Tuesday, April 21, 2009

ItalicI’m long overdue for another blog post, so I think it’s time for another entry elaborating on one of my best rock books of all time (for the full list check my entry for Feb. 18, 2009).

This time around it’s Chuck Eddy, Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe. I’m talking about the original 1991 edition, not the updated edition released a few years later that had an additional 100 entries on best metal of the ‘90s. I’m sure that one’s good too, but I wasn’t going to spend another round of cash for another 100 reviews.

Besides, part of what made the first edition of Stairway to Hell so great was precisely its focus on metal in the 1970s and 1980s. These were metal’s key years after all, the years when metal recreated the terms according to which rock existed as a form of mass culture. From the early 1990s forward, however great metal has remained musically, it has fundamentally changed in the breadth of its appeal, having been segmented into increasingly specialized micro-genres that hang together loosely under the rubric of extreme metal. While some good metal histories have been written that link the different phases of the genre’s development together from beginning to end (Ian Christe’s Sound of the Beast probably being the current standard-bearer in this regard), post-1990 metal really occupies its own sphere, whereas the 1970s and 1980s contain a more continuous thread between them.

Disguised as one of the most tried and true of rock critic conceits – an extensive “best of” list, the likes of which have become the bread-and-butter of VH1’s musical programming, of various Rolling Stone special issues, my own list of best rock books ever written, etc. – Stairway to Hell is actually a series of overlapping arguments put forward in the form of a series of record reviews. Eddy says as much, in a characteristically sardonic way, in the last line of his acknowledgments: “Read closely, and you’ll be able to tear my thesis all to hell. If you can find it, that is.”

Well, I think I found it, and here’s what I think it is:

1. Heavy metal is best when it’s good time rave-up party music. All those bands that wear black leather and display an infatuation with symbols of power and darkness are really boring and have pretensions that don’t belong in heavy metal, and that drag the genre down. Yes, Chuck Eddy is talking to you, Judas Priest, and you, Iron Maiden (both of whom I actually really like, but Eddy makes a point of excluding both bands from his list).

2. Following from the above, heavy metal has the hidden potential to be great dance music, which a few select artists have recognized over the years and that will be the genre’s great salvation. How else to explain the inclusion of Teena Marie and Jimmy Castor albums among Eddy’s top ten heavy metal records of all time? Or all those Funkadelic albums strewn throughout the book? But hey, Eddy is open about this one. One of the final sections of the book is entitled, “Reasons Disco-Metal Fusion Is Inevitable in the Nineties.”

3. Heavy metal may have achieved its greatest commercial successes in the 1980s, but its artistic peak came in the 1970s. As he says in the books introductory overview: “1970-73 were the Years of Sludge … This was a time of snowplow quagmires and speed-freak excesses, with major labels snatching up every trio of un-haircut degenerates whose stink they could sniff out … By the time I entered high school in late ’73, metal was kinda sorta already over.” Of course, it wasn’t actually over at all, but Eddy’s celebration of the early 1970s as a key era of musical creativity went a long way towards reclaiming the significance of that previously much-maligned period.

4. Perhaps most importantly, heavy metal mattered way more than people thought it did, and punk conversely didn’t matter as much as people thought it did. Eddy messes with musical categories throughout his book, but one of the primary streams of thought running through the reviews is that the best metal did everything that punk was supposed to have done and more. Thus, the following from his review of Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic, which ranks at #4 on his list: “Five skinny guys speed off New England’s streets with the sleaziest and sassiest set of sex-swagger ever assembled, hauling in almost a million dollars a month in the process. From the startgate the frustration and fury dash so dang fast; after this, punk couldn’t possibly have mattered, no way.” That Eddy places several albums by punk or proto-punk bands high up on his list (New York Dolls, Adverts, Dictators, MC5, Stooges, Sex Pistols all appear in the top 30) suggests that his vision of metal isn’t shared by all, but it also suggests that the boundaries between metal and punk are far more porous than many would like to acknowledge.

I rate this book so highly for two main reasons. First, I’ve bought a ton of great music based on Eddy’s reviews in this book, music I probably wouldn’t have discovered so readily otherwise (it’s Eddy who led me to the Dictators after all). Second, while I disagree with quite a lot of what Eddy says, no book I know demonstrates so well that music genres are subject to all varieties of interpretation, and that it’s precisely the capacity of a genre like “heavy metal” to encompass so many different sounds and definitions that makes it something worth caring about.

(And if you want a good laugh, check out the reviews of Eddy's book on Amazon, where angry metalheads rant about his rankings.)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

This summer will be the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock. I've put together some thoughts about the anniversary which the folks at Smith are planning to send out as a press release, to try to stir up some further attention for This Ain't the Summer of Love. Given the book's preoccupation with the end of the '60s and what it meant for rock, and given how much time I spend thinking about rock in general, I think I'm in a good position to hold forth. In the spirit of sharing, here's the text of the press release. It's only the beginning of a conversation on the subject - anyone with some thoughts on the matter should feel free to share them here.

1) What is the meaning of the anniversary?

