Friday, October 30, 2009


During this happy Halloween season, let’s not forget Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and its doomed, hypersensitive protagonist, Roderick Usher. As many have observed, Poe’s writings have been eerily prescient of the changes that have overtaken American society, particularly his tortured characters’ sense of misery, alienation, and inner turmoil that eventually drive them to death and murder. For among his other hyperesthetic maladies, Roderick Usher suffers from hyperacusis, an extreme sensitivity to loud sound. Poe thus anticipated that peculiar malady of the rock star, and the consequences of live concert performance. (Remember Emerson’s insight: Nothing is got for nothing.) For Roderick Usher is troubled, like many rock stars, by having the volume in his head always turned too loud. He is not losing his hearing—au contraire: it has become more and more acute, so acute, in fact, he claims to be able to hear his twin sister’s fingernails clawing at the lid of her coffin, even though the coffin lay in a vault deep within the catacombs beneath the House of Usher. Roderick Usher’s hyperesthetic, disordered mind reasserts the philosophical problem of perception: What mechanism in the brain determines what we hear, that is, which sound(s) we attend to, and which we ignore? Do we inflate the meaning and significance of things that go bump in the night, or ignore them?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


The emergence of psychedelic rock in the late 60s was fueled by the same cultural interest in exotica that inspired the 50s exotica of Les Baxter and Martin Denny. The (Hawaiian) steel guitar is to country/western music what the sitar is to psychedelia: both instruments invigorated these forms of pop music through their novel, non-Western, that is, exotic sound. Exoticism and primitivism (both forms of essentialism) were terms used within the discourse of authenticity—that which is considered to be trustworthy or genuine—to sell exoticism to music consumers—“there ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.” The Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto bossa nova hit, “The Girl From Ipanema” (1964), as well as the Getz/Charlie Byrd LP, Jazz Samba (1962), were to lounge exoticism (cool detachment) what Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” and “Oye Coma Va” were to hippie exoticism. Authenticity is merely a marketing tool, a way of validating certain popular music forms.

The embrace of the exotic became a form of bohemian expression. As Simon Frith has observed, “music is more like clothes than any other art form” (Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, Harvard UP, 1996). Bohemianism substitutes aesthetics for politics, which is why songs such as “Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones—the first true bohemians to become rich through rock music—is nothing but sheer posturing. By the late 1980s and the era of digital sampling, artists such as Peter Gabriel employed the sampling of so-called “world music” as a way to enhance—and therefore validate as authentic—his music within the marketplace. He wasn’t the first.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Sleeve—the protective cover in which a vinyl LP record is packaged and stored, normally with distinctive graphics. According to Michael Jarrett, it was Impulse! Records founder Creed Taylor who consciously attempted to change the look of jazz by concentrating on the graphics of the record sleeve or album cover. He said:

“I thought that the audience for jazz was, generally, of a higher level of intelligence,” says Taylor. “Gil Evans’s Out of the Cool, if you recall, has a photograph of Gil seated on a stool; he’s holding a manuscript. Instead of making him seem like the shadowy artistic type, it was set up to give him a Madison Avenue look, to make people think, ‘He’s a pretty good looking guy. He’s intelligent looking. I thought jazz was down-in-the-basement and seedy.’” (Sound Tracks 170)

Taylor, along with George Avakian at Columbia, Reid Miles at Blue Note, and Norman Granz at Verve, all consciously attempted to shift the connotations of jazz from “left-leaning bohemian values,” widely associated at the time with folk music. (p. 170) By consciously altering the graphic signifiers on the album covers, they successfully changed the public perception of jazz to urbane—Modernism as understood by the middle class.

