“sacred cows make the best hamburgers” // notes on poptimism

So I thought this item was up on Sunday, but apparently not. It’s been a great week for me, with esteemed kudos for Stealing All Transmissions coming from unexpected places (here and here), which has left me nearly speechless. I did want to offer a few words, though, and pick up the theme of poptimism/rockism (see here, pt. 1 and here).

I am happy for the most part with the poptimistic turn of music criticism, and I’m fine with the attack on specious hierarchies–good stuff. Still, with the “everything-is-awesome” ethos of poptimism (okay, I know it’s not quite fair, but bear with me), we don’t have the type of rockist criticism that created the sacred cows of the rock pantheon, including Elvis, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. The kind of sacred cows that Abbie Hoffman once noted, make the best hamburgers.

Now, the best practitioners of punk passed their O(edipus) levels, and set their sights on more trenchant issues, but even Sleater-Kinney, on their fifth LP, were taking the piss out of Led Zeppelin IV’s best-known track (“You always play the same old song / play another song”).

(And, if you want a less pitchy version, here ya go.)

There’s also Talking Heads’ “Heaven,” which takes on the Zep tune, for it “plays all night long.” And my hometown favorites, Pavement (Stockton in the house!), who find the “elegant bastards” of The Stone Temple Pilots to be stone-deaf and tedious.

Ah, the good old days … have a delightful holiday from work, lovely readers, especially if it’s the equivalent of a paid holiday!

caught between (hard) rockism and a poptimistic place, pt. II

Happy Sunday, folks! I’m still abuzz from seeing producer/engineer Glyn Johns last night at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archive, where he shared a few stories from Sound Man, his memoir out this week, and offered brief but telling replies to questions such as:

Glyn Johns middle, between a couple blokes you may recognize, circa 1969.
Glyn Johns middle, between a couple blokes you may recognize, circa 1969.

Q: “What was the most amazing thing you saw John Bonham do in the studio?”

A: “Show up.”

No more elaboration was forthcoming, and none was needed.

Johns is a rock hall inductee, 2012, and few others can claim to have been front-and-center to the making of so many albums in the rock canon. He worked with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones (Beggars Banquet, Exile, et. al.), Led Zeppelin, The Who (Who’s Next, Who Are You), and The Clash, and he spoke affectionately about capturing what the band was capable of, not what he was capable of once the band had left the studio.

For Johns (and for many fans of a rockist variety), the resonance of the beauty was possible because of the labor time entailed in musicianship, in part, but more so in what the band is capable of together as a unit. That unit proved its mettle (to paraphrase Joe Strummer) in front of audiences, and thereby figured out what worked (and what didn’t) by way of their fans. (The late Beatles, of course, are the compelling exception.)

On the drive home last night, I had my first listen to a live rendition of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for my Man,” circa 1968, from the forthcoming anniversary packaging of Velvet Underground. This rendition of “Waiting” isn’t quite syncopated, but it abandons the drone quality of its vinyl version, and represents a band, well, I’ll turn it over here to Dave Hickey and a quote from his brilliant essay on jazz vs. rock’n’roll in Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (1997)–which, if you don’t own it, should be the book you buy right after that book on The Clash (fun review here) that just came out.

Still vital, nearly 20 years hence.
Still vital, nearly 20 years hence.

“Rock-and-roll, on the other hand, presumes that the four of us–as damaged and anti-social as we are–might possibly get it to-fucking-gether, man, and play this simple song. And play it right, okay? Just this once, in tune and on the beat. But we can’t. The song’s too simple, and we’re too complicated and too excited. We try like hell, but the guitars distort, the intonation bends, and the beat just moves, imperceptibly, against our formal expectations, whether we want it to or not. Just because we’re breathing, man. Thus, in the process of trying to play this very simple song together, we create this hurricane of noise, this infinitely complicated, fractal filigree of delicate distinctions.

“And you can thank the wanking eighties, if you wish, and digital sequencers, too, for proving to everyone that technologically ‘perfect’ rock–like ‘free’ jazz–sucks rockets. Because order sucks. I mean, look at the Stones. Keith Richards is always on top of the beat, and Bill Wyman, until he quit, was always behind it, because Richards is leading the band and Charlie Watts is listening to him and Wyman is listening to Watts. So the beat is sliding on those tiny neural lapses, not so you can tell, of course, but so you can feel it in your stomach. And the intonation is wavering, too, with the pulse in the finger on the amplified string. This is the delicacy of rock-and-roll, the bodily rhetoric of tiny increments, necessary imperfections, and contingent community. And it has its virtues, because jazz only works if we’re trying to be free and are, in fact, together. Rock-and-roll works because we’re all a bunch of flakes. That’s something you can depend on, and a good thing too, because in the twentieth century, that’s all there is: jazz and rock-and-roll. The rest is term papers and advertising.”

Now, there’s a good case to be made that the conditions available to be that sort of rock band were not democratically available back in the day–today, well, that’s a good question, one I hope to return to before too long.

Thanks for tuning in this week to Radio-SAT. On this week’s version of The Spirit of ’77 (Th., 5-6pm, EST, @ wobc.org), the theme is punks grown-up: I’ll be spinning discs 15 years+ into their careers, by bands and musicians who embodied the spirit of ’77. It should be fun.

caught between rockism and a poptimistic place

Good morning, good readers, and happy All Saints Day to you all. I hope hallow’s eve allowed you to pursue transgressions of identity and bourgeois norms, which can still be found in odd forms in the west these days. Today, I have the rockism vs. poptimism archetypes on my mind, and hope to clarify the utility of these broadsides for fandom, historiography, and contemporary criticism. Today I’ll review some of the key texts, and follow-up in another post about its implications.

