Radiohead – Amnesiac


RadioheadAmnesiac Parlophone 7243 5 32764 2 3 (2001)

Radiohead were to their time what U2 was in the mid-1980s.  Both achieved a great deal of success adapting underground music to mainstream tastes.  With U2, it was about taking post-punk and smoothing it over to make it more accessible.  With Radiohead, at least tentatively starting with OK Computer, they adapted the styles a host of cult favorites like Aphex Twin, CAN, Merzbow, and others into a more streamlined, melodic and stadium-friendly package, tied up with well-intentioned, if slightly superficial, lyrics. So, as Keith Moliné put it, for “seasoned adventurers in modern music,” the claim that Radiohead’s music was a revelation “fell flat, raising a smile or sneer depending on temperament.”

Despite a plethora of reviews to the contrary, Amnesiac is the better of Kid A. This is an altogether more straightforward (and therefore more focused) album than its predecessor. Amnesiac sticks to Radiohead’s strengths. The group doesn’t overextend themselves. They don’t try too hard.  Thom Yorke still has his paranoid wailing caught on record. What is gone is the labored complexity of Kid A that fundamentally never worked. The songs here hold up much better.

Radiohead just isn’t that great of an experimental or prog-rock outfit. They do make good anthemic songs geared towards the college-educated demographic. At that, they excel. Especially when the music is informed by more advanced influences, like here. Amnesiac is the group’s very best work — even if it could have been improved by dropping the filler cuts “Dollars and Cents” and “Like Spinning Plates” and replacing them with Kid A‘s superior “The National Anthem” and “Idioteque”.

Bob Dylan – Under the Red Sky

Under the Red Sky

Bob DylanUnder the Red Sky CBS 467188 2 (1990)

There are a few essential Bob Dylan albums, quite a lot of decent but still mediocre ones, and a few that offer little or nothing to even the most hardcore Dylanite.  Sadly, Under the Red Sky is one the man’s most forgettable offerings.  In his defense, Bob invests in a musical palette that is broader than anything since Empire Burlesque, yet the songwriting here never quite delivers.  Add to that the always questionable tactic of an “all-star” lineup of guest appearances and the fact that producer Don Was‘ efforts to polish this up were vetoed by Dylan makes this sound as sterile as possible, and the merits this has evaporate pretty quickly.

Slavoj Žižek – The Cologne Attacks Were an Obscene Version of Carnival

Link to an article by Slavoj Žižek:

“The Cologne Attacks Were an Obscene Version of Carnival”

Selected quotes:

  • “being a victim at the bottom of the social ladder does not make you some kind of privileged voice of morality and justice.”
  • “This destructive potential of envy is the base of Rousseau’s well-known distinction between egotism, amour-de-soi (that love of the self which is natural), and amour-propre, the perverted preferring of oneself to others in which a person focuses not on achieving a goal, but on destroying the obstacle to it [quoting Rousseau, juge de Jean-Jacques, first dialog] . . . An evil person is thus not an egotist, ‘thinking only about his own interests’. A true egotist is too busy taking care of his own good to have time to cause misfortune to others. The primary vice of a bad person is that he is more preoccupied with others than with himself.”
  • “The difficult lesson of this entire affair is thus that it is not enough to simply give voice to the underdogs the way they are: in order to enact actual emancipation, they have to be educated (by others and by themselves) into their freedom.”

Public Enemy – Fear of a Black Planet

Fear of a Black Planet

Public EnemyFear of a Black Planet Def Jam CK 45413 (1990)

Fear of a Black Planet is still considered a watershed hip-hop album.  It was meticulously sequenced.  At a time when cassette tapes were a common format for releasing commercial musical recordings, this album was put together so that each side was essentially the same length (down to a matter of mere seconds), so that there was minimal silent runout at the end of one side of the tape (a byproduct of having sides of unequal length).  The use of non-musical recordings also took a big leap here.  Public Enemy had already done some of this on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, but now the skits were more elaborate and the excepts from mainstream media commenting on Public Enemy (“Incident at 66.6 FM”) were extended and clearly positioned to coincide with the provocative messages of the new songs.  These weren’t just isolated songs thrown together haphazardly, like in the early days of LP records when 45 RPM singles still held commercial dominance.  This was a cohesive album-length statement.

