Monday, May 28, 2012

Chapter 9:  ROCK ON (AND ON) (AND ON): The Never-ending Fifties Revival 


The Beatles and the turn back to rock’n’roll

Predating "Back In the U.S.S.R." by several months,  Lennon's "Revolution"--the B-side of "Hey Jude"--was a stripped-down twelve-bar blues stomp. Ian MacDonald argues that the distance between the as-if-recorded-live production of "Revolution' and the "elaborate artifice" of "I Am the Walrus"-- from only ten months earlier--"remains the broadest encompassed by any single pop artist".

The Beatles / The White Album as postmodernist

What Carl Belz celebrated (the 1968 Beatles moving beyond the ideology of progress, to reflect back on pop' s early history, and their own back pages) other condemned. New Left Review's Richard Merton, for instance,  disparaged The Beatles as the sterile spectacle of  "musical radicalism, robbed of its object, revolving on itself. The outcome is logically self-subversion: parody and pastiche….  The critical ‘charge’ of The Beatles is reduced to a circular process of more or less competent mimicry… ". (Ironically, Richard Merton was the rock-write alter-ego for Perry Anderson, the Marxist critic who would much, much later write a penetrating and acerbically sceptical dissection of postmodernism).

Zappa’s Cruising With Reuben and the Jets c.f. Stravinsky’s neoclassicism

Cruising's "Fountain of Love" doffs to the cap to Igor by juxtaposing a  melodic motif from Rite of Spring with quotes from background chants sung by doo-wop outfit the Moonglow

In 20th Century composition, the astringent and emotionally traumatic innovations of  atonality and twelve-tone  developed by Schoenberg were followed by a  phase known as neo-classicism, which involved adopting and adapting the harmonic clarity of Mozart and Bach from almost two centuries earlier.

According to Schoenberg-fanboy Adorno,  Stravinsky--the most famous exponent of neo-classicism-- was guilty of  "regressive eclecticism….   parasitism on the old " (the words here are Perry Anderson's  gloss on Adorno's famously stern stance).   Like a classical music equivalent to the Jesus & Mary Chain, Stravinsky even went in for direct or slightly distorted quotations from illustrious ancestors like Schubert, Pergolesi, and Tchaikosvky. 

Rock is back/ 1968-69 

Jeff Beck hastily added covers of ‘All Shook Up’ and ‘Jailhouse Rock’ to his second album Beck-ola; the Hipgnosis-designed cover of The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation’s  To Mum, from Aynsley and the Boys featured Dunbar and his band dressed as  Teddy Boys, with Brylcreemed quiffs and  drape jackets;  Jimi Hendrix produced the single ‘Good Old Rock and roll’ by Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys,  a medley of songs by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Big Bopper, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins that became a  Billboard Top 40 hit that summer

Another example of this entire dynamic - psychedelia and a drastic reaction against it - was The Electric Prunes. Having recorded classic psychsploitation singles like "I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night" and "Get Me To the World on Time", along with acid + long hair fellow travelling albums like Underground (1967), and then let themselves be pushed into such kitsch follies as the David Axelrod-masterminded liturgy-as-psychedelia Mass in F Minor (1968) and Release of An Oath (also 1968),  the badly damaged group reconstituted itself with a new line up and released a pretension-stripped comeback attempt in 1969. The title: Just Good Old Rock and Roll.

Creedence Clearwater Revival as unsexy

Critic and Creedence fan Ellen Willis characterized John Fogerty as the anti-Jagger, "the solid, sustaining husband"

Instead of sex and desire, Creedence songs dealt with politics from a populist, Everyman angle ("Fortunate Son", about how the rich and connected could wangle their sons out of the Vietnam draft, or the Viet-inspired "Run Through the Jungle"). Or they were about rock’n’roll itself  ("Ramble Tamble",  "Keep On Chooglin'")

Creedence’s plain sound

The starkness and focus of Creedence's singles cut through on Top Forty oriented AM radio, whose signal was inferior to FM (the home of the new album rock and the progressive underground).   

