Sunday, April 25, 2010

Spiritual Successors #1: The Clash

The purpose of the "Spiritual Successors" entries is to figure out one thing about an artist/group: will another similar artist ever come along after that achieves similarly to the original group.

This requires a few things:

1.  Spiritually similar.  Are they both trying to achieve the same thing?  This could be from being highly political to highly introspective/spiritual.  As long as they are the same or similar, then we can consider the later the successor of the former.
2.  Following from 1., but also of import: being a spiritual successor does not mean they have to be stylistically similar...not at all.  For one, being overly restrictive limits options, and two, the nature of music has been dynamic, with different things "in" and different things "out," which means that what's good one era is not good in another (ahem, punk).  To apply an analogy, if you expect yourself to be reincarnated, you wouldn't be reincarnated as "yourself," no?  You would be reborn in a different vessel and do things in a unique way.
3.  Similar music "methodologies."  This mostly concerns the approaches that both the predecessor and the follower take to the music.  Are they both generally eclectic and incorporate all sorts of elements into their music?  Or do they both prefer to ply the trade they have perfected?  The general consensus is here that the sorts of spiritual successor strains will be of the "eclectic" variety; most artists tire of continually "plowing their own field" (to use the vernacular of a bygone era) and choose to try something new, or to at least incorporate something new.

That being said, this does not imply that there will always be a spiritual successor for a group before.  The Beatles are a good example of such.  While perhaps I can discuss this at a later date and prove that no group has been able to recreate the Beatles with any degree of success, the point to make is that the Beatles were so good, so unique, so diverse in what they achieved that no artist has ever come close to the creative burst that powered their years.  It really was a perfect storm for them.

Now that I've outlined the guidelines for the "Spiritual Successors" series, let's begin...


The Clash were regarded as "the only band that matters," as said by pretty much everyone.  Roaring along in the 1970s, they were the distinctly political side of punk.  With anthems such as "White Riot" which promoted action (i.e. violence) and even the dirges such as "Straight to Hell" (hint...this song will come into play later), they lamented their lot in life much like the rest of the punk movement, but what separated them from the rest of the chaff was their willingness to try to change it.

And they were simply good.  When you put on the Clash and hear "Clash City Rockers" explode out of your speakers for the very first time, the riff is quite simply embedded in your head for the rest of your life.  In typing that last sentence, the riff just came bubbling out of the blue, a sort of semi-conscious recall that implies a sort of timelessness to their work (no matter how dated the punk movement became).  And yes, before purists cry out, when I refer to "Clash City Rockers" playing from the Clash, I am, in fact, referring to the U.S. version of the record that came out post-Give 'em Enough Rope, as the U.K. version was never available in the United States...and, well, I'm from the United States.

Then there was their seminal record: London Calling.  There is no need to defend the record.  But it's important to point out how eclectic the record is in comparison to their previous ones (and to basically most records in existence).  They started incorporating reggae, they dabbled in parlor jazz, noisy blues-rock, and the like.  Nothing was off limits, because punk was about "no limits," not the power chord.  The pop of "Train In Vain." The sinister crawl of "The Guns of Brixton."  The apocalyptic march of the title track.  Need I go on?

While perhaps Sandinista! was a strange choice, it pushed the boundaries of what "eclectic" meant.  If you want an explanation (and don't want to trudge through 3 LPs, which at times is hard to manage), then look no further than the children's chorus version of one of their more famous "old school punk" songs, "Career Opportunities."  It was already a highly political message in its first form, and given the new dressing, gained an especially vicious edge to its commentary.

As I said earlier, it was their political stance that separated them from the rest, the men from the children (so to speak).  No one dared to get explicitly political, because there was always a sense of fear given that if you were outside the box, you would never get anywhere.  Of course, given the Clash, getting anywhere was not really the issue, because they started nowhere, so somewhere was better than there.  But most of all, they were simply bold enough to insert themselves into the political issues of the time (see the title of their fourth record: Sandinista! and you see).

So we see two trends from the Clash: while at first content to stew their own pot, they later became quite eclectic in their approach.  They were also highly political (and generally great people to boot, but that's a separate entry), unafraid to confront their lot in life, and to make a stand and send a message.  Is there anyone who, perhaps, can be viewed as their spiritual successor?  I say yes.  It is, in fact, this artist/person:

M.I.A., as she's known, is essentially a rapper from London, I believe, who traces her roots back to Sri Lanka.  Her two records, Arular and Kala, are dizzyingly eclectic, with noises and sounds, thick and dirty beats flying in and out, all tied together by her verses.  Stylistically, the two are far apart.  Rap vs. punk, and you see a stark contrast, an uncrossable rift between the two.  But neither artist treated their respective genres as a chafing categorization, but moreover a springboard to something new.  The Clash incorporated reggae primarily, alongside almost every other genre into their songs, while M.I.A. has been fearless in her sampling of tracks that make her songs unmissable (in fact, "Straight to Hell" was sampled in M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," which was her mainstream all makes sense now, no?).  While the methods of each artist's eclecticism are different, that seems to be a product of the dynamic state of music, rather than an inherently different approach to their music.

