Brian Eno’s mid-70’s pop albums – before he went off into ambient noodle land – rank high in the roster of records that serve any mood. The atmospheric tone of his song-songs offers of glimpse of the path he would later explore with his non-song compositions. But there’s also a diversity of moods and tempos that keep those records from becoming too snoozy. Of course, Eno became interested in exploring the concept of snooziness itself, which is what led him to compose all those albums for looking up at the moon or floating in a boat or airports or whatever. I like the records with songs and vocals, and I also like it when music enhances the ambiance of my environment (as opposed to overwhelming it.)
Al Stewart paints a picture of an urban afternoon that I think is quite timeless. Many people are taken with the romance of the pastoral, but city life can be equally enchanting, in its own way. There’s something about the thrum of so many people peacefully going about their own lives, interacting and yet not interacting with one another. It’s not the same as the serenity of being away from so many people, but it’s appealing in its very uneasiness. It’s constantly full of the promise of an adventure – or a misadventure, or even a disaster. Anything could happen. That’s been true for as long as people have been congregating in cities. The poetry of city life may not be its own genre, the way pastoralia is its own cliche, but it’s always been fertile ground for writers and artists. There’s always inspiration, even in squalor.
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.