My, my, my… Brian Eno continues to surprise even if you think you’ve figured out his methods. We’ve all heard by now of his oblique strategies; starter packs are available for purchase. Throwing out sounds, ideas and words at random then finding some means of binding them together has served Eno and his collaborators very well. I always presumed that this particular title was a result of just such witchery. There’s no cohesion to those words being together. But, nope, Eno took inspiration from a true tale of a young man named William Underwood – a Negro in the parlance of his time – from a place called Paw Paw, MI who claimed to possess pyrokinetic powers. Being the 1800’s, of course, science had no means to either disprove or explain those claims, but the man was documented by observes breathing fire (though not, to my knowledge, barbecuing kittens.) The nineteenth century was full of such delightfully credulous tales of pseudo scientific quakery, and more of them should be revived in pop culture. The weight of real context lends a whole new meaning to a self-consciously flippant song; suddenly there’s a story that you really want to know more of. This could be the seed of the next AHS.
David Bowie imagines the apocalyptic breakdown of civil society. In Detroit of all places, because of course Detroit. It was 1973, and the point of reference was probably the 1967 Detroit riots, as well as the general sense of unrest in the United States at the time. Today Detroit has become as close as any place in America to an actual post-industrial wasteland. Oh, and urban America has been engulfed in rioting and violent unrest, repeating the exact same pattern as before, with the same players in the same roles. All of which makes this an eerily prescient portrait of normal life descending into chaos overnight. The more things change, eh? What was relevant in 1973 is if anything more relevant today. Why does it seem that every dystopian speculation eventually winds up coming true? Is it because people are fundamentally stupid and short-sighted and inevitably bound to repeat the same calamitous mistakes as soon as the previous ones begin to fade from living memory?
Watching Led Zeppelin in action, I ponder on how much of their image (and, of course, their sound) was built on their understanding of mysticism and mythology. No question, Jimmy Page fancied himself some sort of fire shaman, with his dragon suit and his backlit posturing. Led Zeppelin started out as a blues-based band, but by the time of their full fledged success, the blues was only nominally an influence. What they really set out to do was create a suitably epic soundtrack to the historical mythology slash fantasy that had become quite in vogue during the 60’s. The sense that perhaps a particularly English mythology was somewhat lacking in comparison to the cool mythology of other cultures was what had inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to create his richly populated world, and it was a feeling that struck a deep chord. The rock demimonde of the 60’s was fascinated with all things fantasy, from the English-pastoral to the quasi-historical to the darkly occult. Page and Plant really made it cool like nobody else did, thanks to being head and shoulders above most of their peers in both the musicianship and charisma departments. Being thundering sex gods really helped sell the fantasy. Led Zeppelin’s music, besides the obvious requirement of being good music, filled the same need that fantasy novels and before them religion-based myths have done; the need to imagine a world of something more.
I do believe that English folk music is about due for another revival. The brief popularity in 60’s/70’s of revivalist groups like Steeleye Span is a hazy memory, vaguely linked to the hippie movement. It barely made a dent in the United States, that’s for sure. There’s definitely an element of willful anachronism in trying to make traditional folk music relevant, a sort of so-uncool-we’re-cooler-than-you attitude of rebellion against modern standards of hipness. It’s very there on the American bluegrass scene. I’m not sure what the equivalent situation in the UK is, but I’m sure there’s some brave folks out there; probably bearded, armed with mandolins and harps, versed in Chaucer-era poetry, just waiting for the market to turn in their favor again.
On days of stress and frustration, where to turn? Perhaps Brian Eno, in a twilight between pure ambiance and pop, is just the man to relax my frazzled mind. There’s something almost symphonic going on here, a dramatic arc that tells the story, in a song with very few words. I find it relaxing, is what I’m trying to say, and more than that, creatively elevating. It’s not about anything but it makes me feel good.
And now, courtesy of Al Stewart, a brief lesson in maritime history. The idea of a sailor’s life doesn’t hold much romance for us anymore, and neither do we care much about the state of the navy, unless we or our loved ones are enlisted in it. Now that oceanfaring is no longer the backbone of most travel, commerce and defense maritime culture has fallen from prominence. Also, ships are a lot less cool than they used to be. The only reminder we have of how important sailing used to be in so many aspects of life is an occasional nautical motif on Ralph Lauren’s spring runway. But remember when the unveiling of a new ship was an event that drew thousands of spectators? When the quality of a nation’s naval force could make or break its political and economic stability? When running off to sea was often a boy’s only path out of the circumstances he was born into? When even a genteel cruise was one thunderstorm or iceberg away from catastrophe? Never thought about it before, have you? Al Stewart is absolutely unparalleled in his ability to make such things interesting. He makes history more than interesting, really. He makes it meaningful.
This just makes me want to break down in a torrent of “they don’t make ’em like that anymore!” like a goddamn old person. And when I say they don’t make ’em like that, I’m talking about Robert Plant’s trousers. When did it stop being fashionable for young men to publicly display every nuance of their package? I guess around the same time that lifestyle magazines stopped publishing full color ads for ivory coke spoons. Nowadays it’s all about the butt cleavage, which I’m less of a fan of. Nobody would call Plant, Page and their peers unsung heroes, but let’s sing their praises yet again; it can’t have been comfortable walking around like that all day long. I mean, denim seams grinding on your dainty bits, ouch. Not to mention the potential adverse health effects. And they did it all for your viewing pleasure. Just look at that selfless display of male pulchritude. What a hero!