Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Music Must Change

For all his intelligence and insight, David Hajdu falls in to an all too familiar trap. In a section of Heroes and Villains in which he discusses the perils and possibilities of aging pop and jazz stars - Elvis Costello, Sting, Abbey Lincoln - he takes a moment to take an a cliched swipe at the alleged pretensions of late-60's, early-70's British progressive rock, getting his facts wrong in the process of arguing from a perspective of alleged authenticity. Neither Genesis nor King Crimson released any albums made with orchestras. Genesis only made one concept piece, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Yes, Rick Wakeman did wear a pointy hat and flowing, spangled cape, perform with a full orchestra for his solo album Journey to the Center of the Earth, and bands like Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, and Van Der Graf Generator sought in earlier musical styles and forms ways to enliven their music, keep it interesting to themselves as musicians and their audiences.

Emerging in the very late 1960's, in the wake of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Moody Blues Days of Future Past, progressive rock coalesced as a general term form a small group of (mostly English) bands who combined a certain technical ability, musical knowledge, and adventurous spirit, wondering if it was possible to make of the popular music of the day - rock and roll, which, as Yes bassist Chris Squire said, really means Elvis Presley; and rock, which emerged with Bob Dylan turning on amplifiers and adding The Band as his backup, followed by imitators from The Byrds and The Rascals to the San Francisco sound - something more than just blues changes and screeching guitars. This is not to say there is anything wrong with blues-based rock, or the blues in general. On the contrary, one blues-based band, Led Zepellin, also incorporated elements associated with "prog" as it was known, in many of their songs, cheek by jowl with the blues (Zepellin also incorporated elements from non-Western, particularly Moroccan music, heard on "Kashmir"; Robert Fripp of King Crimson would investigate and incorporate Indonesian gamelan during the period he was away from active recording and performing in the late 1970's, incorporating it in to later King Crimson music).

The existence of prog, and its on-going presence as prog merged with heavy metal, and related styles like jazz fusion - from The Mahavishnu Orchestra to the various Canterbury bands like Soft Machine and Matching Mole - is usually dismissed as self-indulgence, or, what's worse, surrendering the primal rebelliousness of rock, rooted in an adolescent celebration of bare-bones minimalist aesthetic and technique in a quest to make the music less angry, less primal, and (let's face it) less black. These criticisms all fail for me for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is the question begged by those who, as Hajdu does in his ignorant dismissal of the pretentiousness of some of the worst of prog, is, why not do this musical exploration?

Who says rock has to sound like Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones? Who says that the 12-bar blues is the only authentic rock form? If a musician with an ear for classical guitar - Steve Hackett from Genesis, say - or jazz - Robert Fripp, Bill Bruford, Alan Holdsworth - want to take certain elements from those musical styles and incorporate them in a rock setting, why not? The results could be bad; anyone listening to the attempts at group improvisation King Crimson tried during their 1972-1974 incarnation could conclude pretty easily that the attempt fails far more than it succeeds. On the other hand, group improv that results in song structure - again, the bulk of King Crimson's early 1970's recorded output was little more than refined jams with a lyrical pastiche - could be both beautiful and ear-shattering (Fripp considered this edition of Crimson to be little more than a heavy metal band, and songs like "Lark's Tongue in Aspic, Part II", "Red", and "Fracture" are, indeed, heavy metal).

Hajdu, in particular, insists as do many other critics that rock and roll, as it emerged in the 1950's as a part of adolescent rebellion, is most clearly rock and roll when it sticks to its roots in adolescence and adolescents. There is a certain amount of truth to that. The success, in England, of punk as an indigenous musical and social rebellion against the overbearing conformity of Britain's class system and the overweening presence of bands as diverse as Pink Floyd, Led Zepellin, and the Rolling Stones who had become far too big, far too unwieldy, and far too expensive to see live testifies to the power of music-based revolt. Yet, for all the punk succeeded, to a certain extent at least in Britain, and was much adored by rock critics in America (one reads Lester Bangs' articles on the early Clash as one reads someone's love notes from high school, with a smile on one's face and a shake of the head at wearing one's heart on one's sleeve like that), it really didn't change anything. Indeed, reaching back behind not only prog and the blues revival in Britain, but even the Beatles by imitating 12-bar, three-chord blues changes, played at high volume and very fast, one could argue it was not so much a revolution against an overly-bourgeois music, but a reaction, a kind of Heideggerian overcoming of modernity that sought not so much the future but Jung's and Heidegger's primordial past. It's primitivism - one can still hear it in bands today, like The White Stripes who sound barely competent on their instruments, and early records from Green Day who do little more than strum or beat their instruments as loud and fast as they can, screaming out their insecurities because that was the only way to be heard over the amplified din - is part of its allure. Yet, it is a primitivism that is rooted in a false yearning for a golden age that never was.

As Hajdu also points out, those early rock and rollers didn't want to rebel. Chuck Berry was a country-western musician who also liked the standards. Elvis Presley wanted to be a crooner like Perry Como. They fell in to the music more out of lack of opportunity than anything else, due to racism and class bias. The music that emerged, for all its edginess and novelty, bore signs of thoughtfulness rather than thoughtless emoting. While teenagers may have embraced it not least because of its novelty, for those initial performers, it was just a stage along a journey in a career they all hoped would be long and varied. Berry's career was long, but not all that varied. Presley's career was shorter, a bit more varied, but he was constantly harassed by critics, and his manager Col. Tom Parker attacked as a svengali, for giving Elvis exactly the career he wanted - a lounge singer cum movie star.

Yet, even granting these realities, we are to reject what emerged in the wake of the musical experimentation of the late-1960's because it refused to stand still and accept iron-clad rules set down, for the most part, by non-musicians. Now, it is certainly true, as even Rick Wakeman acknowledges, that the music didn't always work and the musicians were occasionally, in his word, "pompous". One need only listen to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's live album to understand that reality. Then again, every musical style has its duds and flops, its failures, those who take two steps past the point where experimentation becomes true self-indulgence. Hell, even the Beatles flopped - The Magical Mystery Tour ring a bell?

At the end of the day, no musical style really needs a defense against critics. If musicians are honest in their appreciation and use of it; if audiences respond positively to it; if it offers to both musicians and audience something more, some aesthetic experience that is complete - it works. No one, not least the musicians who performed it, would ever argue that Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother was a rock and roll album.

That doesn't make it bad, or evil, or unmusical.

It just makes it what it is.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More