The Rest is Noise

I have recently read Alex Ross’s book, “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” and would recommend it to anyone who appreciates serious music, especially the music student who is being introduced to the Twentieth Century canon. I have read many music history books like this, and I must admit at first, the title put me off. I thought, “here goes another historian who will be exclusive with the difficulties of contemporary music.” Gladly, I was wrong. Ross is gracious with the full canon of contemporary composers and gives everyone their due. For me, it was a satisfying feeling to read about the composers that I have appreciated but of whom are given a passing glance in other history books. These books, like that of the high art coffee table variety, are usually dominated by well-known composers, and the historians, while going through the motions, sift through their worn out writing with the same, safe, predictable history. Ross not only has his perspective from his research, with fifteen years in writing this book, he gives color to the composers private and public lives. He writes about how they functioned within their musical and political culture. But more importantly, Ross is a music lover and a fluent, informed listener. And as a historian, he is able to articulate on a formal level what is happening in the music and why it is significant. Ross begins his story with Strauss and Mahler and ends it in the late 1980s with John Adams. There is enough biographical information on each composer that the reader gets a sense of the artist. For example, Ross writes about how Strauss (a Jew) lived under Nazi Germany and his relationship with Mahler and Schoenberg. He does the same with Shostakovich and Prokofiev under Stalin. Ross’s writing is succinct, lively, and confident throughout the whole book. He may give some composers too much biographical emphasis like Britten, and some too little attention like Varese, Berio, and Xenakis, (I was somewhat disappointed with this), but at least all the composers are given their due. Also Ross isn’t afraid to personally criticize some composers like Boulez, who comes off as an elitist tyrant, setting the agenda for serious music after the war. Ross’s writing gives a cultural and historical context for each composer and  why their music is significant. For example, he will give the reader an idea how other composers reacted at the time to Schoenberg’s 12 tone row, and not just a glib historical fact. Ross’s focus moves from political and personal to more serious matters, giving the reader a nice well-rounded ride. In other words, his story isn’t didactic or stuffy. There are no suspicions here, just a matter of fact voice tone and clarity in historical perspective. Ross fully tracks the continuing drama of the position of atonal music in modernism.  After you read the book, you’ll  know what Ross means by his title; he is writing about all that is important in serious twentieth century music and the rest is noise. As an afterthought, Ross has a short suggested listening list. You can find these well known examples at the library. Also, if you are not familiar with the pieces that are discussed in this book, you can put the book down and listen to the piece played on You tube. Such advantages are given these days.


Indeed Dandy

It’s an English thing to do. If it helps you to understand a band by categorizing it or framing it within a context, go for it. For example, if knowing that the Who started on the Mod side of the barricade, or that Ringo said he was a mocker; a pun combining mod and rocker. If it helps you after all these years, then really, you’ve got me there. In London, during the late ’70s and into the ’80s, it was the Teddy Boy, then Punk, then the New Romanticism, then what? These are the petty fashion skirmishes that rage on the streets of London, and because they turn over so quickly, they never catch on in America. English bands relentlessly associate themselves with these organically grown fashions and micro-cultures, while we, in the states, really don’t care. They may say “we’re a Neo-Romantic Punk Irish band,” and we just nod our heads and listen to the music. We either like it or not, but we can easily get the band through their sound. The myth of the “handsome young man” has persisted in rock and popular music since its beginnings. For example, Elvis was the sweaty, bull fighter-like, dandy king, the Beatles were the stylishly charming, lovable mop-tops, Marc Bolan and David Bowie were the androgynous crooners, and the Sex Pistols were the beautiful ugly mess – etc. You could use your own examples to mark how street fashion and music co-mingle into a constituency. In the ’80s, we saw a flood of bands that played on their sexual image in a bold and overt way (Prince, Madonna). Sex was in the video air and almost every band played up to this dandy inoculation. For all their energy, there are still so many remarkable ’80s bands that aren’t included in the hall of fame, much less played on the radio in the canon of “classic rock.” And this fact is the real goofy cultural segregation that we see in our media and critical discourse.

For a band that intentionally used a name that is common and pedestrian, The Smiths are a sophisticated rock band. At times, their music evokes the sweet aroma of stationary and literature. It astounds me that Johnny Marr is not included in the canon of great rock guitarists. His fills and flourishes layer over strong rhythmic patterns, and he uses a capo to play in another register on top of the bass harmonies. He runs through chord changes with so much flexibility and intensity that he makes his virtuosity seem off-handed and casual. Marr makes it seem so simple by playing counterpoint to, not under, Morrissey’s singing. Marr’s and Morrissey’s melodies are expressionistic and have a propulsion in a linear way. The band is nimble and drives forward, and their harmonic progressions support Morrissey’s phrasing, which is unusual and idiosyncratic, giving it the dramatic emphasis it deserves. The Smiths are original sounding, yet they are the standard set-up rock band, having intentionally expunged all the traps of the glamorous synthesizers or drum machines that were popular with competing bands. You get them from the strong belief they have in their music. Morrissey is so clean-cut, with a rarefied air of a “James Dean” sort of dandy. His sexual image is so fluid and ambiguous, that it contradicts itself relentlessly. For example, “Girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know, It’s Serious” – whose girlfriend is it anyway? or is he opening his arms to a friend with the possibility that the loss will…? On the other hand, “Girlfriend in a coma,” are realistic lyrics because they express feelings that are directly inherent in daily life, but may seem hard to express. Morrissey is very effective at this level because his lyrics get more ironic and ambiguous the more you think about them. Yet, half the fun is trying to pin down who/what he’s singing about (a third or fourth sex ?), as it appeals to everyone. Morrissey’s tongue in cheek morose humor has the sweet drama of being oh-so-overwhelmed by the tragedy of daily life with its troublesome decisions of what to wear or where to go out, or even finding a job. In this, Morrissey articulates the very essence of woeful teenage angst through his songs.