 Creedence's  alignment with rock'n'roll, rather than rock, was a conscious move. As Willis pointed out, Fogerty's "dedication to the formula of rock & roll--energy rigidly structured by what were originally commercial constraints--was, in a looser, freer era, as much an aesthetic choice, dictated by temperament, as other musicians' revolt against it.  At bottom the choice was a function of Fogerty's populist instincts." 

Rock's historical turn

See also the Beegees's "New York Mining Disaster 1941", Randy Newman's "Sail Away", his satire about the slave trade


Sha Na Na / George Leonard’s recruitment ads at Columbia

There was a variant distributed to Columbia' sister college, the all-female Barnard: " 'You can't go out with that kid, he's got sideburns, looks like a JD'. Remember the Fifties? Tears on your pillow, pain in your heart, because your father wouldn't let you date Sal. Relive your youth, come on down to the Lion's Den where the Kingsmen will be doing a preview of their history of rock…"

Like Cruising With Reuben and "Back In the U.S.S.R.", Sha Na Na was a product of the fact that rock had existed long enough to accumulate a body of pop-cultural iconography and music-myth that could be revisited, reworked, reinvented.  "Up until then rock wasn't old enough to have a history," says the group's mastermind, George Leonard

Here's Greil Marcus's review of the first Sha Na Na record from Rolling Stone, December 13, 1969

Sha Na Na, Rock and Roll Is Here To Stay, (Kama Sutra 2010)
Buddah Records has also released a new press kit, entitled “Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival,” presumably in tribute to their latest acquisition, Columbia University’s ex-glee club gang of rock and roll “clas­sicists,” Sha Na Na. The kit doesn’t make it. Too obvious. A black comb, tennie laces, candy-on-paper, fake pay­ola, and a rubber. Also, strangely, a 78 rpm disc including two of Sha Na Na’s performances–strange, since 78s were dead a good while before any of the group’s material was written. But I guess that’s Buddah’s charm. 
There’s also this album, which must be part of the press kit, ’cause I can’t see any other justification for it, except that if you buy it you’ll find the complete lyrics of a lot of great old songs, some of which may come as a surprise, since the dazzling originals pretty much forced the listener to fill in the gaps him­self. But not Sha Na Na. They do rote copies of the old hits–”Book of Love,” “Come Go With Me,” etc.–sounding like nothing so much as the cover records groups like the Crewcuts made off masterpieces by black artists. There’s not a touch of invention, humor, or excitement. The group doesn’t even sound like they had a good time in the studio. Mostly they’re so boring you don’t even hear it; sometimes, as on “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Long Tall Sally,” they’re offensive.

1969 has been a banner year for re-recording old hits, and virtually all who have tried it–Johnny Winter, NRBQ, Cat Mother, the Flamin’ Groovies–have been surprisingly successful. They brought at least some individual invention and personal spirit to the task–but Sha Na Na is astonishingly sterile, given the fact that they’ve been such a great success on stage on the East Coast. You could hear the way it should have been on Cat Mother’s hit, “That Good Old Rock and Roll”–”Wow, what a gas to get a chance to do all our favorite songs!” But Sha Na Na on record sounds “Fun.”

Richard Nader’s rock nostalgia concerts
Promoter Richard Nader had been an "oldies" specialist as far back as 1958, when as a high school student in a Pennyslvania small-town he deejayed records from the mid-Fifties on a local radio station and at high school hops.  

John Lennon’s anti-progressive backlash

Anti-virtuosity too:  and the bullshitters are going off into that excellentness which I never believed in” (from the Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner)

Lennon on the blues: "It's not a concept, it is a chair…  for sitting on, not for looking at or being appreciated" (ibid)

Philip Auslander, in Performing Glam Rock, describes Lennon’s return to  rock’n’roll an act of downward mobility, recovering the working class self he had before the Beatles's acceptance, plaudits, etc.

