Tag Archives: rock n roll

Prog Rock: The Musical Genre That Won’t Die

Scientists say cockroaches are one of the few things that will survive a nuclear holocaust. Add prog rock to that list. Defined loosely by its intentional complexity, over-instrumentation, jazz elements, and classically-trained, ambitious musicians who rejected simpler, visceral forms of rock, the “progressive” form known as prog rock has been dissed and dismissed since it paraded its feathered hair onto the scene in the early 1970s. Even though its progressive ethos progressed itself out of existence, the prog oeuvre still has legions of fans and just as many enemies.

Why? In The New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh examines the genre to search for answers. Did prog ever achieve its lofty goals of pushing rock into “a higher form of art”? I mean, where do you go when you’ve already reached the stars? Down into hell? For some, hell is an Emerson, Lake & Palmer synthesizer solo without end, or even one with an end.

The genre’s primary appeal, though, was not spiritual but technical. The musicians presented themselves as virtuosos, which made it easy for fans to feel like connoisseurs; this was avant-garde music that anyone could appreciate. (Pink Floyd might be the most popular prog-rock band of all time, but Martin argued that, because the members lacked sufficient “technical proficiency,” Pink Floyd was not really prog at all.) In some ways, E.L.P. was the quintessential prog band, dominated by Emerson’s ostentatious technique—he played as fast as he could, and sometimes, it seemed, faster—and given to grand, goofy gestures, like “Tarkus,” a twenty-minute suite that recounted the saga of a giant, weaponized armadillo. The members of E.L.P. betrayed no particular interest in songwriting; the group’s big hit, “Lucky Man,” was a fluke, based on something that Greg Lake wrote when he was twelve. It concluded with a wild electronic solo, played on a state-of-the-art Moog synthesizer, that Emerson considered embarrassingly primitive. An engineer had recorded Emerson warming up, and the rest of the band had to convince him not to replace his squiggles with something more precise—more impressive. In the effortful world of prog, there was not much room for charming naïveté or happy accidents; improvised solos were generally less important than composed instrumental passages.

The audience for this stuff was largely male—Bruford writes ruefully that, throughout his career, women “generally and rather stubbornly stayed away” from his performances. The singer-songwriter John Wesley Harding, an obsessive prog-rock fan, suggests that these musicians were “afraid of women,” and that they expressed this fear by shunning love songs. What they provided, instead, was spectacle. As the American crowds got bigger, the stages did, too, which meant more elaborate shows, which in turn drew more fans. Weigel notes that, in one tour program, the members of Genesis promised to “continually feed profits back into the stage show.” (At one point, the show included a stage-wide array of screens displaying a sequence of hundreds of images, and, for the lead singer, a rubbery, tumorous costume with inflatable testicles.) Yes toured with sets designed by Roger Dean, the artist who painted its extraterrestrial album covers. Dean’s innovations included enormous, sac-like pods from which the musicians could dramatically emerge. Inevitably, one of the pods eventually malfunctioned, trapping a musician inside and prefiguring a famous scene from “This Is Spinal Tap.” The competition among bands to create bigger and brighter spectacles was absurd but also irresistible, and quite possibly rational. American arena stages, like LPs, needed to be filled, and so these bands set out to fill them.

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Strange Women: Vancouver’s Female Punk Visionaries

It must be said that no history of women’s contributions to music was being taught. There were no special university courses. There were no books or magazines in the library. Obviously there was no internet. Any piece of information about a woman playing music was most likely found in a bin in a used record store. The radio “rule” was no more than two female singers in a row. This held true even for the earth-shattering FM format, which blasted great music to hungry minds barely weaned off transistor radios. (When my mother was a cleaning lady for a small radio station in the American Midwest, she used to save all of the demo 45s for me that had been thrown away. Most of these records were by women: the band Fanny, country singer Skeeter Davis, Aretha Franklin’s sister, Erma, singing “Piece of My Heart.”) But even among leftists there was an assumption that women weren’t making music. In 1981, when I went on the air with Rubymusic, a radio show specializing in this very subject, even my radical (and very supportive) radio station, Vancouver Co-operative Radio, was concerned that I might not be able to find enough music by women to fill half an hour every week.

– At Geist magazine, Connie Kuhns tells how revolutionary female musicians built up Vancouver, British Columbia’s underground music culture in the 1970s. The story was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in 2015.

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Iggy Pop’s Brand of Experience

Iconic punk progenitor Iggy Pop is touring through the US this spring, and I caught his show in Portland, Oregon last month. As a huge Iggy fan, this tour was no small deal to me. Iggy delivered. Despite new physical limitations, he gave everything his body could give, and the set list of new and old tunes like “Some Weird Sin” and “Repo Man” was a fan’s dream. Ticket prices were not.

