Frank Ocean’s “Seigfried” Builds on the Beatles’ Production Legacy
On the one-year anniversary of 'Blonde,' we look at the album's most experimental song and its ties to '60s psychedelia.
A British term for the "hypnagogic" pop of chillwave and vaporwave is "hauntology," which stems from a concept coined by Jacques Derrida (bear with me here) to describe a present haunted by snippets of its possible futures. Frank Ocean's Blonde, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this week, is concerned with similar abstract thoughts. It's about regular things—romance, angst, drugs, usually all at once—but treats them as metaphysical, transcendent experiences. This approach is in large part due the album's still-singular production, which draws from ideas of musique concrete (found sounds) and 60s psychedelia, when the recording studio's capabilities as an instrument were beginning to be explored. In songs like "White Ferrari" and "Futura Free," faint audio tracks churn in the background, sounding like the headphone bleed of someone playing an unrelated song in the same room. Glitchy samples and vocal effects keep Blonde unpredictable and dynamic despite most of the songs lacking a conventional rhythmic pulse.
Given the dominance of the psychedelic ethos on this album, it makes sense that Frank cited both Brian Wilson and the Beatles among his primary influences while making it, going so far as sampling the latter band on two songs. To the irreverent, post-punk critical observer, these touchstones must seem played out. There's little to gain from mining these well-tapped veins. And these voices would have a point. You could make a case that the English house producers who came out of that country's Second Summer of Love in the late 80s carried the flower-power tradition into the modern era for good. Do you see anyone name dropping Andrew Weatherall, though? No disrespect to the legend but... nope. Dad bands can still be cool and a legitimate source of inspiration for even the most cutting-edge musicians. Frank, the shoegaze Trey Songz, is the definition of cutting-edge and one of the best songs on his album takes direct and sometimes obvious cues from the Beatles. The song in question is "Seigfried."
"Seigfried" (sic, it's supposed to be "Siegfried" but the typo went unaltered) is possibly named after two fictional blonde white dudes, one from Norse mythology, the other from the Soulcalibur series of fighting games. What they have to do with the song itself is up for debate, but the ambiguity fits this particularly beguiling piece of music. Much of the backing consists of a guitar drenched in reverb. The effect level on the instrument track is intentionally cranked way too high, rendering the strums into a blurry, indistinct smear. A spiralling lead guitar run, pitched-up voices, and a whirling sample of the Beatles instrumental "Flying" come in and out at random as the song progresses. Samples nowadays are employed in a smooth manner, but it wasn't too long ago that old-school hip-hop acts were using them to this kind of jarring, collage-like effect. Think De La Soul and their "sampledelia" on 3 Feet High and Rising. Go back even further and you'll come to the famous tape experiments the Beatles did in 1966 while recording their album Revolver.
For "Tomorrow Never Knows," Paul McCartney tasked the rest of the group with collecting whatever sounds they could find on tape recorders for the purposes of later screwing with them. He was a Stockhausen fan, go figure. The disorienting results were arguably the first time anyone tried to use sampled sound on a rock song. The reversed, sped-up loops are alarmingly successful additions to the song's overall composition and arrangement too: most of them are in key even if they have nothing to do with each other rhythmically. The one that isn't in key is a horn blast that superimposes another chord, a B-flat, on top of the song's existing single chord, a C. Other rock bands would copy the song's out-there use of Indian classical instruments, but few were able or willing to totally deconstruct the recording process to this extent.
Frank not only builds from those innovations but inverts their signifiers. Where the Beatles harnessed that druggy swirl to embody confusion in a chaotic and overwhelming way, the sample tapestry of "Seigfried" unfurls gently, mimicking your synapses firing as you fall into a deep and dream-filled sleep. Even the use of a sample as a bizarre Photoshop layer of added harmony is borrowed from "Tomorrow Never Knows." The weeping cinema strings that enter halfway through aren't actually following the guitar chords underneath. They steamroll over the initial, placid arrangement in a sudden burst of emotion. That moment underlines the reason Frank is a unique talent: his application of relatable feelings to experimental music. By comparison, "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a counterculture manifesto whose hokey interpretations of Tibetan holy texts and Timothy Leary worship haven't exactly aged well. "Seigfried" is a reflective breakup song, one that's astral-minded and postmodern as all hell but connects by making the personal universal, as all great music tends to do.
Killing your idols is all well and fine but sometimes there's a reason as to why they're idols in the first place. That good stuff had to come from somewhere. Of course, it was also the product of less accepting times and we're all better off for having lessened the dominance of the straight white male voice. Still, Revolver goes, especially taking into consideration that the idea of the rock band as a gang of mad scientists didn't really exist before that point. Thing is that Frank does this mostly by himself (with the help of producers like Malay), so really he's all four Beatles in one person. Kidding. I'm kidding. However, he's openly shouted out the Fab Four for "single-handedly getting [him] out of writers' block," which is a great, unintentional "fuck you" to the hardline modernists of the world. Presentism is our greatest weakness because people forget that time travels for a longass time in both directions. The current moment is not an everlasting state, so sometimes it pays to draw inspiration from things considered passé or overdone. Just be sure to add your own voice. Frank did.
Phil owns that giant 'Beatles Anthology' oral history so he knows what he's doing here. He's on Twitter.