Friday, 11 July 2014

THE SIXTIES UNDERGROUND: THE USA



“Total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets.”

Of course everyone reckons America to be the epicentre of the Sixties Underground, while Britain just had designer hippies prancing down Carnaby Street in variously off shades of paisley and Germany not even in the picture. Totally wrong on both counts. (See the supporting evidence here and here.) But there's no denying it was a centre.

America at that time was like a cultural Hadron Collider, all sorts of things crashing together, the ensuing explosions creating new particles which didn't even have names yet. Inevitably the particles collided with each other as much as they did 'The Man', which we'll try to convey too...

The Velvet Underground



Of course we have to start with the Velvets – it's just hard to figure out where. They're so direct, so confrontational, and yet simultaneously so elusive. After some head-scratching, I came up with this...

Famously, John Cale first worked with pioneering minimalists the Theatre of Eternal Music, and brought his viola drones with him to the band. But crucially, they didn't so much combine them with rock'n'roll drive as convince you the two had belonged together all along. They were savagely primitive and furiously intellectual, out-there and street-level, at one and the same time. Their sound's like being set on simultaneously, a knife blade to the gut while a thesaurus whacks you round the head. A lucid frenzy if ever there was one.

I've never liked the linear notions of the term 'avant garde' all that much. But perhaps this is the one time it can be justifiably used. They weren't kidding with that word 'underground'. And sometimes notoriety does have greater currency than fame. Their lack of commercial success really was counterposed by their massive influence – it's no exaggeration to say they changed everything. Suffice to say that the long-running alternative music festival All Tomorrow's Parties is named after one of their tracks.

Despite their involvement with the Factory and its multimedia Exploding Plastic Inevitable events there isn't much actual footage of the band in full flight. You'll find with this clip of 'Venus in Furs' the visuals don't synch with the music. But it's still cool...


Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention


Inhabiting the contrary coasts to the existential New Yorkers and their opposite in about every respect were their perennial arch-foes - the Mothers of Invention. While the Velvets took up sunglasses and icy cool, the Mothers donned frocks and mugged and gurned. While the Velvet's universe was black-and-white, the Mothers erupted with dayglo colour. While the Velvets were darkly realist and from-the-streets, the Mothers couldn't have been more surreal. Ructions were to ensue.

Lou Reed described Frank Zappa as “the most untalented musician I've ever heard. He can't play rock'n'roll because he's a loser.” The only thing the could agree on was that they both hated hippies. Which in the context of the times meant absolutely everybody else.

'King Kong' kicks off with Zappa explaining the band's mission statement. Which was basically “annoy people. For both personal and political reasons.”
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band

But if the Mothers were the Velvets' primary antagonists, the Magic Band were their opposite number. Against the Velvets' crushing nihilism, the Magic Band's default sound was a resounding joyousness. Instead of held drones, their music bounded along like strangeness on springs. The band have a reputation for befuddling difficulty, for setting listeners sonic puzzles, appealing only to chin-strokers and ponderers. Nothing could be further from the truth! The good Captain's maxim was “I play music. Too many work it.”

Which makes it all the more bizarre to hear about the scarily 'cult-like' way much of that music was recorded. You hear some of it, and worry whether you can listen and keep to the ban on slave produce.
But anyway, just check 'em out! Running through 'Electricity' on Cannes beach in 1968



The Jefferson Airplane



In the punk era the two big Californian cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles, competed to create great bands. The Dead Kennedys, for example, were from SF while X hailed from LA. Which makes sense, of course. Approximately the distance between London and Glasgow, the cities are close enough to be aware of one another, but distant enough to have their own identity.

Which makes it passing strange that the same wasn't true in the Sixties. LA produced Zappa, Beefheart, Love and the Doors. SF... well, even if you take flower-wafting dippy hippies like Scott Mckenzie out the equation, it's still pretty much the side of Sixties music I don't like to listen to. It's heresy to some, but I've never seen the appeal of the Grateful Dead. To me its just meander, music to wave joss sticks around to.

