Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘rock’

Nailed to History by Martin PowersNailed to History: The Story of Manic Street Preachers, Martin Power (Omnibus Press 2010)

The best Manics biography I’ve seen is Simon Price’s Everything: A Book about Manic Street Preachers, which first appeared in 1999. This is less good and less well-written, but one thing hasn’t changed: the importance of the lost Manic, Richey Edwards. He’s prominent on the front cover, is shown all by himself on the back cover, and is described like this in the final chapter:

As the Manics will be the first to admit, at the heart of their story – past, present, future, was, is, will be – stands Richey Edwards. Now 15 years gone, the complexity of his character and fiercely intelligent lyricism continue to beguile, a fact strongly evidenced by The Holy Bible’s ever-growing reputation and the critical plaudits recently foisted upon Journal for Plague Lovers. (ch. 24, “Nailed to History”, pg. 304)

But he’s now been gone longer than he was present and the Manic Street Preachers might have been just as successful without him. After all, he didn’t write any of their music and he performed the guitar rather than playing it. He gave the band something special with his words – a song-title like “Small Black Flowers That Grow In The Sky” is strange and beautiful in a unique way – but the Manics were always about much more than self-mutilation and suicide-attempts:

“Electronic,” said Wire, “are fat, bloated hideous bastards who deserve shooting. Johnny Marr trying to do windmills on a guitar when he’s one foot tall and weighs fifty stone. It’s as bad as Emerson, Lake & Palmer.” From Slowdive (“I hate them worse than Hitler”) and Northside (“They look useless”) to The Charlatans (“Their fans have moustaches”) and Bowie (“Boring old cunt”), the Manic Street Preachers wanted to carpet bomb the lot. (ch. 6, “Advancing into Battle”, pg. 66)

From Nicky Wire’s wind-ups (and love of vacuum-cleaners) to the band playing “louder than war” for Fidel Castro, from slagging Wales to supporting it, from performing in empty pubs to the Cardiff Arms Park Male Voice Choir singing “A Design for Life” outside a “£15 million public library”: this is the story of a band who haven’t always produced good music, but have always been interesting.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Granite and Grit by Ronald TurnbullGranite and Grit: A Walker’s Guide to the Geology of British Mountains, Ronald Turnbull (Francis Lincoln 2011)

For a small country, Britain has had a big influence on the world. Like a lot of other things, modern geology started here. There are several reasons for that and one is very simple: pioneering geologists had mountains of material to work with. According to the author, “Britain has the most varied geology of any country in the world.” This is an excellent introduction to the rocks of the realm, from gneiss in the Outer Hebrides to granite on Dartmoor. I like the way Turnbull discusses not only how rocks affect your eyes – their colour, texture and contours – but also how they affect your boots. He’s a hillwalker, not a professional geologist, so he conveys a strong sense of place and of how Britain’s landscape varies. But there’s more than geological variation here: Britain isn’t just rich in rocks and its landscape is shaped by more than physics and chemistry. This is the caption to one spectacular photo of a misty mountain:

Bwlch y Saethau, where according to legend King Arthur battled his nephew Mordred; behind, Y Lliwedd stands at the centre of a far greater act of violence, the Lower Rhyolite Tuff event. (ch. 10, “Redhot Flying Avalanches: Ignimbrites in Snowdonia”, pg. 98)

Britain’s varied mountains are named in Britain’s varied languages: Welsh, English and Gaelic give different flavours to the landscapes they describe, from Carnedd Dafydd to Eskdale, from Ingleborough to Stuc a’ Chroin, from Ardnamurchan to Mynydd Mawr. But English names split into Norse and Anglo-Saxon, which have different flavours too. Underlying all these languages is a common ancestor, just as some very different rocks have common ancestors too. Heat, compression and erosion change rocks; time, separation and mutation change languages. So Turnbull is writing about two kinds of history as he discusses different parts of Britain: geological history and linguistic history.

