Rites of Spring and the Political Without Politics

Music can be political without being expressly political.  Sometimes the sheer vitality of it can be a force for change.  It can shake you, wake you up, make you want to do something different than you were doing before you heard it.  This has definitely been true, from even the earliest moments, of rock n roll.  Once rock n roll was unleashed it couldn’t help but have an affect on race relations, sexual mores, youth culture, and so on, just because of where it came from and the sheer energy involved, even before it dealt with any of those things in an explicit way.

I’ve mentioned lately that I have been diving into the punk, post-punk, and hardcore bands of the 80’s Washington D.C. scene. Rites of Spring, which featured members that went on to join Fugazi, among other bands, were different from many of the acts of even that time period.  Their songs were more melodic and their lyrics were more personal in nature, despite channeling the energy of punk and hardcore.  Their lyrics also have a more poetic and interpretive nature than many of their peers.  Although I grew up listening to all of the Ian MacKaye bands, MacKaye is a founder of Dischord Records and also went on to be a member of Fugazi, I had never heard Rites of Spring until recently.  But listening to their music, one can’t help but feel that something is going on.  It possesses a feeling of dissatisfaction, but not of hopelessness.  It sounds like people striving to reach someplace new.  It is full of passion and self-discovery.  Singer and guitar player Guy Picciotto sounds fully committed.  Even if none of these things translate into any particular political cause, this is the sound of people becoming engaged with the world.  And engagement is the most important ingredient in any kind of social change.

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John T. Floore Country Store, Dischord Records, the New Terminator

Been on the road this weekend, a short run through Port Aransas and Helotes.  We’re at Floore’s Country Store in the latter tonight.  Will be back on the grid tomorrow.  A few thoughts:

Anyone that is a fan of Dischord Records more famous bands, Fugazi, Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, should check out the sole albums by Embrace and One Last Wish.  Both albums feature a really great guitar player named Michael Hampton.   Future Fugazi singers, Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto,  front Embrace and One Last Wish respectively.  Brendan Canty, of Fugazi and Rites of Spring, also plays drums in One Last Wish.  Both bands seem to bridge the gap between the early D.C. scene and Fugazi’s more experimental direction.  They are more melodic than either Rites of Spring (Picciotto’s first band) or Minor Threat (MacKaye’s popular earlier band), with more twists and turns, but also are faster in tempo and more straightforward than Fugazi.  Because all of these bands were on Dischord Records and were recorded by Don Zientara, who did a lot of the Dischord stuff, the records sound like natural predecessors to Fugazi.  New ground is being broken, but the final break with the earlier sound of the early 80’s D.C hadn’t been severed in the way that Fugazi would go on to do.  And I must mention in closing that if you love guitar playing that is equal parts melodic and angular, the work here by Michael Hampton, who I have never seen anywhere else, is really worth taking in.

The new Terminator movie is not worth seeing.  The plot is horrible and the PG-13 rating ensures that the movie is not even filled with enough B-movie thrills to make it bad in a good way.  It seems like the kind of film created by a marketing company, failing to take in the fact real people would be seeing it.  As an 80’s kid, I love all of the old Schwarzenegger stuff, so I was even hoping to like the film.  However, I came in with low expectations,  and I still left feeling I could write a better script after a night of heavy drinking.

From the green room of Floore’s Country Store,  that’s all for now…

D.C. Music Scene – Documentary

This movie looks really interesting.  It’s about the Washington Music scene in the 80’s.  I’ve listened to music from this scene throughout my whole life.  Minor Threat’s Out of Step and then Complete Discography were especially important to me when I was really young.  I was soon onto Fugazi and other bands.  It looks like they have all the players involved, so there is a good chance that the film will be decent.

Let There Be Rock

Was listening to the album Let There Be Rock by AC/DC all day.  It is an absolutely fantastic rock n roll album.  I have no idea how the album was recorded, but it sounds like an album recorded by a band live in a room while rolling some fat tape.  It may seem simple to some, but the playing, writing, and recording are tremendous.  Every groove is deep in the pocket.  The guitars sound like snarling dogs.  The lyrics are funny and witty and delivered for maximum effect by Bon Scott.  There aren’t many overdubs that couldn’t be performed live, a guitar part here and there.  I love records like this, that sound like an actual band.  A great deal of the magic is from the way the musicians interact with each other.  This is primal physical stuff.  At the same time there is more sophistication going on in the arrangements then appears.  This can be seen in the way there are long pauses on the title track, and then all of a sudden the band explodes back into the song.  That’s not amateur hour there.  Angus Young’s lead work sounds like he is taking the paint off of an entire countryside of barns.  There is a reason that every one from metal bands to Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye love this band.  They are the very best at what they do.  The title track, which may be my favorite AC/DC song will be posted above.  It’s also one of my favorite rock videos.

The Creativity of 80’s Post-Punk

Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of early to mid 80’s punk, post punk, and hardcore.  I know that there are some of you that can’t get into that music for the dissonance involved.  To me it is just so pure.  It’s like industrial folk music.  It’s like a primary color.  You can’t dilute the stuff.  It is also music that is full of ideas.  So much of what passes as punk nowadays is bland.  It’s like pop music with loud guitars.  This stuff was primal.  I was born in ’78 and didn’t even start getting into records till the very late 80’s, so it’s not like I’m viewing this stuff with rose tinted glasses.