Three months earlier, Iggy revealed that he’d recorded a new album in secret with musician Josh Homme. Stephen Colbert featured a debut live performance. The New York Times ran a story. It was savvy marketing. Named Post Pop Depression, the album has generated lots of excitement because it’s Iggy’s first since 2013, and because Iggy, as Homme said, “is the last one of the one-of-a-kinds.” The album even peaked at number one on the Billboard charts ─ Iggy’s first number-one album. But with concert tickets ranging from $50 to $125 (and as high as $400 on the secondary market), people were grumbling.

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The Myth of the Birth of Rock ‘n ‘Roll

Who created rock ‘n’ roll? Sam Phillips, the owner of the legendary Sun Records who first recorded Elvis Presley, claimed he did. But history is written by the winners and the outspoken. In The New Yorker, Louis Menand writes about Peter Guralnick’s biography Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, and about the larger racial, commercial and economic factors, and the other players, that also shaped the music we call rock n roll.

Still, it raises an interesting question. Phillips had had success in 1951 with a song called “Rocket 88” (the title refers to a model of automobile), performed by Ike Turner’s band and sung by Jackie Brenston, who became the headliner (much to Turner’s annoyance). The band had damaged an amplifier on the way to the studio, so it buzzed when music was played. Phillips considered this a delicious imperfection, and he kept it. That is the sound that makes the record, and many people have called “Rocket 88” the first rock-and-roll song. (I guess some song has to be the first.) But “Rocket 88” was performed by a black group. Why, if white kids were already buying records by black musicians, did the breakthrough performer have to be white?

The answer is television. In 1948, less than two per cent of American households had a television set. By 1955, more than two-thirds did. Prime time in those years was dominated by variety shows—hosted by people like Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Milton Berle, and Perry Como—that booked musical acts. Since most television viewers got only three or four channels, the audience for those shows was enormous. Television exposure became the best way to sell a record.

On television, unlike on radio, the performer’s race is apparent. And sponsors avoided mixed-race shows, since they were advertising on national networks and did not want to alienate viewers in certain regions of the country. Nat King Cole’s television show, which went on the air in 1956, could never get regular sponsors. Cole had to quit after a year. “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark,” he said.

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Surveying Sin in American Music

What a blast! But there’s danger in the air─someone on the dark floor’s got a gun, and everyone “does his best to act just right, ’cause it’s gonna be a funeral if you start a fight.” In [Billy] Hughes’s terms, folks “struggle and they shuffle” until the sun comes up, delicate diction for a Saturday of screwing and fighting. “Tennessee Saturday Night” hit number one on March 19, 1949, and remained on the Billboard country charts for nearly three months.

“Gonna push the clouds away, let the music have its way, let it steal my heart away, and you know I’m-a-goin’.” On Saturday nights, the journey is as jubilant as the destination. So affirms John Fogerty in “Almost Saturday Night, from his self-titled album, released on Asylum in September of 1975. This narrative is fractured, too: there’s a train bringing the rodeo to town, or is it bringing the singer home? A radio is playing outside the window (a bedroom? a train compartment?), but it competes with the bells at the train crossing, or from an imagined Gibson in the hands of a Chuck Berry wannabe. The story is embodied in the singing, exultant melody, and arrangement that praise and make passionate contact with the expectations of a long-awaited weekend night. Six years after Fogerty released the song, Welshman Dave Edmunds issued his own rollicking version (on his album Twangin), its joy elevating the song’s hopes and promises in the universal, trans-oceanic desire: bye bye tomorrow. The most powerful word in the song is “almost.” The taste of a Saturday night’s recklessness and exhilaration is more rousing at the brink of maybe, when anticipated, when prayed for.

Joe Bonomo, writing in The Normal School about the role sex, drinking, violence and catharsis play in American music, particularly country, blues and rock and roll, and the ways people sing about blowing off steam. Bonomo’s essay ran in Spring 2014.

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The Wild Times of Billy Idol

Before there was pop-punk, there was Billy Idol. More than any other artist of his era, the man born William Broad brought the style and attitude of punk rock into the American mainstream, via massive hits including “White Wedding” and “Rebel Yell.”

For this, he was both celebrated and vilified. Fans adored Idol’s bad-boy image and his music’s cagey mix of aggressive guitars, dance beats and pop hooks. But to his detractors, he was a fraud — the “Perry Como of punk,” in Johnny Rotten’s famously dismissive phrase.

Throughout his career, Idol has seldom addressed such criticisms directly. But in his latest album, Kings and Queens of the Underground, and a new [2014] memoir, Dancing With Myself, both released last October, the veteran singer clearly is shoring up his legacy. Both the book and the album’s title track explore at length his role in the birth of British punk, as lead singer of the band Generation X and part of the crew that launched the Roxy, London’s first punk-rock club, in 1976.

