Chapter 3

Impulses, Investigations & Inversions

published in Stuffing No.2, Melbourne, 1989

OK - we all know how bad 'art' is when rock gets snared in its muddled indulgences. But that's not to say that artistic impulses - no matter how esoteric - can't contribute something to rock. Not sociologically per se, but in terms of sound. Surely some of the definitive instances of rock'n'roll are marked by inexplicable creative impulses, driven by a desire to push a sound either further, or break it up, or transform it into something unheard before? (Just think about how distortion in guitar sound came about.) While many rock histories picture rock developments as a series of utopian, sociological meetings between performer and audience, they neglect the inarticulate undercurrent to such instances, where the rock 'artist' is more than likely fixated not on the audience or any so-called rock tradition, but solely on a self-centered investigation of music, feeling and sound. Of course, when it is proven to be effective, then we say it was the result of performer-audience empathy, but for every successful 'new' development in rock style and form, there's a hundred that are dismissed as 'arty'. The point is that even though rock needs that audience empathy and reaction to push the isolated, personal gesture into a broader arena of social/cultural contact, rock similarly could not develop without all those crazed impulses to investigate conventions and invert them into something new. Rock isn't some extraterrestrial force, granted exemption from culture. It's art - ie. the transformation from the personal into the social, just like so many other things.

The trick, though, is being able to take all of rock's artiness and listen to it not as art, but as rock. Even to the point of dismissing the intentional voice of the performer concerned. Just because their mind is off on some pretentious tangent doesn't mean they are incapable of producing some solid rock music. Perfect example : Yoko Ono. The queen-bitch/femme-fatale/black-widow of rock - "Man, she fucked up The Beatles real good" etc. Ono basically comes from an experimental art background, being involved with the international experimental sound/performance network "Fluxus" (a body of conceptual composer/performers who throughout the sixties and seventies elaborated upon John Cage's reflections on sound). While the philosophy behind such experimentalism is not without its own rhetorical and cultural problematics, Ono transposed some of her Fluxus concerns into a rock format. As is the case with most developments in rock sound, she injected something that would have otherwise been inconceivable.

If it weren't for her obscurantism, her rock work could be regarded a legacy. Nonetheless her album with the Plastic Ono Band Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band (1970) is an important and fruitful meeting between art and rock, proving the two to be less enemies than expected. Produced by Lennon and Ono, the recording is raw and live, exuding a liveness that Bowie went for with Iggy Pop's Lust For Life (1978) : sharp guitars, driving bass and powerful drums, all energizing each other through the sound of their proximity to one another, giving the effect of a fused unit. The standout track in this respect is Why. Over an archetypal rocking riff and beat, Lennon's piercing slide guitar sets up a screaming dialogue with Ono's Japanese-folk vocal stylings to such an extent that their high-pitched shrieks become one : his strings and her cords bending, stretching and breaking in a sonic psycho-session. If Why is white and hard, Why Not is black and soft. Its form is almost identical to Why (driving rhythm, voice/guitar dialogue, etc.) except here blues-based and much calmer in tone. Together, they are true 'grooves' where a textured feel (hard in one, soft in the other) is set into motion and left to run by its own energy.

Greenfield Morning I Pushed An Empty Baby Carriage All Over The City (a song title that clearly illustrates Ono's merger of Haiku poetry, Fluxus spontaneity and rock absurdism) is a good example of what happens when the blues is appropriated into a rock context. The result is reminiscent of Captain Beefheart's reworking of the blues' train rhythms, and it is perhaps no accident that the sound of actual trains crop up in a number of places throughout the album, reminding us of the blues' hypnotic influence on rock 'grooves'. For these reasons, this album is laterally connected to early developments in krautrock around the same time, as they also centered on the mesmerizing quality and repetitive form of the blues in their rock constructions and formations. This notion is highlighted on Mind Train, a track from the next Ono album Fly (1971). This album is more experimental in tone, and concentrates on Ono's vocal textures and how her voice as an instrument can suggest certain moods, swept along by rock and blues rhythmic cycles. Apart from these two albums, Ono's work is strictly experimental (ie. having no direct concern in shaping an outcome, and hence little bearing on rock sound) until the release of her first single after Lennon's death : Walking On Thin Ice (1981). A powerhouse track with some intricate yet solid production by Lennon and Jack Douglas, it features an impressive return to Lennon's guitar work on Why eleven years later - indicating how contemporary a track like Why sounds to today's ears.

