Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Musically, my Songbook is grounded upon Martha Bayles’s theory of American popular music, and my last post gave an account of what I believe I’ve learned from her.  In the next several posts, I’ll be providing some elaborations upon or reactions to her theory.

That theory is presented in Hole in our Soul , published in 1994.  How did Bayles envision pop groups returning to more soulful sounds?

1) The primary cure was for artists to learn the methods of the various strands of the Afro-American tradition that gave the music blues and swing.

2) This could happen in more or less obviously rootsy ways.  What artists come in for praise in Bayles’ final chapter?  In roots music generally, Bonnie Riatt, Dire Straits, Lyle Lovett; in country, the various “mavericks” such as Willie Nelson, and the honky-tonkers; in contemporary R+B, groups like Boyz II Men trying to bring more melodic elements into hip-hop; in “new wave” folks like Elvis Costello who “made the journey home from camp” to the R+B elements they loved, or groups like the Culture Club who while sounding very contemporary on the surface, were deeply influenced by classic soul; in jazz, Wynton Marsalis and other “neo-classicists.”  Some of these examples I am skeptical about, particularly her singling out The Police as worthy of special praise for deriving a new pop sound from reggae and jazz.  Likewise, this was a list put together in the early 90s, and certain trends did not wind up impacting the music as much as she hoped.

3) One of her repeated hopes is that the pattern of pop artists employing jazz-trained musicians will again become common, as happened quite a bit with classic soul; the flip side of this is that jazz musicians will return to greater openness to pop opportunities, particularly recognizing their own musical need for interaction with   dancing audiences.

4) While Bayles defends the popularity of oldies radio among the young, and celebrates the bands who strayed from punk or new wave dogmas into more R+B like territory, she is wary of outright revivalism.  There is a passage where she notes that it is something that black musicians and audiences almost never fool with:  trad jazz, Northern Soul, the rockabilly revival, the ska scene—these are, particularly the last three, not associated w/ Afro-American audiences, whatever the attraction the initial ska revival had to Jamaicans in Britain.

5) There is a telling passage in which she criticizes bluegrass as being, from its beginning, too much of a “purist stronghold.”  Rules, such as the “no-drums” rule, are too zealously adhered too.  Preservation is almost as problematic, then, as revivalism.  Had her book come out a few years later, surely she would have heaped praise on Allison Krause, precisely for bending bluegrass in more pop-friendly directions.

6) So it looks like the ideal Baylesian pop artists are those who learn from the roots, but who “mix it up” a bit, who avoid revivalism and/or purist preservationism.  She’s surely pleased, as Peter and I are, at the success of Adele.

I do part ways with Bayles somewhat, in that I think pop music has quite a bit to gain from the “purists” and “retro-maniacs,” and particularly in its ongoing period of post-1970s confusion.  Maybe I do so because the idea that somehow a band like the Police were better than a retro band like that I experienced first-hand like The Paladins , is one I simply cannot accept.  But I have arguments that are less “you-had-to-be-there” experience-dependent.  First, I think the retro rock and rollers have simply been proven to be largely correct about older analog amplification and recording techniques.  Second, there is something about the retro and purist spirit which seems increasingly necessary to pull off the “root doctoring” that Bayles recommends.

I’m going to flesh out these arguments by, yes, talking about the Bangles.


What you’ll notice about “I’m in Line” is that sonically and sartorially, the Bangles were in full retro rock and roll mode when they did this—it’s from their first E.P, around 1983, which was followed up around 1984 with an excellent L.P. called All over the Place .  It was only in 1986, with the release of In a Different Light , from which the hit singles “Manic Monday” and “Walk Like an Egyptian” were taken, that the Bangles dropped the retro style.  (Live, things were another story; i.e., they rocked, they rolled, and they remained a band that sounded just fine playing a Yardbirds cover.)

