Saturday, November 7, 2009

B's Wax

B side—Sometimes referred to as the “flip side” during the era of the 7” vinyl, 45 rpm single, meaningful only in contrast to the A side, which contained the more heavily promoted song, presumably the “hit.” The alternate (non-hit) song on the B side could well become a hit, of course, revealing the slipperiness of the A/B distinction. In contemporary marketing terminology, the B side could be considered the equivalent of “value-added content,” but in the era of the compact disc the B side has largely been supplanted by value-added content referred to as the “exclusive” or “unreleased” track, the “bonus” track, the “non-album” track, or “rare” track (which may once have been a B side if the group has been recording long enough). The “outtake,” which once referred to a performance of a song left off a release, is now sometimes disingenuously referred to as an “alternate” version, and is considered as an additional, exploitable revenue stream by the “content provider” of the artist’s music.

In its song about the hellish, self-destructive life of the rock star, “Burnin’ For You,” Blue Oyster Cult’s vocalist laments all the time he’s sacrificed to his life on the road, speaking of “Time I’ll never know,” and realizing “Time ain’t on my side.” He also wryly observes that unlike his fans, he has no time “to play B sides” (the mondegreen version of this line widely available on the web renders it, “Time to play besides”). For the music consumer, the collectable value of the B side exceeds its potential aesthetic value. Just as the automobile exceeds its strictly utilitarian value as a means of transportation and possesses a symbolic cultural capital (“status”), so to does the B side to music collectors. To possess all of a band’s released singles means that one also possesses all of the B sides. The B side gives the collector a sense of completion, of plenitude, but it also exemplifies a world of chronic overchoice and oppressive abundance. To lack all of the B sides, though, is to render one’s life incomplete and unfulfilled, and contributes to the development of obsessive behavior and excessive monetary expenditure.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Perusing a portion of my vinyl LP collection the other day, I noticed how many of them bore the tell-tale mark of the cut-out bin. (A cut-out was a record deleted from a company’s catalogue, either because the record failed to sell, or did not sell a requisite number of copies within a specified period of time.) Some have a hole in the cover (some clearly punched through, some done with what seems to have been a screwdriver, tearing the cover unnecessarily), and some have a cut corner. I suppose that’s one activity I miss from the old vinyl record store days, perusing the cut-out bins, searching for a bargain and occasionally finding a great record in the process. But in addition to the cut-out bin, there was the import bin; I frequented both places. As one might imagine, the records in the import bin were normally priced a bit higher than domestic LPs, but the imports were always worth checking out, and many titles were only available there. My vinyl LP copy of King Crimson’s Earthbound, for instance, bears the cover sticker marking it a “Jem Records Import,” as does my copy of The Young Persons’ Guide to King Crimson.

One band that seemed to dwell nowhere else but in those two places—the cut-out bins and the import bins—was Nektar (ancient Greek spelling of nectar). I came across these albums the other day, and I noticed that I had purchased every single one of them as a cut-out. Not that I have a complete collection of the band’s albums. I have only a few of the albums that were issued domestically by Passport—A Tab in the Ocean (1972), Remember the Future (1973), Recycled (1975), and my favorite, Down to Earth (1974). Nektar was composed of five Britons who played psychedelic-tinged progressive rock à la Hawkwind or Gentle Giant. Their first records were issued by the German Bellaphon label, which is why the band’s records could be found in the import bins. Not nearly as popular as progressive bands such as Genesis or Yes, as I mentioned above I never found any of Nektar’s albums issued by Passport anywhere but in the cut-out bins. I know Nektar maintains a small cult following, largely (I’m speculating) because of Roye Albrighton’s hot guitar playing. I first heard them on FM radio as a consequence of the local DJ’s fondness for Remember the Future (1973), or at least, one side of that album. Remember the Future is a concept album that only a group of spacey hippies could produce, and is so profoundly corny, so painfully silly, and so woefully déclassé that I find it impossible to write about seriously. It’s about an extraterrestrial bluebird that allows a blind boy to see the future. The only reason this sort of hokum (however sincerely meant) has never been parodied is because the band’s records never existed anywhere but in the bargain basement, and therefore wasn’t a big enough target for a parody.

Lest I seem too harsh, however, I will say that I’ve always had a special fondness for Down to Earth (1974), although Recycled (1975) is very good as well. Down to Earth is a sort of loose concept album, in which the band’s music is presented in the context of a circus, with Hawkwind’s Robert Calvert acting as the “ringmaster.” Rather than sprawling jams (or Remember the Future’s single composition spread over the LP’s two sides), the band tried its hand at shorter, more melodic compositions, eschewing the bombast of previous albums, and created a minor classic of “space rock”—“Astral Man” is the album’s first track, followed by equally catchy tunes such as “Nelly the Elephant,” “That’s Life,” “Fidgety Queen,” “Oh Willy,” and perhaps the album’s finest track, “Show Me the Way,” which in 1974-75 received a good deal of airplay on FM radio. It seems to me that to understand the way Nektar’s cult reputation developed is to understand the way the way economics shapes the patterns of consumption of popular music. Nektar’s cult reputation revealed the market that existed in parallel to the mainstream commercial market, and it may be that its existence is what allowed the mainstream market to flourish—spurring it to be more imaginative and productive.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

