Its lyrics are fairly interesting (in a nutshell, relativistic autonomy gets declared in a “manly” mod key) and music-wise it features the ground-breaking and still tasty-sounding feedback break. But my discussion will focus on the relation between The Who’s trademark “auto-destruction” sound and image epitomized by this song, and the culturally middle class situation they and their fans found themselves in (despite whatever working-class backgrounds some of them had come from). The situation was one of trying to connect modern art-school-trained British-ness to down-home American blackness, as this priceless Pete Townsend quote (which I found—where else?–in Martha Bayles’ Hole in our Soul) reveals:
“When the Who first started we were playing blues, and I dug the blues and I knew what I was supposed to be playing, but I couldn’t play it…I could hear the notes in my head, but I couldn’t get them out of my guitar… It used to frustrate me incredibly. I used to try to make up visually for what I couldn’t play as a musician…I’d hold my arm up in the air and bring it down so that it looked lethal, even if it didn’t sound too lethal…I got to jump about, and the guitar became unimportant. I banged it and I let it feed back and scraped it and rubbed it up against the microphone, did anything…It didn’t deserve any credit or any respect…And one day it broke.”
Those familiar with The Who’s story will see Townsend’s self-deprecating point: that was the beginning of the band’s employment of instrument-destruction and feedback. This book explains how art-school student Townsend attempted to give this aspect of their act a theoretical basis in the Dada-derived concept of auto-destruction, but the author wisely notes that it was fundamentally about showmanship and anger-expression.
This incident of Townsend’s frustration with the blues aptly symbolizes a key reason Rock came out of R+B/r ‘n r, and has remained the Music of the Middle Class. When faced with the likelihood that you couldn’t musically go as far down into the blues as you wanted, the rock answer was to compensate by going out ahead into the avant garde, i.e., into the various “perverse modernisms”(Bayles’ term) of the art schools. That’s why, 9 times out of 10, any given “ground-breaking” or “controversial” thing done by a rock band turns out to have a pre-WWII Continental avant-garde art precedent.
What’s emerged from my recent posts on Martha Bayles and retro rock and roll (#s 38-41) is a call for musicians to stay true to the Afro-American roots, to keep things swingin’ and-a shakin’, to not surrender to high-tech reworking of the music nor to primitivist understanding of its roots. You’ve got to cultivate yourself in the larger tradition, begin to understand what the likes of old bluesmen, gospel singers, or Nashville sidemen knew, as the case may be.
But Townsend reminds us that that’s hard. First of all, it’s just plain hard.
Second, without growing up in a community that musically supports/creates that tradition, or without having lots of apprenticeship opportunities (the ones that musician-employing night-clubs supply), it’s going to be even more work. And that’s the situation most of us tend to be in these days. Of course, as I’ve mentioned, it is not impossible: Eric Clapton, and even more so Dave Gonzalez, largely pulled it off. We could name others.
And third, there is another whole dimension of difficulty. That of authenticity. From down-home folks, the middle class people you come from, and your own self, a question will arise: is your trying to musically be what you just socially/intellectually aren’t the right thing to do?
As Plato could have told you, to get up on stage and sing (or even play) the blues, the country & western, or the soul music, is to be imitating the personalities of the early-20th century Mississippi Delta, 1930s Appalachia, or mid-century black-gospel schooled urban youth. And you won’t be able to do that unless you to some extent cultivate that personality and language within yourself, and to some extent live that life as much as is currently possible.
Muddy Waters, speaking of the British R + B explosion represented by the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Them, The Pretty Things, The Kinks, etc., said “The white kids can…run a ring around you playing guitar, but they cannot vocal like a black man.” Well, I’d want Waters to consider the Van Morrison and Eric Burdon cases more closely, but the basic point is undeniable. And Waters also puts it this way, in a quote that undercuts even the talent of the best guitar players like Clapton and Page:
“I think they’re great people, but they’re not blues players. Really, what separates them from people like Howlin’ Wolf and myself, we’re doing the stuff like we did way years ago down in Mississippi. These kids are just getting up, getting stuff and going with it, you know, so we’re expressing our lives, the hard times and the different things we been through. I don’t think you can feel the blues until you’ve been through some hard times.”
So for the British blues purists, there seemed no way to win—a few stuck it out and became real blues musicians, but most, even those most attuned to and capable of doing the style such as Van Morrison, found it necessary soon enough to bring other elements into their music—to “get other stuff.” Brian Jones, perhaps the most purist blues player of the Stones’ initial line-up, felt the problem from the get-go:
“If you ask some people why they go for R+B you get pretentious answers. They say that in R+B they find ‘an honesty of expression’ …and so on, for me it’s merely the sound…I mean, I like all sorts of sounds…It doesn’t express damn-all to me, really…But I like the sound.”