Sailing the seven exotic seas, in a yacht full of young dandies on board, Duran Duran‘s videos show the achingly fun, world-wide adventure of the carefree, high energy, ’80s. On that level, they recall the wacky adventures in the Beatles films or the Monkees’ episodes. But there they are: they are the handsome sons of Dr Livingston, vacationing in the jungles of Sri Lanka, riding elephants, and swinging from tree vines in their white ice cream suits with their songs on the sound track; the heart-throbs of Princess Diana, and neo-colonialism on coke. That’s what we saw, and what we wished we could have been. But how did they get there? Everything seemed to come out of nowhere and contorted on MTV. Duran Duran was John Taylor, Roger Taylor, and Nick Rhodes, with Andy Taylor following, and lastly, Simon Le Bon as the main song writer and singer. It was only after I read Andy Taylor’s autobiography that I really appreciated how hard they worked and how lucky they were. They had the look of beautiful fresh-faced English boys, but they worked relentlessly as the house band at the Rum Runner night club. A house band is fortunate to get paid for “practising” and trying out new material night after night. Not only that, but Andy Taylor and Nick Rhodes spent a ton of hours in the studio, away from the videos, perfecting the mix, overdubs, and fighting over details. They both had a strong ear for what they wanted and weren’t happy until it was perfect and intentional. Also, when they first met Le Bon, they couldn’t believe how much he wrote and how quickly he could write lyrics to a song. “Girls on Film” was one of the first, and they had the fortune of getting an immediate response from the audience at the Rum Runner. You can hear the influence of the Rum Runner in a lot of their songs: their catchy white boy funk migrated from the dance floor to such songs as “Notorious.” Their core sound was Andy Taylor’s guitar from 70’s funky bands like the Ohio Players, Nick Rhodes’ idiosyncratic keyboards, and Le Bon’s inflected phrasing. These are all their own stylistic elements, and later became a sort of Duran Duran cliché. After Andy Taylor left the band, they came out with the “Wedding album.” This was their swan song album, and in comparison to their other albums, seemed beautifully sober as a come down. “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone,” are sublime, intimate songs without the dance or commercial hysteria. This album veered away from the “big world” issues that Le Bon was currently pushing (“Planet Earth”). Like a lot of 80’s “band-aid” bands, he wanted to be as serious as Bono’s politics.  But with the “Wedding” album, it seemed as if all the coke had run out and they confronted their honesty as a band. This made the absence of Andy Taylor even more questionable. They finally showed the world that they could produce beautiful songs without the pretension of putting themselves and their dandy image first.

In the early ’80s, there really wasn’t anyone who sounded like the Cure, and they never failed to hit that spot. From songs such  as “The Love Cats,” “Just Like Heaven,” “High,” and “Halo,” we knew this was a band all about love songs. Robert Smith is a man in love and he sings about all things love; from the highs and lows of love, to how sick and sweet love can be. Even after those years, Cure songs have an immediacy and deep musicality. Robert Smith and the band have a fine ear and play with such a terrific invention and variety. Right from the opening chords, their songs are never ordinary. They are an autonomous band that resonates a strong point of view. Yet, you can hear their distant influences: Pink Floyd, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix. The Cure use those elements in such a blended way to flavor their own unique sound. The Cure can sound like sheets of wind or heavy flowing water, and it is a sound that varies in density, consistency, and architecturally. In songs such as “Never Enough,” the Cure can spit fire that is on the level of the best in hard rock. With the amount and variety of material they have produced alone, they should have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago or played in the media more than just a few songs. My strong sense is that the general media statically clings to just the surface style of Robert Smith’s cooing and lip stick/eye liner smeared appearance, and only views the Cure’s blues element as their main ingredient without going further into the depths of their style. Indeed, the microculture of the Goths have appropriated the Cure as their emblematic band and “dark vampire” appearance. But from Robert Smith’s interviews, he trivialized the Cure’s connection to the Goth style. I have my doubts as to what Goth is. This is another whirlpool of street styles that may not have any significance. But I will celebrate St. Valentines by playing the Cure all day, as they celebrate all the points of love through their songs. They are indeed dandy.

The Monkees, The Velvet Underground, and the Audience

I learned the meaning of kitsch from the Monkees. Their myth goes something like this: In 1966, too many bands were serious, dangerous, or revolutionary, and America wanted a band to puppy love. This sweetheart space was earlier occupied by the lovable fab four and bands like the Herman Hermits, the Young Rascals, and the Lovin’ Spoonful. Filmmakers Robert Rafelson and Bert Schneider had auditions and enough power to invent a band for a television show in prime time. The Beatles were now so advanced with Rubber Soul and Revolver, that it would be impossible to fit them in a worn out Beatles’ shoe version of a teenie-bopper TV show. But Rafelson & Co. had the strong sense that the younger sisters and brothers, who missed the first flash of Richard Lester’s kicky, free-wheeling, Hard Days’ Night, were now emerging as a strong audience. You could almost read the predictable formula from their Hollywood corporate desks…”mmm, John Lennon said that… Oh shit… Lets invent a lovable american version of the Beatles, but we gotta put a cute little Brit in there somewhere. We’ll make ’em jump and dance around, make up wacky stories about a band that’s trying to make it. And if they can’t play, by God we’ll give them songs to play. They will be innocent and safe with girls, but they can’t run off with ’em, we need ’em in a band. It will be a hit!” The Monkees were then commercially forced on an already distracted pop audience, bloated from the Tiger Beat parade of 45rpm bands like Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Blues Magoos, and Dino, Desi, and Billy. But nobody knew any Monkees songs before they hit TV. The Monkees were not played on the radio, but each week, bit by bit, we heard them mime a recorded song on their show. Their songs were strange in comparison to what was really going on in rock. Some of the Monkee’s songs had this weird tango beat or a country/western flavor, and they were always bringing in new angles and psychedelia to their catchy sound. Their pop songs were fun – about girls – full of tambourine or maracas over a softer drum beat, light-weight on the bass, a twangy Byrds type of 12 string guitar, and garage farfisa organ with a circus type of riff. You could easily sing their songs, and they had a sort of manifesto – “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees and we’ve got something to say.” They even had their own designer car – the Monkeemobile – a warped, souped up, red GTO. But they were always labeled with their kitschy dialogue to the Beatles. Their kitsch was retracing the Beatles Hard Day’s Night aura in a fantastic sunny contemporary LA – somewhere near the beach. The boys had matching outfits, got along living with each other in the same room, and were forever rushing to the next gig with a late payment to the landlord.  Their musical processes were magical, hidden, and they were never seen practicing on the show as you might expect. The featured song of the show, with today’s sense – a music video, was a performance on a shallow stage with a montage of wacky scenes from the show, and thus the inspiration for the episode itself. The shows were gentle stoner comedies with sight gags, slapstick, and bell and button sound effects. Besides the Beatles’ films, the Monkees show owed a lot to earlier Gidget/Moondoggy surfer films with their fun-loving, fight the goofy bad guy, scenes.  Producer Don “Kitschner” unfairly hyped the Monkees as being as popular as the Beatles (concert shots of screaming girls). Yet, “Kitschner” viewed them as actors not musicians, and they fought against him at the risk of their careers (Peter Tork left the show). It was left to them to deliver the goods by playing live somewhere. The Monkees had to prove they could actually play. Where did they come from – sheer invention. Who wrote their songs – Carole King and Neil Diamond are some of many talents. A large young audience were waiting for them. They managed to charm the dickens out of us. The powers primed us as much as a pop audience could be. Their first album was released minutes after their first show began and to no surprise shot to number one. We were waiting for them and they became something more than what we expected of them. (Author’s note: We lost Davy Jones at age 66 on 2-29-2012)

