Jeffrey Schnapp with Kara Oehler: “the first spoken arts record you can dance to”


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Within six months of its publication in March 1967, first as a paperback original and, two weeks later, as a hardcover, a project rejected by seventeen publishers and on which even its publisher Bantam Books had placed design restrictions, was already in its 11th printing and approaching sales of half a million copies. That book was The Medium is the Massage, “authored” by Marshal McLuhan and graphic artist Quentin Fiore, and “co-ordinated” by the publicist, producer and editor Jerome Agel.

Agel called The Medium is the Massage “the first book designed for the television age.” Critics were sometimes less generous: “As you read it, as you see it, and almost hear it—you are assaulted by the jangle of McLuhan paragraphs against Fiore graphics. It’s like one vast stomach acid commercial—equally unsettling, equally bizarre, equally persuasive [yes, and they do sell a lot of Alka Seltzer] […]. Time magazine called it an “eye-stopping, mind-wrenching whatzis [that is] the ultimate in non-books.”

All had a point and Agel set out to prove them right by producing The Medium is the Massage with Marshall McLuhan, “the first spoken arts record you can dance to.” The LP is a remix of and riff on the published book. It was issued by Columbia Records, with John Simon as producer, McLuhan/Fiore/Agel as authors, and Agel listed as having “conceived and coordinated” everything. In the letter that sought McLuhan’s approval for the project, Agel’s pitch was that the LP is to be “designed for young people—it is designed to be a 40-minute interface—it is designed to be heard again and again and again and again and again, like a pop record.”

Unlike McLuhan’s recorded Dew Line Platter-tudes, which remained little more than private pranks, the Columbia record was distributed like a conventional LP. It was promoted by Agel both by traditional means, such as radio broadcasts and by novel ones such as mock street protests by placard-carrying “mini-skirted misses parading around the advertising districts in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Boston.” The Pop McLuhan game was now so public that even the New York Times’s stringers wanted a piece of the action. “This Time the Medium Is the Mini” read the title of their reportage, accompanied by a photo captioned “Medium employed is a non-tribal placard.”

 

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