Sunday, February 1, 2009

Post Rock

This article by Ann Powers in yesterday’s L. A. Times refers to the dwindling significance of rock music as a cultural force. She avers that rock music is in “its Götterdämmerung phase” and writes, “Not only does rock no longer dominate popular culture worldwide, having long been eclipsed by hip-hop and Celine Dion, it’s also past both its youth as an agent of rebellion and its midlife as a ‘temporary autonomous zone’ for nonconformists….” Alas, I’m afraid she is right. In my past two blogs, in the context of discussing progressive rock, I have discussed the way modernism supported the conception of the popular musician as artist. My point was a rather simple one: early 1970s progressive rock demonstrated the lingering power of modernist values to bolster the image of the rock musician as “artist.” To some extent, that image is still viable, a testament to the lingering influence of modernism: check out this article in the Telegraph, on the lingering influence of Buddy Holly, whose untimely death fifty years ago will be commemorated this coming Tuesday, February 3.

Don McLean’s “American Pie” was putatively motivated by the death of Buddy Holly, in which the singer refers to the moment he heard of Holly’s death by the cryptic phrase, “the day the music died.” Too bad Don McLean didn’t write a song commemorating the 1 billionth download from Apple’s iTunes store, which happened just about three years ago, on February 23, 2006. (The download, incidentally, happened to be Coldplay’s “Speed of Sound.”) That date should be commemorated as well, because it marks the day when rock music died, or rather, marked the death of the fundamental method of its consumption. If jazz culture is based upon the live performance, being present at the scene and moment of an actual performance, rock culture is based upon the record: the basic material artifact central to its consumption is the record—or, if you will, the discrete physical object, liminally demarcated, one imagines holistically as an “album.”

“Post Rock” musical consumption, in contrast, is entirely different, and is represented by the download. Today a piece of music exists, but it is not anchored in a discrete physical object such as a record (some “albums” exist only in downloadable form), and thus it does not have any liminal demarcation. The piece of music is also ontologically unstable, since it may exist in various states of incompletion known as a “remix.” The song may be found on an album (in the antiquated sense, most likely in the storage format of CD), but the album is not conceived of holistically, but rather as an arbitrary heaping of heterogeneous pieces. Indeed, it is possible now to make a record simply by recombining fragments of sounds sampled by other records—you don’t even need to know how to play an instrument. Some years ago, Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy put it this way:

We don’t like musicians. We don’t respect musicians…. In dealing with rap, you have to be innocent and ignorant of music. Trained musicians are not ignorant of music, and they cannot be innocent to it. They understand it, and that’s what keeps them from dealing with things out of the ordinary…. [Public Enemy is] a musician’s nightmare. (Keyboard, September 1990, pp. 82-83).

Interestingly, the trend in popular music identified by Shocklee was anticipated over forty years ago by pianist Glenn Gould. In his famous 1966 essay “The Prospects of Recording,” Gould warned that “the technology of electronic forms makes it highly improbable that we will move in any direction but one of even greater intensity and complexity.” (The Glenn Gould Reader, p. 352)

In the era of Post Rock, there is no equivalent for the discrete material object known as the record. To understand Post Rock, the era of iTunes and the download, one must turn to quantum physics for the cognitive metaphor. A download is like a photon, a liminal object neither particle nor wave, a burst of energy that appears but is anchored nowhere. (Marx: “Everything that is solid melts into air.”) The iPod, the retrieval system for downloads, is by definition a portable device, designed for neither café nor concert hall, but primarily for mobility, a technology whose purpose is to provide an ambient background to a life premised on speed, not reflection, a life in which politics is defined as taste. Viewed in this way, Post Rock represents the triumph of Muzak, the era anticipated by art rockers such as Brian Eno, who settled on the collocation “ambient music” as a name for such decorative sounds, what Erik Satie called furniture or furnishing music.

