While the bicycle has been a topic for song-writers and musicians since the 19th century, there is a rather more specialized history of music made with bicycles that encompasses avant-garde experimentation and novelty. This well-known clip of a young Frank Zappa appearing on the Steve Allen show in 1963 is a nice example of a performance that sits mid-way between comedy and glorious, atonal noise.

This rarely viewed YouTube video of somebody ‘performing’ John Cage’s 4’33” on a bicycle raises the question of what constitutes music perhaps more radically still than Zappa’s improvised performance.

What made me think about this was coming across a clip on late-night TV a couple of weeks ago of the British synth-pop group Depeche Mode playing the song ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ on Top of the Pops back in 1984. I know the song well, but it wasn’t until watching the clip that I realized the clattering noise in the song was produced by a drumstick held against a spinning bicycle wheel, a technique that Zappa also uses above. Depeche Mode were supposedly influenced by contemporary ‘industrial’ groups such as Einstürzende Neubauten and Test Dept., who built their own percussion instruments and incorporated found objects, motors, and pneumatic drills into their armoury of noise-making machinery. It’s unlikely that Depeche Mode had seen the Zappa clip in a pre-internet period; in any case, many young kids have taped pieces of card to their bicycle frames so that they flick against the spinning spokes, allowing them to pretend they are riding a motorbike. What is striking is not so much the parallels with Zappa’s music, but the fact that the instrument they are using seems to be an appropriation of Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 ‘readymade’ Bicycle Wheel sculpture. Duchamp made the object as a soothing visual distraction to gaze at in his studio, but the band have found a different use for it as a jarring aural distraction, an interruption of the smooth surface of the synthesiser music that complements the song’s weighty themes – teenage suicide and a sadistic God. However, rather than a pretentious or naive dilution of avant-garde experimentation – an accusation that could be levelled at Zappa’s performance – it seems to me to be a technologically creative solution to a search for an expanded repertoire of noises, and it also demonstrates vividly the way that, however ephemeral, ‘modish’, or formally simple it may appear to be, popular culture is always embedded in complex cultural histories and aesthetic traditions.

iur.jpegMarcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1951 – 3rd version)