Monday, March 29, 2010

A drive through an old neighborhood

Debating what constitutes authenticity is a nice way to chase your tail, but is a fun way to pass the time when there's nothing else making demands on your time. It's not a waste of time, since it is a way for us to define and articulate What Matters in life beyond our bond with the Banks and the Legal System. It is what makes life a pleasure, and a large part of that pleasure is maintaining the capacity to be pleasantly surprised.I've preferred to remain an agnostic in matters of musical taste; pragmatic might be a better word. Or perhaps my tastes merely change with time. In any event, I tend to think that anyone committed to trying to make a living playing music and performing, activities from which there are no guarantees of financial security (or even an audience) can't help but be sincere. One might disike the motive or the personality, but the emotion is authentic enough. Better to consider whether the music is at least honest, or better yet, if it's done well: whether music , lyrics, voice, style work on their own terms, makes for a more interesting set of topics, and a more compelling record collection.  What those terms turn out to be might be , at first, seemingly unacceptable or contrary to everything you held as essential to quality. But to paraphrase a famous line contextualizing Modern Art, most original art forms seem at first ugly and horrible; they emerge ahead of the curve and the rest of the culture has to catch up. Not everything gets past the finish line,though, as a review of your record collection reveals. I'd wager we all have many albums from bands and artists we thought were heavy and groovy back in the day that now make us scratch what's left of our hairline, wondering what we were thinking.


It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Zeppelin reemerged on my radar and revealed a band that was more diverse , musically, than the popular invective allows. Where I lived at the time, Zeppelin fans were just as likely to be listening to the Band, Van Morrison and CS&N, along with other folk "sissy" artists as they were the macho sounds of hard rock. Like the Beatles, or Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin were studio artists, where the studio was the proverbial third instrument. Live, they were one of the worst bands I've ever seen--though they sounded pretty damned good when I saw them in '67 (?) on their first US tour with Jethro Tull--but in the studio , their music was finessed and honed, typical in those days. For all his faults as a faulty technician in live circumstances, he is a producer who brought a fresh ear to the recording process, and came up with ideas that circumvented the routine dullness and rigor that's become the bane of less able hard rock and metal bands after his Zeppelin's break up.

The only real bad after shock of " Sgt Pepper's" and other "concept albums" from the period was the mistaken notion by other artists that there had to be one grandiose and grandiloquent theme running through out both sides of their albums in order for the their work to be current with the mood of the art rock of the period. The Beatles succeeded with "Sgt.Pepper", "Magical Mystery Tour", and, and "Abbey Road" ( easily their most consistent set of material, I think) because they never abandoned the idea that the album needs to be a collection of good songs that sound good in a set: over lapping themes, lyrically, are absent in the Beatles work, unless you consider the reprise of the the Pepper theme song on a leitmotif of any real significance (it's use was cosmetic), although musical ideas did give the feel of conceptual unity track to track, album to album. Lennon and McCartney and Harrison's greatest contribution to rock music was their dedication to having each one of their songs be the best they could do before slating it for album release. For other bands, the stabs at concept albums were routinely disastrous, witnessed by the Stones attempt to best their competitors with the regrettable 'Satanic Majesties Requests". The Who with "Tommy" and "Who's Next" and the Kinks , best of all, with "Lola", "Muswell Hillbillies" and "Village Green" , both were rare, if visible exceptions to the rule. "Revolver" and "Yesterday and Today" are amazing song collections, united by grand ideas or not. I buy albums , finally, on the hope that the music is good,the songs are good, not the ideas confirm or critique the Western Tradition.

Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but not always, and I think the popular opinion that Sgt.Pepper is a better disc, song by song, than Satanic Majesties is on the mark. Majesties had The Stones basically playing catch up with the Beatles with their emergent eclecticism and failing , for the most part. That they didn't have George Martin producing and finessing the rough spots of unfinished songs marks the difference. Majesties, though does have at least one great song, "2000 Man", and a brilliant one, "She's A Rainbow" For the rest, it sounds like a noisy party in the apartment next door. The album sounds like a collection of affectations instead of a cohesive set of songs. Cohere is exactly what the tunes on Pepper did, good, great, brilliant, and mediocre. The sounded like they belonged together.

2 comments:

  1. Sgt. Pepper? Sure. Tommy? I can appreciate a fair amount of it. Village Green? Some real inspiration there. Beyond that, the dreaded words "concept album" cause one's bowels to cringe in visceral repulsion. Such things were the bane of '70s pop music. Just call up memories of Hotel California, Capt. Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and assorted Moody Blues albums and see if you don't feel a spasm deep down. Now do you see why the Sex Pistols were necessary?

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  2. I never thought the Sex Pistols weren't called for, as the pretentiousness of the musicians and the gullibility of the audience had choked off the life force that made rock and roll exciting and worth caring about. Some of it might be laid at the feet of rock criticisms, since the advanced discussions of Dylan's relationship to Chuck Berry's everyman existentialist demanded a musical technique and lyrical concept just as daunting. This is the danger when folk art is discovered: it stands to become something distorted, disfigured and bereft of vitality. I was lucky , I guess, in that I was a fan of the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges long before the Sex Pistols caught the punk wave. They , and bands like Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath were a grounding principal--rock and roll is beautiful because it's energetic, awkward, and stupid, but profoundly so. There are "concept albums" I admire and still like, if not listen to, but I won't name them here. I am pleased, though, that the idea of the Album being a literary object has been dropped in a deep grave and had dirt thrown over it's bloviated remains.

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