Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Post-Punk: The (Once) Wild Open West

In 1977, punk had basically already been declared dead. This was a strange claim to make, because the best of punk had yet to come (The Clash had not begun to flourish yet), but for whatever reason, the claim was made and essentially accepted. But this left a gaping hole in music at the time. Who now to guide music? Where would it go? This was answered by post-punk first, being particularly framed around the late 1970s to early 1980s, where it experienced the most success.

Punk was a format essentially thriving on (perhaps excessive) simplicity. If the construct was elaborate, it was torn down until it became uncomplicated. This allowed punk to serve as a format for political banter, fully embraced by many. But when punk was declared dead, this left many questions for those who came after. They wanted to remain true to those roots and be uncomplicated, but it was done before and, well, done as a genre. So where to go? A composite look at three bands answers that question. Talking Heads, Television, and Joy Division all together form basically the whole picture of the post-punk movement, with each band taking post-punk in a unique direction. What they all really had in common was their origins: they all loved punk, but when punk had died they all were left with no guide, and each forged their own unique identity to enter rock lore.

Talking Heads came from New York, fueled by the peculiar styling of David Byrne. As with all the groups, they began playing primarily derivatives of rock music, but even then they showed flashes of greatness, from "Psycho Killer" on their debut disc to the grandiose "The Big Country" and the sly reading of Al Green's "Take Me To The River." But with their next disc they began to explore what made them great (and different from the other post-punk groups); their love and therefore application of African polyrhythms led them to their creative peak, culminating in the masterful and essential Remain In Light record.

While Fear of Music represented a great stride forward with regards to generating their "sound," it was not until Remain In Light when it all came together. Drawing heavy influence from African music-making, from the unique polyrhythms to even the way they wrote and constructed the music, Talking Heads, with the guiding hand of Brian Eno, created an entirely new sound. The music was about the composite experience, not just the individual parts, utilizing only one chord throughout the song and let all the rhythms set by the percussion, the bass, the guitars, and even Byrne's voice do the unison. What makes the record so disarming is its restlessness, from Byrne's wandering, stream of consciousness lyrics to the undulating rhythms that drive each track to both everywhere and nowhere at once. Parts weave in and out, interact with each other as they float into the mixes for periods of time before mysteriously fading out. Suffice to say, this was one of the three peaks of post-punk, but to belabor the point on Remain In Light and Talking Heads in general seems to be a disservice.

The other great American post-punk band was simply named Television, hailing once again from New York City. While Talking Heads found their mine of gold through the integration of African polyrhythms, Television found their "sound" through the use of clever guitar interplay. The term "clever guitar interplay," however, really demeans and downplays what they accomplish on their flagship record, Marquee Moon (pictured above).

The album is basically the guitar player's Bible. There is not a note wasted, not a note poorly spent. It essentially made the claim that technicality in guitar playing was, well, merely a technicality. Dismissive of the pervasive "über-playing" of flashy blues players, Television successfully said that a bunch of fast notes played together hardly makes a solo or even a song. Each riff is meticulously planned, with each guitar weaving in and out of each other in perfect unison, complementary yet totally unique. There is a genuine sense of shape and melody with each line that each guitar plays, from the gradual buildup into epic moments on masterwork "Marquee Moon" to the cascading riffs that permeate "Friction."

But because Marquee Moon is the guitar player's Bible does not mean that any of the other qualities are readily discarded. Tom Verlaine is at his most mysterious here, and the geeky (and nifty) interplay between him and his band-mates on tracks such as the rollicking opener "See No Evil" and its follower "Venus" give the record the many little moments that can still shine on an album dominated primarily by the fantastic guitar work presented. Before Television came about, guitar playing was primarily about virtuosity and the ability to be technical, but in one fell swoop, the game was utterly rewritten.

The only Brits to significantly affect post-punk were a quartet of lads from Manchester known as Joy Division. Joy Division encountered a stranger route to success. Originally a rather blasé and not very unique band that played with the typical punk-influence, Joy Division did not come upon their style until they detached themselves from the time-honored tradition of playing at ludicrously fast tempos and slowed down. Only then did Joy Division find their niche and become wholly intense, visceral, and become, well, Joy Division. And what resulted were two of the most essential records in any person's music catalog.

Frankly, I don't wish to elaborate too in depth on each record, but the reason why Joy Division really separated themselves from the rest of the post-punk pack was the emphasis on ambiance and atmosphere, leaving space rather than filling it. While live they displayed none of the "ambiance" parts (instead becoming particularly ragged and aggressive in a live setting), their use of ambiance and atmosphere in the studio essentially defined genres to come. Perhaps primarily attributed to their choice of producer, Martin Hannett, Joy Division were pushed to entirely new levels of art. Combining the unique "cold" production (and if that term does not make sense, listen to the record and within one second of the record beginning you will understand) with the sheer muscle of the band, two masterpieces, Unknown Pleasures and Closer were born.

