Friday, 16 January 2015

ENCASED IN SOUND (HOW PUNK MET METAL - AND BOTH BEGAT DRONE): 1. 'NOT READY TO FACE THE LIGHT'


Muddy Waters famously sang “the blues had a baby and they called it rock'n'roll”. (Though perhaps both gospel and country should have been subject to a paternity test.) In a similar fashion, this post could be called something like “how punk and metal had a longstanding love/hate relationship, which somewhere along the way begat something new which mixed drone with more popular music styles”. Yep, I can just imagine Muddy singing something snappy like that.

It kind of outgrew my following – and making frequent nuisance calls to – Mike Taylor's heavy metal timeline. As Mike's list reached an era I confess to finding bog-standard and plodding, my mind started to refocus on a strand of music which may be less-trodden but which matters more to me. Anyone who followed Mike's timeline may find some of my comments here to evoke a sense of deja vu. Then again, arguably that's appropriate - for repetition becomes something of a theme. It also takes something of a scenic route, so please expect detours and digressions. In fact hesitation is about the only 'Just a Minute' rule that won't be broken.

(Disclaimer: drone music of course has its own history, with the Theatre of Eternal Music already performing in New York in the mid-Sixties. But that was really a scene of its own. We're talking about a separate history here, in which drone intermingles and crossbreeds with other, more 'popular' genres.)

We'll start with the pioneers, the prototypes and precursors and get on to the rest in future instalments. (Of which there'll be four.) And let's start the start by looking into the blues when it was first stretching its trousers and eating for two…

Howling Wolf: 'Smokestack Lightning' (1956)


This is one of my favourite tracks by my favourite blues artist, describedby Robert Palmer as “a hypnotic one-chord drone piece". Art can be like a dish, find it the right ingredients and you don't really need that many. 

But, particularly when adorned with Wolf's (there is no other word) howling, this sounds elegant as much as raw. It belies the listener with its simplicity. It's not deep or low or rumbling, it kind of floats. Plus, and not unassociatedly, as was often the case with Wolf's music there is something spectral, some taste of the unearthly to it. It sounds like music which could pass through walls. Which will be a bit of a theme here. Heaviness can be powerful. But lightness has its own effect.

Which kind of fits. Even today, some remain who try to pigeonhole blues as rural and primitive music – a basic crop waiting for smarter white people to come along and innovate cleverer stuff which incorporated it. But by this point, blues had become urban and urbane. Successful acts such as Wolf (and he was a huge hit among black audiences), sported smart suits. They only put on the dungarees and straw hats for white audiences.


Reader, the decade-long gap between this and the next selection, you will have to decide whether that describes the way it was or merely reflects the author's prejudices. But for my money rock'n'roll wasn't an advance on blues, any more than it was on gospel or country. There's rock'n'roll I like, of course. But it was like the arrival of Indian or Carribbean food in Britain, it was a watered-down product calculatedly softened to suit the more straightened pallettes of mainstream white society. Rock'n'roll was of course massively culturally important - in introducing black music to white people it broke a divide and completely changed music. We're still riding those shockwaves today. But to make that cultural impact it had to regress the actual music.

The Rolling Stones: 'The Last Time' (1965)


When talking of the precursors of heavy, riff-bases music it's normally the early Kinks or Who whose names get rolled out. But for our potted history this Stones track is much more important. The main difference between it and, say, ‘You Really Got Me’ lies in the riff itself. ‘Really Got Me’ has a propulsive riff. It’s a musical motif with a beginning, middle and end, even if its set to repeat. It’s effect is like the singer reciting the same words over and over. It’s a riff to power a song.

Whereas ‘The Last Time’ has a riff that’s still-more basic, to the point where it takes on a life of its own. The riff has it's own separate existence, merely framed by the song. It doesn’t really have a beginning or end. It just cycles, it oscillates. You can wrap a song around it, and they do. But it’s like wrapping a sock around a cosh. The cosh is it’s own thing. Particularly after this track, when making music the riff was out of the bag. (Is that mixing my metaphors? Well, you know what I mean!)
One time I saw Julian Cope line he deliberately failed to finish a song, reasoning that it was launched without being landed it would carry on in perpetuity. Similarly, there's something timeless about 'The Last Time'...
The Electric Prunes: 'I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)' (1966)