Like the Monkees, the Velvet Underground became something more than what they were. Nothing really happened for them until they somehow met Andy Warhol and he became their manager. Their fate was sealed when he chose them as his Factory house band. They could now hang around like Warhol pets, get publicity for their shows, and even get attention from high-brow art critics such as David Antin. Yet, in his own Warhol style, as with film, he did nothing but watch it roll, and the Velvets were free to do as they pleased in the studio and at the Factory. Now, with their association to high art and high society, the Velvet Underground became not only popular, but suspect as a fabricated band, that is a band with a Warhol stamp. This stigma was further advanced when Warhol made the banana cover for their first album. Yes, even kids could own a Warhol print by buying a Velvet Underground record. High art through rock was now produced for the people.  But the Velvet Underground were dark, and not a teenage band. Their songs were about hard drug usage and S&M sex, reflections of the hard knocks on the big city streets. They are so seedy, that even when they play a soft ballad, it comes off as disingenuous. They played loud on stage, but on record, debates still go on about how good they were. The Factory offered a stage for the Velvets, and for the most part, they really didn’t have to suffer the criticism and the hassles of touring around the country. The Velvet Underground became one of those rare cult bands that are untouchable, sealed in the plasticity of their time, and seemingly beyond the reach of any criticism. Lou Reed still faithfully adheres to his sunglasses, black leather, and artsy-decadent heroin spiked past. The Velvet Underground have always played like they’re bored. They copied the ennui posture and cool indifference of Warhol. This is a hard band to like over time: Nico’s deep listless voice, sloppy scuffling guitar playing within a wall of sound, and bad recording, really start to drag than come off as ecstatic spontaneity. But at its center, the Factory created a total sensory experience for the audience. George English, writing in the Fire Island News, describes the Factory’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable in the following: “The rock ‘n’ roll music gets louder, the dancers get more frantic, and the lights start going on and off like crazy. And there are spotlights blinking in our eyes, and car horns beeping, and Gerard Malanga and the dancers are shaking like mad, and you don’t think the noise can get any louder, and then it does, until there is one big rhythmic tidal wave of sound, pressing down around you, just impure enough so you can still get the best; the audience, the dancers, the music and the movies, all of it fused together into one magnificent moment of hysteria.” The Velvet Underground was part of the Factory’s phenomena, and they certainly became more important by their reputation than what they really were. Update: We lost Lou Reed to an ongoing liver illness October 27, 2013. His lyrics continue to resonate with the passing years.

Magnus Jimi Hendrix

The love I have for Jimi Hendrix’s music goes back to the summer of my middle school years when I pleaded with my mother to buy “Are You Experienced.” And so, before I had that album all to myself, I’d relentlessly call the top 40 radio station and pester the DJ to play “Foxy Lady.” I didn’t know at the time but the song wasn’t a 45 single and that the station only played 45 singles. The DJ could’ve said, “hey stupid kid, I just can’t play Jimi Hendrix, I have to play the songs they tell me to play which are the well-known hits of  The Animals, The Turtles, and the Supremes.” And I would have understood. I forgot all that when my mother unexpectedly bought the album for me. I first studied the photographs of the band on both sides of the album. They are contrasting photos: the fiery psychedelic fish-eyed lens photo on the front, and the close-up, back-lit, black/white photo on the back cover. Looking at Jimi Hendrix: his wild hair, his multi-colored shirt with the eyes and feathers, his large claw-like hands, and his confident expression, he struck me as someone primitive, bold, and entirely different from anybody else at the time, yet more advanced. I mean, a dynamic person who is in touch with himself on a deep level, his feeling, and what he can do with a guitar. Through the years, my impressions of him haven’t changed.

Now, in contrast to what I know about his musical history, it’s interesting to read about his younger army days through the cold hard facts of his discharge papers which were recently published. Even back then, I couldn’t picture Hendrix as a straight army paratrooper who was rumored discharged with a “back injury.” Basically, the papers say Hendrix was dishonorably discharged because he was an incompetent soldier. He had a simple  job as a repair supply clerk, yet he could barely serve this function. Among other army issues, the papers state that he “wonders off without a pass, pays little attention, unable to carry on an intelligent conversation, requires excessive supervision at all times, couldn’t shoot straight, has a large laundry bill, and was caught masturbating in the latrine while on detail” (the soldier looked over the stall to see if Hendrix was asleep). Hendrix’s service record goes on to read like a Beetle Bailey cartoon strip, which only adds a provocative layer to his image.

As a guitar player, what couldn’t he do? Besides restringing for the left hand, he invented a style of playing where he would play the low E with his thumb wrapped around the neck. Hendrix used the microphone stand as a slide, plucked the strings with his teeth, played behind his back or head, was kinetically fast, used feedback, backward tape effects, pedals, and he would often run his pick along the strings, etc. There are so many ways that he could play, but he used his technology of playing, through the format of the blues, to create modern rock. To further this, he built the Electric Lady Studio, and although he didn’t do much there, a lot of other bands recorded there after his death. But my strong sense of Hendrix’s guitar playing is that he used his techniques to create sonic textures. His virtuosity produced a rainbow of tone colors and textures that was inexhaustible and always surprising in their effects. In “Love Or Confusion,” the bending G chord slides into a tremolo bar octave note. This is an astonishing passage because it’s ambiguous as to whether there are two guitars playing, or  just Hendrix alone playing a trick of virtuosity. Hendrix had a perfect sense of pitch. However, he was insecure about his singing voice and he supported it with his guitar. This only served his voice and gave it an alien metallic quality. Here again in “Love Or Confusion,” his flat, reverb treated, vocals have a detached quality within an electic storm of tremolo bar and feed back. Hendrix also had a keen sense of the leading tone in the blues and pentatonic modalities. His guitar playing was intuitive to where the leading tone could go and its implications. He knew the blues conventions so well from jamming during his early experiences as a sideman with the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, that he could later recast the blues constituents into something else. “May This Be Love,” is shocking in its juxtaposition to the blues. But within the electric waterfall of cymbals splashing and guitar glissandos, the lyrics are blues subject matter as he rejects scoffers for his unique vision of  love.