The only downer point, ever, on Joy Division is that, well, Ian Curtis was a bit of a downer himself. The lyrics are essentially depressing, and without a doubt they forecasted the bitter end that Ian Curtis would face (for those unfamiliar, he committed suicide before Closer was ever released). But Ian Curtis was a lyrical genius endlessly battling the depression that came from crippling epileptic attacks and a failing marriage. His lyrics, as surely as anything, reflect this, but never were his lyrics your typical "depresso" lyric style; never wallowing in self-pity as most often do, he altogether emphasized alienation and a genuine sense of loss that came as real. One can really only imagine what Joy Division would have been capable of if Ian Curtis were still around.


Taken together, Talking Heads, Television, and Joy Division all came to symbolize what post-punk did quite right, though none lasted very long. It would be inherently easy to dismiss each group, perhaps, on their short existences as groups, but to simply call them "flashes in the pan," given the work they did, is a gross oversight and misunderstanding. Perhaps through tragedy or strife, none of the groups (and the genre itself) made it beyond several years. But the relics they left behind, those records, all serve as time-worn monuments to the genre of post-punk that would go on the become a pervasive influence in alternative rock.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Best Kept Secret In All of Rock and Roll

Big Star are, quite simply, the best kept secret in all of rock and roll. Others have espoused on the history of this great band in more detail than I have, but it seems prudent to run through the generalities. Big Star were a 4-piece from Memphis. They produced magnificent pop records (#1 Record, Radio City, Third / Sister Lovers). But they were entirely sabotaged by poor marketing and distribution (does this sound like the best TV show ever, Arrested Development, to anyone else?). Alas, it was not to be, but let us not mourn overmuch and rejoice in the legend that is Big Star.

Big Star was essentially a power-pop outfit (I mean that in the traditional sense, not in the current Hellscape that power-pop has become these days), with big guitars, great harmonies, and the like. The group, through the decidedly Lennon/McCartneyesque interactions of its core duo, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, respectively, created a unique identity that took the pop sensibilities of all the 1960s greats - the Beatles' penchant for melody, the Beach Boys' ear for harmony, among many other things and distilled it into one sound. This made Big Star the perfect band to represent the time they were in, but it obviously never came to be.

Though the Bell/Chilton dynamic only existed for the first release, it is hard to say that the departure of Bell severely weakened Big Star. In much the same way John Lennon thrived in a post-Beatles apocalypse, Alex Chilton's wanderings proved far too genius to be kept out of the game. Even as Bell still left his mark on Radio City, Chilton became the driving force behind Big Star. And though perhaps Radio City isn't the pop-perfect record that #1 Record was, Chilton's abilities are in full force.

And the last record. Big Star was mostly done, for one reason or another, but the last record produced, Third / Sister Lovers, can be considered as "ragged glory." It's a strange, hot mess, but there are too many good songs to discount the record and Alex Chilton. From the searing "Holocaust" to the airy "Femme Fatale," Chilton shows that power-pop in all its abilities can still be intensely creative and emotionally gripping. While it isn't necessarily the strongest of the bunch, the songs here still hold extremely well to previous efforts.

But enough about me waxing eloquent. Let the scores of artists who have looked up to Big Star speak for me. The Replacements (the leaders of American punk in the 1980s) idolized Big Star, even penning a track dedicated to Alex Chilton ("Alex Chilton"). Peter Buck, of R.E.M. fame, admitted this: "We've sort of flirted with greatness, but we've yet to make a record as good as Revolver or Highway 61 Revisited or Exile on Main Street or Big Star's Third. I don't know what it'll take to push us on to that level, but I think we've got it in us." Countless covers of Big Star songs (check this personally intense cover of "Thirteen" by Elliot Smith here). There have been Big Star tribute albums. Big Star has gotten its due credits after its disunion. And rightly so, even if it Chilton has said this about his own group: "I'm constantly surprised that people fall for Big Star the way they do... People say Big Star made some of the best rock 'n roll albums ever. And I say they're wrong." I say that Alex Chilton is looking from the wrong side of the glass.

On a personal note, if I had to tell you my personal music tastes, it'd all center around Big Star. How? Big Star draws on all my 1960s pop loves such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, and has influenced all my favorite contemporary artists such as Wilco, the Replacements, among others. And it's strange to think that I did not discover them until a mere week ago. It appears that I'd been traveling around the center of the circle for the longest time...and I've finally reached center.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

And one more thing...

