Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pop Aphorisms: XII

1. Record Collecting—A pseudo-scientific activity motivated by the same obsessive narrowness of focus that characterizes the autistic mind.

2. If Coldplay would realize how terrible it was, and were able to ironize that terribleness, it could be U2.

3. As a guitarist, Eric Clapton is to B. B. King what Gene Kelly is to Fred Astaire—what virtuosity is to grace.

4. Mallarmé’s advice to poets, “Yield the initiative to words,” finds its analogy in the lesson of Elvis, who understood rock music differed from classic pop by yielding the initiative to sound.

5. So many “important” albums have been named in the history of rock that the word “important” is no longer meaningful: the word is simply a ruse used to cloak individualized taste.

6. The problem of referring to a certain album as an example of a certain school of music (e.g., “punk,” “alternative”) is critically irresponsible, because it suggests that a particular school of music is more coherent than it actually is.

7. There is a crucial difference between a movie star and a rock star: the latter is seldom, if ever, able to stage a “comeback.” The “oldies” circuit is rock’s equivalent of country music’s Branson, Missouri—just a waiting room to hillbilly heaven.

8. To become art, rock music had to elevate the guitar to its primary expressive instrument, just as jazz since bebop elevated the saxophone. Unfortunately, it fell prey to the same pitfall: virtuosity too easily became pretension.

9. Country Pop—the last refuge of a failed rock ‘n’ roller.

10. In the era of Madonna, the need for publicity is obvious; in more honest days, though, they called it “payola.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009


According to John Tobler’s This Day In Rock (Carroll & Graf, 1993), on this day in 1977, Fleetwood Mac released one of the biggest-selling rock albums of all time, RUMOURS. The album is still in the Top Ten of the Top Selling Records of All Time despite being surpassed in recent years by Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, having sold to date 19 million copies, more or less the same number as The Beatles’ “white album.” It is astonishing that the album nonetheless has sold ten million fewer copies than The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, the all-time sales leader. While lists—lists being a form of indexing—of best sellers are no doubt interesting as well as provocative, such lists also make it difficult to determine the historical importance of an album, if by importance we mean significance. Although RUMOURS sold more in terms of copies than Fleetwood Mac’s previous, eponymously titled album, and more copies than the band’s subsequent album, TUSK, is it historically more important than either of these two other albums?

Perhaps it is time to explore the importance of “importance.” For “importance” is the word normally invoked whenever popular music becomes an object of academic study. Many articles and books have been written on so-called “important” albums and musicians, in which the critic, by necessity, makes the assertion that such-and-such is “important.” And yet inevitably, as Simon Frith has observed, whenever a particular album (or musician) is deemed “important,” a study of ideological effects ensues, following conventionalized, highly predictable routes (see the first twenty pages of Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, Harvard University Press, 1996). If the determination of “importance” allows us to designate the significance of a particular album or musician, what sorts of information does the designation also happen to repress? The problem with “importance,” as a designation of significance, is that it leads to an uncritical identification with a particular album or musician, which is why analyses seeking to establish importance inevitably follow the predictable path of ideology. The trick is to establish significance while still remaining critically aloof, if not disinterested, in the object of study, not because the object is analogous to a specimen under a microscope, but to avoid predictability and redundancy, or pleonasm.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

And Then There Were 170

Frequent visitors to this blog know that I submitted a proposal, on Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, to Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series of books on significant rock albums of the past forty years (or so). This past Sunday evening, the series’ editor, David Barker, posted the (long) shortlist of proposals still under serious consideration, trimming the number of proposals from 597 to 170. I’m very happy to report that my proposal made the initial cut and is still under consideration, as is my friend Tim Lucas’s, on Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation. Tim sent me a congratulatory note today, to which I responded reciprocally. I sincerely hope we both make it—I would very much like to see our work appearing in the same series— although I don’t wish to calculate the odds of that probability. But we shall see.

While reader comments (available on a pop-up window) on the short list are widely varied, by and large the comments by those authors whose proposals were rejected the first round are congenial and supportive of those who made the initial cut. Believe me, I know what it’s like to receive a rejection, as I didn’t make the cut the last time there was an invitation for proposals, nor did Tim. While of course I would love to contribute a book to the series, there are a good many albums on the short list I would love to read a book about. Congratulations to all who have made it so far. I wish you all the best, and please do likewise.

