Showing posts with label classic rock albums. Show all posts
Showing posts with label classic rock albums. Show all posts

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Limbo Rock

The shift from the single to the album in the 1950s and 1960s represented a shift from music for dancing to music for listening. As a result, the album, designed for listening, became the basic material artifact of rock culture. (It's no coincidence that the music most strongly associated with the Sixties, psychedelia, was designed for listening on stereo systems.) One consequence of this shift in patterns of music consumption was the rise of the rock critic. Nowadays, of course, rock critics are ubiquitous, but back in those days, there were very few. As an illustration of the rise of rock music criticism, consider the number of journals that were established in the late 1960s:

Crawdaddy! - February 1966
Rolling Stone - November 1967
Creem - February 1969

The problem, though, was that while rock criticism rather quickly became a recognized profession, what was the rock music critic's precise function? Was he simply a means to free promotion and publicity, or did he provide good and true insights into the music? If the latter, what were the criteria for judgement? The rock critic also had an additional problem: If he wanted to be read, he had to have the proper bohemian credentials (a member of the counterculture, or at least sympathetic to it), and therefore to the Left politically. Criticism thus became oppositional, as critics saw their primary function as counteracting commercialism ("hype"), the dominant discourse of the popular press. But how was the critic to go about recognizing The Real Thing? The approach developed at the time was to distinguish the authentic from the commercial, with the idea of authenticity determined negatively, that is, structured by what it was not: for example, Rock was not Pop, Soul was not White. Thus was established the fundamental myth of rock criticism: authenticity vs. commercialism.

That's not all. Like any cultural critic since the time of Matthew Arnold, the critic's authority was premised on his having a keener judgement (in this case, a more discerning ear) than the broader, untrained population. In a way, the critic was the ideal listener, presumably in full position of rock's history: its major figures, moments, themes, contours, its codes, paradigmatic shifts, and its innovators. But how did the critic rescue or recover those albums released prior to the formation of rock criticism in 1966-67? Retroactively, of course, by means of the list, an old Victorian parlor game used to pass the idle hours.

In his Divine Comedy, Dante assigned the virtuous pagans (such as Homer and Virgil) to Limbo, denying them access to salvation because they did not have knowledge of Christ. By way of analogy, we might call Limbo Rock (with all due respect to Chubby Checker) those unaccountably neglected, but nonetheless historically important, albums released prior to the establishment of journals publishing rock criticism such as Rolling Stone in 1967.

Consider Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The list is heavily composed of albums released after 1967 A.C. (After Critics). Of course, a few towering figures make the list, those whose B.C. (Before Critics) musical careers could not be ignored--for instance, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Hank Williams, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and James Brown--but also, improbably, Phil Spector, who wasn't known as a musician, and John Coltrane, whose 1964 classic jazz album A Love Supreme is in this context (re)considered as a monumental rock album, revealing how fluid and open-ended the category "rock" actually is. Moreover, several of the putative "albums" appearing on the Rolling Stone All-Time list are really singles compilations, assembled on CD decades after the fact, such as Spector's Back to Mono (1958-1969), released in 1991, and Hank Williams' 40 Greatest Hits, released in 1988.

As an example of a profoundly important album not appearing on this list and hence doomed to exist as Limbo Rock, consider the Butterfield Blues Band's East-West, released in August 1966 B.C. (True, it was released a few months after Paul Williams established Crawdaddy! However, at the time, Crawdaddy! was still in limited circulation to college students in mimeographed format.) I fully recognize that the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time includes (at #468) the Paul Butterfield Blues Band's eponymous first album, but it is included for entirely the wrong reasons, among them the utterly facile claim that "white kids got the notion they could play the blues." (Underlying this assertion, of course, is the idea of authenticity, that only black men can play authentic blues. Apparently the editors haven't yet read Chapter 3, "Mastering the Cult of Authenticity: Leonard Chess, Willie Dixon, and the Strange Career of Muddy Waters," in Benjamin Filene's essential critical work published in 2000, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music.) Dave Marsh claims that "East-West can be heard as part of what sparked the West Coast's rock revolution, in which such song structures with extended improvisatory passages became a commonplace." Hence, if importance is measured by influence, as on the Rolling Stone list, then East-West is certainly that. Additionally, according to Mark Naftalin, a member of the Butterfield Blues Band when East-West was recorded, the album's signature piece, "East-West," "was an exploration of music that moved modally, rather than through chord changes." Naftalin goes on to explain:

