampaging power of the mind?

Surf guitar hero Dick Dale apparently once said that the point of the reverb in surf music is to make the guitar notes seem “endless.”[3]  When I listened to the Ventures’ surf music in the mid-60’s I definitely got a sense of exceptional spaciousness, but I think it came largely from associations with sci-fi.  The endlessness wasn’t quite kicking in.  Not till I heard the San Francisco guitar notes did I take the reverberation as mine own.

What is the greatest reverb event?  Is it superrich in sonic texture and technically spectacular, something perhaps achieved in a huge stairwell with bunches of microphones and heavy objects?[4]  No, I go for the purest example of the infinity hook and find it in the single note (I think by Gary Duncan) that begins the epic jam “Who Do You Love?” on the second Quicksilver Messenger Service album, Happy Trails.  The note bends like the very curvature of spacetime (or whatever spacetime is in!).  Its reverberation starts the revelation of everything.  The drums will come in second, only as invited—for beat is primal but infinity is first and last.

“Who Do You Love?” start

[1] Middletown:  Wesleyan University Press, 2005.

[2] Doyle, p. 170.

[3] Quoted on the “Legendary Surfers:  Surf Music” page by Malcolm Gault-Williams.

[4] Stories about the making of the big boom in Simon and Garfunkle’s “The Boxer” (“li la li [BOOM]”) make it sound like the recording equivalent of creating a new atomic particle in a 17-mile-long accelerator.  For the lore see e.g.; for Hal Blaine’s eyewitness account, see Dave Simons, Studio Stories (San Francisco:  Backbeat, 2004), pp. 134-135.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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