The band’s popularity was at an all-time high when Fear of a Black Planet dropped, thanks in large part to a hit song, “Fight the Power,” used in the Spike Lee movie Do the Right Thing and released as a single and soundtrack cut during the prior year.  Lee also directed a music video for the song — this also still being the height of popularity for MTV and music videos as promotional (and artistic) devices.  It is one of the most blunt statements of what the band’s music is about.  The thundering, irregular bass line, like a modern Bo Dilddley beat, is set against a metallic wash of noise, and an array of disjointed drum beats.  There is scratching and little snippets of vocals and keyboards too.  The lyrics go a little overboard, but they make a point that is not to far off from what the #blacklivesmatter movement would be about decades later.

Just to give a sense of what Public Enemy’s music meant around this time, here’s a story from Boots Riley of The Coup in Tell Homeland Security — We Are the Bomb (2015):

“A woman named Rossy Hawkins and her two twin sons who were eight years old got beat down, bloodied by the police in the Double Rock projects [of San Francisco].  The neighborhood immediately came out, hundreds of people, and surrounded the police.  What had happened a week or two before was a guy had gotten beaten up by the police and been taken in the police car and driven around until he died — because they didn’t take him to the hospital.  So people wanted to get Rossy and her kids away from the police and take her to the hospital because they feared for her life.  So they surrounded the police, and the police got scared and started shooting up in the air.  ***  And everybody ran away.  But at a certain point everybody turned around.  They turned around and came back, got Rossy and her kids away from the police, and sent those police out without their car.  The car was turned over.

“So two things.  One, none of this was put in any mainstream newspapers or anything like that the next day.  ***  And the other thing that happened is that what made everyone turn around was this:  It was the summer of 1989, and the number-one song on the radio was ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy.  And somebody started chanting ‘Fight the power, fight the power, fight the power.’  And everyone said that then is when they knew that they all had a job to do.

“When that story was being told to me that day is when I realized the power that music could have, that hip-hop could be a rallying cry that consolidates our ideas into action.”

As inspiring as this was to Boots Riley, Public Enemy were (rightly) perceived as a threat to an established system of oppression.  Touring in late 1990 in support of the album, PE appeared at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom in late December with rock band Sonic Youth opening.  Following the show a police riot erupted.

Public Enemy was, for the most part, still a large collective at the time that Fear of a Black Planet was recorded and released.  Hank Shocklee had helped work up a lot of the songs on the album, some of which had percolated for years before being recorded, but he wasn’t directly involved in the production for the album.  It is still an album made in his style, with some constraints and omissions with regard to his predilections for unconstrained raw noise and atonality.  But given his lack of involvement, the name “The Bomb Squad” was coined as the production credit for PE recordings.  Calling the production team by that name obscured — quite intentionally — who was really involved.  Although a conscious strategy by Chuck D, this became kind of a contradiction in Public Enemy’s message.  They seemed like hypocrites by deceiving fans this way.  Yet, they still delivered some amazing songs.  Hank’s brother Keith stepped up.  He wrote “Brothers Gonna Work It Out,” one of the band’s best songs anywhere.  Professor Griff had also been booted from the band after a media dust-up about anti-semitic comments (despite his lack of involvement, his photo appears in the liner notes).  He would return in the late 1990s though. This was another semi-hypocritical move by the band.  Rather than stand together, and assert that Griff was not anti-semitic but rather made a mistake when caught off-guard as the result of typical anti-black “gotcha” journalism — during the black power movement journalists would often quote only the one extremist statement made in passing during hour-long speeches, to try to discredit black leaders with much to say.

The departures of Hank Shocklee and Professor Griff would have a big impact on the band in the coming years.  But for a time, inertia (and the efforts of the remaining crew) kept the band going full speed.

This may not be It Takes a National of Millions to Hold Us Back, but nothing is, and this comes as close as anything.  Well, truthfully, albums like this didn’t come along much in later years for one glaring reason.  A legal crackdown on sampling arrived just after Fear of a Black Planet, which effectively ended hip-hop of this sort — for instance, by some calculations, the cost of royalties (a contested topic by itself) for the samples on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back would have meant the band (and its label) would lose over $4 (US) on every copy sold.  There was nothing inevitable about the sampling crackdown, which could have been ruled a “transformative” fair use, and therefore not copyright infringement.  In the end, the legal battle was political.  The courts sided with the “vested interests” (to use economist Thorstein Veblen‘s term), meaning that what was effectively a new and unprecedented art form would be subordinated to the interests of self-important has-beens, greedy absentee owners of intellectual property rights who own large back catalogs of recordings, and lazy heirs and estate trustees.

