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Wednesday, April 06, 2016
I Can’t See For Miles:
Rock Music as a Racial War Zone, 1968-74.
For a brief window at the drag-end of the 1960s and the trudge into the early ‘70s, the now-accepted narrative of rock n’ roll (and subsequently, Rock Music) as a tale of black musical forms repurposed by white musicians could, if viewed from the right angle, have seemed a lot less certain than it does to us today.
Admittedly, the ‘colonial’ aspect of rock n’ roll (a project whose trajectory must still have seemed almost accidental to its largely well-meaning participants, I hasten to add) was already well established by 196X. By most accounts, it was initiated the moment Elvis made the scene, and of course it gained a significant boost in the early/mid ‘60s through the ascendency of British r’n’b, culminating in the black-face pantomime of vocalists like Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart, and the exaggerated buffoonery of the Clapton/Beck school of blues-busting lead guitar worship.
(As an aside, is it merely coincidental do you think that these traditions developed at the same time that the retrospectively mortifying Black & White Minstrel Show continued to be rapturously received by British TV & theatre audiences? Whilst the rock musicians may appear more sympathetic to us in their earnest reverence for “the real thing”, wasn’t the culture that both legitimised and celebrated their desire to recreate it as parody, often at the direct expense of contemporary black music [see for instance the oft-overlooked aggro between hippies and reggae-affiliated skinheads in late ‘60s London], essentially the same?)
So far, so familiar. But, if we go back to ’68-’70, my contention is that the finality of this black-to-white trajectory was not yet set in stone. And the lightning bolt that came to put a big fucking crack in that stone (if you will) was of course Jimi Hendrix.
In terms of the racial dynamic within rock n’ roll at the time, Hendrix very much represented an ‘alchemical marriage’ – a too-good-to-be-true messianic figure, here to right all wrongs, unite the tribes and take everyone to the next level. With his naively sincere appreciation of Dylan, The Beatles and even Clapton, he offered an olive branch to the honky, whilst the quote-unquote “authentic” grit and fury of the blues that was perceived as his birthright continued to boil beneath every note he played.
With THESIS and ANTITHESIS of the ol’ Leninist dialectic thus duly covered furthermore, the golden boy actually proceeded to go the distance and give us SYNTHESIS. Taking on board the one true innovation fostered by the British guitar cult – the utilisation of excessive volume, feedback and pure noise – he immediately pushed it further, and explored it more creatively and excitingly, than any of his fussier, more technique-fixated contemporaries, establishing a new benchmark for all future rock guitar, wherein a level of distortion that had previously only been hinted at by the most unhinged and eccentric of his predecessors subsequently became the norm. (It is here, needless to say, that the obsessive pursuit of pre-amp processing and tonal ‘effects’ that now consumes approximately 98% of the time and budget of the average white ‘indie’ guitarist has its origins.)
Whilst Jimi Hendrix was thus the natural spearhead for a black reclamation of rock n’ roll culture in the late 1960s, he was far from the only figure pushing in this direction,
Figures as titanic as James Brown, Sly Stone and Aretha Franklin were all busy mixing draughts of heavier, angrier, more ‘rock’ influenced sound into their music, that, along with Norman Whitfield’s bold productions for The Temptations and Edwin Starr at Motown, created a nameless, sprawling mass of vast potency that pushed far beyond the commercially defined parameters of ‘soul’, but was not yet fenced off by the exclusionary shelving tag of ‘funk’. (In the music industry as in ceremonial magic, to name something is to control and confine it.)
At the same time, even the re-emergence of originators such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker – returning like absent kings to collect the keys to their kingdom from the denizens of psychedelic ballrooms – must have spawned hope and expectation. (After all, look at the transformative rumpus those guys casually kicked up back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Who in 1969 was to say they couldn’t do it again, and reap appropriate financial rewards into the bargain?)
For the hopeful onlooker, particularly in the vexed climate of the post-MLK USA, the prospect of black America finally regaining the driving seat of Western popular music must have seemed intoxicating.
One such onlooker, peering enviously through the fronds from a camp too fusty and marginal to yet join this optimistic bacchanal, was the ascetic, warlock-like figure of Miles Davis.
On one level, Davis’s blatant attempts to mimic Hendrix, both before and after the latter’s death, could appear rather pathetic to the casual observer. Replacing his earlier wardrobe of impeccably tailored suits with outlandishly garish ‘psychedelic’ attire and feeding his trumpet through a wah-wah pedal, the increasingly emaciated older man could easily have become a laughing stock – were it not for the fact that the music he created as a result of his infatuation with Hendrix and the other ambitious black mega-stars remains so indelibly powerful that to belittle its creator in any way whatsoever would be an act of shameful cultural ignorance.
On first spin, ‘Bitches Brew’ (Davis’s chief statement of intent vis-à-vis the new music that the post-Hendrix era emboldened him to instigate) is not a platter that’s going to blow the mind of many rock fans straight out of the gate. Indeed, in spite of the voluminous litanies of critical praise that the album has attracted over the years, helping to smuggle it into our homes and ears, cloaked by its proximity the rest of the canonical major label ‘classics’, it is a record that functions more like a slow release gas canister or a buried piece of hypnotic suggestion, lurking quietly on CD shelves and in mp3 libraries, waiting patiently for an opportunity to immerse the unsuspecting listener in its ungraspable aural sorcery.
Rich in congas, electric pianos and other recognised signifiers of lameness, it is also, in keeping with Davis’s work as a whole, entirely lacking in the kind of fire-breathing, truth-blurting sax epiphanies that us ruffian rock fans typically gravitate towards when dipping our toes in the jazz canon. An arch piece of contrarianism, ‘Bitches Brew’ presents the novice listener with what initially seems to be several massive, patience-testing chunks of featureless, texturally unfashionable nothingness.
Pointedly lacking in both the technical pyrotechnics of bop and the pungent badassery of black rock and funk, it is liable to slip ever further down the ‘to listen’ pile, ready to emerge again, perhaps years later, to test what we have learned in the interim.
What the listener will need to have learned, of course, is that, to some people (many of whom drive bulldozers), a rainforest looks like nothingness. As inscrutable as it may initially seem, once you have let the texture of ‘Bitches Brew’ sink into your consciousness, it opens up to reveal what must surely be one of the richest sound-worlds ever captured via the conventional recording of traditional instruments.
How many of us dopes have, at some point in our lives, whacked the side of our skulls and proclaimed, “by heavens, this is an AMBIENT album!”, letting the fact that it was laid down and filed so very far away from the time and place in which are teachers tell us Brian Eno and some German guys invented that concept slowly sink in.
Buzzing, hissing, swishing, dripping, hooting and shaking, driven on by a monster groove whose pulse seems to owe more to the breeze and the tides than to Max Roach or the JBs, the instruments wrangled by Miles and his collaborators on ‘Bitches Brew’ form a kind of self-contained eco-system that reminds me of nothing so much as the fantastical jungle paintings of Henri Rousseau.
And if all this sounds a bit hippie-ish, well, as per Eno’s later formalisation of the concept, an ‘ambient’ record can effectively act as a cloak – a kind of signal-jamming encryption beneath which more challenging ideas can be introduced and exchanged. In the case of ‘Bitches Brew’, the rainforest may represent a kind of stasis, but if so, it is a stasis built on perpetual motion, full of sudden movement, cacophonous upset and, for the incautious tourist, danger.
Once you get deeper into it in fact, the barely suppressed violence beneath the placid exterior of ‘Bitches Brew’ becomes impossible to ignore. Like hunting animals, the lead instruments skitter around, leap and retreat, ever wary, avoiding confrontation. The playing of all the musicians is wired and permanently on edge, recognizing that, under the watchful eye of Miles, their conduct must at all times be exemplary, but also painfully aware that they’ll bring down an unwanted showdown the moment they dare poke their heads above the undergrowth.
