|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
The Rekord Report: L'Objet Répris
The Beach Boys: Endless Summer (1974). Pace Don Malcolm, the Beach Boys' "bourgeois inheritance" was where it was at. Not that Pet Sounds wasn't somehow "better" -- it was just about perfect and you can't argue with that -- nor that things like "Wild Honey" or "Cabinessence" or damn near all of Sunflower weren't masterpieces. But the pre-Pet Sounds material, decently sampled in 1974's bestselling repackage job, is both classic, the best expression of its moment, and vibrant, living and, damned be the word, relevant. Not timeless, though -- when the Dead and the Airplane held sway they were, properly so, the property of no one but aesthetes, tinkering around with such minor material as Friends and 20/20 -- but very timely, at their best in touch with the underbelly of later capitalist society, the hopes and desires of those who make their lives within and despite it, at worst still groveling, scurrying about for some handle on a decaying world. Listening is the better part of music; perhaps now we are at that point where the Beach Boys may be heard clearly, may be cherished, may be celebrated. Not as artists -- under any consideration that rings as damn faint praise -- but as us, as the principle of hope. The "bourgeois inheritance" may at least be that revolution the bourgeoisie could never quite stomach. 
Black Oak Arkansas (1971). It's something sort of weird to recall what a mindfucker this album was when it first surfaced. Of course, that was before Dixie Rock raised its angry head and was smitten by a bunch of hip Macon businessmen. And that was before millions of crazed 13-year-olds copped Black Oak as one of their own. With no small complicity from the band, it may be added, whose increasingly evident limitations made them fit for little else. But this first album was really explosive: that something like "Hot and Nasty" strikes one as pablum now itself testifies to its original force. At its base this was perhaps the first and probably the best real attempt to incorproate urban experience into a rural setting -- not country music, though it is unimaginable without country, but real, hard rock 'n' roll, perceived from and firmly realized out in the sticks. And beyond that -- perhaps, a secret Arkansas chauvinism on my part sneaking through -- a glorious manifesto, a zone of liberation both against and with the grain. For the roots, limited as they are, preserve a healthy basis for upsetting the warped structure above. To know what one is, and to appreciate that, is the first step towards actualizing what one is not yet. Black Oak Arkansas nothing short of celebrate their roots, but just as well point beyond them: even in their failings, which more and more emerge as self-caricature, and the limits of their imagination, hint at something more. 
Canned Heat: Future Blues (1970). Ramparts once ran an issue on Ecology with the cover claim that the burning of a Santa Barbara bank probably did more for the environment than all the Earth Day festivities combined. At the time I was put off, struck most by the pointlessness -- or worse, the narrowmindedness, obfuscation, and conformism -- of the for the environment movement. Future Blues, a superb collection of music severely burdened by an overload of reformist not yet conformist ecologisms, came hot on the heels of Volunteers, a proper procession, the slide from '69 through '70. Both grasped a side of an as yet not worked out movement, each complementing the other nicely, neither prepared for what history would do to it. That movement demanded of its culture articulation of its daily concerns, which were intensely, almost obsessively political; and, as shown in that movement, to do songs laden in political concerns was only natural. Alan Wilson didn't live to see that history crumble: he died just before the album appeared, which serves to freeze it as a moment in history. The lines, "Got to breathe this air/ And nobody seems to care," reflect the concern and anger about the demise of everyday life we felt when talk of ecology opened to the imagination new vistas of human liberation, and also the indirection of a movement that burned banks and founded Earth Days. The spirit behind it is in short supply today, that's the shame.
Grand Funk Railroad: We're an American Band (1973). The All-American Band finally produces an exemplary (for an All-American Band) album. Chalk it up to Todd Rundgren -- everybody else does. The contempt of those who consider themselves intelligent for this group knows virtually no bounds. Yet, like most widely held opinions, it has a basis in fact, facts not wholly attributable to GFR's own modest efforts. For one thing, Grand Funk are a mass phenomenon, a hype, a cause; from the beginning they were a partisan issue, one that on a mass front suggests class struggle. They made their mark through live concerts and sharp promotion -- the records, almost even the music, were epiphenomenal (until this one, which is more like überphenomenal, a breaker in that it marks the culmination and somehow perfection of whatever it is that Grand Funk has been, thereby begging some effort at something new to follow). They demanded participation -- no one ever stooped to call them artists, their work is just as well ignored as listened to. Better perhaps. Yet though the metaphor has some value, and certainly class factors take their inexorable toll, more apt is the half-witted generation gap cliché, for Grand Funk was a generational phenomenon if ever one existed. GFR was, after all, the rallying point for jillions of hip 13-year-olds, as sure an indicator of their insipidness as could be imagined. And for folks on my side of the gap, no matter how enjoyable things like "Creapin'" and "Walk Like a Man" may be, or their funky new retread of "Some Kinda Wonderful," you gotta hate this group, cause there's no way Grand Funk can be yours too. But, it gets worse. As these pubescent and even pre-pub hippies move out of GFR through Black Sabbath and on to depraved garbage like Sally Can't Dance, and continue to drag music I love, like most of Bowie and Reed and even early Black Oak Arkansas, down the sluice with Emerson Lake & Palmer and Nektar and all that horseshit, I hate them. Another advantage of the generational motif: generations can always grow up; class enemies often have to be shot.
