Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: 4

1. To lift a phrase from Brecht, it is the special dignity of rock—entertainment—that makes it so very difficult to be a rock critic: the fun of the music leads to uncritical identification.

2. The Beatles’ career illustrates how a rock band improved with time; Led Zeppelin’s career an illustration of how a rock band became worse.

3. Popularized by Elvis, rock music was reinvented twice: first by the Beatles in the early 1960s, the second by the Punks in the late 1970s. It will be reinvented again only when audiences and musicians both have completely forgotten rock’s past.

4. To say that this band or that band is the greatest in the history of rock music is the same as saying that this band or that band is the worst: both claims reflect extreme, and therefore highly dubious, reactions, and, therefore, are not to be trusted.

5. When at their worst, Bob Dylan’s lyrics ring like the hollow maxims of Polonius, which is why the many who have tried to imitate him are so unredemptively dull and boring.

6. The Who’s lyric, “I hope I die before I get old,” and Neil Young’s later, figurative revision of it, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust,” are memorable lyrics primarily because they acknowledge the rock star’s real enemy—time—and his inevitable maturation—death.

7. The problem with choosing “Top 100,” “Top 200,” or even “Top 500” rock song and album lists is, by analogy, the same one a major corporation faces when reviewing an overwhelming number of applications for a single job: the search committee ends up looking for applications to get rid of, not ones to keep.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Slim Slow Slider

A few days ago, posted an article indicating that the inimitable Van Morrison scheduled in early November two evening concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, where he will perform in its entirety his classic 1968 album Astral Weeks (released November 1968; see below).

Scheduled for November 7 & 8—coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the album’s release—the evening performance will be divided into two halves, the first set comprised of Morrison and band performing songs from throughout his career. The second set—the part that makes these two concerts quite significant—will be a recreation of the Astral Weeks album. Livedaily reports Morrison as saying:

“This is a welcomed opportunity for me to perform these songs the way I originally intended them to be,” Morrison said in a prepared statement. “It’s about the world of creation and of the imagination. That is what a song is: a little movie with melodies and music built around it, poetry in moving pictures in the mind. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the record companies did not support the music, so I never got to take these songs on tour, and I certainly did not have the money to do it. These songs are as timeless and fresh right now as the day they were written and I am happy about taking them to the Hollywood Bowl.”

Apparently the performances will be recorded, to be released first as a vinyl album on Morrison’s new label, Listen to the Lion Records. If reports are correct, the vinyl LP of the Hollywood Bowl concerts will be released prior to Christmas this year, with a CD version following a couple of weeks later, in January. I envy those who will be there; while I will not, alas, be able to attend, out of curiosity I checked on-line for tickets this morning, and found that many good seats are still available.

One of the greatest records of the 1960s, if not in the history of rock, Astral Weeks is listed as #19 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, the complete list of which is available here; the specific entry on Astral Weeks is available over here. For those who have been following along with my project of listening to all the rock records of 1968 in the order (as best as I can determine) of release, I’ve gone ahead and posted the list for November 1968, in order to put Astral Weeks in its proper context. As it turns out, two albums released that month made Rolling Stone's "Top 500" list--The Beatles' "White Album" is also ranked very high (#10) on the magazine's list as well.

George Harrison, Wonderwall Music 11/1
Van Morrison, Astral Weeks 11/8 [?]
Bonzo Dog Band, The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse
Free, Tons of Sobs
The Incredible String Band, Wee Tam and the Big Huge
The Nice, Ars Longa Vita Brevis
Diana Ross and the Supremes, Love Child 11/13
The Beatles, The Beatles [aka “The White Album”] 11/22
The Beatles, Yellow Submarine
The Kinks, The Village Green Preservation Society 11/22

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Nick Reynolds, 1933-2008

I read in the paper this morning that Nick Reynolds (on the right in the photo), founding member of the Kingston Trio, died Wednesday in San Diego at the age of 75. His obituary in the Los Angeles Times can be found here, but I also encourage readers to take a look at my earlier blog entry on former Kingston Trio member John Stewart (at left in the photo), who died this past February, that can be found here. I was prompted to post the earlier blog because some years ago Becky and I published a short piece on the Kingston Trio in The Guide to U. S. Popular Culture (Bowling Green State University Popular Press), and because I've always thought they were a fine folk group. With the death of Nick Reynolds, the sole surviving member of the original Kingston Trio is now Bob Shane (center). I reproduced our short article on the Kingston Trio on the earlier blog.

