Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Year in Lists: Week Thirteen

By Jordan

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger’s quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

“As influential in that decade [the ‘70s] as The Beatles were in the prior one.”-The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, on Led Zeppelin

“Like it or not, this guy’s going to be around for a while.”-Mark Coleman of Rolling Stone, on Morrisey, in a review for The Queen is Dead

The examination of music in all its incarnations (or at least as many as the three list contributors have decided to throw at me) that has made up this column to date has already allowed us to discuss the legendary status we tend to bestow on rock musicians and the sort of style, behavior, and philosophy that tends to be called “punk rock.” This week, along with the examination of the four albums I have been served up, I want to look at the iconography of three different “groups,” try to determine what makes each of them unique and how the band’s we look at today fit into them, and finally, what they have given music in general. This week on My Year in Lists, let’s take a look at the rock band, the avante garde “collective,” and the “alternative” band.

I have already spent enough words (for the moment anyway) on how musicians become legends and how we tend to mythologize them until they are rendered somehow larger than life. This is certainly true of solo artists, and in fact Jimi Hendrix was the reason I originally mentioned the phenomenon in this space, but it is arguably even more true of bands. Think of The Beatles and you are sure to think of the rivalries and divergent intentions that drove them apart. This is the only reason that anyone still remembers the name Yoko Ono as far as I’m concerned. When you think of the quintessential rock band, there are certain things that are unavoidable. Perhaps central to this idea is that the band will party incredibly hard, creating a wave of completely insane tour stories in their wake. Part of being a rock star is getting to do completely insane things and reasonably expecting no consequences as a result. If you’re a rock star, doing ridiculous shit all the time is right there in your job description.

Perhaps no band encapsulates this idea better than Led Zeppelin. Formed in 1968, the band consisted of guitarist Jimmy Page, singer Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham and bassist John Paul Jones. Considered the progenitors of hard rock and heavy metal, the band refused to release any singles in the UK, as they preferred to develop “album oriented rock.”

The band initially got together as Page’s prior band The Yardbirds fell apart. The Yardbirds played their final gig in July of 1968 in Bedfordshire, England but were still committed to several dates in Scandinavia. It was left to Page and bassist Chris Dreja to form a new line-up to fulfill the obligation. Page went to Terry Reid to become the new singer, but he declined, recommending Robert Plant instead. When Plant joined up, he suggested bringing in John Bonham on drums. And when Dreja eventually dropped out to become a photographer (later taking the picture that appeared on the back of Led Zeppelin’s first album) John Paul Jones contacted Page about the vacancy.

Upon returning from their Scandinavia dates, the band began recording as The New Yardbirds, until receiving a cease and desist letter from Dreja, who claimed Page was only authorized to use the name for the Scandinavian dates. Their new name came from a joke Keith Moon made when Page suggested the formation of a super-group containing Page, Moon, John Entwistle, and Jeff Beck. Moon supposedly quipped that the outfit would “go over like a lead balloon.” The group dropped the ‘a’ in lead at the suggestion of manager Peter Grant to prevent “thick Americans” from pronouncing it “leed.” The balloon was changed to zeppelin to create a more theatrical name, a combination of heavy and light, combustibility and grace.

The band’s first three albums were hugely successful and influential (though Led Zeppelin III was released to mixed reviews initially). During the tour for Led Zeppelin II, the band developed their now legendary reputation for excess, including the “shark episode” that allegedly occurred at the Edgewater Inn in Seattle on July 28, 1969. Though the occurrence of the event has never been confirmed, it is alleged that some members of the band or their entourage (the story usually claims it was John Bonham or road manager Richard Cole) had a red haired girl tied to the bed and proceeded to penetrate her with a fish, either a shark, a mudshark, or a red snapper (Cole claims it was the latter, to match with her red hair, and also ensures that the woman was consenting and enjoyed the act). Regardless of what happened that night, Zeppelin was later banned from the hotel after catching some 30 mudsharks (you were allowed to fish from the windows of the hotel at that time) during a stay in 1973 and leaving them under beds, in closets, on elevators, in hallways, in bathtubs, and virtually all over their rooms.

