Showing posts with label The Beach Boys. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Beach Boys. Show all posts

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Progressive Rock Redux

I’ve blogged on the subject of so-called “Progressive Rock” (or “Art Rock,” a collocation presumably derived from the phrase “high art,” as in “high art pretensions”) previously, but since yesterday’s entry on Ali Akbar Khan, I’ve been thinking again about the subject. My earlier rumination on the subject of progressive rock argued that its development is inseparable from developments in recording technology, i.e., studio engineering. By the early 1970s (and possibly sooner), the recording engineer began to be listed on an album’s credits right along with band members, suggesting his essential role in the recording process. The trouble with writing about something like prog rock is that the bands normally associated with this kind of music (e.g., King Crimson) were stylistically adventurous, and hence did not consciously identify themselves with one style of music: the term has been applied only retrospectively, in order to explain a certain stylistic direction in rock music that developed during the late 1960s. By way of analogy, think of the history of “Punk Rock.” Punk, as a term used to describe the culture around a type of rock music, had no currency until 1975. Soon after, the word punk gained currency, people identified themselves and their culture with the term and they started piecing together a history, memorializing certain figures that preceded them and ascribing to those figures their own desires, which these predecessors could not have fully known. Thus, some punks memorialized the MC5 and The Stooges, while others memorialized the Velvet Underground, and so on. The point is, historical narratives were formed around punk rock, the function of which was to create predecessors for the music (and hence legitimate it), but these predecessors could not have fully understood the future they supposedly authored.

On albums such as RUBBER SOUL (1965) and REVOLVER (1966), which incorporated Eastern music and instruments (the incorporation of novel timbres) uncommon in rock music at the time, the influence of Khan is somewhat easier to trace, although certainly this influence doesn’t explain the actual songs themselves, nor does it explain the use of the symphony orchestra or orchestral instruments, or songs with large sectional forms distinguished by textural contrast between the sections, certain stylistic features of progressive rock. In addition, prog rock characteristically employs what Charlotte Smith calls linear through-composition:

. . . the text is generally divided into short phrases that are introduced and imitated. As each phrase ends in the imitating voice, a new theme is entering in the other voice, overlapping the conclusion of the previous phrase. The overlapping, or dovetailing, technique makes it possible for the melodic flow to continue, as it would not if both voices rested at the same moment. As each theme is imitated, the original text setting is repeated, and the voices, after the imitation is dropped, continue toward a cadence. The same procedure is then repeated for successive phrases, the cadence interrupted each time with the new theme in one voice overlapping the conclusion of the previous phrase in the other voice. This style of through-composition, each interior phrase knit to the preceding phrase, is made more convincing by having the linear emphasis reinforced by the devices of imitation. (A Manual of Sixteenth-Century Contrapuntal Style, pp. 65-66).

My candidate for an excellent (very) early example of this songwriting technique in rock music would be the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” (October 1966), which also happened to be heavily dependent on studio technology. Certainly “Good Vibrations” qualifies as an instance of prog rock: novel timbres (orchestral instruments; the Theremin), sectional forms distinguished by textual contrast, and linear through-composition (“each interior phrase knit to the preceding phrase,” as well as the way each theme is successively imitated). (Youtube video here.) According to Paul McCartney, the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life” (both on SGT. PEPPER’S, June 1967) were inspired by Brian Wilson. And in November 1967, the Moody Blues released DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED, which virtually codified prog rock, particularly with the songs “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin.” (Given my definition, memorable songs from this period such as Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” don’t really qualify.) Thus it seems to me to understand thoroughly the stylistic development in rock music known as progressive rock, the late 1966 - late 1967 period is key.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Quiet Sun

In the history of rock music there have been several musicians whose mental illnesses have severely impaired their careers. Immediately one thinks of the troubled lives of the late Syd Barrett, founding member of Pink Floyd, of Roky Erikson of the 13th Floor Elevators, of British jazz-rock pioneer Graham Bond, of Derek and the Dominos’ Jim Gordon, and of Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green, the latter the subject of a recently issued documentary. Many legendary rockers have suffered from depression—Nick Drake, perhaps Kurt Cobain—and many have sought treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. Of course, these sorts of maladies are not peculiar to rock musicians (although one site wants to suggest that there is a connection between rock music and mental instability, as if there were a cause-effect relationship), but rather an instance of the statistical probability that some members of the general population who suffer from mental illness may become rock musicians. Whether the entertainment industry in general—“Show Biz”—has a statistical higher probability of having sociopaths (and psychotics) than the general population as part of its membership is not a subject I feel competent to discuss; if there has been a study done exploring this subject, I would love to read it. I suspect that such a research project would be fraught with problems, however.

I do think, however, that because they are in Show Biz, these individuals as a consequence are more visible to the general population. It is therefore interesting that an article in today’s Los Angeles Times about the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson foregrounds his fragile psyche and his “psychological torment.” The article appears as part of the publicity apparatus employed to promote the 66-year-old Wilson’s new album, That Lucky Old Sun. The press seems to view each new Brian Wilson album as a significant achievement, an arduous hurdle for the troubled artist whose “storied masterwork Smile, the long-abandoned Beach Boys project . . . plunged him into an abyss of psychological torment,” that is, initiated his professional decline at the height of his popular success. Hence it seems impossible to discuss Brian Wilson without invoking the Romantic myth of the tortured artist. Most certainly his latest album doesn’t carry with it the heavy mythology of Smile, and hence isn’t likely to have that album’s impact. But it is certainly a happy occasion to learn that one of rock’s great mythologists—who almost single-handedly created the myth of Southern California as a place of expenditure without consequence, of endless of fun and sun—is still at work and seemingly content with the way his life has turned out. His example is a counter-myth to one of rock's most cherished (and Romantic) myths, the self-destructive artist.