There were certain punk bands like Minor Threat and the Misfits that made it into my world as an adolescent, but a lot of the great bands from that era didn’t.  It seems like music was more regional then.  A lot of the East Coast bands seemed to be in my friends’ older brothers’ record collections, but ones from the west coast didn’t have as much of an impact on us in our youth. (I grew up in Pennsylvania.)

A lot of this stuff is also really interesting musically.  It used punk as a jumping off point, but wasn’t punk in the way that it is often thought about now.  This stuff was artistic, even if the working class kids that made of lot of these records weren’t thinking in necessarily an art school kind of way.  Maybe a better word would be creative.  It was creative music made by creative people.

I mean what do you make of the Bad Brains?  They sound like space aliens at warp speed.  I don’t even know if they played songs most of the time.  It’s more like four guys got together and created the sound of a mechanical whale breaching.  I don’t think their early recordings could be recreated.  They are almost like someone captured a one time natural event.

Listen to the guitar playing in the band Embrace, Ian MacKaye’s project between Minor Threat and Fugazi.  It’s so melodic, but it’s almost liquid in form.  As soon as you try to pin it down it changes shape.

Or take a listen to Black Flag’s My War.  At times it veers closer to Black Sabbath than true punk music, but that’s the thing, the really great bands from this era didn’t have rules.  It could be extremely political or it could be garish fun like The Misfits.  All this music is the sound of individuals expressing themselves.

I am an obsessive music fan that will spend hours some nights just combing the internet looking to stumble upon a new sound or a great new band.  I really really want there to be great new bands.  So many nights though, I end up hearing style over personality.  There are many bands that can create cathedrals of sound, only for those cathedrals to be hollow at the center.  I am not looking for any specific thing, other then that thing that once you hear it, you know what it is.  It’s the sound of someone expressing themselves as best they can.

We are dropping bombs on other nations.  There are people dating naked on our television screens.  People are having trouble finding meaningful work.  Doesn’t anyone have anything to say about what’s going on?!!!

Billy Idol and Pop Art

Often, out of the blue, I will get interested in a subject and then need to follow it through until I tire of it.  I almost always follow my gut and rarely second guess myself.  I remember sitting in a friend’s back yard and all of a sudden deciding that I needed to learn about Walt Disney.  Later that week I got a copy of and read Neal Gabler’s book Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.  It ended up being one of the most fascinating books I have ever read.  It dealt with art, commerce, the rise of the modern corporation, history, and culture.  If you are in a bookstore sometime read Gabler’s introduction.  That alone is fascinating and thought provoking.  Anyway, I would have never read that had I not followed some strange idea that just happened to pop up in my head.  It was almost as if someone was whispering in my ear. (And no I wasn’t on drugs at the time.)

Lately I’ve been driven to read everything I can get my hands on about American Indians.  However, the topics are often not as lofty.  For reasons unknown to myself, I have found myself diving into the world of Billy Idol.  I find him fascinating and I am going to attempt to tell you why.

I think his career mirrors the music industry perfectly.  It represents the highs and lows of record making.  It also follows a perfect myth template.  In his case Icarus.  He had tremendous promise, flew too high, and burned out.

For those of you that don’t know, Billy Idol was once in a really great promising band.  He was in a band called Generation X that was one of the best of the earlier British punk bands.  They lacked the political righteousness of the Clash and the menace of the Sex Pistols.  They were also slightly behind, time wise, both of those bands.  Because of that they often were written off as lightweights.  However, if you don’t know any of punk history, and you just listen to their music, it’s fantastic.  Their guitar player, Derwood Andrews, was simply one of the best of that era.  He could hop from beautifully written hook riffs to squalling noise solos at the drop of a hat.  The bands records are also played with extreme enthusiasm.  You can hear people taking flight together on tape, especially on the first two albums.  Everything seemed to suggest, if drugs and commerce hadn’t gotten in their way, that they could have made some more incredible records together.

If you need further proof at what they could have achieved check out Andrews and Mark Laff’s, Generation X’s drummer, shortly lived band Empire and their album Expensive Sound Vol. 1.  Empire may have lasted a moment, but they went on to influence the D.C. punk and post punk scene and therefore American indie music for years to come.  Bands like Rights of Spring and Fugazi wouldn’t have sounded the same without them.

What you hear on those early Generation X records is the sound of people reacting to each other live on tape.  There might be limitations in the production at times, but there is the alchemy that only other people communicating to each other in the moment can produce.  The lyrics on those albums may be highly limited from a poetic standpoint, but they speak about a love of rock n roll in an enthusiastic and unpretentious way.  They believed in the form and you can hear it in ever note that is played.  There is piss and vinegar, blood and sweat, in those recordings.