Call me blasphemous, but you could make the argument that music has united people in ways religion has only aspired to.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Music and Spirituality/Spirituality in Music: A (Semi-)Intense Discussion on the Matter

This came about when I was thinking. Before I give my views on the matter, let me define a few things:

Spirituality: The way in which any person connects to any sort of higher state (or to a higher power, if that's your belief).

Faith: The connection you have with the higher state that most usually dictates your mores and ways of being.

Religion: How a person connects with others over similar faiths or spirituality.

Spirituality fuels faith and religion and the "connection," faith dictates the way you go about religion and spirituality, and religion is how you interact based on your spirituality and faith. All interrelated.

Given those, let me say this: music is a form of spirituality. Put on a record, a damn good one, and it takes you somewhere else. You connect with something else. A higher power, something more than yourself. You feel...different. Everything sort of clicks when that record starts playing. All sorts of problems melt away and it's just you, the music, and that strange plane you find yourself on. This is what every good record does. It takes you somewhere else, it connects you with something bigger than yourself. A record doesn't have to deal with anything supernatural to connect you in this spiritual manner. Sigur Rós is a good example. Who knows what they're saying? It doesn't matter. Because it's stark and beautiful and when you put it on, you connect to something else. You put on the Beatles (i.e. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) and you are literally transported to somewhere else. And because of how the Beatles were so damn good, the music itself connected you to a higher power. It doesn't matter that they weren't preaching anything. You don't have to preach it to be spiritual. Connecting to that higher plane or being is just as easy (if perhaps more easier) without all that preaching.

Music doesn't have a lot to do with faith, unless you're talking about those who tend to preach the art. Then you're getting dicey. Bob Dylan and John Lennon are pretty good examples of "faith" artists. Their faith fuels their music and vice versa. When done right it's extremely powerful, but when not done right it's downright pitiful. I don't care if you don't agree with John Lennon on the whole, but when he starts singing "God is a concept by which we measure our pain," don't you fucking believe him for a second? And that you're like "Well, shit, maybe..." before you reconcile your views with his and continue on your merry way. It's kinda like that.

Religion is a strange beast, because anything could be religious. Going to a concert, let's say Pavement (my current dig. Also...REUNITED! At least for a bit). You connect with others over the same thing (Pavement's music or whatnot) and by listening to their show you connect with that higher plane/power. That's just as religious as going to church, connecting with others over communion or the gospel and then connecting to basically Jesus or God, depending on the extension.

Let me get back to a previous point, "you don't have to preach it to be spiritual." This is why Christian rock sucks. I'm going to be honest. It is terrible, it's un-listenable. Even as a non-religious guy (but note that this is separate from faith and spirituality) I would be more inclined on exploring the more Christian aspects of existence if it weren't for the fucking terrible music. Call it really slight, really conceited of me, but pardon me for thinking that music has limitless potential in influencing people, and for that potential to be misused or not used at all kills me. It in no way facilitates any connection to any higher power. Part of this is its extreme gaudiness in whatever lavish praise it hopes to lay on. This is the analogy I would use:

Remember Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade? The almost final scene where they finally find the Holy Grail? All the greedy ones thought that the Holy Grail was the most lavishly ornamented, gilded cup, but guess what? They sucked it up and died...because they were dumb. But look at ol' Indy. He picks the least convincing cup. The most humble cup. And hiyo! Success.

Christian rock, in some extension (and probably exaggeration) is like that lavishly ornamented, gilded cup. It's unfit to be a proper vessel for spirituality. Laying on the praise in the way Christian rock does seems to me to be extravangant, unnecessary, and altogether detrimental to that spiritual process. It's un-intuitive, un-imaginative, and everything. If you concede (as I do) that there is a higher power out there, you have to think that he/she/it'd be pretty pissed and/or disappointed if they figured out what sort of janky vessel their "holy water" was being offered in. And if you believe that said being made us, they'd probably be still more pissed that all our creative energies (given that we are likely the only species that has developed this unique power of art) were terribly going to waste. And, if it's your kind of book, you figure that as the humble carpenter does his work, he is rewarded accordingly. Not in any way like it is now.

If you want to explore religion and faith in song, there are better ways of doing it. Tell a story with some meaning, put your characters in between a rock and a hard place and see where their faith takes them. That's more interesting and worthwhile. Challenge them and test their faith because if they aren't challenged, where do they go? Nowhere at all. Your characters do nothing, and by extension you aren't doing anything either as the listener or the creator. What use is that, really? You're not connecting yourself to that higher plane or that higher being. Then what are you even doing listening to music? You shouldn't be if that's your goal.

Alright, I'm getting off the soapbox now...