High School Confidential

Legend has it that Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock ‘n’ roll generation’s first “wild man,” was troubled by the sinful nature of his songs, particularly those that contained scarcely disguised sexual content. Nonetheless, in May 1958, while on a British tour, it was revealed that Lewis’s third wife, Myra Gale Brown, was a mere thirteen years old; he was twenty-two, and had been married previously. Apparently, Myra Gale Brown also happened to be Lewis’s third cousin twice removed (thus raising the issue of incest), but the basis of the scandal that followed the revelation was clearly because of her age. Legend also has it that at the time of their marriage, the young girl still believed in Santa Claus. Predictably, the ensuing scandal ruined Lewis’s promising career as a rock musician. Comparisons to fellow Southerner Edgar Allan Poe are inevitable, I suppose, as it has been well-documented that Poe married his first cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm (1822–1847), when she was thirteen years old (he was twenty-seven). Some of Poe’s biographers have argued the couple’s relationship was more like a brother and sister than husband and wife, meaning the marriage may never have been consummated. Whether one can claim pedophilia in Poe’s case is therefore contestable.

The term paedophilia erotica was coined by nineteenth-century psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, in his study Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). Jerry Lee Lewis does not fit Krafft-Ebing’s profile for a pedophile, and indeed, he is not, despite his marriage to his quite young female cousin. But other known rockers do fit the profile of the pedophile, such as British rocker Gary Glitter, a convicted sex offender. In November 1997, Gary Glitter was arrested after files containing images of child pornography were discovered on his laptop. He was later charged with having sex with an underage girl, an event that the victim claimed occurred two decades earlier. In any case, some years later, in 2005, Gary Glitter was again arrested and charged with molesting two girls, ages 10 and 11, at his home in Vũng Tàu, Vietnam. The specter of pedophilia has lurked on the fringes of popular music for many years, as the following list of songs suggests. Pete Townshend and Carlos Santana have both acknowledged being child sexual abuse victims, so the issue is hardly incidental one. Please note that I am not suggesting that the artists who recorded these songs are pedophiles. The point is the that issue has lurked in the shadows of pop music for many years, and perhaps it is time to listen to these songs anew.

Neil Diamond – Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon
Nick Gilder – Hot Child in the City
Major Lance – Hey Little Girl
The Lovin’ Spoonful – Younger Girl
Oingo Boingo – Little Girls
Gilbert O’Sullivan – Claire
Plan B - Charmaine
The Police – Don’t Stand So Close To Me
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap – Young Girl
Tommy Roe – Sheila
Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs – Li’l Red Riding Hood
Syndicate of Sound – Little Girl
Bobby Vee – Come Back When You Grow Up

Monday, November 2, 2009


The pedal steel guitar is to drunken self-pity what the amplified, distorted electric guitar is to drunken licentiousness. Two instruments, two forms of implied behavior as expressed in American popular music. When Elvis was growing up, country music was the music of community, of a shared culture. That community was represented by the Carter Family, who sang about home, about death, and about the acceptance of limits. In contrast, the so-called “father of country music,” Jimmie Rodgers, was actually country music’s outlaw, a man who refused to live within proscribed limits. The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers thus formed two sides of the same coin, and each has their advantages and their downsides (see Greil Marcus, “Elvis: Presliad,” in Mystery Train). The community side could be intolerably oppressive and stifling, while the outlaw side led to exclusion and tragedy.

According to Marcus, what had virtually disappeared from country music by the time Elvis came along was the celebration of the outlaw style, the refusal to live within established boundaries—country music had become too moralistic and realistic. It lacked, Marcus says, “excitement, rage, fantasy, delight” (Mystery Train 131). Elvis dreamed of making the transgressive side of country music—the wild Saturday nights—the whole of life. Instead of being merely a temporary escape from established limits, the music Elvis made at Sun suggested that escape from limits could be established as a permanent way of life, but one in which acceptance alternated with liberation. Arguably, the Beatles kept alive the transgressive side of Elvis’s music and it was this feature upon which Sixties rock was founded. Feedback, distortion, playing loud—noise—became the aural equivalent of transgression, to the giddy excesses of being completely drunk and totally stoned. The so-called “Nashville Sound” that emerged in the Sixties became the aural equivalent of the virtues of the (staid) community, and hence of boundaries and limits. Rock and country music thus came to embody certain values, and music became an expression of ideology. The Western shirt was to country what the tie-dyed T-shirt was to rock. Music was worn like clothes.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


There is a long history of mixed couples in American literature and popular culture: Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg, Natty Bumppo and Chigachgook, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Daniel Boone and Mingo, Jay Leno and Branford Marsalis. I’ve written before about the way many American pop songs belie a certain repressed anxiety about black Otherness. Within the most avid white believer in the virtue of black Americans, there may reside a modicum of repressed anxiety about black bodies. As Calvin Hernton has written, “There is a sexual involvement, at once real and vicarious, connecting white and black people in America that spans the history of this country from the era of slavery to the present, an involvement so immaculate and yet so perverse, so ethereal and yet so concrete, that all race relations tend to be, however subtle, sex relations” (Sexism and Racism in America, p. 7).

Songs Linking Sensuality With Anxiety:
Sonny Charles and the Checkmates, Ltd. – Black Pearl
Merle Haggard – Irma Jackson
Janis Ian – Society’s Child
Paul McCartney with Stevie Wonder – Ebony and Ivory
Kenny Rogers & The First Edition – Reuben James
The Rolling Stones – Brown Sugar
Stories – Brother Louie
Three Dog Night – Black & White
Tribe “Supremes” Trio – White Boys (from the musical Hair)
Neil Young – Southern Man