Tag Archives: Lester Bangs

When Critics Get It Wrong-“Flash Will Get Huge and Yes Won’t Survive”-A Blast From the Vaults of Rock Obscurity

It’s 1970, and one of the up and coming British bands tapped for success was Yes. The liner notes of their 1969 debut boldly quote Melody Maker critic Tony Wilson who declared that Led Zeppelin and Yes would be the two Brit bands most likely to succeed in 1969  (Nostradamus-wise, Zep perhaps being an easy call, Yes less so). Their debut album got some attention for it’s mash up of unlikely covers and burgeoning musical prowess, but in May 1970, disaster struck the band….

As the second Yes album, Time and a Word was undergoing final tweaks in post production and a tour testing the new material was underway-founding member Peter Banks was shown the door. Or quit, depending on who you  believe. Either way, this was looked upon in the industry as a death knell for Yes. After all, Peter Banks was generally considered to be the heart and soul of the band-fashion savvy, and with a personality and playing style that were open and daring–in marked contrast to the taskmaster persona brought by Jon and the aloof and entitled (some friends said condescending) views of Squire. He had named the band in 1968 when Jon Anderson’s suggestion of ‘Life’ and Chris Squire’s suggestion of ‘World’ were met with indifference. Peter suggested ‘Yes!’ (exclamation and all) as a holding action until they came up with something better. It stuck,  though the exclamation point was dropped quickly.(The less letters in the band name, the larger it shows up on posters noted Peter).  Banks also designed the first Yes logo.

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With a sound fueled by a Gibson ES-335 that was very difficult to define, Banks was able to fuse rhythm and lead guitar sounds simultaneously to make a jazz rock fusion that some said formed the original definition of  progressive rock guitar. Lester Bangs noted of their debut album both the good and the bad in his February 1970 review:

Because all of it is excellently done: brisk fuzz leads, whirring bass, a bit of the Beatles vocally, a touch of Wes Montgomery in the guitar solos—a definitive album, in fact, in the prevalent style of “hip” groups over the past two years. The only trouble is that there are hosts of American bands (and presumably British as well) who are into the same bag with equal facility and taste. The excitement of true innovation is missing—which may not be a valid criticism, since most rock is folk music anyway, but that’s what makes albums like this one so much less arresting than many others…Their version of the Byrds’ “I See You” is especially nice, although none of their own compositions are very memorable.

Image result for yes time and a word      Image result for yes time and a word

The second Yes album cover was hastily reshot for the US version with newly acquired guitarist Steve Howe on the cover, although he didn’t play at all on the record. Howe played a similar style to Banks and his Gibson ES-175 hollow body brought a similar sound to the band as Banks’ ES-335. Howe’s reputation on the circuit was as a low key but tastefully improving guitarist, but not a forceful and flashy personality like Banks. Time and a Word featured some fairly heavy handed orchestral overdubs which stepped all over Banks’ guitar in the mix, and rendered Kaye’s organ work nearly invisible. A short attempt to demo this live in  concert left Banks even more dissatisfied-and he was gone. But with a new guitarist under their wing, the band soldiered on to create their first mini masterpiece, the meticulously ‘assembled from little song bits’ lp the Yes Album. Recorded six months after Banks departure, it brought some new success to the band. But while on tour in 1971, the axe fell again-and founding keyboardist Tony Kaye was left curbside for pickup. Two founding members leaving in a year? Many thought Yes was in big trouble. This is where our story begins:

Flash (clockwise, from left), drummer Mike Hough, bassist Ray Bennett, guitarist Peter Banks and vocalist Colin Carter. 

There is little agreement on the facts surrounding Banks and Kaye’s ouster from the Yes. In one interview Kaye said that Anderson came in his bedroom while he was sleeping off a night out and profoundly hung over. ‘You’re out of the band” said Jon and Kaye later said “I just grunted, mostly relieved that he was leaving the room so I could sleep more”

An early 1972 Rolling Stone article noted the difference of opinions as to what had transpired:


Tony Kaye and Pete Banks have now come together and formed their own band, Flash, which is currently working its way around the club and dance hall circuit.  Their departures from Yes are explained by Jon:  “They didn’t leave- we decided to get someone else.  It doesn’t help them to say that.  We’ve always said that Tony decided to leave the band because it’d get him a better situation. The truth is that we blew them out because they weren’t really into what we were trying to get together . . . Peter was a bit lazy, that’s why. He liked his clothes a bit more than his music.  Tony had a marvelous mind, he was a great guy to talk to, but he didn’t have so many ideas.  He wasn’t willing to expound himself.”

