Showing posts with label Rock Music Criticism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rock Music Criticism. Show all posts

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Pop Aphorisms XIII

It has been four years since my last list of pop aphorisms. I thought it was high time for another.

1. The discovery of the teen idol was to pop music what the discovery of the star system was to Hollywood.

2. Brill Building composers are to the Sixties teenager what filmmaker John Hughes is to the Eighties teenager.

3. Improvisation is the name for privileging performance over composition, while pretension may be understood as the name for uninspired improvisation. No drum solo ever heard on a rock album must be considered as improvisation.

4. The rock drum solo is simply a form of Modernist bluster.

5. "Noise" must be understood as simply another category of taste.

6. If fans of rock music hadn't routinely violated the dictum, "don't judge a book by its cover," records in cut-out bins never would have been purchased.

7. Rock culture's most pernicious myth: initial failure is a sign of greatness.

8. One unanticipated consequence of the Beatles' success was the Sixties garage band, while an unanticipated consequence of the garage band was the groupie.

9. Rock critics' greatest theoretical challenge: how to explain why the worst records they've ever heard have perhaps ten or fifteen wonderful minutes, while the best records they've ever heard have perhaps ten or fifteen wonderful minutes.

10. Rock critics' second greatest theoretical challenge: how to distinguish between the music of fans trying to be artists from the music of artists trying to be fans.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cult Records

Like any avant-garde movement, rock ‘n’ roll became “popular” because it found a glamorous figure that attracted the interest and attention of outsiders—Elvis Presley. The so-called “rock revolution” of the 1960s did much the same thing, acquiring a key group of figures—a band—around which it could organize and define itself—The Beatles. Most importantly, The Beatles happened to be musically prolific, but also charming, clever, and witty—that is to say, articulate. While not as charming, clever, or witty as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones had what it needed the most, a star, in this case Mick Jagger, an individual provocative and garrulous enough to overcome the band’s basic inarticulateness. Bob Dylan was articulate, too, but he also, as the documentary Dont Look Back (1967) demonstrated, had an additional ingredient—he gave the impression of being a true rebel.

The spectacular careers of the Beatles and of Bob Dylan, among others, serve as illustrations of the effectiveness of thinking not in terms of the single but in terms of the album. The musical failure of Elvis during much of the 60s was the result of mismanagement, of handlers who didn’t really understand the youth of the day and who thought pop songs were novelty tunes for teenagers—singles—around which the films of the 60s were built (“Viva Las Vegas,” “Do the Clam”). The Beatles and Bob Dylan, in contrast, refocused their energies on the long-term, on having a career. And what is a career but a narrative that charts an artistic evolution? Their energies were focused on development, on “growth,” not simply on the individual album.

While so-called “cult” albums have the reputations they do in part because of the manner of their consumption—in the form of the strong attachments and mild obsessions to which they give rise—a cult album is also the sign of a figure or band whose career failed, meaning there is no narrative that can be written that can make sense of the album’s creation. The aura of mystery that surrounds the band and its members is largely due to the lack of any coherent narrative that can explain the band’s artistic development: the album emerges as if “from nowhere,” with no clear antecedent and with no comparable album released afterward. Those albums that have become cult failed to find an audience upon their release; this initial commercial reception is crucial to laying the groundwork for its later recognition as a classic, based on a fundamental myth of rock culture—first established by The Velvet Underground & Nico album, 1967)—that initial neglect guarantees greatness.

11 Cult Albums, 1967—1998:
Tim Buckley – Starsailor
Nick Drake – Bryter Layter
Francoise Hardy – La Question
Penelope Houston – Birdboys
Love – Forever Changes
The Modern Lovers – The Original Modern Lovers
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Skip Spence – Oar
The United States of America – The United States of America
The Unknowns – The Unknowns
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground & Nico

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tomorrow Never Knows

As a form of literacy, lists are undoubtedly provocative. Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” posted on the web November 2003, is nearing six years old, but is still capable of eliciting a response. At the top of the heap is that old workhorse, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released 42 years ago this summer. Modern critics never tire of compiling lists of favorites, a practice that was once a Victorian parlor game, a way to pass the idle hours. Apparently nothing recorded during the past forty years has managed to dislodge Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band from the revered #1 spot; in fact, the Beatles have four albums in the RS top ten (I’ve reproduced RS’s top twenty below). Of course, such lists are historically volatile and no doubt will change tomorrow, figuratively speaking.

