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.

Hitler. Insurrection, Conspiracies, & Other Nonsense

It would be nice to admit that I haven't been posting as regularly because I'm just so darn busy.  I really do want to continue telling the story of heavy metal in the way I'm telling it, but every time I sit down to do so, other stuff crowds it out.  The last thing I want to do, the last thing I've ever wanted, is to be just one more voice in the shrill chorus, repeating the bleatings of, well, pretty much anyone.  The gun issue, which all should have known would descend to the depths once Wayne LaPierre walked away from the microphone at his press conference a week after the Sandy Hook shooting, has become ubiquitous.  By and large, as a friend complained quite cogently and eloquently yesterday on Facebook, it has been dominated by idiocy, nonsense, lies, and a kind of spittle-flecked hysteria that doesn't make it possible to talk about what is "really" going on because far too many people are aping Matt Drudge and screeching "Hitler! Stalin!  TYRANNY!!!"

First of all, Hitler never said the things all those stupid Instagrams claim he said.  He didn't confiscate any weapons, or pass draconian gun control laws.  As for Stalin . . . I'm not even sure where to begin with that one.

Furthermore, consider the mindset here.  On one side are folks who are saying something fairly reasonable: ten to twelve thousand Americans - our fellow citizens - are killed every year by firearms.  Owning a firearm is far more likely to result in it being used to injure or kill a family member or friend - anywhere from four to twelve times, depending upon the study cited - than to defend against criminal home invasion.  What's being proposed, at least to my mind, are a series of largely cosmetic controls - limiting the number of rounds a magazine can hold; banning the future sale of "assault weapons" which, as many on the right point out correctly, is a media phrase that refers to no real thing (kind of like "partial birth abortion", but I digress) - that do not address the fundamental issue of rampant gun violence.  I also consider the matter of mental health to be a red herring; most of the people who use firearms in criminal activity are neither clinically mentally ill, or were prior to some pivotal event perhaps bringing on a severe depression or other mitigating factor that causes them to threaten or injure or kill.  Far more prevalent is the kind of rampant insecurity among American men that gets reassurance like the kind offered by Bushmaster in its add for the weapon used at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  If you're a man who needs a gun to feel like a man, you might want to put the gun away and get some help.  Like I said a while back - take off your clothes and look down.  If there's something down there, then you're a man, and you don't need a piece of metal that goes boom to demonstrate that to the world.

Then, consider the whole, "Gun control doesn't work!" nonsense.  Of course it does.  It's worked here in the United States.  It's worked fabulously well in Australia and Scotland.  It takes all of ten seconds to find this information - real information about the real world where real people live - that makes that statement a lie.  If you know it's out there and you repeat it anyway, then you're lying.  If you don't know about it, and someone tells you, and you either refuse to check it out, or don't want to, then you're either lazy, or so far inside the bubble that you can't tell reality from whatever fantasy the gun industry has created for you.

Similarly, saying, "Gun laws don't work because criminals don't follow the law," isn't an argument against gun control per se.  It's an argument against all laws, because people who break the law . . . don't care about laws.  When I'm driving down the road at ten or fifteen miles an hour over the posted speed limit - I don't care about the law!  Does that mean there shouldn't be speed limits?

While we're on the topic of ridiculous things - the Second Amendment to the Constitution has absolutely nothing to do with keeping people armed as a check against government power.  First of all, the text of the Amendment makes that a lie.  Second, the actual debates during the first Congress about the Amendment make it a lie; the Amendment is about preventing the creation of a standing army, which many of the founders considered a threat to republican-style government.  And, really, think about it.  If there were a real military coup in the United States and some yahoo somewhere started taking potshots at the soldiers enforcing some dystopian martial law, trust me when I tell you that would last for about ten seconds.  The US military has much bigger things that go boom, so put your Red Dawn fantasies back in the box.

Finally - no one is suggesting confiscating weapons.  No one.  There is no secret agenda afoot to use this as a way to force people to surrender their guns to the government so Obama can become dictator for life, or whatever the nonsense swirling around is.  Your twelve-gauge shotgun, your standard .22-caliber hunting rifle, or even a larger, say .30-.06 or .30-.30 - they're safe.  No one anywhere - not even folks who want far stricter gun control measures than are being offered (like me) - thinks such a thing would either be workable or even legal.