Jon and Tony seem to agree that he was tossed, Peter however disagrees (from the same early 1972 article):

  Pete Banks still doesn’t quite see that things happened the way Jon described.  “I decided to make a move more than anything,” he explained one evening, sitting on the floor of his basement flat.  On the walls were reminders of his stay with the band – posters, photographs and an album sleeve.  “I only made the decision though after I’d given it a lot of thought. Luckily Yes were strong enough to get a new guitarist, rehearse and get it back on the road.”  From his point of view Yes had become a mechanical band producing music that was less than human.  He remembered the times when he and Bruford had gone through the motions of clocking in and out on live performances, and how it [was] really only half a joke for them. “We’d go on each night knowing we’d go down well,” he said.”We’d got things worked out to that degree.  Yes always went for the technique approach, whereas with Flash we’re going for the feel.  Yes tends to lack feel.  Sometimes it’s good to make mistakes to show you’re human and that it’s not being made by a machine.  I don’t think Fragile was human.  You couldn’t fault it in any other way though.”

Peter seemed to reverse himself  and took a more distanced view of what happened in a 2006 interview:

Peter: I was kicked out, simple as that. I’ve never really found out why, to be honest. I think it was mostly musical. We hit a really bad period where we had quite a lot of work and rehearsals. I think the musical reason was, and I’m kinda guessing here, I think I lacked a certain amount of structure, and Steve came in to replace me, he was a more structured player, where my approach always has been really, I don’t like to play the same thing twice.

Obviously you have structure within music, but if someone says ‘I like what you played last week can you play it again?’ chances are I probably won’t, I’ll go out of my way to play something different, with a new spin on it. If you’re a lead singer, that kind of puts lead singers out. I think that might have been a reason but I don’t know.

I think Jon mentioned in a recent interview, where he was talking about Yes guitar players, he was very frustrated that I never played the same thing twice. Same with Bill, us two were a bit of a loose cannon. Because we were playing the same things night after night after night, we would like to screw around with it.

Rolling Stone in their review of 1971’s Fragile also took note of some of the complaints Banks had pointed out about Yes’ shortcomings:

  Some problems remain, however: They’re good and they know it, so they tend to succumb to the show-off syndrome. Their music (notably “Cans and Brahms” and “We Have Heaven”) often seems designed only to impress and tries too hard to call attention to itself. Is anyone really still excited by things like “Five tracks on this album are individual ideas, personally arranged and organized by the five members of the band..etc.”

Melody Maker echoed this in 1971: ‘Fragile’ does not seem to go anywhere or have any theme except displaying Yes’ technical ability …   It’s all a little too much like exercises, clever and beautifully played”.

 (A quick aside: Jon wasn’t averse to taking some dodgy chances with Yes-like recording around this time, as a Faberge commercial was recorded during the sessions for the studio version of America:     Another project which was waiting to be recorded when “America”  finally reached the can was a 60-second commercial for Faberge-
Put a little music on and hear it play/ Put a little music on from Faberge.
They’d even got a nice little arrangement for the band to set the lyrics to, but Jon wanted to it his way. He decided to use the same technique he used on “We Have Heaven” on the Fragile album, where they overlay vocal tracks from their own music. ” I think it’s worth it,” said Jon.”Not for the money we’re getting, but because it’ll be a nice little song when it’s done the way I want it. I didn’t want a dinky little song. Anyway, the more people that hear our music the better.”)

Whatever the facts were, two important founding members of Yes had joined forces in 1971 to create a band that echoed the early sound of Yes, but emphasized feeling over technique, and playing for the sheer joy of creation over the construction of things far removed from the emotional immediacy of rock n roll. People were excited.

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Although he is listed as a full member on their debut album, Tony Kaye was always viewed as a sideman in this project according to both Kaye and Banks (there were high hopes he’d stay on) Still, this fact escaped the music press, and Flash were viewed as a back to roots version of Yes, something that is less evident as desirable today as it was back in 1971. With the guitarist and keyboardist who’d provided most of the musical ‘sound’ to the parent band now in a new project-who could say which one would come out on top?

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https://ronkanefiles.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/flash_new.jpg?w=1440&h=712Their debut album in 1972 was decidedly Yes-like. Band members Mike Hough on drums, Ray Bennett on bass and the noticeably Jon Anderson-ish Colin Carter on vocals made up the quartet. Bennett had some prog-cred even in his teenage years: he’d been in a band with Bill Bruford at age 15, and rubbed elbows in bands with musicians who ended up in Gentle Giant, Man and Gun. The album cover by Hipgnosis was ambiguously created to impart a sauciness when viewed in the racks, but entirely confusing as to whether it was a front or rear shot when folded out. Small Beginnings, the first single, charted on both sides of the pond (top 30 in US Billboard) and things looked bright.

Children of the Universe, another highlight, accentuated the Yes vibe. Diddits and rahoovyahs straight out of The Yes Album were the frosting on the dexterous and constantly changing instrumental underpinnings. Banks was able to knit together some impressive runs that challenged the depth of his earlier work with Yes. His runs became even more jazz-like than in Yes, approaching a territory the Robert Fripp had dipped his toes into during the early days of King Crimson, yet Banks created a more successful hybridization of rock and jazz stylings. Although this album didn’t make the waves some critics were expecting, it did well enough to warrant a second album release, and many Yes fans snapped this up instantly. In retrospect, this was a fine response to  The Yes Album. Fragile? Well there was no challenger to Roundabout here, but the earlier notation by Banks that Fragile was hampered by sterility of playing shows the difference of opinions that led to his departure. Besides, Fragile only contained four actual songs.

