Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rock: From The Beginning-2

In the United States Nik Cohn is probably better known for having written an article in 1976 for New York Magazine that was later adapted into the John Travolta film "Saturday Night Fever."  Cohn's immersion into New York City's disco scene produced "Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night."  The movie itself, had a galvanizing effect on the country, it would lead to an anti-Disco backlash spurred by the rally cry of "Disco Sucks."  It grew increasingly violent with strong anti-minority overtones, the hate mongering would culminate in a riot during a White Sox's game at Comisky Park. The rock shock troops were encouraged by D.J. Steve Dahl, to bring disco albums and tapes to the stadium, so he could blow them up on the field.  60,000 plus showed up with thousands of albums, the vinyl discs soon became projectiles landing on the field of play. From there, it all went horribly wrong and Chicago had a full scale disco riot on its hands.  Leave it to a Brit to come over here and start some shit, Nik Cohn was born in London but his family relocated to Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Cohn, who is Jewish was odd man out during the tribal warfare between Catholics and Protestants. For Nik it was a balancing act; "I was an outsider top to bottom, a Jew, equally unacceptable to both."  Besides  Rock: From the Beginning, his other titles include: Rock Dreams (a coffee table book produced with artist Guy Peellaert), Arfur Teenage Pinball Queen (said to have inspired The Who's Tommy) and one of his most recent works; "Triksta: Life and Death in New Orleans Rap."  Cohn went down to Nola and tried to do the same for that genre of music that he did for disco (kill it off?) the book received lukewarm reviews as some questioned Cohn's capacity to fully grasp the subtle nuances of the New Orleans rap scene.
Beatlemania swept America, forcing everyone to re-think everything. If Elvis was modern, The Beatles were ultra-modern, the hair, the clothes, even the way they talked was revolutionary. They changed our way of life, they transformed the landscape. "At the beginning of 1964, given the most frantic hype ever, they broke out in America and stole the first five places solid on the charts." Suddenly boys and men alike were letting their hair grow out, picking up guitars and learning the chords to "Love me Do" and "I Saw Her Standing There." "They had become unarguably the largest phenomenon that pop had ever coughed up." Cohn introduces us to the Fab Four: John Lennon "A roughneck who rampaged through Liverpool like some wounded buffalo, smashing everything that got in his way" Paul McCartney: "He was melodic, pleasant, inventive but with way too much syrup" George Harrison "He was less than impressive, he was slower than the rest, he tended to plod a bit" Ringo Starr: "He typified the best in the English Character, stability, lack of pretension, humour and a certain built-in cool"  It was all about being cool, it's the driving force behind rock and roll. The Beatles made girls lose control, as I sat in the living room watching them on Ed Sullivan with my sisters screaming all around me, I couldn't help but think, "These guys are so cool."
 The Beatles were just the tip of the iceberg, the next wave of musicians had a larger, more sustained impact. That brought The Stones: "They were mean and nasty, they beat out the toughest, crudest noise any English band had ever made." Throughout the first phase of the British Invasion, The Stones lagged behind the Beatles. It took them longer to develop their songwriting skills, they didn't mesh, they were quite different from the Beatles. Mick Jagger "Came out of a solid middle-class background and had attended the London School of Economics." Keith Richards "Came from Tottenham and was quite tough" Brian Jones was "insecure, neurotic & highly intelligent" Charlie Watts "Never Talked" Bill Wyman "Was older, married, he didn't quite belong." Their appeal was also different "The Stones were more loutish than they had to be but then, after all, each pop generation must go further than the one before."  They reveled in the trappings of evil, just enough to lure in that faction of the record buying public that wanted something naughty.  The Beatles were Sgt. Pepper, The Stones were Their Satanic Majesties, good guys, bad guys, you had a choice. More British bands would follow, The Animals, The Kinks, The Yardbirds etc., the supply seemed endless. Thousands of garage bands were launched, the seeds of American garage punk were planted and would soon grow to challenge the very Brits who planted them. It's ironic that the British took American music, that we  had tossed aside, reworked it and brought it back and it was fab!
America would respond to the invasion with two radically different musical icons, Brian Wilson and Barry Gordy. Surf music was born in California, which Cohn described as  "A hugely enlarged reality, that verges on complete fantasy."  To Cohn it was "The home of the lotus eaters." To the surfers of the Golden State it was simply a way of life and a philosophy,"Dude! sunshine and big waves makes for a perfect day." Beginning with "I Get Around" in 1964, Wilson established himself as the equal of Lennon & McCartney. For the next two years he scored hit after hit, alternating between Surf and Hot Rod songs before moving on to carefully crafted pop masterpieces, "He turned out a succession of near tone-poems, fragile pools of sound, small choirs running through mock-fugues." Brian Wilson had elevated himself to a higher plane and then he crashed hard.  The same compulsive engine that drove him to excel also drove him to breakdown.  Soul music evolved from 1950's R&B, Barry Gordy did not invent it, if Soul music had a "King" it would have to be James Brown. While Brown was gritty and funky, Motown was Cadillacs with sunroof tops. Gordy built a hit machine unlike anything ever seen before. Soul became America's #1 musical export, in the U.K. it was the music of choice for Mods. In The U.S. it cut across racial lines, it wasn't just black music, it was American music.