By the dawn of the 1970’s Led Zeppelin was one of the most commercially successful and influential groups in the world. The band began to wear flamboyant clothing, travel on a private jet nicknamed The Starship, and rent out entire sections of hotels (including the Continental Hyatt House in LA, which fans of Almost Famous will recall was known as the Riot House). They have since become the subject of many of rock and roll’s most famous stories of debauchery including John Bonham riding a motorcycle through a floor of the Riot House, the utter destruction of a room inside the Tokyo Hilton that resulted in a ban from the hotel, and, oh yeah, that time they maybe fucked a girl with a shark.

This sort of reputation has become a part of the rock and roll mythos, and part of being a true rock legend is having a slew of stories about your insane excess, complete debauchery, and eccentric habits both sexual and otherwise. To be a “rock band” the way we like to romanticize the term, it is necessary to be just a little bit insane in one way or another, to party hard, to live hard, to break the rules, or in some cases to just break the hotel room you’re staying in.

Led Zeppelin released their fourth album, and Collin’s pick this week, on November 8,1971 with no indication of a title or band name on the cover. The band was tired of being called “overrated” and “hyped” by music magazines and intended to prove their music could sell itself without a name attached to it. The album is most commonly referred to as IV (which is what I’ll be calling it), but is also known as Four Symbols, The Fourth Album, Untitled, Zoso, Runes, and Led Zeppelin IV. And in case you’re curious, it answers the age old question, “would an album by any other name rock as hard?” with a full throated yes.

The album is one of the best selling of all time, tying Pink Floyd’s The Wall for the third best selling album in the United States. IV is filled to the brim with classic Zeppelin songs, and true to their intent of making “album rock,” it flows together incredibly well. The second track “Rock and Roll” remains one of the band’s best known songs. Reportedly written during a jam session, it is one of the few Led Zeppelin songs where all four members share a composer credit.



The album also features easily the band’s most well known and well regarded song, one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded, “Stairway to Heaven.” Written by Page and Plant, the song is a perfect mixture of mysticism and cynicism, acoustic and hard rock, melody and meaning. Allegations of Satanic influence and backward masking aside (though personally, I think the idea that the band had a pact with the Devil just makes the song even more rock and roll) “Stairway” is one of the greatest rock songs of all time, open to endless interpretations (including the time I used it in high school English as an allegory for Dante’s Inferno and the protagonist’s spiritual ascendance toward his beloved Beatrice) and only becoming enriched by repeated listens.



“Misty Mountain Hop” is a medium tempo rock song opening with John Paul Jones on electric piano. The song is seemingly about an encounter with the police after smoking marijuana in a park, but the Misty Mountains, to geeks the world over, also appear to be a reference to The Hobbit. I’ve never been a huge Tolkien man myself (I have plenty of other geek obsessions to fill my time), but I fully support a little Bilbo Baggins in my rock and roll. “Going to California” is a wistful folk song in contrast to the rest of the album’s heavy rock sounds. Plant describes the song as summing up the period in his life when the band had just formed and he was struggling to find himself “… in the midst of all the craziness of California and the band and the groupies…” Whatever the origin, the song is a quiet respite in the middle of a raging storm, an introspective moment on an album more focused on epic grandeur than on the wheel’s spinning in the minds of the band.





The final track on the album, “When the Levee Breaks” is a return to that storm. Originally written and recorded by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie in 1929 as a reaction to the upheaval caused by the Great Mississippi flood of 1927, Zeppelin transforms the song into a darkly epic rocker with a distinctive drum beat, driving guitars, and a wailing harmonica, all meant to symbolize the relentless storm threatening to break the levee. Even though the song is currently being tarnished by being featured in the trailer for Zack Snyder’s newest abomination Sucker Punch, it retains its power as a near perfect closer to an excellent album.





The band disbanded in 1980 after the death of Bonham, but their reputation continues, as they remain the second best selling band of all time in the United States (behind The Beatles of course). Zeppelin are the forefathers of heavy metal and hard rock, influencing Black Sabbath, Megadeth, Queen, Rush, The Ramones, The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, and existing as one of the best examples of an iconic rock band at the same time.