It's quite hilarious to discover that such a garage rock classic wasn't thrown onto tape by angsty, agitated youth but provided to order by a professional songwriting team (Annette Tucker and lyricist Nancie Mantz). Though quite consciously influenced by the Stones, and though the track's built round a classic riff, the riff isn't played perpetually in the same way. (That would be truer of the follow-up, 'Get Me To The World On Time'.) But for a good reason...
As we'll often find, the music and lyrics don't so much go together, like they've been allocated one another from some dating agency's database, as morph into one another. Though it approximates a love song, the lyrics are actually quite ambiguous whether the golden-haired girl was real or imaginary. Instead elements come and go, clash against one another, melodies become subsumed by riffs; it's deliberately discordant in order to convey a semi-psychotic state of mind. It was a theme familiar to garage rock; there was, for example the Swinging Medallion's 'Double Shot of My Baby's Love'. But the Electric Prunes were more... well... electric.
It's easy to imagine Sixties music started as sunny and blissed out, and soured as things wore on. But the hangover couldn't be any more present here. In many ways it sounds like the band are genuinely trying to perform a prettier, cheerier number but the weight of the truth comes crashing in. That fuzziness to the sound is important. Its that woozy, disorientating feeling you get when you look at the world through a fish-eye lens, captured in sound.
The Doors: 'Five To One' (1968)

A long-haired Californian band best known for love songs, whose sound prominently featured a swirling, melodic organ. And yet even at the height of punk's Year Zero rhetoric, where admission to liking Led Zeppelin was a worse sin than sporting a swastika, no-one was ever quite able to consign the Doors to history. A track like 'Five To One' might go some way to explain that.
Like 'The Last Time', it's a song wrapped around a crunching riff. The organ this time round doesn't get much chance to swirl. The doors of perception aren't so much cleansed as booted in. However, its chief significance is the way that crunching riff is so unhurried. Listening to it you can feel a little like the deer dazzled by the headlights of the lumbering juggernaut; theoretically you have time to move, but you can't. It just all feels too inevitable, somehow. There's a section where, with the guitar reduced to the riff, the drums fill out to occupy the space – watch out for that one.
And matching that riff is the confrontational nature of the lyrics. Dylan may have already written songs which dissed “you” in such a declammatory fashion, yet it gains a new impact when wedded to music of such thudding force. It was during a performance of this track where, in an infamous on-stage incident in Miami, a drug-addled Morrison derided the audience as “all slaves” and was nearly prosecuted for inciting a riot.
Yet despite that anecdote and despite the track being released in that most historic of years, the lyrics are most likely not as agitational as they appear. In the Sixties the situation was often seen as a generational war, leading to the popular saying “there's more of us being born and there's more of them dying”. (Of course hippies were only ever a minority even amongst the youth, so the idea was nonsense even as it was being uttered. But we're talking here about a perception.) “No-one here gets out alive” means we all go sometime, but they'll be first. “We've got the numbers” means, at some point or other, we're just going to replace them. “Five To One” doesn't match any actual social ratio that anyone's ever managed to come up with, and is a reference perhaps best understood by Morrison and his drug dealer. But it fuzzily fits inside this perception of it all being a matter of evening up the odds.
But that perception is what counts, for the song feels a whole new level of confrontational. Crucially, its not asking for anything. It's not a protest song or even a resistance song so much as a victory speech. (“We're going to Win/ Yeah, we're taking over/ Come on!”) Come to that, it's not even a particularly graceful victory speech, its more exultant and triumphalist. It's self-confident swaggar less resembles Jefferson Airplane's incendiary call to arms 'Volunteers' and is perhaps closer to something like Free's 'All Right Now', albeit with political victory replacing sexual conquest. It's stripped-down quality creates the same sense of space, like a drawing might creatively employ white space. Morrison part-slurs, part-proclaims the lyrics. (Some accounts claim he was drunk during the recording.) Notably, the hippie hopefully but hopelessly holding a flower is effectively likened to the wage slave “trading your hours of a handful of dimes”, both objects of derision. Turning up holding a flower for a track like this was just asking for trouble.
The Stooges: 'I'm Loose' (1970)