Friday, February 13, 2009


A few days ago, over at the 33 1/3 blogspot, John Mark posted a link to an article about performance artist Genesis P-Orridge (second from left on the TG album cover), once and present member of the band Throbbing Gristle, and, in the 1980s, the co-founder of Psychic TV. While the article makes rather explicit the masochistic aspects of P-Orridge’s being, his tale is thoroughly Gnostic in its underpinnings (e.g., the conviction of an incomplete and/or inadequate Self that can be overcome by the union with one’s “lost” half or twin; the fundamental distrust of the material world; body hatred; and so on). His quest for identicalness can be understood, in one way, as an attempt to reassure one’s unstable sense of identity through the display of that self-image in the identical image of an Other. But as I read his story, I also found myself thinking of the Frankenstein myth of a body cobbled together with incongruous parts, but also a modern revision of that puissant myth, Pierre Jeunet’s ALIEN: RESURRECTION and the image of the cloned but strangely androgynous body of Ripley, the successfully manufactured eighth clone in a series of failed attempts.

Only one filmmaker could possibly translate the strange story recounted in that article into a film: David Cronenberg. Think of Cronenberg’s films such as DEAD RINGERS (the perverse relationship between the identical twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle, which culminates in their catastrophic re-imagining of themselves as Siamese Twins), THE FLY (the Brundlefly hybrid), CRASH (the masochistically linked couple immersed in the delirium of a Folie à deux), and M. BUTTERFLY (a revision of Balzac’s Sarrasine with its focus on the highly ambiguous gender identity of Song Lilling, as s/he vacillates precariously between female masquerade and femininity). In DEAD RINGERS, the Mantle twins’ desire to merge into one another is similar Seth Brundle’s aspiration at the conclusion of THE FLY, to splice his genetic material with the DNA of Veronica and their unborn child in order to create a male/female/fly/offspring hybrid—“Brundlefly.” This same aspiration for a hybrid form is referred to in the article, and in P-Orridge’ s writings, by the neologism pandrogeny—“There is no reason to accept anymore what was once a God-given form. People can now choose to be even more fictional,” writes Genesis P-Orridge in an article available here. What is fascinating in his remarks is his reconceptualization of what, in Jungian psychology, is called the quest for individuation (psychological differentiation, the development of the individual personality). Normally individuation involves a subject striving for a life that is meaningful, complete, noble, good, and so on. But in the aforementioned essay and elsewhere (a lengthy interview, in parts, with P-Orridge on these topics is available on youtube here), he recasts individuation as the biological transformations enabled by or through technology—as does Seth Brundle, as well as many of the protagonists in Cronenberg's male melodramas.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I’m Singing With My Laptop

Slightly over a week ago, in my February 1st entry, I observed that 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. In the context of that argument, I cited Public Enemy’s Hank Shocklee, who said almost twenty years ago:

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).

Perhaps instead of citing Hank Shocklee, however, I should have simply included the following commercial advertisement for Microsoft’s Songsmith as proof enough of my claim. Clicking on the link also brings up on the sidebar examples of what is fast becoming a new cottage industry, twisted versions of pop songs (re)made with Microsoft’s Songsmith. Among the most byzantine of these new songs are versions of the Police’s “Roxanne” and Billy Idol’s “White Wedding.” Anyone yet tried "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"? In the words of Hank Shocklee, Songsmith is a musician’s nightmare, and even more evidence that rock music has received a silicon termination notice.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Dewey Martin, 1940—2009

The local paper reported this morning that DEWEY MARTIN (second from left), the former drummer and singer for Buffalo Springfield, has died at the age of 68. Apparently he died over a week ago (accounts vary whether it was on Saturday, January 31 or Sunday, February 1), but this was the first I heard about it. According to this report, Martin was found dead in his Van Nuys apartment; a friend indicated that he’d health problems the past few years, and believed he died of natural causes. Born September 30, 1940 as Walter Dwayne Midkiff, Dewey Martin was one of three Canadians in Buffalo Springfield (the others being Bruce Palmer and Neil Young). At the time he joined the band, he had already been on the road with Patsy Cline, Faron Young and Roy Orbison. Jimmy McDonough, author of Shakey, the biography of Neil Young, wrote:

