Thursday, June 01, 2006

Thinking about that Greil Marcus quote that got uTopianTurtleTop riled up--

“I think Anita Baker is ridiculous. Any time you hear somebody bringing back this kind of genteel, effete black music--the same number the Pointer Sisters pulled in the early '70s when they gave concerts with ‘Black Tie Recommended’ printed on the tickets--it's an incident in class politics that has nothing to do with music”

--it struck me that, regardless of its truth value, this is strong writing (even though actually speech, of course, from an 1986 interview, and off the cuff)... pithy, punchy, acerbic, provocative. The same applies to the summary dismissals and caustic expressions of indifference towards various other critically sanctioned or popular artists from 1986 that interviewer Phil Dellio lines up for Marcus’s target practice: Jesus & Mary Chain (disdained for their coldness), Robert Cray (for the retro-combo of selfconsciousness and obsolescence), REM (for dull-as-dishwateriness). If he’d paused to reflect and had come up with a considered and “understanding” approach, one that responded to the artists “on their own terms” (examining how the contrivance and premeditation of the J&MC signified in its UK post-postpunk context, working out what college rock meant to its US middle-class audience)... well, he' d most likely have generated some prose that was altogether gut-less (lacking any visceral element; not taking a stance). I’d much rather have more strong, sweeping statements of this sort in the world, as opposed to the even-handed neutrality that one strand of Pop-ism leads to (the generalist professional doling out appreciation equitably across the spectrum of contemporary music.)

This idea of "strength" relates to Nietzche’s idea of cultures being at their most vigorous in their youth, before they become sagacious, suppleminded, over-civilised to the point of losing touch with their instinctive responses and will-to-power. K-punk glossed it well in an old Dissensus thread, talking about the malaise of self-relativising:

"There's a Nietzschean Last Man-type quality about historicizing analysis; one of Nietzsche's most prescient points about postmodern culture was that it would be killed by an obsession with the past, with its own 'positioning'. Such contextualization can only lead to the melancholy conclusion that all things pass, that everything that people once invested so much in is now dust etc. By contrast, Roman and Greek cultures were indifferent to history. They thought they were the only cultures.”

We all know better than the discophobes now, don't we... we know that they were wrong, and are totally confident that we, the enlightened ones, wouldn't have been among their number (just as none of us would haved been prog fans). But the culture that produced Comiskey Park also produced Led Zep IV and The Ramones.

A taste of where all this self-relativising is heading can be gleaned from two of the presentations at this year’s EMP. Example one: Nate Patrin’s critique of rockist snobbery towards blue-eyed soul (ie. Boz Scaggs, Hall & Oates, etc), an antipathy echoed in the Marcus interview where he takes a swipe at Ace’s “How Long” as representing the nadir of 70s radio (and didn't the singer in Ace end up singing Squeeze's "Tempted" and "Black Coffee in Bed"?) Beyond the
now-deemed-suspect distaste for blandness and emollient warmth, there are perfectly sensible reasons not to rate it that high (blue-eyed soul’s straightforward emulation of its source music makes it pretty redundant given the vast amount of the brown-eyed stuff already extant in the world). The EMP conference was dedicated to deconstructing the concept of Guilty Pleasures (these days it seems the only thing you should feel guilty about is your own feelings of guilt about liking anything--or worse, guilt-tripping others with your value judgements and taste-stances; anti-rockism is the attempt to remove an aesthetico-moral framework from music discussion). Now Carl Wilson of Zoilus is taking it to the next level with his the notion of the guilty displeasure , as presented at EMP and the subject of a future book. The idea here is that, actually, there is one thing to possibly feel guilty about, and that is your own dislikes and distastes, which seem involuntary but have ideological underpinnings and socially determined perspectives. This new frontier of fretful self-cancellation is being opened via the oeuvre of Celine Dion, which disgusts Carl but which reaction he intends to question or at least situate, Bourdieu-style. Seems to me "Celine = shite" is a truth we'd do well to continue to hold self-evident, an assumption worth leaving unexamined, and that at the end of his investigation Carl might find himself back where he started: repelled by Dion's music and, despite his better intentions, thinking less of her fans.

