Hair Metal… Dude!

I like hair metal. It is simply mainstream rock from the 1980s. Much of what has remained in the critical memory from that decade, like Metallica, wasn’t that successful at the time, while bands like Poison, Motley Crue, Van Halen, Def Leppard and Bon Jovi were selling zillions of records. If you’ve ever seen The Decline of Western Civilisation II: The Metal Years (and if you haven’t I recommend you do so), you get a sense of the whole ecosystem of LA rock bands, from the bottom feeders to the aspirants to the kings of the jungle. What I like about hair metal (the name is of course derogatory, but it’s a useful tag) is that it’s fun. It’s celebratory, emboldening, empowering. Nirvana came along and destroyed all that, making rocking an embarrassment; thereafter wiping out the joyous, hedonistic aspect of rock, leaving nihilism, (self)loathing or pure aggression. Bands like The Darkness who wanted to return to the fun of rock had to do so semi-ironically, with a wink and a nudge to say “We know it’s ridiculous…”

Still, there’s a lot worthwhile from the decade that taste forgot, where women were women and the men were women too. Here’s a few of my favourites.

Alice Cooper, “Poison”

After spending the early 80s in a drug funk, Alice cleaned up and needed to earn some serious $. Teaming up with songwriter Desmond Child, he made a successful comeback, showing Aerosmith the way to do it (they followed the exact same route about a year later). “Poison” cops the intro from “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and uses the “bad drug” metaphor earlier seen in Bon Jovi’s “Bad Medicine”.

Poison, “Ride The Wind”

Never critical favourites (hey, but then neither were Black Sabbath), Poison were always derided for being too poppy, too popular, too fun. There’s little more self-righteous than the rock fan. In their third album Flesh And Blood, Poison added muscle to their guitar sound and wrote about topics more varied that sex, partying, rock and more sex. This ode to motorbiking is undeniable.

Quireboys, “Hey You”

Rock in Britain in the late 80s was in a poor way. Iron Maiden were the kings of the jungle, but had obviously fossilised, churning out the same album time after time. The NWOBHM similarly had faded, and nothing had managed to hook audiences in the same way – with LA rock consuming American interest, most British bands tried to follow suit into sleaze rock, often appallingly. The Quireboys wisely ploughed the Rolling Stones/Small Faces influences. Shame that the Black Crowes took the same idea but being American got the big audiences. Still, this is a classic song with a wonderful chorus. I hope it still gets played in biker bars in the sketchier parts of the UK.

Motley Crue, “Same Ol’ Situation (S.O.S.)”

Before Guns N’ Roses blew them out the water, the Crue were the kings of the LA rock jungle. Their albums were the precise embodiment of the hair metal thing, with tales of hedonism and cheap regret, rocking but melodic riff-monsters and sing-together power ballads. Dr Feelgood remains their best album, in part down the production, which brings out the arrangements and song craft better than any other. (Metallica liked the production so much that they hired producer Bob Rock to do their fifth album). “Same Ol’ Situation” is a case in point – stomping intro (thumping snare from Tommy Lee), catchy verse (sassy vocal from Vince Neil) and great singalong chorus (terrific massed backing vocals makes it massive). So much FUN.

KISS, “Crazy Crazy Nights”

I never knew KISS as the masked demons of pop-rock fantasy, just as their 80s rock incarnation. I love how much they celebrate the joys of life, of Friday nights and blue-collar thrills with such relish. Nothing snobby here! Funny how this attitude is celebrated in Jack Kerouac (for example) but despised in music. I have no idea why that is, but it’s to the impoverishment of those who feel that way.

Mr. Big, “To Be With You”

The ballad was of course a big part of the hair metal armory. It was usually a power ballad with a slow intro and rousing ending (with shredding guitar solo): simple but endlessly effective. This isn’t one, being an accoustic singalong, but it’s notable for the excellent vocal harmonies in the chorus. This song is still very popular in China!

Ugly Kid Joe, “Everything About You”
Juvenile, adolescent, childish… yup. That’s not to be derogatory, but just to point out its qualities. Still great fun.

Aerosmith, “Love in an Elevator”

After losing their way in the 80s (no real surprise when every album title was a reference to cocaine: Rocks, Draw The Line, Done With Mirrors), Aerosmith followed the Alice Cooper template, cleaning up and getting together with outside writers to get back in the charts. This is not to say their comeback albums, Pump and Permanent Vacation, are vacuous sellouts. The guitar interplay and the exceptional vocal harmonies in the outstanding song from Pump, “Love In An Elevator”, show that form might be temporary but class is permanent.