Linguistics dwarfs geology in complexity, but geology dwarfs linguistics in time. To understand why Britain looks the way it does, you have to go back billions of years and trace its movement over many thousands of kilometres. You also have to study seemingly exotic things like volcanoes, glaciers and tropical botany, all of which are central parts of Britain’s geology. Turnbull is a relaxed but knowledgeable guide to some big events and some big transformations and because he isn’t a professional he knows how to write for a general reader. He doesn’t just inform, he re-orientates: you won’t look at Britain in the same way:

Black pointy islands of volcanic ash rise above the sea, the water around them a froth of falling ash. The shores of the new islands get washed away by tsunamis as chunks of other islands fall into the sea. Lava slides down and then runs level, to form black land made of glass. The glassy ground crackles as it cools, and then quickly weathers to orange shards and gravel. Showers of sharp-edged volcanic rubble fall into the sea, forming seabed layers 300m deep which will eventually be the summit of Snowdon itself. (ch. 10, pp. 103-4)

Geology is like cuisine in reverse: from the cooked dish you have to work out the recipe. Landscapes that seem inert can have cataclysmic pasts, full of fire and thunder or flood and frost. There are centuries of ingenious deduction and painstaking observation behind the chatty text and attractive photos in this book, but there are still mysteries to solve. More maths will be needed, because matter obeys mathematical rules in all its transformations, whether geological or culinary. And those material transformations have immaterial parallels in linguistics and sociology, where maths is the key to understanding too. And science itself has metamorphosed and mutated. Geology is an important subject not just for its contemporary research but also for its influence on other fields. It made scientists realize the vast age of the earth. Charles Darwin used that idea to transform biology. Like the pioneering geologists, he was British. That isn’t a coincidence and it’s something else that increases the power of this book. The planet starts here. So does the universe.

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Treasures of Nirvana by Gillian G. GaarTreasures of Nirvana, Gillian G. Gaar (Carlton 2011)

A boxed book with “facsimiles of rare material” and a good guide to why Nirvana became so successful. I like their music, but it wasn’t enough on its own to take them right to the top. Successful bands have to appeal to the eye as well as the ear.* Mudhoney and the Melvins appeal to the latter, but not the former. Nirvana appealed to both. Like Jim Morrison before him, Kurt Cobain looked very good on camera. Even his flying hair did. He’s an eye-magnet in almost every photo here and would be even if you didn’t know who he was. But very few people will look at this book without knowing who he was and what happened to him, so his magnetism merely increases. Krist Noveselic and Dave Grohl look ordinary: Kurt looks special. And he’s sealed special for ever, because he died before he got old, just like Jim Morrison.

There’s a glamour to going before your time and Kurt went well before his. Seventy or eighty years too soon, or maybe much longer. Unless something big gets in the way, science and technology will extend the human life-span indefinitely for people who were, like him, born in and after the 1960s. But humans will stop being human in the process: man, as Nietzsche pointed out long ago, is something to be surpassed. The Deus Ex Machina is on his way: the electronically enhanced super-human who will have vastly increased powers of mind, memory and body. I don’t think Nirvana’s music will interest the D.E.M. much, but that’s one of the things that are still interesting about Nirvana. They’re the last of the real rockers. They grew up without the internet and came to fame while it didn’t matter much. That was part of their appeal: Washington State and Seattle were isolated places, lost in obscurity, far from the spotlights focussed on New York and Los Angeles. It wasn’t easy to learn about them. And there was more. Kurt and Krist came from an isolated part of Washington: Aberdeen, on the muddy banks of the Wishkah.

Treasures of Nirvana by Gillian G. Gaar (back cover)

The grungy design of this book tries to capture that distance and difficulty, using a lot of blur, smear and shadow. Kurt stayed in the shadow and stayed in Nirvana, young for ever. Krist and Dave have an afterlife and the book follows them there: Krist gets bald and Dave loses the scared-kid look he had in Nirvana and becomes the confident leader of Foo Fighters. The other big figure in the Nirvana story, Courtney Love, doesn’t develop at all here, because she gets only one photo, grinning a sharkish grin at the MTV Awards. That was enough for me, just as I assume it was for Gillian Gaar: marrying Courtney was one of the two big mistakes Kurt made in life. The other was becoming a heroin addict. But if his stomach problems were as bad as he said they were, maybe heroin extended his life rather than shortening it. His stomach problems are something else that seals him into the old days. I don’t think they were psychosomatic and even if they were, they were a sign of something badly wrong with his body. The brain is part of the body, after all. Kurt, like most people then and now, didn’t have much control over his brain. Drugs like lithium are a crude way of adjusting the way brains work.