If you look at the back cover of Hendrix’s “Smash Hits,” you will see the band dressed as western bandits. No doubt Hendrix had an air of bravado. But behind his outer hippie love appearance and aura, he was out to prove that he was the world’s greatest guitar player. When Chas Chandler, now Jimi’s manager and member of the Animals, brought him to England in the sixties, Jimi was dropped into London’s hot bed of competing guitar gunslingers, that being: Clapton, Townshend, Beck, and Page. There is a well-known anecdote where Townshend and Clapton have a worried conversation that this new guy in town will threaten to out shine them and replace them as a guitar god. There is a high level of pride in playing rock guitar – that it is a gunslinger’s arena. Chops are guarded, and they can make or break a guitarist. Hendrix loved to shoot down other guitarists or musicians during jams. On “Voodoo Child,” he musically urges Steve Windwood into an exchange between organ and guitar. Hendrix just out plays him, he never had a chance. Hendrix makes a tepid appearance on Stephen Stills’ solo album. On “Old Times Good Times,” Stills’ aggressive organ playing (not his guitar?) obviously wanted to dominate and push Hendrix into a corner. But during his solo, Jimi noodles around as if to say that he is just sitting in – no big deal. Stills’ incredible ego makes this song one of rock’s many disappointments. But the collaboration of a few songs between Arthur Lee and Hendrix are terrific and just as obscure. They were recently released on the album”Love Lost.”  Lee claims in his autobiography that he discovered Jimi Hendrix, and that Hendrix stole his look off of the cover of Da Capo. They were close friends and looked a lot alike, but when Hendrix stole Lee’s girlfriend, that was the final straw of their friendship.

Over the course of the first three albums, Hendrix never seemed loyal to his band, “The Experience.” As described in Mitch Mitcell’s book, rather than rehearsing with them, Jimi was always off jamming with other musicians. It was as though he wanted the adoration of other musicians as a free-wheeling sideman, but not the spotlight. Hendrix then brought in his old army buddy Billy Cox, and Buddy Miles, on “Electric Ladyland.” This “jam” on “Electric Ladyland” then turned into the live “Band Of Gypsys” album which was a longer jam. The band was short-lived, and it seemed at the time Hendrix succumbed to the pressures of race issues. He did that by forming an all black band (Band Of Gypsys), and writing songs against the war. It’s ironic that Arthur Lee did the same thing with his “Black Love” band later. With the Band Of Gypsys, Hendrix reverted to conventional blues and never returned to his flowery, psychedelic, and plasticized music of the “Experience.”  I still view the earlier as his most lasting and indigestible material, and the latter, his most direct and popular. With his first three albums, there is a promise of transcendence; they create that transformation. In “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” through “Moon, Turn The Tides…gently gently away,” there is a musical march to the sea.  To breathe underwater among the bobbing sonic buoys is a promise of transformation of physical and spiritual self. Like “Third Stone From The Sun,” “Moon, Turn The Tides” is electic music from another world.

Hendrix was a magical figure in Rock; a figure who crossed musical boundaries and transformed himself at a time of intense pressures. He was atonomous. With his style deeply established and popular, there was really nothing else for him to prove. At that point, he could have gone back to experimentation; he already created a new territory that younger bands became involved with. Hendrix probably understood the implications that a new direction beyond the blues or even rock was to be explored. Sadly, Hendrix never saw this great legacy and posterity play out with time. He was taken from us too early to give us an answer.


Some notes on neither/nor bands:

Love them or hate them – here they are… There are guilty pleasures found in rock music just like the fast food aisle, but  these are the left overs from a good stew.  After you indulge in these bands, and understand their musical world, they leave a taste that you grow a fondness for. But as a cartesian nightmare, you have to confront the painful process of where to put their CDs in your collection. Anywhere? They don’t belong anywhere, yet they are everywhere, and deserve to be included. These are the cute mongrels among thoroughbreds. They are uncompromising in their personas, stubborn in their musical tastes and defy categorization. And what turns your head in the most confounding way is that they are really good at what they do. They have to be, otherwise they wouldn’t even be as good as one hit wonders, but there they are – putting out hit after hit. I had girl friends who made me tapes of “our” songs, and in the mix, I’d find these weird choices. Yet, I would always end up loving these anomalies more than the usual popular bands. These neither/nor groups have that effect: they manage to change your taste and become your most guilty pleasure by their sheer conviction. Like termites, these artists tunnel their way through their music in a thoroughly self-involved way and create personas that light up billboards. They create a safe fantasy, and exude their own aromatic sexuality which emits a pleasant attraction to both men and women.  A beautiful tease, you can sense their steaminess  in almost every song. Finally, they make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a weird and complex endeavor with their presence, yet the listener, in an overall way, understands why they were let in the door after all the shouting.

Here are some examples:

(1) ABBA   Coming on the scene in 1973 before disco poisoned everything, there is still no band as giddy as ABBA since then. Joyous and urgent, ABBA sounds like a carnival alpine bobsled ride. And Benny Andersson plays chunky Tchaikovsky-like major chord piano riffs in almost every song, giving it a kitschy elegance. Their songs are just as emphatic – “I do, I do, I do, I do, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, and fit like a snug jogging shoe into a 3 min commercial time slot. ABBA is irresistible with their cheery surface and fresh-faced swedish good DNA. You get the impression that they mountain climb or marathon when they’re off stage, then leisurely enter the studio with a few terrific hooks and another ABBA gold is printed. They are winners and make it seem so easy and natural. But it isn’t, their songs are crafted, smooth, and come out at you with their bright light. The ladies, swaying their rears in tight white body suits with angel wings, sing from their guts and on pitch. ABBA cultivated a position of neither sterile synth/nor strictly rock band, but as a hybrid swedish folk/rock/dance band that sings about desire, innocence, and money. Their subject matter is universal and international, appealing to everyone. They are uncompromisingly ABBA, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had to believe in angels to let them in.

