Saturday, January 12, 2013

Can't Find My Way Home

Imagine yourself, as you are now, suddenly finding yourself waking up in the mid-1970's.  Apart from all the superficial differences - gas costs what?!?! don't they sell bras for young women? - if you're a music fan, you will find yourself bewildered by the labels fixed to various music*.  There will be bands of which you might have heard, like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple.  Some of the biggest acts are bands who, by the middle of the decade, are running out of ideas and starting to sound either tired or pompous and in any case boring.

If you peruse magazines covering the music industry like Rolling Stone and Creem, you will probably find yourself bewildered by the far-too-cavalier assignment of the label "heavy metal" to certain bands and music. Even more odd, those bands that you, a refugee from forty years later, are credited with creating this particular style, are upset over the label and refuse to wear it!

You turn on the radio or flip through the pages of a magazine and you'll find the label used to describe the American power trio Grand Funk Railroad.

While you might not hear it on the radio, you'll hear the label used to describe King Crimson.

In short, the label seemed tossed about without reference to much of anything other than a dedication to playing the electric guitar really loudly.  The record companies, always on the lookout for the next big thing, signed bands with reckless abandon.  The times were flush enough that they could support a pop music centered on navel-gazing singer/songwriters like James Taylor and Paul Simon, while more traditional rock bands like The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead, continued to produce music, sometimes the finest of their careers, by-and-large under the radar of the mainstream.  Music dumped in various categories - progressive, heavy metal, hard rock - was treated either with disdain or adoration, depending upon whether one was a critic or fan, yet the fans, far more than the critics, were wary of such labeling, at least at the time.

In sum, by the middle of the decade, much of the creative flourish of the turn of the decade was wearing itself out, with copycats and third-tier musicians and bands filling up the space needed on radio playlists.  Heavy metal, while birthed by many and was yet to flower completely, was either dismissed as noise for noise's sake, or even (on more than one occasion) declared dead.  Yet, "dead" was far more descriptive of the creative energies that had fueled the rise of so many different bands, looking and sounding distinct.  Mass marketing, the pressure to surpass each previous recording, and the desire to keep doing something new had drained many musicians and bands to the point where moving forward seemed impossible (indeed, in 1974, Robert Fripp would break up King Crimson and retire from performing rock music for five years; the bands posthumous release, Red, was perhaps the clearest indication why that was a smart move).

The repeated declarations of the death of rock and roll, like the epitaphs for jazz or the blues, ignored the fact that while the biggest bands might be running out of new ideas, there is, as there has always been, a fresh stream of younger musicians who want to take what they've heard and apply their own imprimatur upon it.  Indeed, before the decade was out, as Britain in particular was gripped by the shooting star of punk, then post-punk, and the major record labels scrambled playing catch-up, several bands were listening to the heavy metal being played on the radio and thinking, "I can do this better."  One such group, formed in Black Sabbath's hometown of Birmingham, was, like Sabbath, rooted in the blues.  Their visual style borrowed heavily from the American west, with their lead singer, Rob Halford, often appearing on stage wrapped in fringed suede and cowboy boots and the two lead guitarists, K. K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, wearing cowboy hats.  While Halford and Tipton were late additions to the band - it had originally formed in 1970, and Halford and Tipton would be added in 1973 and 1974 respectively - it had already been touring heavily in England and, in 1974, managed to snag a record contract after a heavy tour of Scandinavia.  Their first record, Rocka Rolla, was released to almost universal silence.  It makes sense, as there was little to distinguish the record from hundreds of other recordings flooding the market at the time.  A careful listener, however, might hear shades of something different, an attempt to take the music someplace different.
As with many other types of music, making a particular sound takes time.  It takes effort.  It takes a willingness to embrace some things while letting other things fall by the wayside.  Finally, it includes a willingness to take risks, and there is one more element from the early- to mid-1970's where "risk" was presented in huge splashes of light and theatrics, risks that would pay off for decades to come in ways that few would realize at the time.

*I think it's also important to note the role the record companies played both in insisting on labeling music using different categories.  There is also the problem of musical segregation, as well as stylistic segregation.  As a child growing up in the 1970's, I listened to and enjoyed funk and soul music, but was bewildered by the fact it just wasn't played on the radio in my little corner of rural, upstate New York.  The impact of social and economic changes is an important part of the story, and one to which I shall repair at some point, but I just wanted to note that it is in my mind even if I don't make it explicit.

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