Cavalier and Roundhead

Is it just me or can all music be divided into two categories – Roundhead and Cavalier? This dichotomy comes from the English Civil War, where Roundheads were Parliamentary/Puritan soldiers who wore tight fitting un-ornamented metal helmets, while Cavaliers were Kings men who wore large ornate hats with feathers. Cavaliers were renowned for their expensive clothing while Roundheads cared more about fighting (and winning). So essentially, it’s the difference between florid/excessive and spare/vital.

The Beatles (yes, them again) became increasingly cavalier from 1965 to 1967, peaking in the almost absurdly florid excesses of “All You Need Is Love”. Flowers, kaftans, excessive orchestra, massed everyone-together-man hippies, yada yada.

Just a year later, Lennon has massively reacted against this cavalier excess and gone for roundhead fundamentalism, with gritty blues, plain proletarian denim, and howling disaffection (“In the eeeeevening…. wanna die!”).

Punk, essentially, was a roundhead reaction to the perceived cavalier excesses of prog rock. Though many punk bands in their own experimentations (and well-hidden love for a good pop melody) became more cavalier as time went by. The Clash’s first album is of almost Stalinist breezeblock brutality – as seen in album tracks like “What’s My Name”. (Just 1.41, too!)

By their third (and best) album, London Calling, The Clash had incorporated influence like rockabilly, reggae, rn’b, and old time rock n’ roll. “Revolution Rock” has some nice parping brass and a reggaeish beat. Its lengthy outro makes it quite the counterpoint to the severe simplicity and brevity of their first album.

Their next album is the triple LP (!) Sandinista!, which pretty much speaks for itself, while their fifth, Combat Rock, would be a back-to-basics with enormously successful singles “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” and “Rock The Casbah”.

Even The Damned, whose first album is a speed-fulled adrenalized delight without an ounce of fat, got all cavalier – see their Beatles take-off The Black Album. By the time they invented goth rock, they were in full cavalier mode.

Blame Captain Sensible and his love of showtunes!

Prog rock, obviously, is cavalier. But while Pink Floyd were no strangers to excess (the “birds in a cave” section of “Echoes” lasts from nearly three full minutes!), I would suggest that Roger Waters was more of a roundhead than cavalier. The Wall, surely, is an album of full roundhead aggression, disdain, and musical severity. No more florid colourful Rick Wright keyboards!

Dance music, being rhythmic in inspiration, is mostly cavalier. But surely The Prodigy’s Music For The Jilted Generation is a roundheaded exercise in gritty beats, and cause-driven rage. “Their Law” has some of the best guitar riffs I’ve ever heard in any music.

Primal Scream have alternated throughout their career between cavalier lovey-dovey (Screamadelica)and roundhead anger. XTRMNTR is a hell of an album, with Stooges-inspired overblown guitars and an overwhelming rage at the state of the nation. “Kill All Hippies” couldn’t be any clearer about its anti-cavalier intent!

Most bands, of course, stick to one side or other. Joy Division were relentlessly roundhead. Animal Collective are gleefully cavalier. Elton John a helpless cavalier, David Bowie a reluctant one. Nick Drake was a roundhead working in the cavalier medium of folk. The Incredible String Band perhaps the most cavalier group of them all. But then, many of the greats oscillate: The Beatles, Miles Davis, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones.

What do you think?

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Mike’s Theory of Musical Progression

"Let's not do anything orginal in 30 years." "Okay, Keith."

(Another from my old blog, but I think it still stands up as a theory).

I would like to postulate my theory on how music acts progress and develop, and why, in general, later albums nearly always suck in comparison with early ones.

If we look at album groups (who manage to stay together for more than three albums, let’s say), there are three types of act:

1. Groups who make the same basic album over and over again. AC/DC, for example. Iron Maiden have two basic styles: heavy metal which is kinda punky or kinda proggy. Morrissey has been a solo artist for three times as long as he was in The Smiths, and although he sounds more inspired at some times than others, Moz’s songs remains the same. Portishead are Portishead are Portishead. The Ramones have never been anything other than The Ramones. Boards of Canada spend years refining their albums, but it’s still essentially the same kind of album. The Rolling Stones haven’t done anything new since Mick Taylor left.

Groups like this work within the basic framework outlined in their early albums. Sometimes a later album is really good, if they are challenged or emotionally adrenalised, but mostly it’s their early work that gets people going, when it was freshest.