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Guilty Pleasures

I’ve previously mentioned some unfashionable music I like. But now let me wade through the darkest recesses of my music collection and give a taste of the tunes there are not only unfashionable, but which would get me laughed out of town. Something strange seemed to happen to my music taste around 2005: somehow, what I had previously disdained as cheesy naff pop/rock seemed to make sense. Its exuberance and upbeat feel connected in a way that it never had before. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I was something of a Serious Young Man prior to that: everything I listened to was “seminal”, from the Velvet Underground to Miles Davis to Joy Division to Kraftwerk to early Metallica to Radiohead to Sonic Youth. It’s the kind of thing you listen to when you’ve only got art to cling to, it seems to me now. When you’ve got your hands full with life, sometimes you need baser pleasures. There is no qualitative difference in effective music – it either articulates an emotion or atmosphere, or it doesn’t. (There’s also the question of whether you empathise with the feeling conveyed – this is why I despise Coldplay, Keane and Travis, who have the emotional range of the mollycoddled suburban middle-classes). There’s also the simple fact that my mood in 2004/5 rose up from the miserable post-adolescent depression I’d endured for the past 5 years, so upbeat songs would naturally resonate with me more.

I feel that getting rid of my former snobberies is an entirely positive thing. Now I can unashamedly appreciate dumb fun, whether it be Top Gun or Betty Boo. Kenneth Williams once noted in his Diaries Noel Coward saying, “Strange how potent cheap music is”. This was to disdain “cheap” music, but to me it validates it. To be powerful and memorable, music does not have to be clever or complex. That’s what is so fucking great about it!

1. Betty Boo, “Where Are You Baby?”

Toy piano, intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus- verse-chorus-outro structure, the upbeat, plaintive desire that’s the hallmark of so much great pop, sassily sung by the Boo – it’s just great pop.

2. John Farnham, “The Voice Of Understanding”

Now we’re getting into murky waters… I mean this song has cod-synth bagpipes! There’s a red alert of naffness right there. But the epic intent, the soaring “Aaaah-oooh-oooh-oooh-woo-whoa!” hook, the delicious chorus, the rising-and-rising verses which are simply and obviously there to get to the chorus as quickly as possible – yeah, they’re all cheap tricks, but they work, dammit! (Not too sure about the synth bagpipe solo, though).

3. Wilson Philips, “Impulsive”

My sister is five years older and so I was subjected to her choices when her seniority let her rule the living room music options. She has a mainstream pop taste, particularly Michael Jackson, the Dirty Dancing soundtrack, and the “Leather and Lace” soft rock like Heart, Meatloaf, REO Speedwagon and such. Nothing rock – not even, say, Bon Jovi – but close enough that there was some that I didn’t mind too much. But funnily enough that only one whose album I like in its entirety is the girliest – Wilson Philips by the eponymous girlgroup. Formed by the daughters of Brian Wilson and John and Michelle Philips of the Mamas and the Papas, the group not surprisingly had access to some of the best writers and session musician in 1990-era Los Angeles. Glen Ballard, who had written some tracks for Michael Jackson’s Bad and later went on to write the tunes for Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill, has a substantial hand in the album, co-writing six of the ten tracks. (It would go quintuple platinum). The usually insightful Allmusic.com dismisses the album as “lightweight and sophomoric” and “homogenized, mundane fluff” – which might be fair if all you listen to is Black Sabbath. To anyone with an open pair of ears, though, the album is a quality confection of professional hooks, high-values production, gentle but sweet harmonies, and fine songwriting. This song, “Impulsive”, is I think the best, with an insistent chorus and all the virtues I mentioned above, though the album is remarkably consistent.

4. Belinda Carlisle, “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”

This song reminds me of youth club discos and late summer nights when I was eleven, between primary school and high school. Somehow I remember it as one of those golden summers, old enough to be free to roam about, young enough to think this meant anything. We used to go “camping” in the back garden, then “sneak” (I assume now my mum knew exactly what was happening) out the tent and roam the streets all night. We’d sit in the town square and watch people spill out of the pubs, and gawp in frank admiration at the people milling round cars with boots open for the sound systems to blare out old-skool rave. It was when I first “smoked” cigarettes (like Clinton, not inhaling) and discovered the joys of “porn in the bushes“. This song from the former Go-Go’s singer is pure 1980s power-pop heaven, the sort that will be on VH1 unto infinity. Just love the way the chorus resounds to those massive multi-tracked vocals. The soundtrack to one of those (“oh”) summer nights – you’d have to have a heart of stone not to have one yourself!

