1977: Brian Eno - Before and After Science
From his work ‘treating’ the sounds of his band mates in Roxy Music onwards, Brian Eno has made a career of challenging the notion that musician is synonymous with instrumentalist, and nowhere in his discography is this challenge more explicitly stated than in his 1977 LP Before and After Science. Not an instrumental virtuoso by any means, Eno is more regarded for his compositional techniques and mixing skills. Fittingly, the science in question is undoubtedly the science of audio recording - a field in which Eno possesses a Copernican level of mastery. The titular concept is manifest throughout the album. Its first half boasts complex arrangements and sonic textures that could only have been achieved after the advent of overdubbing, synthesizers, and the like, while the second half features simpler, relatively direct music that could have been created before the recording process became so technical. In 1977, this was something of a trend for Eno, as later that year, he and David Bowie would take a similar approach to track sequencing on Bowie's Low.
Although Science may sound more intellectually stimulating than fun, Eno manages to blend the conceptual rigor of his compositional techniques with an equally strong sense of playfulness. You'll be amused by lyrics like “the logistics and heuristics of the mystics” before marveling at Eno's ability to construct a narrative out of such strained rhymes. Likewise, “King's Lead Hat” is by far the catchiest track on the LP, even before realizing Eno is tipping his hat to the Talking Heads through the song's anagrammed title and martial rhythm. The album eventually winds down to a gentler pace, though the listener's interest never does. Instead, as things get quieter there is a better chance to appreciate the subtleties of Eno's songwriting. “By This River” boasts an achingly pretty melody, while “Spider and I” closes the album with a lyrical sensibility that recalls Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd.
Songwriting truly is the greatest strength of Before and After Science. When it comes to intellectualism, Eno can theorize about music and the artistic process as well as anyone, but he ensures that the cognitive aspect of his craft doesn't interfere with the music's ability to entertain. Sadly, Eno essentially abandoned lyricism and the concision of pop music for a while after Science, focusing instead on ambient music and production work for other artists. Although his other artistic pursuits have taken him on divergent paths, this album is not only one of the best albums in Eno's catalog, but of the 1970s as a whole.
1989: The Frogs - It’s Only Right and Natural
What does it mean to record a “gay” album? When I first learned of The Frogs’ 1989 underground pseudo-classic, It’s Only Right and Natural, I consistently read about it being one of the few records that could be properly called “gay.” After giving the LP a listen, I no longer questioned why so many have described this music as gay or novel or lewd or shocking or homophobic or terrible. But I disagree with the applicability of most of these to a record that circumvents so many topical and lyrical conventions. If I had to force It’s Only Right and Natural into the prison of a single adjective, I’d call it refreshing. This is a record that compels attention and polarizes both actual and potential listeners so violently that I’m reminded of why I love art and why the explosion of punk in the late ’70s was so very important for recapturing the “fuck you” swagger in music, highlighted previously by Elvis’s mythical pelvis and Velvet songs about drugs, whores, and more drugs.
The moment the Flemion brothers start in with the opening words of “I’ve Got Drugs (Out of the Mist),” you’re apprised of the over-the-top nature of the recording. Though this first track is one of the few without a vulgar homosexual narrative, it’s perhaps equally absurd in its treatment of drug culture. But it’s these gay narratives that garner all the attention and provide a unifying theme running from beginning to end. With songs like “Homos,” “Dykes We Are,” and “These Are the Finest Queen Boys (I’ve Ever Seen),” The Frogs aren’t pulling any punches, and they hammer away at exaggerated expositions on gay culture with a tongue-and-cheek humor that accomplishes that rare feat of being at once ridiculous and poignant.
It’s Only Right and Natural also strikes at religion with “Gather ‘Round for Savior #2” and, not content with a song so mild as to just address the topic of drug use, the opener includes the line, “Fucking priest with a yeast infection.” Indeed. Then there’s “Baby Greaser George,” a cut tracing a gruesome sexual encounter that can be deduced from the title. It’s altogether awful and offensive and striking and taboo. And this seems to be the point here: regardless of what subjects the brothers Flemion deem worthy of their lo-fi folk aesthetic, none are handled conservatively, and all are sewn from the same cloth handled by 2 Live Crew, Geto Boys, and others who have composed their material with an eye to the censors. It’s probably not by coincidence that all these bands were at their best and most appalling at around the same time, in an era where explicit content in popular music resonated with ferocity in the media and amongst political elites. That doesn’t mean the music isn’t good. On the contrary, some of the early Geto Boys LPs border on classic status, and It’s Only Right and Natural is a brilliant middle finger wrapped in skeletal acoustics that nearly make you wish the band would have recorded a companion piece with a more traditional lyrical approach. It’s all just so raw and visceral and evocative and fun.
