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Song To The Siren: Pop Culture & The Warning Klaxon
Robert Barry , October 24th, 2013 09:26

Robert Barry explores the growing ubiquity of the warning siren in popular culture, all the way from When Worlds Collide to Jason Derulo's 'Don't Wanna Go Home', via hip hop, the rave explosion, sonic weaponry and the panic sonics of contemporary pop

A curious thing happens about an hour into Rudolph Maté's early 1950s Armageddon flick When Worlds Collide. We're coming to the end of an emotional scene. As the character Tony (played by Peter Hansen) walks away from the camera, the strings rise up out of the soundtrack and a whistled counter melody enters. Tony turns back to face the camera – almost cheekily, as if winking to the audience – and in doing so confirms he was the whistler responsible for the tune.

It's an odd moment because we are used to entering into a sort of silent contract with film-makers. We don't tend to think that the music we hear comes from an orchestra just out of view, which the characters are aware of and listening along to as they engage in whatever action confronts them - although during the silent era some Hollywood studios actually did employ orchestras to play on set during shooting. We accept – without really thinking about it – that the score is somehow concerned with the film's narrative without being a part of it. It's outside the action, commenting on it, subtly guiding our emotional responses, like the narrator's voice in a novel or the stage directions in a play. So when one of the characters starts whistling along it creates a slightly jarring effect.

A similar thing happens a little earlier in the same film. We hear a siren going off and, although we don't actually see any emergency vehicles, there is a sense of panic: people running, explosions going off. So we have no problem connecting the sound with the action we see. But then the music comes in and seems to sweep the siren up with it. It's not just that the music is in time with the siren's beating: the strings are playing a sort of whirling melody; there are wailing slides in the brass. The sound becomes part of the musical score, indistinguishable from it. Finally, the music subsides and we hear the siren alone. Someone's been injured and people are running to help. Again, though we see no ambulance arriving, we associate the sound with part of the action again. But for a moment it hovered in a strange realm of undecidability between the film's inside and outside; between the locatable events and objects of the narrative and a musical score which colours and enhances them.

There are no sirens in Roger Corman's Day The World Ended, a similarly apocalyptic film from just a few years later. But a series of musical effects are clearly intended to be reminiscent of their sound: the wail of a theremin over the mushroom cloud images that open the film; the howling trumpet glissando that kicks off Pete Candoli's 'S.F. Blues', heard playing on a home hi-fi system somewhat later on. We hear sirens even when they're not there. And once more there's that confusion between the inside and outside of the narrative diegesis; between music and noise.

Just short of three minutes into a hit single from 2011 by American pop singer-songwriter, Jason Derulo, the same panic signal rises up out of the mix. 'Don't Wanna Go Home' was the lead single from Derulo's second album, Future History. It debuted at number one in the UK charts and reached the top ten in five other countries. With an infectious riff sampled from 'Show Me Love', the early 90s dance-pop hit by Robin S., and a catchy chorus lifted from the popular Caribbean tune, 'Day-O', the final ingredient necessary to make it a surefire hit would seem to be the wailing siren that takes us from the breakdown after the second chorus into the middle-eight. With its auto-tuned injunction to "Turn the lights low 'cos we about to get blown", the greatest emergency faced by Derulo is not so much the end of the world as the end of the party. More than half a century after When Worlds Collide, the siren would seem to have definitively left behind any link to the semiotics of disaster in favour of a purely visceral power to surge and rise up in a wave of sheer intensity.

Jason Derulo - 'Don't Wanna Go Home'

Not long ago, I was at a party myself. It was getting late and for some reason I found myself not talking to anyone for a little while; just slumped into a chair, and listening. Whatever playlist the host had in mind at the start of the evening was long out of the window, and by now people were just picking tunes at whim from a web-based streaming service. It struck me how many of the songs that came on featured sirens of one sort of another – sounds of emergency vehicles and air raids; tornado warnings; rave air horns and car alarms. And when they didn't explicitly contain the sound of an actual siren, it was as though the whole track became a siren. At a given moment – building up from the middle eight to the last chorus, say – the whole mix would get swept up as if by some cyclone, rising in pitch to a febrile whir before exploding back down again. I started to wonder what it meant to be be so beset by alarms: what could be the psychic consequences of such a permanent state of sonic panic?

