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Superlatives, The Column

February 2, 2015

I’ve read the data: my readers respond when I insult icons, dissect shabby and rotting pop phenomena, or reel off subjective but very vocal ‘best of’ lists.  So, as much as I enjoy tumbling into great downy word-beds influenced by Ginsberg, Pound, and Joseph Mitchell, today I am giving the people what they want:  I’m going to list some of my favorite (and least favorite) rock-type things, culminating in the crowning of The World’s Douchiest Artist.

Now, let me note this list is ENTIRELY SUBJECTIVE and completely based on my personal experience, and I make ZERO claims otherwise. When I list my favorite songs, shows, or records, I recognize that my world-view is relatively limited; for instance, I don’t know very much about jazz, so Oscar Peterson or Keith Jarrett or even Miles could have made something that would shake my musical foundations to their very core, but I was too busy listening to Hawkwind, Fu Manchu or the Kinks to discover it.

So as you go on this little journey with me, remember that I’m not pretending any of this is absolute (though a lot of it probably is).

What was THE best show I ever saw?  If I could go back in time and see ONE band on ONE night again, who would it be?  Easy.  Hanoi Rocks.  At Danceateria in 1983, I saw them define soaring, leaping, splitting, snarling, rock’n’roll; they combined thirty years worth of rock memes into one glitter-metal-punktastic night, taking the most acrobatic, cartoonish, and extreme aspects of the Who, Stooges, Dolls, and Damned and blending it (literally) perfectly into one loud, tight/loose, hissing, sassy, sashaying beast of PURE JOY.   Honorable mention:  The Clash (any/every show I saw ’79 – ’83), Stiff Little Fingers (1980), and R.E.M. circa ‘82/’83.

Hanoi Rocks, circa 1983.

What was THE live performance that turned me into a Puddle on the Floor and Changed My Life? Young Marble Giants at Hurrah in NYC in November 1980.  The show was an exhilarating master class in expanding the possibilities inherent in a rock combo; these three unassuming, pale people walked on stage and introduced to me the idea that quiet and shocking, hushed and gigantic were compatible.  YMG were a tsunami of tension wrapped in beauty, punk rock power tucked in a pocket of a cloud.

Hey, I was at this show.

This painting by Hitler instantly brings to mind “Karn Evil 9″ by ELP, obviously.

What is the Worst Song of the Rock Era?  (N.B., the work of any and all jam bands is exempt, for reasons I explain here)  Recently, a friend was attempting to explain to me that the loathsome, artistically venal and conceptually corrupt ELP were not all bad, and they directed me to the songs “Lucky Man” and “Hoedown.”  I explained the following:  Hitler was a pretty decent landscape painter, but that hardly matters, does it?  Now, let’s assume “Lucky Man” is a reasonably charming painting of the Vienna Opera House. “Karn Evil 9” is the London Blitz.  46,000 civilian dead.  Does one nice watercolor make me forget 46,000 civilian dead?  No, I don’t think so.

If I had only ONE song to listen to for the rest of my life, What would it be? “Hallogallo” by Neu! (please note, as always, the exclamation point is part of the name).  The first track off of Neu!’s first album consolidates the spacious, gorgeous, revolutionary open-mindedness of Krautrock, the nearly-sinister power and maxi-minimalism of the Velvet Underground, the lessons of 20th Century avant-garde composition (like LaMonte Young, Schoenberg, Cage, Reich, Riley, etcetera), the wah-joy heaviness of Hendrix, and A LOT OF DRUGS into one EXTRAORDINARY song.  In addition, EVERY musician should be COMPELLED to listen to “Hallogallo” – it is an extraordinary lesson in harmony, power, and patience, and it serves as a sweet, sweeping enema for all bad musical habits.  Honorable mention:  Nothing.  “Hallogallo” is THE BOMB, figuratively and literally.

The Three Albums You Must OwnPet Sounds by the Beach Boys, Metal Box/Second Edition by PiL, and Ramones by The Ramones.  Each of these are aesthetically nearly perfect, conceptually extraordinary, monstrously influential, and of unquestionable historic value. Honorary Mention:  The Beatles by The Beatles (The White Album).