Creating a sense of simmering, unrelieved tension that passes undiminished through weird passages of shimmering tonal beauty, the overall effect of this atmosphere is utterly enervating, and remains unique in my experience as a listener.
Extending this inherently questionable rainforest metaphor further, it is difficult not to envision Miles himself as the good ol’ King of the Jungle figure - the big cat stalking his prey, the.. hey, why not go all the way with this shit and just call him a PANTHER, shall we?
Through the preceding decades of his jazz career, Miles had been fostering an atmosphere wherein, when he plays a note, people shut up and listen – and by the time of ‘..Brew’, he had it down to perfection. For his fans at the time, his actual playing on the record wouldn’t have constituted anything revelatory - his lines are as minimal, as painstakingly considered and as wracked by loss and frustration as his pre-existing legend demands. What’s new here is rather the experience of hearing how they hold their own against this strange, new electrified background, cutting through the undergrowth like a stalking predator, lethargic but deadly, pushing the twittering chaos that surrounds him deep into the background.
Although Miles Davis frequently claimed to operate a colour-blind recruitment policy when selecting his band members, the feverish obsession with race that increasingly seemed to consume him as he got older belies this, and one name that of course sticks out like a sore thumb on the sleeve of ‘Bitches Brew’ is that of John McLaughlin on electric guitar.
Assuming he ever deemed to speak about it at all, Davis’s decision-making process in selecting McLaughlin remains blurry. I don’t have the relevant biographies and what-not to hand, but the question immediately springs to mind is: wouldn’t he have rather got Hendrix? Did he try? Was Hendrix unavailable, or uninterested? Or, more interestingly for your purposes here, did Miles actually want to avoid being drawn into some kind of epic ego battle that could have worked against their overall musical/racial cause of both musicians? [Of course, McLaughlin had already played on ‘In a Silent Way’ a year earlier, so Miles probably already had him on the payroll, if you want a spoil-sport Occam’s Razor explanation. – Ed.]
Anyway, we got McLaughlin, and his inclusion on ‘Bitches Brew’ proved a stroke of genius the like of which even Miles himself could probably never have anticipated. A nimble-fingered scion of the same British blues lineage that gave us Clapton et al (and who would soon of course go on to take virtuosic bombast to head-spinning new extremes in Mahavishnu Orchestra), one can easily imagine McLaughlin being set up as a ‘rube’ by Miles on ‘Bitches Brew’ – a target to be taken down.
He might well have been expected to enter the tense, electrically charged forest atmosphere of the album like a blundering great white hunter, his bright, bold playing tootling away a mile a minute, saying nothing much beyond “look – rock guitar on a jazz record!”, just waiting for Miles to put horn to lips and deliver the smackdown – a single, sonorous note that would have Big John, like everyone else, quaking in his boots as the Panther treads softly through the grass.
Thankfully for us all though, and to McLaughlin’s eternal credit, that’s not the way things panned out at all. Clearly hip to the heads-down wariness of his band-mates, he slips into the fabric of ‘Pharaoh’s Dance’ as subtly as a ninja, adding a gauze-thin layer of woody, textural fret-scrabbling that demands no retaliation. Growing in confidence as the album progresses, it’s only on the second disc that he really breaks out, by which point he has learned to expertly mimic his potential aggressor, adding piercing shards of hi-end overdrive into furtive solos that feel as incisive and knottily cerebral as those of his band leader.
Surprised and, one hopes, impressed by his guitarist’s gumption (he even named a song after him for god’s sake – not the sorted of thing Miles “everyone’s a motherfucker cept me” Davis did just for laffs), Miles responds to McLaughlin in a spirit of dialogue rather than rank-pulling aggression, and the pair’s spark-spitting interplay across the red skies of ‘Spanish Key’ and ‘Miles Runs The Voodoo Down’ - more an impassioned summit on revolutionary street-battle tactics than a mere “frank exchange of blues” - is the final rocket that puts ‘Bitches Brew’ up amongst the gods – an untouchable achievement whose poker-faced refusal to yield to conventional criticism makes it forever fresh as it searches out new ears.
Miles and McLaughlin would of course go on further build their musical relationship through the louder, ballsier and even more magnificently rock-damaged triumvirate of ‘Jack Johnson’, ‘Live Evil’ and ‘On The Corner’ over the next few years, but it is ‘..Brew’ that provides the pivotal moment – a form of “fusion” whose boundaries extend far beyond the mere mash-up of rock and jazz tropes that later came to define that genre, and a far more important step forward from Hendrix’s initial alchemical synthesis than would likely have been achieved had Miles instead just rocked up at Jimi’s place to record an hour of fuzz-blasting power jams.
The triumph of ‘Bitches Brew’ and its follow-ups provide just one pertinent example of the wider growth of utopian, inter-racial ‘fusion’ music that briefly flourished between about 1968 and 1971. Watch just about any concert film or music doc from this era and you will find some evidence of the new breed of racially mixed big band jam units who were doing the rounds post-Woodstock, both inspired by, and no doubt providing inspiration to, Miles’s electric bands and Hendrix’s own short-lived “Band of Gypsies”.
From Tony Williams Lifetime to The Electric Flag, Buddy Miles Express and Eric Burden & War, the black reclamation of Rock was on the move, positing a two-way traffic of ideas (perhaps even extending to a three, four or five way junction once Hispanic and Asian influences were thrown into the mix), and anticipating the day when entirely non-white ‘rock bands’ might begin to appear on North American stages, shaking – if perhaps ever so gently at first – the foundations of the USA’s historically segregated music industry.
Which sets the stage, needless to say, for what we are sadly obliged to call The White Fight Back. Whilst your correspondent is still a little too sane/conventional [delete as applicable] in his thinking to go in for the full-on conspiratorial mind-set with regard to this rarely acknowledged phenomenon, the inexplicable ascendance of purely ‘white’ East Coast rock in the early ‘70s, combined with lizard-like ivory tower racism hinted at in passing in numerous memoirs of the 1970s New York hipster / record exec elite, make it difficult to discount such possibilities entirely.
Bogus as the aims of this theoretical project must undoubtedly have been however, it is ironic to note that the process of surgically separating Rock Music from its black origins had already been instigated - to novel and exhilarating effect – by several of the best independently-minded white rock bands to emerge from the late 1960s.
Iggy Pop has oft been want to describe his work with The Stooges as “white, suburban, delinquent music”, and indeed this concise summation is more than borne out by the group’s 1969 self-titled LP, wherein brothers Ron and Scott Asheton pointedly refuse to imitate the syncopations and ‘licks’ of blues and black dance music.
Born jointly from cultural honesty, youthful bullheadedness and pure technical primitivism, this refusal (highly unusual amongst the band’s peers) saw the brothers’ guitar riffs and drum patterns simplified into an assaultive, one dimensional grind, expanding the too-dumb-for-the-blues, building block chords of the Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ and The Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing’ into an irresistibly thuggish template that went on to largely define the sound of the self-conscious Punk Rock bands that began to spring up a decade or so later.
Meanwhile, very much at the other end of the innocence/experience spectrum, we find The Velvet Underground, who, tiring of the John Lee Hooker-indebted urban boogie around which their sound had initially coalesced, instigated a conscious attempt to break away from what they now saw as the tasteless and clichéd mimicry of black forms.
Although founding members Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison had initially boasted that, as college students in Boston, they spent their time frequenting wrong-side-of-the-tracks r’n’b clubs where other whites were too scared to venture, by the time the Velvets came to record their second LP in 1968, so the story goes, Reed was actually threatening to fine band members who dared play blues licks in rehearsal.
The extraordinary sound the band created as a result of this decision can be heard on ‘White Light / White Heat’ - a screeching, cathertic tirade of confusion and torment that seems to represent the trauma of embryonic white ‘rock’ being forcibly separated from its mother (black rhythm and blues), after which we hear the troubled child struggling to survive and find its own identity amid an intimidating world filled with nasty things like ‘art’ and ‘literature’.
