Marshall McLuhan

The Medium Is the Massage

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This 1967 release proved to be a one-of-a-kind album: a trance remix of a lecture. An intellectual cult figure at the time, McLuhan's theories on media are at times strikingly prophetic ("What will happen when intelligence is recognized as a global resource?" he asks, with suitably dramatic echoes, at the very close of part one), but that barely sums up what the album is all about. McLuhan and his collaborators -- including producer John Simon, who'd begin working with the Band soon afterward -- produced a full-blown mind trip, a 40-minute collage of voices, effects, and library music that mixes profundity, non sequiturs, and just plain strangeness at will. This was really the only possible audio version of McLuhan's book of the same name, which was full of typographical tricks including pages printed backward (even the title, a corruption of his catch phrase "the medium is the message," was a printer's error that he decided was fitting). And since his subject is the subconscious effects of media saturation on the global psyche, the structure of the album -- with its TV interference, snatches of cartoon music, and various sped-up and slowed-down voices -- was entirely fitting. The trippiness of it all was enough to make this album a fixture on late-'60s FM radio, and the same disorienting production style (and similar surreal humor) would soon be heard on Frank Zappa's Lumpy Gravy, the Monkees' Head soundtrack, the Beatles' "Revolution 9," and Firesign Theatre's entire catalog. One of the few '60s artifacts that's all but disappeared over the years, the album gets a long-overdue reissue from the small Traffic label -- including a fully transcribed script and new essays, none of which makes it any less confusing or less fascinating. Indeed, the most striking moment happens five minutes into part two, when McLuhan first says the phrase "global village" -- which has since become the most famous pair of words he ever uttered -- and it's met with a chorus of monkey cheers. You'd swear he planned that joke 45 years ago.

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