This song was based, like Indian music, on a drone. In Western musical terms, it "stayed on the one." The song was tethered to a four-beat bass pattern and structured as a series of sections, each with a different mood, mode and color, always underscored by the drummer, who contributed not only the rhythmic feel but much in the way of tonal shading, using mallets as well as sticks on the various drums and the different regions of the cymbals. In addition to playing beautiful solos, Paul [Butterfield] played important, unifying things in the background--chords, melodies, counterpoints, counter-rhythms. This was a group improvisation. In its fullest form it lasted more than an hour."

While the editors of the 500 Greatest Albums list include Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (1959), championing it because Miles Davis turned his back "on standard chord progressions" and for using "modal scales as a starting point for composition and improvisation," they ignore "East-West" for doing the same thing in a rock context. West Coast bands such as Jefferson Airplane are included on the list (Surrealistic Pillow is listed at #146), as is Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's Déja vu (listed at #147). Still, the album which provided the sonic foundation for much of West Coast rock's success is omitted.

For Dante, those in Limbo do not suffer. However, they endure an even worse fate, to "live in desire without hope." So, too, with those works considered Limbo Rock, recognized by some, but without any hope of canonization.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Strictly Commercial?

Earlier this month I posted a blog entry on Continuum’s 33 & 1/3 series of books examining classic albums of the rock era. A couple of weeks ago, the editor of the 33 & 1/3 series, David Barker, posted a list of the first ten proposals he’s received so far for new books in the series, none of which—so he avers—he’s yet read. While it is a little too early yet to get any real sense of the range of groups and albums that will be submitted, my own view, for what it’s worth, is that it is a little too early yet in the series’ publishing history to give up on albums of the classic rock era. As Mr. Barker has made clear, Continuum is looking to sell books, and I have no problem with this policy as long as it doesn’t prevent albums that have proved their durability through time from being neglected for the sake of potential book sales. Case in point: Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991) sold six million copies in its first six months, but sold fewer than two million in the next twelve years. The question is whether the commercial success of an album (at least in its first year) qualifies it for consideration as a "classic" album. I suppose he would say that he might be convinced if the proposal were good enough. At any rate, the proposals he’s received so far are for books on albums by:

The Fall
The Jam
Van Halen
The Zombies
Against Me!
Jefferson Airplane
Mary Margaret O’Hara
Yo La Tengo

In my earlier entry I stated that an album ripe for discussion would be The Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle, and while I have no idea if the book proposal is for this album specifically, I strongly suspect it is. I would welcome a book on that album, and depending upon the particular album, the books on The Jam, Van Halen, and Jefferson Airplane interest me, while the other groups on the list only marginally so.

On a different note, Mr. Barker posted a fascinating excerpt from the forthcoming 33 & 1/3 book by Bruce Eaton on Big Star’s Radio City, another installment in the 33 & 1/3 series that I look forward to reading (click on the above link to Mr. Barker's blog to read the excerpt). I have not yet submitted my book proposal to Mr. Barker, but I hope to do so by December 1, well before the deadline of December 31st. The last time such a call for proposals was posted, I think the proposals numbered around 400, with about 20 of those being accepted for publication. As I mentioned earlier, my proposal on Wall of Voodoo’s Call of the West was rejected, but I intend to submit another proposal this time as well.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sunday, January 17, 1960: The Classic

After two weeks at #1, Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” (see my entry for January 4) was displaced at the top of the pops by Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear”—which, like “El Paso,” is also a narrative about sexual obsession and death. The song’s eponymous protagonist is cast as the Romeo figure in love with “Little White Dove,” the Juliet of a rival tribe (the river and the rival tribe function as obstacles to the fulfillment of their desire). Unable to consummate their love, they choose death instead, in the form of a double suicide.