All of this has a slight air of the Maoist self–criticism session about it, party members and low-level bureaucrats calling themselves and others out for their crypto-bourgeois tendencies. So uTopianTurtletop drags Marcus’ Ranters and Crowdpleasers aka In the Fascist Bathroom collection of punk-related writings up before the tribunal for its meagre black-music content.

Which reminded me of a post I had meant to write a while back on, er, Pete Frampton and the Clash! This by way of one of Marcus’ several Clash pieces in Ranters. VH1 Classic had been playing those three Frampton videos taken from some superbowl arena circa 1976, and boggling at Frampton’s unctuous charisma (that eerily Tony Blair-like grin, that golden sun-child mane…. there’s something to be written about the Soft Male in American radio rock of the Seventies, e.g. Walter Egan ... Todd Rundgren’s sickening “Hello It’s Me” ... Lindsey Buckingham on the image level... others.... ) .... well it did strike me that this—the vacuous, rabbit-punching-the-air anthemicness of “Do You Feel Like We Do”, the sickly pandering mush of “Show Me the Way” and “Baby I Love Your Way”—really was the absolute pits for Seventies rock. Pursuing some other line of enquiry around that time, I strayed across Marcus’s Ranters profile of the Clash circa Give ‘Em Enough Rope and was surprised to find Frampton bookending the article (originally published in New West, September 1978). It starts with a quote on the making of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club movie, which starred Frampton and the Bee Gees, all about how the films ends with a huge no-expenses-spared party for rock royalty – “first-class transportation to Los Angeles, limousines, luxurious hotels, the finest champagne and food”. This decadence Marcus then juxtaposes with the image of Joe Strummer, as reported in ZigZag, attempting to tear down with his bare hands a huge barbed wire fence separating the band and the audience at a concert the Clash played in Belgium. Marcus ends the Clash piece with an anecdote that circles back to Frampton and the Sgt Pepper’s movie: Strummer and Jones recalling how, killing time in between recording sessions on the second album, they ended up at a movie theater watching the film, utterly grossed out by the final spectacle of “every ligger in LA” and coming away with an idea for the Give Em Enough Rope cover:

“These are the people who’ve made rock’n’roll what is it today,” Jones said, “and I think we owe them some sort of tribute. We’ll put every one of them on the sleeve of our record, just like the faces on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, every one hanging from---“

“Gallows,” offered Strummer.

“No,” said Jones thoughtfully. “Lampposts.

The choice was not without meaning: gallows are a sign of authority. Lampposts are what the kids in the Clash’s streets would use, if they had the chance, or took it.

The stance taken in this piece of writing—the fantasy scenario of popular justice* exacting retribution against a corrupt and parasitical rockstar ruling class; the conviction that a war for the soul of rock’n’roll was underway, the sense of absolute urgent necessity to take sides NOW… it seems a million years ago, seriously overblown, faintly ridiculous. It’s hard to recover a sense of what was at stake then that would warrant this murderous animosity towards such innocuous (in the grand scheme of things) sorts as Frampton & co. Yet there’s no doubt it’s a very strong piece of writing (there’s much more in between the start and the finish, including a startling assertion that the early Clash sound owes a huge amount to Trout Mask Replica – a bracingly unusual claim, if not quite convincing). In the end I would say-- although not a Clash-fan by any stretch and slightly bemused that anyone ever invested so much belief in the group--that I am on the side of writing like this....

* there is a distant relationship between the "tribunal" in Marcus's fantasy and the tribunal of anti-rockism--the latter is a way of creating sides and taking sides at a time when there isn't much going on in music to warrant such a polarisation. The heat of the argument has provided, I think, a surrogate for the urgency that in better times would come from the music itself. C.f. Nietzche's "in times of peace, the warlike man attacks himself".
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