But you can’t really wish for anything other than what this record is, or else you’d be bargaining for something so very different as to void all meaningful comparison. The lyrics are such an immense part of this record and are so childishly clever and able to generate a what-the-fuck reaction that quickly merges with an appreciation for what The Frogs are doing here. And what they’re doing is whatever they feel like doing, and that’s something that should be cherished in a society that still insists on separating profanity from television. The tunes are pretty damn good, too.
1990: The Flatlanders - More a Legend Than a Band
Quick, who is the most important influence on the genre known as 'alt-country'? Gram Parsons, you say? That would be the stock answer for many, including a majority around the Tiny Mix Tapes office. Call me sacrilegious, but ol' Gram's music doesn't really do much for me. Sure, he has one of those great rock and roll biographies, hippie-cowboy-OD'd-in-the-desert and all -- but yeah, not really feeling it. So whenever somebody starts waxing poetic about Gram, I just calmly say, "I like The Flatlanders better."
Coming straight outta Lubbock with hardly a whimper in 1972, The Flatlanders put out an album (on 8-track, no less) that could pretty much only be found at truck stops in the deep South, where nobody noticed them. The members went their separate ways by the end of the year, and three of them went on to become some of the most revered singer-songwriters this side of Townes Van Zandt in the Texas underground: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock.
The songs on this compilation resemble what it must be like to stew your creative juices in the windswept isolation of the West Texas panhandle. There is the high, lonesome sound of classic country with the faint impression of a fiddle swing band on a celebratory Friday night, dancing with your sweetheart at an edge-of-town roadhouse in the middle of nowhere. But there's also the sweet smell of reefer hanging in the air. It's a mixture of conservative cowboy hats in Chevy trucks and pie-eyed freaks in a DayGlo microbus. And the best part: some dude plays a saw!
The music coming out of Nashville in the early '70s was glossy and slick. The outlaw movement led by Willie, Waylon, and the rest had yet to give a swift kick to the nethers of the behemoths dictating the era's country music scene. I have to imagine that these offbeat songs induced looks of disgust on the faces of pop-country listeners back then -- the few that heard them, anyway. Too old-timey, too weird. There is even a Hindu devotional song, for crying out loud, and that just isn't something a good, God-fearing, patriotic American listens to. That is the territory of those addle-minded heathens out in San Francisco who burn flags with Hanoi Jane. And did I mention that some dude plays a saw?
The Flatlanders were coming up with lyrics inspired by Townes Van Zandt that just weren't heard in country music back then. They had more in common lyrically with the singer-songwriters from the FM dial, yet their sound was very much rooted in traditional country. Rock bands such as The Byrds, Bob Dylan, and The Grateful Dead had incorporated country influences in their music for the urban hipsters already, but that was music coming from city slickers. The Flatlanders were reared in the land of country, giving them more authenticity in my opinion than some urbanite wannabe with a pedal steel, and thus are one of the pioneers of a genuine alternative in country music. And some dude plays a saw!
1980: The Soft Boys - Underwater Moonlight
College rock begins here, with Robyn Hitchcock and The Soft Boys. These guys were a riot. Didn’t have an original idea in their heads. Lyrics were gross. Couldn’t hack it with the punks ’cause they couldn’t leggo the Byrds riffs, but they sure did a mean “Mystery Train.” Gave Cambridge a jostle in the late ’70s, then gave up. Donated a guitarist to Katrina and the Waves.
Underwater Moonlight is the better of the only two ‘real’ records The Soft Boys ever made, a sprawling amalgam of punk, pop, psychedelia, and Hitchcock’s own sicko vision. The Boys sang, often in fiery yet immaculate three-part harmonies, of love and war and sex and death and things that go bump in the night, always with a keen sense of ironic detachment (or so you hoped). Close scrutiny of the lyrics results in scrunched-up noses; this is the same expression I have seen on the faces of unwillings exposed to Ween or The Flaming Lips.