5.  Kajagoogoo, “Too Shy”

You know Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London? His story of life on no money in both cities never gets old, I’d imagine because although few people have had to experience that level of poverty, many have glimpsed it. I went through that kind of scene when living in Edinburgh just after graduating. I had a job and a roof over my head, but that was about as far as my connection with the contented middle-classes went – I had barely enough money for food, lived in a manky bedsitter, and so on. Funnily enough, one of the fellow bedsitter inhabitants played this song incessantly, and it firmly stuck in my head. I hadn’t heard the song before, didn’t know about Limahl’s hairstyle or the band’s ridiculous name, so it just came to me with a clean cultural slate. (I also really like A Flock of Seagulls’ “Wishing (If I Had A Photograph)“, which cover vaguely similar new romantic ground and has ever worse hairdos). It’s not really an electro/New Romantic song, of course, being more of a white soul/cod funk exercise, but hey, whatever you have to do to get noticed, lads)

6. Ratt, “Round And Round”

Ah, hair metal. The story of Ratt is actually pretty grim – the usual fable of excess and ego, burning glory and death. For a brief moment in the mid-1980s, they were up there with Motley Crue as kings of the LA rock firmament. They played the Donington Monster of Rock festival in 1985, ahead of Bon Jovi and Metallica (but behind Marillion and ZZ Top), while John Hughes, that avatar of 80s culture, used “Wanted Man” in Weird Science, the same year. That was about as good as it got for Ratt – they lost momentum, had a Desmond Child co-written album Detonator try to pick up the pieces, but then Nirvana came along, and the LA rock party was well and over. Addictions and AIDS then took their toll, as the hangover kicked in with a vengeance. This song is probably the hookiest of their brief period of glory – a good thing given that they are not a riff-driven band and the guitar sound is surprisingly bland – with nice build up of tension at the end of the verse and a fine chorus.

Books About Music

The Definitive Miles Davis Biography

I still haven’t written much about books yet, huh? Well, allow me to combine my two main interests with a list of the best books about music which I have read. Sadly, in comparison with literary figures, the biographies of rock musicians are often rather unimpressive efforts, with most writers happy to retell myths and legends, and few going to the trouble of footnoting and citing their information. When I think of a truly impressive biography, I think of Richard Ellman’s masterful biographies of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, for example: these not only follow their subjects in close detail, they illuminate their subjects minds and philosophies through deep learning and deceptively-simple explication, and they place them in their precise cultural and historical settings. This, obviously, is no mean feat. But given the intense interest in rock music, it is unfortunate that few if any biographies of major musical figures have been written which aspire to such high academic standards. Similarly, far too many books on rock (and even jazz) are content to titillate with stories of drug intake and sexual conquests. I’m thinking of books like Hammer of the Gods (about Led Zep); The Dirt (Motley Crue); Slash (um… Slash); I Am Ozzy; and so on. Yawn yawn fucking yawn. Such tawdry transgressions always (it seems to me) devalue what rock is about.

Never mind. There are nonetheless numerous good and substantial books on music out there, so let me share the ones I have found the best.

England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage

Few rock books might have the academic standards of Richard Ellman, but this one perhaps comes closest. With unbelievable detail (he must have interviewed several hundred people), Savage traces the birth and trajectory of (English) punk through the prism of the Sex Pistols, from their origins to the death of Sid Vicious through to the final legal victory of Lydon over McLaren. Savage also gives an overview of the careers of other luminaries such as The New York Dolls (at least, in terms of their involvement with McLaren), The Clash, The Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, Throbbing Gristle, Public Image Limited and many more – though not The Stranglers, whom he seems to detest – and most importantly, places it all in a political, cultural and philosophical context. He explicates the souring of 1960s idealism, explains the relevance of postwar philosophies such nihilism and situationism, and combines this with a strong understanding of working-class hedonism and street-culture, from the Teddy Boys to Northern Soul to Mods and Rockers to Glam and Bowie. His reading list and discographies are also magnificent achievements in themselves, ideal resources for any would-be historian (would that there were more!) or even interested reader or listener. Not only that, it’s a fun, zippy read, able to mix high drama with sordid crimes, deep philosophical discussion with anecdotes about Sid Vicious’ hairstyle methods, and serious musical analysis of some of the most basic and visceral tunes put to record. Needless to say, it is a fucking brilliant book.

Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald

None of the Beatle biographies have been fully satisfying. We still await the book to place either Lennon or McCartney (or, indeed, both!) in their full cultural and philosophical context, as musical creators and innovators to rank alongside any classical composer you might care to mention. Really! This might be because the story is too big and too mythic for words to even begin to convey; or it might be that Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney are still alive and jealously protecting the sacred image of Lennon/McCartney. (I suspect the latter). It is, to say the least, a crying shame that an edition of Lennon’s letters has not been produced. The great books that do exist about the Beatles are those which concern themselves less with the lives of the people involved and which instead document their musical, professional activities. I’m thinking of Mark Lewisohn‘s magnificent The Beatles Recording Sessions and The Complete Beatles Chronicle which documents their studio work and general activities to an astonishing degree. Ian MacDonald’s book on the other hand looks at every recorded song individually, noting who played on it, the date(s) of its recording, when it was released and in what format, with a short(ish) essay about it. (Tim Riley’s book Tell Me Why does a similar job, but keeps to the music rather than the context. Riley also displays rather a tin ear, misreading songs on far too many occasions). While MacDonald is far more of a music critic than me (he knows about scales, modes and all the musical arcana), he really does get to the bottom of each song, relating it to where The Beatles were at that moment and in what they were trying to achieve. Thus, the entry for “Tomorrow Never Knows” is one of the longest, as he analyses the effect of LSD on Lennon and in 60s cultural generally, and explains its “dazzling aural invention”. (On the other hand, his entry for songs like “Altogether Now” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” are dismissively short). His bibliography is also excellent, though his introduction, bewailing the demise of popular music, is a bit silly. (He would have been better off noting that music, like other cultural forms, has a fragmented from a unifying medium to a Balkanized means of near-solipsistic consumption).

Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher

As rock biographies go, this is one of the best. Not only is it astonishingly detailed (it’s about 800 pages long!), it avoids the prurient salacious detailing of drug and alcohol excess. This might sound odd, given Moon’s well-known proclivities, but Fletcher to his credit never sounds impressed when detailing Moon’s intake – rather, he sees it as evidence of his disturbance(s). I also really like the way that he gives great detail to Moon’s drumming, detailing the complex rhythms which Moon made sound so easy. Though the book can sometimes seem a bit overlong, it does really get to the dark heart of who Moon was. It is also, of course, a good overview of The Who, especially their early days.

Miles: The Autobiography and Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr

I’m going to lump these two together, because I read them at about the same time, and because they are very complementary. The Autobiography is a demotic street-voice stew of feeling, anecdotes and opinion. It’s written as though in Miles’ actual voice, and so is initially hard to read, diving straight in to talk about how “Bird played bad as a motherfucker” and the like. (I didn’t know that “Bird” was Charlie Parker). While Miles was of course an educated, Juillard-attending man, he liked to present himself as a guy from the street, despising the cultural eliteness that calcified jazz – see his 70s urban funk recordings (particularly On The Corner) as his direct riposte – and so there is a deliberate coarseness that sometimes strays into bravado, as when talking about his mid-70s slump into the depths of cocaine and “taking white bitch’s money”. There also isn’t much detail in the music: just lots of “he played like a motherfucker”. Nonetheless, you really get the sense of his voice and character through the book, and particularly of his lifelong dedication to his artform and his search for “the new thing”. Ian Carr’s book on the other hand is a traditional critical biography, with a great understanding and ability to evoke Davis’ classic recordings. Given that Davis’ style changed so considerably and so frequently over the years (compare with the Rolling Stones, who have had a similarly lengthy career!), Carr displays a tremendous ability to appreciate bop, cool jazz, modal, time-no changes, jungle funk to the jazz funk of the 1980s. He also gives more detail than Davis is willing to do about his relationships, both romantic and professional, and writes with clear relish when Miles twice arises after an addiction seemed to strike him out of contention.

How about you?

On Being Cheesy

When I was a student in the late 1990s, there was a terrible enthusiasm for all things cheesy – cheesy music in particular, but also cheesy TV and cheesy fashion. A night at the student union nightclub called “Up The Glitter”, featuring songs like “99 Red Balloons”, “Making Your Mind Up”, “Come On Eileen” and “Funky Town”, went from a midweek once monthly (the preserve of the out and proud gay types) to the prized Saturday spot every week and even spawning imitators, such was its popularity. Teletubbies was openly watched and talked about. The Eurovision Song Contest drew appreciative parties. We mock-referred to anyone insistent on their way as “fascist”, and hid our own appreciations behind a wall of cynicism and irony. It was the done thing to read The Sun or Loaded (“for the tits”), rather than The Guardian or The Economist, which were much closer to our real interests.

Looking back, the cheesy trend fits well into our pre-millennial pop-culture overload take on modern life. Cheesy is to a large extent a result of being too well versed in pop culture. Aspects of culture which become overly familiar become first clichés, then cheesy, then cause revulsion, then lose their power entirely, to become historical documents rather than art. (This process is not however linear; there can be jumps from one to the other stage). Cheesiness is hence largely an overfamiliarity with certain stylistic moves and techniques in popular culture, engendering an ironic awareness of the text as artistic construct. (The text here can be considered not just the music or film etc, but also the performer or actor, if they have a recognizable repertoire – a known body of signs, in other words. Jack Nicholson’s post-Witches of Eastwick eyebrow raising is one such example of a familiar move becoming contemptible). Consider Elvis Presley – at one time vital and dangerous, by the time I encountered him, he was seen as a grotesque parody, subject of bad pictures in dole-scum livingrooms and tacky presentation plates sold in illiterate magazines. He was progressing from cheesy to revulsion. He came back in popularity thanks to the strength of his musical catalogue, but his films are already historical documents rather than living entries in the cinematic canon. James Dean can be considered likewise; similarly, cultural symbols as disparate Abba, Ice-T, Jaws, South Park clothes, John Travolta, the entire disco genre, The Evil Dead and John Grisham have all progressed from edgy to cheesy. They become assimilated into the culture; their tricks and angles become too well known, and “that thing you do” doesn’t work anymore. If all political careers end in failure, then all pop culture careers follow the process outlined above, except sometimes in cases of early death. (No-one ever called Jimi Hendrix cheesy, even after Wayne’s World’s rendition of ‘Foxy Lady’.) Nowadays it’s 1980s culture which is considered cheesy. That’s simply because tastemakers were children in that decade. It’s not long ago that 1970s culture was considered the epitome of cheesiness – now, in some respects, it seems like a golden age.

But cheesy also applies on the micro level, to small cultural methods and styles. The cinematic habit of dragging on the death of a supporting character as they gasp their dying, vitally important words, for example – Star Wars tore the arse out of it, and by the time Boromir declared his fealty to Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring, you just wanted the prick to fuck off and die quietly. Adverts involving The Simpsons – you know Homer is going to say “Doh!”, whatever happens. Kitchen sink dramas were forever scuppered the moment Monty Python had a sketch featuring a young man returning from mining coal to visit his working-class parents, with his mother fretting over his father who had injured his hand writing a sonnet sequence. Top Gun was so chock-full of extremely simplistic and effective moves that a whole movie was made of the parodies they enabled. “Hair metal”, with its masculine posturing and sub-Van Halen guitar, never survived the sniggers of Nirvana and the broader grunge generation, for whom its simple moves were all too obvious. Horror movie protagonists who dumbly make their way to the basement, or investigate some nameless horror, nowadays have cinema audiences berating them rather than cowering in their seats. Swelling orchestral strings at totally, like, emotional parts of power ballads these days create a sense of ennui rather than punching the air or proudly holding aloft that cigarette lighter. In all these moves, they’ve become overfamiliar clichés, and go on to be despised. “God, how cheesy!”

There’s a deeper angle to cheesy, however. Saussure showed the arbitrary connection the sign (the textual word) and the signified (the meaning or concept), and that signs were only explicable relative to each other. Cat is cat because it is not mat, bat, fat or hat. Structuralism then showed that this could be applied on a broader perspective, where items other than words could be considered signs, and thus form their own language, their own semiotic code. Claude Levi-Strauss applied it to anthropology, showing that human rituals had no essential connection to their meaning, and could only be understood within a social context. Baudrillard applied it to houseware, considering each item relative to others, while Roland Barthe’s Mythologies looked at everyday phenomena, from wrestling to wine, teasing out the underlying meanings and archetypes in everyday objects and events. In pop culture, stylistic moves and trends over time become assimilated, familiar and clichéd. The connection between signifier and signifier, the stylistic move and the desired effect, becomes apparent, self-evident, where it should remain unremarked, unobtrusive. Once it is apparent, it appears inauthentic, because for art to work the methodology cannot be seen. Bruce Springsteen’s performances are as “staged” as those of hair metal rockers, but because his music remains fresher than that of Ratt or Poison or Motley Crue (thanks to the greater skill of the E Street Band, in all likelihood), he gets away with it. (His “passing a kidney stone” performance in “We Are The World” has to be seen to be believed). Heavy metal is notorious for demanding authenticity, which is really a cry of frustration when something new is attempted unsuccessfully. The connection between move and effect becomes all too apparent, and anger cannot appear staged; it must appear immediate and self-present. Dr. Who, of course, descended deep into a pit of cheesiness in the 1980s, viewer suspension of disbelief ruined by shoddy effects and over-familiarity. Stock movie characters like the “tart with the heart” and the Machiavellian businessman have similarly lost all power and gained a distinct aroma of le fromage.

Some art is never cheesy. It remains fresh. It has a depth and complexity which enables those who enjoy it to constantly discover new things. One might cite Pink Floyd, John Coltrane, The Godfather films (despite the parodies and homages), Bjork, Kraftwerk, Bob Marley. But the days of artistic mystique, predicated upon unavailability, are gone. Cultural overexposure, thanks to the internet, is now the norm. Familiarity breeds contempt; it also breeds cheese.

