Friday, January 28, 2011

The Rage May Surface: An Op-Ed Piece

Original text by Alan Abramowitz, 1978
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos, 2011

This opinion piece was originally published in FFanzeen No. 3, dated Winter / Spring 1978-79, which was the first newsprint version of the ‘zine. Art Editor of the issue Alan Abramowitz discussed the then-current state of music and the cultural milieu in which it existed. During the 1980s, Alan would go on to create the music and arts-centered cable access show Videowave, which is not only still on the air in the tri-state area, but new shows are in the process of being created.

Some further commentary from me follows the piece. – RBF, 2011

“Oh, get off!” you cry. “You don’t think music; you just listen to it.” I scream back, “Oh! The poor little angel. Thinking burns up too many calories.” That’s right, don’t try to reason out the lyrics, just enjoy it. Just because you spent hours spinning records backwards… “Paul is dead… Paul is dead… Paul is…” Wouldn’t it be nice for once to think about where you’re going? Radio is about as interesting as sidewalk cracks. Most of those kids out there are most lost than the Pepsi generation.

This is the age of diversity. There is southern rock, acid rock, punk, d***o, jazz, MOR, pop, R&B, new wave, and so on. Not only is the music scene fragmented, but the fragments are fragmented. And most groups or soloists stick to more than one style. What is the trend for the next decade? Will music continue as it is or merge like the Beatle era?

Sixties music dominates the airwaves, along with d***o, pop, and ‘50s revival music. Listeners still look at the last decade trying to recapture that lost sense of purpose. We in the ‘70s are dissatisfied. The nostalgia we admire not only includes periods 20 or 30 years ago, but recent times such as the early ‘70s. Something in modern music is missing so we look to the past. Oldies sell like hotcakes. Frozen into a trend since 1969, music begs for a revolution; but people have to change their attitudes first. The issues of the war years have changed – for the worse. Alienation and dehumanization are still here. Your draft number doesn’t bother you but your Social Security number does. The revolutionary tirades of the hippie age have become the complacent tunes of the ‘70s. Crosby, Stills & Nash sing of “Dark Star’; gone are “Nixon’s soldiers.” Music only appears to be rebellious when really it’s as conformist as you can get. People tend to forget the shock of the flower people, long hair, the Beatles, the Mod look, miniskirts, protest marches and living together – the counter-culture. Today’s sound reflects that. Gone is the controversy. No more daring on the airwaves. Just complacency.

Look at the past. That’s where the future lies. Every 20 years a new generation must face new truths and tear up old lies. Like a snake, we shed our skins of old values. Occasionally the skin sticks and we have to rip it off with a vengeance. A fit of rage. It’s the kids who see it first. They view the world from a vantage point. In the ‘20s, they broke from the past with the Charleston, the fast cars and flappers. Most of their parents still lived in 1896, mentally and morally. People changed and the music changed. In the ‘40s, the war kept the kids preoccupied; nevertheless, in the ‘50s, their culture, such as the “Fonz’s,” like rock’n’roll, existed mostly in the cities. This rock’n’roll was an omen for the ‘60s. It said being involved was like torture. It said your parents are a hassle. It said, look around you; isn’t it all stupid? Then it all broke open on the Ed Sullivan Show. And there was turbulence. But like before, it was absorbed. When the Beatles arrived in America, reports mentioned how long their hair was. It covered the tops of their ears! By 1972, Lyndon Baines Johnson had hair down to his shoulders. And again, the omen has arisen. It is the new wave. Since 1967 is still fresh in our minds, the next explosion will resemble the last.

Music… rock needed some earthiness. Blacks were then welcomed into the pop scene. Their music dealt with the reality of day-to-day life (until then, they had mostly been left out of the mainstream). It was called soul music for a reason. But now, look around you. Is there any soul in d****o? The music creates money – the money creates music. No meaning; the turbulence is gone.

Vietnam made all our standards obsolete. The rat race was just what it described: people reduced to a groveling state, not a description told at cocktail parties. Mr. Businessman was a square. All we were taught wasn’t true. Nothing else made sense anymore. War wasn’t glory. Suburbia wasn’t living. College wasn’t an education. Frank Sinatra wasn’t music. Sgt. Pepper’s heralded the total experience. Rock metamorphosed from jukebox tunes into a view of life – the “trip.” Other movements long in the sidelines moved into the forefront. Elvis came in with rockabilly, Joan Baez with folk, and the Supremes with R&B. Violence, sex, love, frustration, alienation, were now part of the art. The art was alive. To those on our side of the generation gap it was “the living are dead and only the dead are truly living.”

Music always changes. We must deal with confusion, compassion, rejection, and reflection. That is the way music appeals to us. Unconscious emotions play in the sound and the lyrics confirm it. What we’re thinking becomes popular music. You live the sound. You like it because you think, “Hey!... that’s part of me!” But a culture can be forced down your throat through radio, television, records, and elevator Muzak(t). That is the mellow sound. That is imposed music. ‘Sixties-ish rock has lost much meaning in the last few years. Issues and talents are ignored. The roots of pop rock have been forsaken for the derivative R&B.

As rock’n’roll outraged the generation of Ozzie & Harriet, new wave upsets the modern Archie Bunkers. It seeks publicity and seeks to astound. Absurd realities that are accepted as fact of life because all they are is old, worn-thin ideas. Like rock’n’roll, new wave reveals the dumb.