Andy Hermann writing in LA Weekly about the musical highs and personal lows of the singer with the snarling lip and studded leather wrist-guards, Billy Idol. Hermann’s piece ran in February, 2015.

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The Hard Life and High Times of Independent Musicians

The band Dead Moon is a rock and roll institution and legend around their native Pacific Northwest. Formed in 1987 by husband and wife team Fred (guitarist) Cole and Toody (bassist) Cole, their do-it-yourself approach to making music and managing their affairs has influenced musicians around the world. This September, Fred collapsed on stage during their set at Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot festival and was taken to the hospital. He’s 67 years old. In February, 2014, Callie Danger spoke with bassist Toody in She Shreds magazine about making music for a living, keeping control of their art, and keeping motivated.

She Shreds: And what are the advantages of running everything independently?

Toody Cole: It’s that you’ve got free range to do what you want with it. That’s always been a big thing. That’s why we got into having our own business. Fred used to have to work for temp labor, putting his hair up in a hat just to get hired. You guys forget how difficult it used to be, just to be weird! You have the freedom as a musician to not have to go, “Gee, would it be okay if I take off next Friday?” Because you’d just get fired. At some point, we said, “We should just create our own thing.” We’re both control freaks, so just to have the control is number one. It’s also a cost-saving thing as well, to have your own label. To just be able to go direct to the source for the mastering and the pressing. To not have to go through somebody else who would charge you for the time and labor to do it for you. We’ve always been hands-on.

She Shreds: How long do you think it took to conjure up the commanding stage presence that you have today?

Toody Cole: There used to be a big thing on the West Coast called Garage Shock that Dave Crider from Estrus Records used to have every year in Bellingham, Washington. People used to come from all over the United States, all over the world. When we went up there, it might have been one of the first times Dead Moon played. There were a bunch of these other bands—naturally, all guy bands—sitting around. We were one of the headliners. And, of course, they hadn’t heard of us. At that point, nobody really had. When I walked by, one of these guys goes, “Oh, we’re so gonna blow these guys. They’ve got a girl in the band!” I don’t get mad that easily, but man, I was so fucking pissed. “Yeah, we’ll see, dudes. We’ll see who blows who off the stage, asshole.” It wound up being one of the best gigs we ever did! [laughs] It’s a great motivator, when people underestimate you.

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The Unsung Women of Rock and Roll

The sensitivity of male egos, the demands of motherhood, and the general disdain for female ambition made loneliness the likely lot of the chick singer. For the young, female rock-and-roll fan, the arm of a male musician might have seemed more welcoming. Girlfriends and wives appeared as fairy-tale heroines who held royal sway in the courts of their rock-star loves. Even groupies—at least “the concubine elite,” to use Des Barres’s term—lived a preteen dream, consummating their crushes nightly while avoiding the emotional and physical perils of being married to, say, Keith Moon.

Alexandra Molotkow writing in The Believer about the contributions, sacrifices and struggles of the women who loved rock and roll’s leading men, from Cynthia Lennon to Marianne Faithfull, and the sexual politics of popular music.

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Bad Brains Mixed Punk with a Positive Mental Attitude

“When we first came out, [punk] was kind of on some vulgar shit,” recalls Jenifer. “We started kicking PMA in our music, and the message was different than the regular punk rock. You know, a punk rocker can write a song about hate─I hate my mom or some shit, you know? We wasn’t on no shit like that. Some kids who wanted to see some regular shit saw us, and every kid’s heart and mind was opened. It’s like you’re just going to see some regular reggae music, and Bob Marley is playing. You might walk away from that and go, ‘Damn, that’s some consciousness in this music.’ When we would play, you see, [sings] ‘I got that PMA,’ and there was a whole mode of consciousness that was coming through it.”

Jon Kirby writing in Wax Poetics about seminal rock group Bad Brains, a band of rastas who mixed punk rock with reggae and sent a message of love. Kirby’s piece ran in 2008.

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How Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz Freed Rock and Roll

Always the kind of personality who cut through false distinctions, Coleman could boast a lineage both in punk rock and, with his collective-improvisation aesthetic, in the very music that punk rock often claimed to set out to destroy, hippie psychedelia and stadium rock.

Bassist Jack Bruce of Cream, who had a jazz background, told the Independent in 1992 that by the late 1960s the group that did “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” was secretly “an Ornette Coleman band, with Eric [Clapton] not knowing he was Ornette Coleman, Ginger [Baker] and me not telling him. But there he was, doing these unaccompanied solos for 20 minutes, incredible stuff.”

Carl Wilson writing at Slate about the way avant-garde jazz musician Ornette Coleman influenced everyone from the Velvet Underground to MC5 to to Patti Smith. Coleman died on June 18th, 2015.
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