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Fully keyboard-less, the band delivered their sophomore effort, just as strong as their debut. Titled Flash in the Can, a name that punned on  the sophomoric cover. Like the first album, this one also flaunted the ‘sex will sell this album, dammit!” as it likewise folded out to a more salacious version. Despite the word flash meaning ‘fancy and cool’ in British slang, the record company was intent on another meaning of flash for the public to grab onto. One thing was sure at this point-Flash could jam live.

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Banks reveals anti-gravity guitar solo effect

The second album contains what many consider their finest musical moment, There No More. Overall, this album hangs together better than their debut, despite the lack of a proper keyboardist. The first two albums are definitely essential for any Yes fan. Critics weren’t so sure that a progressive rock band could cut it without keyboards, but Banks fretwork here ups the ante from the debut. Check out this:

Despite being perhaps even more overtly Yes-like (albeit an early version of Yes), their second album didn’t get the attention it deserved.Songwriting credit for Banks was limited to a half a song, as Ray Bennett was revealed as the principle songwriter-Banks crafted his guitar in and around songs. Maddeningly,  despite a full US tour spending a large chunk of  1972 in the States with the likes of Foghat, Savoy Brown, Wishbone Ash, Three Dog Night, Beck Bogert and Appice, Black Sabbath, Genesis, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople and Humble Pie, the band’s fortunes only slightly crept onward. A second US tour in December of 1972 did see them headlining many of their own shows, and a full billboard graced the streets of Los Angeles next to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go.

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Their 1973 album, Out of Our Hands continued the ‘boobs n butts’ theme, with hands and knuckles cleverly taking the place of arched backs and bums. The band had been sued for their name, forcing the record company to call the band ‘Flash featuring England’s Peter Banks’, much to the consternation of his hard working band mates. Sure Banks was still the draw, even three albums in, but his musical mates chafed at the change. They  played at least 65 US shows on an arduous tour from early August to mid November, finally imploding on November 17, 1973 with seven shows remaining to the tour-which all had to be canceled. Dissension and fatigue combined with the inability to get to the next level to finally destroy the band. According to Bennett, the problems 
all came down to Banks: “He
 was almost entirely to blame for the early Flash breakup, and for a major 
amount of friction and unrest in our
 camp — and not just with the band
— almost everyone around us, too:
 manager, producer, Capitol Records
 and others. I’ve restrained myself
 from just saying it bluntly in the past,
 but Flash didn’t just ‘implode on the
 road’. We’d had enough of Banks.”Some information on their dissolution can be found in an interview with Carter and Bennett here.

Banks takes a more distant, but similar view of the break-up in 2006, acknowledging he might have been a problem:

 We didn’t last long, but we were very creative, we made 3 albums in 2 years. But business things were very bad, we needed new management, I was very unhappy. What turned out to be our last tour was very Spinal Tap, I wasn’t even traveling with the guys, I would show up sometimes 10 minutes before the show, and I  probably acted like a real asshole at the time.

We broke up in New Mexico with 4 more gigs to go, very unfortunate thing to happen. I tried and I tried after that, because it was like a divorce. For 2 years we’d been working so intensely, we were getting better but the audiences were dropping off. We were playing with bands we shouldn’t have played with.

I had wondered about some of the bills they had been booked on during the US tour. They had more success here than in the UK, and it made sense to try to capitalize on the buzz created by the first album and single, but really…Three Dog Night and Flash on tour together? Grand Funk? Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show? A gig is a gig I suppose, but a more concerted effort to get them in front of an appreciative audience by  their management is perhaps the biggest spike driven into their possible success.
An easy example-Genesis was in the States in 1973, and Flash would have been the perfect opening act on that bill. Perhaps they were trying a bit too hard to shake the perception that they were a junior varsity version of Yes and were their own band by playing with folks not even close to their more technically adept stylings.

  Image result for peter banks flash

Image result for flash colin carter   Image result for flash ray bennett

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that Flash wasn’t going to hit the same level as Yes. But in 1971, things weren’t as easy to predict. Half of Yes strikes out on their own, leaving only the singer, drummer and bassist? You can see how those paying attention might be wont to plunk their ducats on the dark horse in this race. To this day, the first two Flash albums stand up extremely well against their peer group of B-division progressive rock bands of the early 70’s, (hell it even stands up fairly well against pre-Close to the Edge Yes.)  And the world would have to wait a few more years for the next even more  derivative Yes clone band to hit the floorboards, (though lacking the cachet of real Yes members)…..Starcastle.