While she does not dedicate herself to political material (not even the Clash did that), the amount of it is staggering and is likely comparable to that of the Clash.  Of course, M.I.A. has probably been better off than the Clash have ever been in a financial sense, but M.I.A., like the Clash, took one issue to heart (the Clash's was essentially the poor standard of living in London, though usually more general than just London).  Her core issue relates to her ancestry in Sri Lanka, specifically concerning the Tamil uprising and the conflict that enveloped the region (and, I would hazard to guess that it's probably not as over as some people like to think).

The comparison seems fairly apt.  Both highly political, both highly eclectic.  While perhaps I have not treated the "issue" (though I don't consider a faux-academic examination of an aspect of rock music to be much of a pressing "issue," much less an actual "issue") with as much depth as it may deserve, I think in general, the point has been made and brought up for discussion.

Also, M.I.A.'s new track, "Born Free," is ridiculously awesome, which partially inspired me to write the first entry to this series (I had the idea for the series already, just hadn't gotten around to it yet).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lost Albums

Since it's been a long time, this entry is like a "lost entry" and so I feel like it's fair to discuss "lost albums":

Lost albums in rock lore are pretty much legendary.  Sometimes they surface soon.  Sometimes they surface much later.  Sometimes they don't.  Sometimes it's just a bunch of tapes that are compiled later, or sometimes they are completely re-imagined from the ground up.  Here's a look at the more famous ones (and some personal favorites)

Cases in point:

1. The Beach Boys - Smile

This is probably the most fabled one of the "lost albums" bunch.  This was supposed to be Brian Wilson's "teenage symphony to God."  It was supposed to eclipse, yes, eclipse Pet Sounds.  How the hell is that supposed to happen?  Make another record more perfect than one of the most perfect pop records ever?  But for one reason or another, this album became lost.  Brian Wilson went a bit bananas, battling various sorts of not-very-good mental states, group conflict, and the ilk, all causing the project to fall to the wayside.  This record was bootlegged heavily, with fights all over, trying to compile the definitive statement regarding Smile.  But all that was, for most intents and purposes, settled in 2004 when Brian Wilson, finally returning to peak form, completed the record (now with strange capitalization schemes) we all know and love as SMiLE:

 Who knows if this is as good as the original was supposed to be?  I prefer to not think about that and just rejoice in the perfect pop that the record is.  In some sense, with age changing Brian Wilson's voice, the songs take on a new meaning, one of wizened (and therefore sly) reflection rather than the youth and innocence that so starkly characterized Pet Sounds...but it gives the record a second meaning.  And as I said, it's neither here nor there, as the album is as good as it gets (and I consider it one of the best entries of the previous decade).

2. Bob Dylan & the Band - The Basement Tapes

Another ubiquitous "lost album" that found its way to shelves when its commercial power was realized.  And what a powerful set of songs this is.  Down home folk, rolling blues, and the like, all casually tossed off as if recorded over breakfast or during a brief period of downtime in the middle of the day.  The songs ooze cool, nonchalance, a folksy wisdom that only Bob Dylan and the Band have been able to replicate (the Band moreso than Bobby D, but I think Bob Dylan made the conscious choice to avoid the same path).

Dylan was recovering from a motorcycle accident that had nearly ended him, and just recording by himself and the Band.  No one knows the particulars and the details, and various forms of the set of tapes exist.  In some ways, this album is still lost because there is no definitive statement on this time period outside of either going whole-hog with the entire complete set of the Basement Tapes (something like a five-disc set with at least three takes of most tracks) to the very short two-disc version missing some tracks.  The debate will always continue, and I honestly think Bob Dylan prefers it that way.

3. The Velvet Underground - VU

So perhaps this not necessarily a straight up "lost album" like Smile or just a smattering of tapes all thrown together like the Basement Tapes (despite similar origins), but the record has been compiled from rough mixes and demos into a finely tuned, muscular beast.  Mostly from the end of their career at MGM records, these tracks were supposed to be the last record on their deal there, but for reasons no man can fathom, they were unceremoniously booted from the label.  These demos and rough mixes were recorded for MGM before they left and recorded Loaded, but these tracks were left undiscovered until the 1980s when the Velvet Underground underwent a bit of a renaissance in terms of sales and opinion.

The record may seem to be a sort of outtakes and demos compilation that seems pre-solo Lou Reed more than anything else, but the (obvious) secret is that Lou Reed's best outfit for performing his songs had been and will always forever be with the Velvet Underground (i.e. John or Doug, Moe, and Sterling).  So yes, "Andy's Chest" shows up on Transformer, but the lazy beat on his solo work is replaced by a bouncing giddy-ness here that is superior.  "Stephanie Says" became "Caroline Says II" on Berlin, but to be frank, "Caroline Says II" is not great whereas "Stephanie Says" is perfect...a slightly cruel, very melancholy ballad that was likely directed at their manager at the time.

The record was prepared with as much care and consideration as, to a great extent, any other Velvet Underground record.  I consider it more or less canon, placing it in its recorded-chronological place rather than its release-chronological place (i.e. between the Velvet Underground and Loaded rather than post-Loaded).  The urge to wax more eloquent on this record is tempting, but I will prevent myself on doing so because it's quite contrary to the point of this entry.

There are other examples, both great and not so great, but given these case studies (Smile being the famous one, the Basement Tapes being the pretty famous one, and VU being the personal favorite), it is clear that at some point, a lost album will always be found.  As the myth indicates, "all that wander are not lost," and perhaps the idiom applies to a great extent for records in rock music.