David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (pt. 2)

Ziggy

Dear Matthew:

I don’t think I get David Bowie.

Like, this is an OK album, I guess. I’m glad I listened to it. Art this legendary is always at least worth checking out, and this album is nothing if not legendary. I always try to remember that, if a lot of people really like something, they can’t all be wrong. But I’ve got to be honest: I didn’t love Ziggy Stardust.

Maybe this is just my own prexisting feelings about Bowie. I know his singles, because it’s kind of impossible not to, and I find them very hit or miss. ‘Fame’ is a jam, and I guess I can tolerate ‘Changes’. But I absolutely loathe ‘Space Oddity’. Everything about early Bowie is just so overwrought — whiny, almost. And sorry, but Ziggy Stardust is, for me at least, definitely still early Bowie. (Give me 80s Bowie any day.)

I realize that this is hugely hypocritical of me. I have no problem with musical ridiculousness. Perhaps more pressingly, one of my favourite records of all time is also a concept album about space bullshit. So, as I was listening and it was becoming clear that I wasn’t going to love Ziggy Stardust, I tried to figure out why that was. Why do I love the gritty weirdo space rap but not the gay space alien glam rock?

Maybe it’s that the gay space alien glam rock is too legendary.

I hate to keep coming back to this, but you know how I called Wu-Tang Clan the Seinfeld of underground rap? (By which I meant that they were so profoundly original that everything they did has been so thoroughly emulated that their profound originality isn’t obvious unless you know what came before?) I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. In the case of Wu-Tang and Seinfeld, their imitators aped what they did with completely straight faces. Subsequent generations of rappers and TV producers saw something that worked, so they adapted it for their own purposes. It was doable, because they weren’t aping specifics of the work so much as general principles. TV sitcoms are now populated exclusively by sociopaths, but specific Seinfeld parodies are pretty thin on the ground. Rap songs with campy movie samples and bitcrushed drums are now a dime a dozen, but no one ever tries to literally be another Wu-Tang Clan.

But with Bowie, there aren’t really any general principles to ape, other than ‘overwrought androgynous rockstar’. Everything about what he’s doing is so wildly, inventively specific that the only way to cash in on its success is to parody it, or directly reference it. It hit me like a thunderbolt about halfway through ‘Starman’: I am more familiar with homages to / parodies of David Bowie than I am with actual David Bowie.

Flight of the Conchords. Daft Punk. The Venture Bros. My own cultural experience is littered with caricatures of all things Bowie, to the point of cliché. I feel like I’ve heard ‘Starman’ a million times, when really what I’ve heard is a million things referencing ‘Starman’. So is it that I actually find ‘Starman’ overwrought and annoying, or has that sentiment just been clouded by endless secondhand exposure?

I am, of course, doing that thing where I’m making it seem like I liked the album less than I did. I am still glad that I listened to it, and there are some great moments on the album. (‘Suffragette City’ kicks ass.) And for what it’s worth, I listened to Aladdin Sane immediately after I finished Ziggy Stardust. (Don’t hold your breath — my feelings about the two albums are pretty much the same.) But as with a lot of things from the 70s, David Bowie just isn’t really my bag.

— Matt

PS: Do you watch The Venture Bros.? I think you’d like The Venture Bros.

David Bowie: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (pt. 1)

Ziggy

Dear Matt:

Lately, I am obsessed with Todd Haynes’s glorious, thinly-veiled David Bowie biopic Velvet Goldmine. It’s got everything that I look for in a movie, including fantastic music. Of course, none of the music is actually by Bowie, because he loathed the screenplay and refused to allow the use of his songs. Thus, Velvet Goldmine is scored with a spectacular mix of great tracks from A- through C-list glam icons who are not David Bowie. And, any movie with this many Brian Eno songs is pretty much guaranteed to grace my top ten for at least a short while.