Twitter is, of course, good for gauging what’s trending, but twitter can be equally nostalgic, especially when it comes to music. Music in Pictures posts scores of pix from great bands from the 60s through the present day, with an aesthetic that indicates his twitter handle — “punkasfuck65” — is not nearly as stringent as you might expect. Consider The Cure, for example, an MiP fave, who were likely one of the first bands subject to the broadside of rockism when the broadside makes its debut in the English press in 1981:

“The sneers about ‘rockism’ from critics and the standard pose of many currently-‘in’ Brit bands” (Sounds, Mar. 1981).

The sneers were levied against the rise of the well-coiffed and brightly-coutured lads in the Bryan Ferry mold, too, as well as those lads who donned as much eye make-up as Siouxsie Sioux. On “To Cut a Long Story Short,” the debut single of Spandau Ballet, Alan Lewis noted in prescient terms,

“There’s nothing here that’s going to surprise anyone who’s had even a casual ear on post-synthesizer rock … It is a good record using the modern technology in a warmer, more organic way … the lead vocal [is not] the usual alienated robot wimp but a big, mature full bodied roar. This is clearly NOT the work of a bunch of out-of-work hairdressers who’ve managed to stumble through a few gigs, but a massively competent record by a band with plenty in reserve” (Sounds, Nov. 1980).

Ouch: sorry Flock of Seagulls! See-and-listen for yourself:

From the Oxford English Dictionary: “rockism (n. 2) 1. Adherence to a conventional or orthodox approach to rock music; (also) the belief that rock music is superior to other forms of popular music by virtue of its authenticity, artistic integrity, and lack of commercial motivation.”

The problem of rockism is nicely articulated in 2004 for a wide audience by Kelefa Sanneh in the New York Times, in “The Rap Against Rockism.” (You’ll need access to the Times, alas.) “The Rap” reviews the key problems: rockists’ tastes are founded upon a thousand distastes. Rockism celebrates

  • songwriting musicians (read: largely white men), rather than vocal interpreters (women, certainly, and often people of color);
  • the obscure indie band over the pop belter in heavy radio rotation (read: it’s exclusive); and
  • the political over the personal (read: The Clash over disco Rod Stewart).

No surprise, then, that it’s also about gender, racialization, and social class. Kids (and aspiring adults) who don’t have to work to pay bills have more time to seek out obscure indie poppers and rappers than those who do. Men, it seems, are much more willing to find time to do this women, if in part because the performance of the rockist attitude is almost always relational, and about the triangles of homosocial bonding between men.

The Homosocial Triangle of (Hetero-) Male Bonding

homosocial triangle -- oct 2014

The pathways for affection run from each man, through the triangulated object (Springsteen’s Born to Run, e.g.), and then onto the other man. There are no pathways for affection directly between men, since men–historically–have not communicated in this way. Yes, I’m talking heterosexual men here, who in turn exclude women from these conversations, and get to play their LPs on Saturday night, alone, in the stereophonic sweet spot of their hi-fis.

Sanneh rightly notes that “a rockist is someone who reduces rock’n’roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon.” One of the foils of the rockist has self-identified as a poptimist, and their politic has been gorgeously outlined in Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste (nice review here), and in summary form by Alex Ross.

I recognize myself as a recovering rockist, and can only wonder how especially tedious I seemed to my pop comrades back in the day. My tastes and affinities are much more inclusive these days, and I’ve spent many an hour reviewing the complexity of my “guilty displeasures” over the years. Still, I wonder if there might be more choices than life as a poptimist or a rockist, and I am concerned that, in current critical circles, anything that has a whiff of rockism is reduced to a caricature and bludgeoned with the blunt instrument of poptimism.

U2’s “The Miracle”: Homage or Requiem?

The good folks at Louder than War picked up this post — check it out here. Thanks!

musicians are workers, too // the pleasure of yearning

Happy Sunday, folks! One of the real joys of writing about The Clash is catching up with the great characters who played key roles in their success back in the day. Yesterday I had a delightful conversation with Howie Klein, former head of 415 Records out of SF circa ’79, when The Clash first made it to the west coast, and eventual head of Reprise Records. (He’s a political blogger now @ http://downwithtyranny.blogspot.com/.)  It’s possible, I suppose, if I had written about KISS, for example, people in KISS-de-camp might now be just as generous with their time, but I’d like to think The Clash’s politics (and aesthetics)–and Strummer’s delight in talking with all sorts of folks deep into the night–has something to do with my comrades’ generosity of time and spirit.

simmonsSpeaking of KISS: Gene Simmons is making a splash these days with his “rock is dead” pronouncement in Esquire. Simmons is good businessman, probably always has been, and he’s after something big here, which I hope is not lost in the “poptimistic” backlash: back in the day, musicians with label support could hone their craft in no small part because they didn’t need day jobs. They had oodles of free time. They wrote songs, and neither tweets nor blogs–which are both cool, don’t get me wrong, but the structures of time and days, then and now, are remarkably different. This moment is still unfolding, so it’s perhaps too early to proclaim death and all–but things have certainly shifted, and it might not be premature to mourn the loss of yearning in fandom.

I wish I had seen this brilliant piece by Simon Reynolds a few years back, as I would have cited it in the afterword of Stealing, where I make a similar argument about analog fandom. Reynolds’ requiem for the British music weeklies during the punk and new wave years is equal parts eloquent and forceful, and absolutely right on regarding anticipation and pleasure back in the day. As that so-called hero of new wave (!) Tom Petty noted, “the waiting is the hardest part”–and yet the consummation of literary and musical desire was ever so sweet. A long-form journalism piece worthy of an extended period of your attention.

Have a delightful week!