Auslander suggests the crucial difference between Lennon and Sha Na Na's return to rock'n'roll - John's was about inhabiting an identity, Sha Na Na's was about playing a role.

John Lennon: from primal scream to political militancy

Just as "Mother" was a deliberate act of regression,  John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band returned to the bedrock of Lennon's music self.  On 1972's Some Time In New York City, he  would go further and fuse crude rock'n'roll and abrasive honesty with a third level of "reality", in the form of  hard-hitting, lyrically blunt protest lyrics about sexism, racism, injustice, and Northern Ireland.  This was  Lennon and Ono's beret-clad, power-to-the-people phase,  sound-tracked by "gutsy rock'n'roll…"  that at once " looked back to the fifties and hinted at the punk movement that was to come," according to Robin Denselow. In particular, the album laid the template for the Tom Robinson Band.

John Lennon's Rock and Roll album of 1975

The front sleeve featured a 1961 black-and-white photo of a young Lennon leaning against a Hamburg doorway during the Beatles second trip to the city.

On the back of the album, among the credits it says: “Relived by: JL”

MC5 and Back In the USA

Lennon’s Some Time In New York City included the song "John Sinclair", which was originally written for the "Free John Now Rally" of December 1971, a protest against the excessive jail sentence imposed on the White Panther founder and MC5 manager following a pot bust. But while Sinclair languished in jail,  the MC5 shed most of their militant left-wing and counter-culture freak baggage and jumped on the back-to-Fifties  bandwagon.   Kicking off with Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" and closing with the title track's Chuck Berry cover,  Back In the U.S.A.  abandoned jammed-out, free-jazz influenced sound of their debut  album in favour of  two-and-a- half minute, would-be jukebox classics bore with titles like "High School" and "Teenage Lust" ("I need a healthy outlet for/ For my teenage lust"). From macho longhairs who'd previously been loudly and lewdly all about groupies, orgies, and the whole White Panther revolutionary credo of "dope, guns and fucking in the streets", the contrived "adolescence" of the MC5's new direction was unconvincing.  Released in early 1970, Back In the USA alienated their original fan-base while failing to broaden the group's appeal.  But the album's producer Jon Landau did go on to mentor Bruce Springsteen and produce the latter's back-to-rock'n'roll breakthrough Born To Run.

Don McLean and "American Pie"
The song proceeds through the entire history of rock’n’roll, from the Fifties through the early to mid Sixties, before conjuring the twilight of that decade's end (the Stones at Altamont, Charles Manson reading hideous significance into the White Album's "Helter Skelter").  "American Pie", McLean said, was "a mystical trip into my past" and an "attempt at an epic song about America" that used music to illuminate politics and history to illuminate music.

The Rock 'n' Roll Show, Wembley Stadium, 1972

Rock 'n' roll nostalgia ran rife through the whole early to mid Seventies in the UK, with the Number One LP slot regularly taken over by greatest hits anthologies for artists like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, or compilations like this one


Glitter, division 2: Alvin Stardust, Mud

Alvin Stardust went further and based an entire career on impersonating Gene Vincent, right down to the black leather gloves. (Originally he called himself Elvin Starr, "Elvin" being a composite of Elvis and Vincent).  Names like "Stardust" and "Glitter" were nods to early British rock'n'roll, when star-maker svengalis like Larry Parnes gave their creations stage-names like Fury, Wilde, Pride, and Eager.  Taking such shlock to end-of-the-pier variety show level were Mud, whose trail of (s)hits included Presley-in-Vegas pastiche "Lonely This Christmas" and a cover of  Buddy Holly's "Oh Boy."

Marc Bolan
Ride A White Swan," Bolan's first real hit, was, wrote Barney Hoskyns,  " like Donovan wedded to Chuck Berry".