I was thinking about just giving you the soundtrack, in the hope that you’d go on to watch the movie. But then I realized that hearing the soundtrack, or indeed seeing the film, would be a strange experience without you having experienced the music that haunts the liminal space at the edge of its narrative: Bowie’s classic tale of love, eschatology and gay space aliens, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. So, that’s what you’re getting this week.

In 1972, Bowie was already something of a known quantity, but hadn’t attained any semblance of his later fame. Even so, he’d already been through at least one major stylistic change. This would happen again and again with Bowie. Even at this early point in his career, Bowie was aware of his impulse to change constantly and radically. It’s the subject of one of his most famous tunes.

By this point, he’d had a massive hit with ‘Space Oddity,’ and a couple of acclaimed albums. But Bowie was about to break through in a big way, thanks to the gradual development of his first consistent stage persona: Ziggy Stardust, the gender-bending extraterrestrial who brought everything that the early glam rockers like Mott the Hoople and T. Rex had built to its logical conclusion. Ziggy was new and exciting in a way that couldn’t not connect in the radical, post-hippie England of 1972. And he sang some great tunes.

Ziggy arguably predates the album that bears his name, but it’s this album that codifies him and his mythology — albeit vaguely, as we’ll see. Ziggy Stardust has guitar-driven cock rock, ultra-camp torch songs and inexplicable harpsichord. It is poetic at times, and self-consciously dumb at others. For an album with such iconic, mainstream status, it is very, very strange.

Way back when you assigned me Deltron 3030, you pointed out that it wasn’t like a traditional concept album in that it doesn’t have a distinct narrative arc. Well, that applies just as much to this particular traditional concept album. Ziggy Stardust posits a version of the 1970s where the world is set to end in five years. Suddenly, the radio airwaves are invaded by the cosmic rock ‘n’ roll of an androgynous Martian of indistinct and mutable sexuality. Ziggy Stardust’s revolutionary space music preaches a gospel of universal love and banging whoever the hell you want, regardless of normative social codes. In Earth’s final moments, Ziggy gives humanity its mojo back. But naturally, at some point Ziggy’s ego begins to supersede his message, and things end badly for him and his intrepid band, the Spiders from Mars.

If you try to situate every song on the album within this narrative (which, bear in mind, is just my interpretation — this album is super vague) you are not likely to succeed. I just think of it as a bunch of songs that could plausibly come from a world where the biggest celebrity on the planet is a glam rock alien. Like Deltron 3030, it is probably richer for its looseness of concept.

I’ll be honest: for all of its daring transgressiveness, Ziggy Stardust is quite far from my favourite Bowie album. (That would be Low, but that’s practically a Brian Eno album, and we’ve done that already.) I find Ziggy a bit inconsistent, and Bowie’s vocals — while incredibly distinctive — haven’t settled into the nuanced baritone register where I like them best. But I still think you need to hear this, because it is without question the definitive Bowie album where most of the world is concerned. You need to hear it because the highlights (for my money, ‘Five Years,’ ‘Starman,’ ‘Lady Stardust’ and ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’) really are staggering. And, of course, you need to hear it because you need to know what’s going on in Velvet Goldmine. And you need to watch Velvet Goldmine.

— Matthew

P.S.: One of the best blogs on the internet is Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a song-by-song breakdown of Bowie’s entire career, with substantive essayistic treatment of every track he’s ever released. For our purposes, I might suggest his essay on ‘Starman.’ If, you know, that sounds remotely interesting to you.

Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick (pt. 2)

TAAB

Dear Matthew:

A mutual friend of ours, Syrup Trap editor Nick Zarzycki, once made an observation that has really stuck with me: he argued that the best comedic films, at least in terms of laughs per minute and broad popular acclaim, are almost always parodies.

I think he’s probably on to something. If you take a look around the internet for what people think are the best comedies of all time, Airplane!, Life of Brian, Blazing Saddles and their ilk are usually in the mix, and pretty near the top, too. And when I think of it, a lot of my more modern favourites are very much in the same mold — Hot Rod and They Came Together and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang are some that spring immediately to mind, and there are definitely others.