Let’s do some comparing and contrasting.  How do the retro-ed Bangles sound when compared to a) the Go Gos, a band that had retro proclivities, but ones half-cloaked behind up-to-the-moment production and New Wave stylings, and b) to the post-1986 Bangles, once they had made their sound much more contemporary, i.e. more “80s” than “60s”?

a) Comparing “I’m in Line” to “Our Lips Are Sealed” we can hear that the latter definitely has a catchier melody; i.e., we can understand why it became a hit.  But we can also hear, and even see—look at the way Belinda Carlise has to dance!—that it is a less rhythmically dynamic piece.  While the repeated quick drum break is fun and the can you see them!  chorus injects infectious enthusiasm, the overall rhythm of the song is just passably danceable.  It invites that kind of half-committed swaying, or over-committed back-and-forth flopping, that black comedians exaggerate when they want to make fun of white people dancing, or that my wife and call the “Peanuts prance” after the way Linus, Lucy, and the gang dance .  “I’m in Line,” however, is aggressively percussive from note one, such that it will accommodate mediocre Peanuts dancers, but give the better ones plenty to work with.  And the guitar sound is not softened nor back-grounded the way it is “Our Lips Are Sealed, but is right there, Beatles-style, pushing you along with its clank-ety echo and jerky attack. I say it’s the Bangles, or at least their record, we’re going to want playing at our party.

The Go Gos seem to have been an attempt to inject the basic features of the girl-group sound of the mid-60s into the sound of today, and see where it goes, whereas the Bangles seem to have been a purist 60s thing, involving a collision of the early Beatles with the Mamas and the Papas, but conducted with devotion to far more than the ‘basic features’ of these respective sounds.

b) Songs like   “Manic Monday” and “Walk Like an Egyptian” seem to be the result of the Bangles deciding to give the non-purist approach of the Go Gos a go of their own.  Unfortunately, hip producers’ notion of what sounded “contemporary” was even lamer in 1986 than it had been in 1982, and the original fans of the Bangles found the near-total ditching of 1960s production values, and the replacement of starkly jangly guitars with ones lost amid cushions of synths, rather disappointing.  A “sell-out.”  The Bangles did gain newer fans, however,(“Egyptian” was irresistible, even if the popularity of something as limp as “Manic Monday” remains mysterious), and in their live shows they remained true to themselves.  I do not know what they’ve since said about the change, but I think their original sound was clearly superior.  I don’t care if it must be labeled as “retro” and had some relation to them wearing vintage mod gear.  It simply sounds better.

25 years later, when they’ve recorded a new album , the sound they’ve chosen is far more like their earlier one than that of their late-80s hit-making.  It’s funny—for the Bangles in 1986 to have remained truer to their core artistry would have required them to dig-in their heels about their 60s sound.  I imagine I understand how tempting it was to think that their anachronistic-regarded sounds could be adapted to be made palatable to a wider audience, and someone probably told them that by doing so they would keep the rock and roll spirit alive in contemporary pop. And unquestionably, doing so got them through the door to allow for more music making, whereas we don’t know how their career would have gone had they done otherwise.

In 2012, however, there is a much broader opinion, particularly amid indie rock artists, that 50s-to-early-70s amplification and recording techniques are superior to what followed.  The case is at least strong enough to continue to cultivate some of those techniques.  Many now feel, regardless of their having rock and roll retro proclivities or not, that analog sound is at least slightly better than digital, which is why records and turntables are selling again, and why, to take one example among many, a rising classical music star like the Russian pianist Valentina Lisitsa announces that her new recordings will be analog.  So on this issue, at least, the retro rock and rollers have been vindicated.

So it’s ever-more ridiculous that some kind of major objection would be posed against a band wanting to use vintage instruments and to leave synthesizers and such out of the mix.  The 80s fetish for synths and the production techniques that went with them now seems more than a bit bizarre:  maybe a song like Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” really had to have those synths in it to work, but our suspicion is that it was a capitulation to a narrow-minded conception of what was with-it, and that an organ or a horn-section would have done nicely instead.  And again, it was these same narrow-minded notions, which consigned the records by the two greatest bands of the 80s, the The Tell-Tale Hearts and the Paladins , to the “too retro to play” file.  A mistake, and an injustice.

