Wednesday, August 1, 2012



   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) 


  1. Chris Cutler avoids mentioning King Crimson in this book. That sort of unmarked it for me, I was puzzled and asked some people. Cutler didn't think that Crimson was 'progressive' enough. Ridiculous, I thought. There must be more to it, considering Robert Fripp's involvement with Centipede and Matching Mole. Eventually I read that Cutler was upset that his drumming had never been discussed in any of the major music publications, and he mentions Bill Bruford as an example of someone who had. I thought Cutler was well covered myself. Being American I'm sure I read different publications. So I'm still guessing about the acrimony. I think it was a bit of jealousy and possibly some sort of altercation. You have to hand it to Brian Eno for working with Fripp, Robert Wyatt and Fred Frith. He cut right through that controversy. I'd actually be afraid to bring it up to Cutler, who I actually spoke to several times.

    That said, he's a good musician and writer, and being a drummer myself, one of my favorites. Although I'm not always pleased with his snare sound. His work with Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer is superb.

    Thanks Acravan.

  2. It's great to receive your note and I fully understand regarding the King Crimson issue. But given the shortcomings of most other music writing, I am grateful that Chris Cutler both writes and drums. I kind of like his snare sound, but I am not a musician. (My daughter is.) Currently, I'm functioning as a house painter whose back is getting really sore. Best, Curtis

  3. His website has some other examples of his excellent writing. It's worth looking for some other examples come to think of it. Of course he's politically outspoken. And quite a good lyricist.

    Subsequently it occurred to me the Henry Cow's 'Legend' and King Crimson's 'Lark's Tongue in Aspic' were contemporary. This possibly set the stage.

    I have a friend who actually worked for Cutler and Recommended for a time. The fellow's also an avid Sun Ra fan. A nice memory was accompanying him to a '78 Sun Ra Arkestra concert at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, after it moved to Michigan Avenue and The Blackstone Hotel temporarily. The Arkestra was around 20 pieces then, plus June and some other dancers, so Joe Segal was allowed to use the ballroom. Quite a spectacle needless to say. After the performance there was a sort meet and greet and album sale. My pal bought some of the legendary records with the hand drawn sleeves. My pal tells me that Cutler also bought many of these. I can't say I shared his love for them, although I do like them. 'Magic City' and a couple of others I can't remember just now graced my long gone vinyl collection. I mentiond before about the Blegvad Trio concert. Well at that I gave Cutler a tape of a Sun Ra tribute concert I made, that was a broadcast of the Chicago Jazz Fsetival that Sun Ra performed at several times. Quite good also, some of his veterans like Pat Patrick. Cutler seemed pleased.

  4. Thank you for this additional note. I've been remiss at answering correspondence lately because I've been (uselessly) on pins-and-needles about certain things I can't control and equally stressed by other things I can control. Recent scientific/spiritual data confirms, however, that I've now surpassed the "this too shall pass" limiting pseudo-barrier. I will check out everything you mention. Greetings from the Hudson Valley. Curtis

  5. I discovered your web site via Google while looking for a related subject, lucky for me your web site came up, its a great website. I have bookmarked it in my Google bookmarks. You really are a phenomenal person with a brilliant mind! phoenix painting

  6. Thank you. That's the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. I intend to print out your kind words and show them to my daughter at opportune moments. I hope you visit again. I try to keep things varied, as you have probably seen. Curtis