Shortly after Generation X folded, Billy Idol went on to make his early solo records, the most well known part of his career.  They are the sound of someone hungry for success, someone that is shameless enough to do whatever it takes to achieve it.  That’s not to say that they are completely without merit.  I’ve never been completely turned off by the sound of 80’s records.  What they lack in authenticity they often make up for in atmosphere.  The reverb drenched records of the 80’s are perfect for drifting off into imaginative worlds, especially on a rain soaked afternoon.  Billy Idol, despite whatever artistic flaws he might have, has and always will have a unique rock voice.  It’s too bad that the words so often put in his mouth are nothing but sexual innuendo and rock n roll cliché.  He at least has a personality.  You would never mistake his singing for someone else.

Despite the fact that I actually tend to like records that were made in the 80’s, his records are a perfect example of the worst of that decade’s impulses.  If there was a cheesy and synthetic keyboard sound that was popular in whatever year one of his records was made, be sure that it is on that record and it is even more reverb drenched, synthetic, and 80’s sounding than it needs to be.  That’s not to say in his career that there aren’t some great pop songs in the lot.  White Wedding and Eyes Without a Face, if you hadn’t been numbed to them by a million radio spins, are really great pieces of pop art.  I can’t help but think of the best of his solo lot as the musical equivalent to a Warhol painting.  They often reflect back the hollowness of the culture, but are also strangely enjoyable and full of trashy beauty in their own way.  They are at a minimum fun, and not just an imitation of fun.  He was clearly enjoying himself on something when they were made.

It is in the splintering of Generation X that you find a really interesting tale about music in Western culture.  You have part of the band going on to form Empire and you have Billy Idol’s solo career.  Empire made a truly unique and artistic record, one that is not without its own pop hooks as well, and although they eventually went on to influence a good deal of musicians, faded largely from the world without a trace as far as the greater culture was concerned.  Meanwhile, Billy Idol followed the trends, made records that were largely of their time, and went on to sell millions of records which to this day have not left our airwaves.

I can enjoy, for different reasons, both kinds of music. I like art and I like spectacle.  Sometimes I enjoy a nice escapist movie, why should music be any different?  However, why does the general public favor one form?  Why do the money interests line up behind one form?  Is it the fact that people are only exposed to one thing?  Is something easier to sell to people because it is simpler to sell something that has fewer layers that need explained?  Even if people were given equal exposure to different kinds of music would they always choose the broader less artistic choice?

Blockbuster movies make more sense.  A 200 million dollar spectacle requires less out of the viewer than a slow paced interpretive indie film.  But often pop music is weirder than one thinks upon closer inspection.  Michael Jackson was a strange fellow by anyone’s measurements, but he managed to sell millions of records and connect with millions of people.

More involved movies, much like reading, require you to learn a language, the language of the cinema.  However, music, unless we are talking about music that is primarily based around literate lyrics, is a more emotional form.  That is not to say that learning more about music can’t open you up to new forms and bring added interest to things that already appeal to you.  Sometimes people like certain things because they throw out certain cultural touchstones.  A lot of the horrible pop country that is out there is probably successful because it is selling a lifestyle and conforming to an identity.  I can’t help but think that what succeeds in music is what gets money invested in it and what gets exposure, at least up to a point.

Let’s go back to Billy Idol.  Did he have a large amount of hits simply because he sold a lifestyle?  Although you could argue that his image was largely based around a cartoon image of what a rock star should be, it’s hard to say that his success was based on some kind of identification with his personal life or lyrics.  He really did do a mountain of cocaine and sleep with a thousand women.  The average person might occasionally dream of such a life, but they can hardly identify with it.

I think his extreme popularity was partially due to circumstances surrounding his unique moment in time.  He looked great on MTV, which was new at the time.  He had an image that was unique to him and this made his music easy to visually translate.  There is always luck in any success story.  He was at the right place and right time and met the right people.  However, I’m not denying that he does have certain talents.  He could write pop hooks and sing with a unique voice.  His music also always had a certain rock n roll enthusiasm about it, even when it was covering the fact that behind his voice was often slick candy gloss pop music.

As sort of a postscript I should also mention that he put out an album in 2005 called The Devil’s Playground.  Much like his 80’s music, it displayed the worst sonic production values of our time.  Often records that are made now seek to emulate earlier periods, but are often too slick, too compressed, and too cold sounding to mimic the passion of an earlier era.  Listen to Steve Stevens’s guitar on this record.  He often plays like a punk rock guitar player on this record,  but with the edges sanded off.  No kid picking up a guitar to fight the world would ever have such an expensive and polished sound.  As is often the case in this day and age, we are often in danger of letting technology overwhelm us.  That is not to say the record is without its merits.  Billy Idol can still sing and there are a couple of pop songs that are trashy and fun enough to overcome the lyrical and musical clichés inherent in them.  There are probably four or five songs on the record that I really enjoy listening for no other reason than they click that certain pleasure switch in the brain.  Everyone needs cheap thrills sometimes.

Anyway, it is easy to laugh at me for spending a great amount of time thinking about such things.  But I believe most things in life are interesting if viewed from a certain vantage point.  Even seemingly dead end alleyways of thought can occasionally lead to strange new worlds.  If not for Billy Idol’s solo career, I would never have discovered Generation X or Empire and for that I am thankful.  Even cartoons need artists to draw them.