Occasionally, you will still find a seller on eBay who will play you records over the phone. Often it is someone with a patchy internet connection, possibly dial-up, who simply can’t be bothered to learn the science of Sendspace or digitize thirty seconds of a forty-year-old soul single, and so their phone number is right there in the listing, and you can call and they will play you the record over the phone. It’s very hard to hear the difference between VG and VG-plus, and crushing your ear against the receiver only worsens matters. I’ve experienced many records this way first, only to rediscover them in fuller resplendence weeks later and lament the ostentatious guitar solo or ill-advised flute that went unnoticed the first time around because the other person hadn’t held the phone close enough to the speaker. There’s something very tender about this kind of thing: two strangers silent on opposite ends of a wire, sharing a song, possibly one about love or betrayal. Over the phone, every soul singer sounds more tortured, every poorly recorded ’80s rap record that much more desperate an exit strategy. Because, pin-drop or no, the telephone was not designed for fidelity. Its purpose was to allow us to throw our voices across great distances—to communicate with each other. Fidelity was but a luxury.
Early on, the effects could be otherworldly. In his wondrous 1910 book The History of the Telephone, Herbert Newton Casson described the “MYSTERIOUS NOISES” that accompanied turn-of-the-nineteenth-century telephone calls. These noises were attributed to the fact that the Earth (“which is really a big magnet”) drew all manner of strange and uncouth sounds to the telephone wire. Early calls were vexed by “noises! Such a jangle of meaningless noises had never before been heard by human ears. There were spluttering and bubbling, jerking and rasping, whistling and screaming. There were the rustling of leaves, the croaking of frogs, the hissing of steam, and the flapping of birds’ wings. There were clicks from telephone wires, scraps of talk from other telephones, and curious little squeals that were unlike any known sound.”
The service improved; we grew accustomed to the occasional kink; one day, cell-phone latency will join this list of old-world problems. But there are moments when our calls are interrupted, either by Casson’s “MYSTERIOUS NOISES,” or by a dropped connection, and we are reminded of the vast machinery that enables our conversations. We are reminded that our connections—figurative and literal—are not as secure as we first hoped.
Perhaps this is why the telephone has long been such a wonderful plot device for song. A rival for our ears, the phone draws attention to what so many songs are actually about: the problem of communication. They remind us of distance, not just between lovers or intentions, but between the person listening to the record and the source of the sound, or perhaps of all sound.
“Hello?” R. Kelly utters in the opening seconds of 2004’s “3-Way Phone Call,” with the weariness of someone who has been ducking this call for far too long. His sister, voiced by Kelly Price, is calling to gauge his spirits. The friendly check-in is merely prelude to an intervention, as she three-way summons a fellow believer, Kim Burrell, to help lift Kells’s spirits. He is helpless to refuse and eventually accepts His higher calling. “You just gotta hang on,” Price affirms.
What follows are nine episodes, corresponding to the phone’s nine positive integers. These are moments of reaching out and touching someone—the industrial aim of the phone, the sole purpose of music. These are unwanted invasions, connections broken without warning, busy signals, cranks and pranks, missed calls, and unanswered phones trilling toward infinity.
Aaron Neville, “Wrong Number”
Early newspaper reports of Alexander Graham Bell’s new invention, the telephone, exhibited a laughable narrowness of vision. Short of changing business or politics, the greatest effect, some teased, would be in the arena of courtship. “A fellow can now court his girl in China as well as in East Boston,” an 1870s editor-ial in the Boston Times foresaw, before warning of “the awful and irresponsible power” such a device would give nagging mothers. But that doesn’t make for a very good song. Few among us want to listen to a winner singing his own praises; nobody cares about your mother-in-law. Instead, most phone jams resemble this downcast Neville number: “Every time the telephone rings, I hold my breath,” Aaron Neville gently moans. In the background, a piano repeats the same sad parlor riff over and over, as though to tick off repetitive seconds, minutes, hours of waiting. Finally, the phone rings again. The agonizing silence vanquished, a world of possibility trills through the air. “Let it be you on the line,” he allows himself to hope. “Then a voice said Hello / Can I speak to Joe? / Wrong number, I’m sorry, good-bye.” Against all odds, it rings again—“Then the voice on the other end said / Can I speak to Ben?” As he wallows in and grasps at the haunting half memories of a bygone love, it rings one last time. This time it’s her, and the connection is true. “Hold on, baby, till I tell these blues good-bye.” If only it were so easy to hang up on the past.