(2) Sade  Gorgeous, elegantly romantic but never stale or hack, Sade is neither jazz nor pop, but a Caribbean blend of smooth funk and sway. It was too good to be true: A beautiful former model, who can sing breathy torch ballads like a goddess, backed by slick studio level musicians. Sade sings cool and hot, which is profoundly erotic. She is a genius of all things love, a warm sea breeze on a Jamaican beach. And she takes the listener there. Sade gets played at every Cabo San whatever wedding or party, and yet her songs are intimate – she is singing just to you. Men run up to the stage to bring her flowers. Sade has the quality of never being rushed to put out her music at the expense of quality. It seems her music is tightly monitored and reserved. Just when you think she is finished with recording, she comes out with another fresh perspective and another view of love. But Sade has what every great musician has and that is a musical ear and a fine sense of musical economy – one that is always fresh, surprising, and relentless.

(3) Neil Diamond   I am including this performer for his song writing ability and not so much for his singing. And viewed from that perspective, Neil Diamond is a pithy nexus in the history of Rock and Roll. It’s astonishing as to the quality and quantity of the songs Neil has written for himself and for other performers as diverse as the Monkees. Yet, he is viewed as the Jewish good son from Brooklyn on the edges between pop and rock. Like the Beatles, Neil Diamond departed from the Everly Brothers harmonic sound and innocent posture. He mines a soft-core folk/pop on the right of Elvis’ sentimentality of Americana. Neil Diamond emerged from the pre-British invasion, and followed the line of white middle of the roaders such as Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson, and Bobby Darin – Mack the knifers who were filing down the edges of Sinatra and distinguishing themselves loosely with black R&B. Too stiff for the  black soul of Sam Cook and too groovy for folk, Diamond’s hit- “Cherry Cherry” remains something more than a swinging one hit wonder. It seemed Neil Diamond went underground after that, but his subject matter remained centered on the ideal and home life. That idealism was on the minds of many in the sixties. And he later followed that with a raspy and groveling singing style, leisure suit, and came back in the 70s when aging suburbanites were waiting for him.

(4) Alice Cooper  Neither glam nor heavy metal, Alice Cooper is a relentless artist, golfer, restaurant owner. Easy Action, Love it to Death, and Killer, remain as the terrific core of the band’s sound and legacy. I am luke warm to School’s Out and really lose patience with the over indulgent and alcohol driven theatrically of what followed. Some would find this debatable, but when his band left him as a solo artist he was hard to watch. The Alice Cooper band was blistering and sleek when they played live. They had that Detroit drive when they played in concert, and the records really don’t capture this quality. It’s as though there is a matte finish on their sound and the CD versions seem sped up. But  in the end, Alice needed a context of a band playing behind him on stage, he really couldn’t sustain it all by himself. And even after all these years, when he plays at fairs with a newer and younger band, he makes a point of bringing his daughter on stage. There is no reunion band in sight. In the overall context of the era he belongs to, a good comparison to the height of Alice Cooper are the Stooges. Both were anti-hippie and swishy teased punk. But Alice Cooper comes off as theatrical and polished – they would play in record order in concert – against the raw throw-away chaos of the Stooges. Even then, Alice’s eye make-up gets mannered from goofy lashes to black eye socket filler after Killer. Ironically, Micheal Jackson’s zombie Thiller video became more popular than the manneristic horror rock invented earlier by (“I love the dead”) Alice Cooper. Such is the case for Neither/Nor bands, they are sometimes at the mercy of sure-sighted and stronger constituents.

Some notes on plasticity elsewhere

I’d like to give you some examples of plasticity, and there are many. Plasticity is the potential or process of a material or thing transforming into something else (sand into concrete, then molded into whatever, is a very plastic substance). This also can be applied to conceptual things such as music. For example, the pattern of  I, IV, V, chords enable the performer to use their multiple combinations in songs. On a conceptual level, one is able to perceive music  as color, plastic ribbons, sheets of sound etc. Music transforms when we hear it, and because of that we can think of it as a plastic substance. We can identify plasticity, and its process of transformation in many ways and things.

I was over at a friend’s house and her daughter had an animated T.V. show on that caught my eye. There were animated animal creatures spinning and dancing, and they were quite amusing. As I watched the show, I thought about the difference between them and real dancers on stage. They were fantastic and danced movements no human could. On that level, they were magical, powerful, and plasticized reality. I am sure that ancient statues had the same aura and power that these cartoons have for us. The animated figures is a dramatic example of the fetishistic power of plasticity. 

With rock and roll, Punk’s spirit is the plasticity of white kids playing over blues chords. Elvis stayed too close to the blues to be punk (he had his punkish upper lip), and the Beatles were too far away (a more plasticized version of folk). Punk is a dysfunctional form of the blues transformed into rock and roll. An example of early punk is the Yardbirds. They had the posture and style of a formidable punk band. And they were the model for every garage band since then.  If a feeble suburban garage band could play even a whiff of a Yardbirds’ tune at the dance or battle of the bands, they got the neighborhood girls and respect. The Yardbirds stretched the blues out with hyperactive guitar virtuosity, sneering nasal flat vocals, dominating bass, and the drum solo. The effect was one of ecstasy and insolence, and not low down sadness. The Yardbirds plasticized chord progressions of the blues by adding in non blues chords (switching minor major). They displaced the soul of the blues with contempt, which is punk. They really didn’t want to play the blues, they wanted to soup it up into something else even more sexual and dangerous. They had a thing they called the rave up. This was really a jam that peaked at the point of falling apart. When the wheels start to fall apart, when Jeff Beck starts to beat up his guitar and cause feed back, we are far from the blues, we are in the arena of punk white boys.

 Now plasticity doesn’t make a work of art, rather it is understood as an effect of an art work. One of its effects is the artifice of space, that is tricking the eye and the ear. Jackson Pollock’s lacy forms and lines appear in various separate dimensions of plastic space.  He builds plastic tension by layering the subject from the ground. This is his art and he knew when to stop painting. His paintings have a luminosity and articulation of space.  The crucial difference between serious abstract painting and kitsch among other things, is that this plastic space or artifice is absent in kitsch.    