Really, I just wanted to get this off my chest.  I realize the frothing and shouts of "Agenda 21!  Freedom!" will continue.  I realize "reasonable" has, somehow, disappeared from our national dialogue.  Not just when it comes to guns, but anything.  I've now responded to the weeks and weeks of nonsense, and while it won't even slow it down, at the very least, I've tried to make clear that there is hysteria afoot.

It just isn't coming from folks talking about gun control. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Something To Celebrate

It's been a lousy day, made worse by reading that AIG is so grateful to the federal government for keeping its doors open it is suing, claiming the terms of the bailout violated the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.  There are times I wish public flogging were still legal.

Rather than dwell on something that makes me wish pain and suffering on others, I want to celebrate something wonderful.  First, a photo:
This is Myrlie Evers-Williams.  For those who may not know, her first husband, Medgar Evers, was murdered in his driveway, shot in the back by a man named Byron De La Beckwith.  It took decades for De La Beckwith to be convicted of the crime.  We as a people are still dealing with the horrible creatures that raged unfettered upon our national life when our African-American brothers and sisters demanded they no longer be treated like non-citizens, and therefore non-persons.

Pres. Obama has invited Ms. Evers-Williams to give the invocation as his Inauguration on the 20th.  Four years ago, I was outraged that he picked con-artist Rick Warren to do the same thing.  With this pick, Mr. Obama is demonstrating his understanding of the debt he - and by extension all of us - owe to Ms. Evers-Williams and her martyred husband.

The best prayers don't come from preachers who console us, telling us that God is on our side and we can find the proof if we just find our purpose.  The best prayers come from those who cry out for justice, whose rage at our all-too-human systems of injustice, white supremacy, and state-sponsored terrorism do not settle for easy answers.  The best prayers come from those who know the road to real justice runs straight through the hell of violence and hatred and death that some are all too willing to unleash upon those who are willing to risk their lives for it.

So, thank you, Mr. President, for giving us a few moments to hear the voice of one who understands.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Three Of A Perfect Pair

Eric Clapton was admired among British rock fans for his devotion to a kind of authenticity.  He'd quit two successful bands at the peak of their success because they just weren't bluesy enough.  In the years he'd been around, he became the premiere lead guitar player, surpassing Keith Richards in popularity.  Among the musicians who admired him was drummer Ginger Baker.  Baker was older than Clapton, a Londoner whose roots lay in what the Brits called "trad jazz".  After leaving The Yardbirds, Clapton and Baker would get together and jam and talk about putting a band together.  They wanted just one more person, a bass player and singer (Clapton was still unsure about his ability to sing lead), and there was one person they agreed they did not want: Jack Bruce.

They ended up hiring Jack Bruce.  They called themselves Cream.

The tensions in the trio were heavy.  The music they played was unlike anything aimed at a mass audience; songs rooted in augmented blues harmonics, or alternately simple, repeated musical phrases or "riffs"; it was clear from the beginning that "songs" mattered far less to these three than the simple desire to play.  Live in concert, they would leave the songs behind as quickly as they could, each musician taking off without caring if the other two were following along.  The three-minute pop song was little more than a key opening a door for a kind of musical adventure.  Blues and jazz musicians understood what they were up to; to the general public, however, this was new, this was strange, this was powerful.

It was also not meant to last.  It took only a couple years for Baker and Clapton to become so disgusted with Bruce, who was more interested in popularity and success than a kind of earnest authenticity that came from playing, the band decided to toss in the towel.  Their final show was at the Royal Albert Hall in 1968, a couple years after the three of them got together (trivia point: the opening band for Cream's farewell concert was London's hottest new band, an outfit with a residency at the premiere rock club, The Marquee; they were called Yes and would go on to some success of their own).  Despite the voice over at the beginning, when Clapton introduces "Sunshine Of Your Love", you can hear his frustration at having to play that song again:
Another reason Clapton was giving up on Cream was the emergence the previous year of a young American ex-pat guitar player.  The guy had been a side man for years, playing for Little Richard among other performers.  He'd come to Britain in 1966 because he'd heard there was an audience for electric blues that didn't exist in America.  Former Animals bass player Chas Chandler heard him at a club and decided to manage him.  He went up to the young African-American Army vet and told him that, if he allowed Chandler to find two musicians to play with him, the guitar player could be a star.  They shook hands and the Jimi Hendrix Experience was born.