Friday, January 30, 2009


In my last blog I argued that bands such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) represented, within a rock context, the fundamental values of modernism: complexity, individuality (as exemplified by the naming of the band eponymously), virtuosity, and mastery. I think I’m correct in that observation, and I think the point is true of all bands one might consider exemplary of so-called “progressive rock.” Indeed, I think all the supposed masterpieces of progressive rock have been judged under the evaluative terms characteristic of modernism. Having continued to think about the issue over the past few days, I think the special value of ELP is that their career conveniently serves to trace the rise and fall of “progressive rock.” Using the band’s popularity curve as an example, it becomes clear that the so-called “heyday,” or widespread popularity, of progressive rock in fact lasted a brief time, peaking in 1974, thereafter subsumed by other movements, including “glam rock,” disco, and, of course, punk. Progressive rock was, by 1978, an anachronism, meaning that the sort of modernist values represented by the movement were no longer endorsed by the rock ‘n’ roll avant-garde, progressive rock being perceived, by then, as elitist. British bands such as Yes and King Crimson were irrelevant by 1978—in fact, by that date, King Crimson had been long disbanded (the first time). Simon Reynolds writes, “Punks were supposed to purge their collections of King Crimson and Mahavishnu Orchestra albums, or at least hide them in the cupboard” (Rip It Up and Start Again, p. 20). As I mentioned last time, the pejorative British term for bands such as ELP, Yes, and King Crimson was muso. Musos were musicians who were considered overly preoccupied with technical virtuosity at the expense of authentic expression. Stated somewhat differently, by the late 1970s, progressive rock was considered inauthentic, while the sort of music that supplanted it—reggae, ska, and punk, for example—in contrast, was considered “authentic.”

Using, arbitrarily, the release date of King Crimson’s IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING as the starting point for so-called progressive rock (October 1969), then the period of progressive rock’s greatest popularity lasted about five years, peaking about mid-1973, the bookend at the other end being ELP’s WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS TO THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS… LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER (August 1974). Although not released on CD until 1997, ELP’s EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER LIVE AT THE ISLE OF WIGHT FESTIVAL 1970, recorded during the band’s first formal appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival on August 29, 1970, should be considered that group’s first album. Including that album, a few selective examples of prog rock’s development can be seen here (all release dates UK):

King Crimson – In the Wake of Poseidon 5/70
Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP) - Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970
Yes – The Yes Album [“Classic” Yes line-up; recorded 10-11/70]
ELP – Emerson, Lake & Palmer 11/70
King Crimson – Lizard 12/70
ELP – Tarkus 6/71
Yes – Fragile 11/71
King Crimson – Islands 12/71
ELP – Trilogy 7/72
Yes – Yessongs 5/73
ELP – Brain Salad Surgery 11/73
Yes – Tales From Topographic Oceans 12/73
King Crimson – Starless and Bible Black 3/74
ELP – Welcome Back My Friends... 8/74
King Crimson – Red 11/74

By 1974, however, as is well known, the movement began to fragment. Rick Wakeman left Yes, Robert Fripp disbanded King Crimson on 24 September 1974 (about six weeks or so before the release of RED, by which time King Crimson was a power trio), and in August ELP released the live album WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS…, subsequently taking a lengthy sabbatical. Shortly thereafter, in December 1974, Yes released RELAYER, and then it, too, took virtually a three-year hiatus.

In retrospect, the disbanding of King Crimson and the contemporaneous withdrawal of both Yes and ELP, was historically significant, but not for the standard reasons. The Sex Pistols emerged as a significant musical force in 1976, and in January 1977, The Clash was signed to CBS Records for a significant sum. What this musical shift represents is not so much a reaction against what came before (what rock historiography typically claims), but a paradigm shift. It is true that punk marked a new phase in rock music’s youthful insolence, as opposed to prog rock’s insolent iconoclasm in the form of “rocking the classics“ (but which actually represented the reproduction of ideology). In effect, progressive rock was to rock ‘n’ roll what bebop was to swing: the triumph of the muso. Punk rock was rock’s putative reclaiming of amateurism in the form of rhythm and sound, but it also effected an ideological transformation in music as well: when the famed progressive rock bands made their “comebacks,“ they had been transformed as well.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thoughts On A Long Ago Exhibition

A few days ago, in a blog entry on the relationship between psychedelic and progressive rock, I discussed The Nice, the British band from which emerged Keith Emerson, later of Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP). It has happened since the writing of that blog—primarily because I’ve been preoccupied by certain theoretical issues that emerged as a consequence of writing it—that I have made an effort to re-familiarize myself with the music of ELP, trying to get a better handle on what so-called progressive rock was (is) all about, at least in its ELP incarnation. It has been years since I listened seriously to ELP’s music, having given up on them long ago after the release of the appropriately titled 3-LP set, WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS TO THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS… LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, EMERSON, LAKE & PALMER (1974)—and they weren’t kidding. I can’t recall ever playing sides 5 and 6 of that ponderous set of records—still haven’t—although I’ve had the album now almost 35 years, frayed corners, ring wear, bulk and all. Like an old high school classmate, it’s an artifact of a time long gone, one with whom you have instant familiarity, but little communication. But having done some reading of critical assessments as well as a bit of checking on fan sites during the past several days, I’ve learned that the general consensus is that BRAIN SALAD SURGERY (1973), with its famous H. R. Giger cover, is the band’s finest album. I do not agree: after having given a focused listen to every album up until (but not including) WELCOME BACK MY FRIENDS… the past couple of days, I doubt seriously I’ll ever return to blarney such as “Karn Evil 9,” a huge chunk of BRAIN SALAD SURGERY. However, having re-familiarized myself with the band’s first few albums, I think the best album is TRILOGY (1972), which has the best song written by Emerson and Lake, “From the Beginning.” But that’s neither here nor there.

