Sunday, January 21, 2007

Cheesecloth and ashes

A few days ago, I watched Hotel California: LA from the Byrds to the Eagles. It was a well made doc, reinforcing BBC4's claim to be a still, small voice of critical intelligence squeaking against the celebrity/lifestyle dialectic that seems to run British factual TV these days. Since it was spun off from a book by the always perceptive and articulate Barney Hoskyns, you wouldn't expect otherwise. And I think everyone now is taking an interest in America in the early 1970s, because of the obvious resonances: a president slumping from adulation to contempt; an unwinnable war; a dream that died. For Watergate, Manson and Altamont, read Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib.

But, oh, sweet Jesus on a unicycle, the music! Seldom have I heard such a barrage of self-indulgent, witless, lame piffle being presented in the name of family entertainment.

In the mid-to-late 60s, Los Angeles was home to the Beach Boys and the Mamas and the Papas, the beauty of whose sunny harmonies barely cloaked the seething dysfunction that lurked beneath. The music scene was also home to a delicious strain of subversive humour, that encompassed the likes of the Monkees, the Turtles and Frank Zappa. And what replaced them? Po-faced singer-songwriters who insisted on embarking on a voyage of self-discovery, and charging the listener to accompany them. Personally, I've never understood the critical kudos handed out to the likes of Joni Mitchell and Gram Parsons, nor the redemption from ignominy that Jackson Browne and James Taylor have recently enjoyed. Then there was Linda Ronstadt, who escapes censure as part of the vile singer-songwriter tribe simply by virtue of the fact that she never wrote anything.

But the solo dullards were wimps who could be batted aside. The groups were harder to argue with, not least because their shrill harmonies formed a sort of choirboy wall of sound that created a mixture of paralysis, pain and nausea in any listener not under the thrall of marijuana, cocaine or fringed buckskin. And their egos made things worse. When David Crosby (of the the tedious, fey Crosby, Stills and Nash) indicated how bored he was by the tedious, obnoxious Eagles, I started constructing a new circle of hell for anybody found in possession of an acoustic guitar and an offensive poncho.

What was so infuriating was that many of these people were highly talented, often with excellent back catalogues. Crosby, of course, was a Byrd; Carole King was responsible for some of the best pop songs of the previous decade. Altamont and Manson didn't just kill the 1960s dream, it would appear; they killed self-deprecation, humour, balls, fun.

One figure transcended this ludicrous, up-their-own-arses-like-an-ice-cube-up-Gram's cabal, while still being counted among its number. He did not deign to be interviewed, but he was glimpsed in archive footage on many occasions, usually hovering to one side, glaring balefully at the proceedings from beneath his simian brow, or wielding a pair of BBC coffee cups as if they were offensive weapons. Towards the end of the film, we heard his alien yowl, as if he and only he knew how low music had fallen:

"The king is gone, but he's not forgotten. This is the story of Johnny Rotten."

Of all these tiresome people in their foolish cowboy boots and misconceived moustaches, only Neil Young, bless his curmudgeonly heart, understood how utterly necessary punk rock was.

18 comments:

Betty said...

Ah, that clip of Graham Nash saying something along the lines of "we're free to say that HITLER was WRONG, people WHO SHOOT NEGROES are WRONG". I should imagine even he cringes almost as much as anyone else watching that now.

I've listened to Joni Mitchell's seminal, classic album Blue this week - four times. I assumed that I'd have some sort of epiphany after that effort but - nothing. Clearly there's something wrong with me. I put a Mamas And The Papas hits collection on afterwards and it was a blessed relief. I'd say that Cass Elliot was a more interesting and inspiring woman than Joni Mitchell actually.

Oh well - perhaps you had to be there at the time. I'm trying to be diplomatic because I had a bit of an "exchange of opinion" with this bloke - http://vicusscurra.blogspot.com/2007/01/my-dreams-have-lost-some-grandeur.html#links

Betty said...

Christ that was a long, tedious comment. I've just found out that Denny Doherty of the Mamas And The Papas has died as well, spookily enough ...

Anonymous said...

100% bang on Tim, an "offensive poncho" of a post! And those Eagles albums sold by the zillion, the equivalent of all the bizarre "hat acts" of the 90's like Garth (what the?) Brooks.
My only disagreement would be Joni Mitchell who has a beautiful songwriting talent. However, I fell out with her after Songs to a Seagull (1968) and Clouds (1969) and came back to her in 1994 with the refreshing Turbulent Indigo album. So she was rubbish in the 70's - I blame David Geffen.