Happy Days
Glitter rock tomboy Suzi Quatro also had a role as Leather Tuscadero, the she-rebel sister of Fonzie's girlfriend

Rocky Horror Show / Rocky Horror Picture Show

Opening in London in June 1973 as a stage show, Rocky Horror combined gender-bending and perversions with Fifties rock'n'roll pastiches and a plot composited out of every kind of  B-movie from science fiction to Hammer House of Horror.  Camp as hell,  a product of the pulp cinema/"so bad it's good"/trash aesthetic that would itself become the ultimate midnight movie,  The Rocky Horror Picture Show was in some way the definitive cinematic statement of the glam era.   The plot concerned a cross-dressing, Frankenstein-like mad scientist (later revealed to be an alien) at whose castle two clean-cut Fifties kids (Brad and Janet) are forced to spend the night.  The monster created by Frank N. Furter, that "sweet transvestite from transsexual transylvania," is a rock'n'roller called Eddie, whose brain has partially been removed. 

Meatloaf and Jim Steinman and their cliché-encrusted version of Fifties rock’n’roll

Bat Out of Hell’s title track was about a Harley Davidson death-ride;  "All Revved Up with No Place to Go" was about deflowering a girl;  "Paradise By the Dashboard Light"  was about making out in a Chevy and struggling to get a girl to go "all the way", complete with a first base/second base/third base play-by-play by baseball broadcaster Phil Rizzuto

Steinman and the Peter Pan complex

 In an interview Steinman complained that "too many people are desperate for maturity, and I'm desperately trying to cling to adolescence." 
Steinman and Springsteen

Just about the only contemporary rocker Steinman admired was Bruce Springsteen. But he ultimately found the latter's music too street-realistic, lacking "the three F's--Fever, Fantasy, and Fun."  Still, he did pilfer pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg from the Boss's  E Street Band for the Bat Out of Hell recording sessions

Steinman and excess

Bat Out of Hell's too-much-is-never-enough ethos was mirrored in Steinman's private life: he is famous for over-ordering at restaurants (sampling half the dishes on the menu), once declared that the Roman tradition of the vomitorium (puking between banquet courses) should be revived, and started his own music company called Ravenous Entertainment.

When Meat Loaf did Chuck Berry's "Promised Land" on Saturday Night Live, the rendition featured eight guitarists.


Hank Mizell's "Jungle Rock". 
After getting into circulation again through the Cees Klop compiled Rock’n’Roll, Vol.1,  the song took off in U.K. clubs and became widely bootlegged, prompting Charly Records to secure the licensing and officially reissue it as a single in early 1976.  "Jungle Rock" became a surprise #3 hit in the UK and actually reached number one in Holland.

The Cramps as anti-art aesthetes

“A lot of the bands in New York, these art bands,"  Lux Interior said in one interview,  spitting out the word, "are contributing to the problem…  We're not using the band to get into galleries or become mime dancers or anything.”  The anti-art stance represented a variant of that hipster strategy whereby middlebrow artiness (the Pink Floyd/Talking Heads/Radiohead lineage) is disdained in favour of pretend-stupidity: the pose of being unthinking and literally art-less.    The Cramps’s trash aesthetic ploughed a course between the bad bad taste and bad good taste (to use Matthew Ingram's terms) and fastened on the rich seam of "so bad it's good": failed and forgotten Fifties rock'n'roll, movies like The Crazy Teenagers Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies  and Two Thousand Maniacs.   In both essence and reference points, The Cramps's brand of camp was remarkably close to The Rocky Horror Show.

The Cramps: pomo, or true believers?

The next Cramps single "Human Fly" was an Interior/ Rorschach composition; the line "I cry 96 tears with my 96 eyes" was a cute and clever not to garage punk gods Question Mark and the Mysterians of "96 Tears' fame.  To record their singles, The Cramps even made a pilgrimage to Memphis, rock'n'roll's birthplace. They returned there for their debut album Songs The Lord Taught Us, using the same producer (local legend Alex Chilton, formerly of Big Star) but switching to Philips Recording, the studio run by Sam Philips

The ultimate fanboy-scholars, The Cramps then inspired a movement even more imitative and covertly-recycling - the twice-removed sound of UK psychobilly (the Meteors, the Guana Batz, etc). Then came the third-removed and fourth-removed waves of psychobilly in the US and Europe, with such bizarritudes as Ukrabilly (Ukrainean psychobilly) and Brazilian psychobilly.

