Saturday, January 05, 2013

What Is This That Stands Before Me?

It has been a long time now, and not many remember how it was in the old days, not really.  Not even those who were there to see and hear as it happened, who were pressed in the crowds beneath the dim rosy lights of the bar in the smoke-veiled room, and who shared, night after night, the mysterious spell created by the talk the laughter, grease paint, powder, perfume, sweat, alcohol and food - all blended and simmering, like a stew on the restaurant range, and brought to a sustained moment of elusive meaning by the timbres and accents of musical instruments locked in passionate recitative.  It has been too long now, some seventeen years. - Ralph Ellison, The Golden Age, Time Past, in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, p.237. 
Even this cursory survey would suggest that the single label 'heavy metal' is inadequate with respect to style.  If Chambers's placing of this music in the mainstream of rock culture is correct, there are both room and cause for a great deal of research.  Two particular questions would seem worthy of further exploration.  First, to what extent do the subtle differences between difference brands of 'metal' (about which fanatics make great play) equate to difference of musical style; and second, to what extent are such differences accompanied by similar differences in the use to which the music is put, and hence its significance for the style's respective audiences? - Allan F. Moore, Rock, The Primary Text: Toward A Musicology of Rock, p. 151. 
The group performs with all the restraint and sophistication of four Cro-Magnon hunters who've stumbled upon a rock band's equipment after a bad day chasing meat. - Paul Battiste, Creem Magazine, 1971, quoted in Bad Music: The Music We Love To Hate, p.228 
Writing about the past creates a host of difficulties, not least because we know what comes next.  Whether it's the French Revolution, the American space program, or the history of a musical style, how is it possible, so many years after the fact, even to attempt to capture the contingency and confusion of a moment and time, seeing what was in fact all confusion and questioning, and extract what "really" happened, rather than what we wish had happened, or what we are told, over and over again, really did happen?  For that very reason, even the best histories are false, partial tales told to create beginnings that never existed so all, both writer and reader, can reach the conclusion we all know is: the present.

It is an impossible task.  Each day, each moment of time is a seething mass of possibility, of passing away and coming to be, and no one, despite wisdom and understanding and insight, really knows which is which.  Who could really know that a bunch of kids sitting in a garage in California in the 1970's would, quite literally, change the way we human beings do everything from talk on the phone to defend ourselves from military threats to ring up purchases at the grocery store?  Had you been standing there, a silent witness to their efforts, wouldn't your real thought be, "Wow.  What a bunch of nerds"?

Despite this inherent impossibility, we are pushed to try.  So, take what follows with a grain of salt.

As 1969 faded to 1970, at least in the British music scene, there was confusion, mixed with possibility, mixed with utter chaos.  The Beatles, who for better and worse had dominated popular music for the last half of the decade, were gone.  The Rolling Stones, retreating from the horror at Altamont in December, 1969, were licking their self-inflicted wounds, all the while both sinking further in to various dissipations and on the verge of creating their greatest music ever.  The Who, arguably at a level just below these juggernauts, were trying to wrap up endless performances of Tommy, while Pete Townshend started to picture another, even more elaborate and visionary project he was calling "Lighthouse".

What had been, for a time a few years before, "Swinging London", had fractured.  There were still models and actresses mingling with musicians and artists; the biggest of each, however, had peeled off and paired up, while those left, some of them most definitely second-tier on any number of levels, struggled in the midst of the confusion, to take what had been before and turn it all around.  In the summer of 1969, before heading to America and the tour that would end so violently at a race track in California, the Rolling Stones held a free concert in London's Hyde Park.  Trying to fill out a day's worth of music, one of the bands they picked to open the show had been making a name for itself in and around Britain, including doing time at the famed Marquee Club.  King Crimson took the stage before half a million stoned and happy Londoners and offered a very different version of power that had no flowers in it at all.

At the same time, a blues band from Birmingham was having trouble gigging.  Calling themselves Earth, they didn't discover for a while they were getting bookings because there was a pop band by the same name; folks showed up to hear horn-inflected pop, and were receiving heavy doses of low-end amplified blues.  Struggling both for a name and an identity that suited the music they were trying to make, bass player Terry Butler, whose nickname "Geezer" was a cockney slang term similar to the American "dude" or "guy", thought it might be fun to use Hammer Studios as an influence.  Like many young men at the time, they loved the horror films the British movie studio was turning out.  Butler also had an interest in the occult, a British habit that struggled on despite the waning of the Empire.  He told the band a story about something that happened to him after buying a grimoire, and showed them some partial lyrics to a poem he'd written about the event.