I know what you’re thinking at this point:  “Tim, I have always been confused by the fact that during the Civil War there were Slave-Owning states that REMAINED part of the Union.  I mean, Tim, we were always told that the Civil War was this slave vs. non-slave kind of thing.  So are you telling me that Lincoln and his honchos actually ALLOWED states where slavery was still LEGAL to stay in the Union?”  Why, yes, that’s true.  The CSA was made up only of stated that SECEDED from the Union; if you were a state where slavery was LEGAL but you DIDN’T join the Confederacy and stayed in the Union, Lincoln and the U.S.A. was perfectly happy to have you.  HISTORY IS FULL OF GRAY AREAS, you see.  Remember that.

Michael Des Barres.

Who is The Nicest Rock Guy Ever?  Easy.  Michael Des Barres.  Not only is he one very talented and charismatic dude (and, if you recall, his song “Grim Reaper” landed in my ten-greatest riffs of all time list), he is also consistently kind and gracious without being superficial and patronizing, and he makes every fan feel like a friend.  Everyone in the freaking business should learn from him; being nice in no way compromises the intensity of your work or your ability to be deeply artistic or rocking.

Finally, Who is the Douchiest Artist of All Time?

Once again, I issue the caveat a) that this just reflects personal experience and b) I never personally interacted with either Paul Simon or Lou Reed, both of whom, I understand, are likely candidates for this honor.  Having said that…

The Douchiest Artist I ever met was Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.  I present this honor without comment, other than to say the singer was okay, kind-of.  Runner-ups are Jesus and Mary Chain and Ric Ocasek.

This guy was unnecessarily a rude prick to a 16 year-old fan 37 years ago and I have never forgotten.

I want to say a few words about Ric Ocasek, because there’s a lesson in there that I never, ever forgot:  I encountered Ric Ocasek when I was a wide-eyed 16 year-old.  And he was a total dick to me, for no discernible reason.  And I have never, ever forgotten the fact that a “rock star” would actually make the effort to be rude to an excited young fan.  A musician – either in a live situation or off-stage – has only one chance to make a first impression on a fan/listener, and the impression you make will stay with them for life.  Most of the people you meet and most of the people who see your band will only see your band that one time. So never throw away a show, never be rude to someone who just wants to acknowledge that they enjoy their work.  I mean, of course this doesn’t apply to stalkers or people who interrupt you during meals or personal conversations.  But you get the idea.

Godfather of Slocore OUT.  

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Kraftwerk’s Incredible Invention (and Where It Came From)

January 23, 2015

“The simplest description of emptiness in the Buddhist teachings is this sentence: This is because that is. A flower cannot exist by itself alone. To be can only mean to inter-be. To be by oneself alone is impossible. Everything else is present in the flower; the only thing the flower is empty of is itself.”

— Thich Nhat Hanh

Where do we find the origin of the profoundly original?

Earlier this week a Kraftwerk Symposium took place in Birmingham, England, and frankly, THAT’S FANTASTIC.  Kraftwerk are INARGUABLY the second most influential band of the past half century, and a concentrated academic examination of their work is not only long overdue, it makes me happier than a peanut butter cup wrapped inside a larger peanut butter cup.  I wasn’t able to make it to the symposium because I had a previous commitment to, uh, have a life (not to mention that my time is consumed pressuring the International Court at The Hague to charge Dick Van Dyke with Crimes Against Humanity for his English accent in Mary Poppins).

Now, Kraftwerk are not my favorite band – they’re not even my favorite krautrock band – but that has nothing to do with their importance.  In 1973 and ’74 (on their 3rd LP, Ralf und Florian and coming to fruition on the legitimately historic Autobahn album), Kraftwerk replaced all elements of the pop/rock rhythm section with a pulsing, throbbing, quantized synth; in other words, they replaced the drums and the bass, without exception, with simple yet satisfying synth burps and nothing but simple yet satisfying synth burps.  Make no mistake:  although other artists had experimented with using the synth as a defacto drum or bass supplement or substitute (for instance, the Beach Boys on “Do It Again,” even the original Doctor Who Theme, remarkably devised by Ron Grainer and Delia Derbyshire in 1963), no artist had said this is our sound; this our body and our soul, and we now challenge you to accept that a complete pop music rhythm section can be created by the quantized  synthesizer.