After the unsustainable, end-of-the-line boogie which literally collapses at the conclusion of the album’s title track, this bloody separation is dramatised in metaphor during the surgical nightmare of ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’, and, by the time we reach the near arrhythmic noise freak-out of ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ and the stentorian anti-groove of ‘Sister Ray’, the poor kid is shivering in an orphanage, wondering what the future holds.
[The author’s attention has been drawn to the fact that ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ in fact goes full circle by taking inspiration from such cutting edge black musicians as Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, but he contends that trying to fit this into his theory makes his head hurt, and he doesn’t want to think about it right now. – Ed.]
A year or so later, the scars of this traumatic birth appeared to have healed, and The Velvet Underground seemed entirely at ease with their ‘white’ musical identity, recording a self-titled third LP whose mixture of gently strummed, clean-toned guitars, wallflower-ish, sexless rhythms and literate, emotionally resonant lyrics inadvertently set the blueprint for the innumerable multitude of “indie-pop” bands who now delight the globe with their scruffily collegiate stylings.
Whilst this initial establishment of a non-blues based rock lineage was artistically valid and formally innovative however, it was when these achievements began to filter up the food chain to the money-men that the trouble, inevitably, began.
Somewhere, (behind glass-fronted windows and amid attractive Scandinavian furnishings, I would like to think), certain desk jockeys and record pluggers who had presumably made hay via the ‘uptown’ r’n’b sound of Phil Spector and the Brill Building began to get wise. Back in the early ‘60s, the natural enemies of these guys had been the regional independent labels responsible for pushing “wilder” black music onto the market, and, whether through necessity or mere habit, the instinct to shut down such insubordination remained.
By the end of the decade, the demands of a newly emergent ‘rock’ audience conditioned to revere the performance of “authentic” American music had made it almost obligatory for white rock bands to swear fealty to ‘the blues’ if they were to achieve widespread success on the festival and concert circuit.
On the West Coast, the music industry had managed to bypass this problem by cultivating acts who substituted equally “authentic” (but reassuringly white) folk and country influences for those of rhythm and blues, but elsewhere across the country, the post-Woodstock listeners’ apparently unquenchable thirst for ever more aggressive and indulgent ‘blues’ performances necessitated a more urgent and comprehensive solution, lest the power-house ‘fusion’ combos listed earlier in this article should gain a permanent foothold from which to spread their dangerous integrationist ideologies.
The eventual solution settled upon by the East Coast industry was so ingenious in its counter-intuitive sneakiness, it should have been awarded some sort of clandestine prize for such things (perhaps handed out each summer at Bohemian Grove?), and the execution of their plan can most clearly be seen by examining the meteoric rise to success of their chief instrument, the ironically named Grand Funk Railroad - a blues-rock power trio who formed in Flint, Michigan in 1969 and signed with Capital Records the same year.
Although they are largely remembered today merely as the punchline of some jokes on The Simpsons and for inspiring the name of the Butthole Surfers’ dog, Grand Funk were a bone fide big deal in the early 1970s. Pushed by a management team whose Mafia-like persuasiveness was rivalled only by that of Led Zeppelin, the band’s mealy-mouthed “we’re-all-together-now-brothers-and-sisters” hippie generalities were propagated through every possible medium, from giant billboards to tie-ins with fast food and soft drinks franchises, and in the summer of 1971, Grand Funk Railroad became the first popular music group since The Beatles to sell out New York’s Shea Stadium, breaking the fab four’s attendance record a mere 72 hours after tickets went on sale.
Whether anticipated by organisers or otherwise, these events became a full scale, festival-style ‘happening’, as legions of the band’s field hippie following trekked across NY’s perilous transport network, establishing makeshift camps in the vicinity of the stadium and generally having whatever passed for a gay old time amid such Quaalude-crunching hair farmers. The main difference of course being that, unlike at Woodstock, these ‘free spirits’ were each paying top dollar for admission, merchandise and refreshments – a development that was no doubt keenly noted within the industry.