“911 Is a Joke” was the song Flavor Flav delivered for the album.  It might be his very best.  His rhythm is impeccable.  He delivers his lines with his usual prankster humor, though the subject matter is actually incisive social commentary (about public emergency services being withheld from or limited in black neighborhoods for racist reasons).  Flav delivers “Can’t Do Nuttin’ for Ya Man,” which is a good song that occasionally shows up on compilations but lacks the benefits of the social commentary of “911 Is a Joke.”

“Welcome to the Terrordome” (probably a reference to the 1985 film Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome) is one of the harder-hitting tunes.  A looping, siren-like wail drones on through much of the song, setting a kind of baseline level of aggression.  Chuck D sounds absolutely fierce on the mic.

Fear of a Black Planet comes across as a very premeditated sort of album.  There is nothing that happens on this record that isn’t planned and then executed precisely.  It can be a bit exhausting, but it is just as exhilarating.

Dixie Hummingbirds – Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950

Journey to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950

Dixie HummingbirdsJourney to the Sky: The Legendary Recordings 1946-1950 P-Vine PCD-5818 (2001)

Legendary vocal quartet music, featuring dynamic lead singer Ira Tucker and bass vocalist William Bobo.  This may be the very best vocal group music of the late 1940s, at a point when the “jubilee” style of gospel singing was being left behind in favor of the new, more daring “hard gospel” style.  Too many classic cuts here to go through them all individually, but hearing just “Move On Up a Little Higher” (either version), “In the Storm Too Long”, or “Search Me Lord” alone would be enough to make the whole set worthwhile even though there isn’t a bad cut to be found.  You don’t need to have any interest in the religious content of this music to enjoy it.  This particular set lacks recording and release information (at least in english), but the sound is great for recordings this old.  There are a few other Dixie Hummingbird collections out there on CD as well, like Complete Recorded Works 1939-1947 in Chronological Order covering a generally earlier period, and Thank You for One More Day: The 70th Anniversary of The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Best of both focusing a bit more on later periods.  But this is probably the place to start.

Bruce Springsteen – Born to Run

Born to Run

Bruce SpringsteenBorn to Run Columbia JC 33795 (1975)

It is possible to look at Bruce Springsteen as the ultimate salesman/apologist for capitalism in the 1970s music scene.  Looking at Springsteen’s excellent, and overlooked, debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., one finds (much like in Van Morrison albums) a dreamy desire for a kind of utopian world outside the confirms of present reality, and much pondering of the obstacles to such dreams. But with Born to Run the ambitions have been narrowed (“focused,” if you must say so) to concentrate all energies on reaching escape velocity, that is to say, all attention is on the act of breaking free. The context of what is being broken away from, or what destination might await anyone who does break free, and other such concerns, are all relegated to a decidedly secondary place.

Historian Jefferson Cowie wrote a book called Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2010), which theorized that one of the dominant narratives in American media in the 1970s was that of the individual breaking free of restrictive social bonds.  Is there any more acute statement of that sentiment than the title track of Born to RunErnest “Boom” Carter‘s drums mechanically urge everything onward:  thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud! Elsewhere the rhythm on the drums is steady but played in a circular figure.  (The monotonous rhythm of the drums set against the more supple, syncopated rhythms of the other instruments and vocals is one of the most significant features of the recording).  Bruce sings:

“Tramps like us /

Baby, we were born to run”

A rebuttal of sorts might be the Carpenters‘ “I Need to Be in Love” from A Kind of Hush (1976), with the line, “But freedom only helps you say goodbye.”  In that Carpenters song, there is a resigned acceptance of stifling social bonds, without completely internalizing and normalizing the strains those social bonds produce.

Why does all this matter?  Well, there is a theory that politicians in the United States basically offer up constituencies to the highest bidder — they form constituencies in the name of certain interests but then almost always betray those people and interests by accepting money (bribes) in the form of campaign contributions to further the opposing goals of the donors.  This is more or less the “investment theory of politics” by political economist Thomas Ferguson (similar theories have been offered by the likes of G. William Domhoff, etc.).  Recent, well-publicized research by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page empirically supported these theories, showing that the opinions of ordinary people have close to zero influence on public policy in the United States while those of elites (and their organizations) have substantial influence.

