Monday, June 8, 2009

Nice Try, Slate Guy

How about instead of trying to define "post-disco" and complaining about how VH1 rockumentaries misrepresent '80s underground rock, why don't you actually try to write about what all this music has meant to you in your own life and what it said to you about the nature of your own measly human existence when you were a young man? I would have much rather read that than declarations such as: "Pop music history is biased toward 'the right place and the right time.'" It is? I never knew. Or:
Just like its respectable elder relative, rock history, with its decisive battles and seismic elections, pop history fixates on origins and breakthroughs, magic years of transformation, cusp points when undergrounds go overground. It gives far less attention to those stretches of time between the upheavals—years of drift and diaspora, periods without an easily discernible "vibe," zeits devoid of geist.
I'll give him points for that last one. But what's the difference between "pop history" and "its respectable elder relative, rock history"? Are they not the same thing?

"It rankles a bit that the late '80s are now treated as a mere prequel to grunge." Well, as many of my loyal readers know, I don't think grunge was that big of a deal in the first place. You think you're being original, eh Simon? Try taking the viewpoint that grunge was merely a prequel to Britpop. Now that's original!
The recently aired Seven Ages of Rock on VH1 Classic was a marked improvement on earlier TV histories of rock, which tended to jump straight from Sex Pistols to Nirvana. But its episode on U.S. alternative rock nonetheless presented groups like the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and Sonic Youth as preparing the ground for Nirvana. That's not how it felt at the time: Sonic Youth and the rest seemed fully formed significances in their own right, creative forces of monstrous power, time-defining in their own way (albeit through their refusal of the mainstream). My Melody Maker comrade David Stubbs wrote an end-of-year oration proclaiming 1988—annum of Surfer Rosa, Daydream Nation, My Bloody Valentine's Isn't Anything—to be the greatest year for rock music. Ever!
If you're talking to Yoggoth, he might agree with you. I for one have always admired those '80s alternative rock bands more than I've actually liked them. My favorite album on SST Records is Meat Puppets II, so go figure. As good as the Pixies, Husker Du, The Replacements, etc. were, I still feel like they were a 4.2 on the Richter scale compared to the late '60s' 9.3. Nirvana were about a 4.6. Punk was at least a 6.8 perhaps. I'm kind of liking this Richter scale system; what do you guys think?
We actually believed this, and our fervor was infectious, striking an inspirational, Obama-like chord with young readers heartily sick of the idea that rock's capacity for renewal had been exhausted in the '60s or the punk mid-'70s. Yet that period will never truly be written into conventional history (despite efforts like Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life) because it doesn't have a name. It's too diverse, and it's not easily characterized. For instance, the groups were "underground," except that by 1988 most of them—Husker Du, Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers—had already signed, or soon were to sign, to majors. Finally, it'll never get fairly written into history because, damn it, grunge did happen.
But by placing such importance on grunge you're buying into VH1's predictable view of rock history anyway! And that period truly has been written into conventional history. For example, by Michael Azerrad, in his book Our Band Could Be Your Life. You want a VH1 special to acknowledge a bunch of groups that were almost completely commercially unsuccessful? Good luck.
Reclaiming one such period of "fallout" was the polemical drive behind my post-punk history Rip It Up and Start Again and its new companion volume Totally Wired. It was an attempt to challenge the perennial fixation on punk as the Big Bang and the corresponding tendency to see what came next as a scattered diminuendo, an entropic dissipation of focus and energy. Instead, I wanted to recover my own lived sense of the period not as a dwindle into disparateness but as the true fruition of punk's ideals. The after-zones of rock history are hard to grasp precisely because they're so various. This rich muddle demands identifying labels that are umbrella-broad and open-ended. Hence post-punk, not a genre so much as a space of possibility, out of which new genres formed: Goth, industrial, synthpop, mutant disco, and many more.
Oh, come on. Just write about the music you like, and why. Your description of "post-disco" is also not selling me on the idea of this period as some kind of way to "usefully redraw the map of pop music history":
Instead, the genre mutated while the movement itself fragmented into a panoply of subscenes that appealed to specific tribes of the once-united disco nation, styles like hi-NRG (a tautly sequenced, butt-bumping sound big in the hard-core gay clubs), freestyle (beloved by Hispanic youth in New York and Miami), Italodisco (the bastard bambino of Giorgio Moroder), and electrofunk (a sound associated with New York labels like West End and Prelude, artists like Peech Boys, and producers like Arthur Baker).
Let me tell you something, I have heard Giorgio Moroder, and if Giorgio Moroder didn't cause me to "redraw the map of pop music history," then "the bastard bambino of Giorgio Moroder" is certainly not going to do it. Some of this music certainly does sound interesting. But don't overplay your hand.
The sharp critical view to take on Sgt. Pepper's has long been that it's a pretentious mess compared with its predecessor Revolver; sharper still is the claim that Rubber Soul is better than the already-getting-quite-psychedelic Revolver...But just as disco never died in a lot of hearts, there were plenty of people active at the end of the '60s and into the early '70s who kept faith with the visions of 1967. They kept on making music that, while not always blatantly trippy, nonetheless took its bearing from landmark psychedelic records like Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets, the Incredible String Band's The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Traffic's Dear Mr. Fantasy, Donovan's A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, Soft Machine's self-titled debut.
But not Sgt. Pepper. Is that the point he's trying to make? Or is he saying that although it's trendy to bash Sgt. Pepper these days it was actually still quite influential? Or is he saying that these "post-psychedelic" bands didn't take their bearings from music that people actually heard, but rather from these critical cult favorites? My head is going to explode!
Even certain artists we normally file under "glam" were indelibly marked by psychedelia: Roxy Music's personnel included Brian Eno, a Syd Barrett admirer and believer in using the recording studio to create sonic phantasms, and the obviously Hendrix-damaged Phil Manzanera.
Oh come on. Were Roxy Music any more "psychedelic" than David Bowie or T.Rex? Were David Bowie and T.Rex even psychedelic? You know what? "We" don't "normally file" anything under anything, Mr. Reynolds.


Herr Zrbo said...

If punk was a 6.8 and the late 60s a 9.3 then 2009 is gonna be straight 11.0 baby cause that's when the new Kanye album drops baby!!!!!!

In all seriousness, I kind of liked reading this article. I think he's just arguing that the 'gestation' periods of music often get overlooked. Just like how the rest of the 00s will be one day seen as merely a prelude to Kanye's motha fuckin' 2009 BOMBSHELL ALBUM BABY!!!

Little Earl said...

I just hope it's at least half as good as this.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see this..

Thanks for sharing...
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