Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Friday, Jul 18, 2008
"Let no one imagine that in owning a recording he has the music." -- John Cage

A partial digression from my previous post.


The summer of 2000 was when I first discovered Napster. After a bit of peer pressure, I was persuaded to download the software and start searching out MP3s, which were a new technology to me but not one that was completely esoteric. I had downloaded a few of them at tiny bitrates off the unofficial Tool web site to hear some their rarer, less available tracks. To my impressionable 18-year-old brain, it didn’t even occur to me that Napster’s services could be illegal or that they might even cause a wrinkle in the long-term spacetime continuum of music. At a 33k dialup connection, I could retrieve around one song per day before I started making significant dents in the phone bill. Without a CD burner at my disposal, I connected an ¼ inch connector cable from my computer’s speakers to my tape recorder and transferred 20 or so of the songs I downloaded onto a cassette so that I could play them in my car. It seemed no different at the time than taping those songs off the radio, except that I got to choose what the radio played.


Napster materialized as an ideal space to indulge my quirky tastes. I downloaded the Eminem song only available on the “clean” version of The Marshall Mathers LP, songs off the Transformers: The Movie soundtrack that I had been listening to diegetically since childhood, the Moby remix of “Beat It” I knew I’d never elsewise hear,  the Airwolf theme song I’d been humming for years but which no one I knew could validify, and many of the songs I’d heard and enjoyed in the pre-Amazon years through sound samples at the call service 1-800 Music-Now. Far be it for me to prognosticate the collapse off the behemoth music industry, I thought that Napster might have actually been doing the job of the major labels for them. Not only by promoting artists, but by eliminating the need for bootlegs, which at the time were running $40 or so for a single disc of live and/or rare material by major artists (which was still a bargain compared to tracking down overpriced imports) and, the companies claimed, hurting their sales significantly. As I continued to spend all the money earned from my summer job as a smoothie salesman on music, this previously illicit or overpriced material was the stuff I went for first on the free Napster service.


Looking back at all this now, it seems like a different world. Music thievery is practically a full-time job to some downloaders, who load up 800G external drives full of music that it would take a lifetime to sort through, let alone appreciate. CD burners come standard on any home computer and you can get five writable CDs for less than a bottled water. Bootlegs are pretty much nonexistent, as are import singles. All the chains I used to peruse in my hometown of Poughkeepsie, NY are gone: The Wall, Media Play, Sam Goody, Record Town, etc. Even the closest indie store I knew, Trash in Danbury, CT, a 40-minute drive from my house and the site of my first vinyl purchase, closed its doors after it was forced out of its location.


When I went off to college, I experienced a minor love-affair with my T1 Connection. Unaware of the speed of technology, I horded all the free music, movies, and software I could, fearing I would soon move off campus and never experience the lightning-fast joys of ethernet cable again. The transfer speeds remained undiminishingly novel as I devoutly watched the bars move across the screen. Within minutes, you could access any song. It was an instant jukebox, a radio station that didn’t suck. More than that, it brought the music closer and it brought all of us lonely freshmen closer together. My roommate Ben assigned a rule to our room; new visitors to 709B Cashin, which turned out to be quite a few people, had to sign his computer with a marker and download a song onto it. These songs got incorporated into his regular playlist and, by proxy, we inherited a little bit of the personality of the campus that year, as spazzcore, happy hardcore, and Shaggy co-mingled with each other.


With Napster, though no one was paying for it, every one was every one else’s Alan Freed. We all introduced each other to some kind of new sonic cultural experience. Detractors may say that all we were doing was stealing music. But that’s only half of the narrative. The larger story is that we were stealing all kinds of music, a shit-ton of it, and expanding our palettes in the process. Hippies were introduced to house, speed-punks found glory in electro and math-rock, hip-hoppers were able to track their roots in funk, and myriad others found out that Radiohead and Aphex Twin didn’t emerge from a bubble. It was the first and perhaps only time that I felt I was part of something important in music. It was not a democratization of music as some idealists still opine, but a full-fledged free-for-all. Anarchy. Autonomy. Freedom. Absolute leisure upon escaping the shackles of market capitalism. It was only forbidden to forbid. The concurrent college and rock star credos of sex, drugs, and music reigned. But you had to pay for drugs. You had to be careful who you slept with. The music just persisted, with or without you.


Yet, it was revolution communicated through the vernacular of mass consumption. Its problems persisted not in process, but in participation. Those downloading music were not all rebels trying to buck a corporate system. Some of them were just byproducts of a “gimmee” culture of entitlement. To them, there was no difference between ripping off the local band who pressed their LP with pocket change better served paying overdue student loans and the stadium giants hawking $25 T-shirts at their $75 concerts so they could harass hotel maintenance staffs and woo college-aged girls who had downloaded their latest album. It was almost a kind of absent-minded dadaist statement. The musician in absentia became the signatory to blame, for trying to make a living off of their art, or for trying to make art in the first place.


As income diminished for most of my fellow state school students, the cost of rising tuition meant that music, moreso perhaps than drugs and alcohol, was seen as something of a luxury item (and to be fair, it is). So why pay for it when you can just as easily get it free? Their market attention went elsewhere, and soon the cult of hegemony began to take notice.


Not everyone gave up so easily. I continued to spend whatever money I could scrounge together on CDs and concert tickets. So did plenty of others. Yet we were all criminals, victims of a pandemic of antisocial behavior. But perhaps that’s what felt so exciting. It was like prohibition, with industry playing the government’s role as moral policeman. As the lunatics had taken over the asylum, it had begun to look like culture at large, so quick to condemn and judge yet so slow to adapt, was our only real disease, our only lasting psychosis. The cure to this illness wasn’t file-sharing. It was the free flow of information and knowledge, the very thing going to college was all about. It was the choice to have musical literacy be part of our curriculum. It was the music itself, intangible sound waves unable to be captured, bottled, or stopped. It has continued to spread to the point of critical mass, nearly to where the music itself can no longer be governed, no matter how hard the mass media tries to gentrify it. Will we live to see the time when people finally forgo all this baggage and just listen to what they want regardless of what’s pertinent, what’s sanctioned, or what’s for sale?


This is the real deep-seeded fear of capitalism, which has always had an uncomfortable relationship with post-rock ‘n’ roll music (which frequently tries to sell its owners the ropes with which to hang themselves); that one day music will no longer be something they can control. In my previous post, I discussed how they’ve already lost part of that control by diverting its attention from its fragmented consumer base (instead opting to socialize its loses by pushing for federal lawsuits and ISP taxes). Next, I’ll take a look at those people like me, you, and everybody else you know, who take music that isn’t ours, but isn’t rightfully anybody else’s either.


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Friday, Jul 11, 2008
Joseph Hill’s voice is enough to make even the most recalcitrant atheist at least contemplate the possibility of a higher power.

Part Two: Make a Joyful Noise Unto JAH: Culture’s International Herb


Culture is immortal for their 1977 tour de force, Two Sevens Clash, one of a handful of albums that can justifiably be uttered in the same sentence as Heart of the Congos. Unlike the Congos, however, Culture continued to make important records after the summer of ’77, and were still going strong when bandleader Joseph Hill abruptly died—while on tour—in 2006.


Anyone in the know already knows two things: no self-respecting fan of music can tolerate the absence of Two Sevens Clash from their collections, and Joseph Hill’s voice is enough to make even the most recalcitrant atheist at least contemplate the possibility of a higher power. A single line from any Culture song makes it abundantly, wonderfully apparent that Joseph Hill was put on this earth, above all other things, to sing.


Fans can—and do—argue over what the second-most essential Culture album is, and most votes would probably be split between Baldhead Bridge (1978) or Cumbolo (1979), both of which are entirely worthy of consideration. But, for me, the closest they ever came to Two Sevens Clash is 1979’s International Herb. This release is endorsed and derided for a simple and silly reason: it’s blatant title (and if that wasn’t sufficiently provocative, the cover, featuring the group blazing spliffs in front of a huge, healthy marijuana plant, leaves little to the imagination).


And that is an appropriate enough segue to discuss—in perfunctory fashion—the dilemma of drugs and music. I mean dilemma in regards to certain types of music being automatically (and lazily—and in many instances, erroneously) associated with drugs. Or to put it more bluntly (pun, obviously, intended): music for which the utilization of mind-altering chemicals is imperative. This topic could, and should, be an entire discussion unto itself, but for the purposes of brevity let’s focus on the album at hand.