When the band debuted, there were quite a few well-known names and faces in the crowd.  Musicians had been trading pirated tapes of gigs in London for a while, and some - including Clapton and The Who's Pete Townshend - refused to believe the young man could make his guitar do the kinds of things it sounded like on the tapes.  From the first notes, however, both men fell in to deep funk, realizing they were hearing the future of guitar playing and were well behind the curve:
The lesson from these two hugely successful bands was simple: All it took to make a band were three musicians who could play more than tolerably well, and a whole lot of amplification.  One of the people who learned this lesson was the producer of Cream's second album, Disraeli Gears.  Felix Pappilardi was a bass player as well as record producer, and with Cream's demise, he started thinking of using Cream's formula for a band of his own.  He hooked up with American guitarist Leslie West and Canadian drummer Corky Laing and formed Mountain.  The results made sense when the volume was turned up:

As the 1960's sunset in to the 1970's, another lesson being learned in the vast underground was it didn't take a whole lot of musicians to make a whole lot of sound.  These groups became known as "power trios"; and none demonstrated more dedication to power defined as volume, distortion, and barely-controlled chaos more than the Bay Area band Blue Cheer.  More than each of the above, their cover of the Eddie Cochran hit "Summertime Blues" is often credited as the first true heavy metal song.

Unlike the above bands, the members of Blue Cheer weren't particularly good musicians.  In order to keep the beat, the drummer, bass player, and guitarist all had to be rhythm instruments, making sure they all knew where the beat was.  While playing in a music scene where experimenting with feedback and other noise was accepted, unlike Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Jefferson Airplane, or The Grateful Dead, Blue Cheer stripped everything excessive from their music, reducing it to rhythm and volume as substitutes for a more finessed approach.

The ingredients for what would become, in ensuing decades, an enormous genre of rock music, with enough sub-genres that it makes it difficult not to believe it is its own thing, were there.  A singular dedication to making music as loud as possible.  Using that noise as a vehicle of a different kind of protest.  Taking a crowd by the throat and shaking it with the physical force of the sound.  Thinking creatively about the use of what was thought to be mistakes such as distortion.  The Beatles were gone; the Rolling Stones were losing themselves in drugs, moving in a very different musical direction.  Pop music was becoming dominated by sweet-sounding singer-songwriters whose narcissism would be the perfect soundtrack for the troubled dominant class of the next decade.  Underneath all that, however, were a small group of bands who would, over the course of a decade and a half, change everything about rock music.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Not Everyone Can Have Good Taste

Run here, my towhead granchillen, and let this geezer dandle you upon his knee.  While you still recognize me, you little maniacs.  You know the gong has tolled, it's that time again.  Now let me set my old brain a-ruminatin'; ah, what upbuilding tale from days of yore shall I relate today?
"What's all this shit about the Yardbirds?" - Lester Bangs, "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung", in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, p.5. 

Several of the English psychedelic bands that followed in the wake of Sergeant Pepper drew upon specific characteristics of the band's music most closely associated with classical music, and developed these elements more single-mindedly than either the Beatles or contemporaneous West Coast psychedelic bands the exhibited certain stylistic affinities (especially the Doors and Jefferson Airplane) were wont to.  The Moody Blues, recording their influential Days of Future Passed album with the London Festival Orchestra in late 1967, almost singlehandedly established the concept of "symphonic rock."  - Edward Macan, Rocking The Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture, p.21.

We can't all have good taste. - Marie (Carrie Fisher), When Harry Met Sally
Even as the Beatles and Rolling Stones dominated British rock music, at least from the outside, bands like The Yardbirds, John Mayall's Blues Breakers, and later Cream were hugely successful in their home country.  While The Moody Blues had begun as a Mercy-Beat band out of Liverpool, once original guitarist and songwriter Denny Laine left, the band's sound changed, becoming far more ambitious (Laine would be remembered by fellow Liverpudlian Paul McCartney and land a gig as guitarist in Wings).  1967 produced several seminal works by British rock bands that would influence everything that came after.  Obviously, The Beatles Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but recorded at the same studio at the very same time was Pink Floyd's debut, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.  Finally, later in the year, the Moody Blues released Days of Future Passed, recorded with an orchestra.  Everything that emerged from British music over the next five or so years would be a product of musicians absorbing the lessons from these records.