Every synthetically thumping rhythm section you have heard since then – from the obvious Kraftwerk homages like “Funkytown” and Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” to the ubiquity of the modern tsk-and-burp/boots’n’pants beat in virtually all modern pop and dance music – can be traced, without fail, to Kraftwerk’s amazing invention.  NO other moment in pop is as absolute and viscerally fundamental as “Autobahn.” I’ll be honest:  I am a fairly avid student of this shit, and I am hard-pressed to find a moment in post-World War II mainstream pop history that is as absolutely new and defining.  There have been plenty of other remarkable scene changes in the last 70 years  (Hardrock Gunter and Ike Turner’s use of distorted electric guitar in r’n’b and hillbilly music in 1950 and ‘51; Bo Diddley replacing the old pick and slap of hillbilly rock with fat ham slabs of rhythm roar half a decade later; Dave Davies invention of the modern bar chord riff in 1964; the Ramones massive, massively original, and massively glorious reduction of all existing rock memes in ’74; and so on), but Kraftwerk’s invention of the totally self-contained synth-generated rhythm section is likely the biggest purely musical scene change in the history of rock/pop.  I mean, the Fabs are, no doubt, the most influential band of all time, but Kraftwerk are a very, very close second, and very likely number one if you drop long held generational prejudices against dance music.

Having said that…one must acknowledge that the basic roux that flavored Kraftwerks’ gumbo had to come from somewhere (please re-read the quote that begins this piece – only a fool or a fundamentalist Christian believes in Virgin birth).  Now, the foundation of the Kraftwerk sound was a pulsing, metronomic beat that mesmerized with a steady tick and minimal chord changes.  Keep that in mind. Perusing the program for the symposium, I’m not sure this point was actually addressed:

Circa 1971, after their release of their peculiar, anti-jazz, anti-pop, bongo-and-flutey first album, Kraftwerk briefly had a three-piece line-up, comprised of Florian Schneider (flute and synths), Klaus Dinger (drums), and Michael Rother (guitar).  Video and audio of this short-lived line-up reveal a band playing intense, punching, pulsing jams with minimal chord changes, resembling precise mongoloids playing “Sister Ray,” or perhaps you could say they sound like some stoned, happy, and aggressive Germans trying to blend Stooges/Hendrix shrrrroarrr-wang-wang with the mono-chord jams of early NYC minimalist composers like LaMonte Young and Tony Conrad.  The music of Schneider, Dinger, and Rother is vastly original – it reduces the idea of “jam” to John Cale drones married to a caveman surf beat.  This sound reached it’s fullest fruition when Dinger and Rother split off to form Neu!, a band whose phased, ticking, rumbling, endless one-chord explorations made for some of the most original, powerful, and influential rock ever recorded.

(the Incredible Schneider/Dinger/Rother Kraftwerk, late 1971)

But Neu! wasn’t the only child of the brief and brilliant Schneider/Dinger/Rother Kraftwerk.  The future, commercially giant Kraftwerk was Neu!’s remarkable twin. It is clear – very goddamn clear – that when Schneider reunited with Ralf Hutter (who returned to the band he co-formed in 1972), there was a conscious decision to leave the odd, dumbed-down proggy thumps, bells, and whistles behind (again, the early Kraftwerk sound resembles a very stoned, very, minimalist free jazz group doing collegiate exercise in interpreting Stockhausen), and instead attempt a sound that IMITATED Dinger and Rother’s ultra-minimal motorway beat (the actual name is “motorik”) that hinted at long highways, minimal variation, and maximum energy.