Geoff said...

The Whistle Test California special was interesting - a lot of shit but some great stuff by Judee Sill, Randy Newman and Warren Zevon.

(The stuff that didn't sell millions)

Did Neil Young really like the Pistols or was he just flattered that Johnny Rotten liked him?

Geoff said...

And I love that Pissing on Summer Lawns album.

Annie said...

...a sort of choirboy wall of sound that created a mixture of paralysis, pain and nausea hahahaha! Bang on!

But Joni Mitchell not deserving kudos? Wash your mouth out with soap, Tim...

Tim Footman said...

Hmm, yes, I thought the Joni comments might have scraped a few blackboards. I don't dislike her stuff - just leaves me cold (except for the Mingus album, although I haven't listened to that for about 17 years). But sorry, I'm with Betty. Give me Cass's ample thighs over Joni's cheeks any day.

Geoff: I just think Young and Lydon saw a certain meeting of minds. Young's stuff was getting pretty bleak and angry anyway (after Harvest) and they sort of met half-way. Just as the punk and reggae acts saw a sort of meeting of minds.

I'll try to pin down that Whistle Test special, it sounds good. The presence of Randy Newman, for one, would have given the documentary rather more edge. Like Young, I always see him as something of an outsider (although, what with his family connections, he was as Hollywood as they come).

dh said...

Excellent summary Tim. Altamont and Manson were the culmination of an inevitable process which seems obvious in hindsight.

Spinsterella said...

I really cannot stand Joni Mitchell.

A friend with usually excellent taste in music once spent an entire evening subjecting me to her caterwauling tones in an attempt to convince me of her genius.

I hate her more than ever now.

Billy said...

Didn't Johnny Rotten also like Van Der Graff Generator? I wonder what he thought of Steely Dan.

The Curve said...

I thought as I was reading this,'Oh no, any minute now he is going to slag off Neil Young.' My humble apologies.

BiB said...

I know nothing about music (or anything else, really) but I do know I loathe The Eagles with such an all-consuming passion that I just have to thank you for allowing me to say so 'out loud' here. Doesn't that effing 'Hotel California' just make you wish you'd never been born?

Anonymous said...

Oh absolutely ... it was some of the worst music ever made ... so ugly, so pointless ... all those egos, all that arrogance. I've said to Molly Bloom many a time ... acoustic guitars?! Why?!The Mamas And The Papas pissed all over them.
Didn't Frank Zappa express his hatred and contempt for that bunch often? Good old Frank.
But you've got to hand it to Graham Nash ... who would've twigged that Hitler was a bad man and shooting at blacks was wrong without his guiding wisdom?

Tim Footman said...

Strangely, Billy, I discuss the punk/prog interface in my forthcoming Radiohead tome. As I recall, Lydon was particularly taken with Peter Hammill's solo output, rather than VdGG itself. He also like Magma; Steve Diggle off of t'Buzzcocks liked Yes.

And Anthony: I think Zappa was particularly offended by the drug intake of the Laurel Canyon crowd, more so than the fact that Graham Nash is a Grade A ninny.

Spinsterella said...

Did punk really mark such a sea-change?

Even people who know jack-shit about it (like me) are aware that people like the New York Dolls and the Ramones had been around for years by 76/77.

Anonymous said...

This stuff seems to have become semi-fashionable again just because everything else good has already had a revival. I love Neil Young though. Maybe the others just weren't curmudgeonly enough.

Annie said...

talking of kudos, the way to get in with a man, and I mean any man, is to say that you like Neil Young. I don't know why this should be.

If you ask me, he warbles worse than Joni...

Tim Footman said...

Spin: The Dolls and Ramones were indeed kicking around earlier, but very few people had heard of the them. It was the rise of the Pistols in '77 that actually brought punk into the public eye. I've been watching the Xmas Top of the Pops programmes from the 70s, and the sea-change between, say, '76 and '79 is extraordinary (Blondie, Squeeze, Costello, Dury as Top 10 propositions - that was entirely down to the Pistols). In 1976, the top spot in John Peel's Festive 50 was held by... Stairway To Heaven.

Doc: In 31 Songs, Nick Hornby tries to reclaim Jackson Browne for the forces of cool. I think it may have started there.

Annie: Oooh, let's not fall out over this. As I say, I don't dislike Joni, I just don't get her. And I'm sure there is a big gender divide. NY was a big grunge icon - maybe he's for people who've exhausted the charms of Nirvana.