A few years older than the rest of the Springfield, Martin was perhaps the most incongruous addition to a band full of mutual misfits. Cocky, aggressive and sporting mod attire, he behaved more like an extra from a cop show than some folk-rocker. Dewey liked showbiz: He’d be the only Buffalo to appear as a contestant on The Dating Game. (157)

A short-lived band that stayed together only slightly more than two years, after Martin left Buffalo Springfield his career became rather elusive, but an excellent article on Martin’s post-Buffalo career can be found here. Yesterday, Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and Richie Furay issued a statement on Dewey Martin that can be found over here. Bruce Palmer, a fellow Canadian and founding member of Buffalo Springfield, died in 2004.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Virtues of Misreading

In literature classes in our high schools and colleges, the preferred method of study is hermeneutically driven and formally conservative: it favors interpretation and encourages fidelity to the text—to established methods of (re)production through interpretation. There’s a perfectly defensible reason for this method: the acquisition of rereading skills, and the inculcation of the virtue of fidelity, leads to scholarship.

But as literary critic Harold Bloom has argued, creativity (as opposed to scholarly endeavor) must be understood not as a rereading, but as a misreading, of the inherited tradition. Applying Bloom’s insight to rock culture, those artists we perceive to be innovative and influential have actively misread the music that has come before. As Michael Jarrett writes:

Steering a course between repetition (redundancy) and incomprehensibility (entropy), he or she parlays an aberrant or perverse reading of the past into an authorized reading for the present. Elvis Presley’s “misreading” of Dean Martin (a conventionalized version of the saloon singer) offers a good example of this. (196)

Chris Spedding has an excellent article on exactly this idea, “Elvis & Dino,” in which he explores just how Elvis misread Dean Martin. Spedding recounts the anecdote told by Marion Keisker, the office manager of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis:

. . . Marion Keisker . . . tells of a not entirely successful first audition Presley had with Phillips. According to Marion, Sam asked Elvis to run through some of his repertoire, which seemed to lean so heavily on Dean Martin stuff, she thought Elvis had decided “. . . if he was going to sound like anybody, it was going to be Dean Martin.”

Spedding argues that by looking at Elvis’s early career in this way, “we can see how many of those actions previously dismissed (or considered perverse when they could not be conveniently ignored) now fall into place. . . . Elvis was naturally fair-haired. He dyed his hair black. . . . Filmed later in Technicolor, Elvis’s obsidian do had that same almost blue-black sheen you can see in Dean Martin’s movies.” Comparing Martin’s [1955] hit, “Memories Are Made Of This,” with “the song that Elvis always claimed was his favorite cut, “Don’t Be Cruel,” a hit in the summer of the following year,” Spedding observes:

Now, apart from the fact that Elvis borrowed that descending-bass-run-followed-by-guitar-chord ending from the arrangement on Martin’s record, other common elements are that sexy, wobbly, almost hiccuping baritone vocal not yet identifiably “rock” until Elvis made it so and Martin’s novel use of a four-piece male gospel-type vocal group which we may assume helped inspire Elvis, steeped as he was in traditional gospel music, to introduce the Jordanaires on his cut, effectively integrating them into a unique blend with his own lead vocal, thus establishing another rock archetype. Another obvious nod in Martin’s direction, released when Elvis was well established as a pop mega-star in the summer of 1959, was Elvis’s “My Wish Came True,” which had an opening four-note motif identical to Martin’s “Return To Me,” (both titles having four syllables!) released in April 1958. Even the key is the same.

Thus, through his misreading of Dean Martin, Elvis created an individual style and helped both to popularize and to institutionalize rock ‘n’ roll. There are other examples of such perverse misreading contributing to the reinvention of rock, of course: the perversity of Dylan performing American folk with a rock band (“going electric,” Newport, 1965), for instance, or the Sex Pistols’ burlesque of 1960s and early 1970s American pop records (1976-77).