Clearly, the title track is an anthem for marijuana; it is also—and in this it is similar to the vast majority of reggae music—an endorsement for acceptance and understanding. In other words, this is post-‘60s hippie music that uptight politicians and the lemmings that follow them—the ones who most need to hear it—can easily assail as “drug music”. Aside from the myriad sociological reasons this type of dismissal epitomizes a typical myopia (and, in matters of appraising art, one that is not restricted to right-leaning reactionaries), it does the music a considerable disservice.


The reality of this music is quite simple: one need not be under the influence to appreciate it. Indeed, an argument might be made (and I’m about to make it) that it can be more fully enjoyed without the aid of any type of chemicals, be they smoked, snorted or swallowed. The sheer musicianship is so tight and first-rate that it is an insult (to the music, to the musicians) for one to even imply that any type of “full effect” can only be attained through the assistance of a substance. This, of course, does not apply solely to reggae music: so many great bands (Pink Floyd in particular leaps to mind) are denigrated and, in some ironic instances, lauded, for being ideal music to accompany an altered state of consciousness. How many times have you heard someone proclaim: if you aren’t high, you won’t be able to truly experience (insert album or artist here)? What a load of bollocks. That certain types of music do undoubtedly lend themselves to certain experiences is undeniable, but the best art is never so one dimensional or short-sighted. In fact, an alternate case can also be made that only an engaged and clear mind can fully fathom the depths and dedication of serious artistic expression. None of this is intended to demonize the harmless (or even the occasionally harmful) use of any type of intoxicants—that, again, is a very separate and sometimes serious matter. Again, the only issue here is the facile association (and/or promotion) of drugs and music, because on a purely aesthetic level it debases both the art and the artist.


So, getting back to Culture and International Herb: what’s it all about, then? “Make a joyful noise unto Jah,” Hill sings in “The Land Where We Belong”, and that pretty well captures the M.O.—not only of this particular album, but Culture’s career. As is often the case, the thematic scope of so many reggae songs revolves around Rasta, and that means a heavy rotation of tributes to Jah, the righteousness of Upfull Living (to quote Augustus Pablo) and the solidarity of underdogs everywhere. What separates Culture’s treatment of these familiar concerns, aside from Hill’s inimitable voice and the typically top-tier musicianship of the backing band, is the conviction with which the material is conveyed. Hill is equal parts preacher and cheerleader: speaking tough truths about intolerance and injustice, but also encouraging (often exhorting) the downtrodden to rise up. Some of the song titles, “Too Long in Slavery”, “Ethiopians Waan Guh Home”, and “Rally Around Jahoviah’s Throne”, provide a glimpse into Hill’s heart and mind. This, for the most part, is very serious music about very serious matters. And yet, Hill can’t help but make just about all of it sound celebratory and life-affirming. If, quite understandably, you read the words “life-affirming” and reflexively start to gag, I understand. I also encourage you, if you’ve not already done so, to immediately improve the quality of your life by ensuring that Joseph Hill has a place in it.


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Thursday, Jul 3, 2008
Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever. It isn’t. It’s better.

Part One
HalleluJAH: Heart of the Congos


Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae music, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. And so, since summer can be considered in full swing with the holiday weekend coming up, the time is right to talk about reggae. Where to begin? How about with the best.


Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.


The ‘70s were, without question, the golden age of reggae, and aside from the ubiquitous (and, let’s face it, omnipotent) Bob Marley, no single figure loomed larger during this decade than Lee “Scratch” Perry. His own albums (as the Upsetter, with the Upsetters) are more than enough to secure his legacy, but it’s his work as the Dub Shepherd—producing everyone from a baby-faced Bob Marley to the mature Max Romeo—that seals the deal for his enshrinement. Although he had more immediate commercial and critical success with Party Time (The Heptones), War Ina Babylon (Max Romeo) and especially Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Heart of the Congos has come to be fully appreciated as his masterpiece—and the Rosetta Stone of roots reggae. While Perry’s patented production skills are in overdrive on everything he touched circa ‘76/’77, this is the one where everything went right.


(Sidenote: these 24-odd months are a veritable embarrassment of reggae riches, considering that the albums mentioned above, as well as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Right Time by the Mighty Diamonds, also dropped during this time. Not only was this a high-water mark for reggae, it’s always interesting—and instructive—to consider that this unsurpassed creativity was churning out of Jamaica while, stateside, prog rock sat, constipated on the sidelines as punk and disco duked it out on the dance floor.)


