Contemporary with both the waning Yardbirds and the waxing Beatles, another innovating group were starting to win a following in London: The Who. Aside from their Pop Art image, so in tune with “Swinging London’s” image of itself, and apart from their violence and ground-breaking lyrics, The Who, like The Yardbirds, but to a far greater degree, had begun to extend the possibilities of pure noise and emotional expression. With the amplifier turned up loud, The Who discovered that to be violent with the instrument sounded like that violence. Townshend would smash his guitar into his speakers, or saw the neck and strings against a microphone stand or throw the guitar at a wall or onto the floor. Feedback, which had been feared and avoided as unpleasant (because unwanted) became another sound available to music and accessible to control. Can I explain how important this was? It sounds negative, decadent. It was exhilarating, releasing. It seemed to be beyond aesthetics and commodity. The moment of rage and damage to the “expensive” instrument, the moment of not caring about that damage, of sacrifice, seemed real. Like the thrill we got when Harpo Marx threw all that stupid bureaucratic paperwork all over the floor at the customs house.
Phil Ochs hanged himself in April, 1976. Elvis Presley was found dead one year later, in August 1977. Both were entertainers, singers, but beyond this it is hard to imagine two men with less in common. Ochs was a political radical, Presley an arch conservative. Ochs wrote his own songs and belonged to the “counter-culture,” Presley was a creature of Colonel Tom Parker and the Record Industry. Ochs produced, Presley was consumed. Yet there is a thread winding around these men, and one that is well worth unraveling.
Over the past few days, I’ve been re-reading File Under Popular, Chris Cutler’s “Theoretical and Critical Writings On Music.” First published in 1985 and revised in 1993, I think it remains the most enjoyable, eye-opening (in terms of being accurately and usefully descriptive) book on various forms of post-World War II popular music I know. If you find the excerpts included above interesting or intriguing, you might want to seek out a copy.
The author is the great Henry Cow drummer, who is also the proprietor of the superb and valuable ReR record label and distribution company out of England (and the author of ReR’s always compulsively readable catalogue). Tendentious and rooted, as might be expected, in Marxism, Cutler is a disciplined critic and writer, so unusual in this genre. And I think his musical gifts make this book “play” in a style that is exciting, dramatic and rhythmic.
One can’t help but feel that Cutler’s and Henry Cow’s “outsider” status (to a degree self-conscious and self-imposed) to the main gearworks of what used to be recognizable as the "Record Industry" is what confers him his critical perspective, both in the objective observer sense and as the occasionally overly pejorative scold. (I mean, his putdown of “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” is ludicrous, over-the-top.)
And one can’t help occasionally but imagine what kind of world it would be if Henry Cow, rather than The Beatles, had been “Top Of The Pops,” and a sharp writer like John Lennon and Chris Cutler exchanged places? Tomorrow never knows.
Excerpts from Chris Cutler, File Under Popular, Brooklyn, Autonomedia, 1993.
Henry Cow: Nirvana For Mice (Link)
Henry Cow: Industry (Link)
Peter Blegvad: Daughter (feat. Chris Cutler and John Greaves)(Link)