What I Been Listenin' To
Winter of 2011, I've been listening pretty obsessively to Kraftwerk, Faust, Eno and Berlin-era Bowie. The explanation of why is fairly straightforward: been following the Pushing Ahead of the Dame blog, which got me wanting to check out Low and "Heroes" (heard them each once before, I think). This lead me to Bowie's collaborator on these albums, Brian Eno. A few years ago, I had set about getting all his 70's solo discs when they were all reissued, but after Here Come the Warm Jets, I got distracted. So now, I went back and got aholt to Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, Another Green World and Before and After Science (next up: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts). Kraftwerk were an important influence on these albums, and I've never really listened to them much, so I started investigating some of their mid-70's output. And then that made me think, you know, I've never really given Faust their day in court, maybe I should check them out. I'm sure none of that's very interesting, but hopefully the following paragraphs will be. First, let's back up.
When I was 18, my favorite band was the Butthole Surfers. They sounded like the inside of my brain felt during those years: the chaos and confusion, the repressed energy, the urge to scream and throw things, the feeling of being bound in my body. Another explanation is that there are two kinds of music I really like. I love weird music, music that doesn't sound like anything I've ever heard before. And I like really kick ass rock n roll. There are weirder bands, there are bands that rock harder, but I don't think there's any band that does both so well at the same time. So another way of putting this is that they succeed in sounding new and exciting, and sounding like something I already liked at the same time. To some extent, this is also true of Pussy Galore, Chrome, Shockabilly, Half Japanese, Geza X, Foetus, The Residents, Sonic Youth, Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Jimi Hendrix. These were all bands I became obsessed with at some point. But there was another group of bands that I wasn't as interested in, mostly British post punk* stuff. Bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Gang of Four, The Fall and Kraftwerk turned me off when I heard them. I didn't necessarily hate these bands, but when you're making a decision about what to listen to or buy, you tend to go for what you already like. Most of this is not even the result of a fair hearing: I heard one Fall album once in 1984 and concluded that I wasn't a fan. I'm sure I've heard Cabaret Voltaire somewhere along the way, but I can't even conjure what they actually sound like, only what I think they would sound like. Considering how long it took me to fully appreciate Sonic Youth, Minutemen or Captain Beefheart, dismissing these bands was extremely unfair.
To give you an idea of what I disliked about this stuff, check out the above song by Gang of Four (a song I taped off the short-lived free-form station WCEZ (Z-97) that broadcast out of Ft. Pierce, FL in the early 80's). It's a cool little song, nasty guitar solo at the end, but the way the singer is doing this dry, emotionless thing just doesn't work for me. Why would someone try to sound like that? Now, when I listened to Butthole Surfers records, it sounded to my ears like chaos, like paint splattered across a wall, like the manic paintings of Robert Williams. This appealed to me. With Gang of Four and some of these other bands, they make me think of Bauhaus design, clean lines and mechanical precision, which did not appeal to me at the time. This is, of course, how teenagers listen to music (and experience the world): by dividing everything into "good" and "bad." So if I love Butthole Surfers, I must hate bands that make me feel the opposite. Of course, as you grow up, you abandon these prejudices one by one. And so, over the last year, having pretty much accumulated all the punk albums I'd been interested back then, I started spending my eMusic bucks on some of this stuff that I hadn't liked so much the first time around. First up was Wire. I've had their first album, Pink Flag, for a while, and always liked it, so I tried their slightly more out there second album, Chair Missing. Chair Missing has some good songs, but too much drone stuff, which frankly bores me.
Next up: Public Image Ltd. Now, I've always thought these guys were OK, but I kind of had the feeling that without their previously famous singer, they wouldn't be nearly as well loved. So I downloaded Second Edition (aka The Metal Box). Can't say I like all of it, but there are some fine tunes on here: "Death Disco" with guitarist Keith Levine (more the star of the band than Lydon, if you ask me) throwing out lightning bolts of harmonics, "Poptones" with Levine doing weird swirley arpeggios, and of course, "Albatross." I can't be the only one to have noticed that Michael totally jacked this bassline for "Billie Jean," can I?
OK, so I wasn't that big on Wire or PiL. You know what British post-punk band is really awesome? Swell Maps.
Damn, that song is great. But we're getting away from my thesis, because Swell Maps are the kind of messy, chaotic punk that I always liked. So let's get back to Kraftwerk, who were always the epitome of the kind of band I didn't like. I started out with Autobahn, which is kind of neat, lots of long jams and interesting harmonic compositions. Then I moved on to Trans Europa Express, which is much more like what I always imagined Kraftwerk to sound like. Now, listen to this song:
It's like a piece of clockwork, so neat and symmetrical. That's not the kind of thing I'm usually attracted to in music, but it's equally fascinating in its own way.
Faust were an even bigger surprise. I swear I heard them on college radio back in the 90's, and my memory of them is that they would just jam on one chord for 20 minutes. (An interview in L.A. Record has me thinking that what I heard must have been their collaboration with Tony Conrad.) But the actual Faust albums I've been listening to are nuts! They don't sound anything like I thought they did. More than anything, they remind me of the Vampiros Lesbos soundtrack, just wacky psychedelic experimental stuff. I might even like them better than Can!
And Bowie? Well, back in the 80's/90's, I could never quite figure Bowie out. I liked some of his songs, but I could never really figure out what HE was about, or what he was trying to do. It was the movies Velvet Goldmine and Hedwig and the Angry Inch--both riffing on his Ziggy Stardust persona--that gave me an "in" to Bowie. I felt like they somehow managed to convey his aesthetic to me. So I began listening to the glam rock stuff. I finally internalized that stuff enough that I can move on to the weird, late 70's records. Interesting albums: at first they sound very weird, then after a couple listens it's surprising just how NORMAL they sound. And then they start slowly revealing their REALLY weird aspects. I particularly like the lyrics to this song off Low:
*I never liked the term "post punk," since all "post punk" bands are directly descended from the Velvet Underground, and all "straight up punk" bands are descended from the Stooges, who came around like three years after the Velvets, so really, The Ramones and Sex Pistols should be caled "post punk," and Wire and Joy Division should be called "punk."