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.

For the Byrds

Listening to the Byrds, I sit upright almost saluting the jingle-jangle 12 string guitar, which can sound like a sitar or bagpipe, and for that matter, even a tambourine. McGuinn can play it that way, and this has become his signature sound. But if you want to get up into the sound grill, use Beatles’ harmony with Harrison’s 12 string (“If I needed someone”) with Bob Dylan’s lyrics, and you have the Byrds. Fair enough, the Byrds were in danger of remaking too many Dylan songs anyway, yet Dylan wasn’t played that much on popular radio at the time. Younger bands, like the Byrds, looked to Dylan and made him a cult figure by covering his songs even before he was popular.  The Byrds’ posture was by association to Dylan, and not by comparison. And even though they were the most popular band in LA, they weren’t as experimental as the Beatles, nor as poetic as Dylan. They served to make Dylan’s electric cross-over more palpable, their harmonies more soothing to Dylan’s screeching. But this was their point of departure, and later, they became their own band with songs like “5 D,” which swings in 6/8 time, the heavy bass line supporting the in and out harmonies and the joyful exploding 12 string guitar solo at the end of the song. They also had the tongue-in-cheek song of “Mr Spaceman,” which featured McGuinn’s no hassle style of slanted side-saddle hangover vocal phrasing. The Byrds’ earlier psychedelic phase was arguably the most interesting material they put out, and this is in comparison to the feckless country wreck style that later happened.

The Byrds, like Buffalo Springfield and the Grateful Dead etc., veered into other genres – folk, country (it still confuses me as to why these folksy California bands brought in bad versions of country), and psychedelia. It was all about an eclecticism that was free-floating, yet grounded in rock music which was defining itself. The Byrds, like many other bands, used folk as a way to define a new sound away from the blues. The west coast had this cosmic cowboy thing happening, and the Byrds nailed it with a weird floral hippie look – granny glasses, mopped hair, ponchos, suede leather boots, and all things paisley. They were based in LA’s Laurel Canyon, and they were the band that set the scene; everyone wanted their success and be connected to them.

Many bands like the Byrds and Love lived in Laurel Canyon and played at Monterey Pop. When David Crosby got fired from the Byrds sometime after Monterey, he had the community of Laurel Canyon and he could hook up with Stephen Stills. They formed the super-ego – Crosby, Stills, Nash, and should-have-been Neil Young’s group. People were breathless with excitement at the implications of this even before they released their first album. What could’ve been an incredible “Mr Soul” meets “8 miles high” plus “Bus Stop” and “Cinnamon Girl” rock and roll stew, now drifted into a smug, arrogant, melancholy and bloated wooden ship of Suite Judy Blue Eyes. Beneath their sleepy, confessional folk tunes, Stephen Stills suppresses any odor of rock guitar. It’s as if someone had told him to turn it down to a gargle. Electric guitar isn’t mellow here. And worst yet, the drums, which they suppressed into soft sandpaper, flapped along with their yawning, inert tempos. Their rhythm section was mainly reduced to an anonymous bass line. They wiped away everything rock and roll on this terror voyage leaving a tepid hippie version of barber shop harmony. It really didn’t get any better than that after a couple of albums. But, at least Neil Young survived with his instinct, and Stephen Stills later showed what he was all about with his solo album by bringing in the guitars of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

Crosby, Stills, and Nash released their first album in 1969. Someone gave me that album for Christmas that year and honestly it was hard for me to listen to with everything else that was going on that was more exciting. This was the same year the Stooges released their first album. I was very young, and I bought the Stooges album without knowing who they were. I bought it based on the cover photograph because the band didn’t look like hippies at all. They looked like young thugs from my neighborhood and very familiar. Rarely played, the Crosby, Stills, and Nash album got sent to the margins of my collection. The Stooges album was played until the grooves were no longer apparent. The enemy was at the gates.

Conditions of my (blog?)

I’ve always hated the word blog. I really don’t care that it is widely used. My intention is to write a journal of some kind that will complement my original web site – Buns on mars.  I’ve been involved with music most of my life, composing serious music, playing in chamber and full orchestras and even playing at the garage band level, etc.  Now I teach piano and really not interested in performing. I am interested in criticism. I want to develop my own discourse on music the way I hear it. My intention is a meditation on various rock bands – not so much as who is a four star or who is a zero, but simply an appreciation for those bands. I draw from my own musical experience, and limit the history since this is already well-known. I expect my audience to know as much about this level of pop culture as myself.  I think the writing will be that direct and conversational. I hope something interesting emerges that you find amusing. Yours.

Manny Farber

Manny Farber died at his home in Leucadia, Ca
monday, Aug. 18th. He was 91 yrs.
Manny was one of my advisors in
graduate school at UCSD. In fact, he
invited me to study with him after I
completed my undergraduate work in
studio art (painting) at UCSD. I feel
so fortunate to have known him on a
personal level and to be influenced on
an artistic level to this day.
Love to you Manny always in my heart