Perhaps at the time SF's focus was simply elsewhere. The city was such a cultural and political hotspot that the music became (to coin a phrase) instrumental to it all. It wasn't primary. There to be the soundtrack to the love-in or the riot, but not the stuff calling the kids out on the streets.

But there's an exception to every rule. And the scene's other major band, Jefferson Airplane, were as unlike the Dead as the Stones were to the Beatles. Okay, their output was uneven. The Sixties were uneven. And when it worked...

This clip of them performing 'White Rabbit' and 'Somebody to Love' on American TV perhaps best sums up the difference between them and the Dead. That crazy psychedelic stuff worked best when stuffed inside actual songs. It's the way it then fights to get out, makes the song strange, misshapen and unpredictable. Like one of those giant bubbles which stop being perfectly round but undulate weirdly and throw up loads of odd reflections. Without the song for it to contend with it's like the bubble's burst, and you're left with hippy noodlings all over the floor. And unlike the Dead the Airplane could write great, massively memorable songs, and had Grace (“what, me, not English?”) Slick as a fantastic declamatory singer. Perhaps even as great as Amon Duul's Renate Knaup.

And to all those who still indulge those tired stereotypes about “mellow” hippies, this was the band who sang lyrics like “all your private property is target for your enemy!”

Oh, and the videotape does warp at one point. That's not the bananas kicking in...



MC5



The MC5 were of course associated with John Sinclair's White Panthers, a kind of rise to the dare of the Black Panthers, and source of the manifesto quoted up top.

They were a Detroit band when Detroit was on fire. And, as mentioned in the earlier Krautrock piece, that's not a metaphor. They're a reminder there was a time when rock'n'roll wasn't just something to wash a Coke down with, and as such they're another band whose massive influence well exceeded their reach. While The Velvets were punks before their time, the MC5 are the missing link which proves there was no fracture point between punk and hippie music at all.

Okay, this is strictly the start of the Seventies... who's counting? Welcome to 'Kick out the Jams', played to a home crowd at Wayne State University, Detroit. Apparently filmed for local TV, which is why the last word in the infamous title line is conspicuous by its absence. (Though all the annoying logo stuff scrawled across the screen has been added by some subsequent self-publicist.)




The Fugs



The term rough music fits the Fugs the best. By popular tradition, enemies of the community were subject to a barrage of song and noise, the sonic equivalent of throwing rotten vegetables. Raucous and free-form, they didn't sound so much like the MC5 - a band always up for playing after a protest rally - as the music you hear bashed out on bin lids during the rally.

They took to this most literally by attempting to exorcise/levitate the Pentagon as a protest against Vietnam. Then included it as a track on their next album. The FBI was later found to have kept a file on them, listing their songs which they found to be "vulgar and repulsive and most suggestive”. (It was quite a long list.)

And, despite those who stick to the lazy slur “the hippies sold out”, they always stuck to their (metaphorical) guns. In the mid-Nineties, learning that for the anniversary of the Woodstock festival someone was planning a commercialised event, they countered by organising the Real Woodstock Festival. Their activities were constrained by the sad death of Tuli Kupferberg in 2010. (Though not ended, and I even got to see them live in London the next year.)

'CIA Man' (unfortunately without visuals)...


David Peel and the Lower East Side



David Peel was either the last word in self-parody or above and beyond the whole thing. I was never sure which, and I don't suppose he was. He's seen here treating the David Frost show to 'Hippie From New York City', with John and Yoko in tow. I always imagined he made the words up on the spot, but here he gives every indication of reading them. What he can have been up to, to screw with his short-term memory like that, I simply can't imagine. Is it any good? I'm really not sure. But what it is, is great...


...and to play us out

Iggy and the Stooges

This is the celebrated “with added peanut butter” clip from the Cincinnati pop festival. Perhaps more of a demonstration of what an out-there performer Iggy was than the Stooges as a band. (In the unlikely event you've never heard the Stooges before, go here.)

Perhaps what really makes it is the slightly clueless commentary, “well, the kids really seem to go for this stuff... whatever it is.”


Coming soon! We're not done with that Sixties business yet...

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