So, let’s say it’s the early 80s, and you’ve been called in to advise a band like the Bangles or the Go Gos.  They want to know:  given the basic shape of their sound, should they be forthrightly retro, or should they try to sound as contemporary as possible?  What should you say?  In hindsight, I think the answer for the Bangles is clear: they should have kept more to their original retro sound— All over the Place  walked the line between retro and contemporary about as well as possible.  And while it’s harder to argue with the Go Gos’ hits, which were pretty darn good hits, I do think that in terms of pure excellence, the answer should have been:  get more retro—don’t footsy around so much with 80s production and simple rhythms, and get Jane’s guitar out there where it can be heard!

And here’s the kicker:  myself, or someone who similarly appreciated what the very best rock and roll revivalists were accomplishing in the early 80s, would have been more likely to give that correct advice than Martha Bayles.  She’s ultimately too scared of the “revivalist” charge.  She probably would have told the Bangles to “mix it up,” to follow commerce’s imperatives, and thus to go that dreary Different Light path.


Here’s the other argument.  I want to ask, how was it that the Go Gos, the Bangles, and what the heck, let’s throw in Allison Krause too, got devoted to their music, so that it could even become a question of how to best present it and record it?  And the answer is obvious, particularly in the latter two cases:  it was through the purist spirit, the spirit that said, rock and roll reached a peak in ’65-‘66 . . . and I’m going to learn as much as I can about it —or—  country reached a peak with Bill Monroe and co. . . . and I’m going to learn as much as I can about it.   That is, even if the Bangles were right in 1986 to go the contemporary route, and I would have given them narrow-minded and career-killing advice by keeping them more retro, the truth is there never would have been a Bangles in the first place without the spirit of retro.  The incipient young Bangles did not say around 1980, as perhaps an incipient Billie Holiday did around 1930, “what are the contemporary sounds that we can plug into and make music to.”  No, for them, “the contemporary sounds” came with a large asterisk, an asterisk that said, “well, the contemporary* sounds were quite a bit better twenty years ago.”  Just as Billie Holiday had to hang out at the whore-house to hear the latest Louis Armstrong records playing(hence her famous saying that, had the church been playing those records, she would have been hangin’ out there), the Bangles had to get into the obsessive labor of re-collecting the records of the recent past to hear the sounds that were going to nourish them.  And we grant that their doing this was a much less organic thing than what Billie did.  But the bottom line is this: our times have not been ones like the 1920s-1960s when a promising young musician could just plug herself into some main channel of the contemporary sounds to arrive at her own excellence.  I.e., in our era there is something about the retro spirit, that put-the-blinders-on so-as-to-focus purism, that can be the best pathway to musical excellence.

I’ll leave you with a last comparison.  Perhaps the post-1986 Bangles’ best hit was the ballad “Eternal Flame.”   It’s pretty good, as contemporary ballads go.  I’m glad it was a hit, happy for the persons who courted to it or otherwise cherished it.  But my taste says that this, a song Susanna Hoffs sang with the Paisely Underground “all-star” group Rainy Day , is a better balladic instance of her Bangles-esque artistry.  Yes, it’s a cover.  Yes, it’s very simple, and very retro, zeroed in on a certain ‘66-‘67 hippie vibe.  But is it not superior?  Is there any iron-clad reason a young artist of today could not make a recording similar to that one, and not have it become a hit?  What is it that absolutely destines public taste to cling to the glossy production values that would keep it from becoming one?  Would “Eternal Flame” have sounded better recorded that way?  The success of artists like She & Him, the late Amy Winehouse, and now Adele are signs that questions like those remain open ones.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles