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The ‘Alternative’/’Mainstream’ Trope

Whilst perusing the Trash Theory vids posted on YouTube, I’ve been struck by the prevalence of one particular archetype (to use a different conceit to the usual trope/meme reductions), that of ‘alternative movements’ (one needs to use the inverted comma button so frequently in this sort of discussion) ‘versus’ (see what I mean?) the ‘mainstream’. I’m certainly aware that this supposed dichotomy has been around as long as I’ve been following ‘popular’ (aargh!) music, from around 1968.

So, we have, in these videos, the following sub-genres posited as alternatives’ to the ‘straights’: Punk Rock/Post-Punk/Pop-Punk/Skate-Punk/Folk-Punk/Ska-Punk/Dance-Punk/Hardcore/Post-Hardcore/EMO/Garage Rock. All of ‘em chasing the elusive cachet of, a variously credible ‘progressive’/ ’underground’/ ’alternative alternative’ to a purportedly less challenging Other. As Frank Zappa sardonically described a ‘difficult’ number during a 1968 concert at Boston’s Ark, it will “be better for you, in the long run”, indicating the Protestant work ethic that underlying much of America’ and Europe’s listening habits. Following Trash Theory’s series of videos, one can track particular generations’ notions of ‘Progressive Sounds’, from American 1950′s ‘Race Music’. i.e. black R & B, through to the ‘Blues and Folk Boom’ in the UK in the 1960s. The advent of ‘college radio’ and the university circuit, established by the late 1960s/early 1970s, potentiated both progressive rock (as described in Mike Barnes’s recent book) and, lest we forget, English free improvisation.

Trash Theory covers ‘Husker Du and the Birth of Alternative Rock’, citing the band as a precursor to Nirvana (never mind The Pixies or The Minutemen). Other videos cover The Smiths and British ‘Indie Rock’ in the 1980s, and The Buzzcocks’ influence on 1977′s DIY culture in the UK. Another decade, another ‘revolutionary’ act of independence. There is the ‘New York Revolution’ of the 1960s (The Velvet Underground, etc.) and again in the early 2000s (The Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, The Strokes, The White Stripes, LCD Sound System, Liars, and associated UK bands such as Franz Ferdinand and The Libertines), and how ‘Maps’ transcended the Post-Punk Revival (I wasn’t sure which revival this referenced, by this point). The Foals’s 1975 apparently represented ‘the 30-year retrospective cycle’, whatever that is, presumably another form of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania? 

We are truly down the rabbit hole here, with pop eating itself with an increasingly ravenous appetite. I haven’t heard much of Trash Theory’s later bands, but it’s clear that dance music isn’t the only musical genre that has split itself into a myriad of competing subdivisions.

Mothers of Invention Archives

Impelled by the lock down imperative, I have been gorging on YouTube, as previously mentioned. Yesterday, I came across prismfilms.co.uk and their ‘Prism Archives’, which include  lengthy interviews with members of the Mothers of Invention 1.0. (MOI), Bunk Gardner, Art Tripp, Don Preston and Jimmy Carl Black. These can stand alongside the interviews by Sam Andreyev, with various members of Captain Beefheart’s greatest bands, those of 1969-71. Of course, memberships of the groups of these two immortal figures, Zappa and Beefheart, tended to overlap at the time (Elliott Ingber, Tripp, Estrada, Bruce Fowler, for example) - those who remain to be tracked down are (in particular) the ‘”straight man of the group”, the mighty Ian Underwood, and also the likes of latter-day Beefheart alumni such as  Eric Drew Feldman, Bruce Fowler and Gary Lucas. Memorably, the MOI provided the background for The Blimp’ one of the most unforgettable tracks on Trout Mask Replica.

The Prism Films interviews appear to be a UK project (Jimmy Carl Black thoughtfully clarifies a few Americanism for his interviewer). Ray Collins is not featured (he passed in 2102), Roy Estrada is unfortunately in his own lifetime lock down in prison, and Black died in 2008, so these are important contributions to the legacy of Zappa’s greatest band. Jimmy Carl Black is an imediately immensely likeable interviewee, and by far the most enthusiastic of his peers, your own avuncular hippie guide, the ‘Indian of the Group’, and his recollections are priceless. He also seems also be the one most hurt by Zappa’s insensitive termination of the Mothers. It is interesting to hear how consistent their accounts are, and how they all regard this iteration of The Mothers as incredibly ‘tight’, both musically and socially (the least ‘intellectual’ but ‘warmest’ of all Zappa,s bands?)  Enjoy their various accounts of the infamous Berlin Sportspalast gig of 1968, sabotaged by the ‘Students for a Democratic Society’ (SDS), a sort of homicidal version of our own Socialist Workers Party, who effectively undermined their own pretentious moniker by acting out from their own particularly obnoxious bully pit. I was reminded of Fleetwood Mac’s treatment, that time passive-aggressive, at the hands of the nominally more ‘benign’ upper-class German hippies a couple of years later.

Gardner, Tripp and Preston recall their appearances in drag on the cover of We’re Only In It For the Money, a gloriously self-abnegating gesture for this bunch of macho groupie-abusers. As they point out, however, the equally macho Rolling Stones beat them to it, on the cover of the Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby,,,7-inch single from 1966. After Ray Collins left in, ‘68, the MOI became, essentially, an instrumental band, but, as Jimmy CB also points out, “we could play 300 songs at the drop of a hat…we were the best band in the whole fucking world…really”. One can also remember, in counterpoint, his complaints, on Uncle Meat, of “we’re all fuckin’ starving, man!”. But Black’s general enthusiasm is entirely appropriate when reviewing this group. Don Preston and Bunk Gardner are somewhat more circumspect. What is not in doubt is the closeness this ensemble clearly experienced in the years of 1967-9, before Zappa pulled the plug for a variety of reasons, some of them financial (as  a point of comparison, Bunk  Gardner has an indelible memory of Duke Ellington asking for a loan of 50 bucks from a promoter at this time).

What I learned was the fact that Zappa asked both Art Tripp and Ian Underwood to stay on, to form a quartet with bassist Jeff Simmons (who Bunk couldn’t stand, as it soon turned out). Hot Rats ensued, later in 1969 with only Underwood in tow, arguably Zappa’s greatest recording (along with Uncle Meat and Burnt Weenie Sandwich, imho). 1969/9 were years of fantastic creativity for Zappa, but, as with Beefheart, he narcissistically played down the contributions of his musicians. Now, along with with Sam Andreyov’s interviews with Bill Harkleroad, Jeff Cotton, Rockette Morton and (again) Art Tripp III, these exemplary musicians are finally being recognised as magnificent lights in themselves, as opposed to being merely reflections of the ‘genius’ of their band leaders.

Music and Literature: Always Great Supports in Adverse Times

I’ve lost count now of the number of UK and American commentators/comedians/politicians giving addresses from their homes, often with a backdrop of their large libraries and record collections. One of the ones I most enjoy is Seth Meyers, who is featured in his loft, with only copies of ‘The Thorn Birds’ as a prop. No doubt these large collections of LPs and hardback books are there to provide evidence of their owner’s cultural heft, and, in music vlogs, the sheer ‘heaviosity’ of their taste and purchasing nous, but the main thing that comes through is what nice houses these clearly affluent people live in. In politician’s cases, it also demonstrates how the comfortably-off are the ones making the decisions about how the much less comfortably-off are living their lives. It’s much easier to self-isolate in a six-bed-roomed house with a massive garden than it is in a bedsit. Politicians seem, as ever, not to appreciate this irony. Boris Johnson awarding himself a month-long convalescence in Chequers is a case in point. Nice ‘work’ if you can get it.

I spend much of my time in our front room, surrounded by my own collection of books and vinyl/compact discs/cassettes, so I am hardly one to point the self-righteous finger At one low point in my life, circa 1982/3, books and records were an absolute godsend - I managed to read all of A la Recherche Du Temps Perdu (incredibly good, and most relevant to my sufferings at the time) and make serious inroads into the establishment of a serious jazz collection. These current times are less grim times for me personally, and I am lucky enough to live in a house, with my wife and youngest daughter (24 years young). Every morning I wake up and commit myself to another day of not moaning, as I am far luckier than so many other people in London and across the country. 

I enjoyed Derek Walmsley’s ‘Masthead’ article, in this month’s Wire (May): “It’s why so many form relationships with music that last a lifetime, resembling a partner, a lover. Music is always there, there is always inherent power in submitting to its vibrations”. This is so true. So I’m looking around my ‘domain’- several hundred LPs (in alphabetical order, of course!) in made-to-measure shelving units, racks of CDs (many hidden away in cupboards due their ‘awkward squad’ status, in terms of both storage and display idiosyncrasies. Then you’ve got the 45s, ranged across one shelf in the main bookcase (another ’in search of lost times? symptom?), and my still considerable cassette collection, which is also hidden away (as are my wife’s collection of 45s. for some reason) as if it were some shameful family secret (I still know its there, though!). These are like extended family members, as Walmsley suggests, a comfort and a succour in these strange times, and I feel ‘contained’ in their presence. Or perhaps I’ve gone quietly mad, and will start talking to the collections soon, as Prince Charles allegedly does with the trees at Highgrove House?

Fleetwood Mac’s Quartet of Classic 45s

The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown) is not only a real mouthful to say, but, for me, remains one of the greatest singles of all time. I’ve listened to it a lot over the past few weeks, as I did ten years back, after recovering from a liver transplant. Maybe it addresses aspects of living through a time of  crisis/emergency? It was the final single that Peter Green wrote for the band, quitting after a bunch of German aristo-hippies spiked him in Munich, during a Mac European tour. The lyrics to Manalishi are chock full of dread, and they sound autobiographical, Green appearing to be struggling with both his spirituality, and the pressures of leading a very successful group at the pear of its powers.

Manalishi got to Number 10 in Spring 1970, and it’s another reminder of how very weird stuff indeed could still get into the charts back in that day. Driven by the band’s three-part guitar work (Green, the late Danny Kirwin and the also religiously-minded Jeremy Spenser), the single is an electric howl of torment, and can be compared, but with the dial turned up to 11, to Nick Drake’s Black Dog, another sinister song of persecution by a feral presence. Formerly one of the best UK 12-bar blues exponents, Fleetwood Mac were searching for new sounds by 1968, with the release of Albatross, a timelessly oceanic instrumental number, that not only got to Number One in that year, but was a hit once again in 1973. The follow-up, Man of the World, had a similarly slow, reflective, even mournful (vocal) track, was another massive hit, falling just short of the top position, in 1969. Both songs still sound fresh today, and the band’s ‘run’ of hits was still far from over.

Oh Well, Pts. 1 & 2 remains sui generis. Amazingly, it too reached Number Two in 1969. The first side features strong acoustic and electric guitar motifs, and a memorable 6-note riff, as well as a ‘freak out’ middle section, started by Mick Fleetwood’s cow bell (somewhat reminiscent of the beginning of Honky Tonk Women, released at exactly the same time, in Autumn 1969).. The coda to Side One consists of plangent acoustic strumming backed by echo-ey electric fills. Side Two continues in the same vein, moving into sub- Ennio Morricone/Fistful of Dollars territory, all tumbleweeds and whistling. The mood is desperately mournful, and again, was surely a reflection of Peter Green’s uncertainties at the time (he’d just renounced his Jewish faith and had converted to Christianity). The concluding passages contains an achingly beautiful, but simple, piano refrain, a piece of Spanish-style acoustic guitar and an orchestral passage of strummed magniloquence. All in five or so minutes of a ‘B side’.

For some bands, this would have been a career high, but Manalishi topped the lot for sheer power and paranoia. As Vernon Joynson says about Oh Well in his essential 1963-76 encyclopaedia The Tapestry of Delights, “Hearing it today, it seems remarkable that such an uncommercial sound could have gotten to Number Two in the charts”, but the same could be said about any of these four canonical singles. It was tragic (but probably inevitable) that it all turned to shit at the band’s peak. The Mac story is too well known to bear further repetition, but Fleetwood Mac 1.0 certainly managed to leave us with one of the greatest sequence of 45s in rock/pop history.

Two More Losses to Acknowledge, in These Dire Times

Over the past few days, it’s come to my attention that two more people, not that well known to me, but still significant, have passed on due to ‘complications’ involving Covid-19. One was personal, the other was very much involved in my musical spheres of influence.

Henry Grimes (born in 1935) passed away four days ago, on the 15th of this month (April 2020). He deserves a blog of his own, and Richard Williams has already inevitably provided us with one. Grimes was known to me mainly as a participant in the mid-sixties Free Jazz ‘revolution’, playing on several of the classic recordings of that times, providing double bass duties on sessions led by, for example,the likes of Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor. His disappearance and re-emergence, some forty years later, has become the stuff of jazz legend, a Sleeping Beauty story that still remains somewhat opaque. Grimes was always a background figure in my listening, but his name has always remained entrenched in my mind, due to his considerable contribution to Free Jazz in its formative years in New York. His ‘resurrection’ in 2002, and over subsequent years is truly an inspirational story of triumph-over-adversity. It’s a shame that some wiseacres are calling it a ‘second death’. Have some respect, guys.

The other, much more personal, loss is that of a mental health colleague, who I had the good fortune to work with during my time working in CNWL Mental Health Trust from 2001-2012. This was a totally professional nurse, with a grand sense of humour and an ever-present cheerfulness, and who was a pleasure to know and to work with. Now dead, at 51 years of age, she leaves a bereaved husband and four children. Her  death is, for me, the nearest I have yet come to experiencing the devastating loss that so many families are experiencing at the present moment. I daily pray that my family will escape the virus, but it seems that there are ever present reminders that even the loss of ‘distant’ figures in our personal lives still have the power to touch us.

The country seems to be ‘getting down to staying down’, despite our completely unimpressive ‘government of all the losers’, so good luck and best wishes to all.

I truly hope a ‘reckoning’ will in time come to this government, one that has, in various iterations, decimated the NHS and our care sector over the past 10 years. We can but hope.

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