Such (successful) acts are quite rare – it’s hard to do the same thing over and over with great conviction.

2. Groups who use music to articulate. These groups are the rarest. They’re the real artists – who use music to express a vision, or some specific content. I’m thinking of The Beatles, the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Radiohead, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis. Take Pink Floyd for example – the increasing bitterness of post-Dark Side of the Moon is perfectly reflected in the aggressive guitars, in Water’s dark cynical lyrics, and the sharpened song-structures. Kraftwerk, of course, constructed sound pictures on aspects of modern life, whether computers, travel, or machines. The Beatles combined form and content in astonishingly articulate, imaginative, immediate pieces that rightly make them acclaimed as the best rock group ever. (Who else could do “I Am The Walrus”, “Revolution” and “Martha My Dear” in just over one year?)

These groups develop organically during their career. Often their later albums are better than their earlier ones, but not always. They know what they want to say and how to say it. They are rightly lauded as the best in their field.

3. Groups who have an idea… and that’s it. This is the vast majority of groups, in my opinion. Acts who have an initial burst of inspiration, have a collection vision, who articulate something new and urgent and expressive. Maybe it’s a new form altogether (c.f. Roni Size’s groundbreaking drum and bass album called, ahem, New Forms), maybe it’s a synthesis of two or more inspirations, maybe it’s just making it faster or slower or harder or more complex or darker or whatever.

They’ve got an angle of some kind, some new sound – so they get popular. They can release more albums. But… whatever inspiration they had dries up. No fault of theirs – such inspiration is a rare thing, and comes and goes with whimsical abruptness. Maybe they can refine their previous vision, but they, like most human beings, want to progress and develop. So what do they end up doing? They end up with craft – with pop. Whatever was raw, edgy, new and exciting becomes more refined, mature, professional… and dead. Rock music is by nature transgressive – it pushes at and goes beyond the boundaries (which is why the dirty sound of the electric guitar defines rock music). Rock music which stays within known boundaries is dead as dodo shit.

Take as an example Belle and Sebastian, perhaps the best Scottish group of the last twenty years. Their first albums did indeed articulate something new, something unique – poetic, literate, understated yet rich tales of failure, loss and childhood. Great stuff; some remarkable albums. But once this seam had been mined, they turned to Trevor Horn, who gave them a professional sheen, a more confident sound… and lost what had been so special about them in the first place. The group playing “The Boys Are Back In Town” (!!!) from their Live At The BBC album is a confident, professional rock band, with nothing unique about them at all. All the rough edges has been smoothed out, and all their character.

Or, from another angle, The Stranglers. A savagely aggressive pub rock band gets all mature and produces songs like “La Folie” and “Golden Brown”. Mike Oldfield – a distinct musical vision, as seen in Tubular Bells, is gradually diminished and diluted album by album (even his side-length later pieces like “Crises” are visionless, crafted pieces), leading to pop tunes like “Moonlight Shadow” and “Family Man”. Nice and all, but… Public Image Ltd, meanwhile, show one of the clearest bifurcations between early abrasion and dissonance, and later poppy-hooky tunes:

REM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Tricky, Roxy Music, Moby, U2, Metallica (who as they can’t go pop instead cannibalise themselves – anyone telling you Death Magnetic is a “return to form” is deluding themselves), Oasis, Gang of Four, Herbie Hancock, Manic Street Preachers (a classic case), Pearl Jam, Madness (who actually did it rather well), Stevie Wonder, Animal Collective, Add N To (X), New Order, Blondie, Genesis, The Buzzcocks – it happened to all of them. Sometimes they may even do it well, as I’ve suggested with Madness; Animal Collective are certainly having more success than ever. But whatever was new, unique and glorious… it’s gone.

*

To continually create (not to produce) is the hardest task in any artform. That we have groups of the calibre of the ones I listed at #2 is a minor miracle in itself. Go listen!

Albums and What They Mean to Me #3

Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam stirred memories of discovering The Beatles’ 67-70, aka the Blue Album, for they share the same colourful joyfulness. As an intellectual type, most of my most interesting experiences have been internal, as my various discoveries have brought new visions of life. The period when I discovered The Beatles was perhaps the most important transitory period in my life. In my second year of high school I had not had a good time; some of my friendships had ended, and those with future friends had not yet ‘set’. School was little better; I lacked the confidence to hang about with the ‘cool guys’ in my class, and despaired of the immaturity and stupidity of those I was lumped in with. The schoolwork itself had been fairly boring; nothing struck me the way that future things did, whether Educating Rita or trigonometry and calculus.

