Saturday, July 11, 2009

For those who were wondering, Anvil! The Story of Anvil was not a letdown. Hell, I'd say it was the feel-good movie of the summer. Who knew a movie about two 50+ year old heavy metal musicians could be so touching? But it was, and thanks to the audience who turned out for the event and had such good questions and comments to offer.

I am about to leave for Liverpool, England, to go to the biannual IASPM (International Association for the Study of Popular Music) conference. Should be a good time, though of course, I'm also a little nervous. I'll be giving a paper (Tuesday morning), chairing a panel (sometime on Thursday), and I'll be taping a BBC Merseyside radio show where me and a few other folks from the conference will be speaking to the subject of popular music, in front of a small live audience. A busy week, but I should be able to fit some Beatles tourism in there somewhere.

The blog will likely be silent while I'm gone. But in anticipation of my silence, here's some of that unpublished writing on the New York Dolls that I promised a couple posts ago.

* * *

Writing about the Dolls in 1978, after the group’s demise and in the midst of the more widely recognized “punk” explosion, Robert Christgau paid homage to Johnny Thunders as one of the key elements of the band that made their music run with an almost unnerving energy. According to Christgau, Thunders’ main contribution to rock was “buzzsaw guitar charismatic enough to vie with heavy-metal fuzz in the hearts of rock and rollers everywhere,” and this buzzsaw quality was something that Thunders derived in large part from Ron Asheton of the Stooges and Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5. Christgau went on to contrast the approach of these guitarists to that of heavy metal musicians who often were “simply responding to the call of the vocal line with a neat, standardized electroshock phrase that incorporated both factory-approved sound effects and natural feedback. Not that there was no galvanic spillover --” Christgau continued:

"amplifiers were molested until they screamed in conspicuously unpredictable revolt. But for Asheton and Kramer and Smith [and Thunders] spillover was the be-all and end-all. Exploiting their own continuous, imprecise finger action a lot more than the fuzzbox, they threw together an environment of electric noise with which everything else had to contend, replacing the deracinated call-and-response of heavy metal with music that was pure white riot."

By 1978, the Dolls had been elevated to principal precursors of the musical and cultural eruption that had been instigated by the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and a host of others, which will be the subject of the next chapter. Christgau clearly perceived the Dolls through this lens, and uses Thunders to construct a genealogy of out-of-bounds guitar style that not only paved the way for the later crystallization of something like a punk musical style, but also significantly deviated from the established terms of early 1970s heavy metal, which he defines as more standardized, more streamlined, less permissive of genuine musical chaos.

This perspective is, to my mind, too much informed by hindsight. Christgau is right to suggest that there was a difference between the guitar styles of Thunders, Asheton, Smith and Kramer and those of, say, Tony Iommi or Jimmy Page. Where I part company with him is in the significance he assigns to that difference. While Christgau would emphasize that the “buzzsaw” approach is a countertradition to metal that paved the way for punk, I would stress that Thunders et. al. were coterminous with the emergence and early development of metal, and that they are as much of that moment as against it. In this sense I would join with Chuck Eddy, who lists the New York Dolls’ debut album as the number six best heavy metal album of all time in his willfully obtuse survey of the genre, Stairway to Hell. Eddy’s explanation of his choice perhaps overstates the case, but is worth considering for the combination of insight and sheer contrarian wit. By his account, “there’s less Never Mind the Bollocks” on the Dolls’ debut “than [Prince’s] Dirty Mind, less Iggy than Madonna, it’s that kind of ├ępater les bourgeois; the sex kind, not the violence kind. Which is to say that though punk-rockers listened in, punks would never have this kind of intestinal fortitude.”

Moreover, for all that Thunders’ guitar style was characterized by something like the “galvanic spillover” emphasized by Christgau, the combination of Thunders and Sylvain also produced some moments of more straightforward but eminently potent and driving force. Nowhere is this more evident than in “Jet Boy,” the song that closes the Dolls’ debut. Combining a comic book scenario lyric about a boy who flies above New York City and stole the singer’s “baby,” background vocals and sound effects reminiscent of nothing so much as early 1960s surf music, and one of the most elaborate “buzzsaw” riffs the Dolls would ever commit to record, “Jet Boy” was a motley whirl of sounds and symbols, the band at their polymorphous best. The song is further propelled by the rapid, powerful beat of Jerry Nolan’s drums, which pushes the band into territory where, as Robert Duncan has noted, the “too loud” of heavy metal was added to “too fast, the heavy metal disintegrating under the impact.” And, which makes the break that occurs after the song’s second chorus all the more disorienting.

“Jet Boy” has a continual start-and-stop dynamic, the verses chugging along at a consistent clip, the chorus temporarily slowing the song’s progress, only to regather momentum for the next verse. Following the second chorus, however, the song grinds more completely to a halt. Into the ensuing quiet, Johansen sings an unaccompanied “My baby” that is full of ambiguity as to the nature of his object of desire; and then the guitars return to the song in hyperdrive. Sylvain leads the charge, playing a terse riff built around a basic set of gestures: the open A string of the guitar pounded with an even, repeated motion, to be interrupted at the start of each bar by a quick shift to a barre chord at the fifth fret. Harmonically, the riff is tinged with uncertainty; the barre chord is voiced in C but the open A string sounds over it, conveying a short-lived sense of irresolution. Rhythmically, though, it is intensively consistent, all the more so after the remaining instruments return to the song following two unaccompanied repetitions. What had been “too fast” during the verses becomes even faster during the break. Meanwhile, Thunders’ guitar plays off the insistence of Sylvain’s core riff, entering with a full-fledged Berry-esque double-stop in A, and mining similarly constricted melodic terrain for the first several bars. Eventually he doubles Sylvain’s throbbing A string, creating a two-guitar attack that is far less directed towards spillover than unity of purpose. Breaking away once again, Thunders plays a simple two-note melody that alternates between G and G flat and rings out over the other instruments, creating an added touch of melodic tension that signals the end of the instrumental break and a return to the chorus. The combined efforts of Thunders and Sylvain throughout the midsection of “Jet Boy” turn the song into one of the transformative statements of early 1970s rock, a song in which the ragged musicianship of the Dolls was put in the service of a more streamlined sort of musical power. Neither metal nor punk in any exclusive measure, “Jet Boy” was heavy rock reinventing itself through the inverted logic of New York glam.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Steve,

    In January, you wrote:
    "Or, a debate that was held at my high school between the head of ROTC and one of the school's history teachers, about whether war was a good or a bad thing. Hats off to the history teacher, Jim Huchthausen (not sure if I've spelled his name right), because if I remember correctly he was a veteran of Vietnam and he had the nerve and good sense to get up in front of that conservative student body and say some straight-up things about why war is hell. But the head of ROTC was as hawkish as you'd expect, and the responses he elicited from the crowd were scary."
    I certainly remember you as an outstanding student and am happy to hear that I have influenced some students. I'm retired after 33 years of teaching and live on the Central Coast in CA. I see from your profile that you're doing great! Congrats!
    -Jim Huchthausen (aka Mr. Huck)

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