But for now, let’s just ruminate on some small beginnings with large aspirations. One more pass through with Flash on US TV in 1972:

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Sifting Through the Wreckage of 2016: Blows Against the Empire

Is rock n roll dying? Not rock stars, who seem to be lining up for lethal injections with great regularity lately, but rock n roll. I look at my living room floor. It is littered with Bowie, Motorhead, Mott the Hoople and Paul Kantner albums. Each new week brings another deletion from the rock n roll Hall of Famous.  The detritus of the mighty beast of rock n roll lays scattered like the rubble of a childhood’s end.  The recent deaths of David Bowie, Lemmy, Dale Griffin, and Paul Kantner (hey Glen Frey too) in two months is a very large hit for the rock community to take.(and now in the four weeks since this was written-Keith Emerson offed himself and Prince has checked out too)  But it got me wondering about the state of rock of late. All of these platters on the rug came out over thirty five years ago (Bowie’s Blackstar being the lone exception). Turn on the radio-you hear about the same 100 songs: Bad Company, Boston, Alice Cooper, Kiss, Fleetwood Mac, Jethro Tull, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, the Who, the Doors, Bob Seger, Elton John, the Yardbirds, Dire Straits, the Cars…..the list goes on. What do all these guys have in common? They were active and put albums out in the 1964-1979 fifteen year patch. In fact, almost every important album in rock came out between 1967 and 1977. Could it be that rock actually died, and we didn’t notice?

When the Beatles rewrote rock music history in the 1964 season, things really started to change. Groups played their own music for the first time. No longer were acts a couple of frontmen that used different back up bands at every venue, they were a full functioning self contained unit-bass, drums and guitar were now in house. Blues purist groups sprouted first, with the Rolling Stones being the best known aficionados of the new Brit craze, along with Alexis Korner and Graham Bond. The Yardbirds with Eric Clapton began their slow blues inflected ride.  Mod groups popped up in the end of 1964 in the UK, with the High Numbers leading the charge into their next phase renamed as the Who. By 1965, America and the UK were teeming with rock bands of every stripe. Rhythm and Blues, pop, blues, nascent drug music, poetry bands..things started to diverge. With the introduction of LSD to England in late 1965, everything there changed. The budding post beatnik scene in San Francisco launched another center of LSD influenced music. Everyone from the Beatles on down turned on and tuned in. Take a look at what 1965 yielded: the Rolling Stones  spat our an eyepopping five releases, including the groundbreaking Out of Our Heads; The Beatles four releases were topped by the awe inspiring Rubber Soul and the chart inspiring Help!-the Byrds, the Who, the Kinks, Van Morrison (Them), the Moody Blues, the Yardbirds all released their debut albums (technically the Kinks was their second). Bob Dylan released Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home. Add in the Animals, the Beach Boys, and the Zombies and you have a pretty good record collection. 1966 saw even more luminaries hit the recording field: Simon and Garfunkel, and Cream hit the stage, but a new contender hit the airwaves: Psychedelic rock/protest rock/California rock? Whatever you called it, US bands fought back for control.. Buffalo Springfield (the future CSNY), Jefferson Airplane,  13th Floor Elevators, Love, Frank Zappa, the Fugs all highlighted the weirdness that was cropping up in the States with their debuts. Minds expanded, audiences expanded and the diversity of rock expanded exponentially.

    

 

 

It was 1967 that changed everything. LSD was ubiquitous in use, and society mirrored the kaleidoscopic sea change that the music industry went through. Topped by the Beatles Sgt Pepper, many band’s definitive albums came out this year alone: 13th Floor Elevator’s Easter Everywhere, Jefferson Airplane-Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxters, Jimi Hendrix-Are You Experienced and Axis Bold as Love, Pink Floyd-Piper at the Gates of Dawn, The Doors-debut and Strange Days, Cream-Disraeli Gears, The Velvet Underground and Nico, the Grateful Dead debut, Traffic-Dear Mr. Fantasy, Love-Forever Changes, the Beatles-Magical Mystery Tour, the Moody Blues-Days of Future Passed, the Byrds-Younger Than Yesterday, Soft Machine debut, Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Arlo Guthrie-Alice’s Restaurant, Moby Grape debut, Procol Harum debut, the Who-Sell Out-these 23 albums still form the core of many a well curated rock collection 49 years later, and are still considered the masterpiece of each bands work. And they all came out in one magic year. Rock had turned on, tuned in and turned up.

The class of 1967 spawned some fairly worthy progeny, as rock turned up, down and inside out. Add in the late comers to the scene like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Family, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Taste, the Stooges, Genesis, King Crimson, Chicago, the Guess Who, T Rex, MC5, Free, Van der Graaf Generator, Tangerine Dream, Spirit, Steve Miller, Steppenwolf, Sly and the Family Stone, J Geils Band, Three Dog Night, Grand Funk Railroad, Cat Stevens, Gentle Giant, David Bowie, Elton John, Mott the Hoople, Santana, the Allman Brothers, Joe Cocker, Fleetwood Mac, Caravan, the Band, Hawkwind, Humble Pie, Rod Stewart, Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull, Mountain, Alice Cooper, Ten Years After, the Move, Deep Purple, Kraftwerk,  Can, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt,  Bob Marley and the Wailers, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, James Taylor, Funkadelic…a veritable full on collection of classic rock playlist of well knowns and cult favorites, and you have a full blown scene. Just this list would form a formidable collection of pure and diverse rock n roll unmatched by any releases in the last twenty years. All of the above bands were well established by the end of 1970.(All of these bands actually put an album out in calendar year 1970). The bar had been raised considerably  for any newcomers to the game.