Taking the krautrock-art connection to its extreme is Tony Conrad's Outside The Dream Syndicate (1972) recorded with Faust and producer Ewe Nettelbeck. Comprising a track per side, this album is minimalism in its most rarified form. Conrad was a member of composer Lamonte Young's "Theatre Of Eternal Music" group which Young set up in the mid sixties to perform his own compositions. Interestingly, Young came out of the Fluxus movement like Ono, but he shifted away from Fluxus' pull towards indeterminacy to focus on the extremely introspective and contemplative effects resulting from harmonically layered drones. Outside The Dream Syndicate takes Young's concerns and backs them with a rock outfit, just as Ono did with her Fluxus ideas. As far as experimental music goes, Outside The Dream Syndicate is fairly pedestrian. But as rock, it's a fascinating excursion into the nature of rock sound - its weight, mass and density, and how they enable it to move in a certain way with certain effects. Both sides of this album are like hearing rock frozen, as if the rock machine is prevented from moving anywhere even though all its gears and mechanisms are still moving. Out of this forced inertia, an inevitable friction and tension arises, which gives the music a hypnotic effect totally uncommon in most other krautrock. Its severity makes it a perfect counterpart to Fripp's disciplined guitar loops : he articulates mass by overlaying a single guitar texture onto itself (a vertical application of sonic mass) while Conrad articulates mass by repeating a single rock form next to itself (a horizontal application of temporal mass). Both are repetitive, but in different ways, each purveying a different slice of rock.

Listening Through Noise

Think of the noisiest rock song or album you've ever heard. If it's not Lou Reed's double album Metal Machine Music (1975) I'd love to hear it. Reed's four sides of noise qualify as rock because all the sounds are produced by guitars feedbacking into amplifiers. The resultant sound is so dense it leaves little recourse to aural separation, preventing the listener from perceiving or focusing upon anything but the oppressive gestalt effect of its execution. Its a density that overrides all previous excursions into rock's aural weight - from Faust to Conrad to Neu to Eno to Fripp, all of whom explored ways in which rock sound could be momentarily frozen and represented as sound sculpture. Metal Machine Music achieves such aims with a self-destructive perfection : it totally negates the temporality of sound and in its place posits sonic presence - a sense of sound which takes you nowhere and forcibly fixes you in front of it.

But Reed didn't concoct this album from out of nowhere. Apart from it serving as a nihilistic gesture toward his marketers (RCA) and market (glam druggies) it was also a return to the kind of noise in which The Velvet Underground specialized, on tracks like European Son (from The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967) and Sister Ray (from White Light White Heat, 1968). These tracks are set up as songs solely to be destroyed. The difference with Metal Machine Music is that there is no initial 'song' form to be destroyed, as this album purely presents the destruction in the wailing of a hundred guitars. In a sense, it's not that far removed from Fripp & Eno's Index Of Metals in terms of multiplied guitar textures being used as the sonic material out of which the sonic architecture is built. Reed's concerns were quite different, though, as he was attracted to the scientific phenomenology of frequencies released in the event of feedback. This is not to say Reed himself became scientific, but as a sideline to his songwriting he fostered an awareness of the tactile effects of guitar noise.