Much stronger methods of adjustment and improvement are on their way. When they arrive, the human race will follow Kurt into history. Nirvana’s music used technology to sing about human flesh and its woes. When flesh combines with technology, Nirvana’s music probably won’t matter any more: the clamour-glamour of rock will be gone. I don’t think Kurt would mind. After all, he ended his life playing unplugged and looking back to the Middle Ages, not forward to the Deus Ex Machina. But there was also something medieval about the importance of paper in Nirvana’s story. Fans got real letters from bands and record companies in Nirvana’s day, not emails or tweets. The facsimiles here try to capture the way physical things mattered more back then: tickets, posters, flyers. So this book is about two vanishing things: flesh and paper. It’s not long and detailed like some Nirvana/Cobain biographies, but it’s worth a look while Nirvana and Kurt Cobain are still glamorous.


*Yes, apart from Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones looked odd or ugly, but that still appealed to their fans, because of its contrast with the Beatles.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

Read Full Post »

Halfway to Paradise: The Birth of British Rock, Alwyn W. Turner (V&A Publishing, 2008)

This is a big book about big names. But not always respected names: Cliff Richard is a by-word for “bland” and Tommy Steele was much more music-hall than mean, moody and magnificent. And some of the names were big back then, half-forgotten now, like the charismatic but unlucky Billy Fury from Liverpool. He was born Ronnie Wycherley, which explains his change of name. Vince Eager, Georgie Fame, Johnny Gentle, Dickie Pride and Marty Wilde weren’t born under those names either. Re-invention is an important part of rock: musos are made to sound and look meaner. Or milder. The Beatles, who appear in the final chapter, were taken out of their black leather. Which is ironic, because it was inspired by Gene Vincent, who was put into his:

Vincent had been brought over to Britain by Jack Good, primarily to appear as the star of the television show Boy Meets Girls. Anticipating danger, Good had been horrified to meet off the plane a polite Southern gentleman. “I thought he was going to be a dagger boy, the rock and roll screaming end,” he remembered, before adding with some relish, “I had to fix him.” He readjusted Vincent’s look so that, by the time the star reached the television screen, he was dressed in black leather and ostentatiously dragged his damaged leg behind him. When asked later about this new image, Good cited Shakespeare’s Richard III as a model, with the moodiness of Hamlet thrown in, and admitted that the set was constructed to make it more difficult for his star: “I arranged for some steps so that he could hobble nicely on TV, but he negotiated them very well and hardly looked as if he was hobbling at all. I had to yell out, ‘Limp, you bugger, limp!’ He didn’t mind. He limped.” (ch. 3, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, pg. 94)

Vincent was an idol of the Shadows, Cliff Richard’s backing group, and the bassist Jet Harris is quoted as saying: “That’s what we called real rock and roll.” But the Shadows appeared in suits, not black leather, and so did all the other British acts discussed and pictured here. They might have admired Gene Vincent, but they dressed like Buddy Holly. And played like him too: British rockers didn’t have the primal power, the jungle rumble, of Americans like Gene Vincent, Duane Eddy and Eddie Cochran. Unlike Elvis, that trio all performed in Britain, but doing so killed Eddie Cochran: he died in a car-crash near Bristol in 1960 at only the age of 21. He was the greatest of the early rockers, I think, or at least the greatest might-have-been. If you’ve never heard “Somethin’ Else”, “C’mon Everybody” or “Summertime Blues”, you haven’t heard the roots of rock. If Cochran did all that having barely left his teens, what might he have done later?