If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Genre spoofs work well because the audience knows the material — you don’t have to do a lot of world-building or characterization, because you’ve already got a whole box of tropes and archetypes to work with. Since they’re spoofs of whole genres, they tend to age reasonably well, unlike spoofs of specific films — compare the staying power of the aforementioned Blazing Saddles with that of, say, Spaceballs.

The other thing about movies like this is that they tend to rate very highly with self-proclaimed ‘comedy aficionados’*. I think this is because, unlike a wholly original film, the story doesn’t really matter; in a genre parody, the plot is basically just a vehicle for jokes. In a way, the genre parody allows for filmic comedy in its purest form, because you aren’t writing anything that isn’t either the setup for, or the punchline to, a joke. You don’t have to sell the audience on a complicated story or complex characters — it’s just all jokes all the time.

I think a similar effect is probably why Thick as a Brick works so well. But the thing about TAAB is that it’s almost too good of a parody. Let me explain what I mean.

To reference Mel Brooks for the third and hopefully last time this article, TAAB suffers from a sort of reverse Springtime for Hitler effect. It’s intended to be a spoof of all of the most ridiculous aspects of prog, but in doing so, it embodies them so well that I, an admitted prog neophyte, would be hard-pressed to pick this out as a parody on first listen if I didn’t already know. It would be very easy for the less studious listener to mistake it for a completely serious endeavour — and indeed, some background reading on the album suggests that many did and still do.

The extremely dangerous internet time-sink TV Tropes refers to this effect as Poe’s Law. The law, roughly stated, is that parodies of extreme ideas/things are often mistaken as being sincere, and that sincere expressions of extreme ideas/things are often mistaken as parody — and paradoxically, the more extreme the idea/thing is, the more likely the confusion. This is why you get people who think that Stephen Colbert is actually a hardcore right-wing pundit, why people still think that Jonathan Swift actually condoned eating the Irish, why the Yes Men are able to get away with as much as they do, and one of the many reasons why LiarTownUSA is possibly the best thing to happen to Tumblr.

So, while I certainly got a kick out of the record, I expect my experience was similar to that of yours with Mr. Oizo — which is to say that I get it, but without a more deepseated love for the material being satirized, I don’t know that I’ll ever truly appreciate it on the level that you do. In my defence, it’s a pretty tall order to appreciate TAAB on the level that you do, but I’m still sorry to let you down.

But for what it’s worth, I did very much enjoy this pondering of the nature of parody that TAAB inspired. That, and the album sleeve is outstanding.

— Matt

* These people are the worst.

Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick (pt. 1)

TAAB

Dear Matt,

So far in this project, I’ve endeavoured not to advocate too hard for the albums I’ve assigned you, to give you a bit more room to say your piece. I have mostly failed. This time, though, I’m throwing that whole notion to the wind because there’s no point in even trying.

There was a time in my life when I tried to purge myself of favourites. I’d say I had no favourite movie, no favourite book, no favourite composer, no favourite album. The idea was to embrace the vast and untameable diversity of stuff out there and not reduce it to a select few exemplary works. Or some bullshit like that.

Needless to say, it didn’t take. I was lying to myself the whole time: I have a favourite everything. My favourite movie is Brazil. My favourite book is At Swim-Two-Birds. My favourite composer is Mahler. And, beyond a doubt, my favourite album is Jethro Tull‘s Thick as a Brick.

People are often taken aback when I tell them that, because Tull is widely seen as a bit of a novelty act: that rock band with a flute player. But Ian Anderson’s flute playing doesn’t actually have that much to do with why I love Jethro Tull. Anderson isn’t just the guy who invented rock flute playing. He also has one of the most boundless and versatile imaginations in rock. The rest of the band is fantastic too, but they’re utterly dominated by Anderson — in a way that King Crimson, for instance, has never quite been dominated by Robert Fripp.