For my own entertainment I was in a rut. I had read innumerable books about Nazis and WWII (biographies of Goebbels, Goering and Heydrich; the Battle of Berlin) and the Lord of the Rings, but I never got into the Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales, and the non-Stephen King horrors I tried were bland and simple, even to my juvenile taste: stuff like The Slugs by Shaun Hutson. Musically I was still in my greaser period, but needing to progress (an urge I had not then fully comprehended) I had wound up in a dead-end listening to the heaviest stuff possible (Obituary, Brutal Truth), while the newer metal coming out was really boring (The Almighty). Something had to change.

Several things seemed to come about at the same time. Towards the end of S2 (I think – this is almost 20 years later!) I stopped going to the Boys Brigade and went instead to Scouts, prompted by some friends, Stuart and Kenneth (never “Ken” or “Kenny”). We had agreed to give each other’s group a go; for a time I went to both; then I dropped BBs altogether, as the games were less fun, Scouts had no Bible stuff, and the Scout leader seemed much better. I also at this time got to know Darren, who was in a number of my S2 classes once they were streamed. I’d never really known anyone who had a living mental interior like I had before him – someone who wrote lists of his favourite things, who was a devoted and passionate fan of things like I was, who read, who when I talked with him was so bright and quick on the uptake, and very funny with it. Initially, though, I was slightly uncertain, as his evident enthusiasms were entirely different form mine. I was never into sci-fi, or Douglas Adams, and he seemed only to know Queen musically.

As soon as we entered S3 things seemed to cohere into a distinct pattern. I was in the same class as Darren in numerous subjects so we spent much class time together. We were in the same Physics class as Bill, another Scout. My friendships with Stuart and Kenneth had also become extremely strong, too, because we had attended the Scout summer camp and had an amazing time. (And Darren, perhaps sensing the way the wind was blowing, soon joined Scouts too).

So I was forming a group of friends that I was finally happy with. Academically I was happier, as I no longer had subjects like Technical or Music or Modern Studies for which I had no interest. The classes were more mature, from better backgrounds (I don’t mean financially – some absolute wankers had dads who were skippers or oil bigwigs), and more willing to engage with ideas etc. I was exposed to and, more importantly, open to new influences.

I then used to go to second-hand record sales in the lounge of a local hotel, held every month or so. There I had found The Clash, an album by the ferocious Discharge, a Sex Pistols bootleg rarity: I was massive on punk at the time. But when I went there (in October 93 I think) I saw 67-70,the Blue Album by The Beatles. I’d heard some of it before – a friend’s older brother had it – and rather liked it, so I spent 5 quid from my babysitting money on it. (More than I’d usually spend – The Clash was only 2 pounds! – but it was a double album).

It was an absolute revelation. An utter revolution in the head. Nothing, musically was ever the same again. Suddenly the sounds I heard were technicolour, three-dimensional; every feeling, every emotion, could be articulated, not just metal’s angst, anger and depression. Imagination was harnessed to create astonishing, vivid sound-pictures. Not only that: the spirit and camaraderie I had found at Scouts (especially at summer camp – previously my friends and I had always argued and insulted each other to form a pecking order) were there too.

A good album will have periods where different songs are your favourite, as they unveil their secrets over time. First it was the incredible “Strawberry Fields Forever”, its vivid colours leaping at me through the speakers – the purple Mellotron, the mellow, slowed-brass tones, the cinematic dissolve of the zither, the surging mahogany of the cellos. Then the infinite coda-choruses of “Hey Jude”, suggestive of humanity singing and swaying as one, in heart-felt harmony. Then the tender, cheering consolation of “Here Comes The Sun”. Then the remarkable – no the jaw-dropping! – linguistic deconstruction of “I Am The Walrus”, with its orchestration winding ornately around the room like acid-trip flowers climbing the walls. Then “Penny Lane” and its thrilling exuberance and illustrative instrumentation. Then “Don’t Let Me Down”, at first seemingly a little depressing in comparison, revealed its warmth and tenderness and vulnerability. “Come Together”; “Get Back”; “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”; hey, the unforgettable “A Day In The Life”, with Ringo’s unsurpassable drumming, Lennon’s magnificent singing in the bridge and the space-age mind-fuck of the enormous orchestral crescendo – the magnificence of The Beatles, their imagination, feeling and virtuosity (who else could do “I Am The Walrus” and “Revolution”?) impressed me like nothing before or since.

