The Pop Group
Y (Radar, 1979)
Haha! Definitely not pop music. Avant-garde rock music, with cues taken from the free jazz of Trout Mask Replica Beefheart and legendary dub producer Dennis Bovell. Simultaneously primitive and ahead of its time.
These two aforementioned things are tough to fuse together, let alone stray even an inch away from what makes them so inaccessible. And, while I can’t confidently call this particular record accessible (judging by the reactions I get when I play it, it’s not) it does do a great job of expounding on these niche musical ideas.
One thing the Pop Group likes to do on these songs is take an infectious groove/riff/hook and destroy it, drinking in the chaos for a minute (or several) and returning to what makes the song — well, a song. I can’t sing enough praises for a band choosing to embark on a mission like this. Or, as one of Eno/Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards suggests, “Perform a sudden, destructive action. Incorporate.” Those came out in 1975. Y is from 1979. If this band was aware of them (and this particular card), they were very clever. If they weren’t even aware of them, they’re utter geniuses.
On “Snowgirl,” a dark ditty penned to a girl that’s got to be a fuckin’ beauty; Gareth Sager pounds on the reverberated keys while Mark Stewart shouts his sweet nothings at his lover while the rest of the band moves in with him to croon the song out with a “Snowgirl/snowgirl/I burn youuuuuuuuu/I melt youuuuuuuu.” The bass player, with his speedy take on reggae/dub music (no doubt directed by Bovell), the guitarist with his sharp, sharp syncopated riffs. Anyway, I’m getting tired and I want to publish this and go to bed. The gist is — Fuckin-A, the Pop Group’s Y. Go find it. If you know it, sing along.
Indie rock auteur Annie Clark (St. Vincent) covered “She Is Beyond Good And Evil” on late night television some years ago. Tasteful she is, we already knew that. Ultimately though, she sells the song short; kinda-halfway-hollering (I mean, she is a cute girl) “I’ll hold you like a gun” instead of murder-screaming it loud enough to cause hearing damage to the audience. Anyway, I give her performance a 7/10 on the Pitchfork scale (which means, “Hey, this is cute and you’ll like it”).
Listen: “Thief Of Fire” (Probably about the myth of Prometheus, the god who stole the fire of knowledge from Zeus, for the world, and was eternally punished for it. 5 minutes of syncopated funk riffs, absurdly savage drumming, and a remarkable “quiet/loud” songwriting dynamic 7 years before Surfer Rosa.)
Surfer Rosa (4AD, 1988)
To put it quite plainly, a violent masterwork by a college rock group and a brilliant producer. Ignoring the subject matter; here, a groundbreaking method of songwriting is embedded in the DNA of American music. Kurt Cobain was known to tacitly admit he studiously listened to Surfer Rosa and follow-up Doolittle in an effort to “rip them off.” He of course went on to front the most successful rock band in post-modern history. And that’s from “ripping off” maybe 20% of the Pixies ethos on Surfer Rosa.
Steve Albini said that the Pixies were basically a “just fine” college rock band that were beneficiaries of his production. Maybe in that statement exists a harsh truth. Still, there had to be a band, and there had to be a producer, and there had to be a Surfer Rosa, its participants all equally complicit in creating what remains a blueprint for alternative rock music. Doolittle, released one year later, had nothing to do with Steve Albini. The second effort, produced by Gil Norton, garnered even more praise from critics, it being much more polished and ambitious. Up until their “reunion” (without Kim Deal) and their apparently terribad 2010s records, the Pixies remained a great popular band. And so, I have to disagree with Mr. Albini, who seems to suggest that they were always middling and lucky to be discovered at best. But, I have to agree with him on the part where he suggests that Surfer Rosa is the best thing they ever did.
Listen: “Bone Machine” (“You’re a bone machine” yells Black Francis and Kim Deal for a third time before the entire song devolves into and endless feint stab at the hook on guitar (the sound of which Nirvana almost cracked — but nonetheless successfully brought to MTV and the world), and an absolute beating of the drums (the sound of which every rock band tried to crack). All tied together by Deal’s groovy and relentless bass playing. If you’re in a rock band, you should really be trying to rip this off and absolutely nothing else. Please.)
The Velvet Underground
The Velvet Underground and Nico (Verve, 1967)
These aren’t songs. They’re cheerless reports of the rituals performed by the losers of the metropolis. Like stories of a warzone recounted by a heroin addict. Little emotional connotation; all facts. Some twenty years later, gangsta rappers — the CNN of the ghettos — arrived and wrote non-songs quite similarly.