Messing around with alternate tunings and chord changes, not least because he was still re-learning to play the guitar after losing the tips of two fingers from his right hand, Tony Iommi played three chords at odd intervals.  Three simple notes.  Singer John "Ozzy" Osbourne, a boy who had been a target of a younger, bullying Iommi's at school, toned down the blues shouting, doing more of a singing-recitative approach, staying within the alternate chord changes Iommi had come up with.

In about an hour, all but the bridge - a section in which the basic structure of the song remained, only speeded up much faster - had been worked out, and the band decided not only to use the title on the movie marquee across the street as the title to the song; they thought it would most definitely get them attention as a band, as well.
Heaviness was in the air.  The biggest band to emerge from the wreckage of so much of what had been a successful London-based British music scene in the late 1960's was led by former session guitarist Jimmy Page.  He had tried to revive the Yardbirds name, but after a couple shows it was clear the band he put together had nothing to do with the hugely popular late-60's blues-based rock band.  Pete Townshend, after hearing them live, told Page and lead singer Robert Plant the band was a failure, and would go over like a lead zeppelin.  Thus, when he needed a new name to book his band, Page tossed a middle finger at Townshend, naming the band after the insult.

On their debut LP, released in 1969, Led Zeppelin included a song, "Dazed and Confused", an unacknowledged cover of a song released two years previously by British folk-rock performer Jake Holmes.  Robert Plant changed all but the title, and the band not only slowed the song down considerably; they turned the volume on their amplifiers way up.  The result, in particular the breaks when the band switches from a mezzo-piano statement of the basic melodic/harmonic components to a fortissimo crash of distorted guitar and bass while the drummer, John Bonham, demonstrates that for the next decade he will not be known for subtlety, was both odd and electrifying.  Musically, the song seems an exercise not only in playing with guitar sounds, with Page and Plant playing call and response, but also dynamics; as the song switches between almost too soft to be heard to almost too loud to bear.  While the band was panned by critics, there is little doubt musicians and fans were listening.
In many ways, these two songs are far more similar than many (including the performers themselves).  Both bands claimed roots in American blues, although in many ways Black Sabbath would demonstrate far more fealty to basic blues harmonies than the alleged traditionalists in Led Zeppelin.  Both songs begin slowly, almost glacially.  The lyrics, at least initially, float above non-existent melodic lines, the instruments far more concerned with the chord changes, anchoring the vocal melody rather than doubling it or harmonizing with it. Finally, the bridges and breaks of both songs are both far louder and far faster than what went before.  Listening to them side by side, one can hear the similarities.

To say, however, that Black Sabbath would emerge with their first LP in March 1970 as the creators of a new style of music ignores the milieu in which they played, and from which they emerged.  The opening sound effects on "Schizoid Man" are far too similar to those on "Black Sabbath"; the song structures of "Black Sabbath" and "Dazed and Confused" are far too similar to be set to one side ex post facto.  None of this is to say the bands were ripping one another off in any way; neither is it to say there was some weird "heavy" vibe in the air the bands were tapping in to, as if by magic.  Rather, it is to suggest that the bands, posed with the singular question any group of young musicians face - how do we sound different? How do we sound like us? - were using similar tools and techniques, solving various problems of composition, arrangement, and performance, in ways that were both unique to each band, yet similar in approach.

At the time, the band most fans and critics figured would go on to fame and fortune was King Crimson; before 1969 was over, however, the band had collapsed, with guitarist Robert Fripp managing to hold on long enough to get a second LP out of the original line-up before they went their separate ways.  Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath moved down very different musical paths, each to success of a kind, yet never enjoying (at least until many years later) the kind of critical acknowledgement that, while never overriding, is still important to any performer.  For all that would follow in the years to come, 1970 offered these - along with many other heavy bands, whether the American Grand Funk Railroad and Blue Cheer or the British bands Vanilla Fudge and Jethro Tull - in a swirling mass of sound from which it was literally impossible to discern any trend other than LOUD.

Which is only to say that what happened subsequently would only be understood retrospectively.  In the beginning there may well have been "Black Sabbath" - band, song, LP - yet at the time there was so much else, distinguishing one sound in the cacophony took repeated listenings, a discerning ear, and the desire to hear more in what is offered at the present than even the performers themselves understand. 

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