The Kingston Trio's massive hit, "Tom Dooley," of course, prompted the so-called "folk revival" of the late 1950s, inspiring numerous folk musicians, among the most famous being Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary; ironically, the Kingston Trio initially considered itself a calypso group, naming itself after the capital of Jamaica. The group's first several records did extremely well, and in general their records sold well up to the year 1964--that is, the annus mirabilis of the Beatles. Founding member Dave Guard (who died in 1991) left early in the 1960s, replaced by John Stewart; Nick Reynolds finally left in 1967, the end of line for the original band. Still, the commercial viability of the band lasted many years, making them one of the more successful folk groups of all time.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Pop Aphorisms: III

1. The Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie,” not Bob Dylan, taught rock musicians a fundamental lesson in writing lyrics: the best are highly ambiguous, and therefore have the allure of a deep mystery.

2.The fundamental problem that an “oldies” radio station cannot surmount is that what was bad then is bad now.

3. The photocopied poster was to Punk rock what television was to Elvis—consider the cover art of the Sex Pistols’ first (and only) record.

4. Dylan going electric was merely the technological equivalent of a painter embracing photography.

5. Jacques Lacan observed that his seminar on “The Purloined Letter” was successful primarily because very few of his students had actually read Poe’s story; his insight explains why bands such as Joy Division are so revered, because few have actually ever listened to their music.

6. The worst fate of a rock band is to earn what Susan McClary names “terminal prestige,” to take yourself so seriously, to be so self-conscious in your artistic pretensions, that you lose your audience—look what happened to the Velvet Underground.

7. Rock music critics today have absolutely no sense of outrage; if they really said what they believed about the albums they must write about, they’d be out of a job.

Friday, October 3, 2008

99, 992 Recordings To Hear Before You Die...

...because, as Hamlet said, “The rest is silence.” Such is my reaction when I confront a title such as 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, a new book consisting of a long, annotated list of songs by music critic Tom Moon. Why not 99, 992? Is 99, 992 an “unrealistic” number? Too arbitrary? Why? Does a list of the daunting length 99, 992 demand too much of our time, require too much of a commitment, we who have just “one life to live”? Or, in contrast, does 1,000 represent a more obtainable, if more modest goal, than 99, 992—which is to say, you shouldn’t aim high, but aim low? But if you aim low, what’s the value of the list at all if you have just one life to live? What, precisely, does any sort of list offer to you in the short time you have?

More likely, the power of the number 1,000 resides in its promise that a certain, magical threshold has been reached. The number 1,000, like the number 100, seems to ring with the profundity of an absolute limit. Is it because 1,000 is a round number with multiple zeroes that it acts as a lure, offering one the promise of a liminal moment, a threshold point, a critical juncture in a cultural rite de passage that represents a conceptual breakthrough, an acute intellectual insight--nirvana? The promise of having reached a thousand recordings is rather like that moment when one's automobile odometer is about to turn over while reading 99, 999 miles--the illusion of a highly significant, monumental event in one's life.

The problem is, of course, that knowledge is not quantifiable: and in the case of music, the more you hear does not mean the more you know, except insofar as you have access to a greater list of proper names. Alas, the number “1,000” is just a banal convention within the publishing industry, and a book comprised of a numbered list is yet another effect of consumer culture, in which truths are no longer axioms but merely the expression of individual tastes presented in the form of nonfalsifiable, aesthetic judgments. As Jack Goody has pointed out (in The Muse Learns to Write), certain characteristic features of written or typographic culture, such as the list, encourage a form of thinking impossible for a purely oral culture. The problem, as Robert Ray has observed, is all but “the most conscientiously produced” lists are “organized around not concepts, but proper names” (130). From a publisher's perspective, lists are always provocative (they are a sort of "built-in" promotional device), provocation being one of the defining characteristics of a consumer culture in which taste has become one of the primary forms of political expression.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Riff

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, the musical term riff is probably an altered or shortened form of the word refrain, an ostinato (Italian, from Latin obstinātus, stubborn, past participle of obstināre, to persist, that is, to not go away) phrase repeated consistently at the same pitch throughout a musical number. Glen Miller’s hugely popular Swing tune, “In the Mood,” is a well-known example of a riff-based composition. A riff, though, is different from a lick in that riffs can consist of repeated chord progressions (The Beatles’ “Hey Jude”), while licks typically consist of single-note melodic lines. They share a similarity though, in that licks, like riffs, can be used as the basis of an entire song, as in The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

Question: What happens when a rock musician tries to overcome the opposition governing the distinction between the riff—consisting of a repeated chord progression—and the clean melodic line of a lick? Answer: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, that is, the Hendrix sound.

“Purple Haze” (1967)
“If Six Was Nine” (1967)
“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” (1968)
Band of Gypsys, “Machine Gun” (1970)