Tag Archives: Beatles

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.


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 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.

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.