Although the music of Grand Funk Railroad (as best experienced on their 1970 ‘Grand Funk Live Album’ double LP) is ostensibly rooted in blues tradition, thus catering to the expectations of the contemporary rock audience, in actuality it does an extremely effective job of *sabotaging* its own purported lineage.
Boiling down the 12-bar-turnaround / riffs n’ solos structure of white blues into an utterly monotonous, knuckleheaded drag of undifferentiated sonic gruel, Grand Funk’s sound seems purposefully designed to make the causal listener – even if he or she is on one level enjoying the music – question the artistic validity of the form to such an extent that, if a laboratory test were carried out, participants who had listened to the entirety of ‘Grand Funk Live Album’ several times in succession would no doubt be liable to express a desire to never again hear anyone singing “the blues” for the remainder of their lives.
As might well have been expected, critics responded to the runaway popularity of Grand Funk Railroad with consternation. Unable to explain the public’s enthusiasm for such ugly and degenerate music through any other means, many writers simply fell back on attacking the band’s audience, who were characterised as deluded drug abusers, too out of their mind on cheap alcohol and what were at the time known as ‘downers’ to sensibly judge the merits of the recordings and concerts they were experiencing. This cruel slight (which was also regularly leveled, even less fairly, at fans of Black Sabbath) has remained so central to the critical perception of Grand Funk that I even used it myself a few paragraphs ago, just for a cheap laugh and to help keep the tradition going.
(Although Lenny Kaye’s definitive article for Creem on Grand Funk’s Shea Stadium concert is unfortunately behind a paywall, a fair picture of the press’s dismissive attitude to the band can be gleaned by consulting Timothy Ferris’s ‘Grand Funk Railroad: Is This Band Terrible?’ for Rolling Stone, available here.)
Far from damaging the band’s commercial prospects however, such snobbish dismissals only served to fan the flames of their insurgent popularity. From the point of view of Grand Funk’s management and the more sinister forces who may or may not have leaned upon them, it was all part of the plan. By turning their back on critical favour, Grand Funk allowed themselves to be marketed as “the people’s band”, cynically exploiting an ideal previously embodied by the far more socially committed and musically enduring Californian group Creedence Clearwater Revival (and, further afield, by such genuinely antiestablishment bands as The Deviants and Hawkwind in the UK).
This easy shuck allowed the industry to pull off one of the most bravura examples to date of the same unsavoury maneuver they had been working since the ‘50s to deal with potentially troublesome rock n’ rollers, and that they continue to fall back on to this day: namely, using media smoke signals and carefully manicured public image to create the illusion that a particular act “means something profound” to its punters, even as the musicians in question make no articulate or coherent statement about anything whatsoever.
In retrospect, Grand Funk’s music is not without merit, and, despite their absence from official histories, they maintain a steady cult following amongst members of the ‘stoner’, ‘doom’ and ‘noise’ rock sub-cultures, who appreciate the group’s hypnotic use of “heavy” low-end frequencies and brutish fuzz-tone effects.
The masochistic urges that drive enjoyment of these latter-day sub-genres however were still alien to the vast majority of listeners and commentators in the early 1970s, and, as the band’s early enthusiasts gradually outgrew their gallo wine & horse tranq binges and found they were required to get a goddamned job by the system to which their hard-rockin’ champions had so conspicuously failed to offer an alternative, the perception that Grand Funk’s strain of full strength blues-rock represented something aberrant, retrogressive and excessive, to be avoided at all costs by respectable citizens, soon became universal.
By 1973, Grand Funk Railroad were beginning to move away from blues-rock, taking what has been described as a more “radio friendly, pop-rock direction” and earning their highest chart placings to date thanks to the more nuanced guiding hand of producer Todd Rundgren.