Jefferson Airplane: Volunteers (1969). A Grace Slick quote: "People are getting killed, so who cares if John gets Mary in the end." The quote was pretty typical of the movement, and ultimately pretty crummy. Like Alan Wilson's best intentions, Slick is nothing more than a step in history removed from Harry Chapin's horseshit liberalism. Caring has a long history: Heidegger was so full or Sorge the Nazis made him Rector of Heidelberg. But the step in history saves Slick like Wilson, it is a step we have lived through, marred as it was by past mistakes and hard earned lessons. A friend once noted that either you liked the Airplane before you heard them or you never would. They were every bit as much a partisan issue as Grand Funk: only they were on our side, they were our problem. Which begs the question, what can you do that can be done? Ambitions are sweet, they are made of good stuff; also they are dangerous, if not tempered with a fine sense of the possible. That was hard learning. That was not often learned.
Led Zeppelin II (1969). Led Zeppelin is probably the most popular rock group in the world, and there's plenty good reason for that: their product has always been topnotch, they were innovative but careful, divergent but unique. They practically invented Heavy Metal, inspired many inferior groups to imitate their style, and even formed a record company to promote some of them. Their basic formula was simple, that of building an edifice, bass over drums, guitar over bass, voice over guitar, one basic riff distilled from a decade of Anglicized electric blues. The first album stated the ambition, the second honed it down to a singular entity, a sound, Led Zeppelin. The rest plays off of that; though it gets more sophisticated, subtler, often quite intelligent, and their staying power owes much to that, that is all based on and reflexes back to the basic dumbness of LZ II -- dumb not in the sense of stupid but of non-speaking. Lyrics are there of course, but as an integral part of the music, a music better appropriated tactilely, through incoherent sensation, than intellectually, literarily. Another key, another question, to their mass appeal, the appeal of the masses to music that lets them alone, that demands nothing and provides much, that helps them keep on trucking.
Paul McCartney: Band on the Run (1973). Last year's B plus album and leave it at that. (I was going to write some more, about pop and pyrotechnics, middle class sluggishness, conformism and vacuity, but I'll leave it at that.)
The Pasadena Roof Orchestra (1975). I've been waiting for years for some critic to say that the character of music is dependent upon those who listen to it, that listening is historically determined, that it changes as the times change, that the present diffusion in music is a product of the present historic ambience (which is first and foremost the fruit of the reovlutionary collapse and counterrevolution of 1968-70). George Melly's liner notes are great! But, Jesus, have we really decayed that far? F.H. Bradley once said, "Where everything is bad it must be good to know the worst." A minus
Pink Floyd: A Nice Pair (1973). A nice repackaging, especially in the wake of Dark Side of the Moon. Containing the whole of Pink Floyd's second album, A Saucerful of Secrets (1968) and an expanded re-edition of the first Pink Floyd album dating from 1967, curiously entitled The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, this Nice Pair nicely underscores the schizophrenia at Pink Floyd's roots. The Piper is Syd Barrett, hippy freak, composer of the first album, who then split the Floyd to go record a couple of the most unmelodious albums sine Van Dyke Parks. And the "gates of dawn," they harken the open doors of technological progress or, just as well, Richard Wright, Nick Mason, Roger Waters and David Gilmour, hip musical engineers par excellence. The meeting was potentially explosive, but for the moment the coalescence had a point. Whether manifested in their pioneering light extravaganzas or the space riffs of "Interstellar Overdrive" or "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun." Pink Floyd exhibited an attitude toward technology which can now be characterized only as inane, but recognition of the janusface, the open possibilities turning into closed nightmares, is a function of history. Barrett was as true to his colors in forming Pink Floyd as in leaving it: technology begot psychedelia which came to know better. But ultimately, the issue has been skirted. Beautiful as Dark Side of the Moon is, hideous as The Madcap Laughs is, neither offer much to freedom. But The Piper at the Gates of Dawn just might -- it rests at the edge of a contradiction capable of blowing history apart.