Nirvana – 20 years on

It sometimes frightens me to find that Nirvana’s Nevermind was released 20 years ago. It also makes me feel both old – although I was only 12 at the time – and sad, as I don’t think there’s been a rock band to rival Nirvana since then. (I say rock band, to distinguish from heavy metal, which seems to be doing just fine as a genre). The passion, intensity, hookiness, honesty, and energy in their music were stupendous. The videos still attest to their power – “Lithium”, with Kurt running into and bouncing off a bank of speakers and Krist’s shaggy-dog leaping; Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, with that astonishing scene of Kurt lashing out at the meaty bouncer who punches him; the impossible anarchy of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (surely the most exciting song since “Anarchy In The UK” or “White Riot”); the the sepulchral elegy of Unplugged. 20 years on, they’re all as potent as ever.

In many ways Kurt was the last great rock star. But this is to see him in the traditional sense, as part of the Classic Rock Canon, up there with Hendrix, Morrison, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Chuck Berry, Janis Joplin, Joe Strummer, Angus Young – all the acts venerated by tedious retrospectives like Classic Rock and Mojo. In a sense, this is true, of course – Nirvana were a great rock band. But there’s more to it than that. Unlike the others, Kurt despised rock music and actively destroyed it. Rock music’s hegemony as the main cultural force in Western youth died – not along with Kurt, but following his trashing, his ironising, sarcastic mocking and inverting, of the very fundamentals upon which rock was based. Once deconstructed, no one has ever been able to put them back together without irony. Straightforward rock has since then bifurcated into harmless, insipid craft (sometimes known as “mortgage rock” ) or metal; no-one has been able to pull of the masculine swagger necessary for rock music since.

What do I mean the fundamentals upon which rock was based? Rock music, while written and performed by outsiders and wannabes, is music which almost by definition seeks to convert others. It is expansive, unifying, all-embracing. Its basis on driving rhythm, riffs and energy, make it easily translatable across nations and cultures: everyone can join in. At its best, as seen in bands like like Queen, Led Zeppelin, U2 and AC/DC, it is utterly transcending, unifying audience, artist and music in an exchange of energy that goes beyond the individual. Think of Freddy Mercury holding 72,000 people in the palm of his hand at Live Aid, or of U2’s jaw-dropping “Zoo TV” spectacle (surely the greatest stage show ever), or of The Beatles performing “Hey Jude” on David Frost, being joined by all sorts during the magnificent singalong coda.

Rock music also has a perhaps inherently masculine ethos. This comes through in a ridiculous number of ways – from the gang of brothers concept of the band to the strutting sexuality of the music to the iconography of guns and violence to the music videos with women as objects (we’re talking about the 1070s and 1980s here). (While Spinal Tap deliciously satirised many of these elements, they did so within the context of rock, in straightfaced deadpan; it seemed to protest at excesses and stupidities, rather than undermine the foundations). The amplified, distorted electric guitar, rock’s essential musical ingredient, also is designed for masculine appeal, with its energy and transgressive distortion. It is the sound of boundaries being broken, of aggression, of violence, of primal spirits being unleashed. Pretty, it ain’t. This is not to suggest the rock music, or the sound of the electric guitar, does not appeal to women – obviously, that would be an absurdity. But clearly the preponderant obvious for rock music is male, often adolescent. Perhaps Bill Drummond expressed it best:

In our inner heaven, the old gods are all still there: Odin, Thor, Zeus, Athena, Artemis, Dionysus, Buddha, Allah, and yes, of course, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary too. But these are just names and, if we burden them with too many facts and figures, whats and wheres, whens and whys, then we get no further than Albert Goldman did in his book Elvis: we will just be left looking at the bloated corpse of a Southern lad allowed to live a life of selfish excess, instead of recognizing the man who shared all out closed doors and inner hungers. The difference between us and him is that this man’s doors were flung open by the influence of of the untamed dark continent, and inside him was Dionysus in perfect working order, bursting to get out. And he did: Dionysus was made flesh.

The sleeping Dionysus in all us young tender white males understood the clarion call. This clarion call grew and grew, went out around the world. Echoes. Echoes of echoes answering back from continent to continent, from year to year, from generation to generation. Gangs of young men went out into the world armed only with the buzzing, howling and chiming of single-coil and Humbucker pick-ups and the clatter of drums, screaming their war cries and moaning their laments…

Fads and fashions fanned flames then flickered away. Intellectual snobberies muddied the water. Technical prowess tried to hold us – the hordes – at bay. But through all that, Dionysus staggered on, leering and lurching. He was on the loose for the first time in almost one thousand years. He had been banished since the last Viking raids, since the old gods, the Norse gods, the Olympian gods and the Celtic gods, banished but not killed, just locked deep in our souls.