Which sleeve in the history of rock music was the first to try to shift the connotations of rock from “teenybopper” or “pop” to “art” through the use of cover art and design? Certainly the black and white photograph by Robert Freeman used on the cover of Meet the Beatles! (January 1964), was consciously “artistic,” but it did nothing to alter the widespread association of rock with folk, and therefore its left-liberal bohemianism. In fact, the Meet the Beatles! cover became the prototype of all rock album sleeves to follow, as it became common practice to use a formally arranged picture of the band on the LP sleeve. The black and white cover of the Stones’ The Rolling Stones (April 1964) was clearly modeled after Meet the Beatles!, as well as all subsequent Beatles albums, e.g., Beatles For Sale (December 1964), although the latter was in color. Rubber Soul (December 1965) continued the practice of using a group photo on the cover, slightly modified in this latter case by the use of what might be termed psychedelic expressionism. So which album cover in the annals of rock consciously attempted to alter the perception of rock music from that of left-liberal bohemianism, lower working class values (“garage”), down-in-the-basement seediness, and the gaudy day-glo, paper cut-out signifiers that signaled stoned-out psychedelia? I initially considered the Velvet Underground’s first album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (March 1967), but ruled it out because the name of the band is so stridently bohemian, and because Andy Warhol’s famous banana peel cover smacked of Pop Art and was too deliberately outré anyway.

My nominee, therefore, is the Beatles’ The Beatles (December 1968), aka “The White Album” (the word album from the Latin albus, meaning blank, or white) with its minimalist art approach. Early issues of the album had the band’s name embossed on the cover on a white background, with a unique serial number printed on each cover. In subsequent issues, the band’s name was no longer embossed but printed in gray, with no serial number. In both instances, though, the album art was startlingly different than other sleeve art at the time, and the cover design, inspired by minimalist art, was quintessentially modern, and therefore urbane. Of course, the Beatles’ bold effort was all for nothing, as Charles Manson hijacked the album shortly after, and rock remained as “controversial” as ever, and hardly a sign of urbanity. I suspect, however, that the cover art concept demonstrated on The Beatles cover sleeve inspired countless graphic designers, and initiated what we now call “rock album art” as a distinct artistic form.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I’ve observed on this blog once or twice before that so-called progressive rock (or “art rock”) developed in order to assuage pop guilt. The founding work of the movement is no doubt the Beatles’ heavily engineered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), although some would argue that the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) is the foundational work. Either way, both of these albums were made with “high” or “serious” aspirations as opposed to mere “pop” aspirations, thus making them, among other things, acutely self-conscious examples of rock music (isn’t self-consciousness a characteristic feature of a so-called guilty conscience?) As a frequenter for many years of garage and yard sales and record conventions, as well as the used record bin at my local Goodwill store, I remember a time when you couldn’t give away albums from the art rock camp, e.g., Supertramp, 10cc, The Moody Blues, Genesis, King Crimson, Electric Light Orchestra, Yes, and Emerson, and Lake and Palmer on the British side, or Kansas, Styx, and Boston on the American. By the early to mid-1980s, many of these bands, and others, of course, representing the art rock movement, were considered “dinosaurs,” that is, extinct giants that once walked the earth. And if not yet extinct, certainly déclassé, because by the 1980s many critics considered these bands’ best work was behind them.

But new media technology developed for systems such as the Xbox—the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series of games, for example—has introduced the music of these antique bands to a new, younger audience. As Marshall McLuhan observed decades ago, the content of the new media is the old, and the music contained on Rock Band (and Rock Band 2) are good examples of this insight. I was reminded of McLuhan’s observation the other day when I heard my son John (sixteen years old) playing his Xbox guitar along with Kansas’ “Carry On Wayward Son,” a big hit when I was, alas, not a whole lot older than he is now—in my early twenties. I believe John happened to be playing Rock Band 2, but the song is also on Guitar Hero II, or so I’ve been told.