At every Scout camp, at every time ‘we’ gathered, I took my tape of the Blue album, and played it. The others were soon as captivated by it. We now had our soundtrack. Consequently, when I think of this time, I think of the Scout things we did – and since all my friends were Scouts we had a ravenous appetite for every Scout activity. I remember cycling in the woods in autumn, starting with the late dawn, finishing tired but exalted with the setting sun. I remember the camps, singing along to “Hey Jude” with four of us squeezed into one hike tent. I remember cycling over the nearby hills  during the Xmas holidays with Stuart, the trees, shrubs and vegetation glistening with chill frost. I remember visiting our Venture Scout leader’s being-decorated flat and espying, thrillingly, vinyl copies of Rarities and Revolver.

Rarely, over the long field of your life, can you point to a period and say that it was one that changed you decidedly for the better. This was one.

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Albums and What They Mean to Me #1

Albums and What They Mean to Me #2

Albums And What They Mean To Me #2

I haven’t really liked too many bands since 2000 or so. I think there’s three reasons for this. In part it’s because I’m happier delving through the past and rooting through the greats, rather than keeping up with what’s new. Another reason is because I’m no longer a youngster and, as wise old E.M. Forster said, there’s a narrowing of the gates necessary after 30 if the mind is to stay creative.  But probably the main reason is that I find a lot of the music unambitious and insipid – suited for these wan unimaginative days. (Let’s face it, we’ll probably never get bands like Throbbing Gristle, MC5, The Stranglers or The Smiths again). I mean, when The Strokes came out with the single “Hard To Explain” I was genuinely excited, but the album contained precisely 1.5 good songs: yet they were absurdly overhyped as somehow restoring the glories of CBGBs and the pre/post-punk New York thing. Anyone who had ever heard The Ramones or Television or Blondie knew what a pale imitation The Strokes were! Same with Interpol – an inferior imitation of Joy Division. Same with stuff like Editors, Spoon, British Seapower, Franz Ferdinand etc: just nothing special. And then there’s music that’s just utterly lacking in testicles, like The xx: weak, pallid, insipid, and utterly lacking in ambition. (I’m not even going to go into bedwetting mortgage rock like Coldplay).

However, one album that really grabbed me was Animal Collective‘s Strawberry Jam. Sometime in 2007, the Guardian did a feature on best albums of the 00s, with commenters adding their own favourites. I downloaded ones which sounded good, with Strawberry Jam swiftly becoming by far my favourite. As often happens when a good album strikes you with some force, it complemented my own mood and circumstances. I had recently arrived in China, teaching English in a small university. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was in control of and directing my life, rather than letting things happen: I had taken things by the scruff of the neck and it was fun. China was fascinating, my students were lovely, and I was really enjoying being there, learning so much every day. I loaded the album onto my MP3 player when I first headed to Shanghai for the weekend and savoured it.

While most electronica albums are based on beats and rhythms which sometimes criss-cross but usually cohere, Strawberry Jam is more joyfully psychedelic, based on the idea that more is more. It starts off relatively conventionally with “Peacebone”, where a propulsive rhythm and shimmering blips keep the numerous seemingly-random samples and effects from becoming shapeless, while a lyric of fantastical images (“A jugular vein of a juggler’s girl”) goes nowhere but is striking. “Unsolved Mystery” starts off with a simple repeating two-chord accoustic riff (sampled, to cut out the decay), but discards this metronome as the song proceeds, overtaken by repeated colourful samples and vocal effects. The apotheosis of this approach is the next song, “Chores”. This is just a wonderful gleeful psychedelic maelstrom that is utterly infectious in its deep sense of wonder and joy. It’s kind of like “Tomorrow Never Knows” but REALLY REALLY HAPPY. I love the looped sample (0.56-1.10) – repeated thirty-three times! (I counted). The latter half of the album (after the remarkable “For Reverend Green”) is less euphoric and almost reflective, but follows the same musical approach, as with “Winter Wonderland”, a song which captures a sense of Yuletide magic.

It’s an album which perfectly complements a period of new experiences and heightened vision. It’s also adventurous, colourful and joyous. A wonderful album.

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