KICKS versus No Wave

Linna (pic of the young Miriam is in the Cramps lineup on the LP above, scowling next to Lux) & hubby Miller actually rejected a No Wave story written by Lester Bangs--the most famous rock writer in America, the individual who'd done more than anyone to formulate the aesthetic that KICKS based itself around. "We loved Lester, he was one of my big heroes, the one article I ever wrote for Creem was because he  assigned it," recalls Linna. "He sent in this long article, the writing was lovely, but it was bands that we hated!  They were the antithesis of rock'n'roll."

As their ally, New York music journalist  James "Hounddog" Marshall (of The Real American Underground fame) put it: "who cares about this new crap, there's tons of old records to be found that we never heard, who could give a fuck about the Gang Of Four after hearing Hasil Adkins' "She Said" or Esquerita's "Rockin' The Joint"?"

Hasil Adkins

Billy and Miriam regale me with one of their oft-told anecdotes about the time Adkins came to stay.  Years previously, Linna had seen Andy Warhol standing on a street corner, rushed into a deli, and come out with a Campbell's soup can for him to autograph.  The object had pride of place in their household.  During Adkins's stay, Miller had to go on an errand and told the singer "'there's plenty of food in the fridge'. When I came back I asked if he'd had lunch, and Hasil said, "Well, I just fixed myself some soup'". " They show me the can, still signed but now empty: it's relic value now doubled, as much a token of Adkin's art-less authenticity as the day Miriam met the king of Pop Art.

Miriam Linna’s love of pulp fiction

She owns fifteen thousand pulp paperbacks, including complete runs of the major "exploitation" imprints like Avon, Beacon and Signet.  Throughout the Norton HQ apartment, boxes of seven inch singles jostle for surface space with piles of novels with lurid covers  and teetering stacks of vintage wrestling magazines (another obsession). There's even one of those revolving paperback stands that you used to get in bookstores. Patting their dog Little Queenie,  Linna tells me her dream is to get hold of a paperback vending machine (the concept never quite caught on with the general public, and so the devices are very rare).  

In a tic that's already familiar to me from talking to other collectors,  Linna says she hates the word "collector" almost as much as "retro". She prefers to think of herself as a fan and emphasizes that she reads all the books she picks up. Buying things as an investment, rather than to derive use and pleasure from them, is contemptible to her.  Linna has plans to do a book on pulp fiction, in part because "I'd hate the eggheads to get hold of it".  Yet she's something of a scholar herself, an auteurist even, tracking the vast multi-aliased output of writers like Harlan Ellison. 

When KICKS got subsumed into Norton (instead of writing long, historically-detailed articles, the couple could now write sleevenotes), she started two separate pulp zines, Bad Seed and Smut Peddler. Issue #1 of Bad Seed burbles about Gang Rumbles! Hot Rods! Switchblades! Narcotics! Crime! Pain! Sin!, but despite the campy appeal of the garishly prurient covers, the dated slang, Linna likes to emphasizes the literary merit of these books. This is a defense against those egghead snobs who sniff that "'these comic books are bad, for low-grade people, low-class people'" and "'rock'n'roll is for stupid people'".

Punk and Fifties rock 'n' roll- the UK

Punk and Fifties rock'n'roll - America and the Commonwleath

Similarly, Ed Kuepper, guitarist in the great Australian punk band The Saints, whose "I'm Stranded" was one of the first UK punk hit singles--has said that his main influence was "stuff I thought was the absolute epitome of rock and roll… mostly done in the Fifties with the likes of Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry…  That sort of music, I thought, had never been really surpassed."