There is, perhaps, no better example of a Seventies-era arena rock dinosaur than Kansas. To lift a phrase from Michel Foucault, Kansas is a band that lives in the Seventies as a fish lives in water, that is to say, it can live nowhere else. The Beatles had shown that a rock band could sell out a stadium, and the subsequent rock festivals of the 1960s, and the so-called “arena rock” of the 1970s (a term used in lieu of “stadium” since not all rock concerts were held in them) rode the massive wave—tsunami—the Beatles had created. The American counterpart to British bands such as King Crimson and Yes, Kansas, being Midwestern, was perceived as less innovative (“derivative”) than these bands, but the band was composed of six viable, hard-rocking musos nonetheless—who unfortunately never quite understood the valuable cultural cachet of the album cover, as Yes, for instance, with its arty SF/fantasy covers by Roger Dean, did. (The cover for Kansas’s first album was taken from the Modernist mural painting of John Brown in the Kansas state capital painted by John Steuart Curry.) The band’s first album, the eponymously named Kansas, was released in 1974. The last album featuring the original band members, Audio-Visions, was released in 1980. During those seven years the band released eight albums, one of them, Two For the Show (1978), being a double LP live set. Soon after the release of Audio-Visions, the band began drifting apart. A couple members became born-again Christians, and through the 1980s the band was known primarily as a Christian rock band, and never again had the popular success it did during the years 1974-80. The band’s biggest charting single, “Dust in the Wind” (“All your money won’t another minute buy-hiiiiiiiiiy”) from 1977’s Point of Know Return, was, I think, appropriately criticized by Charley Walters, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide (1979), as “sophomoric philosophizing” (p. 200), and therefore appropriately pastiched, years later, in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). The doom-laden “Dust in the Wind” remains the band’s most popular song, although to my taste the band’s best album from those first six years is Song For America (1975, cover art pictured), which I think also contains the best side (side 1) of music they ever recorded: “Down the Road,” “Song For America,” and “Lamplight Symphony,” all written or co-written by guitarist/keyboardist Kerry Livgren. His departure after 1980’s Audio-Visions dealt the band a serious blow. Kansas’ first album was released the year, 1974, I enrolled at the University of Kansas (not as a true freshman, however). That fall was the first I heard of the band, as it played a free concert in Lawrence coinciding with the beginning of the semester. Given that the band was from Topeka, the state capital, just down the road from Lawrence, it was, as the saying goes, a “big deal” for them to play a concert locally.

The apparatus supporting bands such as Kansas (and Pink Floyd, and so on) was the technology of the synthesizer, the modern recording studio, and FM radio. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, FM radio defined itself by its high brow opposition to Top 40 (“teen,” that is commercialized, music). FM radio was, then, the place to go for more “serious” music, whether that was psychedelic surrealism (called “head” music at the time) or lengthy jams by West Coast bands such as Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Airplane. And that’s just it: FM radio supported, even encouraged, the extended, “orchestral” arrangements by bands such as Kansas. Most certainly Kansas wrote short songs purposefully designed as hits for Top 40 radio (“Down the Road,” as well as the aforementioned “Dust in the Wind”), but the band’s forte was extended compositions and classically styled arrangements. The band’s arrangements, in contrast to its compositions, were always its strongest suit. In this sense, it drew, as did many bands, from the brief but fruitful interchange between the classical and pop worlds.

Perhaps the best way to understand Kansas in the context of the 1970s is to contrast the noise, that is, violence and aggression, of British heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath with the benign, pop stylings of Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles. Although American, Kansas was arguably part of the same outgrowth of British post-Yardbirds experimentalism as Cream, Led Zeppelin, and King Crimson, inheriting, in part, the latter band’s lyrical imagery (mystical and apocalyptic). But the American part of the equation, though, was its allegiance to working class heavy metal bands such as Grand Funk Railroad—which is why it never had the cultural cachet of the other prog-rock bands of the time. For Seventies prog-rock was, just as heavy metal was, the venerable Lester Bangs once observed, born “from machines and electronic appendages.”

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Throat Culture

Having mulled over the issue for the past couple of days, I’ve concluded that those collections of bad cover versions of pop songs performed by celebrities included in the Golden Throats series (4 volumes) are perhaps best understood as examples of travesty rather than burlesque. The difference between the terms resides in intentionality. A burlesque is any work purposefully designed “to ridicule a style, literary form, or subject matter either by treating the exalted in a trivial way or by discussing the trivial in exalted terms (that is, with mock dignity).” Burlesque is a form of derisive imitation achieved by exaggeration. In contrast, a travesty is any novel, play, poem, film, opera, or other creative work that reveals the incompetence of its author/performer. A travesty trivializes a serious subject or composition. “Generally, a travesty achieves its effect through broad humor and through incongruous or distorted language and situations.” Unlike a parody or burlesque, the purpose of which is intentional mockery, a travesty is any work in literature, music, or art that is “so poorly done” that it fails to meet “even the minimum standards” for style, technique, form, and so on.