At the time Maté and Corman's films were originally released, the use of sirens in music would have been most closely associated with the French composer, Edgard Varèse, who had employed the devices in a series of pioneering 1920s works, Amériques, Hyperprism and Ionisation. In the 1920s, as Douglas Kahn points out in his history of sound art, Noise, Water, Meat, sirens were tokens of modernism. The sound alluded to the call of "workers to mechanistic labor and, after the revolutions in Russia, to call emphatically to the future."

After Varèse, George Antheil concluded his Ballet Mécanique with the wail of a siren, and the Russian composer, Arseny Avraamov even composed a Symphony Of Factory Sirens. At its most extravagant performance, in the Azerbaijani port of Baku in 1922, Avraamov's symphony made the whole city into a stage. He wanted no spectators – everyone was to be part of the performance: thousands-strong choirs, foghorns blasting from the entire Caspian fleet, two artillery batteries, full artillery regiments, hydroplanes, twenty-five steam trains, and the whistles and sirens of every factory in town, as well as a further twenty-odd specially constructed "steam whistle machines" tuned to the melody of 'The Internationale'; all conducted by means of semaphore flags waved frantically from the top of a purpose-built tower.

Edgard Varèse - 'Amériques'

After the second world war, however, with the nightly threat of air raids, the scream of stukas, and the rising spectre of the atom bomb, the siren began to take on rather more sinister connotations. The music of Varèse likewise. In a book aimed at children and published in 1947, Varèse's friend, the conductor Nicolas Slominsky described Ionisation in terms of "something about knocking off atoms. And certainly Varèse's music sounds ominous now that we know what atoms are up to. He wrote Ionisation fifteen years before the atomic bomb, and that is a musical prophecy!"

A strange kind of mythology had developed around the composer as a kind of "prophet of the atomic age". It was even claimed that the Manhattan Project scientists had listened to Ionisation while working on the bomb. So when, years later, John Adams set to work composing his opera about the Manhattan Project, Doctor Atomic, he turned for inspiration to Varèse and the science fiction films of the 1950s. Adams filled that score with typically Varèsian percussive techniques, electronic noises, and sirens. Such a sound world, he claimed, conjured up a "post-nuclear holocaust landscape".

One day in 1967, John Lennon was sitting in his house in Weybridge, noodling about on the piano, when his ear was caught by a police siren trailing off in the distance. He struck up a repetitive two-note motif on the keyboard in imitation of the far-off wail and sang "Mis-ter ci-ty po-lice-man" over the top, to the same rhythm. By the time 'I Am The Walrus', the result of Lennon's perambulations, had come out, a group from north London called The Equals had released a single called 'Police On My Back' whose opening guitar riff even more closely mimicked the squeal of a panda car. The latter song was covered by The Clash in 1980, and by Lethal Bizzle in 2007, with its siren-guitar sound getting more prominent with each new version (in the last named case, played by The Quietus's very own Jeremy Allen).

The end of the 1960s saw tracks by The Kinks ('Mr Churchill Says') and Black Sabbath ('War Pigs') which both contained recordings of air raid sirens. The members of both bands were born too late to have any memory of such alarms in practical use during wartime, but Delia Derbyshire wasn't. In an interview with Radio Scotland's John Cavanagh recorded in 1999, the electronic composer recalled the Coventry blitz as the source of her "love for abstract sounds".

"The air-raid sirens," she said, "that's a sound you hear and you don't know the source of as a young child… That was electronic music." Some distorted, time-stretched ghost of these memories seems to haunt a number of her works. But they emerge most explicitly in a piece from 1970, 'Music of Spheres', created for a BBC documentary about the life of Johannes Kepler; the whole piece a howling susurrus created on a VCS3 synthesiser but unmistakably the product of a childhood memory of bombing raids.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood - 'Two Tribes'