The plastic artifice in Greek Hellenistic sculpture emerges in modeling and proportions. Greek gods and goddesses are perfectly and mathematically proportioned just beyond the real human form. They were an ideal template for human form, yet no human could ever possess those proportions. They are pure plastic forms existing in the ideal dimension of the gods. This is what gives them that seductive beauty comparable to the plasticity in photography and the fashion model.

There are other effects of plasticity: a negative and a positive one. This shouldn’t be taken in a literal sense at any level. Imagine a form that was cut from a block of matter. The appearance possesses an essential inner core that is self-contained and severe. This would be an example of negative plasticity. Positive plasticity spreads out from a core or armature. The effect of the form is that of assembled elements. Early Greek sculpture is self-contained and has the effect of negative plasticity. The statue of Augustus is made up of assembled parts, and the effect is positive plasticity.

Plastic forms and pure plastic forms have been identified and discussed by Piet Mondrian in his famous essay. Yet, it is here that I have given some notes on plasticity and its effects from music to art. Plasticity is the process of transformation and could be view as the measure of the permutations of change. And because there is change there are also permutations of plasticity. Our critical awareness is opened when we identify how plastic elements affect and change our world and its forms. It is one instrument we can use to cite formal issues that emerge from changes inherent in our culture.

You can read the unedited version of this article on Plasticity.

The Ninety Per Cent

I get anxious going into a record store these days. The feeling is like seeing an old friend on the street that you’ve had so many disagreements with and let downs that you now make conversations glib and terse; each person knowing that you still share a tenuous relationship. It’s annoying when the clerks play a loud and unwelcoming track, but I usually ignore this after a while and make my browse a direct one. I go shopping at a large two-story record store that sells everything you could ask for. The trouble is, they put racks of CDs in rows marked “Classic Rock,” “Modern Rock,” and “Independent Rock.” And now stack microgenres such as “Goth,” “Metal.” I can’t find anything because this is so arbitrary. When did they think “Modern Rock” began? I found out later as I asked the clerk that the cut off date is 1980. So where does that put a band like The Cure who ride the line? There are so many new CDs that I could spend days at the store sampling, but I get the feeling from the impatient store clerks that I could only sample two or three before they would kick me out.  I always want to know what the new bands are doing, but the store puts them in one long row. You really have to fight your way through the band names that only a college freshman would know.  I really want to know what’s going on out there. A  few years ago (2009), neopsychedelic bands, and bands with a sort of sonic luxuriousness, in a harder mode of the Cocteau Twins, was the hot thing on the radio. Bands like Asobi Seksu and Solid Gold were leading the way. This micro-movement really never caught on and presumably was replaced by another neopsychedelic movement with band like the Black Angels. Americana is in the air now and sold out with neo-Hillbilly bands like “Trampled by Turtles.” Driving with my Dad, in the late ’60s, with the windows rolled up on a spring day, his cigar in the overflowing ashtray, and KSON Kountry blasting Buck Owens on the radio, I never would have imagined that he would be the future of rock’s audience. I can understand the banjo in the Delta Blues, but Oh, BROTHER, where art thou’s guitar?

I listen to a local college FM radio station, (see if this sounds like the one in your city), that relentlessly tells me that they play all  the new “alternative” music. They play the bands who are on tour or have released a new CD. The rest is what the announcer wants to play or requests. The format is so eclectic and varied, that a set will offer up a scattershot of tastes and musical genres. It will get weird at times. It’s as though they are pandering to an iTunes kind of audience, fishing for a consensus of which there really is none. I have looked at their play list and it is as arbitrary as the record store: a few “good” songs selected as a sample and not anything else from the CD. You will get Bessie Smith followed by the Vines.

And this is the irritation I have with so many bands today. They have one or two songs that are interesting, but they fail to explore the groove they have going. The rest of the of the CD is either directionless filler or moving on to something else that shadows. We have heard so many bands like this who come and go: The Editors, Nada Surf, Big Pink, etc. Lacking in honesty and rigor, they seem timid and wrap themselves in a thin, blurry watercolor wash of reverberation. They put up some sort of precious lengthy introduction – a mini-filler that is setting the mood for the song. A musical warm up, before the real song begins, is when  I lose patience.

The Strokes, The Hives, and The Arctic Monkeys show some irritability, but with other bands like Retribution Gospel Choir (a really pretentious name for a rock band), or Arcade Fire, no one knows who the “enemy” is. The CD limps along to the end. Between the “alternative punk” bands and Led Zeppelinish bands, Coheed and Cambria dish out interesting space age folk metal rock tunes submerged within an epic Halo or Dune landscape. A part of their songs are based on lead singer Claudio Sanchez’s Sci-fi stories. He is the center of the band and has a powerful helium-register vocal range. Their intense songs build to pertinent climaxes, and there is a fierceness and dramatic quality in Sanchez’s singing. In concert, they remain faithful to the record. Another throw-back band is Bloc Party. Singer Kele Okereke’s prevalent accent and deep plangent tone aches with desire over their rhythmic chordal music. Their drummer, Matt Tong, anchors the band, yet plays funky in between the down chords. When you hear this band, it’s warmly familiar; you can immediately hear the royal blooded musical lineage in their sound and know where they come from and their influences (a soup of post punk, ska, The Cure, Smiths, et al). Bloc Party stays passionate in what they do. Author’s note: I recently saw this band (9-22-12) at First Ave in Minneapolis. Bloc Party is a very intense live band and you understand them more when you experience this. They are everything a modern rock band should be and they push it. They are now at the height of their powers having release four albums. Through time, they have worked to define their sound much more from their first album to become unique and sophisticated. They are now on it, which should influence any start-up band. Lissack has proven how really good he is. He plays with an overwhelming variety of textures and sonic effects under Okereke’s soulful melodies. Bloc Party is ripe and this show was one of the best shows I have heard recently.

