The last Songbook post could have been titled What Martha Bayles Has to Learn from Retro Rock n’ Roll. This post could be titled What Retro Rock n’ Roll Has to Learn from Martha Bayles.
The basic lesson: the primitivist aesthetic cultivated by many in the retro scenes, and particularly in the rockabilly and garage scenes, falsifies the rock and roll past, degrades the music in a hard-rock direction, and depraves the human soul. Oh, and it’s racist too.
The Cramps were a rock and roll retro band, indeed one of the pioneering ones, although their B-movie horror image, wild stage antics, and noise-employment caused them to often be taken as a punk band. But at bottom, it’s undeniable. They played lots of 50s-era covers, such as The Phantom’s “Love Me” and The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird,” and even their originals, such as “Goo Goo Muck,” were so derivative as almost to amount to covers–in “Muck’s” case, the structure of the song sounds half-lifted from the Crazy Teens’ sexy novelty number “Crazy Date.” Wikipedia indicates that Miriam Linna, co-editor of the most important retro rock n’ roll fanzine, the massive Kicks, played drums in their early line-up, and that seems fitting. For what the Cramps expressed in their music, Kicks often expressed in its prose: a primitivist aesthetic, that held the following truths to be self-evident.
1.) hippies screwed up rock and roll, sometime around 1967.
2.) it was obviously better, and simply wilder, prior to that.
3.) Punk had attempted to remedy this, but had failed. Punk put the violence, rebellion, and brevity back into the music, but left out the dance, the blues, and most of all, the sex.
4.) Punk’s cultivation of rebellion was far too political and intellectual anyhow: the true rebellion was the perennial one of the Teenager flirting with the ways of the Juvenile Delinquent. Punks and hippies try to justify this with Marx-oid theories, but in truth, those old-time preachers were right that the “Devil” is mixed up in it. Descending into criminality or sex/drug addiction is a real possibility—flirting with such risks is part of the package. Rock n’ roll is about the wild possibilities of youth (but mind you, only the non-intellectual ones).
Thus, real rock and roll always contained the following key elements:
5.) aggressive hedonism
6.) rebelliousness, including whatever tinge of violence is necessary to convey this. (For the positive spin on this, see the lesson on “Sticking it to the Man” imparted by Jack Black’s teacher character in School of Rock.)
7.) sex –all that stuff you’ve heard about “rock n’ roll” and “jazz” beginning as code words for sex, or about jazz and blues first being played in whore-houses, all that was perfectly accurate and remains the key for understanding the music.
Hippies, both as flower children and later on as adult music industry types, were trying to tame rock ‘n roll, to make it a political-intellectual thing, or a reliable business thing, and either way, quasi-respectable. Kicks said they were the new “squares.” Thus, the most sought-after aspects of the rock ‘n roll past were the very ones most embarrassing to the enlightened boomer: whatever was trashy, crude, JD, violent, cocky, raunchy, and loud. So the heroes of the aesthetic, 50s-wise, were acts like Link Wray, Hasil Adkins, and the Trashmen, and 60s-wise, The Pretty Things, the Sonics, and the Seeds. A film director tuned to the aesthetic, Jim Jarmusch, was not going to use an uplifting R+B tune like Ben King’s “Stand by Me” in his film, but rather, he was going to have his spooky immigrant chick walk around obsessed with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell on You.”
But it was not all about camp primitivism, not all about finding the obscure 50s/60s 45s that would be most distasteful to boomer rock elders. High-quality acts that really had been overlooked, such as the Gants, the Downliners Sect, Joe Clay, Sonny Burgess, and others that really had been under-celebrated even if better-known, such as the Bobby Fuller Four, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, the Pretty Things, etc. constituted at least 2/3 of the content of the key retro fanzines. And again, the spirit of those fanzines had a good deal to do with the San Diego bands the Paladins and the Tell-Tale Hearts I championed so unrestrainedly in Songbook #38, and I assume I made it clear there that that spirit was not all about or even mainly about what I’m here calling the primitivist aesthetic. At bottom, I think what those fanzines most loved was the swing that flows through all the Afro-American streams of popular music; the problem I’m stressing here was that they understood it too often through the primitivist lenses. For example, they would say Little Richard had been among the “wildest,” and of course, that really was the way he had marketed himself, but the fact that his music’s oomph had more than a bit to do with black gospel–that sort of fact was avoided.
Notice that the most fundamental elements of the primitivist retro aesthetic, namely, sex, hedonism, and rebellion, were the very ones pushed by the hard rockers of 70s/80s infamy. The only fundamental difference was the retro attachment to the dance floor generally, and what I’m broadly calling swing. So while the retro primitivist aesthetic took on the particular form I’ve delineated here, key elements of this aesthetic had been around much longer, for at least as long as the jazz era. What is immediately notable is that it had typically been racist, albeit in a flipped-around manner that celebrated the stereotyped primitivism of blacks. True, its even greater moral failing was and remains its reductive surrender to vice, but you cannot fully understand just how reductive that surrender is, without digging up its racialist roots.
