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.