Elsewhere, bands as disparate as Blue Oyster Cult, Aerosmith and Alice Cooper had appeared on the scene, all making careers for themselves playing an arch, self-conscious form of white heavy rock almost completely devoid of discernable black influence.
(Would it be in poor taste for me to imply at this point that the catalogue of drug problems, accidents and personal tragedies that dogged the careers of many more explicitly blues-based popular American rock bands during the 1970s [cf: The Allman Brothers Band, Canned Heat, Lynyrd Skynyrd] may have been something other than mere coincidence…? Probably.)
Though the Brit behemoths (Zep, Who, Stones) ostensibly kept the flame of black inheritance alight in the USA’s arenas, they did so through the by now thoroughly familiar means of absurdist parody, employing exaggerated put-ons that were increasingly accepted by listeners unschooled in the esoteric history of black music as ‘belonging’ to those bands.
By 1974, the idea of rock n’ roll having grown from black culture had been rendered entirely invisible to younger, suburban fans. Throughout the USA, “Southern Rock” bands now presented weak variations on funk and blues as if they were some kind of ancestral cowboy inheritance, whilst practitioners of actual funk and soul strained against the boundaries their racially-designated genre signifiers had consigned them to, commanded by the industry to be happy with their relatively meagre slice of the pie. (If James Brown was indeed “the hardest working man in showbiz”, his exertions must have seemed a sad exercise in furiously re-harvesting the same narrow furrow by the mid-1970s.)
Soon thereafter, the East Coast music industry delivered its final coup de grace in the form of Kiss – a supposedly ‘rebellious’, teen-orientated rock group, complete with their own cult-ish, quasi-military organisation, whose utterly WASP-ish music and myopic lyrical concerns were so firmly rooted in an acceptance of white, middle-class suburban conformity that they made the car and girl based tantrums of Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys sound like blood-thirsty declarations of bolshevik outrage by comparison.
By the time enraged ‘rock fans’ set out to literally burn the newly demarcated ghetto of “disco” in 1979, having apparently taken umbrage with the music’s perceived message of racial and sexual equality and lack of “authentic” musicality, the noble campaign to ‘even the keel’ of American musical culture that had originally been instigated by Miles Davis and others inspired by the example of Jimi Hendrix was so totally over that no one except Miles even bothered with the shouting.
Ever the seer, Davis must have seen this defeat coming earlier than most. Even if he couldn’t have anticipated the crushing totality of the record industry’s near-Stalinist extermination of the integrationist cause, one imagines he must have seen the writing on the wall as early as 1970, when his tight-as-a-whip electric band found themselves playing second fiddle to the slumberous cowboy music of Neil Young & Crazy Horse at the Fillmore East, and this failure to ‘break through’ perhaps became the primary contributor to the legendary cruelty, resentment and anger that fuelled the musician throughout his final decades.
As in any pivotal military engagement, success was at one point so near, yet remained so far. Even with Jimi out of the picture, all it would have taken was one more big figure, too awesome to ignore, to turn the powers-that-be on their heads. One blazing innovator who refused to be lined up and filed under funk & disco, and a manager or two with the balls to break the barricades and get him or her into the charts. If only Prince had been born a decade earlier, if only Michael Jackson had punched his dad in the chops aged seventeen and got into punk, everything could have been different…
Accompanied by such “if only’s..”, Miles saw out his remaining years in the increasingly marginalized jazz community like Napoleon on St Helena, as ‘rock’ sailed its unfortunate course without him.
Now suddenly, here we are in 2016, and anyone with an interest in the potential of electric guitars played in rhythm is expected to have an opinion on Jack White. No wonder we’re either hiding behind a wall of doom metal or scouring the “world music” racks in search of some reissued Eritrean with a fuzz box.
The author would like to make clear that, in spite potentially dismissive comments used for rhetorical effect in the above essay, he personally enjoys the music of Blue Oyster Cult, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, The Faces, Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Kinks, The Troggs, The Yardbirds and Grand Funk Railroad. Eric Clapton and Kiss can go suck it, however.
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