He reminds me of Évariste Galois, the French mathematician who died at twenty but whose work is still honoured in his field. I don’t think Cochran was a genius like Galois, but he had great talent and he stands out in his photos, on-stage in 1960, like a peacock among crows. His backing players, presumably British, wear suits and ties. Cochran wears black-leather trousers and a metallic waistcoast over a plaid shirt. He dominates the stage as he might have dominated the ’60s, but he never reached 1961. His posthumous single, “Three Steps to Heaven”, topped the charts in Britain but “didn’t even make the top 100 in the United States”. It wasn’t a very good single, after all, but Britain was grateful for his tour and he has always remained popular here. It would be some time before Brits were brewing rock’n’roll as potent as that of Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent at their best. Vincent was hampered by a bad leg. Perhaps Brits were hampered by good taste.

You can see them beginning to shake it off here, but the most memorable photo remains that of Eddie Cochran in 1960, king of the stage and ready to reign in the decade ahead. He’d never get a chance to and the book says he foresaw this. After Buddy Holly died in a plane-crash, Cochran had premonitions of his own death in an accident. He wanted to stop touring and concentrate on studio work. But the need for money brought him across the Atlantic and sent him back dead. It’s a memorable story, which is why I mistrust it. The re-inventions of rock don’t stop after death and Cochran pioneered more than music for Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. They too would die young and attract memorable stories, but there’s little hint of their drugs and decadence here. Cochran was about songs, not sybaritism, and didn’t celebrate self-indulgence.

He’d be in his seventies now, like the Rolling Stones, who don’t quite make this book. That’s appropriate, because I think he’d have given more to music if he’d survived.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Rock ChroniclesRock Chronicles: A Visual History of the World’s Greatest 250 Rock Acts, general editor David Roberts, foreword by Alice Cooper (2012)


Rock stars used to die of drink and drugs. Now it’s decrepitude too. Alice Cooper, who writes the foreword to this slab-like selection of sonic samurai, is in his sixties. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are about to enter their seventies. Chuck Berry is in his eighties. They haven’t died before they got old and their tunes-for-teens are now a soundtrack to senility. Rock itself will last till the arrival of the Deus ex Machina (or DeM), I reckon, which means it probably won’t see out its century. But some of the bands in this book may already have written music for that apotheosis of the anthropic: I was both surprised and pleased to find that the big names of kraut-rock are all covered, from Kraftwerk to Can by way of Einstürzende Neubaten and Popul Vuh. Also covered are those odd and eerie avant-acousticians Magma, so you can indulge your Vander-lust and see some unusual umlauts by reading about Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandoh and other monuments of Zeuhl. But I wonder whether the DeM – the electronically enhanced superhuman who will overthrow such concepts as individuality and personality – will find less unconventional bands more interesting. There might be more intellectual meat in Carcass than in Can, as it were. Or music might not interest him/Him at all.

Not that the Liverpudlian gore-metal pioneers Carcass find their way into this book, though they’re probably much better-known in the English-speaking world than some of the bands that do, like the Brazilians Legião Urbana, the Argentinians Soda Stereo, the Spaniards Héroes del Silencio, and the Russians B-2 (Би-2). I suspect that progressive, diversity-desirous worthiness was at work in some of the choices, but it’s good to have some unknowns in among the obvious and nowadays it’s easy to sample the music of a new band that sounds interesting. But the unknowns conform to the rules of rock: this music is overwhelmingly created by white males and white males have been its most successful and famous performers. Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix are big exceptions, but neither is of pure black ancestry and I don’t think blacks on their own could ever have created rock’s sonic sine qua non: the electric guitar. Or electric amplification, at least. I’m not sure the Chinese or Japanese could have either. They have the intelligence, but not necessarily the innovatory impulse. Either way, they’ve certainly taken it up enthusiastically and some Eastern bands here even play tribute to it in their names: Japan’s Loudness and Guitar Wolf, for example.