If Moonlight now sounds somewhat dated, the songs are not to blame. The album was recorded all wrong -- the production is a bit suffocating, reminiscent of what John Cale did to The Stooges. Fortunately, the 2001 Matador reissue added an entire disc of dusty studio tapes (more than a little crud, but the best moments -- “She Wears My Hair,” “Goodbye Maurice or Steve,” and the awesome take on Roxy’s “Over You” -- are looser and fuller than anything that made the record).
I’ll admit it -- I’m a sucker for melody, certainly something indie rock has delivered more consistently than has That Other Stuff. You can draw a line from The Soft Boys to R.E.M. to Pavement to Modest Mouse to Tapes ’n’ Tapes -- all catchier than anything the kids are dancing to today. But in the words of Louis Armstrong, “There are some people, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ’em.” That, to me, is what indie rock is really all about. We know we’re right. Certainly, The Soft Boys knew. “They say I’m weird,” sang Hitchcock, “but cleanliness of the soul is more important, don’t you think?”
1983: Negativland - A Big 10-8 Place
In the 1980s, left-of-center musicians lacked the resources that are readily available to them today. Without the world wide web, out-musicians and their fans relied on zines, newsletters, and local record stores (which, of course, varied greatly in quality) to circulate and discover music. Moreover, the task of creating fringe music demanded money and time; few record labels would foot the bill for it, home recording equipment wasn't cheap, and everything was analog. If, for instance, you wanted to edit found sounds into a collage, you needed razor blades, recording tape, and adhesives.
Negativland, then, deserve commendation for crafting lengthy musique concrète pieces and using the DIY network to build a sizable cult following during the Reagan years. The group wasn't especially innovative -- they copped their technique from avant-garde composers, Nurse With Wound, and ’70s German bands like Faust. But their music was virtuosic, a cartoonish parade of split-second editing, psychedelic layering, and perverse noise-making that took hours to compose. Negativland were the Girl Talk of tape collage music, pushing their technique to the limits of ridiculousness.
Negativland's early albums, which the group's own Seeland label has been steadily reissuing over the last few years, sound as strange today as they did when they first dropped. But that's really all you can say about them. A Big 10-8 Place, the most recent reissue, is in no sense beautiful and in no meaningful way challenging. Its extended collages string together pure noise, snippets of old jazz albums, and all manner of human voices, among other things. No form emerges, no statement is made, no effect other than disorientation achieved. Most likely, these tapestries of cultural debris are intended to mimic the clamor and "unreality" of late capitalist American society, which Negativland has on many occasions criticized. If that's the case, though, this album neither critiques nor celebrates; it merely mimics. It tells us what we already know. So why listen?
1965: Albert Ayler - Spirits Rejoice
Once in a great while, an album comes along that’s filled with so much god-awful beauty and spiritual intensity that every majestic note contained therein cuts deep into the dark places of your soul and leaves you with nothing more than the promise of sweet deliverance...
Albert Ayler’s Spirits Rejoice is that kind of album. At least it is to me.
Spirits Rejoice emerged in 1965, around the time when the Stones were singin’ idiotically simple (albeit great) pop songs about frustration and discontent. On the other side of the Atlantic, we had Bob Dylan completely blitzed out of his gourd on mountains of speed, cranking out 15-minute rhapsodies that were more on the order of Ginsberg’s Howl than anything broadcasted on popular radio before or since. Meanwhile, Elvis was thundering his way through Tinseltown, galvanizing the silver screen with nothing more than his hillbilly charm and swagger. Never mind the fact that he couldn’t act worth a lick. When he gyrated his hips, girls everywhere screamed their lust-filled heads off – and when The King let his pipes loose with a serenade, it was then when history was in fact being made, because it was then when an aw shucks, po’ dunk truck driver became more popular than Jesus Christ. It was undoubtedly a seminal peak in the musical and cultural landscape. Boundaries were being crossed and possibilities seemed endless. In some cases, art was being made. And in rarer instances, something more than art was conceived – which is where Albert Ayler enters the picture.
