I’ve been following Jake Bugg since day one, and the kid’s been pretty consistent, even if he’s outgrown the wunderkind hype. But nothing he’s done since 2012 has compared to his debut. Understandably so; the huge impression his first record made was due in part to the wonderment that something so completely well-formed and characteristic could come from a teenage boy with no previous show business experience. It’s the kind of debut that feels really special because it’s so unexpected. The same level of sophistication loses its glow when it’s coming from a guy now in his mid-twenties, and that’s the burden of being an early bloomer. But that doesn’t make the record a novelty or a flash in the pan. It’s held up and probably will continue to hold up better than most of what came out in 2012, because it doesn’t sound like a product of its time. It sounds like the work of someone who doesn’t care what time he’s living in.
I have very little use for musical theatre, but I have a soft spot for the classic rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar. The film version remains one of my favorite movies from childhood. The music is, of course, the main attraction, but what makes the movie so endearing is its handmade quality. It’s certainly not low quality by any means. It’s obviously made by professionals. But the filmmakers handled their lack of fancy Hollywood budget by going easy on superfluous doodads like costumes and sets. All they have is dancers – outstanding ones – in regular street clothes, on an unadorned set in the middle of the desert, just doing their thing. The story of Christ doesn’t require historical verisimilitude; by its very nature it requires suspension of disbelief. Jesus can be a tawny-haired dreamboat, and his acolytes can be hippies in halter tops, and the Roman guards can be armed with prop machine guns left over from some war movie. It’s still the same story about the Son of God that we all know and love. The telling of the story, in whatever context, is in itself an act of theatre. This, however, is the only telling of it I will accept.
This is where it all began. It’s the first single by the group then known as The Wailing Wailers, and a #1 hit in Jamaica in 1963. It would be another decade before the rest of the world caught on to what The Wailers were wailing, but Bob Marley’s career was slowly catching afire. You would never guess from this rather raw-sounding track the global influence Marley would eventually attain, nor would you guess it from their dorky and clean-cut appearance in those days. But the spark is there. It’s there in Marley’s assertive vocals, and it’s there in his songwriting. Although Jamaican artists back then were still encouraged to model their appearance and their writing on American vocal groups, Marley is already writing about the things he cared about. This song, in what would become typical Marley fashion, appears to be about personal stuff – it sounds like he’s breaking up with a lover – but was actually inspired by and directed towards the violent ‘Rude Boys’ of Marley’s hometown Kingston. Even then, Marley loved his community, but was disgusted by the poverty and political oppression there, and hated the violence that resulted from those things. And even as a rookie artist struggling to make his name, he was already clear on the message he wanted to send: simmer down, people, you can’t stand up for yourselves if you’re fighting amongst each other.
Whatever thoughts you may have on The Rolling Stones, put them aside and just admire Mick Jagger’s bedazzled physique. Man, his hips are so tiny! Pure sex in little white tennis shoes. Also stop and appreciate how weird the 1970’s must have been to allow this spectacle to even take place. The blues gods never intended their music to be turned into a drag show such as this. But the Stones took the blues and turned it into a gender-bending, drug soaked burlesque, yet somehow they still retained the mystique of guys who were not to be fucked with. The implication of danger lingers, making the glitter and spandex look like a lure to entrap the hapless. The pretty drag queen will seduce you, then the other guys will quietly slit your throat. A very real probability given that Keith is known to carry a switchblade. We know that the 70’s Stones roadshow was a literal den of iniquity, complete with an all-you-can-eat buffet of narcotics, adolescent groupies, and unconscious bodies discreetly disposed of through the back exit. Everyone who survived it with their brain cells still intact agrees that it was actually pretty miserable, but somehow the misery is all part of the sordid glamour, the idea that rock’n’roll is a force of Dionysian chaos that steamrolls anyone who dares to dance the dance. Who cares about the trail of ruined lives and dead bodies? It’s only rock’n’roll!
You can be a hard-drinkin’, hard-ridin’, hard-livin’ highwayman, but that oughtn’t stop you using the Queen’s grammar. Kris Kristofferson has made a music and movie career playing the charming (and increasingly grizzled) country boy with mud on his boots, but he also made to it no secret that he was smarter and better educated than any of his Nashville peers. Which not only made his more charming – for who can resist a real man’s man who also wields formidable book smarts? – but also one of the wittiest and most interesting songwriters in his field. That too helped him break out of the genre and appeal to rock’n’roll fans, making country rock a popular new genre in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Kristofferson has got a lot of things going for him, but I’d say the main one is, damn, the man writes good lyrics.
Gender-flipped, radically reconstituted covers of hoary male narratives is one of my favorite subgenres. I love the idea of finding something intimate, feminine and modern in something tough and masculine from another era. Cat Power didn’t invent that idea, but she was doing it before it became trendy. She really knows how to weave her own narrative out of narratives written by people with wildly different lives and points of view. Her cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man is a classic exercise in finding new truth in old tales. Nothing represents old-school rugged manliness like the Highwaymen: Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, outlaw country’s grand old men. The Highwaymen were formed as a reminder of what outlaw country used to be, before country music became just another bland, pandering, million-dollar pumping mainstream industry. They weren’t shy about leaning on leathery cowboy motifs, a reminder that in their day real men did really manly things, with horses and/or motorcycles, and they did it while day-drunk on whiskey-cocaine highballs. They were broadly implying that being a so-called bad guy living outside the law was some kind of moral high ground because at least they hadn’t sold their souls working for the man or whatever. In practice it just meant a lot of drunk driving, neglected families and money woes, but it’s a nice all-American fantasy of rugged individualism. Those guys probably intended riding off on a silver stallion as a metaphor for refusing to go to rehab (real men don’t go to rehab, real men die of cirrhosis like God intended!) but what does it mean for a woman living in today-times? Obviously it’s still a narrative of personal liberation, of freeing oneself from the woes of mundane life and zooming off, one way or another, into a lonelier, grubbier, but more self-actualized life. Which honestly is still the same message, delivered in sexier tones. Wherever you personal silver stallion takes you, saddle up and ride it as far is it goes.
Young women with long blonde hair singing plaintively about nature. That very specific sub-genre was definitely big a thing in the 60’s, and Mary Hopkin was a key figure in it. See also, Marianne Faithfull, Judy Collins, Sandy Denny, etc. See also, long billowing dresses, peter-pan collars, obscure Medieval string instruments, wildflower bouquets, etc. Yes, the English folk music revival really loved its virginal-but-wise damsel cliches. It might look a little twee and silly to our modern American eyes, but I suppose that it really made the British feel like they were touching base with their pagan folklore and whatnot. And that’s actually rather lovely. Everyone should be able to delve into the ancient heritage of their people. That’s something a lot of Americans are unfortunately lacking and can’t relate to, so on these shores the English folk music thing never caught on. Some of the figures of the movement went on to become well-known for other things, but Mary Hopkin married Tony Visconti and didn’t work under her own name again for several decades. She’s actually recorded more in the 2000’s than she did in 60’s, and she’s now part of a movement by the Welsh to rediscover and preserve their culture. There is still very much a market in the UK for plaintive singing, long-sleeved gowns, dulcimers, and all things referring to faerie earth magic and other such folklore. Obviously, the ageless Fae damsel is a figure of deep identification and eternally relevant, and folk music is more than a fad that happened 50 years ago.