I found myself returning to the band’s third album, PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION (1971 UK; 1972 USA), since it seems to me to epitomize everything the band was about—the objective correlative of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, as it were. I picked up a copy of the remastered CD (Shout! Factory, 2007) of the album in order to put it on my iPod, and while I was at the store I also found and purchased a used (“previously owned”) DVD by ELP that I didn’t know about but also happened to be titled PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION (Classic Pictures Entertainment, 2002). Mistakenly, I assumed the live performance on the DVD was the same performance as on the CD—not so. The performance on the CD (38:07) was recorded at Newcastle City Hall on March 26, 1971, while the one on the DVD (41m 50s—not the complete concert) took place a few months earlier, recorded at the Lyceum Theatre (London), on December 9, 1970. The DVD reveals why Keith Emerson, busily tickling the ivories (and fondling the knobs of his then avant-garde modular synthesizer) in his tight fitting, glittery pants and vest, must be considered the Liberace of rock. I was pleasantly astonished, however, by the sheer youthful exuberance of drummer Carl Palmer: at the time the concert was recorded, he was a mere twenty-one years old, but he looks about fifteen or sixteen years old in the film. Little did he know about what lay ahead, in the form of rock stardom.

Having watched the DVD of PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION twice now, and having walked many, many miles the past few days listening to the album on my iPod, I’ve concluded that Emerson, Lake & Palmer (and progressive bands like them, such as King Crimson, from which Greg Lake emerged) represent, in a rock context, the fundamental values of modernism: complexity, individuality (as exemplified by the naming of the band eponymously), virtuosity, and mastery. It is no accident that ELP, like all popular musicians in the modernist tradition since Louis Armstrong (the jazz trumpeter who enabled the transformation of the popular musician into artist) released albums with titles arguing for their status as artists: WORKS: VOLUME 1 (1977) and WORKS: VOLUME 2 (1977).

The consummate professionalism of progressive bands such as ELP is nowadays disparaged, of course, by the term (primarily British) muso, meaning a musician who is overly preoccupied with sheer technical virtuosity at the expense of authentic expression. It is no wonder that ELP’s last album (prior to re-forming as a tour band in the 1990s), LOVE BEACH (1978), flopped. (I remember the record hitting the cut-out bins faster than any album I’d ever seen.) While LOVE BEACH is not a good record by any standards (which the band, in interviews, has readily admitted), that’s not my point. By 1978, the sort of modernist values they represented were no longer endorsed by rock ‘n’ roll: Emerson, Lake & Palmer were, by the late 70s, pejoratively considered musos. Rock critic Simon Reynolds (author of BLISSED OUT and THE SEX REVOLTS) observed: “[Muso has] always been a derogatory term, criticizing the likes of Santana or big prog-rock bands obsessed with developing skills—chops. In the punk context, it had a lot to do with the idea that there was more to great rock ‘n’ roll than actual music.” For a critic such as Simon Reynolds, the ultimate muso is Robert Fripp. And if that term has any meaning whatsoever, he is right. But Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (considered as individuals, not as a band) were also musos, and perhaps that term designates a narrow but nonetheless deep rift in rock culture, between musos, on one side, and those who believe they represent the values of “authentic” (or “traditional”) rock ‘n’ roll on the other (the spirit of amateurism). The rift I speak of has been identified by Mick Jones, former leader of Big Audio Dynamite and former guitarist with the Clash, who wrote in the song, “I Turned Out a Punk”:

Better learn how to play guitar with a plink and a plunk
I didn’t like jazz I didn’t like funk
I turned out a punk
I turned out a punk

Meaning, if you didn’t become a muso, well, you became something else.

Emerson, Lake & Palmer still perform, of course (although not necessarily together as a band), but I think the band now invokes a set of values—modernist values—that have long since been replaced by the values of post-modernism. But post-modern values shall become the subject of a subsequent blog.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Worst Pop Singer?