And how about this - the Birthday Party covering Gene Vincent's "Catman"?

Straying beyond punk to New Wave, you had figures like Marshall Crenshaw (whose aesthetic can be perfectly encapsulated by the fact that he once played John Lennon in the Broadway show Beatlemania and would later play Buddy Holly in the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba) and former Runaway Joan Jett ( the real-life). But where Crenshaw was a classicist, a scholar of the form, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts reinvented glam's reinvention of rock'n'roll with her biggest hit, "I Love Rock and Roll" being a cover of a song by minor glitterglam outfit The Arrows.  She also covered Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me"

The Stray Cats.

The trio had the slicked-back quiffs and tattoos of prime 1950s rockabilly. The  music was almost as skeletal as Alan Vega's: a stand-up double-bass, a simplified two-drum kit, and a Gretsch 6120 guitar with the glowing maple-orange finish.  As a kid Brian Setzer had seen a photograph of Eddie Cochran holding one and knew he had to get that guitar and nothing else.  The Stray Cats's recreation of 1950s rockabilly was so immaculate, so detail-precise, but somehow the spirit went missing. They turned the greaser/juvenile delinquent archetype (celebrated in their big UK hit and best song "Runaway Boy") into a cleaned-up cartoon.  The videos that finally broke Stray Cats in America via the then-new medium of MTV-- "Stray Cat Strut" and "Rock This Town"-- played up this aspect with stage sets that looked like they were inspired by Top Cat.  Barney Hoskyns contrasted Setzer and co's Eddie Cochran-derived idea of rockabilly with the Dionysian version represented by Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Burnette. Treating rockabilly not as "a bag of myths" but "simply a music", the group had reinvented the style "as pure teen fun" rather than "febrile sexuality".

The Stray Cats versus The Cramps

Contrasting the Cramps's "music for grown-up cultists and deviants "with the Stray Cats's Fifties teen paradise,  Barney Hoskyns pinpoints Chilton's production  for bringing out "rockabilly’s swampy, demonic associations— its licking tongues of hellfire". 

Down By Law / Jim Jarmusch's postmodernism

Reality has become contaminated by the myths and imagery of popular culture. When Down By Law's three prison cellmates manage to find a way out of the penitentiary and into the Louisana swampland, one of them--a buffonish Italian called Roberto--declares "we have escaped, like in the American movies".  Earlier, he'd chalk-scrawled a window on the cell wall, then asked, "Excuse me, do you say in English, 'I look at the window', or…  "I look out the window'."  Jack, his cellmate, wryly says, "In this case, Bob, I'm afraid you've got to say, 'I look at the window.'"  Fully aware of the French critical theory hot in the Eighties, Jarmusch here offered a sly diagram of the separation of signifiers and signifieds: a process that permeates his movies and may even be his grand underlying "theme". Decontextualising cultural artifacts from their location in time and space, repetition and over-exposure empty out historical depth. Culture becomes flat and impenetrable, like a prison wall; it's a two-dimensional plane across whose surface signifiers--no longer transparent windows to the real--circulate in an endlessly referential, yet referent-less, drift.

Mystery Train: Jarmusch's  Japanese kids

They're from Yokohama (a town Jarmusch may have picked because it's referred to in a Chuck Berry song) .  They wander the streets of Memphis looking  for somewhere cheap to stay and pause, exhausted, to stare in awe at a statue of Elvis. They bicker for a bit over who was better, Presley or Carl Perkins (the boy insists it's Perkins).  Some questionable comedy is made of the way the boy says "Jelly Ree Rewis."
Here is a whole series of short articles I wrote about Jim Jarmusch's use of music with particular reference to its pomo-retro-proto-haunto qualities, e.g. " Like Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law has a curious time-out-of-joint, twilight zone atmosphere, the sense of a present almost oppressively haunted by the past's ghosts." 

postscript: rock and roll as pure style, perennially and agelessly cool

As in this Brazilian cult of all things 1950s and American


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