Tag Archives: Alternative Rock

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.


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.