06 February 2010

How I found a song against all odds today

About 4pm today, I got hungry and decided to make some pasta. Nothing special, mind you, just some orzo with sun-dried tomato cheese sauce mixed with vodka sauce. I got the pot full of water and turned the oven on when I realized that we were completely and utterly out of soda.
"This will not do," I thought, remembering Thomas Pynchon's college diet of Spaghetti and Soda and being hard-pressed to think of a better combination of flavors than cola and pasta. I turned the oven off, and ran out to Walgreens to remedy this situation.

There was this song playing on the overhead speakers. While normally I tune this stuff out, this one particular song caught my attention as I really just wasn't quite sure of what I was hearing. It was entirely instrumental, and sounded bizarrely electronic. If I had to guess an era, I'd say circa 1970 given that the synthesizer being used sounded like a cross between a Stylophone and a reed organ. It reminded me of an old video game, like something that plays over the end credits when you beat the final boss. I just pictured this little starfighter flying over an ocean while credits rolled over it, all in beautiful 16-bit graphics.

I had to know what this song was.

Asking around would be pointless; I mean, it's not anyone's job to know what plays over the speakers in a convenience store, and I know I'd have hated to be asked that if I'd worked there (no way to know and even less of a way to find out). I pulled out my cell phone and started up the voice recorder function. It was notably inferior to my other dedicated voice recorders, but I didn't have any of them with me, so I'd have to make do. Luckily, the song had only just begun when I remembered that there was a surefire way to find out what the song was as long as I had a recording of it. I got a full minute before the next song started. When I got back home, I moved the file onto my computer. Strangely, instead of a .wma or even maybe a .wav file, it was something called .amr, which I could play back just fine in RealPlayer, but I wasn't able to convert it to anything else. Anyway, I went to Yahoo! Answers, a place known for the "What's this song?" question. I uploaded the .amr file to my website and put the file's link in the question. I pressed 'publish' and went about my normal browsing business while my question gathered answers. About four hours later, I checked back on my question, very surprised to find four answers in so little time.

Sadly, it seemed .amr is a file type that cannot be stored. All four answers said the link was bad. I clicked on it and instead of getting a "Download now" prompt or something, I got an error message that .amr is a file type that is not supported by Freeservers. I thought, "What does that matter? It's just data. I'm not trying to play it in the webpage, I'm just trying to download it." I deleted the question and sulked. It was really disappointing because I'd have this little sound file on my phone that I could only share with people I met in person. One thought that occurred to me was playing the sound back on my phone and recording it with one of my voice recorders. The problem is, because the cell phone's voice memo function was barely an afterthought to its construction, the song was way too faint to be heard, and thus re-recorded properly. Playing back to human ears was manageable, but to another microphone would be impossible.

So, in desperation, I went to wikipedia and just looked up "instrumental." At first, I wasn't expecting anything beyond a simple description, "songs without vocals" or something pedestrian like that. Instead, what I got was a list of instrumentals that made Billboard's Top 100. The thought occurred: "if an instrumental was popular enough to be on the overhead speakers of a Walgreens, it must be popular enough to have been on the Billboard Top 100." There were only about 20, and after the first one proved to not be the one, I skimmed the list and came across:

Telstar, by the Tornados.

"Just sounds right, somehow," I thought. I clicked on the link to the article and within two paragraphs, my certainty rose: "This novelty record was intended to evoke the dawn of the space age, complete with sound effects that were meant to sound 'space-like'." Again, more enthusiasm of being completely on the money rose, and that's when I saw the sample button.

It was the song.

So, what did I do? I hopped right over to Amazon, dropped a Lincoln shy of a Washington and within seconds, I had the song that I'd heard over the PA system of a Walgreens four hours ago, a song with no distinct or recognizable lyrics, and an indescribable instrumentation.

It's funny how things work out like that.
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