That’ll have to do as a primer on what Jethro Tull is, because Thick as a Brick itself requires quite a lot of explanation. The famous backstory goes like this: Tull’s major commercial breakthrough came in 1971 with ‘Aqualung,’ the title song from their fourth album. The album itself got a lot of attention, and some critics called it a concept album, because it had a couple of major lyrical themes running through it.

This was news to Anderson, who saw Aqualung as ‘just a bunch of songs.’ Moreover, concept albums were the province of prog rock, which Anderson regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. He saw Jethro Tull as an unusually adventurous blues-rock band — as different as you can get from the psychedelia-tinged pastoralism of Genesis, Yes, and early King Crimson.

So, when it came time to record the followup to Aqualung, Anderson decided to announce that difference in a characteristically outlandish way. He would produce ‘the mother of all concept albums’: a sprawling parody that would take all of the trends in progressive rock — longer and longer songs, circuitous and cod-philosophical lyrics, elaborate packaging — far beyond their logical conclusions.

The resulting album came with a satirical newspaper that took longer to produce than the actual music. It possessed a sly backstory wherein the album’s lyrics were written by a precocious (and fictional) eight-year-old named Gerald Bostock. And the record itself consisted of only one song, which spanned the entire length of the album. The fact that the technology of the time functionally prohibited this (you have to flip the record over mid-song) only adds to the absurdity of the premise.

It even manages to shoehorn a bit of elitism into the equation. The first line drips with open disdain for the listener: ‘Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.’ It would be offensive if it were serious.

But, the whole affair has ‘satire’ written all over it. Anderson has always claimed that he was basically taking the piss with this album, and that presumably spared him a great deal of vitriol when the early punks came along five years later. You seldom hear Jethro Tull cited as one of the key offenders in discussions of 70s bombast. They were just having a laugh, after all.

But here’s where that narrative falters: Thick as a Brick is the best progressive rock album ever made. It is bursting with energy, it is structurally ingenious (with almost all of the section transitions being based on the opening riff), and the lyrics are just as trenchant in their critique of England’s class system as they are in their parody of Pete Sinfield. And it’s fun. It’s just fun.

I mean, that word ‘best’ is subjective, clearly. But, among prog fans, rock fans, critics and everybody else, the idea that Thick as a Brick is in the top tier of prog masterpieces is completely uncontroversial. This, in spite of the fact that it’s ostensibly a piss-take.

And that is why you are listening to this album at this point in our correspondence. When you described Mr. Oizo as “taking the piss out of [dance music] and its fans — while still producing outstanding examples of it,” my mind immediately jumped to Thick as a Brick.

Your experiences with Van Der Graaf Generator, Magma and King Crimson should be enough to demonstrate what prog is like in sincerity mode. So, what do you think? How much irony is there in Thick as a Brick? And do these trifling matters of authorial intent make any difference at all?

And, most importantly, do you like it?

— Matthew

P.S. I once proved that Ian Anderson is a good singer, using math. You know, just in case you’re not sure how far my loyalties extend.

King Crimson: Red (pt. 2)

red

Dear Matthew:

Okay, maybe there is something to this prog stuff after all.

Don’t get too excited. I wasn’t blown away like I was by the Baroque accordions. I wasn’t nailed to my seat like I was by Brian Eno. In fact, ‘Red’ and ‘One More Red Nightmare’ are the only two songs I was really, really into. But hey, baby steps, right?

If this album is any indication, I can definitely see why you suspect that NoMeansNo are King Crimson fans. Indeed, if you like the song ‘Red’, I suggest you immediately check out some of the proggier NoMeansNo, like Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy? One of my favourite things about this project has been discovering the foundations, or in some cases, what are essentially early versions of more modern music that I love, and I can certainly see why ‘influential’ is one of the most popular adjectives used to describe King Crimson.

You might be onto something with intuitive appreciation of music. I mean, I try to have an open mind, but realistically, I usually know if I’m going to like a song with the first few seconds — or if I’m going to really like it, anyway. To use a crude metaphor, it’s a bit like sex appeal: you usually know right away if you’re attracted to someone, but it’s often hard to pick out a specific reason why. It’s intuitive. And sure, there are people you warm up to over time, but with the most compelling people, it’s instantaneous.