The anniversary is an occasion to look back on the connection between rock music and the counterculture of the 1960s. In part, it’s an opportunity to recall a lot of great music and musicians, some of whom are no longer with us anymore, such as Jimi Hendrix, and some of whom are still very much with us, such as Carlos Santana and Neil Young. But it’s also an opportunity to think about the ways in which rock music, or any form of music, can create a sense of collective purpose. To what extent did the roughly half a million people who attended Woodstock share a common social or political vision? To what extent was their connection grounded in something more than rock music itself? These are questions about which it’s easy to be either nostalgic (“We were all one, man!”) or cynical (“Just a bunch of hippies getting high and listening to rock!”). The real answer to those questions, though, is not a simple one, and it’s something to take seriously, because it has a lot to tell us about how music shapes our values and maybe makes it possible for us to relate to each other in ways we wouldn’t otherwise.

2) What was the significance of Woodstock?

The late cultural critic Ellen Willis described Woodstock as the culmination of a dream of mass freedom that had arisen in the years after World War II and was connected to rock and roll. Mass freedom meant that people believed they could best achieve their fullest freedom in the context of a group, rather than isolated, as individuals. At Woodstock, it was precisely the coming together of so many thousands of young people that gave the event its power, and that power was at once symbolic and real. People there felt a sense of connection, and felt that the connection was tied to something bigger than the fact that there was a big rock festival going on. It was tied to youth, above all, but it was tied to a particular image of youth as a part of the population who could transform the existing cultural and political order, could potentially create the basis for a culture in which peace was valued over war, in which pleasure was valued over productivity, and in which rules and conventions were not to be followed if they were found to be corrupt.

At the same time, Woodstock also showed, in a less utopian vein, that one could gather enormous crowds of young people together at once and not have a catastrophe follow. This was an important lesson for the music industry, which at the end of the 1960s was still trying to figure out how best to capitalize on the enormous audience that existed for rock. After Woodstock, rock concerts grew larger and larger in size; there was less need for festivals after a certain point, because concerts were routinely happening in arenas and stadiums that held thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people. So Woodstock also contributed to the further incorporation of rock into the profit-making structures of the music industry.

3) What happened to rock music in the years that followed?

Well, most immediately, about four months after Woodstock came Altamont, the large festival outside San Francisco organized by the Rolling Stones, which was marked by some bad vibes due to the presence of a row of Hell’s Angels in front of the stage, and culminated in the widely publicized death of a young black man, Meredith Hunter. Altamont made the achievement of Woodstock seem to many a fluke, and made crowds of young people seem dangerous again. The shift from festivals to arena and stadium concerts that occurred in the 1970s was in many ways driven by concerns over crowd control as much as by concerns over profit. It’s easier to maintain order in a space that’s enclosed and has clear boundaries around it, where people sit in rows.

More broadly, rock’s connection to its young audience changed. This was partly because some of rock’s audience was no longer so young; people who had come of age through the countercultural years of the late 1960s were now entering their twenties and were looking for music that was still rock but that was more “mature.” Meanwhile, younger fans were looking for something they could call their own, and so a generation gap of sorts began to emerge within rock rather than between rock and other styles of popular music. This is where new genres like heavy metal and punk come into play, as forms of rock that are still very much concerned with the relationship between rock and youth, and that try to reimagine what kinds of communal or collective identity rock might create in the wake of the sixties counterculture. That, in effect, is what my new book, This Ain’t the Summer of Love, is about.


My reading last night was awesome - great turnout, great vibe, many books sold. Thanks to all who came, and thanks to Ronnie at Dynamite for allowing it to happen there. I hope to have some pictures to post soon.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

My reading is tomorrow, and I'm still trying to figure out what parts of the book to read. Holly says I shouldn't try to show off by playing guitar during the reading, and I guess she's right although it's still a tempting thought to throw a little "Eruption"-style finger tapping into the mix. But, doing so would mean having to drag my guitar and amp to Dynamite Records, and that's not something I want to try to deal with, so I'll probably keep things a little less demonstrative.

Today in class I had one of those odd moments that only happens when you teach a History of Rock course at a school like Smith. One of the college's big benefactors, who has donated a lot of money to the music department, was visiting campus today, and I had been told that she might be coming to my class. I don't know this woman, except that I gather that she's a classical pianist, and also presumably quite wealthy, two things that don't immediately suggest someone who's going to find a session of rock history the most amusing pastime (excuse me for generalizing). Sure enough, just as class was starting, in walks the benefactor, accompanied by a man whose connection to her I didn't catch and someone from Smith's advancement office, leading them on their tour of campus.

All of this is fine, but today happened to be the day that I was teaching about disco. That means I spent most of the first half hour of class talking about gay liberation in NYC in the late 1960s and early 1970s and how early dance clubs in the city were tied to the sexual politics of that moment, and similar such things. I have no idea what the visiting benefactor and her posse thought, but I know they left after only half an hour. I was relieved they left, though, especially since I was poised to play the full 17 minute version of Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby," the song during which Summer spends half of her vocal simulating orgasm (I actually only played 11 minutes, much to the students' relief).