Monday, February 13, 2012

"Do I understand your question": Alan F. Moore's Rock: The Primary Text

It seems to me that our concern with the music includes, but does not begin from, the ways that it is used: in other words, the aesthetic question is primary, as I have suggested in the introduction. Our concern has to begin from the sounds, because until we cognize the sounds, until we have created an internal representation on the basis of their assimilation, we have no musical entity to care about, or to which to give value. Once sounds have been produced, nobody is in a position to exclusively determine how they are to be taken . . . . This does not mean that the musical text may be considered to arise ex nihilo. It is produced by groups of musicians working in social contexts, but they are not my primary concern. I am far less interested in uncovering the circumstances which produced the music than I am in exploring how listeners may respond to it.
Rock: The Primary Text, Developing a musicology of Rock, 2d edition, p. 17
In 1991, British musicologist Philip Tagg wrote, but never published, an exhaustive study of the song "Fernando" by the 70's pop group ABBA. If this seems odd, it should be noted that sociologist and rock critic Simon Frith once wrote, rather caustically, that it would be ridiculous to claim one person's enjoyment of ABBA was similar to another's enjoyment of Mozart. Such a sentiment, coming from one who admitted in his most thorough work on the sociology and history of rock and roll that he was completely ignorant when it came to studying the music itself, and never bothered to educate himself in the rudiments of such study, rang like a challenge. Tagg picked it up, examining everything from the provenance of the song, its recording and production, its popularity and critical reception, and its performance versus recorded textures. Toward the end, he wrote (in Rock: The Primary Text, p.217):
[A]ny discussion of mass culture or mass society in general will need to include analyses of musical meaning, for it is in the non-verbal forms of symbolic representation that emotional level of social, cultural, political and ideological meaning are to be found. . . . if cultural theorists, sociologists, linguists, etc. are not prepared to take music into consideration in their discussion of symbolic production in contemporary society and if musicians and musicologists are not prepared to shoulder the responsibility this lays on them to demystify their art and its hieroglyphics, we will be left with little or not viable cultural theory of our own times.
Part of the Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series, in Rock: The Primary Text, Developing a Musicology of Rock, British musicologist Alan Moore goes one step further. With the rise of rock in Britain, from the mid-1960's through the 1990's (the first edition was published in 1993; the second edition was published in 2001), amid all the critical and social and political clamorings concerning the music, the development of various styles, millions of words by fans and journalists and sometimes even the musicians themselves, there had yet to be an attempt to analyze the music itself, to understand what "rock" was, what its variants might (or might not) be, and therefore be able to place it more fully and completely within the context of British society and culture in the last half of the 20th century.

I first heard of this book when I bought Edwin Macan's Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture in 1997. Macan says, on page 7, that Moore "attempt[s] nothing less than to create the first stylistic survey of rock from its inception to the present." While ambitious, Moore doesn't quite do that. His focus is far narrower, and the question of "style" - what it is, how it functions, whether the labels we put on various musical styles have any meaning beyond contingent groupings from what Moore calls "competent listeners" - is contested space. Indeed, the Introduction of Moore's book bothers itself quite a bit attempting to define the word "rock", as opposed, say, to rock-and-roll or pop. Nevertheless, the book is, indeed, ambitious in scope. At the same time, it is focused, one might almost call it lean. While hardly eschewing technical detail - it is, primarily, a textbook for musicologists - the work functions as a guide for piercing through much of historical, critical, and journalistic slurry that has accumulated over the decades regarding the music.

One of the chief virtues of Moore's work is the way the analysis of songs, and even bodies of work, can go a long way toward "demystifying" (to use Tagg's terminology) even an artist's understanding of his or their work. The first big rock movement in Britain next to the Beatles was the so-called "blues revival", fueled by John Mayall's Blues Breakers and The Yardbirds. Two guitarists who played in the latter group, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, are on voluminous record regarding their indebtedness to American blues. Clapton claimed he left The Yardbirds on principle; the band, he said, just wasn't bluesy enough, so he formed Cream. When The Yardbirds finally disintegrated, Page picked up some of those pieces and formed Led Zeppelin. As the revival was petering out, some of those influenced by the initial burst of energy formed bands of their own, among the first and most popular was Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac. For decades, critics, journalists, fans, and the musicians themselves have simply repeated, without too much thought, that these three groups - Cream, Led Zeppelin, (the early) Fleetwood Mac - are electrified blues. Using the tools of musicological analysis, however, leads to the conclusion, as Moore states on p. 76, "the 'inspiration' which some critics suggest the blues supplied is hard to sustain."
It may be that the enrichment of techniques found among the musicians discussed here can be put down to their assumed appropriation of the blues, but in reality, this 'blues ideology' was grafted on to stylistic practices which it only partly fitted.
Only Fleetwood Mac, it seems, was a "blues" band - using simple I-IV-V, twelve bar forms. While both Led Zeppelin and Cream did cover blues songs - Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson, most notably - their own compositions bore little to no resemblance to any accepted understanding of "the blues". Without taking the primary text - the songs - as a guide, this cannot be understood clearly.

Moore also explores matters of authenticity, inspiration, and the perceived contrast - among critics, in particular, but also self-described fans as well - between what is too often considered the careful construction (and over-construction) of the songs of some British progressive rock bands, as opposed to the far less careful, far more immediate songs of other performers. While some work has already been done on the question of authenticity in popular music, Moore cuts through much of the thickets surrounding the debate on these contested matters by comparing "The Knife", a song of Genesis' Trespass album, and Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks". Without belaboring the point too much (the discussion begins on p. 93, included in a larger discussion of the rise of the concept album), criticizing any particular song as "crafted" as opposed to another that seems less so, without actually analyzing the song structure, can reveal ignorance as much as anything. Few songs, indeed whole albums, were more calculated and carefully crafted as music (and, I might add, as entertainment; Van Morrison, by creating a certain mystique both about the writing and recording of this beautiful record, as well as himself as a performer, was a marketing genius) than Astral Weeks. While certainly different in style and detail from Genesis, one cannot claim the former is somehow less "carefully crafted". One may consider Genesis' music less appealing for any number of reasons; ignoring the songs in question as songs, however, begs the question one claims to be answering.

Moore's work moves through British blues, progressive and heavy metal, to punk and the post-punk styles, in each case being clear that part of his task concerns the labels or "styles" we give to the varieties of music. While they may share certain common features, as the foregoing make clear, there are many cross-currents and much interchange among what many believe, even insist, are discrete styles. The labels, and the styles to which they refer, may well break down upon analysis of the musical texts themselves.

While I find Macan's attempt to place musical styles within a larger sociological framework (I say attempt because, by and large, I find his treatment of the initial and subsequent audiences for English Progressive Rock to be both superficial and lacking in nuance) to be a far richer way of finding the meaning of music within the larger context of social and cultural life, it bears repeating that without an attempt at analyzing music qua music, there is no way to come to terms with the meaning the music has. Relying upon historical accounts, without those accounts taking in to consideration musical detail, also fail in the end to give us as full an understanding as we might otherwise prefer. Moore's work is a good beginning in reframing our discussions of rock music by insisting on the primacy of the songs themselves.

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