Sunday, July 31, 2011

On the Origin of Heavy Metal

A few days ago I got an email from Brian Hickam, a librarian/archivist who is a very active figure in the heavy metal studies wing of academia. Brian asked me for some clarification of a passage from my book, This Ain't the Summer of Love, and upon responding I thought that our exchange would make a good blog post. So, with Brian's permission...

Brian wrote to me asking the following:

"On page 10 of your book you say: 'While many have traced the origins of metal back to the 1960s ... to the hyperdistorted sound of bands such as Blue Cheer, I contend that one cannot talk about metal as a genre before 1970, before it was aligned with the concert form that provided a suitable setting for such an oversized sound.'

"I don't necessarily disagree with you, but please comment on what bands in 1970 were doing different from what bands had done on stage in the late 1960s. That is, please expand upon what you mean by 'concert form.' For example, how do the stacks of Marshall amps used by Hendrix and then Blue Cheer factor in as a suitable setting for the 'oversized' sound. How do other factors, such as costumes, stage props, and stage maneuvers factor in?"

Here's what I wrote in return:

"First, I should say that the point I'm making there is in many ways a critical one, meaning that it's directed at other historians of metal who have tried to pinpoint the origins of the genre. I've never been convinced that metal originated with a set of isolated gestures (such as the two I name, the Kinks 'You Really Got Me' or the sound of Blue Cheer). That's not to say I don't think those earlier things contributed to the formation of metal, but in my understanding, a genre doesn't exist until there's enough of a critical mass of things that all seem related to each other that people start to perceive something to be there that wasn't there before. That critical mass didn't exist in 1965 or 1967 or even arguably in 1969, but to my mind it does start to come more to fruition right at the turn of the 1970s. The fact that the term 'heavy metal' doesn't appear in print in anything like its recognized form until 1970/71 only further proves the point for me. While I don't think one can ever definitively draw a line in the sand and say, this is the date after which metal clearly exists as a genre, I'm of the conviction that most of what precedes 1970 belongs to the prehistory of metal, not to the history of metal proper (but I'd be willing to make some exceptions for things like Led Zeppelin's first couple albums, both released in '69).

"Second, as to my specific claim about the importance of the 'concert form,' again, I'm talking about a critical mass of activity, not things that may have happened in isolation. The concert form in question is arena rock, and while it started to emerge in the last couple years of the 1960s, it didn't fully take hold until the new decade. Arena rock is to my mind, first and foremost a matter of venue (arenas and, on occasion, stadiums; there's no meaningful distinction between the two where rock concerts are concerned except for size). Secondly, it's a matter of economics - arena rock is a way of generating more profit through the concert economy, creating a new economy of scale for live music. Thirdly, it's a matter of adapting the aesthetics of concert performance to suit the new scale of the concert arena. Again, this process began in the later 1960s but it's after 1970 that it becomes standardized. Fourthly, and lastly, it's about crowds. Stacks of Marshall amps are one thing, but stacks of Marshall amps combined with 10,000 or more young enthusiastic fans are another, and part of my argument - the part that makes the case for Grand Funk Railroad as a key overlooked early 1970s metal band - is that a big part of what metal as a genre meant at the moment of its emergence was inseparable from what it meant to have 10,000 fans gathering in different arenas night after night from one end of the U.S. to the other. Rock festivals may have been bigger but they didn't happen so routinely. It's the routine character of arena rock, the fact that it's so big all the time, that makes it into something that seemed different from what came before; and the number of metal bands that took to the arena from early on and that seemed to have a sound so perfectly suited to the new concert form, gave metal a degree of coherence as a genre that it didn't have prior to that point."

Those wanting more elaboration can check out my book - follow this link to read the full text of the introduction, which includes the quote that sparked Brian's curiosity. Or leave a comment below, of course.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A New Anthology on Punk and Race

There's a really fascinating looking new anthology just published by Verso, titled White Riot: Punk and the Politics of Race.

I'm really happy to have an essay included in the collection, which is an anthology of previously published writing. The editors, Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay, chose to include an excerpt from my essay on the MC5, "Kick out the Jams! The MC5 and the Politics of Noise." It's pretty cool to have old work being recognized like this, especially since it was actually the first thing I ever published - it originally appeared in the collection, Mapping the Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory, then appeared in slightly edited form in my first book, Instruments of Desire. This piece of mine has had a more interesting life than most.