Simon and Garfunkel: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966). The liner notes are by Ralph Gleason, so maybe they shouldn't be taken too seriously. The argument is something like pop music used to be the work of hacks, so many machined down clichés, or at least that's how it seemed to old fogies like Gleason, but now, thanks to "The New Youth of the Rock Generation" the whole show has been turned over to sensitive, humane poets. "[Simon and Garfunkel] have demonstrated by the ultimate logic of this materialistic society -- sales dollar volume -- that there is not only a market for intellectuality, but that America's New Youth, the Rock Generation, bred on rock and roll, rhythm and blues, folk-rock and television shows, wants its music to deal with the meaning of life itself and not be just a mumbling collection of dream world images (half motion-picture and half slick-magazine fiction) hung up on romance as opposed to love, speaking in a Bijou Theater vernacular no one ever used in real life, and dealing not with truth or beauty, but with least-common denominator juvenile trivia." Now, Gleason is no doubt a nice man, but I'm glad he's never been nice to me -- in fact, he makes me want to put an MC5 album on or something. But he's right that there was a market for truth, beauty and meaning. Charles Reich sold 600,000 hardcover copies of The Greening of America, and I'll wager that every buyer had a good set of Simon and Garfunkel. But truth, beauty and meaning are luxury commodities, alienation requires a great deal of free time to be appreciated. The antithesis to meaning is surviving, to alienation is hope. Something like "Chapel of Love" or "The Boy From New York City" or "Fun, Fun, Fun" packs far more revolutionary punch than anything Gleason's heroes (especially Lenny Bruce, who is mentioned here once again) ever did. But where Simon and Garfunkel actually fit in all this murk is not easy to gauge. This album, at least, is nowhere near so bad as I remembered it, perhaps because it doesn't include "I Am a Rock"; and it does bear some independence from the liner notes -- that Gleason could claim "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)" as "such a happy song" shows he can't even understand his own crap. But the last time I read Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson was in 10th grade; the next time will be the day I put another Simon & Garfunkel album on.
Steely Dan: Countdown to Ecstasy (1973). The back cover conveys the notion well, an orchid in the sea of technology, humans and machines at ease together. A contradiction, this easiness, one of the many that mark Steely Dan's progress. The albums, of which this second one is perhaps the most representative, certainly the best realized, bear no dissonance, no clutter; they are clean, almost slick, another contradiction. Or the lyrics, a running paste together joke, are sufraintelligent, witty and slyly devious. (A sample of the "Show Biz Kids": "They got the booze they need/ All that money can buy/ They got the shapely bods/ They got the Steely Dan T-shirt/ And for the coup-de-gras/ They're outrageous.") The effect is strange, strangely comfortable, queasy almost. Steely Dan harken back to the overproduced early 60s pop rock, to 40s bop, yet confounded by an intellect that knows better. A dangerous group, one that should be watched.
Yes: Fragile (1972). This is an unusually delicate, restrained album: in fact, just about the only Yes album I can consistently enjoy. As a paradigm for the classical mix in rock form it charms but doesn't quite convince. "Brahms and Cans" fits, but eclectically rather than organically. More closely the development incorporates pop: a medium of elements rather than of wholes. The result is a showcase: Jon Anderson can be a good singer and Steve Howe a good guitarist and even Rick Wakeman a good keyboardist, and for once they are. And the bits and pieces of music that are weaved into the product can please, and for once they do. But the whole, in seeking to camouflage its construction, is false. Fragile implicitly respects that illusion, and so for the most part frees itself from the illusion's spell. Yes' other efforts, however, lack this stature and flounder, and things like Wakeman's solo atrocities are totally in the illusion's thrall.
1. A more technical note to the above: Brian Wilson, and the Beach Boys in general, are not noted as lyricists, which may only mean that they were never ensconced in the hype that overwhelmed the lyrical efforts of Dylan, later Beatles, Joni Mitchell and the like. Of value would be a more structural study -- the space between something like "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" is less than the inversion. And musically especially side four ("California Girls," "Girl Don't Tell Me," "Help Me Rhonda," etc.), which with some left-outs like "The Little Girl I Once Knew" and the surfer reprises like "Do It Again" and "Marcella," is I think their best work, flows straight into the Smile period material culminating in "Cabinessence." To further unpack these continuities would be a considerable task, and perhaps even run the risk of trivializing them, but they touch on a dangerous and interesting continent. It would be nice to see someone make something of it.
2. Syntax, as a formal motif, relates meanings rather than provides them. The above review is, in case you haven't already surmised it, like Black Oak Arkansas itself, about sex. Substitute earthiness, country ribaldry, for base; pietism, strict morality, for superstructure. Or substitute any of dozens of other contradictions, even the old Chinese Yin & Yang bullshit, or Black Oak's own formulation, the Lord has got my mind and the Devil's got my body (which might have something to do with Black Oak's degeneration, or at least the aforementioned limits to imagination). (It's also about syntax.)