The following decades saw mounting numbers of pop records featuring sirens, alarm bells, and car horns – both real and imitated. There was a rising sense of panic and unease on the radio, reaching a truly apocalyptic peak with Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 'Two Tribes'. Going into the studio at the end of a year when a NATO simulation of DEFCON 1 was mistaken by the USSR for a genuine preparation for nuclear war, bringing the threat of apocalypse (according to some experts) closer even than during the Cuban Missile Crisis; Frankie and their producer Trevor Horn filled their track with dramatic eruptions, samples from Protect & Survive films, and kicked it off with a long, deafening civil defence alarm. When the record was released the following year, the sleeve was backed with statistics quoting the nuclear arsenal of both sides of the cold war in megatons and the likely deployment of U.S. missiles. The song's title was a reference to George Miller's post-apocalyptic film, Mad Max 2, from earlier in the decade: "Two mighty warrior tribes went to war," the narrator intones as the film begins, "and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all."

As Middlesex University lecturer Richard Osborne points out in an essay for the journal Static, two things linked practically all the musical alarms up to this point: they tended to be motivated by some narrative element in the lyrics - the fire engine that kicks off The Ruts' 'Babylon Is Burning', for instance, or the mee-maw mee-maw vocal refrain in 'Cop Cars' by The Exploited - and they tended to be pushed to the periphery of the track, explosively announcing its start or fading out with its conclusion. All of this was about to change.

In 1987, a 21-year old rapper from Long Island scored his first chart-breaking single. 'I'm Bad' by LL Cool J took its bassline from the theme tune to the cartoon Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse; it took its rhythmic stabs from 7th Wonder's 'Daisy Lady'. But the main melodic instrument in the chorus came from the Federal Signals Corporation. The name of that instrument was the Q2B electromechanical siren. Modelled on the air raid sirens in use during World War II, by the mid-80s the sound was trademarked and in heavy rotation thanks to emergency services across America. The song's video makes some effort to contextualise the use of the siren with a hastily sketched tale of wrongful arrest; but as rival rapper Ice-T's diss track 'The Syndicate' made clear the following year, Cool J's lyrics are really just about what a def rhymesmith he is (a "first grade topic" according to Ice-T).

LL Cool J - 'I'm Bad'

After that the floodgates were open. Before the vinyl could set on Ice-T's catty response, four records had been released which, between them, contained more sirens than a school play based on the Odyssey in an all-girls school. NWA's 'Straight Outta Compton' made police car noises practically obligatory for every subsequent addition to the nascent gangsta rap genre. Royal House's 'Can You Party?' did much the same for acid house, leading to countless scenes of pilled-up ravers dancing round police cars waving their arms around and shouting, "Aciiieeeeed." Public Enemy walked onstage at the Hammersmith Odeon to the sound of air raids and announced the Armageddon, only for several thousand ravers to respond with their own hand-held air horns. The group liked the sound so much they used it to open their album, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. But for Kurtis Mantronik, on 'King Of The Beats', the siren was just another instrument to be scratched and stuttered in much the same way as The Winstons, Kool & the Gang, or Josie & The Pussycats. Mantronik's track would be sampled in turn by Ice-T, Snap, The Go! Team, Schooly D, The Future Sound of London, Color Me Badd, Sway, Dee-Lite, the Midfield General, Erykah Badu, Dan the Automator, and The Farm, along with about a dozen J Dilla tracks. Several of these songs were sampled in turn. Sirens proliferated exponentially.

"This was the panic-rush," wrote Simon Reynolds of the use of such sounds in 90s house and techno tunes, "an edgy, jittery exhilaration caused by the metabolic acceleration and paranoiac side-effects of doing too much ecstasy and amphetamine … by late 1991, you could see the walking wounded on the dancefloor." Rave registered the final unshackling of the siren from its narrative associations and into the realm of pure noise, pure intensity. As Jacques Attali wrote, of car horns honking on New Year's Eve, it was "a substitute for the Dionysian festival preceding the sacrifice." As early as 1992, clubbing and klaxons had become so indelibly associated that the Chemical Brothers could pen their own homage to the sound, 'Song to the Siren' (which also happened to sample 'King of the Beats'). When the Klaxons' first album arrived in 2007, with its air-horn-toting single 'Atlantis To Interzone', the rave siren had passed from hallowed tribute to a cliché ripe for ironic appropriation. The Klaxons weren't even referencing early 90s rave tunes. They were referencing Ravey Davey Gravy from the Viz comics.

The Klaxons - 'Atlantis To Interzone'

By this point, you would have expected this to have become what the TV Tropes website refers to as a 'Dead Horse Trope': a figure so overused that "the very act of parodying and/or subverting that trope has itself become a trope." Amazingly, it is only then that the siren becomes ubiquitous – staggering across the airwaves like an Undead Horse. Today, sirens and siren-esque sounds seem to be almost everywhere. Just listening through the current UK top twenty as I write this, I count five tracks containing fairly prominent sirens (by, Chase & Status, Jessie J., David Guetta, and Dizzee Rascal) which is about the same number as contain all the other instruments combined that had even been invented at the time of Varèse's Amériques. Most of those that don't, still feature some sort of dopplered swoosh that mimics the effect of a police car passing by at full speed – or perhaps more a flying saucer passing by at full speed.

And though it's tempting to put it all down to the influence of 90s house and hip hop on the current pop charts, just looking back at the years since 'Atlantis To Interzone' we find sirens on records by indie rock bands (Weezer's 'The Greatest Man That Ever Lived'), country singers (Miley Cyrus's 'Party in the USA'), and pop idols (Alexandra Burke's 'Bad Boys'). The trend has infected dubstep (The Bug's 'Poison Dart'), death metal (Flayed Disciple's 'Bring Down the Hammer'), and even Disney princesses (Selena Gomez's 'Come And Get It'). Though occasionally these sounds might be motivated by some lyrical reference to the emergency services (Lil Wayne's 'Fireman', for instance, or The Saturdays' plea for clemency, 'Turn Myself In'), for the most part it's just there to add noise and texture and sweep and flow; pure intensifier, amping up towards the chorus.

What none of these songs exhibit, lyrically at least, is the kind of apocalyptic fervour of Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Public Enemy. Music may have been going through its greatest crisis since the decline of feudal patronage; the world may be suffering recessions, wars, repeated regime changes, and new signs of impending environmental catastrophe on a daily basis. But while Hollywood has given us a new Armageddon on an annual basis, the pop charts have remained largely unmoved. Except, that is, for this persistent siren; mute signpost of a now permanent state of emergency.

"Every time I hear one I freak out and have to turn down the music to see if it's the song or a real cop," complains a user called Bagek on a Reddit thread called 'Does Anybody Else hate police sirens in songs?' I found seven different threads on the popular online message board, each with a page or more of replies, complaining about the use of sirens in music and radio advertising. It is no longer a question of the sounds drifting from the diegetic world of a film's narrative into its extra-diegetic music. Now the sound is in danger of leaping out of the music and into reality. "Police sirens in songs are uncomfortable," agrees another user, "but air raid sirens are a different matter entirely. There is something otherworldly eerie about them. It's less a panic stimulus and more terror."

The Bug - 'Poison Dart'

In 2007, the American Signals Corporation added a new beast to the already copious menagerie of sirens available to United States law enforcement vehicles. Alongside the "Yelp", the "Wail", the "Hi-Lo", the "Air-Horn", the "Priority", and the "Manual" – an orchestra that would undoubtedly have delighted the Italian Futurists – police cars could now deploy an entirely new form of "intersection-clearing system" going by the name of "Rumbler". The Rumbler uses low frequencies at high amplitudes to send a wave of physical vibrations through vehicles and bodies. Inspired by the bass-heavy stereos of so-called "boom cars" and designed to attract the attention of iPod-cocooned pedestrians; the Rumbler is a siren for a world on the brink of peak-audio.

American research into sounds that would be more than just a warning but a physical assault stretches back at least as far as World War II. Picking up on the sirens attached to German stuka planes to instill fear as they fell from the sky, the National Defense Research Council launched a enquiry into the possibility of a "sonic bomb", led by the Muzak Corporation's Harold Burris-Meyer. Burris-Meyer's bomb didn't really get anywhere and since then research into acoustic weaponry remained fitful and largely inconclusive for several decades; more prone to myth and over-hyped conjecture than real results. But with the closure of the Cold War as a chapter in history, America began to settle into its new role as a kind of global police force. It was with this novel self-image in mind that the early 90s saw a renewed interest in a hitherto neglected class of so-called 'non-lethal' weapons, amongst them various species of acoustic armaments.