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Lux Interior, 1946-2009

Lux Interior (born Erick Purkheiser, second from left), leader and voice of The Cramps, died yesterday from a heart ailment at the age of 62. Formed by Lux Interior and his wife, guitarist Poison Ivy, The Cramps were the crucial link between Elvis, Fifties rock ‘n’ roll, and the late Seventies punk era, the period in which aberrant, unconventional readings or interpretations of early rock ‘n’ roll were both allowed and encouraged. Lux’s vocal style got Elvis wrong in the same way that Elvis got Dean Martin wrong (if there were one singer he wanted to sound like, Elvis famously said at the beginning of his career, it was Dean Martin), thus allowing him playfully to explore the image of himself as Elvis returned to life as a zombie—serendipitously, the band’s first Alex Chilton-produced singles were recorded right around the time of Elvis’s death. But despite the band’s so-called “psychobilly” posturings, juvenile gothic trappings, and its aura of sexual decadence and fetishism (Lux often wore high heels on stage and occasionally would get up close and personal with audience members of both sexes) lifted straight from from the New York Dolls, The Cramps played straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll, heavily influenced by the guitar stylings of surf and garage band and the so-called “dirty boogie” of Link Wray, and, perhaps most important, an aesthetic derived from low-budget horror movies. The Cramps’ first LP, SONGS THE LORD TAUGHT US (1979), recorded in Memphis at Sam Phillips’ recording studio and produced by Alex Chilton, remains their strongest album in my view, because it isn’t hampered by deadly self-consciousness or self-parody. True, the album contains songs with titles such as “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” “Sunglasses After Dark,” “Zombie Dance” and a pretty good cover of Johnny Burnette’s “Tear It Up” (check this out), but they are all good rock 'n' roll songs despite the titles; they had a distinctive sound. My personal favorite track by The Cramps, though, is probably “Goo Goo Muck,” from PSYCHEDELIC JUNGLE (1981). For various reasons, I lost track of them after A DATE WITH ELVIS (1986), the last album of theirs to which I gave a serious listen, but The Cramps circa 1979-1984 will always remain one of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll bands. An interesting article on Lux Interior can be found here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rave On

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson (“The Big Bopper”) died fifty years ago today in a plane crash that occurred just a few miles from Clear Lake, Iowa. Of course, this is not “news” as such, but the commemoration of the event serves two important functions. One is that such anniversaries give newspapers and websites (and bloggers) a readymade topic. Always on the search for information to fill a news hole (blank space on the page), the dredging up of old news, using as an excuse its intrinsic historicity, gives editors (and bloggers) a slight reprieve from the daily grind. Even stories tangential to the core event, such as the identity of Peggy Sue, becomes news fodder. The second function of such commemorations is, of course, a commercial one: it helps sell merchandise and helps sell tickets to nostalgic concerts. A recent article in the newspaper discussed the economic boon that Clear Lake, Iowa has received as a result of its historic relation to the rock ‘n’ roller’s death: the small resort town has a multimillion-dollar tourist industry as a consequence of being near the location of the fatal crash.

There are very few individuals living today who can claim they knew Buddy Holly. I don’t mean those individuals who claim to have run into him at the drug store one day, or once filled his gas tank. I mean those individuals who were personally close to him. I say this because, even though I was “alive” at the time he died—I was a small boy at the time—he has never existed to me as anything more than a media construct: his image, the lore, the movies and music about him all are products of the mass media. There’s the biopic, THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1978), which garnered Gary Busey an Academy Award nomination, and there’s THE REAL BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1986), which Paul McCartney produced in response to the biopic because he was unhappy with it. And there’s LA BAMBA (1987), the biopic of Ritchie Valens—has anyone made a biopic or documentary on J. P. Richardson? The cultural memory desires Holly to not fade away. There is a waiter dressed up as Buddy Holly (Steve Buscemi) in PULP FICTION (1994), and the John Milner character (Paul Le Mat) in AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) laments the fact that “Rock ‘n’ roll’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died,” a line that makes perfect sense as art, but is implausible in the given historic context of the film (set in the fall of 1962, the characters do not have the requisite historical perspective for the line to resonate properly, although presumably it did to audiences in 1973 when the film was released, and perhaps still does). And there’s the instance of 1980s nostalgia for the Fifties in the Kathleen Turner-starring movie PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986).