My friend JIM FIELDS sent me the link to this article in Slate, posted this past Friday, on Billy Joel. The article, by Ron Rosenbaum, is titled, provocatively—no doubt intentionally so—“The Worst Pop Singer Ever,” and explores the question, “Why Is Billy Joel So Bad?” I urge anyone even mildly interested in popular music to read the article, whether you like Billy Joel or, like Rosenbaum, happen to think he is “the worst pop singer ever.” Actually, you should read it even if you don't care one way or the other. The article is worth reading because Rosenbaum, whether he consciously realizes it or not, is dancing around the foundational principle at the basis of all of rock criticism, the perception that determines all final determinations of value (and negotiations of value) of a particular expression of music—whether something is “good” or “bad”—and that is authenticity, those artistic creations that are perceived by listeners as especially “genuine” and “real.” To be “genuine” and/or “real” is to manipulate successfully the various codified gestures of passion in our culture: beads of sweat on the forehead, singing with your eyes closed, the proper (or tasteful) use of melisma, and so on, all without ever committing the unpardonable sin of hyper-emoting which, as Rosenbaum's analysis shows, has the unhappy effect of evoking both pity and scorn from listeners. Having read his article, I wonder whether he is on to something, namely that Billy Joel, as a white singer, is filled with self-loathing (the guilt caused by an awareness that one is both inauthentic and privileged) but also an insatiable desire for fame (the desire for power that comes with privilege).

Friday, January 23, 2009

Thoughts On Pinkoyd Nicelp

There’s no question that the introduction of the 12-inch LP (“long-playing” record) by Columbia in 1948 profoundly transformed music consumption and reception. Without the LP, would jazz musicians such as John Coltrane have been compelled to improvise at such lengths? Without the LP, would the Beatles have ceased to perform live—or perhaps more importantly, would they have made SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND? Released in the United States on 2 June 1967, SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND not only altered the way rock bands approached recording, but also altered what they wanted to record: Nick Mason, in Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd (2004) confirms this claim.

As is well known, Pink Floyd was recording THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN (released two months after Sgt. Peppers) at Abbey Road’s Studio Three at the same time as the Beatles’ were recording the Sgt. Pepper’s album in Studio Two. The link between the two bands is Norman Smith, the EMI staff member who was the engineer on the all the Beatles albums up through RUBBER SOUL (1965), and was the producer of Pink Floyd’s first album. Nick Mason writes:

On the other, more structured songs, Norman was able to bring his production skills to bear, adding arrangements and harmonies and making use of the effects that could be engineered through the mixing desk and outboard equipment. He also helped to reveal all the possibilities contained in Abbey Road’s collection of instruments and sound effects. Once we realised their potential we quickly started introducing all kinds of extraneous elements, from the radio voice cutting into ‘Astronomy Domine’ to the clocks on the outro of ‘Bike’. This flirtation with ‘musique concrète’ was by no means unique—George ‘Shadow’ Morton had already used a motorbike on the Shangri-Las’ ‘The Lead Of The Pack’—but it was a relative novelty at the time, and from then on became a regular element in our creative process.

Since Norman had worked with the Beatles it was predictable that at some stage of the recording we would get an audience with their eminences…. We were ushered into Studio 2, where the Fab Four were busy recording ‘Lovely Rita’. The music sounded wonderful, and incredibly professional, but, in the same way we survived the worst of our gigs, we were enthused rather than completely broken by the experience. (2005 paperback edition, 83)

As an instance of so-called psychedelic rock—a term describing both a manner of recording as well as a particular use of non-linear amplification techniques such as distortion and reverb—THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN represents one reaction to changed recording practices exemplified by SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. But another reaction, or another direction, can be seen in a band that also represents the altered way bands were putting their ideas on record, as well as the very ideas themselves—The Nice, from which emerged Keith Emerson, later of Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP).

The link between The Nice and Pink Floyd is guitarist David O’List, who stood in for Syd Barrett one time in 1967. Andrew Loog Oldham assembled the Nice in May 1967 to support the soul singer P. P. Arnold. The band performed with Arnold for the next few months, but by August the band’s first drummer, Ian Hague, was replaced by the jazz-influenced Brian Davison, and soon after The Nice split from Arnold, choosing to pursue a musical direction consisting of longer, extended arrangements such as “Rondo” (a version of Dave Brubeck’s 1959 “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” probably encouraged by Davison) and Leonard Bernstein’s “America” (probably encouraged by Keith Emerson; see the video here).

The Nice’s first album, THE THOUGHTS OF EMERLIST DAVJACK, was recorded the autumn of 1967 and released in the UK late that same year. David O’List bailed out during the recording of The Nice’s second album in 1968, and the band continued on as a trio. Keith Emerson, subsequently, redefined the role of keyboard instruments in rock music. He soon embraced the Moog synthesizer, helping popularize that particular technology to the audiences of the time.