Bayles’ Hole in Our Soul goes into all of the issues linked to this. She does not deny that slaves brought with them to America a looser West African sexual ethic that expected an amount of pre-marital promiscuity, while nonetheless also expecting marriage and abhorring adultery, and she makes no judgment about which ethic, the Western Christianity-rooted one, or the West African one, is healthier. Nor does she entirely reject white appropriations of Afro-American musical frankness about sex—she accepts that the popularity of minstrel shows reflected the reality described by historian Nathan Huggins as follows:
“So essential has been the Negro personality to the white American psyche that black theatrical masks had become…a standard way for whites to explore dimensions of themselves that seemed impossible through their own personae.”
She even lays out an elaborate (but plausible) theory that the phenomenon of young Southern white women greeting Elvis with a frenzy of screaming initially enacted a healthy loosening of a racial-sexual Southern “blood-knot” that had winked at white male sexual exploitation of black women, and yet repressed the sexuality of white women. Certainly, she accepts the more general idea that white Americans needed to be loosened up about sex, and that Afro-American music helped them do so.
But she shows again and again that errant understandings of how Afro-American music worked, and particularly with respect to sex, could actually re-tighten the connection in America between slumming sex and black servitude and reinforce everywhere the stereotype of a genetic (or otherwise inherent) African hyper-sexuality.
She quotes Rimbaud, and one can hear a turned-around echo of Hegel: “Yes my eyes are closed to your light. I am a beast, a nigger…Do I know nature yet? Do I know myself?—No more words. I bury the dead in my belly. Shouts, drums, dance, dance, dance!”
She quotes Herman Hesse, and one is reminded of what use the swing-banning Nazis will make of such sentiments: [jazz is] “…hot and raw as the steam of raw flesh.” [a jazz musician’s] “…eyes…hid no romance, no problems, no thoughts…”
But again, it wasn’t just those looking down upon Afro-American music that adopted such sentiments, but many of its fans…who, as with Rimbaud, Norman Mailer, and those big fat Rolling Stones lips, got entranced by the idea of becoming a White Negro. Moreover, it was perfectly possible for blacks to believe and internalize the stereotypes, especially when the gathering sexual revolution positively framed them, and when there could be big rewards for black performers, such as Jimi Hendrix or Ike and Tina Turner, who milked certain white audiences’ fascination with them.
Quite telling on this score is the disconnect between the elements of Josephine Baker’s dancing artistry, and how it was understood by most of her Parisian audience. Bayles quotes Baker’s biographer Phyllis Rose: “[Baker] liked to say…that she learned to dance by watching kangaroos in the St. Louis Zoo…but she invoked the zoo…to please an audience that loved her as a child of nature. …By the time she was thirteen, Baker had built up an enormous repertoire of moves. She knew them so well that when she started to dance professionally, it could look like she was making it all up as she went along. But underneath…were well known steps and dances—the Mess Around, the Itch, Tack, Annie, Trucking—and years of daily practice. When she seemed the most unstrung, there had been the most careful preparation.” Bayles sums up the Parisian reception of her act—which only became a hit after a director convinced her that in France, dancing topless was A-okay—as follows: “…the Parisians embraced Baker as a purely instinctual being whose thrilling performances flowed, not from her mind and spirit, but from her guts and gonads.”
Central to Hole in Our Soul is Bayles’ argument is that the formulation of hard rock, and then (somewhat less objectionably) disco, can both in large part be blamed on the ideology of the sexual revolution, an ideology that held that the key to exciting music like rock n’ roll was its sexuality, and thus that the task of the present was to make that sexuality even more obvious.
A lot of Bayles’ discussion in the case of hard rock has to do with the relation of the blues to sex. Basically, her argument is that the white appropriations of blues-focus upon sex were often both a) highly selective, zeroing in on the Chicago-style and Howlin’ Wolf especially, and b) not tuned to its basic realism/stoicism about sexual desires and problems. Of course, any social conservative such as myself has to face up-front the fact that, all realism granted, not a few bluesmen delighted in songs espousing a much more freewheeling sexual ethic than that taught by 1950s American respectability or by true Christianity(notice I’m not equating these!); still, it certainly is the case that in moving from say, Muddy Waters’ “You Need Love,” to the Led Zeppelin appropriation “Whole Lotta Love,” a number of pretty key changes occur—in the Zeppelin song particularly, as Hendrix biographer Charles Shaar Murray argues, the woman becomes faceless, and the song does not center upon the words and gentleness needed to seduce her. The love, the sex, becomes musically portrayed as “thermonuclear gang rape” and lyrically, as something that can be “measured by a ruler.” The primary metal theme of power rises up—Howlin’ Wolf meets Beowulf, Beethoven-esque granduer meeting supposed African primality in the bowels of the heaviest amplified guitar chords, so that a ritual of white manliness-evocation, with Negro primitivism somewhat recast as a Germanic fantasy-novel primitivism, is born. (In Zeppelin’s poetic world it will seem fitting that a blues-swaggerin’ Ramblin’ On man is found tramping through Tolkien’s Middle Earth: In the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so pure and fair.)