So there’s definitely a lizard-brain level of liking music, but I’m becoming increasingly aware of how much a band’s — to use a word that accurately conveys the idea I’m talking about but makes me want to throw up a little — brand affects how much people like them. Maybe a big part of why I could never get into prog was all of the pretense — the stuff you pointed out that King Crimson doesn’t do. Would I have liked them as much if I’d gone into the album not knowing that? I’d like to think so, but you never know. (In my own defense, I can usually put aside ‘brand’ considerations once I hear the actual music itself; generally the most it does is keep me from listening in the first place.)

One last thought: in terms of contemporary bands, your description of how the band as a Fripp-powered engine that looks completely different every time it’s reassembled reminds me a lot of Gorillaz. Gorillaz is, at its core, a Damon Albarn solo project with art design by Jamie Hewlett, but it features so many guest musicians and producers that every album almost sounds like a different band. Dan the Automator’s influence is all over the self-titled record, and Danger Mouse is definitely on display on Demon Days. (I believe Plastic Beach is produced by Albarn himself.) In fact, now that I think of it, this sort of band is actually pretty common, if not quite to the same extent: Nine Inch Nails is Trent Reznor, LCD Soundsystem is James Murphy, Queens of the Stone Age is Josh Homme, etc.

Anyway, congratulations — I didn’t completely hate a prog album!

— Matt

King Crimson: Red (pt. 1)

red

Dear Matt:

Time for prog rock round three.

King Crimson is for some reason the coolest of the classic prog bands. You seem to have picked up on that yourself, given your opening remarks in your Magma response. I have a few theories as to why that is. Bullet points!

  • It could be because they were first. Their debut, In the Court of the Crimson King is widely regarded as the first proper progressive rock album, which would serve as a model for Yes, Genesis and their ilk.
  • They avoided certain dated genre tropes. They never made a concept album. They didn’t mount over-the-top stage extravaganzas. They generally didn’t dress like this.
  • Robert Fripp wasn’t a hippie. He was, and is, an aloof intellectual who’d rather hang out with Brian Eno and Terre Roche than Rick Wakeman and Greg Lake (who he reportedly once threw out of a limousine).
  • They constantly reinvented themselves. The first eight King Crimson albums all feature different lineups. Fripp had a tendency to dissolve the band and reconvene it with entirely new members and a dramatically different sound.

That last point brings up something important: King Crimson isn’t really a band in any meaningful sense. They’re a series of bands, at best — with a leader in common. Fripp has described King Crimson as ‘a way of doing things,’ which is just one example from his lexicon of strange ways to talk about his band. King Crimson doesn’t break up; they ‘cease to exist.’ And they don’t re-form; they ‘return to active service.’

Picking an album to assign was no small task, given that not many of them have much in common. In the Court is probably their most revered album. But, it’s also the wellspring of a particular kind of prog that I know you don’t enjoy. Discipline, perhaps? Nah, too easy. It’s practically Talking Heads with polyrhythms.

Red, then. This version of King Crimson, my personal favourite, made three albums in ‘73/’74, of which Red is the last. True to form, Fripp couldn’t maintain a steady roster for all three albums: they lost their auxiliary percussionist after the first and their violinist after the second. So, on Red, the band contains three official members: Fripp on guitar, John Wetton on bass and vocals, and Bill Bruford on drums. This is the leanest that King Crimson would ever get, although the album features guest performances by a number of ex-Crimson members on various orchestral instruments.

I won’t get into the music on the album too much: I’ll leave that to you again. I can’t resist a few remarks, though. More bullet points!

  • “Providence” was recorded live. It’s one of the band’s famous free improvisations. Their willingness to just go out onstage and jam is one of the things that sets them apart from many of their prog contemporaries, who tended to stick to the script.
  • “Starless” is, for my money, one of the five or six best tracks of 70s prog. It takes a completely unique and surprising approach to making a 12-minute-long song.
  • Astonishing though it may seem, Fripp is possibly the least technically accomplished member of the band at this point. Bruford is the best jazz drummer who barely ever played jazz (he came to Crimson straight out of Yes), and Wetton is a true bass virtuoso, although he gives a fairly restrained performance here.