I used “perhaps” in the first sentence because we no longer adhere to notions of art’s autonomy—any formalist evaluation of the remarkable cover versions included in the Golden Throats series (I say remarkable because they’ve been collected and hence been “distinguished”) is bound to fail, as exemplified, for instance, in those art historians who tried to explain Duchamp’s Fountain (pictured) by appealing to the (traditional) aesthetic category of “beauty.” Duchamp was one of those artists who enabled the transfer from modernism to postmodernism—from art as “work” to art as “text.” Because it is impossible to list the properties of those works susceptible to Duchampian “remotivation” (what he did by placing a urinal in an art gallery), it’s no longer possible to refer comfortably to Golden Throats’ cover versions of rock and country songs as “camp.” In the 1964 essay “On Camp,” Susan Sontag argued, “not everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder” (Against Interpretation, p. 277). The trouble is, of course, it is. What sort of text (or event) cannot be radically re-read, that is, transformed into a travesty? Think of Duchamp’s goateed version of the Mona Lisa, or Mel Brooks films such as The Producers or his remake of To Be Or Not To Be, which send-up Nazism.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Books and Pictures

The Picture of Dorian Gray—the picture acts as a “magic mirror” (as in the story of Snow White), absorbing Dorian Gray’s spiritual ugliness while he remains young and handsome. “In Godard’s A Bout de Souffle Jean Seberg pretends to be happy and insouciant, but, pinned to the wall, just behind her head, life-size photographs of herself looking sad and thoughtful give the game away,” writes Raymond Durgnat (Films and Feelings). Thus pictures, rather like so-called “Freudian slips”—slips of the tongue—give a person away, betraying the actual reality hidden behind the mask, the disjunction between image and reality. It is also possible for pictures within movies to attack characters in a similar fashion: in Hitchcock’s Blackmail, for instance, a laughing clown points his finger at Anny Ondra as she, knife in hand, backs away from a corpse. While pictures can incite the imagination (as in The Who’s “Pictures of Lily,” or the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold”), pictures can also hide or conceal actuality: in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Alex attacks the cat lady with a large plastic sculpture of male genitalia, crushing her skull with it as the camera cuts away to the garish contemporary paintings on the walls. But pictures of the lost object of desire also serve up painful memories of loss, serving as a constant reminder of one’s current singular situation—the Reality Principle. A picture of one’s self can function merely to increase one’s own intense loneliness and isolation, as in George Jones’s romantic ballad, “A Picture of Me (Without You).”

“Who wrote the Book of Love?” a famous song wants to know, and, of course, there is no answer. Books, archives of wisdom and repositories of cultural knowledge, cannot be read—it’s as if they were written in a foreign language. Proclaiming to make the world legible, books, paradoxically, are often indecipherable. “Tell me where the answer lies,” sings Neil Young in “Speakin’ Out.” “Is it in the notebook behind your eyes?” Books also supplement one’s memory—they are the place where things are written down, where lists are compiled, where experiential narratives are recorded, serving as reminders of what to do—or warning of behaviors to avoid. Thousands of words have been written about pictures, and books contain thousands of words; the lyrics to songs about books and pictures are frequently about both the failure of language and of the discrepancy between thought and action.

Books And Pictures A-Z:
ABC – The Look Of Love
The Beatles – Paperback Writer
Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Everyday I Write The Book
Deep Purple – The Book of Taliesyn
Echo and the Bunnymen – Pictures On My Wall/Read It In Books
Filter – Take A Picture
The J. Geils Band – Centerfold
Hüsker Dü – Books About UFOs
The Incredible String Band – Antoine
George Jones – A Picture of Me (Without You)
The Kinks – Picture Book
Love – My Little Red Book
The Monotones – The Book of Love
Nazareth – Why Don’t You Read the Book
Alan O’Day – Undercover Angel
The Police – Don’t Stand So Close to Me
? and the Mysterians – Ten O’Clock
Rod Stewart – Every Picture Tells A Story
Status Quo – Pictures of Matchstick Men
Talking Heads – The Book I Read
U2 – When I Look At the World
Son Volt – Out of the Picture
The Who – Pictures of Lily
XTC – Books Are Burning
Neil Young – Southern Man
The Zombies – Imagine The Swan