Barbara Banks, “Ain’t I Worth a Dime”
(Smash Records, circa 1965)
A jagged, cascading guitar trips to the bottom, where we encounter Barbara Banks, epically bummed. “Telephone on the wall, ain’t I worth a dime? / Won’t you take the time to call, ain’t I worth a dime?” she wonders, staring at her wall piece, willing it to ring. This is a crushing song, a special species of anguish. What’s rare is that this is a song that is essentially about listening. She is tormented by silence; we are tormented by her. The phone’s stillness mocks her, its inactivity producing the most devastating sound possible. Finally, the bridge: “Telephone, oh telephone on the wall / Why don’t you ring, why don’t you bring me his call? / Look at me, I’m on my knees all alone / I never thought I’d be staying home / But like a fool, praying to a telephone / Why don’t you ring?” Instead of a ring: a clarinet.
William Bell and Judy Clay, “Private Number”
Early inventors and rivals to Bell’s crown sought to discover a musical telegraph—their guiding ambition wasn’t the telephone, and Bell himself, in the romantic version, was trying to better the lives of deaf-mutes when he stumbled on something that proved to be more useful. Everything changed in that moment when he beckoned his assistant, Watson, with the oft-over-theorized statement of desire “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” (For his part, Watson described Bell’s equipment thus: “His apparatus was very simple.”) From this first phone call onward, the phone has been an accessory to longing. Here, a man returns—from war or work, presumably—and he can’t find his baby. Reaching out into the vastness, as far as the song will carry, Bell wonders why she has had her number changed. “I’m sorry you couldn’t call me when you got home,” Clay responds, assuring Bell she had it changed just to fend off would-be wooers. “Baby, you can have my private number,” she assures him, welcoming him home. And so the phone, here, collapses a distance that, at the song’s outset, seemed impossible. They live happily ever after, just like the other Bell, the inventor who made it a policy never to have his invention around. (He feared the interruptions.)
Smith Connection, “I’m Bugging Your Phone”
(Music Merchant, 1973)
In the early days of the telephone, it did not take much to disrupt service. “Perhaps a small boy has thrown a snake across the wires,” Casson writes, “but no matter what the trouble, a telephone system cannot be stopped for repairs. It cannot be picked up and put into a dry-dock. It must be repaired or improved by a sort of vivisection while it is working. It is an interlocking unit, a living, conscious being, half human and half machine; and an injury in any one place may cause a pain or sickness to its whole vast body.” Casson’s vision of total administration is chilling for its time. If the system is indeed so expansive, so coherent and enclosed, surely this can lead to moments of shadiness? Like a snake wriggling from the wire and living to hiss the story, the Smith Connection recorded this topical, likely Watergate-inspired tune of telephonic entanglements in 1973. “I can tell by your actions, babe, you’re hiding something from me,” the lead Smith suspects, which is natural enough. But his tactics are corrupt. “I’m bugging your phone, baby / I’m starting an investigation,” he sings, and you can almost hear the band look up from their instruments at each other, wondering if their front man has gone mad. Put down the phone—that heavy, murderous object. It defeats the purpose to tell her, but at least she knows how much he cares, right? Or maybe there’s nobody on the other line.
Esther Williams, “Last Night Changed It All
(I Really Had A Ball)”
(Friends & Co., 1976)
The media anthropologist Dominic Boyer pontificates, “Why does it send shivers up our spine? What’s most uncomfortable, indeed creepy, about the unexpected phone call is not the caller, not even the message, but just that we have been located by someone or something—the telephone thus becomes an index for the arrival of mysterious powers from afar.” This also means that we are empowered—we are conjurers, one and all. Esther Williams’s disco hit comes in two versions: “phone” and “no phone.” The former version opens with that distinctive drum break, and then a phone rings. You have to wait until someone answers for the song to start. “Hey, woman—where was you at last night?” a pathetic-sounding man demands. She hangs up, choosing to sing her reply to a more hospitable listener. A good night out has lifted her out of a “deep depression”—Love Boat–style horns confirm this. He calls back: “Hey woman, this is the second time I’ve called you.” And she cares even less this time—“So what?” Her confidence surges, she becomes the only audience for her song, as she reminds herself there’s “no more staying at home,” no more phoned-in surveillance, and by the time he calls back a third time, she’s out the door, the song and dial tone both fading out.
Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three,
(Reality Records, 1984)
“The telephone connects where there has been little or no relation, it globalizes and unifies, suturing a country like a wound. The telephone participates in the myths of organic unity… a state casts a net of connectedness around itself from which the deadly flower of unity can grow under the sun of constant surveillance.” So writes Avital Ronell in The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, which is occasionally as inscrutable as an actual telephone book. Here, Ronell is describing a film about a telephone company expanding into a rural town. The circuits of telephonic exchange map the world around us, as when our sense of distance is nurtured by notions of long-distance calling, roaming, egregious add-on charges for merely crossing from one state into another. The phone’s range outlines what is possible. Perhaps, in a positive way, the telephonic grid can trace a new community, lasso new affinity points. The callers to Scott’s request line hail from everywhere, only they are all here now, assigned to neighboring buttons on a switchboard, united in their allegiance to the Rock Master and his Dynamic Three. We meet “Earl,” “Joann,” “Irene from Chilltown,” “Greg from the Big Apple,” “Champagne from Chicago,” “Rosa,” an aristocrat from Fairfield County, “Hakim,” and “Debbie.” These are the citizens of a new nation, and the phone line insures their suffrage. True mobility is a ways away, though. The video features dancers on hold, cradling the receivers of their stationary phones as coolly as possible, trying desperately to dance free of their tangled cords.
Uncle Jamm’s Army featuring
Egyptian Lover, “Dial-a-Freak”
(Freak Beat Records, 1984)
In Nelson Lyon’s bizarre 1971 film The Telephone Book, famous primarily for its missing footage of Andy Warhol munching popcorn, a perv known citywide for his legendary dirty prank calls meets his match: a coquettish, oblivious Goldie Hawn sound-alike who falls in love with his muttered obscenities. Like the one about the “arthritic octogenarian who could only move one giant muscle in his body.” If only it were always that easy. Egyptian Lover figures out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in punch tones, and “Dial-a-Freak” pulses for ten minutes of what may’ve happened had Skyy’s 1981 hit “Call Me” been recorded after a ten-year spell of involuntary celibacy. The oasis, here, is fairly nasty. Egypt can’t even pretend like he means it when he calls his baby “baby.” Judging by the extreme moaning on the other line, she’s a freak. For sure, this was the promise of the random dial-up, the tension between anonymity and extreme, hear-you-breathing, fog-up-the-handheld intimacy. In this way, “Dial-a-Freak” was a mutually consenting vestige of the obscene, creepy cranks of a bygone era. “My telephone never stops ringing,” Egypt boasts, so it’s good that he has an “eight-way phone.” He offers to pick up his friend via limo, but of course by the end of the song you’re not even sure they need to meet face to face.
Raw Dope Posse, “Listen to My Turbo”
(Show Jazz, 1988)
Wherein the “turbo” that Kid Gusto and Supreme are promoting is a busy signal. I dare say, it’s the best use of a busy signal, ever. Anyone can splice a dial tone into their song and wait for a connection, or use a mellifluous dial tone, and of course ring tones have become their own music, or vice versa. But the busy signal connotes a sense of dread, a dead end of possibility, purgatory, maybe an absorbing preoccupation. “Show Jazz—label of the future!” Gusto boasts over the stuttering stabs of his partner’s “drum computer,” and, as if to time-stamp that claim, the Show Jazz posse’s next release would feature a song called “Rap-N-Scratch Goes Rambo.” Label and single stalled, appropriately, and insofar as Raw Dope Posse is inscribed in the unforgiving phone book of history, it was under “T La Rock impersonators.”
Capone-N-Noreaga, “Capone Phone Home”
There is a program called “Family Finder.” Enable it and your cell phone becomes a GPS tracking device. It’s offered as a convenience, the kind that appeals mostly to parents, and it’s a reminder to us all of the phone’s multitudinous functions. Public Enemy might have lamented that “911 is a joke,” but perhaps all those companion features can stave off the feeling that one is crying in the wilderness. One of the last settings where the phone retains its original mystery is from deep within the justice system. There is a robust tradition of hip-hop issuing from inside these borders—Erykah Badu always seems to be answering a call from inside, and the late Mac Dre, among others, was a prolific practitioner of rapping over a landline. I’ve always found these skits from Capone-N-Noreaga’s classic The War Report absorbing. So many questions: Does the incarcerated Capone hear how uninterested the voice on the other line is, a perfunctory “Oh, word?” or “True” repeated over and over? Why does Nas sound so excited to get on the line? The phone skit, particularly in the backstory-rich world of hip-hop, raises its own questions of staging and authenticity. Do they tell the fallen comrade-behind-bars they’re taping this conversation? Will he be happy that he’s making the album? Perhaps he wishes he’d called one of his freaks instead—a connection with more immediate dividends. On her end, more questions. Who can it be at this hour? Thank goodness for caller ID. Dare I pick up?