If you agree with the record store owner’s cut off date of 1980, then we are over 30 years into postmodern rock. This somehow makes sense? It frames the audience who were born in the 50s as the beginning and the end: they were young teenagers when the Beatles landed and were in their 20s during the emergence of the Sex Pistols and Punk ( The Cure etc.). Bands, at the time, shared a special musical dialogue with their audience and with each other. This culture also created a context for the music. The vinyl package was a big part of the allure that blossomed into an exciting experience. The artwork, usually a portrait of the band (clothes, hair,etc) created a connection with the audience. The lyrics were printed so that the audience could sing along and understand how the words interacted with the music. Finally, the context of the album’s song order: Its intentionally as to how the album should be listened to. With the iPod and so forth, younger listeners are editing the play list without a context.  Alternative radio  follows this same edited format: a folksy new ballad played after a slow hip hop thing after the Stone Roses, for example. It becomes a crazy postmodern soup. In his talk about the theory and practice of postmodernism, David Antin, rhetorically compares it to buying the best possible mattress, and ends with a note from Descartes’ “If you’re lost in a forest and you have no idea which way to go, go for it straight ahead because it’s not likely to be any worse than anything else.” Fair enough.

The Parting of the Waves

With Revolver and Sgt. Peppers etc., the Beatles created possibilities for the standard rock band set-up of guitar, bass, and drums.  The colors and timbres of sitar, orchestral instruments, tape loops ( backwards guitar), and Mellotron, were now layered through as the new psychedelic sound. Shortly thereafter, every garage band (including my own) had to recruit (beg) the lonely neighborhood girl in the sweater to come and play weird chords on her electric violin. This new sonic revolution was  reflected in the arena of rock music as the alternative to mainstream top 40 pop/r&b tunes about surfboards, teenage summer love and rejection, and the latest cool car. Teenage culture had matured into adult mind-bending experience. New bands were experimenting with the mechanics of  new chord progressions, and turned out alternative modes of expressionistic music. They were introspective, thought-provoking, poetic, and somehow the audience knew that they should stop dancing and listen. Rock music was now a listening experience. New bands were carving inroads and creating their own dedicated cult following. They were musically adventurous, and their stubbornly unique qualities created contrasting polemics with other blues based bands. And what set them apart were their independence, drive (energy), and choices of instrumentation. The following notes are examples of some of these alternative bands:

(1) Love    Sensitive and introspective, this hippest multi-racial band from Laurel Canyon, L.A., played smoldering music that is difficult to pin down as “rock.” Arthur Lee arranged and integrated horns, winds, strings, and even harpsichord as colors (Lee had a great musical ear). Love’s point of departure was folk ala the Byrds, but were never a folk band. They became so advanced by the time their third LP was released (Forever Changes), that they defied category.  They were autonomous and critically praised. Love’s central sound was Lee’s singing, John Echols’ stunning leads, and Brian McLean’s finger-style acoustic guitar weaving through a tightly driven rock band. Their poetic lyrics played on the double meanings of words and witty flips of phrases about every day experience. Because they never went on tour, they relentlessly played the strip, and became a guarded cult band by the beautiful college beach crowd. Love was L.A.’s best local live band with the most obscure hits.  They were often compared to another, more younger L.A. band at the time: the Doors. Both bands were led by tortured geniuses (Morrison/Doors and Lee/Love). The Doors went to New York to become famous and Love was invited to play Monterey Pop and turned it down. Love was less academic, more intuitive with instrumentation and further away from the blues format than the Doors. The Doors explored the boundaries of the blues and of mind. In the end, both bands self-destructed (prison and death) and suffered tragic consequences in front of a faithful audience that lasts today.

(2) It’s A Beautiful Day   Fronted by electic violinist David Laflamme and his wife, Linda, playing keyboards, this band epitomized an alternative elegance to the now rakish psychedelic San Francisco scene. Yet they had two sides: a folksy fiddle style versus an ebullient romanticism. Their songs swoon and sway and build to a climax, which is  against almost any radio format. They play on a variety of styles with an emotion that the audience is either satisfied or bewildered, but each song musically states a clear and uncompromising position. Their jazzy drummer, Val Fuentes, is the center of the band. He is solid on the high hat, and his nimble independent feet and hands push the band when they play live. This is less evident on record due to the strange mixing of voices. When the San Francisco heads turned away to the harder rocking Santana, It’s A Beautiful Day stood stubbornly to its world view of romantic love, peace and pleasure.

(3) Roxy Music     Out of the gates of a London Art School, this band dressed like freaky spaced greasers. Roxy Music perverted the aura of 50s do-wop (even with a sax player!), and set the scene to play on the litany of swollen and stale carbonated romantic love. On each album cover there is a half-naked siren or femme fatale, which is emblematic of Brian Ferry’s quivering vocals and the band’s sonic sophistication that called the listener back to its seduction. Roxy Music is astonishing: the guitar riffs and treatments of Phil Manzanera, the loud inventive keyboard playing of Brian Eno, the funky drop dead bass and tight drumming, electic violin, sax, oboe, etc. and on and on. Alternatively pushing on all sides, this was a dangerously sleek band for 1972. At that time who was ready for Roxy Music’s jaded, world-weariness and artsy decadence. Later, Brian Ferry returned to the dance, seducing 80s audiences with the swan song of love’s intrigue.

(4) Beck       “That was a good drum break.” On video or live, Beck appears bored, shallow-eyed, and lost looking. His movements seem slower than the tempo of the music, giving Beck a detached and goofy appearance. He has the inside joke which you get through his mixed bag of tricks. Beck has a terrific musical ear and he is idiosyncratic enough to possibly create material for an album using just shop tools and a microphone. He uses so many contrasting textures: dissonant glassy electronics against a velvety smooth saxophone riff etc,. His ironic low down voice on the low down is relentlessly and sonically altered, which pushes the pastiche effect of musical collage into a cinematic presence. It took far too long for a smart and humorous figure such as Beck to appear on the scene.

With the glib and philistine marketing of bands such as Sum41, My Chemical Romance, and Nickleback, all claiming to be alternative, it really undermines the bands that are inventive, poetic, and musically adventurous. Plastered wind-swept hair, studded bracelets, goofy razor wire tattoos, and black t-shirts, are now emblematic of alternative bands. Their music is secondary. They are the cliché in the machine that turns them out and rewards them with a contract based on a puny internet fan base. Since the mid-90s we have been stuck in a musical roundabout that is comparable to the era of do-wop and the machine of Motown before the Beatles. But today we have mud slides of mediocre anonymous (punk?) bands, the never-ending bullet-ridden Rap machine, and the feckless sticky stale riot grrrls ala Avril Lavigne. It’s the alternative to the alternative  meaningless mess as to what this musical genre has become, and worst of all, popular. Yuck.

