Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Nerd Alert Follow-Up

I started writing this in the comment section for Eric's post, but it got too long...

Look, a couple things to consider in comparing eras. Number one is that rock music was so much more mainstream in the 60s than it was today. "Stairway to Heaven" was the most requested song in history at that point. (maybe still) "Bohemian Rhapsody" was a #1 single for weeks. "Hype vs. Reality" debates concerned Bob Dylan and Donovan, both of whom are respected today. (One more than the other of course.)

When you talk about the most hyped bands of today, you have to remember that most of the country is paying attention to hip hop more than they are to rock. So maybe it would be more appropriate to talk about someone like Snoop Dogg, who had this earth-shaking debut and then got progressively worse to the point where he's now just an ironic cannabis icon.

And among the rock bands that really get the hype, I'd say nearly all of them won't live up to their billing over time. The White Stripes? Give me a break. What has that band done that Led Zeppelin or [insert bluesy punk band here] didn't do far better 30-40 years ago?

The problem with bands like the White Stripes and the Strokes is this: Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were ripping off old black delta bluesmen who the vast majority of people had never heard before-- therefore, these bands' contribution to mainstream culture was a breakthrough to those with limited cultural palettes.

Contrast that to the White Stripes and the Strokes, who are ripping off not obscure bluesmen, but rather Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones themselves-- acts that everyone has heard and who were doing the same thing, only better, decades earlier! All these 60's/70's rip-off bands will be judged irrelevant by history because they're adding nothing new to the musical canon.

But now consider bands that really are bringing something new to the mainstream. Radiohead comes to mind for their use of electronic music and their weaving back in forth between distorted rock and hypnotic lulls. Also, Paul Simon continues to push musical boundaries to this day. (Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints were great canonical contributions, but also check out Surprise, his most recent album.)

Same thing goes for David Byrne. Other acts (i.e. Arcade Fire) might be repackaging his Talking Heads material, but not him! His solo releases continue to span in all sorts of directions. And in the spirit of both Byrne and Simon (I can't believe I'm about to say this), if Vampire Weekend were to build on their culturally off-beat debut, they, too could prove to be an important band over time. (Lots to prove obviously, but their debut is promising.)

Praising Nirvana is about as bold as buying your coffee at Starbucks, but they achieved the same thing that I'm talking about with these other bands. They took the melodic, often scream-y pseudo-punk played by their idols (Pixies, Raincoats, Wipers, etc.) and introduced it to the mainstream radio market, most of whom hadn't heard this kind of music before.

And to clarify my overall point, everyone I've mentioned has something else in common besides unearthing obscure musical genres. They were all great songwriters/performers. Kurt Cobain was a better songwriter than Black Francis, Kim Deal, etc. Jimmy Page stole his licks from Robert Johnson, but he played them in a more electrifying fashion. Paul Simon writes catchier choruses than Ladysmith Black Mambazo. David Byrne doesn't just do one genre like his influences; he does 15. So these people rose to the top for a reason.

Contrast that to the nostalgia acts that dominate rock radio (and often Pitchfork as well), and note the difference. Those bands are watered-down versions of an older, better product. Nirvana, etc. stood the test of time because they outdid their influences. That is the difference.


Quinapalus said...

I agree with much of what you said, but I did want to take issue with a few points:

1. Kurt Cobain certainly wrote more accessible pop songs than The Pixies, but calling him a "better songwriter" is a pretty controversial thing to say. Having a wider appeal does not by definition make you "better", and while Smells Like Teen Spirit hit the zeitgeist in the right way to sell more records, song for song I think you could easily argue that Doolittle is actually a stronger record than Nevermind.

2. Jimmy Page may have literally "electrified" the licks he stole from Robert Johnson, but Johnson does not deserve AT ALL to have Page called his "better". Johnson was unfortunate enough to have been born into circumstances that have worked against his cultural longevity--and arguably the primitive state of recording equipment in his lifetime is as much to blame for that as the social realities of the segregated south. But for those who can put aside the scratchy, primitive nature of the recordings and listen to the imperfect record we have of Johnson, there can't be any doubt of the quality of his compelling, terrifying, electrifying performances. If Rick Rubin were somehow to get a hold of him and stick him in a 21st century recording booth, it's heartbreaking to imagine the kind of record that would result. And I'm sure that Page would be the first one to agree with me.

3. Snoop probably is a good example of an overblown music act that won't stand the test of time. On the other hand, whether you like his gangsta style or not, Dr. Dre will probably continue to be seen as a very important and influential figure whose beats and production changed the sound of rap music. In the long view, Snoop will probably be seen for what he was when initially launched on the scene: just Dre's plucky sidekick.

texplush said...

Think through your Vampire Weekend comment. You might want to revise. to describe them as "culturally off-beat" as opposed to derivative of Paul Simon, after tearing down the White Stripes for copying Led Zeppelin in the same breath is patently absurd.

drischord said...

