Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Once upon a time, kids, if you wanted to find out more about a band, you had to go to a book store. I know, I know, it sounds crazy. But it’s true. There was, you see, no internet. If you thirsted for more information about how this wonderful music came into being you could stare at the album cover or go find a book. There were a lot more music magazines back then too. But if the band you liked was no longer popular, or never was popular, you’re outta luck, pal.Had I been born some 20 years later all of the information I could possibly desire would have been at my feet along with possible connection to communities of like-minded enthusiasts. As it was, being a fan of British psychedelic music at that time, in that place, was a lonely activity. Into this breach gingerly steps one Nicholas Schaffner and his book The British Invasion: From the First Wave to the New Wave. You could say that this book had as strong an influence on my development as any band or album. Not only did I cede to this book the authority we naturally privilege text (cf. Foucault, et al), but since it was a comparatively rare subject and seemed to be written by someone with similar tastes—-and I was aesthetically isolated and I was a mopey teenager who nobody understood anyway, it had a novitiate to superior effect. And if what Greil Marcus says is true, that rock n roll is the passing of secret information from one generation to the next, then here you have it. The book mixed information with criticism and, where Schaffner was moved, outright proselytization. He felt very passionately about the genius of Syd Barrett. As a young fella I was easily seduced by the tragic/romantic tale of Barrett’s lionization and descent into schizophrenia. Madness was already a much celebrated topic in the later works of Pink Floyd and it was indeed a sad story. “A Nice Pair” was Capitol Record’s re-packaging of Pink Floyd’s first two albums, Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Saucerfull of Secrets. Here is where the tale gets complicated. Of course, what I was expecting when I bought the cassette, was the embryonic, undistilled matter from which the latter breathtaking, cinematic sound-scapes were woven. That’s there, but what’s also there is some highly idiosyncratic songwriting. Nicholas Schaffner expected me to see that this was the genius part. I labored mightily at it and eventually saw what I was expected to see. But why did he want me to understand it this way? In his book, White Bicycles Joe Boyd, producer of Pink Floyd’s single, “Arnold Lane” says that of the many bands that were popular during the “London Underground” efflorescence of psychedelic bands, everyone expected The Incredible String Band to be the Next Big Thing. Pink Floyd was to remain date stamped by the times and slip away into obscurity. The inverse is what actually happened. The Incredible String Band sound preposterous to us now but were more traditionally songwriterly than the more gimmicky Pink Floyd. You can’t blame the commentators and critics at the time for being short-sighted. Everyone expected traditional songwriting to prevail because the thing that Pink Floyd was to invent and perfect (those vast, patient, cinematic sounding albums) had not yet been imagined. Nicholas Schaffner, who also wrote some excellent books about the Beatles and was himself a songwriter, was inclined towards traditional songwriting himself. I think, like many critics in his generation, that he was distrustful of the novelty that Pink Floyd presented. They were considered bloated and pretentious by many, don’t forget (more on “pretentiousness” later.) Which brings us back around to the present day and sitting down to listen to these albums again. And it gets more complicated still creating a three segmented snake of thoughts swallowing it’s own tail: First, individually these songs sound weak. While there is a great deal of promise here, I am hearing the sound of young songwriters getting tripped up over compositional problems that a little more experience would smooth over and solve. Far from hearing a Genius with a capital Gee, I now hear the seventh or eighth best writer of this particular type of music…which isn’t nothing, mind you. I’d love to be the seventh or eighth best anything in any category. But second, these albums sound beautiful. Taken as a whole, the quality of execution , the choice of instrumentation and the sheer variety of songs is just awesome. The variety is what I like best. True to their avant-garde rep, this was definitely a band that wasn’t afraid to try anything at all. You don’t hear that much anymore. On the unity-variety scale, most bands of recent vintage tend to err on the side of monotony. Which forces me to revisit thought one and think that my ears are contaminated by professionalism. That I have been conditioned to expect a kind of slick songwriting and this album is defying my conventions and demanding to be taken as it is offered. What sounds at first weak is actually character. Character that gets stomped flat by a music industry that seeks (sought?) to control all unknowns and eliminate that which cannot be monetized. And so ‘round and ‘round I go as I listen.
Posted by Mr. Smith at 9:18 PM
Monday, August 9, 2010
In my old age I have learned to guard against a counterproductive tendency; swamping myself with worthy reading.
Johnathan Franzen in his essay "Why Bother" identifies three types of book readers (he thinks he's naming two, but they are all distinct): The first type is a reader who reads because it is the "done thing." More prevalent on the East Coast, according to Franzen at least, these people read for the same reason they might horseback ride or attend Andover. Class plays a role.
Next, a Midwestern type, reads to know that they are doing something profitable with their free time. Your good old protestant/puritan work-ethic and pleasure-guilt is likely at work here. The Creator frowns upon not taking up every possible free moment with toil. Enjoy oneself instead? No. Shame.
The third is the "social isolate" or put more simply, "nerd who likes to read."