Corporate America has taken over. Imposed culture means stable, predictable profits. Rock once protested big business; now it is big business. Hype creates the event. Hype creates the group. Talent becomes an insignificant part of the formula. Groups like KISS rely on mystery, action and gossip, but little originality. “Record companies are run by accountants and lawyers,” David Crosby* admits. Being profit seekers, they have little contact with the artists. They control radio, TV, magazines, etc. Radio, as a medium of expression, is incredibly conservative. The trend has gone from Top Forty stations to Top Ten. What upsets people’s preconceived notions of music simply is not aired. The real meat is sacrificed for dough. What makes money is what reaches the most people. The gold record, which was a rarity, is now a common thing. The music of the ‘60s was incorporated into Muzak(t). When you hear “She Loves You” by Percy Faith, you wonder how long it will be before there is “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” by the Ray Coniff Singers. The creative artist is at the mercy of administrators who think in terms of feeding the machine. The machine is shocked by the Ramones, Television, Blondie, Dead Boys, Iggy Pop and the Adverts. The machine loves only $$$.

Sex is money to the corporations. If it appeals, it can be exploited, is their motto. What is Donna Summers Selling? Music? Talent? No, it’s sex]. “Move it in / Move it out” (that well played d****o single [“Disco Lady” by Johnny Taylor:]) isn’t about dancing. It manipulates your emotions. Is there any soul in Barry White’s moaning? You become programmed to like what you hear. If you don’t believe the sex part, just pick up a popular album and look at the cover.

Do you notice how big stars are touted? Not to say they have no talent, but you can tell by the push behind those concert tours. Hype pushes it and talent is used up. It pushes the Wings, Elton John, the Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Barry Manilow. They push the groups who’ve lost their glory, like Led Zeppelin. They are illusions of the past. “He who is first, he will be last / The times they are a-changing.”

And what does this add up to? Violence, turbulence, and change are building up. Rock and roll led to “1-2-3-4 / We don’t want your fuckin’ war.” Music isn’t answering the questions of life anymore. New wave does. What will this new wave lead to? How dynamic it is depends on the resistance to change. Kids are angry, unemployed and pissed off. They see dad work for 50 years only to get laid off. Is England 1978 an omen for American 1984? Will this anger lash out? The music reflects the times. And the frustration is overwhelming.

If there is turbulence, rock’n’roll will take in elements of new wave, jazz, reggae, punk and folk. Like pre-Beatle America, today’s music is in pieces. From cause, it became a taste or preference. Turbulence would merge elements of all music. D****o will be revealed as a fad. In social upheaval, it would be tossed aside as “not relevant.” Country will - and is - becoming institutionalized Muzak(t), MOR and pop. A new wave comes in hard times (i.e., U.S. –> Vietnam, England –> depression).

Jane Fonda once said, “It is the age of nothingness. Even with the problems of the “60s, there was this moral issue that got kids off their feet. Below the layer of apathy, in today’s young people, is a tremendous amount of rage.”

The rage may surface…

While I don’t agree with everything Alan said (e.g., sex always sold rock’n’roll, which itself is named for a blues term for sex), his argument is pretty solid, and only proven to be more so in retrospect. There have been other commentaries about much of what he brought up back then, such as the commercialization of music; check out The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce by Fred Goodman, for example. As for “hype creates the event,” I recommend reading Daniel J. Boorstin’s 1962 book The Image: A guide to Pseudo-events in America.

At the same time saying it’s the “age of diversity” of style and about the stagnation in experimentation sound like opposites, it is actually an oxymoron, in that it’s opposites that work. While the genres are splintered, there is also a dummying down and overlapping that make event the difference minimal, despite the shards. Country is more pop than bluegrass these days; rock by groups like Slipknot, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Kid Rock have incorporated rap into its sound. And don’t get me started with the auto-tune making it all a lie on top of a lie. It seems all the shards of genres have pretty much the same sharp point, but no edge. To add to when Alan said, “What we’re thinking becomes popular music,” now in the 21st Century, popular music becomes what we’re thinking.

That is why independent music is more important now than ever. What used to take a whole studio of equipment to produce can now be done on a laptop. What took factories to make a physical product can be done with a disk copying program (if hard copies are needed at all).

Every type of music has been co-opted at some point. The scary Elvis, Chuck and Little R. are turned into Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon and Fabian. The Beatles resurrected it with the Mersey Beat, which became muddled in its own use of technology, causing it to cease with
Sgt. Pepper’s. The Last Poets and Public Enemy turn into Lady Caca and Christina Arugula. The Byrds and the Yardbirds lead into hair bands like Poison. The Ramones and Television get bought out by the disco (aka d****o) of Blondie. Sadly, in many cases, the compromised get a larger market share than the originals, because unlike the indie groups that started it, there is more control, therefore more money in the homogenization.

Someone once said to me after I had commented about how much better the Heartbreakers from New York were compared to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Oh yeah, then how come Tom Petty outsold that other group by so much?” My response was, simply, “Look how many people voted for Nixon.” Just because something sells more, does not mean it is better. I’m
still waiting for that rage to surface, all these years later.

* In the original piece, this quote was attributed to Elton John, but an Internet search reveals it to be David Crosby.

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