I haven't yet gotten my hands on a copy of the new book - am awaiting the arrival of my comp copy - but it looks great from the table of contents, which you can see on the book's Amazon page (link is above). Its release makes me reflect on my own recent book on metal and punk, This Ain't the Summer of Love. I went back and forth as to whether discussion of race should be a significant part of the book, and ultimately decided to downplay it in favor of other issues. I'm still pretty comfortable with my decision in this regard, but there's definitely a part of me that feels like I missed an opportunity to take on some oft-ignored questions concerning how race informs genres like metal and punk, so I'm glad that someone else took the lead.

Both metal and punk tend to get pegged pretty straightforwardly as "white" genres, and so most commentators just don't bother to say much about how race matters for the players or fans who gravitate toward them. The "whiteness" of these genres is true to a large extent, albeit less overarching than many folks assume. Yet as a certain strain of cultural studies has been arguing since the late 1980s/early 1990s, "whiteness" has as much to do with race as "blackness" or any other similar construction. Answering a question such as, is whiteness only incidental to punk and metal or is it integral to them, is a challenging task but an important one. When the Clash sing that they want a "White Riot," are they issuing a call for racial solidarity, given that their song was so strongly influenced by the efforts of immigrant black Londoners to resist police harassment? If so, why does it have to be a "white riot" - a "riot of our own," as the band asserts? The phrase is so suggestive but it's also slippery, and as with so much popular culture, lends itself to different ways of being heard and understood, some of which might lead in a more racially exclusionary direction than the band ever would have intended.

I could go on (and on and on) about these matters, but I won't. I'm just glad that the anthology White Riot is out, and hope it leads to more open and more complex dialogue around these issues.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bye Bye Pleasant Street Video

Much ink has been spilled (figuratively) in recent years about how the doldrums of the music industry have meant the veritable death knell of the local record store. Thing is, in the peculiar place where I reside, you'd hardly know it. Sure, we lost one longstanding member of the record store fraternity in recent years - Dynamite Records, RIP - but we have three remaining in a town of 30,000. This is a fluke, but it's a good fluke and hopefully one that will last for a good while.

Meanwhile, another trend that seems to be generating less fanfare - at least in the media circles I inhabit - is the death of the local video store. Sure, everyone who cares knows that Blockbuster just went under and that is certainly a sign of the times. But how often do you hear about the smaller, independent video stores of the sort that have been absolutely crucial curators of film culture over the past three decades. I've been lucky enough to live near a few good ones in my time and they always enhance my quality of life, especially when you're living in a town that has no good movie theaters to speak of (i.e. Bowling Green, OH, which sucked for movie theaters but had a great local video store the name of which I cannot remember, but I sure hope it's still alive and kicking).

As of this weekend, we're losing one of these treasured resources locally, as Pleasant Street Video will be effectively closing its doors (you'll still be able to go to the place for a couple weeks but no more new rentals after July 3, from what I understand). Pleasant Street epitomized what makes a locally owned independent store such an important form of living breathing commerce, the sort of thing that no online retailer can approximate, however good its services otherwise. It's a great source for all manner of independent and foreign cinema, as any independent video store worth its salt should be. But, it's also been a veritable community center in a way that very few local retailers truly become. I don't have time now to do it justice, but I can say that even at times when I've gone two months without setting foot in the place, just knowing it was there made me a little bit happier to live where I live. And now that's it's closing, some small part of Northampton won't be the same anymore.

If you're local and not yet clued in, the store's collection is being donated to Forbes Library, which is awesome. But, it also means that the owners are not going to yield any great dividends from the sale of their extensive holdings. To offset the losses, they are accepting sponsors who are willing to pay $8 so that a selected video will be sure to be included in the turnover. If you want to know more, visit their website.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What's in a Name?

Angel, a so-called "pomp metal" band from the '70s, may be one of the least "punk" bands of precisely the moment in time when "punk" became a movement of consequence. Their music is full of synthesizer swells, high-pitched male vocals, power chords and extended guitar solos. All of which makes them a hoot - and also makes it very puzzling that their lead guitarist goes by the name "Punky Meadows." Seriously, Punky? Was this a nod to punk's controversial credibility in what's otherwise a musical context that seems decidedly unpunk? Or just a random turn of phrase with no meaningful connection to the larger punk phenomenon?

(Wikipedia tells us that the man's given name is Edwin Lionel Meadows, but doesn't explain the origins of his stage name.)

I'll leave you to ponder these mysteries of life watching this fine example of Angel in action performing (well, lip-synching) "The Tower," the lead track from their self-titled debut album.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Metal vs. Punk II (?!?)

File this under: my book is but the crest of a wave...