It can be as interesting who doesn't make a list like this as who does. The Velvets were influenced by the Stones' 'Last Time' and had the most clearly drone-based sound of all, even recruiting John Cale from the Theatre of Eternal Music. (Who took his scraping viola when he moved.) But they weren't really proto-metal in any way. Even as they were unhinged they were always somehow cerebral, like they were overdosing on street drugs and modern literature simultaneously. If they'd unleash the power of the drone in their music, it was in the way Prospero would conjure up storms.
It was the Stooges who were the Caliban-like creatures inside the drone.
Early on the Stooges had a more experimetal/drone sound, using extemporised instruments such as oil cans for drums or a vacuum cleaner to... well, most likely to create a vacuum cleaner sound. Iggy said later: “It was entirely instrumental at this time, like jazz gone wild. It was very north African, a very tribal sound: very electronic. We would play like that for about ten minutes. Then everrybody would have to get really stoned again... But what we put into those ten minutes was so total and so very savage - the earth shook, then cracked.” And even if that side of their sound later yielded to something closer to regular rock music, it never quite went away. It hung around like a ghost whose business on earth was not yet done.
In it's glorying in its own fucked-up-ness 'I'm Loose' is very much more proto-punk than proto-metal. But its significance is in the distortion not being trimmings, not there to enhance the song but very much part of the song. As with the Electric Prunes, it's not a song with a sound attached to it, the two can't be separated.
Punk had now shaken its six. Qualifier terms like 'proto punk' or 'garage punk' were no longer required. While with metal..

4 comments:

  1. What a strange selection! The miracle is that somehow you and I have something to talk about regarding music, when we seem to have pretty much exactly opposite tastes! If I had to pick a single word to describe all these songs, it would be "boring". I keep waiting for something to happen, and nothing does; then I realise, that's the whole point (right?) There's obviously something going on here that I'm missing completely.

    I'm Loose is Kick Out the Jams, by the way.

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  2. Surely 'Too Much To Dream' has changes!

    That kind of is the whole point. Making nothing change is an aesthetic choice just as much as making stuff change, and it has its own metronomic effect. Did your parents do that thing of "I can't understand what you listen to with that funny beat music?" It's almost the same thing. Listening to this music awaiting the changes is almost like the guy looking at abstract art complaining there's no picture.

    Perhaps future instalments will fill you in more. Certainly they stand a good change of being kill or cure, as some of the choices to come get a whole lot more metronomic...

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  3. Predictably enough, Too Much to Dream is my favourite of these songs (though I have to admit that much against my will I've been earwormed by the Stones one. Amazing how Not Bovvered they all look in the video.)

    Did your parents do that thing of "I can't understand what you listen to with that funny beat music?"

    Actually, not so much. I liked and still like a lot of what they liked (Glenn Miller, Broadway music, Guy Mitchell even) and they in turn showed reasonable openness to what I started to like on my own account (ABBA, then the Beatles, then Pink Floyd.) As my own sons are growing up (now aged 16, 15 and 12) it's gratifying to see how much their and my tastes still overlap ... though our youngest literally had Bohemian Rhapsody on loop for an hour this afternoon. It's a truly great song, but I am now able to experimentally confirm that you can have too much of a good thing.

    I have a question for you. When you listen to very repetitive music (not necessarily the ones in this post, but the ones coming up) do you just sit and listen, or is it background for you while you do other things?

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  4. ”Amazing how Not Bovvered they all look in the video.”

    I love the bit where Brian just looks off, like a bored schoolboy in class. Finding even the corner of the room more interesting than the conjugation of French verbs.

    ”When you listen to very repetitive music (not necessarily the ones in this post, but the ones coming up) do you just sit and listen, or is it background for you while you do other things?”

    Good question! I suspect the actual answer is neither. As well as giving me the title of this series, Brian Eno has said new forms of music involve new forms of listening to music. The parents who didn't get the Stones were probably listening to them like they would a string quartet or easy listening, and inevitably couldn't get what the fuss was all about. And here trying to listen to it can easily become a barrier.

    I may however be worse in explaining how I do listen to it. The best I can do, though it sounds terribly New Agey, is that it becomes a kind of meditational aid. Instead of the initiate reciting the mantra, the music kind of does all that for you.

    There's theories that music was originally some kind of cross between ritual aid, magic and drug. Cave paintings are often found in caves where sustained drones have resonant effects on the human brain, leading to speculation musical rituals took place there. I guess a lot of this music (more the stuff coming up than cited so far) is based around the idea music got waylaid from that original purpose, and now needs bringing back to it.

    Even the being “earwormed” by the Stones you mention, why do our brains do that? Play us a mere snatch of a song over and over again. Are they trying to give us something they figure we actually need?

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