Okay, I was going to try to be finished at this point. But, given your response to the prog you’ve encountered so far, I do have just a bit more to say.

People often assume, as you have at times in the course of this blog, that prog fans enjoy this music primarily on an intellectual level because, to quote you back at yourself, ‘it’s very technically impressive that you can play in weird keys and modes and flawlessly stick to bizarre time signatures.’ And, I’m sure there are fans out there for whom that’s the primary appeal. Certainly, complexity and technical proficiency are factors that enter into every defence of prog that I’ve ever read.

But, I’ve always found that defense a bit self-defeating, because for most listeners, complexity and technical proficiency are not values in themselves — nor are they necessarily even discernable. And I don’t actually think that those are really the reasons why prog appeals to most of its fan base. I think that it’s like any other kind of music: some people just respond to it intuitively, and others don’t. If this album doesn’t provoke that kind of intuitive response from you, I’m not sure there’s any prog that will. (Which doesn’t mean that I won’t keep trying, naturally.)

My challenge to you as you listen to Red is the same challenge that the MC offered the audience at the Magma concert we attended: don’t try to intellectualize this music. Contrary to its Apollonian image, that is not what it’s for. There are bits of this album that are in 13/8 time. Do not misconstrue that as being ‘the point.’

I await your response with even more anticipation than usual.

— Matthew

Brian Eno: Another Green World (pt. 2)

Eno

Dear Matthew:

This is a really cool album.

I mean, I know who Brian Eno is — he’s that guy who did all those albums that Music People like. But, apart from a cursory listen to Here Come the Warm Jets a few years ago, I don’t really have any experience with his music firsthand, unless you count my ongoing love affair with ‘Once in a Lifetime‘. That reputation always kind of preceded him, and I always figured he’d just be too arty for me, or something.

But, digging into this album, what I immediately noticed was what you meant by the album’s agelessness. I listened to the 2004 remaster, which probably helps, but you’re right — you could’ve told me that this came out last year and I would’ve believed you. Eno was unbelievably ahead of the curve, especially given what you’ve told me about his working methods. In his attempts to be more a sort of curator of sound than a musician himself, he set the mold for the careers of any number of modern producers who, in your phraseology, play people rather than instruments. Your new friend Dan the Automator springs to mind as a particularly apt example of this approach to music production.

I’m also reminded of the Kate Bush album you had me listen to, in that I’m seeing all kinds of groundwork for modern music I’m already really into. Acts like Amon Tobin, Four Tet, Sigur Rós, and even arguably guys like Flying Lotus or J Dilla — they’ve built entire careers on the foundation provided by tracks like ‘Sky Saw’ and ‘In Dark Trees’. Most of these guys work primarily with samples rather than live musicians, but I think that means the Eno paradigm actually applies even more.

(‘In Dark Trees’ actually gave me the most incredible feeling of déjà vu when it came on, although I soon realized that’s because it appears in Electroma, Daft Punk’s 2006 arthouse film about two robots who want to become human.)

My only complaint about this album is that a lot of the songs seem … unfinished. A lot of tracks — usually the shorter ones, but not exclusively — feel more like demos than like polished final versions. Maybe it’s because I’m used to modern guys like the Chemical Brothers who will take a good musical idea and run it into the ground for twelve minutes at a time, but a good two thirds of the songs on this album feel like they end too soon. I feel like I’m just starting to sink my teeth into them, and then they stop. That’s actually probably the giveaway for dating this album: had it come out last year, it would probably be at least an hour long.

Anyway, congratulations. I think you’ve found your first album to hook me the same way Deltron 3030 and Wrong hooked you. Now! To sit back and wait for it to spring to mind unbidden.

— Matt