Visual Arts

Maximal Minimal: The Legacy of Versatile Artist Tony Conrad

Still from Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present

The former member of Lou Reed's The Primitives yearned to free himself of composition, to strive toward a new paradigm found in minimalism.

Tony Conrad, Completely in the Present

Director: Tyler Hubby
Cast: John Cale, Tony Conrad, David Grubbs
US Release date: 2017-03-31

John Cale, Tony Conrad, David Grubbs

Outside the Dream Syndicate

Label: Superior Viaduct
US Release date: 2016-04-08 (reissue)

Few artists contained the sheer range of disciplines as Tony Conrad. In a career that spanned half a century, Conrad tried just about everything, with explorations in music, video, conceptual art, and even teaching. Conrad’s legacy put him among the rare breed of artists not content to stay boxed within a singular medium, working method, or subject matter. He was experimental in the truest sense of the word.

In Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present (Tyler Hubby, March 2016), a feature documentary about Conrad’s work, artist Tony Oursler points out that Conrad “has done a lot of stuff that no one even knows about. That’s the crazy thing.” Hubby seized upon the challenge to illuminate the remarkable artist’s vast oeuvre. He’s the right person for the job, having filmed Conrad for over two decades, starting in 1994. The documentary serves as the best entrance point about an artist who never seemed to remain still. Hubby’s unconventional nonlinear narrative provides a sense of fragmentation that suits his subject’s varied interests. As Conrad passed away only last year, the film is also a tasteful memorial that captures the vibrant spirit of a crucial member of the experimental music scene.

Conrad’s consistency was his sense of play, exhibited in his uncompleted Women in Jail film featuring men in drag; his whimsical conceptual Pickled Films, where he subjected film negatives to various kitchen preparations; or Homework Helpline, where he helped inner-city kids with their homework on public access television. His screeching violin music is easily the most difficult for the casual listener, but the grating sound never seemed to affect Conrad, whose face was utterly blissful as he swayed with his instrument on stage.

Conrad was a member of Lou Reed’s band The Primitives, setting the stage early on for his mythic status. When Conrad gave Michael Leigh’s book The Velvet Underground to members of the band, they adopted the name. But Conrad didn’t seem at home making rock music. Musically, he yearned to free himself of composition, to strive toward a new paradigm found in minimalism (though his commanding approach was sometimes deemed quite maximalist). “I wanted to end composing,” Conrad asserts in the film. “I wanted it to die out.” In 1964, he became a foundational member of the Theatre of Eternal Music with notables such as La Monte Young, John Cale, Angus Maclise, and Marian Zazeela. The group was key in exploring the language of early minimal and drone music.

Around the same time, Conrad created perhaps his most known work, paradoxically still a cult classic today: Outside the Dream Syndicate (Caroline Records, 1973), a collaboration with the art-rock band Faust. In the aforementioned film, Jeff Hunt, the Executive Director for Table of Elements, remarks that Faust “were infamous in experimental music and avant-garde circles, in part because they had this mystique… [they were] wild and antagonistic, suitably deranged for their era.” According to the film, even many of Faust’s fans found Outside the Dream Syndicate unlistenable. Surely part of this is due to the 27-minute durations of each of the album’s two tracks.

The first track, “The Side of Man and Womankind”, consists of an insistent, unmoving rhythm section led by Conrad’s whining, abrasive violin. But give the track a chance to envelop your senses. Over such a length, the improvisatory performance slowly reveals itself through minute variations, Conrad’s violin alternating between both resonant and dissonant frequencies to itself. This is the better known and more intense of the two tracks. The second track, “The Side of the Machine”, is not a drastic departure from the first, though the bass and drums are more involved, providing more of a groove compared to the insistent thrum of its first side.

Outside the Dream Syndicate was difficult to track down for collectors, which only added to its mystique. The album only found widespread release years later, and would take until 1994 for Conrad and Faust to perform live in New York City.

Music was only one of Conrad’s outlets. He experimented with film at its most elemental level, creating The Flicker, based on specific patterns of light flickering on the frame to affect the audience’s brainwaves. The film is an epileptic nightmare, and its premiere apparently induced vomiting and migraines. Still, Conrad thought he was on to something. He took the concept further with Straight and Narrow, consisting of flashing vertical and horizontal lines. Taking his penchant for long durations to its utter extreme, Conrad conceptualized Yellow Movies, involving slowly aging film emulsions.

Conrad’s clashes with La Monte Young persisted throughout his artistic life and played a central role in the film. Young comes across as the obvious antagonist, an unreasonable creative tyrant hoarding and refusing to release any Theatre of Eternal Music recordings, especially to members of the collective. Young would later write a 27-page denunciation when Conrad got ahold of one of the recordings and released it himself. It's difficult to justify why any of the original musicians couldn’t listen to their own music, let alone distribute it, especially since there didn’t seem to be any sort of contractual agreement involved. One wonders what Young’s issue really was.

It’s an unfortunate relationship that soured Conrad over the years, one of the few moments in the film when Conrad becomes visibly angry, teeth clenched and brow furrowed in deep animosity. That Conrad succeeds in releasing some of his own work despite his collaborator is the film’s triumph over adversity, though Conrad remarks that there are many other obstacles that stand in the way of progress, suggesting other clashes in his past.

If Young is the film’s antagonist, Hunt is Conrad’s facilitator, organizing a festival in Atlanta where the artist performed while obscured behind a huge sheet. Lights were positioned at an angle that cast a 15-foot shadow of the musician, creating a monolithic presence amplified by his already extreme performance. Hunt also received the only cassette recording of “Four Violins”, a piece Conrad composed in 1964. Hunt realized that although the history books had focused on the achievements of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young, that “this one shabby little cassette was Exhibit A -- the smoking gun. The entire history of American minimalism was wrong. It was inaccurate. Tony Conrad had been written out of it.” This moment is one of the film’s several spine-shivering climaxes that takes advantage of Hubby’s nontraditional timeline.

Completely in the Present was released prior to one of Conrad’s momentous works. In April 2017, “Music and the Mind of the World” became available for streaming on Youtube and a dedicated site. The project consists of over 200 hours of piano music that Conrad composed between 1976 and 1982, ranging from piano exercises to more experimental works to a rendition of “On Top of Old Smokey”. The works have emerged with an exhaustive foreword from Conrad that reads like a transmission from beyond the grave. In it, Conrad discusses his first encounters with music and how he developed himself musically, providing a career coda on decades of artistic practice.

Filmmaker Tyler Hubby has gathered footage over decades to shed light upon a man that has been extremely influential due to his cross-pollination of disciplines. Conrad’s approach suggests that artists need not be bound by any medium at all, but that all creativity is fundamentally related. That Conrad was referred to as “the Bill Murray of the avant garde” will give newcomers a sense of Conrad’s demeanor; warm, approachable, forthcoming, but also determined to push against the status quo -- a model for the rest of us.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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