So I posit – shit, I barely need to posit it, there’s plenty of evidence to back it up – that the “Autobahn” sound that reinvented pop was “just” an attempt to replicate on synths the sound that Dinger/Rother had brought to Kraftwerk during their brief time in the band.  Now, NONE of that is to minimize the invention; and there is great, ENORMOUS, radical genius in Hutter and Schneider’s decision to reinterpret Dinger and Rother’s motorway drive with synths and synths alone – but I am anxious to give credit where credit is due.  I will add, for the sake of accuracy/completion, that an academic-type could make a fairly strong case for the sound of the Schneider/Dinger/Rother Kraftwerk being a more simplistic, driving, spacious exploration of the herky-jerky seizure-on-the-railway sound that the Schneider/Hutter/Dinger Kraftwerk had explored on a first-album track called “Ruckzuck” – remember, “Everything else is present in the flower”.

Now back to those emails to the International Court at The Hague.

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Roedelius and The Secret History of Rock’n’Roll

August 11, 2014

When I use this phase “The Secret History of Rock’n’Roll,” I am not talking about hushed conspiracies, or Masonic veins running through the seats of power, or ancient aliens having drawn something in the Central American Desert 2,000 years ago that looked just like the album sleeve to Supertramp’s “Breakfast In America” (though how cool would that be? Very, very cool, I tell you).

The Secret History of Rock’n’Roll is the long cast of largely unknown characters who were massively influential, far beyond their common fame. The Secret History isn’t just the chronicle of celebrated outsiders whose work is called pioneering, like, for instance, Lou Reed or Brian Eno; it’s the story of the people who influenced those people. The Secret History is the story of the inventors whose work, done largely in the shadows of cult-dom and obscurity, profoundly shape-shifted the course of the Painted Golem That Is Pop And Rock, the giant who chases us in our dreams and whose grunts, groans, and lullabies are the soundtrack of our life.

It is not necessary to leave the work of these groundbreakers to the geeks, collectors, and followers of the fringe; nothing untoward will happen if a little mainstream light is shone their way.

When I speak loudly and proudly of the Secret History, I am talking about people like LaMonte Young, the avant-garde drone composer who began working in New York City circa 1960. Young created the sonic and instrumental palette of Jet-Age drones, end-of-the-world thumps, and Indian-intonations that we would later associate with the Velvet Underground; in fact, the original nexus of the Velvets, John Cale, Tony Conrad, and Angus Maclise, all came out of his ensembles. Cale had the notion of using Young’s extraordinary musical vocabulary as the setting for quasi-pop songs, of introducing Dylan-esque word-rambles and Motown soul-riffs into Young’s dronescapes; with this confabulation, one of the most profoundly influential and intriguing bands in rock history, the Velvet Underground, were born, and none of it would have happened without Young’s prior work.

A very similar character in the Secret History is New York composer Glenn Branca, who began making his mark in the late 1970s; influenced by LaMonte Young and European industrial-noise neo-classicists like Penderecki and Xenakis, Branca used multiple guitars, tuned and played in a unique style he perfected, to mimic the sound of large orchestra sawing, hissing, and screaming. Via extreme volume, unison tuning and de-tuning (i.e., literal detuning of the instrument), and a “double strum” technique involving strumming the guitar at 16 and even 32 strums per measure continuously for extended periods, Branca was able to create the sound of steel tanks moving across a barbed-wired desert; it was (is) unrelenting, extreme, beautiful, often absolutely angelic, capable of reproducing the end of the world as no synthetic instruments or orchestra ever could. It is also the “sound” that Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo, Branca ensemble members in the early 1980s, borrowed, virtually without alteration, when they created Sonic Youth. Like Cale and Reed a generation earlier, Renaldo and Moore took the specific techniques of a composer they apprenticed with and applied these techniques, previously used only in long-form compositions, to a short-form “song” format. When you listen to Sonic Youth, anything by Sonic Youth, you are hearing the invention of Glenn Branca.

There are literally dozens more figures like this, and their genius and their innovations comprise the wonderful Secret History of Rock’n’Roll; some of them are better known, like Joe Meek, some of them lesser known, like the person who really was meant to be the focus of today’s column, Hans Joachim Roedelius.

