Good times roll
by Jon Worley
Back in college, a friend of mine saw fIREHOSE. Before the show, he caught up with Mike Watt at the bar (20 years ago, you could always find Watt at the bar; don't know if this is still true) and asked Watt what album he should buy next.
"Trout Mask Replica," Watt said.
"Got it," my friend said.
Watt was taken aback. No one had ever copped to owning Captain Beefheart's masterpiece. So he thought for a moment.
So my friend went out and picked up this fine work by Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Watt's own musical efforts may be spotty, but he knows what's good.
So what makes a great band? Or a great album? A while back, I wrote a mostly dreadful column on classic movies. So I figured I might as well step into somewhat more familiar territory and do the same for music.
For starters, there are a few albums everyone knows, even if they don't own them. Sgt. Pepper's, for example. The Stones's Beggars Banquet ("Sympathy for the Devil"). Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited ("Like a Rolling Stone"). Are these albums classics? Sure.
But there are albums that influence far more than that. R.E.M.'s Murmur is easily the most influential album of the last 30 years. There's nothing close, except (maybe) the Clash's London Calling. If you put those two albums together you can foresee almost the entirety of pimply-faced white boy music since then.
Unless we're talking about electronica, where the most influential albums are Brian Eno's Music for Airports/Ambient 1 and Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet. If you don't believe me about the P.E., even a cursory listen to any Chemical Brothers song ought to set you straight. The Bomb Squad defined organic electronica, even if the ultimate expression was hip-hop.
In terms of hip-hop, it seems clear that there is one blueprint: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton. Indeed, that album sounds as fresh today as it did more than 20 years ago. Truthfully, it's so much better than almost everything that followed that one might indeed mourn the lost potential of hip-hop as a form. But I won't go that far.
Folks my age often swear by the whole americana sound, which isn't much more than traditional country, folk and blues mixed into a rock and roll setting. The most often cited classic of the sound, Uncle Tupelo's No Depression, is much more rough-hewn than what is made today. So as much as I love Uncle Tupelo (they pretty much served as the house band in Columbia, Mo., during my college years), I have to go with the Jawhawks's Blue Earth as the classic of the sound. Every year, thousands of artists try to replicate the plain-spoken lyrics and wrenching harmonies of that album. Most fail. But, as with hip-hop, that seems to be the nature of the beast.
What do we make of albums like Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica or Slint's Spiderland, albums of astonishing ambition and undisputed power?
For starters, they're almost unlistenable. Indeed, I don't know anyone, including my friend who hit up Mike Watt for musical recommendations, who can listen to Trout all the way through without getting a wee bit impatient. The album, produced by Frank Zappa, is a melange of sonic ideas and warped lyrics. The basis is the blues (a perfect rock and roll template), but Don Van Vliet (the Captain's real name) didn't like to keep things simple. Neither did Zappa, his producer. So they created an album that throws in just about everything, manages to make a comment about almost every type of music and refuses to take a stand on any of it. It is a truly monumental album, and almost no one has tried to replicate it. Which might well be proof that people aren't as stupid as I like to think they are.
Slint, tried, though. This offshoot of Squirrelbait, a Louisville band of minor renown, released its first album, Tweez on cassette only. That album has, of course, since been re-released on LP and CD. Nonetheless, even the few familiar with that first effort had to have been shocked by the breadth and range of the ideas on Spiderland. The songs meander, the melodies jump around and sometimes turn back upon themselves. And the overall effect of the album is one of shimmery madness.
It helps that more than one member did, in fact, seek medical help after the album's release. And the band's progeny have gone on to modest success in the world of obscure music, even if none of their efforts could be considered "classic."
And, indeed, Spiderland isn't a classic. Neither is Trout Mask Replica. They're milestones, remarkable albums that will never be forgotten. But few have been insane enough to reference the genius within those efforts. No, musical classics are more mundane. Albums that can be appreciated by the public at large as well as artists in the making.
I've only mentioned a few of the hundreds (or even thousands) of classic albums. There are infinitely more classic albums than classic movies. It's just the nature of the beast. Albums tend to be much shorter than movies (songs much shorter still), and music excites the senses quicker than movies. Don't believe me? How many times have you heard just a piece of a song, and then gone crazy until you've heard it all? Happens to me all the time. Maybe that's why I write about music. Or maybe that's why music has already taken over the web and why full-length movies are still a web curiosity.
Oh, and "Good Times Roll?" Just an awesome song by the Cars. I love the Cars. They're a classic band. But that's an entirely different column for another day.
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