My responses:

1. Tex, I simply disagree that Vampire Weekend is a Paul Simon rip-off band. I'd say that 3 of the 11 songs on their debut have Simon-isms, mostly in vocal lines, but the rest of the album has no more to do with him than any other pop/rock act. I don't think this debut makes them a great band, but I think that, for a debut, it shows great promise. Who knows where they'll go, but their sound is already unique to my mind.

Of course a number of my favorite bands, most notably Wilco and Radiohead, released wholly unremarkable debuts and look where they've gone. Guns N' Roses released a jaw-dropping debut and they haven't been heard from in 15 years. (Soon to change, of course!)

2. Q, I'll take Nevermind over Doolittle any day-- and not for its hits, but rather for its B-Side, which is one of the best of all time-- but your point is well taken. I'd still maintain that Kurt Cobain was a better singer than Black Francis and I think there's more of an emotional aspect to Nirvana's music, which helped them quite a bit in the angst-y teenage market. (Which featured me front and center.)

3. I think Jimmy Page was liberated not only by his race and recording techniques of the day (which, by the way, he also gets credit for; he was probably as innovative a producer as he was a guitarist.) I think he was also liberated by a more "anything goes" attitude in popular music than what Robert Johnson was dealing with. "Heartbreaker" is by no means my favorite Zeppelin song, but it's pretty remarkable the way he just stops the song to take that ridiculously spastic solo. The taste is questionable, but it is completely electrifying.

That said, your argument applies beautifully to my favorite Jimmy Page solo ever, "Since I've Been Loving You." If any of you haven't heard that song recently, you must. It is the best individual performance of Robert Plant's career, and John Paul Jones has never sounded better on organ. And then there's Page. This solo sounds like someone literally spilling their blood, guts, tears and emotions all over the floor. He leaves nothing behind. And you're right, Q. This is the kind of solo Robert Johnson could have produced with 70s distortion and great production values.

But there are so many other Zeppelin songs that start with the Johnson/Muddy Waters/Howlin' Wolf blues style but go so much further. "In My Time of Dying" comes instantly to mind, but they push it further on songs like "Celebration Day," "The Rover" and "Hots For Nowhere." Page, and that entire band, were so happy to experiment and take their music in so many different directions. That's why they aren't a blues rip-off act.

Just compare Page to Stevie Ray Vaughan, who by any technical criteria, is a superior guitarist. (Except maybe on folksy finger-picking.) SRV is awesome and an inspiration to guitar players all over the globe, but Page is the more important artist because he extracted so much more from the same blues influences.

In case it's not obvious, I am a gargantuan Zeppelin fan and will defend them in any context.

Quinapalus said...

Well, I certainly wasn't trying to denegrate Zeppelin, and particularly not Jimmy Page, but I still don't think you're giving Johnson his due. You talk about Page taking the blues "further", and being liberated by a more "anything goes" attitude. But of course any innovative artist has to start somewhere and take the music they love in a new direction, which was exactly what Johnson did in his own day. Johnson's blues can't be mistaken for anybody else's, he put his own distinctive stamp on what was in his day a vibrant and evolving musical art form, and he formed a vital part of the bedrock from which rock and roll, and thus most of the popular music of our own day, was descended.

Again, I have nothing but immense respect for Jimmy Page, and in some ways comparing him to Robert Johnson is comparing apples to oranges, but there's just no way I will ever accept that he was Johnson's better. I could respect an argument that in some ways he was Johnson's equal (though I wouldn't personally agree even with that), but taking a musical style and pushing it further doesn't in itself make you superior to the artists who formed the bedrock of the very style you're playing. In the words of the white Jewish rapper Edan "Any MC added on to the list/Pump your fist, but first give praise to true scientists."

drischord said...

Actually I'm not going as far as you think I am, Q. I agree that Johnson made a bigger contribution than Page, for the simple fact that he basically inspired an entire genre of music.

Although I should really amend that to say he inspired everyone in consort with a couple of other bluesmen-- the aforementioned Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf come immediately to mind, along with Son House.

But I'm mostly interested in declaring Page's superiority to his 70s peers and especially to the lame acts that rip him off today. I have never gotten the White Stripes. I don't actively dislike them or anything, but I just don't get the excitement.

And then the other thing about Page is that not only was he a brilliant blues thief, but he also really got into English folk and acoustic music. Bringing those two influences together the way Led Zeppelin did hasn't been done before or since.

And then of course, none of the other acts I'm mentioning had Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and John Bonham as well. Zeppelin was a team effort, even if Page gets more credit than the others.

texplush said...

drischord, you're kidding yourself. it is merely your preference for Simon-derivative pop rock over Zeppelin-derivative rock in this case that leads to lift up VW as promising and unique and continue to burn down the church of the white stripes.
everyone knows you hate jack white with all your soul. why deny it?
also, VW truly truly sucks live.