What I’ve outlined are two divergent paths, two responses in the form of two contemporaneous albums, to the altered approach to recording initiated by the Beatles landmark album (I’m fully aware that the rock critical establishment is divided in its evaluation of the Beatles’ album—that’s not my point). The sound of neither album could be replicated for live audiences, a point that Mason acknowledges in his discussion of THE PIPER AT THE GATES OF DAWN that I cited above (see his discussion prior to the portion I quoted above, pp. 82-83). One album is an example of psychedelic rock, while the other is an example of so-called progressive rock.

The difference between them can be understood, I think, in how the different bands approached sonic space: psychedelia is an attempt to reproduce interior (“psychic”) space, while progressive rock attempts to expand exterior (concert hall) space—that is, the imaginary spaces where music takes place. The paradox, of course, is that both forms of music derive from medieval cathedrals, the sonic properties of which the members of both bands, The Nice and Pink Floyd, were fully aware. Psychedelic rock is a simulacrum, an attempt to recreate the echoes and reverberations of medieval cathedrals that encourage transcendent experience (which is why a certain subgenre of psychedelic rock is referred to as “space rock”). In contrast, progressive rock requires the arena or coliseum, an immense sonic space (also allowed by the medieval cathedral) that demands a band to play loud and hence discourages introspection and reflection, but rather encourages solidarity with the mass, in which one’s individuality is effaced. Perhaps this is why some rock critics associate certain forms of progressive rock with Fascism.

60x50 Honored By The Dardos Award

TIM LUCAS, editor of Video Watchdog and the authorial presence behind Videowatchblog, notified me a couple days ago that my blog had been picked as one of his five choices for the Dardos blogging Award. I’ll confess that I’m not sure where the Dardos Award originated, although it seems to have been circulating for awhile, but here is the reason behind its existence:

The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.

The rules are: 1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog. 2) Pass the award to another 5 blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.

I am humbled by Tim’s thoughtful consideration, and thank him for the recognition, as he has been a strong and avid supporter of 60x50. Having acknowledged that I’ve received the Award, the person who granted the award and provided a link to his blog, I must therefore fulfill the demands of Condition #2. I cannot guarantee that any of the following bloggers haven’t already been recognized by the Dardos Award, but the motive behind the Award is to help get the word out about people doing quality blogging, so I’m most certainly fulfilling purposes of the reward. With that in mind, I hereby bequeath the Dardos Award to:

David Del Valle’s Camp David. Having spent much of his life in Hollywood, he has a lot of stories to tell, and he tells them in a consistently engaging fashion. The reminiscences that comprise Camp David read at times like a personal diary, at others like an exposé, but are variously fascinating, sad, compelling, and hysterically funny—sometimes all at once. David is always worth reading and he seems to have an endless supply of Hollywood memories to draw from. One hopes that the Camp David posts will someday form the basis of a memoir.

David Gill’s Total Dick-Head. He said it first: David Gill is a total Dickhead, and I’m very, very glad he is. He has taken his passion for the life and work of SF author Philip K. Dick—whose work is as important as any author of the past century—and transformed it into an essential blog on all things Dickian, ranging from the latest news and rumors to the latest results of his original research. If you have even a slight interest in Philip K. Dick, or what Gill calls “Philip K Dick-Related Info Kipple,” his blog is essential reading.

Simon Reynolds’ Blissblog. Simon Reynolds is the author of an essential collection of essays on rock music, BLISSED OUT: THE RAPTURES OF ROCK (1990), and has authored many other important books on the subject of popular music in the years since. His singularity resides in his approach to popular music as a journalist informed with literary theory, and the results are always smart and fascinating. His Blissblog is essential reading for anyone interested in issues and trends in popular music.

Roger Wink’s Vintage Vinyl News. For me, there is no better or convenient source of news and information about pop music in one place than Roger Wink's Vintage Vinyl News. The blog’s stated mission is “To cover the latest news on artists who have had a lasting impact on popular music. All artists covered recorded at least one album prior to 1986.” Point your browser to Vintage Vinyl News at least once a day for the latest.

Matthew Dessem’s The Criterion Contraption. The motive behind Matthew Dessem’s blog is simple in conception but ambitious in scope: to watch every movie in the Criterion Collection and then blog about it. If you are as interested in the classic films gathered in The Criterion Collection as I am, then Matthew’s blog is essential. There are, of course, other such “completist” blogging projects on the web, but I’ve found The Criterion Contraption to be consistently smart and engaging with relevant and interesting insights in every post. Take a look at his recent post on Brian De Palma’s SISTERS and you’ll see what I mean.