Energy and Information: War, Jamaican Sound Clashes, and Music

“War is primarily concerned with two sorts of activity: the delivering of energy and the communication of information.”

This is how Norman Dixon begins the second chapter of On the Psychology of Military Incompetence. “In war,” Dixon remarks, “each side is kept busy turning its wealth into energy which is then delivered, free, gratis and for nothing, to the other side. Such energy may be muscular, thermal, kinetic or chemical.” While the direction of delivery of energy is in our control, the reception of it can prove tricky.

Information also has its role in war’s outcome. For Dixon, “the ideal senior commander may be viewed as a device for receiving, processing and transmitting information in a way which will yield the maximum gain for the minimum cost. Whatever else he may be, he is part telephone exchange and part computer.”

Wars are won or lost due to the use of energy and information.

After WWII, there were wars still being fought in the 50’s. The stakes were less catastrophic but still culturally moving. Instead of guns, music was the weapon.

Sound systems were all the rage in Jamaica at the time. Mounted on vehicles, they would travel across the island and serve as a hub for dancing and socialization. It was inevitable that a sound system would brush up with another. What resulted were skirmishes for sonic supremacy. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton describe the scene in their great book, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey:

“At this time, more formalized head-to-head competitions had become popular, with sound systems setting up deliberately within earshot of each other, or even playing in the same dance. These ‘sound clashes,’ as they would be known, further dramatized the battle for supremacy.”

Do these sound clashes still follow Dixon’s factors of war?

“Competition was fierce,” Brewster and Broughton exclaim, “and almost any tactic – fair or foul – was used to ‘flop’ the rival sounds and gain the most crowded dancefloor. Building up the power of your system was one approach; having the best tunes was another, and record-buying trips to the States became essential.”

Let’s start with energy. One side delivers energy of their sound system (music, speakers, and all) to the dancers and the other system. The goal is to deliver such an energy that the other system flops and the dancers enjoy more.

Then there is information. There are many types of information that these sound system users manage and control. For a start they need to know of the music that is out there. Information of new records needs to be received and acted upon. It could also be a matter of information about better sound equipment. Publicity even, be it for reputation or bringing people to support, is another layer.

The world we live in operates under Dixon’s two pronged standard. The delivery of energy and communication of information is not only at the heart of sound clashes in the 50’s. Every musical endeavor there is, was, or will be exists within this system. How we manage energy and information is up to us. While it might not be war, the stakes are still high.


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