I say this in line with Reed's use of guitar synthesizers and the binaural recording technique which shaped his following three albums : Take No Prisoners and Street Hassle (both 1978) and The Bells (1979). While they obviously are nowhere near as extreme as Metal Machine Music, they do exhibit Reed's preoccupations with guitar design and recording technology - realms which seem totally separate from his more prominent image as a singer-songwriter. The best example of this mix of technological exploration and songwriting is Street Hassle. On the surface you have a bunch of Reed songs which can be interpreted solely as songs (melody/lyric/etc.) but a closer listen will reveal how strange this album sounds. This is because the album is largely a set of song sketches recorded live, where the fragility of the song's half-realized structures are presented in full-spectrum stereo which simulates the spatial ambience of a band working together live. It's hard to describe, but you can easily hear it on the record, because the whole album sounds unmixed - not meaning that you can't hear some of the recording properly, but that you can hear everything that normally might be mixed out of a finished recording. In addition to this, Reed's synthesized and treated guitar sounds (particularly on tracks like Dirt, Shooting Star and Leave Me Alone) are far from conventional or authentic. This 'sonic/experimental' tie between Reed and The Velvet Underground while largely unacknowledged by critics of Metal Machine Music is forcibly presented in Reed's reworking of Real Good Time Together on Street Hassle. Reed sings the first half of the song backed only by a wall of guitar tremolo, reverb and feedback, most of which are playing half out of time. The effect is like Reed's current voice being mixed on top of a wild mish-mash of The Velvets Underground's 'sound' as if he is making a sonic point about The Velvet Underground legacy. Such ties have always existed, sometimes cued by Reed, sometimes manifested in developments in rock sound which carry a Reed-Velvets influence.

Wire's Pink Flag (1977) features Strange - their punk anthemic answer to Sister Ray, using its exact chords and rhythm to exhibit some glorious sonic destruction as the song burns up by its ending. While the rest of this album cannot be so easily pinpointed (as the majority of tracks tend to be overcome by their mania for fuzz, speed and brevity) the influences on their second album Chairs Missing (1978) can be more clearly divined from their carefully carved out eclecticism. Their Velvets' homage on this album is Heartbeat which is a reworking of Heroin's two chord gentility. Taking the Velvets' approach to breaking down songs are tracks like Practice Makes Perfect, Being Sucked In Again, From The Nursery and Too Late all of which degenerate into rhythmic slabs and fragments of cacophonic guitar textures and harshly toned keyboards. The other main influence (apart from Syd Barret) sparkling here and there throughout the album is Eno, particularly his method of treating instruments which producer Mike Thorne used on tracks like Another The Letter, I Feel Mysterious Today and their hyper-artificial sounding I Am The Fly. Wire were possibly the first band to acknowledge the Trans-Atlantic glam connection (Roxy, Ferry, Eno, Bowie, Ronson, Reed, Cale, Nico, Velvets, etc.) through their own mix of influences, typifying them as a band who were always simultaneously punk and post-punk. Their edgy artiness thus spurned on all the fantastic floundering, fakery and foresight which typified the post-punk milieu of 1978-80, where punk energy was being desperately yet excitingly combined with whatever 'arty' measures were available.

In the middle of this milieu comes the nefarious Dr. Mix & The Remix. His album's title is a dead giveaway : The Wall Of Noise (1979). If Eno put Spector's lush, reverbed quilting through ring modulators and fuzz boxes, then Dr. Mix takes Eno's work and puts it through a whole new set of treatments and distortions. Eno 'thickened' the Philly sound - Dr. Mix 'punked up' glam. But it's not that this record is simply noisy (a short term and mostly dumb aim of industrial music) because the album is a collection of cover versions. The listener is always caught between identifying the song and experiencing the way in which the song is slammed up against the wall of noise. Just as Spector wanted to lose the vocals amidst his arrangements, and Eno wanted to similarly lose the sound of recognizable instrument timbres, Dr. Mix's aim is to lose the very song's he covers. The fruition of his aim lies in this album's sublime mix of rock and noise, preparing a perfect marriage between the two where they become lost in each other, presenting the sound of rock as its own noise.

Dr. Mix picked up on Wire's debt to the Trans-Atlantic glam connection and marked his influences severely, this time combining it with an American garage debt. Check the songs covered on The Wall Of Noise : Bowie's Supermen (!); Roxy Music's Grey Lagoons (!!); The Troggs' I Can't Control Myself; The Seeds' Out Of The Question and Six Dreams; The Stooges' No Fun; and The Velvet Underground's Sister Ray. Not surprisingly, his mega-noise cover version of Sister Ray perversely brings us back full circle to Metal Machine Music. And the perversity doesn't stop there : the two singles from the album (No Fun and I Can't Control Myself) feature dub B-sides which remove the vocals and distort the A-sides even further. Equally unsurprisingly is the short career of Dr. Mix, for if his aim was to be carried on, he would eventually be dealing with pure white noise - where white noise would be the potential for all music to happen, and rock would be merely a potential decoding of white noise. In other words, something totally unrecognizable and unlistenable.