The Middle East Nightclub in Cambridge, MA is readying for an event of clearly epic proportions: an evening called, Metal vs. Punk II, apparently the second (annual?) evening devoted to pitting punk and metal bands against one another to see which genre reigns supreme. My only question is: why the fuck didn't I think of this first? Apart from the fact that I'm not a concert promoter, of course.

Here's a link to a listing and lineup; check the photos, quite hilarious. And the guy on the right (the metal guy) almost kinda looks a little like me, except for the spikes.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How Teaching Made Me a Copyright Criminal

The semester is coming to a close, and none too soon. It's been a bear, for reasons that I won't belabor. But one running theme this semester has been technical difficulties in the classroom. For my class at UMASS, I was placed in a room where the only a/v I had at my disposal was my laptop. No cd player, no dvd player, let alone anything as old fashioned as a turntable - and this in a graduate seminar on popular music! At Smith things were only moderately better. My rock history course met in a room that ostensibly has all that one would need: cd, dvd, turntable, installed computer as well as plugs to accommodate laptops, hell even a vhs player. Problem is, hardly any of it works the way it's supposed to. The turntable is hooked up to sound like crap, same with the laptop jacks, the dvd player loses audio out of one channel, the in-class computer makes a horrible buzz whenever you turn the volume up past barely audible. So that basically leaves you with a CD player. Awesome - not! So much for being at a school with a $1 billion + endowment...

The upshot of all this is that, not being able to play vinyl in class, and refusing to pay for music I already own - and having to work with a music library that's done a good job purchasing stuff I need for class but still has its gaps - I've had to resort to so-called "illegal" downloading on a regular basis. Not that I think anything I've done should actually be considered illegal, but that's a topic for another post. And not that having downloaded a bunch of music for free is anything that deserves congratulations - in this day and age it's a given. What I find ironic is that I was pretty much forced into the situation of doing so by the horrendously inadequate technical facilities provided in the classrooms where I taught.

This is doubly ironic in that, old school music consumer that I am, I've generally been disinclined to make digital music into something I use on a regular basis. I've posted along these lines but it's worth reiterating: I like vinyl. I still buy vinyl, as well as CD's. I buy a lot of music in physical form, and I prefer to buy my music in that form and to listen to it in that form. I don't like headphones and portability is all but irrelevant to my listening habits. I am the kind of consumer that is allowing the record industry to have some sort of continued solvency, and yet...when all is said and done, I find that there are many situations in which I basically need to go online to troll around for free music because otherwise my options for acquiring the things I need are too limited and expensive.

Besides taking the opportunity to vent about a situation that I find very frustrating, this story seems to me worth telling because it provides something of a parable of the contradictions involved in being a professor of popular music. It's my job to try to cultivate a more sophisticated understanding of popular music and the larger media system through which it's produced. But to do so, I need resources of a sort that are pretty common outside the academic setting but far less so inside. Adding to that, it's important for me not to take the supposedly inevitable tide of technological "progress" as a given. Just because the corporations that earn enormous profits from the production of new technologies have deemed some particular item or format to be obsolete doesn't mean that we should all follow suit. Vinyl may be, in the end, just another commodity item, no more no less, but it was also a dominant form in which people experienced music for the better part of a century, and the notion that we should all dispense with our vinyl archives because of changing media is folly.

I find it a matter to despair that academic institutions, ostensibly a site in which we can resist some of the gravitational pull of market capitalism in at least a limited degree, are so shortsighted on these matters that it would be possible to have a classroom in a music building that doesn't even have a cd player, let alone a turntable (yes I'm talking to you, UMASS).

This rant is now officially done. For now.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Poly, Goodbye

I just checked my blogroll for the first time all day and saw the bad news, posted by Brian at This Ain't the Summer of Love, that Poly Styrene just passed away due to complications from cancer. Poly (born Marianne Elliott-Said) was one of the great women of punk with a wonderful air raid siren of a voice. She was the lead singer for one of the most creative bands to emerge from the British punk scene of the late '70s, X-Ray Spex, and she wrote some of the most trenchant lyrics of any punk songwriter, questioning the daily rituals of consumerism that give us all a sense that our identities have been manufactured for us by some large impersonal system. Anyone reading this who has not heard the X-Ray Spex album Germfree Adolescents, stop reading and go find a copy to listen to now. You won't regret it.

Meanwhile, in memory, here's a rockin' video performance of the band playing their pivotal first single, "Oh Bondage Up Yours!" An anthem for female rockers everywhere...