The rock n’ roll retro judgment of the hard rock transformation is condemnatory—while grudgingly admitting that some hard rockers like AC/DC and Aerosmith kept the link to rock n’ roll alive, the bottom line reaction is: “What the H%@# were you thinkin’ trying to bring Tolkien and Beethoven into the Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On? The only heaviness you really brought to things was what you put into the dancers’ feet!”
But when this judgment gets fused with the retro form of the primitivist aesthetic, i.e., when it is not intuitively tuned into the sorts of lessons most explicitly taught in the pages of Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and Martha Bayles, then it ultimately leads to something not so unlike hard rock.
By around 1987, one began to notice a increasing preoccupation with porn, veiled as a camp appreciation of the likes of Betty Page, creeping into the retro fanzines. Certain reissue series were peppering their offerings of obscure rockabilly and R+B 45s with even-more obscure 50s recordings apparently made for strip-clubs. About the same time, the first splotches of the rash of tattoos that would eventually blight the skin-scape of hip Gen-X women, in California especially, began to appear. And by then, the Cramps B-movie horror image had become more that of a back-alley peep-show—for all intents and purposes they had become specialized sleaze merchants, who spiced their offerings with ritualized outbursts of primitivist rock n’ roll.
Surely the Cramps could mock a song like Led Zeppelin’s “Rambin’ Man,” for its trying to fuse a kind of Jefferson Airplane gentleness with a bad-ass luv-em-n-leave-em bluesiness, on the grounds that the I’m-a-soulful-Middle-Earth-guy stuff was just dressing up a desire to get raunchy. But this just underlines the fact that Led Zeppelin, and not a few of their hard-rock imitators, kept their music at least somewhat open to the evocation of romance, and even to the employment of love song. But Love Song in the music of the Cramps is impossible. The 50s ballads are gone. That was not the part of the 50s (nor was “Rockin’ Robin”) they chose to bring back to the present. And so the Cramps could claim the honor of being even more reductively raunched-out than Led Zeppelin. Love = Lust, 100%. Real authenticity, after the pretensions of the Sexual Revolution have collapsed, is to be found in a peculiar re-creation of a 50s strip-club. Embrace your inner Muck.
As a symbol of the rock n’ roll retro proclivity for porn-destined-primitivism, the Cramps serve my purposes almost too well. For other bands, particularly in the garage scene, were far more about achieving a certain mix, of punk-attitude + sexiness + swing, than about emphasizing one of these elements. They were after, in songs like these by the The Milkshakes, The Tell-Tale Hearts, and The Morlocks, a perfection of the primitivist embrace, one that corrected the hard-rock error of overdoing the heaviness, that would find musical way of staying at that 1965-66 cusp of things…
In Songbook #38, I mentioned that The Morlocks were the band who best captured this primitivist aesthetic. To truly hear why, one must listen to their first E.P., Emerge, which was recorded in a particularly extreme (for the 80s) low-fi manner that actually magnifies the band’s impact. I love that record, but what strikes me in particular about it is the magnetic pull that its core primitivist vibe seems to exert upon all the bluesy and rockin’ musical elements the Morlocks bring to the mix. Things seem to get drawn into a repetitive yet highly addictive groove, somewhat similarly to what happens in funk, so that the repeated primal buzz-thud of “24 Hours Every Day” proves to be the record’s most characteristic sound, the one that echoes in your soul weeks after hearing it. You listen to much of this sort of stuff, The Morlocks, Thee Mighty Caesers, etc., and you find yourself unconsciously composing snarly-sexy little three-chord numbers yourself, find yourself pursing your lips to buzz-hum the riffs coming up out of this musical atunement. Some music seems to close off the inner ear to other sorts, seems to chain one to a particular sounds—caught up in it, you can almost feel a meticulously simplified formula rooting out and rearranging all the others into its pattern, as if a computer virus had been unleashed within you.
And that’s not, to put it mildly, what folks like Bayles and I think rock n’ roll was all about. We regard it as a particular set of related “dance crazes” rooted in a wider family of blues-swingin’ Afro-American musics, that were then made far too much of in terms of generational identity, cultural revolution, etc.
In conclusion, I find it telling that in the Cramps and the Morlocks, one can hear how the primitivist aesthetic ultimately leads back to the hard rock, the heaviness, and the complacency with vice.