Turning our attention now to the slightly more nebulous idea of the “avante garde collective,” we look at The Residents, who have released 60 albums since 1972. The individual members of the group prefer to remain anonymous, instead keeping the focus on their artistic output. In public, the group appears silent and costumed, often wearing eyeball helmets, top hats, and tuxedos. Their albums are generally deconstructions of Western popular music and/or complex conceptual pieces composed around a theme, theory or plot. They are noted for their surrealistic lyrics, experimental sound, and disregard for conventional musical composition. Over the next three weeks, we will examine seven albums by The Residents, all picks by Tab, and along the way try to wrap our heads around avante garde music and its place within the larger musical spectrum.

The Residents supposedly hail from Shreveport, Louisiana where they met in high school in the 1960’s. In 1966, the members allegedly headed west to San Francisco, breaking down and choosing to remain in San Mateo. All information pertaining to the early days of the band is provided by The Cryptic Corporation (the organization that serves as a “front” for the band) and may be entirely invented. The band began making tapes in 1969, refusing to let a complete lack of musical proficiency stand in the way. Little is officially known about the groups early output (there are rumors that they created anywhere between two and hundreds of recordings in these early years that remain unreleased).

In 1971 the group sent a reel-to-reel tape to Hal Halverstadt at Warner Bros., since he had worked with Captain Beefheart, a personal hero of the group. Halverstadt was not impressed, calling the album “okay at best.” Because the band had not included a name on the return address, the rejection slip was addressed to The Residents, which quickly became the band’s name. The Residents’ first performance was at The Boarding House in San Francisco in 1971. That same year they released a tape entitled Baby Sex. The original cover for the tape was a silk screened copy of an old photo depicting a woman fellating a small child. Only considered artistically rude at the time, the cover would today be viewed (rightly) as child pornography.

The band released their first album and Tab’s first pick this week, Meet The Residents, in 1974. The cover of the album is a parody of Meet The Beatles! with the faces of each member of The Beatles defaced in some way. EMI and Capitol Records threatened to sue, but it is rumored that George Harrison and Ringo Starr loved the cover and both bought copies. Later re-releases changed the cover but kept the parody going on the back, listing The Residents as “John Crawfish, George Crawfish, Paul McCrawfish and Ringo Starfish” with illustrations of the sea creatures wearing early Beatles suits. The original pressing sold only forty copies in its first year with most being returned unopened, and it’s no wonder. Meet The Residents is an aggressively alienating work from the start; strange, cacophonous, and seemingly surreal for oddness’ sake alone.

Endlessly weird and certainly hard to recommend, Meet The Residents actually begins to work on repeat listens, building slowly from brief sonic experiments (the first six tracks are all under two minutes long) and slowly accruing emotional power as the songs get longer. The opening track “Boots” is a riff on “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” with the lyrics being repeated throughout while ambient sounds and wails interlude. The song ends with a piano drone that leads directly into “Numb Erone,” a piano beat that qualifies as downright catchy by The Residents standards. The album continues like this until “Rest Aria,” which, with its mournful, dour piano that slowly allows a multitude of other sounds to spill in, comes off as shockingly melodic.







The back half of the album is full of longer, more expressive songs, from the jazzy and dark “Infant Tango” which would feel at home in Tom Waits' repertoire, to “Seasoned Greetings,” a song with subtle and shocking emotional power. Downbeat and depressive in a resonant way, the mostly instrumental song is clearly supposed to express the loneliness that can be felt during the holiday season, ending with entreaties to the whole family to have a Merry Christmas. It feels like a cynic’s slow realization of the meaning of the holiday, and as the album’s penultimate track, it does the job of adding emotional resonance to an album that could have felt hollow otherwise.





While the second album we’re examining from them this week, Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? wasn’t released until 1984, it was the result of a project the group began in 1972. The group wanted to shoot a film called Vileness Fats, telling the story mostly through music. The film would have been about a village under siege by bandits stealing their meat supply, forcing them to subsist on vegetables. The leader of the bandits is, unbeknownst to the villagers, their own leader. The village hires Siamese twin tag team wrestlers to be their saviors while the wrestlers deal with an Indian Princess whose lovers always die. Sounds like a surreal version of Seven Samuraito me.