Bayles is pretty hard on the Stones, and one of her ways of showing their falling short of blues standards is to compare Muddy Waters’ I Just Want to Make Love to You with the Stones’ cover of the same. I certainly admit that Waters’ song is better as blues songs go and as singing in general goes; and I agree that it’s “sex” is more attuned to personal reality whereas the Stones turn things into a guitar-centered celebration of sexual freedom and prowess. And yet, as its own sound, I like the Stones’ version plenty. It works as a high energy rock n’ roll song, and it’s hard to argue with that guitar solo. That entire album, England’s Newest Hitmakers, is really pretty good so long as you grant the mixed quality of Jagger’s singing and ignore its very poor studio recording. In my opinion, they wind up owning “Route 66,” “Not Fade Away,” and perhaps even “Carol.” So I feel obliged to give these art-school boys credit for doing their British bohemian best to get in there and play blues and rock n’ roll as well as they could, to not have waited until they had a better singer or had learned their blues better.
We might say that what they did was to take R+B, and find ways to “maximize” its most exciting/Dionysian moments. At worst, this becomes the reductive primitivism I discussed in the last post, but at its best, it can mean that a song like their “Love to You” is more a platform for teenage energy-release than it is anything else. Judged on that standard alone, it succeeds.
“Maximum R+B” was The Who’s slogan, but to my mind it sums up what the entire British R+B music explosion was about—taking what the white kids could from R+B and running with it, intensifying it. As such, it was an instance of cultural cross-fertilization creating a unique sound, and make no mistake, this brief-lived sound definitely had its own qualities: a) new heights of high energy dance music, with bands like the Yardbirds perfecting particular tricks such as the “rave-up,” and b) among its best musicians, superior exploration of the sonic coloration available from the electric guitar. (In the U.S. we had the likes of Dick Dale and Link Wray for this latter task, but they were dismissed as doing speciality novelty music—sounds for surfers or greasers—and so few of our bohemian types paid attention to the artistic possibilities lurking in the strange new sounds they were eliciting from amps, whereas in Britain there seemed an immediate rush from The Who claiming to put a bit of pop-art noise into a pop song, circa 1965, into efforts to take noise-employing art-rock into Interstellar Overdrive barely a year later.) Hendrix, for example, suggested that he had more than a few things to learn from the likes of Jeff Beck, things he could not have learned from the black electric blues players in the U.S.
Of course, the focus on electric coloration diminished attention to the more-rhythm-oriented dynamics of real R + B playing. A wider palatte of sounds, ever-higher walls of scary-soundin’ noise, but less swingin’ and even, as Townsend knew, less “lethal” sounds.
And the addiction to cramming Dionysian moments that the best blues-schooled musicians got into only occasionally, and often only as the climax to a long build-up, into 3-minute wonders seems to have been an entryway into, and/or something that caused a reaction into, the hard-rock emphasis upon the power chord. If the Stones’ “Love to You” was mainly about self-assertion, then why not a electric guitar-based music entirely dedicated to this? That delivered those big-guitar whomps not just at solo time, but throughout? Likewise, if the main attraction of The Who’s R+B was its “maximization” into feed-backed noise, then why not a music that regularly swam amid the noise?
The Who’s attraction to blues and soul was undeniably part of what got them into music, and despite Townsend’s frustration with their ability to play it, I think (see #12) they did a pretty good job. But into is the operative word here, for they left R+B behind, as a still-appreciated resource that one might draw on, to be sure, but behind nonetheless, for advancement into a music that is truer to who the Who, and we middle-class modern democratic folk everywhere, are.
The limited forms of that music are by now fairly apparent: hard-rock, gentled folk rock, art-rock, minimalist punk attack, pop-art mixing of R + B basics with evocative sonic elements, and various other modes of mixtery, which often initially seem breakthroughs to some radically new form but, which somehow prove always wedded to the same ones at the end of the day. And it has become the “folk” music of our sorts of folk, the music we speak to one another in.
Townsend’s quote shows us why this move was understandable, why the advice Bayles and I give can seem to be pat, seem to be blind to what folks were and are really up against.
Nonetheless, the situation today calls us to reconsider the authenticity issue. Perhaps the Songbook’s central question is this: now that the hope that rock music would be characterized by advancement has been proven false, should we so readily accept that it is adequately true to who we are?