As if demonstrating the lesson learnt from becoming too noisy, The Jesus & The Mary Chain put noise and rock in parallel with each other. Their early sound (best demonstrated on their first two singles Never Understand and You Trip Me Up, both from 1985) thus strikes an unnerving balance between 'the song' and 'its noise'. Complexly, this approach is another glam visitation. Recalling the previously mentioned mix of Leander's archetypal glam production where rock'n'roll is simultaneously echoed/distant/skeletal and flat/close/chunky, Jesus & The Mary Chain similarly combine the aural connotations of nearness and farness : over-reverbed, whispered vocal intonations; gentle, idyllic guitar strumming; echoed snare bursts and kick pounds; and a scaling, squawking, screaming wall of feedback. Their debt to The Velvet Underground is clearly marked in the way they compound the two extremes of the Velvets' compositions, from their sonic breakdowns to their murmuring ballads. Eventually, Jesus & The Mary Chain lightened up their sound not for any commercial reasons, but basically because their sound became more integrated, so that the sheets of noise were subsumed into a more polished fusion of song and sound where production effects became less deliberately jarring.

If The Jesus & The Mary Chain are the most blatant appropriation of The Velvet Underground's noise via punk rock, Glen Branca is the most exacting extension of the same. His Symphony series commenced in mid 1982 (of which Symphony No.3 is available on record and Symphony No.1 is available on a ROIR label cassette, both released in 1983) is based on the harmonic series of overtones which form the basis of relative frequencies and their role in effecting timbre. OK - we're right into the thick of psycho-acoustics and the physics of sound here, but what makes a record like Symphony No.3 relevant to rock sound is the rock line-up of around eleven guitarists and two drummers which performs Branca's score. The result is yet another unique perspective on the sound of rock, this time falling in with the 'rock phenomenologists' we have just been discussing.

The first obvious connection here is with Tony Conrad's Outside The Dream Syndicate. Both Conrad and Branca concentrate upon harmony, but whereas Conrad views the concept as 'natural' (as derived from Eastern musical perspectives which privilege flow over rhythm) Branca views the concept as 'logical' (as measurable by microcosmic and macrocosmic patterns of vibration). This conceptual distinction is evident in their work : Conrad's rock forms are mobilized into a flow, a meandering rock mantra, while Branca's formalization of essential frequency vibrations (what he subtitles 'music for the first 127 intervals of the harmonic series") eventuates as an imposing construction, almost as if he is using this 'logic' with the live and loud presence of rock instrumentation to overcome the listener with its essential power. The Wagnerian overtones are inevitable here, though this is not necessarily bad at all, especially as Symphony No.3 is indirectly influenced by Metal Machine Music's deliberate negation of musical discourses and conventions in favour of a hard-lined pre-industrial approach to sound.

This is where the second and less obvious connection comes in. Lamonte Young's Theatre Of Eternal Music with its line-up including Terry Riley and John Cale (who later released a collaborative record The Church Of Anthrax in 1971) and Tony Conrad and Angus MacLise (both of whom were with Cale and Reed in The Primitives, with Maclise being the first Velvets' drummer prior to Mo Tucker) had a distinct effect on The Velvet Underground's approach to rock sound and rock noise (harmonic drones, rhythmic collapses, frequency overloads, etc.). Glenn Branca's 'crossover' work with his Symphony series has likewise clearly coloured bands like Sonic Youth and Swan in terms of their post-Velvets rock cacophony (detuned guitars, percussive walls of sound, deafening volume levels, etc.). Perhaps this is all part of New York's self-regeneration of a bohemian tradition in art/rock crossovers (in parallel with the English art college syndrome). Whatever the socio-cultural case, a discernible and audible lineage of rock noise - where rock is distilled, transformed, interpreted and perceived as noise - stretches across two decades of post-experimental art rock, allowing us to listen to rock through its own noise.

To be completed ...

... from the original 1989/1990 notes.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.