From middlebrow rock to punk: the bridge of Bruce Springsteen

Happy icy Sunday, folks! Not even in the days of icy fog in my youth in Stockton, CA, might I have imagined that I’d be celebrating a day’s high temperature of 28F as perfectly balmy. In fleeting moments, we’re all Bostonians now.

For today’s bit, I’m digging deeper into the themes of chapter 2, “From Sgt. Pepper’s to Born to Run: The Rise of Free-Form Radio,” from Stealing All Transmissions. Free-form radio, of course, had a key role in celebrating The Beatles, The Who, and others as artists, rather than worker bees making popular music, and I suggest that Bruce Springsteen played a key role in bridging the divide between the artistic pretensions of classic rockers and the pretensions of authenticity of the punks, including The Clash.

It was in Boston’s Real Paper, of course, back in May 1974, that Jon Landau pronounced “I saw rock and roll’s future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” BSAbout the same time, Ken Emerson in Rolling Stone gave high marks to The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, celebrating the “punk savvy” of the lyrics of “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).” I have little idea what “punk” might mean here, other than representations of the working class, which perhaps in 1974 were in short supply, thanks to the artistic turn of rock, led by The Beatles.

Now I’m a devotee of the The Beatles (and Springsteen), but The Beatles’ growth as musicians forged a divide between pop and rock. If they were, in 1964, a threat to youth morality (and eventually Christianity in particular, with Lennon and his “we’re bigger than Jesus now” quote), by 1967, they were regarded anew as purveyors of middlebrow art.

Following the release of Sgt. Pepper’s, Time magazine did a big feature on The Beatles, beatlesand framed the new rock in the rhetoric of the middlebrow aesthetic: “With characteristic self-mockery, the Beatles are proclaiming that they have snuffed out their old selves to make room for the new Beatles incarnate. And there is some truth to it. Without having lost any of the genial anarchism with which they helped revolutionize the life style of young people in Britain, Europe, and the U.S., they have moved on to a higher artistic plateau.”

Yes, on Plastic Ono Band, Lennon suggested that “a working class hero was something to be.” It couldn’t be him, though. And Springsteen, with his 1975 appearance at the Bottom Line, which was broadcast live on WNEW-FM at Richard Neer’s behest, solidified this feature of WNEW-FM, and–four years later–would be the source of The Guns of Brixton bootleg, from the September 21, 1979 concert of The Clash at the Palladium.

The Clash The Guns Of Brixton Back

Keep warm out there, Clash-o-philes of the north. The winds have been more biting than Joe Strummer circa 1984!

 

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From 45 to 33 1/3: cadences of the AM and FM DJs

Good morning, readers. I hope your Sunday’s shaping up well. If you’re on the US continent, east of the Rockies, and north of Louisiana, I imagine you too will have a snow shovel in your hands before too long.

psmurray
Fab Four plus one.

Wednesday’s punk and post-punk gems will stay the same, but on Sundays I want to share a few more thoughts of themes from the book. For month two, then, I’m looking at chapter two, “From Sgt. Pepper’s to Born to Run: The Rise of Free-form FM Radio.” Through the  50s and into the 60s, the hysterical DJ dominated the AM airwaves, with promises of another “twin-spin sound sandwich” on a largely song-ad spot-song sequence. I couldn’t find an early aircheck for Murray the K. (also known as “the  5th Beatle”), but here’s one from 1966, just before Murray metamorphosed into a free-form DJ.

Rosko_WNEWIn the next year, though, the model has changed completely, and “Rosko” Mercer (not the UK’s Emperor Rosko), on WOR-FM, has turned things down, cadence-wise and volume-wise, and the corresponding change in music-as-pop to music-as-art leads to changes on the airwaves, too. Mercer, along with Scott Muni, led the charge at WNEW-FM into free-form FM radio, and he would segue from Coltrane to Shel Silverstein, and — as you can hear on this shorter segment — would improvise extended raps between songs and commercials, and share his own rather critical thoughts about the Vietnam War.

The 33 1/3 ethos, with minimal interference from commercials, made new demands on the listening audience, and upon advertisers to be more patient in terms of the frequency of their spots on the air. So, when Richard Neer at WNEW-FM raises the prospect of the live at the Bottom Line series to boss Mel Karmazin (now the head of Sirius XM), Karmazin couldn’t imagine how to make it happen — 90 minutes without commercials? It made little sense, but enough sense, and the Springsteen show ahead of the release of Born to Run sealed the deal. Four years later, The Clash were also included on the WNEW live series, now also at the Palladium, and we have the Guns of Brixton bootleg as a result. Thank you, Richard Neer, Rosko, and Muni!

For the rude boys and rude girls among you, check out Two Tone Britain. It’s not thorough by any stretch, but it does a solid job of unpacking the importance of the music and the politics of The Specials’ brigade against the backdrop of the rise of the National Front.

 

NYC appearance, odd fact, and VU’s rock’n’roll

Happy Sunday morning to you all, and thanks for checking out my weekly post.

Public service announcement (with keyboard, rather than guitars): I’m off to NYC this week, and I’m doing a reading/signing at 7pm, Friday, 2/15, at KGB Bar, 85 E. 4th St. (near 2nd avenue). It should be loads of fun — do come!

(A word from our sponsor: The book’s got a pink back cover, too, so it makes the perfect Valentine’s Day gift for that ex-punk lover of yours.)  More info on the FB event notice here.

Random thought: as technology-induced attention-deficit disorder gets more pronounced, pop songs get longer. A recent comparison of the pop songs that charted on Pazz & Jop polls prior to the peer-2-peer file-sharing era reveal that pop songs are getting considerably longer. I don’t know that it’s simply an American phenomenon, but it seems peculiarly American somehow to demand quantity — e.g., a 4-5 minute song for $.99-1.29  — rather than quality. Do (dis)abuse me if I’m wrong here.

I’m delighted to be returning once again to NYC, where I lived for 5 years during the irrational exuberance of the dot.com era (1995-2000). Perhaps there’s a connection, but I’ve had this VU track in my head for days now, which this musicological writer suggests is about radio back in the day, following the advent of rock’n’roll. History might suggest it’s a recollection of the arrival of Alan “Moondog” Freed at WINS in 1954, and his shaking up the airwaves of the tri-state region.

(Reed turned 12 that year, learned to play guitar while listening to the radio and, shortly after, was administered shock therapy to “cure” him of his homosexual desires–if not “the death of us all,” Lou’s parents were certainly a social hazard. See Please Kill Me, pp. 3-4.)

I’m cool with that reading of the song, although the free-form deejays at WNEW-FM circa 1970 were serving up a heady mix of rock, folk, spoken word, and jazz. By the time Meg Griffin arrived, though, that sound might have easily been mistaken for “nothing happening at all,” and Meg and Pam Merly, at WLIR in East Quoque, LI, offered some righteous violations of the key credo of free-form radio: anything but punk and disco. Television, The Clash, Blondie, and The Ramones: it was all up for grabs.

Merly seemed to encounter less resistance from her fellow deejays than Griffin did, and both stations–save WNEW’s Alison “the Nightbird” Steele—had all-male staffs in the DJ booth. With female deejays serving up platters with lead vocals by Patti Smith, Kate Pierson, and Deborah Harry, I can only imagine how inspiring it must have been for that generation of “Jennys” (and Johnnys, for that matter).

With regards to the clip above: rocknroll at its best inspires risk, art, and desire — you can find a less arty video accompaniment here.