So don’t look for him in Elvis’s quiff, or in his tough-but-tender looks, or John Lennon’s ache or Dylan’s rhymes, or Bolan’s boogie or Bowie’s masks or Johnny Rotten’s disdain, or in any other of the thousands who have heard the clarion call and made arseholes of themselves across the world’s stages. Generation after generation has grabbed this birthright – and yes, it is a birthright… Rock ‘n’ roll in all its ugly, debased, exploited forms, torn out of and built up from the black man’s basic twelve-bar blues, is the soundtrack to every Viking voyage. Once again the white boy can rape and pillage, lie and lick, lust and kick, swagger and swear across the known and unknown universe, the chains of Christian doctrine smashed on a pagan altar.

Similarly, the vast (and I mean vast) majority of journalists, liggers, A&R men, producers, and record execs were men. The culture which developed around rock – its commercial exploitation, the industry players, its marketing – was self-reinforcingly masculine, even macho. One can see this with female performers in the rock world – they  were either marketed as sexual fantasies (Lita Ford) or as one of the guys (Joan Jett): either way, according to a masculine perspective. (Acts which would not play along with this, such as Patti Smith or The Slits, never gained  a mass audience – or were never marketed to a mass audience, perhaps more accurately).

Finally, the imagery of rock, with its conflation of guns, guitars and penises, were clearly macho. If the 1980s were a decade of the heroic protagonist, this was as true in music as in films. There is surely a parallel between the heroic action heroes in Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Norris, and Van Damme and the heroic front-men postures of 80s rock music. You can see this the heroic male figure in films like Top Gun and Young Guns (soundtracked by Bon Jovi), in Rocky III (the first where Rocky is a heroic, unreal figure – and the first with a rock soundtrack), and in bands like Dio, Motley Crue, Ratt, Poison, and so on, even unto absurd groups like Manowar and Krocus. The emotion range is one of triumph, exaltation of the male desire and satisfaction, and unalloyed emotion signalled in vast gestures. The symbolism is of guns,  guitars and swords (i.e. penises),  castles, towers, dragons and monsters (life’s hardships and trials), motorbikes and “steeds” (empowerment), and women as objects (juvenile sexuality).

Nirvana turned all this on its head. Their early music was as angry and abrasive as any rock band – often more so – but from the start their lyrical preoccupations were completely antithetical to the prevailing rock ideology, and their approach to their audience and their music were just as oppositional, not only to the mainstream but to the prevailent rock culture, which by then by so ossified as to be barely countercultural at all. Their first album Bleach, for instance, explicitly mocks the macho figure in “Mr. Moustache”:

Easy in an easy chair
Poop as hard as rock
I don’t like you anyway
— Seal it in a box

Now You
Damn You

and mocks himself relentlessly – no braggidacio and heroics here:

I’m a negative creep (x3)
And I’m stoned!
I’m a negative creep (x3)
and I’m … (x2) (Negative Creep)

 

Big cheese, make me
Mine says, go to the office

Big cheese, make me
Mine says, what is it? (Big Cheese)

 

I’ll take advantage while
You hang me out to dry
But I can’t see you every night, free
…I do

I’m standing in your line
I do, Hope you have the time
I do, Pick up number two
I do, Keep a date with you (About A Girl)

Barney ties me to the chair
I can’t see I’m really scared
Floyd breathes hard I hear a zip
Pee pee pressed against my lips

I’m ashamed
I’m ashamed
I’m ashamed (Floyd The Barber)

This sense of self-loathing, self-mockery and alienation goes directly back to punk. One is reminded of Ellen Willis’ great line about US punk “making up in alienated wise-assism what it lacks in [UK punk’s] shit-smearing belligerence”. There’s a touch of both in Bleach, but mostly the former, as Kurt refuses to posture as the macho frontman which rock then demanded, instead being the victim, the servant, the supplicant, the “negative creep”. But as the music tends towards (as Allmusic has it) “grinding sub-metallic riffing that has little power, due to lack of riffs and lack of a good drummer”, there’s no real drama. It’s just aggression pointed at the self rather than others – which is of no great merit.