Surrealistic Lyrics

As a musician, I find myself listening to the music first with the lyrics following after. Often, I really don’t care what a band says, it’s more about how they sing it. Pearl Jam singer, Eddie Vedder, can sing unintelligibly, yet I get the feeling of the song even though I can’t understand his lyrics. Academics have tried in vain to force lyrics into analysis as a lit 1 college course (McLean’s “American Pie” 101). Lyrics at best are poetic but often disappointing as literary gruel. Lyrics are forever married to the music and mysterious. When you read them off the cover you become astonished – how do they sing these words?! Then it all makes sense when you hear it sung.  But what is this anyway? – it is the musical properties inherent in the sound of words – the potential of words becoming musical sounds. Serious composers have experimented with this in various ways: Arnold Schoenberg with Sprechstimme (a notated spoken-melody), Luciano Berio – his extended vocal techniques (a concrete poetry in reverse), to Jazz scat singing (syllabic improvisation). Commercial rock bands, in fear of losing their audience, have never been afforded the luxury to be this experimental. In a perverse way, with the Nam war and the popularity of psychedelia, a lot of bands became free to test the Surrealistic waters. As an idea, Surrealism is about incongruity and perversity – a self-contained metaphysical world that is compared to dreams. It is a well-known genre that was cultivated after DADA. It was pushed by Andre Breton in the early 1920s and its expression is found in painting, poetry and literature. Stream of consciousness, free-floating, and poetic, surrealistic lyrics become more musical when they are unhinged from a story but retain narrative properties. They create a self-contained world with a point of view and experience. Psychedelia is really a hippie version of surrealism with an LSD flash. Three bands that come to mind use surrealistic lyrics in different ways, and achieve surprising results.

(1) Captain Beefheart and his magic band (Don Vliet), play a mixed bag of musical styles in an organically original way. The music is whimsical and cathartic, and use puzzling, disjointed, syncopation with right/wrong tonality (T. Monk?). It has the aura of improvisation, but is in fact very tightly rehearsed music. Vliet was child-like, particular, and his ear dominates the music which is staggeringly complex. His lyrics are a concoction of psychedelia with Jabberwocky nonsense words and a simple Abba/Zabba sense of rhyming. A lot of his songs have no story leash, but come from a strong personal view of an absurd surrealism.

 (2) T. Rex (Marc Bolan). Marc Bolan is hippie par excellence, his androgynous beauty is photographed on all of his albums. Marc Bolan influenced the beginning of what later became Glam Rock. He would’ve taken the center of that genre had an auto accident not taken his life. Bolan’s music emerged from folksy rock, yet with its aura of androgyny, it’s rather straight forward – basic chords, 4/4, slow/fast pop music with short, hooky, tunes. Flo and Eddy (from the Turtles) came into T.Rex singing nasally back-up vocals on the last two albums. Marc Bolan’s lyrics are monolithic diamond star encrusted cosmic love songs. His surrealistic style is an acid Dali sort of description: his lovers morphing into birds, cars, planets, etc. You get the sense from his sultry breathy singing that he’s coolly passionate about his cosmos.

(3) Jaguar Love. A post-grunge band that deeply divided its Seattle audience with its split from the Blood Brothers. Jaguar Love are hysterical, stubbornly independent, and rhythmically plastic. Johnny Whitney’s beautifully impatient and impetuous screaming recalls the riot grrrl bands of the late 1980s. But their accomplished drummer, J Clark, is really the nimble kinetic center of the band. Jaguar Love is sleek, their songs have these contrasting sections with melodic and chord changes that seem impulsive, but they are an anxiously tight band. Their lyrics are not psychedelic but are more informed by a vicious and hungry surrealism.  They describe vivid, metaphysical journeys into morphing plastic landscapes that feature a cast of dysfunctional characters. Their fierce and multi-hued lyrics are interesting and amusing when they are read, but take on different musical implications with their melodies. This is a far-reaching band that should have had a wider audience.

The Joy of Sex Pistols

We’re so pretty oh so pretty ahhh.. we’re vaa-cunt. The naughty schoolboy humor of the Sex Pistols resonates even back to the beginnings of rock and roll.  But in 1976, many of the established bands were humorless and self-important – nobody got the joke. Then the Sex Pistols came along and delivered a sonic punch to your snotty, bloody nose. This was implied violence – the group played on your imagination. The pleasure of the music is in the levels of its implications – “and our figurehead – HA- is not what she seems”. Steve Jones’ barre chords function more as melody than harmony and could freely progress anywhere. His guitar sounds like a chain saw with the implication of a slippery runaway train wreck. His guitar solos are an extension of the feeling of the song and not about virtuosity. After this, the bombastic solos of Jimmy Page, Alvin Lee, etc., were no longer the game, and from that position, the Sex Pistols were a profoundly  political band.  They are astonishing, and in their wake, unstoppable – shredding the lovely eco-system of England’s arty bands (Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, Genesis, etc.). In an instant, their music took us back to the garage. Its beauty was in the simplicity that any teenager could play their songs. The Sex Pistols were the train signal which changed the flow of traffic. Then the newer bands started to write shorter simpler to-the-point songs with political outrage and humor. With the idea that less is more, it would be against the Sex Pistols’ nature to keep pumping songs out. They had a clear, implacable, position with “Never mind the bollocks.” And with this collection of singles, they became emblematic of the new sound of Punk, yet they were not played on the radio. They are not played that much even today. They were too good to be an invented band; a disfunctional and fictional distroyer, that would end rock and roll. But when they called it quits, it opened the way for The Clash and company to take over the driver’s wheel, and the second-hand leather jacket of Punk from then on.  While England raged, the newly signed bands from the CBGB club were spooned out leisurely on popular radio. We were waiting for Punk and got Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and the hyper-surf tunes of the Ramones. I grew up in southern California, I was 19 years old in ’75, yet I felt isolated from it all. When will the new wave really hit? – it never was fully realized. It all passed by when their meddlesome and manipulative manager Malcolm McLaren sent the Sex Pistols on an idiotic and suicidal tour of the south. At that point, they had enough. Even though he viewed them as talentless and incompetent, McLaren never knew what he had on his hands. It was posterity that made the Sex Pistols what they are.