Monday, June 09, 2008

From Ned Sublette's "The Kingsmen and the Cha-Cha-Chà," in Listen Again: " . . . [T]hat Brill Building rhythm"--descending from what I'll simplify here as the tango pattern, a la "Be My Baby"--"played at a comfortable mid-tempo, survived to become the default template of white people's music, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, after the dangerous prospect of rhythmic variety had been squelched by the virtual segregation of highly targeted radio formats. . . . Meanwhile, the new kids got rid of rhythm pretty much entirely, replacing it with thrash, which is why I never gave a fuck about punk rock."

From Dave Marsh's "Anarchy in the UK" entry (No. 100) in The Heart of Rock & Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made: "[T]here's a difference between a transformation and a fracture, between a breakthrough and a breakdown. The revolts of 'Papa's Got a Brand New Bag' and 'Dance to the Music' never severed the connective tissue that 'Anarchy in the U.K.' shreds from start to finish. . . . That doesn't mean anything as corny and melodramatic as the Death of Rock and Roll. It just means that somebody had figured out how to make artistically and commercially viable pop music based on a rhythmic process outside R&B, a feat unequaled since the advent of Elvis Presley, and that consequently, things were fundamentally different thereafter."

Reading the Sublette (for the first time, I'm ashamed to say--it's one of the pieces in Listen Again I figured I'd get to first, and here I am getting to it nearly last) is pretty exciting for me in 2008 in ways similar to reading Marsh's book was in 1989: an opening into a world I don't know nearly as well as I'd like to. Of course, Sublette is talking about something I don't know nearly as much about now as I did rock and soul back when I was a high school freshman: Latin music is one of my chronic deaf spots. I don't kick myself for it very much--it's OK to have deaf spots, even if your (hopeful) life's work is to interact with music--but given how much I've liked the classic stuff I've heard I do wonder.

The real reason I started typing all this out, though, is that reading the Sublette quote brought me instantly back to the Marsh one, and makes me wonder: is there a connective tissue to sever in pop history at this point? One of the great things about the Sublette piece (and, I'm sure, his Cuba book, which I've only read a little of--again, shame on me, especially given how much I love the guy's writing-as-writing) is how simply he makes his argument: that we do not really know the shape of a half-century (or more) of pop music without understanding its Latin (specifically Cuban) component. This is an argument Marsh has made too: The First Rock & Roll Confidential Report features a brief, persuasive bit in which Marsh talks about his initial skepticism about Latin music's "majorness," only to find a treasure chest of examples that, he recognizes in the piece, just scratches the surface.

It's the punk part of the argument that I'm interested in here, though. At this point it seems odd to consider punk as a separate strain of rock and roll, largely because to some degree--to me, anyway--it seems odd to consider any kind of music as separate from the larger stream, at least on the surface. "Severed the connective tissue"--I can't think of a record made in ages that really worked that way, at least in practice, and while the argument for "Anarchy" in that light is easy to make and believe (at the very least it jolted a lot of people into action that might not have done otherwise, via means they might not have thought of prior), as a piece of music (the thing Marsh is basically talking about), even as someone who understands the record's role it's hard to hear it as a severance. That's probably because I know too much about what came afterward--or maybe because I care enough about that (unlike Sublette, for rhythmic reasons, or Marsh, for what are basically political ones) that it's central to me, not a one-off.

What records after "Anarchy" severed their connective tissue? The one I can think of that really works at that level is "Acid Tracks"--broke completely with the old order, caused a small but deep sensation (perhaps an unfairly Yank-centric thing to say--the Sex Pistols were huge in England, after all--but fuck it, I'm not British), inspired scads of imitations (many of which, unlike with "Anarchy," were far superior to the original), also inspired (after a fashion) an alternate pecking order. There are probably others that I'm either not thinking of or avoiding mentioning simply because they're too easy to argue against.

But "Acid Tracks" wasn't aimed at the general marketplace the way "Anarchy" was; it was never intended to be anything other than what it was, an avant-garde dance record. And either way, it's harder and harder to conceive of a record "severing the connective tissue" between it and its surroundings, because it's harder to think of a record's surroundings as fixed and knowable. On the one hand, I find it disingenuous when people write newly-resuscitated musicians into a historical framework during which no one knew anything about them; on the other hand, I've done it by proxy myself, on the CD-R Go! comps dedicated to years before I was consciously listening to music (or even alive). (It should go without saying that including a Rodd Keith song-poem on the 1966 volume stretches the limits of credulity even by my loose standards.) Even if you ignore that impulse, though, the idea of pop music as a continuum is harder to refute--and harder to defend. More and more it feels like a series of islands connected by mainframe, everything connected and everything separate. Essentially, the more you know about music, the more you realize how little you will ever possibly know.

If this sounds familiar, it should: I cavil about this all the time lately, on this blog and with my friends. It dovetails all too easily with the growing worry I often feel about my line of work. There's a sense in which not having big ruptures to report on makes music writing seem like marking time--something Simon Reynolds' quartet of pieces I linked the other day talk about very well. Re-reading them--particularly the parts where he describes the music writing landscape as lacking the kind of passionate thrust that drew him into doing this himself--I feel implicated, like I haven't done my duty with enough fervor, or haven't drawn enough lines in the sand. (Unless, you know, you're a Guided by Voices fan I baited from back when I used to post to ILM.) I'd worry about it more, though, if I were still convinced that writing about music is as viable a career path as it used to be. We shall see how it turns out.