I’ve been on vacation for two weeks, and that means no thinking about music the way I usually do. I need to get my brain back into running order.
So let’s come back with the four-note guitar riff that every aspiring teenage headbanger learns on their first guitar. It’s one of the most memorable intros in music history, destined to be instantly recognizable long after there’s no one left alive to remember anything else about Deep Purple or the culture they came out of. When something has been riffed so far into the popular consciousness that it’s basically become the generic shorthand for hard-rock guitar riffs, is there any point in asking what it’s about, where it came from, or even if it’s a good song? Well, if you’re a classic rock fan, you probably know the famous story of how Deep Purple’s plans to record an album in Montreux where thwarted when their recording venue burned to the ground. Based on the riff and chorus, you would imagine the kind of hammer-of-the-gods heavy metal lyrics in which hard-rocking vikings threaten to raze your civilization, but it’s actually a pretty mundane story about the inconvenience of finding a recording space for a very loud band in a very quiet Swiss town. Which, I think, is what makes it an indelibly great song. Nobody really wants to hear another poorly-researched heavy metal song about vikings, and this, at least, tells a personal story. Of course, we’re far removed from the days when cultural relevance was measured in guitar solos, and even fans of the genre have to admit that far less of 70’s hard rock culture will endure than your dad and his drinking buddies thought in 1973. But from what’s left of that moment in time, this riff will be remembered as the height of what labradoodle-looking shirtless dudes in obscenely tight jeans could achieve whilst blackout drunk on Southern Comfort.
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!
Perhaps I should spend more time listening to songs by once-popular 70’s rock bands of the kind who haven’t been remembered as cultural icons who sell a million t-shirts. One thing I’ve found on the internet, is there are entire communities of strange teenagers creating fandoms for obscure members of forgotten bands, fandoms for people who didn’t have fandoms when their songs were actually on the charts. (This is why Tumblr will never die.) A quick search for Electric Light Orchestra, and some genderfluid 10th grade munchkin thinks Jeff Lynne is the light of their life. God, I love the internet. It’s that kind of context-free love and devotion that makes me think I should take time to rediscover artists who I’ve always identified as staples of late-night oldies radio and the two dollar vinyl bin at the thrift store.
We all know ‘shock rock’ as a genre, aimed squarely at youngsters with easily offended families. It was a big thing in the 90’s. What Marc Bolan has to say about that – despite being dead long before that whole conversation rolled around – is “If you know how to rock, you don’t have to shock.” Most likely, all Bolan had in mind when he wrote those words was probably sex …or nothing. Bolan had a habit of churning out hard-boogieing riffs and leaving the words for an afterthought. But I think that he would agree with my out-of-context interpretation; shock value is no substitute for knowing how to rock.
Usually, you could count on David Bowie for being a thoughtful and nuanced interpreter of other people’s material. (And, you know, his own too.) He chose interesting songs and covered them in interesting styles. But sometimes nuance and thought went out the window in favor of sheer mega-watt campiness. On the Pin Ups album Bowie chose a motley selection of obscure 60’s classics and attacked them in full Ziggy Stardust mode. And Ziggy always was one for maximum drama. To be fair, in this case, the Yardbirds’ original was already very dramatic. It’s hard to imagine anyone trying to top Keith Relf’s delivery, but David Bowie heard it and thought, “Challenge accepted.” This is probably his most bizarre vocal performance; he belts it out like a drag diva delivering a death scene. It’s just unparalleled. Enjoy.
Even after a lifetime of listening to Roxy Music, I still haven’t caught all of Bryan Ferry’s wordplay. I just had to look up what clair de lune was. It’s French for moonlight. Somehow I always just accepted that there would be random French phrases in these songs and I would never know what they meant. Well, now we have Google Translate, sapping the mystery and romance out of life. It’ll take you more than a translating dictionary bot to wring some sense out of these lyrics, though. It’s about love and uncertainty and gazing wistfully up at your loved one’s gently glowing windows (which is nowadays called ‘stalking’.)
Do you want to watch an ambitious satire of the way we live now, circa 1973? Well, don’t watch O Lucky Man! It’s a terrible movie. But it does have an outstanding soundtrack by Alan Price, and I’d say that the songs pretty much make all of the points the movie wanted to make, but it doesn’t take three hours to make them. Capitalist society is a target, because or course it is. The funny thing being that in hindsight capitalism was just getting warmed up and looking back at a satirized 1973 it just looks as quaint as all get-out. But yeah, modern life is dehumanizing and every human emotion can be monetized and the military is evil and big corporations want to turn you into a human guinea pig – literally!