Bob Dylan was the village voice, plain spoken, yet cryptic and mysterious, he spoke for us and to us. He was the lyrical inspiration for this new wave, his conversion to electric rock was the flip of the switch that America needed to go fucking nuts.  America started to polarize from the moment Hippies flashed the first  peace sign at a square. Vietnam was creeping into the public conscience, Acid Tests and Timothy Leary would soon start blowing minds. The quest for higher consciousness became an obsession. The changes that were coming to the homeland were mind boggling.  Civil Rights, Counter Culture, Recreational Drugs, War, Peace Marches, Campus Occupations, Black Panthers, Political Assassinations.... Welcome to America, love it or leave it!  Bob Dylan had risen from the side of Woody Guthrie's deathbed to become the Dharma King of the mid-sixties revolution. Cohn explains: "He grew into a cult, he began to dominate and already, there were people who called him a genius, a primitive prophet."  He cast a large shadow, his influence on American rock and musicians between 1965 and 1970 is unmatched. Every song was received like a psalm from above to be deciphered and dissected. The Dylan chapter wraps up just as he's recovered from a harrowing motorcycle accident.  Bob has gone to Nashville to record "John Wesley Hardin" and "Nashville Skyline." Now, for the first time we realize that the prophet no longer desires to be a leader, he just wants to sit on the porch and pick some guitar.
The remainder of the book deals with the myriad of musical changes that followed The Beatles. He dedicates an entire chapter to The Who: "They were loud, on stage they worked between great fortresses of amps" Their first single "I'm The Face" became an anthem for The Mods who also get an entire chapter, Cohn describes them, "They were small strange creatures, very neat, they rode scooters, swallowed pills by the hundredweight" but what really made them Mods was their dress "They were hooked on clothes, any money they got went on making themselves look good." Throughout 1964, Mods and Rockers (updated Teds) would mass at seaside resorts to do battle. The Rockers were lower working class, harder, more resilient, The Mods on the other hand "Were on the edge, neurotic and everything that happened was anticlimactic" eventually the battles wore down the Mod tribes and they began to fall apart.  P.J. Proby gets his own chapter, he was a Texan, who became a huge star in England. Never heard of him? don't feel bad, hardly anyone in the U.S. knew who he was. He was transformed from Jett Powers, Hollywood bit actor, to P.J. Fuckin' Proby, English teen idol, almost by accident. His appearance on the Beatles 1964 British television special shot him to stardom. By 1965 "He'd established himself as the most mesmeric stage act England had seen" Cohn continues; "He was the biggest solo star around and he was always neck deep in hassles" The British press hounded Proby as only they can, until he shot back with a classic response: "I am an artist and should be exempt from shit" now those are qualities that make a star. I have a bit of P.J. Proby trivia for you, On Proby's 1968 album "Three Week Hero" the studio band was "The New Yardbirds" who were actually Led Zeppelin, sans Robert Plant.
Cohn spends another chapter on The Monkees, I wouldn't. Love, gets its own chapter, now don't get me wrong, I love me some Love, Arthur Lee was one cool cat, but after their first two albums they were kitty litter. Cohn goes on a bit more, he ends up writing about Eric Clapton and Cream, Joe Cocker and Julie Driscoll. If you're thinking to yourself, what no Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Grand Funk Railroad, Altamont, Woodstock, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Prog Rock, remember the book was written in 1969 and published in 1970. The age Nik Cohn writes about was the end period of what we fondly refer to as the "Good Old Days."  America nearly went to hell in a hand basket after 1970, what with Nixon, Watergate, The Anti-War Protests and The Gas Crisis. American music would change radically with the coming of Disco, Glitter Rock, Power Pop, Punk Rock, Arena Rock, Hair Bands, Alternative, Indie, Rap, Grunge, a genre for every taste and every lifestyle. Music became portable, now you could move about your day to the beat of your own soundtrack. Awopbop....whatever!, I just call it "Rock: From The Beginning" is flawed in many ways. However, it documents the early history of rock and roll in an epic way. It hasn't aged well, but I give kudos to Nik Cohn for not going back and editing what he wrote in 1969. His use of the terms Negros, Negress or Coloured might seem odd or even racist, but they were accepted terms then and for all I know are still used in the U.K.  The way he goes on about male vocalists, may seem a bit fanciful to some but it's just his style.  In conclusion, if you love rock and roll or if you fancy yourself a rock writer, you should read the book.