Despite shooting over 14 hours of footage, the film was never finished. In 1984, the movie was edited and released as Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? with the album serving as the film’s soundtrack. The title track is a decidedly creepy introduction to the world the group is developing, while “Adventures of a Troubled Heart” has a more atmospheric feel to it. “The Importance of Evergreen” is a repetitive funhouse melody that becomes darker before settling into a jazz beat and concluding with an eerie spoken-word piece. Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? feels less accomplished than Meet the Residents, but that may just be because it was never properly finished.







Considering we’ll be spending two more weeks with the band and many more on the experimental movement over the course of this year, I feel it would be premature to attempt to determine what makes up an iconic avante garde band, but suffice to say that an anonymous collective working on surreal movies and putting out dozens of albums while only appearing in eyeball helmets, top hats, and tuxedos has to fit the bill.

After watching the “alternative” movement build from the punk underground over the past thirteen weeks, I have a decent idea what makes an iconic alternative band, and it’s an outsider vibe that allows the band to feel like society’s rejects even as it attains mild to moderate critical and commercial success. Formed in Manchester in 1982, The Smiths are a perfect example of this conception of an alternative band. Centered on the songwriting partnership of vocalist Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, the band was rounded out by Andy Rourke on bass and Mike Joyce on drums.

Their self-titled debut was a huge success, as was the much more political follow up Meat is Murder (guess what the message was). Their third studio album, and Ashley’s pick this week, The Queen is Deadwas released on June 23 1986 and is popularly regarded as The Smiths’ best album. The title track, based on a song Marr had written in high school, is a rollicking opener aimed to announce the band’s return from a brief hiatus.



“Frankly Mr. Shankly,” written by Morrissey and Marr is reported to have been addressed to Geoff Travis, head of the band’s record label Rough Trade. Travis admits the line in the song about “bloody awful poetry” is a reference to a poem he had written to Morrissey. “I Know It’s Over” fits nicely into The Smiths standard feeling of romantic melancholy, telling the story of a dejected man reeling from the end of a relationship he intellectually knows never really began in the first place.





“Cemetry Gates,” misspelled presumably because of the way Morrissey pronounces the word, is another song that fits directly into the band’s wheelhouse, about two people fleeing from a sunny day by hanging out in a cemetery, reading tombstones, discussing Keats and Yates, and debating the fairness of mortality. “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” my personal favorite song on the album, is perhaps the apex of Morrissey’s angst-ridden lyrics, about two lovers driving together to escape their lives, perfectly satisfied by the idea that they will die together in a car crash.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knM7ow5vMPA



The closing track on the album, “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others” opens with a fade in and out before finally fading back in to create the effect of opening a door, closing it, then opening it again and entering a room. The song is often singled out for the fact that Morrissey took a beautiful melody by Marr and wrote such a funny, frivolous song over it.



Called the most important alternative rock band to emerge from the British Independent music scene in the ‘80s, the band has influenced a number of alternative rock bands including James, the Cranberries, Belle & Sebastian, Oasis, The Stone Roses, The Libertines, Suede, and Blur.

The rock band becomes iconic often through excess and debauchery, the avante garde band by stepping as far off the path as possible, and the “alternative” band by branding themselves as outsiders, loners who just want to be accepted. Each of these paths leads to mythologizing, and each is created more by our collective imagination of what a band in that mold might be like than what the bands who contributed to the image actually were like. Whether by rocking out and defiling women with sea creatures, by hiding out and creating works of imminent strangeness, or by standing off to the side hoping someone will notice their pain and sadness, each of these bands contributed to our idea of what a band of their type should be like, and in the process, solidified their place in the annals of music history.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Next on My Year in Lists:
David Bowie details The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, The Residents mess with our ideas about pop music on The Third Reich ‘N Roll and Duck Stab, and Dinosaur Jr. is worried that You’re Living All Over Me.

Want to keep tabs on all of our updates? follow us on twitter @reviewtobenamed (follow us here).

2 comments:

  1. Is Not Available on your list of Residents albums? The music on it sounds like it comes from another dimension. IMO, it and Meet the Residents are masterpieces.

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  2. Unfortunately, no. You can look for my thoughts on The Thir Reich N' Roll and Duck Stab/Buster & Glen tomorrow, and for my look at God in Three Persons, Diskomo/Goosebumps and Wormwood next week. Thanks for reading!

    Jordan

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