Nevermind advanced on Bleach in every way – in terms of songwriting craft, sonically, dynamically, in attitude, and in self-dramatisation. Nirvana no longer sound aimlessly angry; every song has a point and a perspective, as Kurt allies his songwriting to his beliefs and hobbyhorses. The power and freedom of punk, Women’s Lib, the freedom of the 60s, the intoxicating power of love, the stupidity of the macho figure (again), alienation, depression and low-esteem: these all wind their way through the songs, sometimes clearly (as in “Polly”), sometimes fragmented (as in “Come As You Are” and “Terrirorial Pissings”). Throughout, Kurt takes clear potshots at the macho posturings of rock, projects himself again as weak and alienated, and rejects the idea of rock as all-embracing:

He’s the one
Who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means
when I say yeeeaaahhh (In Bloom)

And I swear that I don’t have a gun
No, I don’t have a gun
No, I don’t have a gun (Come As You Are)

Never met a wise man
If so it’s a woman (Territorial Pissings)

I’m so happy. Cause today I found my friends.
They’re in my head. I’m so ugly. But that’s ok.
‘Cause so are you. We’ve broke our mirrors.
Sunday morning. Is everyday for all I care.
And I’m not scared. Light my candles. In a daze cause I’ve found god. (Lithium)

Underneath the bridge
My tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from my ceiling
It’s okay to eat fish
‘Cause they don’t have any feelings (Something In The Way)

Nowadays, when artistic power relative to record labels seems lower than any time since the 1950s, it’s remarkable to hear a song dismissing its audience, as in “In Bloom”. But this is very much a punk rock concern: despite the rhetoric of “the kids” and being of the streets, punk was very much an elitist affair. It

(still to be finished)

don’t have gun

non-teleological?

attitudes – antisexist/homophobia etc

Albums and What They Mean To Me #1

Neuroscientists may be able to explain why particular sounds or smells link so strongly to certain memories. I’m sure we all have scents that bring back huge waves of childhood nostalgia: some for me are kippers frying on hotplates at a harbourside fete (an immensely salty tang); ginger beer (I was very fond of this as a wee lad) and Fisherman’s Friends (ditto). Music is obviously immensely powerful in this area, so much so that trashy albums remain popular through the power of association rather than any musical qualities. Why else would I remain fond of Skid Row‘s Slave To The Grind and Motley Crue‘s Girls Girls Girls?

One album with particular memory-associative powers for me is Lazer Guided Melodies by Spiritualized. Perhaps less well-known and under-rated in comparison to their masterpiece, Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space, it’s an album arranged in four suites or movements, each of several separate sections.  Musically, it is exemplary early-Spiritualized, with floaty, dreamy, shimmering textures, droning, repetitious melodies, implied rhythms, soft understated vocals, and a processed and digitised production taking off the rough edges even on the strongest-hitting of sections. The druggy implications are pretty obvious, though there’s nothing overtly psychedelic, no talk of “gnomes” or “witches hat sitting on her head like a paraffin stove”. Rather, it’s dreamy, spacy, blissed out.

You can hear a fine example of all this here:

A sparkling arpeggio intro leading to a repetitive guitar-shard, under which a mobile bass-guitar melody suggests deep, anxious feelings hidden by an unchanging exterior – with releases of tension dramatised by the horns, though the underlying anxiety of the bass and guitar continue on. The build-up and release of tension, of course, are key aspects of sex, music and drugs (especially opiates); though there’s nothing overtly sexual here, there’s a sensuality to some of the music, while the druggy aspects are more pronounced, with some of the music verging on the unsettling. While Ladies and Gentlemen would make the painkilling, soothing aspect of the drug experience explicit, there’s surely an aspect of that here already – a recurring feeling of strife and discomfort soothed over, or an unsuccessful attempt to soothe over pain and anguish.

This all seemed fairly resonant with me at the time. In the summer of 2000, I had just graduated and had to face the fact that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Although I had been moderately successful as a student, gaining a 2:1, I hadn’t succeeded in getting what I thought was a “good job” after rebuffs following final interviews with the Big 5 consultancies, the civil service etc. I’d been close, but not good enough: I had vainly imagined that I would swan into a good job and live happily ever after in some nebulous future, in the same way as I’d been successful all the way through my educational career. But it seemed the real world was a rather tougher place, and this unnerved me. Similarly, I’d moved into an apartment with a friend, anticipating finding a job of at least some kind soon enough – again, erroneously, and bills soon began to pile up. I signed on with a mixture of weary resignation and sneering superiority from wounded pride. I was lovelorn and single, but also depressed and poor; numerous romantic rebuffs also took their toll, stripping my confidence and souring my attitude. I had ambitions to write, but had no idea of any way to use this productively; I even, in an attempt to stop being so over-analytical and self-conscious, gave up my habit of keeping a journal. At the time it seemed like a good idea; in retrospect it seems like I was running away from myself, trying to escape from a present around which ominous clouds were gathering.

This all seemed perfectly suited by Lazer Guided Melodies. It soothed, but was foreboding; it was dreamy and captivating; it was intense yet oddly relaxing. There was none of the surface agony of Ladies and Gentlemen, but it was just as emotional. And it seemed to capture my mood perfectly.

(Other key albums of that moment were Rhythm and Stealth by Leftfield and The Contino Sessions by Death In Vegas – both equally dark and foreboding. The road I was on seems pretty clear, in retrospect).