In 1968, Richie Blackmore, Rod Evans, Jon Lord, Nick Simper, and Ian Paice got together as a backing band for Chris Curtis, the former drummer from another Liverpool band, The Searchers.  They managed to record their first record, Shades of Deep Purple, and even land a hit with a cover of Joe South's "Hush".
What jumps out at the listener is Jon Lord's organ.  Lord, along with Nice keyboard player Keith Emerson, were experimenting with the Hammond organ sound, overdriving it, then running it through the spinning Leslie amplifier.  Blackmore's guitar is less prominent in this song, playing call and response with lead singer Rod Evans while Lord carries the song along, even getting a wonderful solo that features a nice build-up of tension.  Musically, the band was being pushed further and further by Lord, whose classical training drove the band to finally record with a symphony orchestra just a year and a half later.  While the band did release some radio hits, including a cover of the Neil Diamond song "Kentucky Woman", the band had its collective eyes on bigger things.

The commercial and critical failure of Concerto for Group and Orchestra pushed Blackmore to take the reins, musically.  They released more traditional rock albums over the next couple years until 1972, when they released Machine Head, an album that included "Highway Star", "Space Truckin'", and the anthemic "Smoke On The Water".  While Lord's organ was still prominent, Blackmore's guitar was further forward in the mix.  They had replaced their bass player and singer in the intervening years, and Ian Gillain's distinct vocal style and Roger Glover's bass, doing the work a bass guitar is supposed to do, gave Deep Purple's sound something distinctive but not unique.

That big, rolling organ sound played by Deep Purple and The Nice (and later ELP), was picked up by another British band.  Unlike either the Nice or ELP, Deep Purple showed how powerful keeping both the organ and a heavily distorted and highly amplified guitar could be, provided the lead singer had the ability to cut through the noise in those days of poor amplification.  One such singer was David Byron, who along with guitarist Mick Box, formed Uriah Heep around the same Deep Purple came together.  When they added keyboardist Ken Hensley (who wrote the best liner notes I've ever read on a rock album), they sounded similar to Deep Purple, yet not quite the same.  For one thing, unlike Deep Purple, who stripped away the pretense and went for simple chord progressions, staple to the point of cliche lyrics, and both a recorded and on-stage presence that relied far more on free-wheeling blues-inspired improvisation than meticulous arranging, Uriah Heep wasn't afraid of taking musical risks, all the while keeping the beat steady, the volume turned way up, and letting the songs grow.

In 1968, some musicians living in a commune in Germany recorded a day-long jam session.  Rather than go through the hassle, they released snippets and portions over the years under the name Amon Duul.  Some of the commune members, however, expressing more ambition, started to mix their jamming with actual song-writing.  Continuing their hippy preference to keep conflict at a minimum, they called themselves Amon Duul II.  By 1972, while not making any commercial headway, they were an underground success both in their native West Germany as well as in other countries, in particular Great Britain.  While one can hear the noodling, one can also hear the fusing of ideas in the midst of very loud, very distorted guitars and bass.
While often credited as the basis for what became known through the decade of the 1970's as Krautrock, in fact both in sound and attitude Amon Duul would have a far bigger impact both on British Heavy Metal and the development of later metal styles, most especially what's been called "Stoner Metal".

In the cacophony of musical sounds that typified the end of the 1960's and beginning of the 1970's, hearing in all these disparate styles, in the midst of all the noise and distortion, the experimentation and reliance on tradition, a few bands were beginning to make a name for being very loud; for taking risks in composition and arrangement; for experimenting with timbres that might seem uncomfortable; and for taking lyrical risks by moving away from the "Boy Meets Girl" subject matter even of mid-1960's rock and explore everything from questions of life and death to letting their fancies take flight.  The only thing that seemed to link them together was a dedication to volume.  Yet, without even wanting to do so, and without their permission, it seemed pretty clear by the second or third year of the 1970's that something new was being born.

Someone called it "Heavy Metal", after a line in a Steppenwolf song referring to the roar of motorcycle engines, and the name, for better and worse, stuck.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More