I believe I am an unhealthy balance of all three. These three voices compel me to embark on oceans of worthy reading. Ancient classics, historical books, political thought, philosophy, postmodern fiction. Because I can read them, I should read them. Some of these books while indeed being worthy are also, let's not kid ourselves, a drag to read. So, as I flag with one book, I pick up another then that one starts to bog down etc etc until I sit sullenly watching television with a pile of Ovid, Kierkegaard and Pynchon glaring at me from the book case. On my vast sea, I am becalmed. I would know I had done it again when you might ask what I was reading and I would recite a litany of 1/5th read books that would ring very pompous.
Athough maybe I do this because embracing worthy music has paid consistent dividends.
When I was a young teenager I inherited a box of classical cassette tapes from my father. My father had played classical lps in the house as I was growing up and always listened to the classical station. As a little boy I found most of this music dull, except for a few pyrotechnical pieces with very clear themes. Beethoven's 5th, 6th etc. But I was exposed to it and that probably made the difference.
Laboring under the same troika of impulses, I forced myself to listen to the tapes that contained unknown works. After systematically wading though them few times, the music began to unfold and make sense. I think I was aware of what counterpoint was but one day one of these recordings knocked me off my feet. It was Bach's Brandenburg Concertos as recorded by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conducted by the violinist Pichas Zukerman. What made these recordings different was in their mixing. They were mixed very dry (no reverb or echo) and hard panned (instruments with different lines very distinctly in one stereo channel or the other). The result, rather than highlighting the way they blended, allowed the listener to hear how the lines were distinct and yet, miraculously, complimented each other.
Every recording I had heard of the concertos prior to that sounded as though they were recorded in a airplane hanger. This gave them an bustling to absurdly busy homophonic (chordal) sound. Probably not what J.S. intended at all.
I am pretty sure it was this recording. I remember it was a pair of blue cassettes, long since lost. Deutsche Grammophone, I think. But I am relying on a 20+ years memory. It took a bit of research to hunt down a new copy. A brand new cd of concertos 1-3 runs around $120. Yikes! Somebody certainly thinks these are worth hearing. Used copies are more reasonably priced. When they arrive, I'll let you know if they still sound the same.
Posted by Mr. Smith at 1:27 PM
Saturday, August 7, 2010
There was once a time when WXRT (a Chicago radio station) occasionally played exciting new music.
By the time I said farewell to the suburbs forever, XRT would only play the least objectionable of rock music available via the major labels or their fake smaller imprints. U2, The BoDeans, The Smithereens (The Smithereens constantly it seemed). Plus almost interesting, almost dangerous music whose relevance had recently expired. Like REM, The Cure, The Smiths. Lots of classic rock too.
But of all the stations in Chicago, it was the most eclectic. Apart from WNUR, Northwestern's excellent college station whose signal was too weak for me to pick up most of the time. So WXRT was the one I listened to. I have no idea what their format is now.
I clearly remember driving my bright yellow Pinto up route 59 when "Eye Know" came on the radio. Mind-blowing. The very idea that some kids from Long Island could breathe life into the very, very tired and monumentally un-sexy Steely Dan. It wasn't just cheeky and (sorry to resort to this word) postmodern, it was totally groovy and danceable.
Lots has been written elsewhere about the album's rococo nature, the unprecedented number of samples, its psychedelic feel. For me, what made this album so wonderful was its wedding of thoroughly modern dance and hip-hop beats with beautifully textured R&B, jazz and classic rock. It has a loose, easy feeling that I certainly had never heard in rap before. I think I had Public Enemy's "It takes a Nation of Millions..." on cassette and liked it, but it was a challenging listen at times. Very appropriate to the subject matter, it sounded like a fight between various power tools. Most rap I had been exposed to had a robotic, coked-out, disco vibe.
One minor quibble; it's a little long and could have done with a crueller editor's pen.
It's worth noting that Urban Dance Squad's "Mental Floss for the Globe" came out the same year and Dream Warriors "And Now the Legacy Begins"* shortly after that. Both inferior visions of the same idea. I guess it was in the air.
*And there, as it turns out, ends.
Posted by Mr. Smith at 4:27 PM
Friday, August 6, 2010
I can certainly hear why this soundtrack appealed to me, even though quality of the recordings nearly breaks my ears now.
This was, I think, my first exposure to West Coast punk rock. To my ears it sounded much more like "punk rock" as it might be depicted on television or in films. Plodding, repetitive and defiantly lo-fi. Contextually, this worked on many levels when you consider the state of American white person-rock at the time. On the metal end of the spectrum, virtuosity without restraint was being fetishized and there was an oogie kind of "Dawn in America" patriotic songsterizing happening on the JC Mellancamp/Bob Seger side. This was designed to be as different as possible (New Romanticism, preparing to wheeze its last, Michael Jackson, indeed anything that may be construed "disco" is outside the scope of my considerations here).
Instead of the palpable rage that you get from the economically devastated U.K. punk rock, here we have a emphasis on irony and witty takes on the low-stakes melodrama of middle class life. This was a revelation to me at the time. And really, if you think about it, a continuation of the Baby Boomer tradition of seeking to create music that will, ideally, frighten or mystify the previous generation.
Does punk rock or really any music do this anymore? Wear so many hats and have so many layers?
Some of the actors in the film were later members of Joe Strummer's band for his fantastic but completely ignored album "Earthquake Weather."
Posted by Mr. Smith at 2:22 PM