Tag Archives: Neil Diamond

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 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.