It is remarkable—meaning it deserves to be remarked upon—that nine of the top ten greatest albums were recorded during the period 1965 – 1972 (the sole exception is the Clash’s London Calling, released in 1979, thus making the deck not appear too stacked). Four albums in the second group of ten (spots 11 through 20) also happen to be recorded during the same period, meaning thirteen of the twenty best were recorded 1965-72—65%. The sole Generation X album in the top twenty, Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991), is also the only surprise of the lot. Released late September 1991, the album sold six million copies during the first six months of its release (that is, through April 1992), but has sold only around two million copies in all the years since, thus proving that grunge, like bubblegum, has had its fifteen minutes of fame. Nevermind’s inclusion is a surprise because no rock critic who takes himself seriously would ever think of including an album of bubblegum music on any list of the greatest rock albums (except maybe Lester Bangs), given that bubblegum is considered the tawdriest form of commercialized pop music. As a form of symbolic cultural capital, apparently flannel is considered more authentic than polyester.

Fifteen years ago (summer 1994), my friend Michael Jarrett interviewed several renowned producers of jazz recordings, asking them about the influence of Sgt. Pepper’s. The answers were surprising. The specific question he asked was: “Did Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band affect jazz production?”

TEO MACERO: It didn’t influence me. I always thought we were far ahead of the Beatles. We did experimental things back in the fifties. With Miles Davis, we used to use two or three different microphones, and when we came to the age of eight-tracks and so forth, we had a chance to pick up different sounds. We used to use all kinds of filters and reverb machines to give him the right amount of echo. If the echo didn’t please me, we would put it through another monaural machine, play it back at half the speed. We used to do all kinds of experimental things in the studios that nobody was doing.

HAL WILLNER: For me, some other things are more influential: records that inspired Sgt. Pepper. Absolutely Free meant a little more to me, and as an adult, I probably followed the Velvet Underground more and how that stuff came out of Varèse and out of A Love Supreme and Sketches of Spain. Those are amazing concept records.

MICHAEL CUSCUNA: It made me take more drugs for a little while. For some reason I was quite taken by the White Album, but Sgt. Pepper’s—the idea of album as a concept—didn’t seem to me that revolutionary. Surrealistic Pillow, which was the first album that really made me think of rock ‘n’ roll as not a top-40 situation, it had that effect on me. (Sound Tracks, pp. 92-93)

The significance and importance of Sgt. Pepper’s has no doubt been over-estimated, but that’s not my primary point. The reason two-thirds of the twenty greatest records in rock history were released 1965-1972 is because that is the period in which the majority of the first generation of rock critics—those who became rock critics, that is—came of age, during which rock music captured their imaginations. The key point is, in order to establish itself an institution, rock criticism necessarily had to establish a canon, a core group of essential and influential works that demonstrated rock music was a legitimate form of art. It is thus no coincidence that the “greatest” records were released during the formative years of the critics who would eventually champion them. Here’s a short representative list of what I would call the “first generation” of rock critics, all of whom (with the exception of Robert Christgau) graduated high school during the years 1963-68. All of them (with the exception of Lester Bangs, who was also the least academic in tone) were college educated, or attended college for awhile. All of them, I suspect, are deep admirers of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, key figures who enabled the establishment of rock music as art.

Robert Christgau (“Dean of American Rock Critics,” meaning the oldest) (b. April 18, 1942) – Began writing on rock ‘n’ roll for Esquire in 1967 (age 25), moved to The Village Voice in 1969.
Greil Marcus (b. 1945) – Began writing for Rolling Stone beginning in his early 20s, later Creem, The Village Voice, and other magazines.
Richard Meltzer (b. May 11, 1945) – Began writing for Crawdaddy! in 1967; authored an important early work of rock criticism, The Aesthetics of Rock (1970).
Jann Wenner (b. January 7, 1946) – Co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, the first issue of which was published November 9, 1967.
Paul Williams (b. May 19, 1948) – Started the first magazine of rock music criticism in America, Crawdaddy!, January, 1966 (age 17).
Lester Bangs (December 13, 1948 – April 30, 1982) – Wrote for Creem (first issue of which was published March 1969)
Nick Tosches (b. 1949) – Began writing rock criticism for Creem.
Dave Marsh (b. March 1, 1950) – Began writing rock criticism for Creem.

The Top 20 Of The RS 500 Greatest:
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles
2. Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys
3. Revolver, The Beatles
4. Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan
5. Rubber Soul, The Beatles
6. What's Going On, Marvin Gaye
7. Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones
8. London Calling, The Clash
9. Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan
10. The Beatles (“The White Album”), The Beatles
11. The Sun Sessions, Elvis Presley
12. Kind of Blue, Miles Davis
13. Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Underground
14. Abbey Road, The Beatles
15. Are You Experienced?, The Jimi Hendrix Experience
16. Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan
17. Nevermind, Nirvana
18. Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen
19. Astral Weeks, Van Morrison
20. Thriller, Michael Jackson