Not that anyone remembers. It’s “ancient” history, a perception that is encouraged, no doubt unintentionally, by historiographers of rock and roll. The problem is that rock and roll historians have derived their crude historiographical method from the science of paleontology (crude in the sense that it presumes a sort teleologically-driven process governs the progress of rock and roll), and hence the history of rock and roll has been emplotted as “eras,” with the period 1959-1963 perceived as a sort of anomaly, a non-period, in an otherwise rationally developing and coherent system. The history of rock would seem to be conceived of as follows (at least in the North American geographical region):

--Stone Age: Development of the “blues,” once known as “race” music, then “jump,” then, eventually, following a period of hybridization enabled by the war years and the post-war collapse of the swing industry, around 1951 or so, “rhythm and blues”
--Bronze Age: Early elaboration and experimentation with rhythm and blues elements beginning ca. 1951. Artifacts from this era: “Rocket 88,” early Little Richard recordings on Peacock, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock,” as well as other materials of interest only to (musical) archaeologists having an arcane (specialized) knowledge.
--Iron Age: Began around 1954 in the rock and roll equivalent to the “Fertile Crescent,” i.e., the Mississippi Delta, in diverse villages. Developed by Little Richard (New Orleans) and others, popularized by Elvis Presley (Memphis), followed by the subsequent sudden and widespread dissemination of rock and roll, primarily among Caucasian populations, 1956-58. As above, material artifacts from this era are now of interest only to those with a specialized knowledge and the urge to preserve and collect these shards in museums ("halls of fame").

Following this continuous three-part development, however, there’s an unpredictable cataclysm, the rock and roll equivalent of a gigantic meteor strike, an apocalyptic sequence of events structurally necessary to explain the always puzzling, inexplicable, and violent end of one era and the interstitial moment before the next--“the day the music died”: The King’s exile to Germany (subsequently inviting a host of illegitimate Pretenders), the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson, the arrest of Chuck Berry, public backlash against Jerry Lee Lewis, and so on. Following this cataclysm, there’s an immedicable historic rupture, the post-apocalyptic return to the “Dark Ages,” a period of trauma-induced shock, an amnesiac gap, “missing time”—the “Lost Years,” roughly corresponding to the years 1959-1963.

The problem with this model is that it makes it seem as if what came after, especially the music of the Beatles, appear fully formed, ex nihilo. According to David Stowe in Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America (1994), this sort of moment occurred before in American popular music. It happens because changes in popular music are often “obscured by conditions in the music industry” (206). In his discussion of why the post-war emergence of bop (bebop) was so puzzling to its contemporaries, Stowe explains:

Just as the formative preswing years of the early 1930s had been elided by the post-Crash collapse of the entertainment business, particularly the recording industry, bebop’s lengthy incubation period coincided with the distraction of world war. The 1942-1944 recording ban, moreover, ensured that the prime vehicle for disseminating the new music was unavailable for nearly two years. (206)

Profits in the entertainment industry are largely determined by advertising revenues, especially so for Top 40 radio and network television. (The Top 40 analogue within the television industry at the time was American Bandstand.) The format of Top 40 radio was determined by the industry’s commitment to the 2-3 minute single, which easily allowed for the insertion of advertisements between each song. By 1960, the LP had existed for over a decade, but LPs primarily consisted of collections of singles—hence the invention of the “Greatest Hits” album around this time, a heterogeneous assemblage culled from previous single releases. A rock and roll song was defined by its length (the single) and not yet by the “jam” (enabled by the length of a side on an LP. A “Greatest Hits” album premised on the extended “jam” is inconceivable). Rock and roll songs were, are, singles; everybody knew, knows, this.

So did the Beatles--except the Beatles, given developments in recording technology in the 1960s, also helped popularize the LP, at least to a younger generation. Hence the perceived “vacuum” in the years 1959-1963 is an effect of the institutional commitment to rock and roll singles and not to rock and roll LPs (except as a cobbled together collection of 2 to 3 minute songs). There are no “classic” rock albums from this period because the rock album as such didn't yet exist--there was no such thing as a “conceptual” or “concept” album (although Sinatra had begun taking such steps in the 1950s, creating albums unified by a single “mood”). Only with the rise of FM radio later in the decade did “classic” albums, in the sense of LPs, emerge. Obviously, the “classic” rock album was a consequence of FM radio privileging the album over the single ("AOR"). It's true that Elvis's first LPs are referred to as "classics," but in this case the term is used to distinguish the era, not the specific use of the LP format.