See, Spirits Rejoice is a milestone, dig, a one-of-a-kind album that taps into the belly and heart of Americana, if not the Godhead itself. Moreover, you’ll never hear anything like this album today. Like those precious recordings on the Smithsonian folk and blues collections, the music in Spirits Rejoice encapsulates the hardships and joys and spirit of a very specific time and place in American history. And as far as innovations go, Spirits Rejoice adds a new entry into the annuls of jazz by combining Louis Armstrong’s brand of traditional New Orleans brass jazz with the wild, manic, almost uncontrollable swing of hard bop; which, incidentally, for awhile there, were two completely opposing factions within the parameters of jazz music. In fact, Tommy Dorsey dismissed Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie as musical communists (which is an insult I’m not exactly sure I completely understand beyond being a shitty thing to say to any red-blooded American during McCarthy-era America). Anyway, Ayler fused these two forms of music so beautifully that it soon became ridiculously obvious that both camps were hopelessly ignorant in their attitudes about who holds the philosopher’s crown when jazz styles were concerned. I mean, it’s all just a heap of notes thrown together anyway. Whether it’s bop, punk, rock, rap, or whatever -- as long as it possesses some real vibrancy and swings hard and strong, why cheapen any form of expression by placing it into specific demarcated categories?
That was undoubtedly one of the questions coursing through Ayler’s fevered brain when he was blowin’ every fiber of his poor misbegotten soul through that tenor axe of his, because Spirits Rejoice is an amalgam of so many different musical styles – marching band, R&B, blues, soul, vaudeville, etc. – that the overall effect sounds like a blast of undeniable Truth. Jazz-writ extraordinaire Ralph Gleason wrote something along those lines in what was essentially Albert Ayler’s obituary in his column in Rolling Stone magazine. That Ayler was more focused on seeking eternal truths and beautiful melodies than he was with technical aptitude or how many thunderous notes he could cram into a single scale (which, incidentally, was the prevailing rage at the time). In fact, by most conventional definitions that many jazzbo’s adhere to, Ayler was far from the greatest jazz cat to touch a horn. Regardless, the closest sax player I can think of that matched Ayler’s aim was John Coltrane; and truth be known, Coltrane crushed Ayler by the simple fact that Coltrane had more of an impact than Ayler by his prolificacy. But what the hell? That ain’t sayin’ much cuz Coltrane was laps ahead of damn near everyone in music. And as far as technical virtuosity goes, heavyweights like Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker creamed Ayler, who albeit had a beautiful tone and fingers as nimble as say, Stevie Ray Vaughn, could nonetheless not keep up with those giants. And again, who could? Even when considering those who frontiered new platitudes and concepts in jazz composition, guys like Ornette Coleman and Charlie Mingus and Sun Ra beat Ayler by a long shot. But this ain’t a slam on Ayler; with all said and done, he ain’t no crumb. Moreover, as far as I’m concerned, Spirits Rejoice can stand toe-to-toe with any of the established masterpieces by those aforementioned legends and hold its own. Coltrane and Ayler's similarities stem from their ability to express such raw emotive passion on wax (which makes the likes of emo poster child Connor Oberst seem like a sniveling, whiny punk by comparison).
Ultimately, however, what we have with Spirits Rejoice is essentially a lament on the plight and deliverance of the oppressed and downtrodden. When you’ve been pushed down and kicked in the teeth for so long, you are left with only two viable options: fight back or embrace your oppressors with love, and Spirits Rejoice is an emblem/tableau about choosing love in the face of pain, abuse, and hate. It’s a beacon of what could be, and what should be, no matter what the trappings of our environment are – and that, my friends, is ultimately why this precious little album means so goddamn much to me. It’s a constant reminder to choose LIFE no matter how dire your circumstances are. I mean, I have little doubt that Ayler’s life was no picnic. He was an African-American living in a volatile time. Plus, he was a penniless musician, his nigh obscurity punctuated by the fact that he died at the age of 34. Furthermore, suspicious circumstances surround his death. His body was found floating in the Hudson River, and nobody to this day knows how his body got there or what he died of. Perhaps the pain in his life finally got to him. Everybody has their breaking point, and a man can only take so much wretchedness before he breaks down for good. And poor ol’ Ayler was undoubtedly up to his ears in agony. But despite all his troubles, I believe Ayler had a lotta love in his heart; Spirits Rejoice articulates this love — love for people, love for God, love for life – deeper and more eloquently than any other album I’ve ever heard in my life.