So the 1976 punk era brought us a glimmer with the Clash, Elvis Costello, the Stranglers, the Sex Pistols, and the UK scene–the Ramones, Blondie, Television and the CBGBs scene. The synth pop and New Romantics of the 80’s? Does Duran Duran, Simple Minds and Spandau Ballet  warrant attention? Joy Division certainly does. One thing that became clear though, by the end of the 80’s, the ranks of the upcoming visionaries was thinning rapidly.

The early 90’s rock revival brought us Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Janes Addiction, Alice in Chains, Sonic Youth, the Butthole Surfers, Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Fishbone, Smashing Pumpkins? With the some main exceptions like the daring Sonic Youth and the thoroughly acid soaked Butthole Surfers-even the good bands were starting to recycle ideas. Rock seemed out of steam. What started blossoming in 1965 had started to die on the vine only 25 years later. By 2000, the front door had  been left open for the next visionaries, but nobody was waiting on the doorstep.

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Which brings us to the spate of 50th anniversary tours. Never in my wildest dreams as a teenager could I have imagined that some of the best recent concerts I’ve attended would be 50th anniversary shows from the Who, the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead. If a band lasted more than five years in the late sixties, it was considered a very real achievement. Tenth anniversaries used to be looked at with a mixture of imminent foreboding as well as a huge badge of honor. Hell, the Beatles never made it to ten years. Ten was a milestone, twenty went from unimaginable to a reality quickly for many in the 1970 list above. But FIFTY? No one in their right mind would ever imagine anything along those lines. Ludicrous wouldn’t even cover it if you ran this past Jann Wenner or Lester Bangs in the 70’s. Ironically, the Stones delivered one of their best tours in the last twenty years, even featuring Mick Taylor;  the Who’s Quadrophenia was still spine chilling even sans Moon and Entwistle on their 2013 jaunt; the Grateful Dead? Mixed reviews of their five date summer tour didn’t negate the huge crowds they drew. Yes, Kansas and Rush trotted out 40th and 45th anniversary affairs.

Another troubling sign is the rise of tribute bands from local barrooms to sheds and theaters. Beatles tribute bands have long populated this venue hopping genre, but the mop tops stopped touring in 1965. But newer bands are now blurring the line between reality and homage, while pulling in increasingly large numbers of fans. Dark Star Orchestra, a rip on the Dead, have headlined festivals and regularly packed theaters that their mentors did in the seventies. They toured with former Dead vocalist Donna Godchaux as a member of the band. Pink Floyd? Pick your poison-The Australian Pink Floyd and Brit Floyd regularly play theaters and arenas. Led Zeppelin? The field is crowded. Get The Led Out tours the States from coast to coast filling up theaters and sheds. This is the troubling part-cover bands as bar bands? Sure that makes sense. But when these guys start crawling up the ladder of success, and rock theaters are now headlining tribute bands, one must ask-where the fuck are the real bands? Why are people still so hungry for the magic of the 67-77 era that they will shell out bucks for the ersatz versions?

So where are the next ones to step up? The thought of Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie or the Arctic Monkeys filling up Boston Garden on their 50th anniversary? I would be hard pressed to say those guys even being  remotely remembered in 20 years, and would take odds they won’t even be playing an instrument then. The titanic waves generated by most of the ‘1970’ list above is now reduced to faint ripples in a pond made by the current rock cadre, barely noticeable in the bigger picture of what rock music has accomplished. Kids now flock to arenas to pray to the light machine, as shadowed figures tap at laptop computers to generate an electronic stroboscopic maelstrom, sometimes without an actual musical instrument on the stage. These are now the concerts where the ‘cool kids’ are showing up in droves-no band, no instruments, no real vocals-and riffs sampled (read: stolen) from records of the classic rock era-something very ironic and telling at the same time.  Has social media-everyone with their nose pressed into their goddamn cellphones-killed rock n roll?

Something very very special happened in a ten year run from 67-77, and it has taken the last 40 years to put this in perspective. Rock used to be a form of secret communication. Sex, drugs, mysticism? All contained on the album cover you reverently held in your hands while trying to decipher what the hell any of this meant, buried in huge headphones. Rock albums were your only source of good information about how the world really worked. Album covers soon gave way to CD booklets which gave way to postage stamp size album art on an iPod which gave way to no art at all on your cellphone. Lyric sheets disappeared. Too many questions have answers only a google flick away. Mystery is gone. Rock cannot any longer reinvent itself back to those days when it held sway over pop culture like a monolithic pseudo god, and provided what honestly functioned as a religion for a huge part of the youth and aging youth of America and the UK. Concert goers are now aging. I know there are plenty of good bands lighting up clubs everywhere-but none of them have done anything new, only recycled things done many times over since the 1967-1977 decade of excellence. Some well-stirring the pot of influences into an interesting variant on a theme, some not so good. But the old guard still filling arenas speaks volumes about what has come recently. And though I shudder as I type this, may mean that rock might actually be dying in front of  our eyes.

 

 

Metal Machine Music 40 Years Later-Sheer Genius or the Biggest Scam Ever Foisted Upon the Rock World?

More ink has been spilled, more typewriter ribbons have been trashed, more teeth have been gnashed on the subject of this album than any album in the history of rock n roll. Why? Simple-nobody has ever been able to come up with a clear answer-is this record a scam to get out of a record contract? Is it some well thought out con and deep seated revenge plan against the record industry? Or is it one of the most brilliant and misunderstood albums in music history?. Let’s investigate the record that launched more returns than any album in the history of rock:

MMM

From Sonic Pariah to Cult Classic

In the summer of 1975, rock n roll was king. And getting huge in scope and in numbers. The Rolling Stones launched their debauched “Tour of Americas”, Yes took on stadiums with their second leg of the Relayer tour, Led Zeppelin pillaged the States like an unstoppable Visigoth invasion, The Who cut a swath from November to December-arenas were full, stadium shows started to get booked, and kids flocked en masse for the insanity that was a US mid 1970’s concert experience. Live albums (especially double live albums) started to sprout in the industry like mushrooms after a rain. Industry folks pushed for live albums from most of their artists. Kiss, Bob Marley, Santana, Grand Funk, Robin Trower, King Crimson and more initiated the era of live lp’s that is usually marked by the massive Frampton Comes Alive (recorded in ’75 and released January 1976).

So when Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music quietly slipped out in June of 1975, and little publicity surrounded it, the public was left to its own devices to figure it out. You can’t realy blame kids for being fooled. Look at the cover-Lou looking cool onstage. A double album. Esoteric electronic gobbledy-gook for liner notes. A live tour featuring Doug Yule of the Velvet Underground currently underway. Of course this had to be a live album, right? Rock n Roll Animal had exposed the more mainstream rock audience to the weirdness of Lou in a live rock format. Walk on the Wild Side had given him radio exposure. He was becoming a known and intriguing rock figure. Metal Machine Music sold well in chain and department stores across the country in the beginning of the summer, but then something happened. Kids opened it up, popped on side one, and were met by what the Rolling Stone Record Guide called:

“a two-disc set consisting of nothing more than ear-wrecking electronic sludge, guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time”

What? That’s not rock n roll! What is it? Let’s give the reader a taste of what the listener encountered forty years ago. This is part 1.

People were frightened, perplexed and offended. Many assumed the album was defective. I mean-were these songs? Is it even listenable? (Lou once let slip this quote: “If you can stand to listen to the entire album in one sitting, you are truly a unique human being… maybe not even human… Myself, i’ve only listened to maybe 40 min of it before I felt like my head would explode.”) There is no discernible melody, nor apparently are there any instruments being played.  Some genuinely thought it was a pressing plant mistake, a huge defect and fuck up that somehow had escaped the attention of quality control. And to a clerk at a department store trying to judge whether the customer was telling the truth? How would they be able to tell? It sounded like a washing machine about to throw a belt mixed with a transmission gearbox about to fling wrecked splinters of metal all over the road. Of course it was deemed defective. It was returned in droves. There was no press on it, and most stuck with the view that it was a huge record plant mistake, and money back was offered, and the allegedly defective lps started to pile up in warehouses across the country. It was withdrawn from release within three weeks as RCA circled the wagons and tried to figure out who the joke was on, who’s head would roll, and more difficultly-was it even a joke? It did however claim the honor of garnering the most returns of any album ever released.

Some may see that words do not do this album justice in view of the ‘full experience’. Each side was exactly 16 min 1 sec in length according to the label( Some sides seem to vary from this standardized time, but are pretty close) Side four was labeled “16:01 or ∞”, as it had a locked groove, playing forever in a loop until you took the needle off the vinyl. A nice masochistic touch for one of the most notoriously torturous listening experiences ever (#2 in the Worst Albums of All Time 1991 book).

But if it was a scam, what was the purpose and what was the target? Lou himself has stood by the album up until his death. This essential question bugged one of the most famously cantankerous rock critics on the planet-Lester Bangs.

lester bangs

Enter Lester Bangs

Lester was famed as a free lance writer unafraid to throw himself into a story with wanton abandon. Booze? Drugs? Essential to the journey towards truth. Lester latched on to Metal Machine Music as a combination of cause celebre and enfant terrible. He penned many pieces on the subject of MMM, all are highly recommended. Read one here. All are worth seeking out. He hounded Lou for interviews, trying to get to the depths of the creation of the recording. Were there instruments actually on it or was it processed feedback? (The album says it was all table and rack mount generators and processors humming and squealing into each other, but later Lou said it was guitars feeding back set in front of amps and recorded. Yet another mystery unsolved)

Lou had always claimed that the album was supported by the RCA Red Seal classical division, and that according to Lou, this album was taken very seriously by the president of the RCA Red Seal . He insisted that there were many levels of sound going on (there are) and that buried deep inside are references to Beethoven’s Third Symphony and Pastorale symphony many levels down. “But show me exactly where” Bangs asked on the point of exasperation. Lou indifferently refused to answer and just said “it’s there”, as if he knew he was lying. Bangs remained doubtful of this ex post-facto attempt at legitimizing the classical stamp.

But could this album actually be what Lou claimed, an avant-garde electronic classical piece? There is some evidence to back this up. Before the Velvet Underground had come along, John Cale had been working with famed electronic composer LaMonte Young in New York City. Along with Tony Conrad, they were experimenting with sonic drones, some pieces being over 24 hours in length. The effect on the consciousness of the listener was the end game here. Reed had been exposed by Cale to this scene, and the noise of the early Velvet’s feedback sessions (see: Sister Ray) reflects some of this influence. Was he teasing Bangs and testing his knowledge of the electronic scene of  the mid and early 60’s? Bangs was not unaware of the work of Stockhausen, Young and Xenakis, but felt Lou was a pretender to the scene, and dismissed this release…then was intrigued… then tongue in cheek worshipped it (read that one here.). He obsessed over it until his death.

Tales of Madness

I had heard of this album spoken of in hushed tones when I was younger. ‘A dangerous album’ big kids said. Others dismissed it as a scam. It commanded high prices even in the early 80’s on vinyl. I found a copy in the dollar bin of a college record store when I was 17. I was a bit incredulous but noticed it only had one of the albums in it. “That’s more than plenty” opined the clerk when I asked if I needed the whole thing and why so cheap. Later in life I had an acquaintance that had an eight track player bolted to his bedroom ceiling. Metal Machine Music was in it and it played non-stop, 24-7 for months. If he needed to listen to his stereo, he played his regular record player and turned it up loud  to be heard over the munching away of MMM. He did this for years, on endless loop (what 8 Tracks do) forever. What this would do to the psyche of a fragile 70’s rock kid is unknown, but he later took to cruising in his sixties Oldsmobile shitbox chugging cough syrup and cranking Black Sabbath at aircraft landing volumes around town. I recently got a mint copy on eBay, and was delighted in the holy relic in its entirety. I strapped into the record room and hit launch. Strangely, I found much of it soothing. It was a bit like Terry Riley on speed. Hypnotic mantras repeating whispers of insanity that just made you pay attention despite your probably knowing better. But I liked it, and got through the whole thing in one sitting. Forty years later, and in view of what has come since, it hung together pretty well.

The Final Cut

ln the final run, this album ended up hugely influential. Everyone from Sonic Youth to Nine Inch Nails to Throbbing Gristle owe a significant debt to this record. Hell, the whole industrial and noise scenes could be viewed as direct progeny of this unassuming record. Is it one of the most accurate portrayals of the simultaneous delights and horrors of extensive amphetamine shriek? Is it as Lou said in a 2007 interview “the greatest and longest guitar solo ever”? Reed obfuscated until the end. So one part overwhelming affront to the senses, one part mid 60’s electronic classical music, one part musical joke, one part “Fuck You” to the industry he delighted in screwing with? Remember, he was trained by Andy Warhol from 1965-1967 in promotion and perception. Multi leveled pranks that masquerade as art were Andy’s forte, and it is quite possible that we will have to forever leave this mystery unsolved. Reed has left few clues, but gave evidence that he was chuffed at not being taken seriously as a modern classical musician- something John Cale had effortlessly accomplished (see his 1971 album with Terry Riley-Church of Anthrax),  and something Young and Xenakis had done a decade before with some very similar approaches to sound. Will we ever know the truth?  As a record store colleague once said to me, “there’s certainly months more of work to investigate further, but I just avant-garde the time.”. .

A quick addendum: With decades of retrospect at this point, Metal Machine Music occupies much of the same territory of music history as George Harrison’s much maligned 1969 Moog synthesizer album, Electronic Sound on the Zapple imprint. People took both of these albums as perplexing and perhaps insulting. Many people felt ripped off in general, while critics remained split. Did Harrison and Reed create works so ahead of their time that nobody understood them? This argument holds more water with Metal Machine Music than Electronic Sound, yet that question will always linger…”Was it all a self indulgent workout that was better left unheard, or a scam to screw with us, or were these guys just that far ahead of the curve?”  Let the sounds wash over you and then decide.

Edgar Froese: Yes I Invented Space Rock. See You In the Cosmos

Edgar Froese passed away this week (January 20, 2015), and most of the world have zero idea what a legend this man was. That right there is a shame. John Lennon dies? John Entwistle? Johhny Cash? Headlines across the world. Edgar’s passing has created nary a ripple in most news outlets. And this is also a shame, for this man was a giant and a pioneer of synthesizer based music. He was the founding and sole surviving member of the German kosmische synthesizer trio Tangerine Dream. You may know them from the soundtracks to Risky Business or Firestarter. Others may remember darkened college dorm rooms with Stratosfear or Phaedra bending uninitiated minds to the edge of sanity. But one thing is certain: this man is single handedly responsible for most of space rock, krautrock and hell, even techno. That is a pretty large legacy for an under the radar German synthesizer  guy.

Electronic_Meditation

For those who are new to this, let me get this out there: you need to own some Tangerine Dream albums. This band pretty much created a sound and scene on their own. Meetings and work in the late 60’s with Salvador Dali and Karlheinz Stockhausen cracked Edgar’s rock n roll reality. Multi media, lights, plays, music, improvisation? This was the signpost for the future.  A new wind blowing through Europe encouraged experimentation.   Fledgling experiments under the  moniker Tangerine Dream started in 1967, with Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive as the blueprint. But where Pink Floyd quickly abandoned their massive sonic improvisational sound for songs, Edgar and company took the model even further. The first Tangerine Dream album, Electronic Meditation (1970), was a miasma of sound. Klaus Schulze, future synth god was aboard as the drummer. Many of Germany’s great space rock musicians had floated though the band before they broke internationally. But still it was rooted in the rock format-drums, organ and guitar were the predominant blueprint.

Phaedra             Rubycon                 Ricochet         Stratosfear           Encore               Tangerine-Dream-Sorcerer

It was the period from 1972-1978 that was their glory period though, and the stretch where the albums that defined a genre were created. Kraftwerk, another synthesizer trio from Germany that broke in the US, were filled with repetitive blips and clicks. Tangerine Dream pulled in the sounds of the cosmos. Huge soundscapes were the order of the day. Melody, rhythm, chord structures? No thanks. 1972’s Zeit was a sprawling double album that sounded like a 60 cycle electronic hum accompanied by droning cellos. This was about as far from rock that anyone could get. Yet they swung in rock crowds, and attracted rock audiences. They caught the attention of Virgin Records, who were coming off the massive success of Mike Oldfield with Tubular Bells. They were looking to grab any fringe bands, and the enthusiasm of DJ John Peel for the band ensured they got signed. 1974’s Virgin debut Phaedra was the result. The classic trio of Edgar Froese, Chris Franke and Peter Baumann had pretty much abandoned their ‘normal’ rock instruments (guitar, drums, keyboards respectively) for a new form of musicianship. VCS3 synthesizers, mellotrons and electronic effects replaced normal instrumentation for most of their tunes. Prototype sequencers generated hypnotic rhythmic patterns, drawing in the LSD and stoner crowd from England and Europe. Fans of space rock who thought Pink Floyd had sold out and gone commercial and that Hawkwind was stagnating in format now had a new darling-a synthesizer trio that could genuinely freak out the hard core freaks. Washes of sound induced paranoia could come on the heels of delicately beautiful piano driven melodies. Moog modular synthesizers could conjure up genuine vertigo as the sensation of the floor suddenly slipping away poured from your speakers. This was some heady stuff. But was it rock? Lester Bangs described it as the “sound of silt seeping across the ocean floor”.

tandre16

Phaedra was the breakthrough. It sold massively in the UK, and was the underground hit of the year. With little publicity and zero airplay (barring John Peel’s rabid enthusiasm), it shot to near top ten in British charts. Europe and America started to notice. A tour in 1974 used cathedrals as venues (the natural ambience providing a powerful and impressive reverb character to the sound). A concert at a cathedral in Reims France in summer 1974 drew international attention when over 5,000 fans tried to cram into a cathedral that barely held 2,000. People were literally hanging from the rafters. (the Pope banned them from cathedrals, and sent emissaries to ritually ‘exorcise’ the sullied church) What the hell was going on? People were in a frenzy trying to see what many thought was just subliminal hums and static? And the band reinforced the image by never acknowledging the crowd. They came on to a darkened stage, played, and left. No song introductions, no hello or goodbye. Was this rock n roll?

After the international success of Stratosfear (1976), Tangerine Dream’s legend was assured. A massive tour of the United States was documented on the 1977 live album Encore (highly recommended as a starting point for anyone uninitiated, as is Ricochet). Krautrock was a recognized genre (see: Can, Cluster, Klaus Schulze, Conrad Schnitzler, Amon Duul 2, Faust, Neu, Guru Guru, Klaus Schulze, Kraan, Eloy…) and German synthesizer pioneers started to work with dance club divas (Donna Summer’s I Feel Love was a prime example). The seeds that spawned techno had been planted by German synthesizer pioneers.

So this brings us back to today, and the passing of a genuine electronic music genius. His work has been massively influential on swaths of musical fields. I had the pleasure of meeting Edgar briefly back stage after a 1986 US show. I approached him to shake his hand, and said “Danke schoen Edgar”  He looked me in the eye and said in a thick German accent: “You’re welcome”. Thank you Edgar. See you in the cosmos.