Heart of the Congos is a sufficiently suitable title, but this album could very plausibly have been called Back to the Future. It is an uncanny document that in every facet—lyrically, vocally, sonically—seems to be stretching into the past even as it strains toward the future. Where virtually any reggae album of this (or really, any) time has the expected—even obligatory—shout-outs to Jah and the invocations of Rastafarianism, Heart of the Congos dives even deeper into biblical texts and—crucially—the civilization that preceded Jamaica, and everything else in the west: Africa.


Send my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the world…


This line, from “Open up the Gate” crystallizes the powerful consciousness the Congos are tapping into here: in one line they capture the essence of both the Old Testament and Repatriation—from slaves to immigrants to artists. It is spoken (quoted) as the voice of God (literally), but more, the voice of memory, summarizing the story of our time on this planet.


Virtually any song could be singled out for analysis, but the second track, “Congoman” best represents the culmination of Perry’s—and the Congos’s—vision. This song, a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices”, is an effective, almost unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. This might be, if one were forced to choose, Perry’s ultimate achievement: listening to what he constructed in his (by today’s standards) primitive studio is breathtaking. This track (and the entire album) remains a living testament to the more natural, (if old-fashioned, and/or out of fashion) instinctive abilities of fingers, ears, brain and especially heart. Just as the most incredible effects can be manufactured with the click of a mouse in today’s movies, the technology certainly exists to embolden a million paint-by-number producers. In other words, what Perry did does not merely epitomize ingenuity from the oldest of schools, it stands apart as an honest, utterly human artifact.


“Congoman” brings all of Perry’s innovations into play: after an undulating beat unfolds with percussion, piano and bass setting a trance-like tone, all of a sudden an overdubbed refrain (heard repeatedly throughout the song) jars the moment: all sound ceases and it’s only the voices: “Out of Africa comes the Congoman”. It is at once eerie (or, Irie) and astonishing. With one masterstroke, Perry makes the composition future-proof: it is already deconstructed on the first go round: no mash-ups or remixes (then, now) are necessary, or even possible, since the first version is already reworked as a work in progress (and make no mistake: everyone with an MC or DJ before their name sprung forth from the tradition the mighty Upsetter originated). Perry takes what would have been a stirring, melodic and beautiful song and makes it richer, messier, more complicated, and inscrutably tantalizing: he transforms a masterpiece into a miracle. As the song unfolds it establishes the deepest of grooves (naturally, most of Perry’s regular posse is on hand here, including “Sly” Dunbar on drums, Ernest Ranglin on guitar and Boris Gardiner on bass), while Cedric Myton’s falsetto blends with Roy “Ashanti” Johnson’s tenor to cast their spell of longing and redemption. Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.


We come with our culture to enlighten the world…


Any questions?


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Wednesday, Jun 25, 2008
Unorthodox Daughter - No Lay

Granted, this was never part of “pop’s” past, but this No Lay song which I originally caught on a 2005 Grime compilation called Run the Road, I thought she would be the breakout superstar of the UK hip hop scene.  Of course, that hasn’t happened yet, though a new LP , No Comparisons could put her miles above far more modestly talented imports like Mike Skinner and Lady Sovereign.  Her flow is frenetically knifed out, flipping angles so fast that it takes a constant listening sprint to keep apace.  Of course, that level of aggression could prove problematic since Americans tend to prefer Fergie to Jean Grae and the image of slicing someone guts for garters is about as darkly evocative as Jean Grae’s line about taking Satan to a baptism in a flooded basement.  There’s also Grime’s antsy grooves, more ricochet than head bobbing, though the stuttering success of imports like Justice could soften the market for something a bit more jagged in the hip hop market. 


I also can’t help but love her total lack of guile.  If you can’t come up with some outrageous Bowie-esque persona why not just be yourself, hanging out with your friends, braiding some hair, and lounging around in your neighborhood.  Hip hop would do a far greater service to affirm people’s lives rather than indulge some of their most childish fantasies.  All hail No Lay!  Get on this bloggers so that she can be as heralded as already forgotten hip hop saviors like Uffie.


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Monday, Jun 23, 2008
The only thing that prevents the Blues Brothers band from being the most ill-fated, vainglorious and embarrassingly ego-driven debacle of all time is the simple fact that Belushi really meant it.