Loudness is one of the things that interest me about rock, though I prefer not to experience it for real. Electric amplification allowed man to bellow back at Mother Nature for the first time. In a controlled and sustained way, at least. We’ve been able to bang back with explosions for centuries, but the electric guitar was strum-for-thunder and put extreme volume under the control of single individuals. Camille Paglia compares rock-musicians to Dionysos Bromios, Dionysus the Thunderer, and it’s interesting to wonder whether other Dionysiac attributes, like androgyny, are reflected in the long hair traditionally associated with the loudest forms of rock. Or was it simple psychology? Loud music attracts attention and so does long hair, after all. But heavy metal is interesting, or attention-grabbing, not just for its volume: it’s one of the clearest examples of the way rock has evolved. As the book notes, the “earthy riffing” of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” spawned the genre in the early ’sixties. It’s gone on to mutate and morbidify in all manner of ways down the decades, but none of the metal bands here are particularly extreme, unless you want to give that label to the pretentious, po-faced, and faux-dangerous Slipknot. I don’t: I think Black Sabbath were much more interesting and original in their early days. The Sabs are one of the big names who get two pages of text and two pages of photos, which incorporate a side-column of classic album covers. The images for Paranoid (1970) and Sabotage (1975) are too small to come across as they should – which is ridiculously – but the photos of the Sabs have the c-factor in two ways: the band either look cool or make you cringe.

Covers of four Black Sabbath albums

Click for larger images

So do other big names, though some photo-sections are all cool (The Jam) or all cringe (The Scorpions). And some will make you chuckle, like Angus Young clowning in his schoolboy uniform in the entry for AC/DC. But Angus can look cool too: it’s interesting how some people photograph well and some don’t. The Californian punk-band Green Day supply one of each: the singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong has camera-charisma and the bassist Mike Dirnt doesn’t. Green Day, a three-piece, raise another interesting question: why have bands usually had four members? My theory is that the instruments and personalities in a four-piece band best match the four standard forms of human personality, which were classified in the classical world as sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholy. The labels are based on a pseudo-medical system of humours, or body fluids, but also correspond, in modern psychology, to the personality dimensions neuroticism and introversion-extraversion: sanguine people are low on neuroticism and high on extraversion; choleric are high on both; melancholic are low on extraversion and high on neuroticism; and phlegmatic are low on both. Like Green Day, Guns’n’Roses are an exception to the four-piece rule and don’t fit neatly into a tetradic personality classification. Teratic might be closer the mark for at least one Gunner. Precisely how one would classify Axl Rose’s personality remains a challenge for morbid psychiatry, but he did look good in the early days of the band, I have to admit.

Nikki Sixx of Mötley Crüe, who are also given two pages of text and two pages of photos, has managed to look good much longer, despite the heroin addiction and the near-death experiences. But da Crüe have another c-factor: they’re often more cartoonish than cool. Their priapic predecessors Led Zeppelin were coolest at their capillariest: when their locks were longest in their middle years. As the ’eighties began their hair shortened and their clothes became workaday, not flamboyant. Then Bonzo died before he got old, which I’ve always felt was a shame from a scientific point of view. Def Leppard pay obvious onomastic hommage to Zep and coagulate cool and cringe in their photos, though tending more to the latter. One of their photos puts the “cock” into rock and the “flourish” into phallic with no fewer than four guitars jutting skyward from the crotch. Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac finds another way to put the cock into rock, suggestively clutching at and positioning a jutting microphone in 1979. Suggestively to the phallocentric photographer and viewer, that is: Nicks didn’t deliberately perform in that kind of way, but she is one of the rare attractive women in this book. Perhaps the most attractive is the blonde guitarist Orianthi, now performing with Alice Cooper but young enough to be his grand-daughter.