You, and you, and you, too, and you there with the glasses, and Layne, and you sitting there in the corner wondering what the hell went wrong with Arcade Fire, you all should know about Roedelius. He has been making music very regularly since 1970, and virtually everything he has ever done, at every stage of his work, is vastly listenable, intriguing, and unique but infinitely user-friendly.

Starting around 45 years ago, Roedelius used analog and synthetic keyboards to create magical melodic, rhythmic, and textural landscapes, sometimes emerging as almost bubble-gum like pop songs; other times as Satie-like melodies of profound and exquisite emptiness and air; and still other times as proto-industrial bubbles of noise and rhythm. He was doing all this inventive stuff prior to 1976, after which his keyboard-driven mixture of pop and art, ethnic rhythms and noise, simplicity and invention, became far, far more common, due to the spreading of his influence. In his groups Harmonia and Cluster, as a solo artist, and in many collaborations, Roedelius has created a consistently wonderful catalog of startling soundscapes, and pop concrete.

Most pertinently to the non-follower of Krautrock’s delicious and endless obscurities, if LaMonte Young birthed the Velvets and Branca sired Sonic Youth, Roedelius is the primary influence on Brian Eno, a man often thought of as devoid of such influences. Eno’s entire musical world-view – the eccentric mad scientist creating large-screen but minimalist worlds of melody and texture on the keyboards – is an appropriation of the work and innovations of Roedelius (by the way, I am fairly certain Eno would happily admit this; he began recording with Roedelius in the mid-1970s, and they have made numerous remarkable albums in various combinations together). Roedelius pioneered the softening of Krautrock’s aggressive guitar landscapes and minimized avant-jazzisms into a form of luxurious, melody-ripe keyboard excursions, often condensed into a “song” format Krautrock largely disdained. In the process, Roedelius did two very fucking substantial things: he essentially invented ambient music, and he essentially invented Brian Eno. In addition to these two very significant achievements, Roedelius harnessed the keyboards and found a way to bridge the lyricism of classical music with the minimalism of avant-garde music, all the while keeping a firm foot in pure pop song.

(A little explication of terms: when I say “ambient” music, I am using it in the distinctly German/Eno-esque sense of the term: a wide-screen road full of very interesting bumps, rock, and potholes of noise, melody, and concept, anticipating and integrating the simplicity of punk rock but with even more adventure; secondly, although it may initially appear derisive or even racist, I am use the term Krautrock because it is the widely accepted name of a specific genre of music, specifically the explosion of wildly diverse, madly creative, magnificently influential music that exploded out of West Germany between 1969 and 1980. I will write at far, far greater length about Krautrock in the near future, because that epoch is literally nothing less than the greatest fruition and realization of Caucasian Rock’s creativity and promise.)

We also note, with many, many exclamation points implied but not actually employed, that Herr Hans Joachim Roedelius is still very much alive and very active musically, at the age of 80; like Neil Young, Scott Walker, and sometimes Paul McCartney, he is an artist whose current work is still very, very vibrant and alive, and every bit as worth investigating as any of the archival stuff. Now, Roedelius is one of those artists with a complicated discography, full of many labels and compilations; just get any or all of them. There’s your damn buyers guide. If it has Roedelius’s name on it, buy it. There is a resounding unity of quality to his work, always consistent yet always surprising.

If you are a lover of music beautiful and challenging, devastatingly familiar but shockingly creative, if you have ever listened to Chill-Out music or Album Leaf or any of that Buddha Lounge garbage and wished it was better, wished it felt like rock’n’roll yet had the grace of Brahms or Satie or the Goldberg Variations, Roedelius is your man. He is one of the Kings of Contemporary Music, and when one investigates The Secret History of Rock’n’Roll, investigates it with joy, an open heart, an open mind and ears tuned fiercely to the heroic seeds of the music of our life, I hope you find utter delight in the emotional magic and sweet/bittersweet dreams to be found in the work of Hans Joachim Roedelius.

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