How many people who would care to quibble that John Belushi’s endlessly quotable turn as “Bluto” Blutarsky does not represent his finest work? Not me. And yet, he had to be Blutarski; he needed to be Blutarski. He was Blutarski. Just like he was the Samurai, The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave, and the cheeseburger-dispensing counter jockey at the Olympia Café, among many other unforgettable characters he embodied. Belushi was not a black man. And, in truth, he didn’t even play one on TV. He played a white man emulating a black man, first as a Bee, eventually as a brother—a Blues Brother. Enter “Joliet” Jake Blues who, along with Elwood, had the chutzpah, or brilliance—or both—to step behind the mic for real and record music.


Best known for the movie they made, a kitchen-sink comedy that, despite it’s shoehorned, yet incredible, cameos by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker, remains hilarious and retains a strong quote-quotient. Less known is the fact that, in addition to the movie soundtrack, they made two other albums. Impossible as it seems, the first one (1978’s Briefcase Full of Blues) went to the top of the charts, fueled by their cover of Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man”. So, 30 years later, how do we assess this brief body of work? First and foremost, the only thing that prevents it from being the most ill-fated, vainglorious and embarrassingly ego-driven debacle of all time is the simple fact that Belushi really meant it. He cared, and however he did it—ability or acting, or most likely, both—he pulled it off.


It only takes a cursory glance at the tracks the band covered to see where they were coming from: not a ton of obvious “hits” there, aside from the aforementioned “Soul Man” (which still was—and remains—a shockingly unpredictable success for mainstream radio during the height of the disco era!), and the rather pedestrian “Gimme Some Lovin’” (which, incidentally, is a rather pedestrian and pallid song in the first place). Of course, it also didn’t hurt that Belushi had the best working blues band in the world behind him, featuring Steve “The Colonel” Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn (of Booker T. & The MGs—the Stax band that played on some of the original tunes being covered). It was, in short, a dream band, and it would be a travesty of the highest order for Belushi—or anyone—to make a mockery (intentionally or not) of the proceedings. Fortunately, this possibility was avoided for one single, simple reason: it works.


(Sidenote: even if it hadn’t worked, it speaks volumes about Belushi’s character and his 33 1/3 street cred that he knew very well the caliber of men he was lucky enough to be associated with. Likewise, they were lucky too, since Joliet Jake bent over backward to give them ample time in the spotlight: this was a win/win in the sense that the paychecks couldn’t have hurt, and it was exposing the great music these men had made—and continued to make—to an entirely new audience. In the end, if the worst crime he committed was getting some generally unsung heroes some well-earned time in the sun, and turning some of the world on to some essential music, then Belushi acquitted himself quite nicely here.)


The first one was the best. While the movie soundtrack and Made in America are okay, Briefcase Full of Blues remains an album that can be returned to often and with considerable satisfaction. Forget the movie, and SNL, and the outfits: on an album it’s just the voices and the music, with no shtick to save you. And to oblige the predictable protests of those most cynical purists, even if it is acknowledged that Belushi was, in effect, acting as a blues singer, it remains his most challenging, and convincing role. Or put in more realistic perspective, he is, obviously, acting, but it’s a role—and a world—he is more than casually acquainted with. After all: even white boys get the blues. Think Belushi didn’t know a thing or two about the blues? Think about the other super-sized SNL alum, the wealthy and much-loved Chris Farley. Think either of these men had those voracious appetites for destruction because they were unreservedly happy?


Consider the last song on side one, “Shotgun Blues”: even though this song is a showcase for Matt “Guitar” Murphy, it is a tour de force all around, from Steve Jordan’s explosive drums to Aykroyd—I mean Elwood’s surprisingly effective harmonica and especially the vocals (singing lyrics that are especially painful to hear considering Belushi’s not-too-distant death). In fact, if you pulled Belushi’s vocals and had the exact same track with Junior Wells (circa 1978, or 1958 for that matter) singing, it might come close to miraculous. And speaking of Junior, the band’s take on “Messin’ with the Kid” presumably inspired some folks to seek out the real deal. Again, that too would justify the entire endeavor. In the end, you can see it with your ears: Joliet Jake was, in more ways than one, the role of John Belushi’s life.


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