Cooper supplies another c-factor: the creepy one. I’ve never liked the look of him or felt comfortable about enjoying his music. Phil Collins has always made my flesh crawl too and Elton John is so revolting that I can’t even bring myself to look at his photos or read his biography, though I assume that, beside the creepiness, he supplies a fifth c-factor: the camp one, as evident in the photo-sections for Queen and Prince. Then there’s the cack-factor, as evident in the Scorpions, the Clash, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and the über-egregious Iron Maiden, whose cover-art has always been more interesting than their music, though not much less adolescent. Finally, there’s the Cro-Magnon-factor: shumble forward moronic muso-Mancas Oasis. They have stiff competition from Guns’n’Roses, the Clash, and Springsteen, but I think they’re the band I hate most in this book: Liam Gallagher is Axl Rose minus the stage-presence and beauty (and Axl was beautiful, almost ethereally so, in his youth). But one photo of the Gallaghers unconsciously chimping it up for the camera does raise the question of rock genetics. What are the genetic patterns in this book? The Beatles and the Smiths look very Irish too, though in a much more positive way, and their music was obviously much more intelligent and attractive. But are Celtic genes over-represented there and elsewhere? I’d suggest they are, but how much do they contribute to musicianship and how much to the desire to perform? After all, Oasis definitely have the latter, but don’t appear to have much of the former.

The Cro-Magnon Factor: Noel and Liam Gallagher

The Cro-Magnon Factor: Noel and Liam Gallagher

I’ve also read that, beside the Cro-Magnon looks, cloddish music, and cretinous behaviour, Oasis are responsible for the curse of compression: the recording technique that reduces the difference between loud and soft sounds to give music more punch in noisy settings. If so, it would be entirely fitting: compression reduces the light and shade in music and makes it less subtle. Musically speaking, you’re painting in broader strokes with a brighter, less varied palette, as though Leonardo had created the Mona Lisa with a roller-brush and house-paint. Nice one, Cro-Mancs! Their rivals Blur, who get two pages of text but no photo-section, used to insult them with epithets like Oasis Quo and Status Quoasis, but I think that insults Status Quo rather than Oasis. I’d much rather listen to Status Quo than Oasis or Blur, but I wouldn’t like to attend one of their gigs. They don’t get a photo-section, but like Kiss, who do, I know that they like massed rows of amps and play it very loud. I prefer imagining high volume to experiencing it, because I value my hearing and don’t like insulting any of my senses with artificial stimulants. Rock-in-the-raw counts as one of those and has sometimes bellowed back too loudly and too long at Mother Nature, becoming part of modernity’s tendency to tyrannize the world with technology. Just as street-lighting drowns the stars and modern agriculture destroys subtle flavours, amplified music often drowns beautiful natural sounds or its own subtleties. Most of the bands here don’t sink to the level of dance music or rap, which has a silent-c-factor, but they haven’t always added to the beauty of the world rather than its brutality.

Or its boorishness. But those who inflict loud music on others sometimes pay the price for it. Human beings aren’t adapted to very high volume and a lot of the pale males in this book must suffer from tinnitus. Which is another interesting phenomenon: rock can be music that goes on giving, even when the recipient doesn’t want it to. Attend a Motörhead gig and your ears may remember it, or regret it, for the rest of your life. Motörhead get two pages of text but no photos and, although it’s not mentioned here, have used one of the most interesting titles I’ve ever come across: “Everything Louder than Everything Else”. It’s actually a line from Deep Purple’s Jon Lord and is a reminder than language is more interesting than music, though perhaps not more fundamental to human nature. The two may have a common origin, though music obviously evolves more easily: you can also find it, in one form or another, among birds, fish and insects. But those groups don’t have the symbolic powers of human beings: this book is all about sounds and their creators, but you can experience it in complete silence. In short, it evokes musical memories through words and pictures, all the way from AC/DC and Aerosmith to Frank Zappa and Z.Z. Top, a three-piece who are famous for their beards, of course. Except for Frank Beard, the drummer, who is clean-shaven. And when Gilette offered Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill “a million dollars each to shave their beards for a commercial”, they turned the offer down. “We’re too ugly,” Gibbons said. The humour in this book doesn’t just come from the photos, but there are too many bands and some of them have existed too long for the text to provide detailed history or analysis. But if you like rock and want to see lots of cool, clownish, cringe-worthy, camp, crap, Cro-Magnon and creepy rock’n’rollers, it’s worth a long look. Or even two or three. But looking and listening aren’t all rock invites us to do. I wish some of the information here was easier to extract: I’d like to have a database of names, ages, and origins for some statistical analysis. There are patterns to be found in rock before the DeM drops in and humanity drops out.


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

Read Full Post »