One of the pioneers in this field was RAND Corporation consultant, Harvey Sapolsky, who would ultimately conclude that such sonic weapons were of limited use in a real war zone, but "great for civilians and for riot control." Sure enough, by the time Beyonce was pledging to 'Ring The Alarm' in 2006, the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), invented by former U.S. Air Force nuclear weapons specialist Elwood 'Woody' Norris, had been deployed as a counterinsurgency measure in northern Iraq and spotted at protests against the Republican National Convention in New York City. In recent years the same device has been used to clear Occupy Wall Street protestors from Zuccotti Park, disperse striking factory workers in Bangkok, and to police the 2012 London Olympics.

In a paper written in 2010, Ryan Diduck, a freelance writer and doctoral candidate at McGill University, borrowed the audio virological method of producer-cum-theorist Steve Goodman (aka Kode9) to suggest that dance music's appropriation of alarm sounds might inoculate its audience against the disciplinary use of noise on the part of societies of control. Its a thesis made all the more seductive by tales of perplexed police constables finding their vehicles treated like mobile sound systems by the very ravers they were sent to demobilise. But the LRAD is capable of volumes up to 153 dB. At that level, permanent hearing damage can result in just a few seconds for anyone within fifty metres, and even the beeswax ear plugs of Odysseus's men would offer scant protection. So though the device comes with its own inbuilt "ruggedized mp3 player" so you can choose whether to blast out a 10,000 hz warning tone or the new Lady Gaga single; the chances are that if you can dance to it, you're probably already deaf.

Woody himself, LRAD CEO, is now piloting a spin-off company called Parametric Sound. It uses the same technology to sell directed sonic beams to advertisers who wish to send an audible message "projected along an air beam … to just about any desired point in the listening environment." According to Norris, it's like the sound is "inside your head." Imagine how effective such technology could be if used in combination with the smart phone-tracking bins recently rolled out in the City of London to project personalised ads direct to your inner ear – even if you've got your iPod earbuds in.

Kode9 - 'Black Sun'

I suspect Diduck is right when he claims that for the 1990s club scene, tracks like the Chemical Brothers' 'Song To The Siren' were capable of "galvanizing an immediate sonic ecology of resistance and mobilization … turning the sound of oppression and antagonism into one of potential unity and solidarity". But shorn of the context of clubs and free parties, a qualitative change arguably transpires as such sounds migrate to the flows of daytime broadcasting. Even more than the emergency vehicles themselves, the songs of sirens have become part of the urban soundscape; singing no more just to the drug-fuelled dancers of illicit all-nighters, but to drivers stuck in traffic, shoppers drifting through malls, and workers going about their business. If the soundtrack to a film is able to colour our emotional response to the images we see without necessarily engaging our conscious awareness, how do the panic sonics of contemporary pop shape our experience of the urban environment?

Author George Prochnik spent a night riding around Washington D.C. investigating noise complaints with police officer John Spencer. "The majority of domestic disputes we get called into these days are actually noise complaints," Spencer told him at the end of the night. "You go into these houses where the couple, or the roommate, or the whole family is fighting and yelling and you've got the television blaring so you can't think, and a radio on top of that, and somebody got home from work who wants to relax or to sleep, and it's just obvious what they're actually fighting about. They're fighting about the noise. They don't know it, but that's the problem."

Prochnik spoke to Lidia Glodzik-Sobanska of the New York University for Brain Health who told him that although, with repeated exposure, we can adjust psychologically to alarming sounds, "our physiologies never habituate. No matter how thoroughly our conscious minds might know that a loud siren rushing by is not coming for us," he concludes, "our blood pressure still spikes, our pupils still dilate, and our hair cells still flatten and twist." In our everyday lives, sirens contribute less to a "sonic ecology of resistance" and more to a kind of creeping ambiance of low-level panic that pervades the city; unspoken of and almost unnoticed beyond the sweaty palms and heightened pulse rate of an overactive sympathetic nervous system. A game of acoustic escalation has been entered into between record producers, vehicle and personal music player manufacturers, advertisers, and the police and security services. It is taking place at all times. The terrain of this conflict is the street.