It’s tough to not call this the greatest album of all time. It is our duty to. Ask dads and Rolling Stone readers across the Western world and they’ll tell you it’s Sgt. Pepper, the antithesis of the Velvets’ music. The Beatles — yeah, they were good. But where the Velvets’ created something, the Beatles co-opted A Something and polished it with a mass-market sheen. Where Reed and Nico sang of alienation and violence, the Beatles’ happy-go-lucky (and later, posh-positive and peaceful) lyrical content proliferated. The Fab Four didn’t quite do anything that hadn’t already been done, and they benefited well from two overlapping eras that badly needed charismatic heroes. The Velvet Underground’s first record was an utter commercial failure; a failure that now echoes in eternity as a genesis. As Brian Eno famously put it, “Every person that bought [a copy of TVU&N] went out and started a band.”
On The VU And Nico, the ideas of each member of the band — and Andy Warhol — are indispensable to the end product. You have the street poetry of Lou Reed and his ostrich-tuned guitar. You have the French existentialism of Nico, the precarious witch. The avant-garde experimentalism of John Cale and his droning viola. The Berry-ian rock-and-roll spirit of Sterling Morrison. The tribal, minimalist drumming of Moe Tucker. And, finally, the hyperrealistic vision of Andy Warhol guiding these forces together with an astoundingly hands-off approach, as well as transforming The Album Sleeve into pop art. Here begins postmodern American music.
Listen: “Venus In Furs” (Perhaps the greatest piece of rock music of all times. Sinister. Sexy.)
One guitar engineered to sound like hundreds of guitars. Vocals recorded just after awaking. Rhythm kept by the coldness of the drum machine and, well the rhythm guitar. The only guitar, which is quite remarkable. Hendrix is the greatest because he would essentially play rhythm and lead at the same time. In the same way that Hendrix pioneered in pure physical skill, Kevin Shields pioneered in digital studio techniques. It is a rumor that this record bankrupted Creation Records. Which, I dunno. That’s gotta say a lot more about the cost of studio time than it does how Super High-Tech the recording process was.
Let me tie up the highest compliment I can give Kevin Shields: a guitar teacher will have you playing Hendrix in a couple months. No one even tries to recreate the magic of Loveless.
Listen: “I Only Said” (In my opinion, the defining piece of Loveless. I would show this first to somebody over “Only Shallow,” the lone single from Loveless and the most mainstream-friendly track. Pounding distortion, barely intelligible vocals, little artifacts here and there for the reptile brain.)
Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band
Trout Mask Replica (Straight, 1969)
Likely the pinnacle of rock music as an art form. A band; trained for ten months to play the difficult compositions written by Don Van Vliet (Beefheart), recorded this double LP in a single eight-hour session, playing the music note-for-note in flawless time. Frank Zappa later revealed that he recorded the Magic Band performing Trout Mask Replica a second time (just so he had a second tape to edit with), and was utterly floored when he couldn’t discern a single difference between the two takes.
Nowadays, a rocker or a rapper exudes the veneer of “weirdness” for a Pitchforkian blogeratti recognition. Van Vliet — who, when meeting new people, didn’t even bother to hide such loathsome behaviors like ordering his mother to bring him a Pepsi — was the Original Weird. Pulling memorable non-sequiturs such as “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous. Got me?” out of thin air, before his ragtag band of (literally) starving artists join him in the polyrhythmic mess that becomes “Pachuco Cadaver.” But, because there’s always Something To It, you listen to the mess enough times and realize that, while there is definitely a supreme air of confidence in their being “weird,” everything is going according to plan. In pre-internet 1969, you realized this far before you learned of the torturous recording sessions that birthed the record.
Not that this is what rock music “should be,” but it (and all forms of popular music) are so marketed and focus-grouped towards consumers that such a painstakingly executed work of art is doomed to be received as anything but; from “left-field,” to “sheer brilliance,” to “pure shit.” Because I keep on waiting for the world to change, I’ll go with the second one.
Side-note: There are twenty-eight tracks on Trout Mask Replica. These are just blurbs. I plan on writing at length about a lot of these records in the future.
Listen: “Veterans Day Poppy” (A tragic anti-war number. A jazzy piece fusing into a swing, right before every member of the Magic Band segues one-by-one into a completely new riff (that sounds a lot like what we call post-rock today), keeping perfect time amongst the transition and for the succeeding three minutes. The band pulls off this superhuman feat in — of course — a single take. The magical transition, free of any and all studio tricks — I’m 95% sure that no band has ever tried anything similar, ever. Incredibly moving. Nothing compares to this. Nothing’s even in the same league.)