There have been several songs written about Buddy Holly: Eddie Cochran’s “Three Stars,” The Smithereens’ “Maria Elena” (for Holly’s widow), and Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” are a few examples, but the most famous, and perhaps most successful is, of course, Don McLean’s willfully obscure “American Pie.” A web search will lead to several sites dedicated to the interpretation of the lyrics to McLean’s song, but the song’s meaning has never seemed that difficult to me. Perhaps I’m jaded. Elvis’s phenomenal popularity in 1956 enabled nascent rock ‘n’ rollers to respond in at least two ways: imitate him (which was artistic death, although many tried), or opportunistically use the space he opened up to create one’s own unique form of expression, which is precisely what Buddy Holly did. His records never achieved the phenomenal sales of Elvis, but he is a nostalgic figure nonetheless. His life resonates as myth because of what might have been. I’ve always wondered what sort of album Buddy Holly might have made once he heard the Beatles. It’s one of those great “lost albums” of rock history.

Don McLean’s “American Pie,” released in 1971, is a response, on the one hand, to the events of the winter of 1958-59 (“A long, long time ago/I can still remember/How that music used to make me smile”) and on the other to the Sixties (“Now for ten years we’ve been on our own”). Elvis had been in the service about five months (departing for Germany late September 1958) when Buddy Holly was killed on 3 February 1959. Hence, within the space of only a few months, both of them were gone: Elvis was overseas in the service, in figurative terms never really to “return” (“While the king was looking down/The jester stole his thorny crown/The courtroom was adjourned/No verdict was returned”), and Buddy Holly was killed (“February made me shiver”). Both events are condensed into the hyperbolic, cryptic phrase, “the day the music the died.” Most of the lyrical content is devoted to the Rolling Stones and Beatles, those two emblems of the so-called “British Invasion” of the mid-1960s; the song is at least in part a reaction to the usurpation of American rock ‘n’ roll by the British “pretenders” (“Now for ten years we’ve been on our own/And moss grows fat on a rollin’ stone/But that’s not how it used to be”). Of course, interpretation is not meaning in the sense that “decoding” this phrase or that symbol reveals to us what the song is “all about.” But most certainly it is not simply or only about Buddy Holly; the allusion to his death is really only the point of departure, the starting point. To me, the song expresses a sort of conservative reaction against the Sixties, a compressed social history that contains both an expression of belatedness (having missed, or arrived too late for, the Golden Age) as well as nostalgia for a “simpler” time. Most of us form emotionally strong attachments to the music of our youth, in this case the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s, and the song expresses that, but it is a mistake to think the song is merely “about” Buddy Holly. As far as I know, Don McLean didn’t know him, and that makes all the difference.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Download This

Yesterday, soon after posting my blog, “Post Rock,” I happened to read about Neil Young’s hilarious new single, “Fork in the Road,” in the latest issue of Rolling Stone (Issue 1071, February 5, 2009, p. 68). Having watched the video for the song on, I was so struck by the similarity of theme between his single and my blog on “Post Rock” that I’m providing a link to the video here. The video depicts Young rocking along to a blues groove holding what appears to be a pair of iPod earbuds plugged into a big red apple. He sings, “I’m a big rock star/My sales have tanked/But I still got you... thanks.” But he then continues, “Download this,” he sings as he holds up the apple, “it sounds like shit,” only to then take a bite out of the apple and throw it away in disgust, and then pines for the old days of radio. The difference, of course, between his form of communication and mine is that my presentation is more conventional, expository in nature, written for an audience that is expecting me to deliver a particular kind of information. His video, on the other hand, is an example of what Gregory L. Ulmer has called “a dramatic, rather than an epistemological, orientation to knowledge” (Writing and Reading Differently, p. 39). The ideas contained in the two forms, however, are remarkably similar. Rarely has Young been funnier: “There’s a bailout comin’, but it’s not for me/It’s for all those creeps watching tickers on TV.” I urge you to check out the video by clicking on the link above.

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.