If we look at the Carpenters song as being built on a christian notion of love (as in, “love thy neighbor”), a kind of community-building myth that brings people together despite differences, Springsteen is pushing for an anti-christian attitude of atomistic individuals.  His constant references to automobiles is simultaneously praise for generic materialistic consumption, weird sexualized commodity fetishism, and advocacy for enjoyment of the primary mechanism for an individual to contribute to fossil fuel pollution and waste.  Now, it is possible to say that all this is sheer coincidence.  Or not.  Matthew Modine‘s character Pvt. Joker in the film Full Metal Jacket (1987) is the cynic who actually manages to sustain the Vietnam war effort by maintaining a protective personal distance from the insane logic of the war effort, whereas Vincent D’Onofrio‘s character Pvt. Pyle, who takes the war effort serious, shoots himself, thereby not advancing the effort.  Springsteen always had a sense of irony and cynicism, but it was the sort that worked in favor of the groundswell of neoliberal politics in the mid-1970s.

Neoliberalism, in terms of specific and recognizable policies, is about favoring financial interests over labor, privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending to expand the role of the private sector in the economy; but those policies are sustained by a manner of thinking that favors certain groups over others.  Henry A. Giroux: “As an ideology, it construes profit making as the essence of democracy, consuming as the only operable form of citizenship, and upholds the irrational belief that the market cannot only solve all problems but serve as a model for structuring all social relations. It is steeped in the language of self-help, individual responsibility and is purposely blind to inequalities in power, wealth and income and how they bear down on the fate of individuals and groups.”  Erik Olin Wright: “Neoliberal ideology says that the social-democratic solutions are permanently off the table. That’s just self-justification of elite privilege.”  Michael Hudson: neo-liberalism is neo-rentier and perhaps neo-feudal, and attempts a counter-enlightenment.

So, yes, perhaps Springsteen was a useful idiot, unknowingly advancing interests he didn’t consciously wish to advance.  All this does matter, because his public image is that of the “ordinary Joe,” or, perhaps, hero of the “ordinary Joe.”  But is he really helping ordinary people, or selling them out to their class enemies? It seems like the latter more than the former.  Further proof might be how so many people “misunderstand” Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.  Some intellectual types state that listeners who use the song for its patriotic content are missing its ironic, cynical critique of patriotism.  But perhaps the intellectuals are overstating the effect of irony/cynicism, and perhaps it really is just a necessary distance.  In this way, maybe Springsteen is akin to Dmitri Shostakovitch, whose very distance from Stalinism was paradoxically really part of the functioning of the Stalinist regime.  Like Pvt. Joker and Shostakovitch, Springsteen actually aided the Carter/Thatcher/Reagan neoliberal counter-revolution to roll back the social welfare programs of the mid-20th Century.  Oh, and also maybe a nickname like “The Boss” aligns Springsteen a bit too close for comfort with the exploiters of labor?

So both at the level of individual psychology, and at the level of the political economy, Springsteen’s music can be seen as supporting the very thing it purports to oppose. Let’s return again to the Carpenters.  “I Need to Be in Love” and albums like A Song for You (1972) are about building something, rather than breaking away from something.  Even a cursory view of the Carpenters’ music reveals a kind of frustration with the world it inhabits.  But, the thrust of the music is about saying working those problems is preferable to trying to cast aside everything and start anew like Springsteen proposes in song.  Rather than simply cast aside institutions that have their problems, the Carpenters made music about recognizing and addressing those problems.  Springsteen, on the other hand, just abandons the difficult tasks.  These seem like cop-outs framed around mitigating symptoms rather than redressing root causes.  This might be summed up by articulating the missing burden: “The difficult lesson . . . is thus that it is not enough to simply give voice to the underdogs the way they are: in order to enact actual emancipation, they have to be educated (by others and by themselves) into their freedom.”

There are, indeed, some really good songs here:  the title track and the opener “Thunder Road.” There is some decent material too: the hearty R&B of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” etc.  Most of the songs maintain the sense of movement, action, and almost inevitability and achievement.  Piano is used in places to make the music grandiose.  The jazzy ballad “Meeting Across the River” doesn’t do that, and it changes the pace of the album just before the closer “Jungleland.”  Whether it’s the “wall of sound” style of producer Phil Spector, soulful R&B horn breaks, obvious nodes to Bob Dylan, or something else, most of these songs look backwards to old styles, with commonplaces that might be called pastiche — though frequently leaning more heavily on guitar riffs that the sources of inspiration. This looking backward is significant, because it tends to underscore the lack of new demands in the music.  If stereotypical 1960s radicalism was about pressing established institutions with demands intended to undermine those very institutions, then Born to Run kind of relents and says that no new demands will be made.

If contrasted with Springsteen’s excellent debut album, the turn with The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle and then Born to Run can be seen as selling out.  According to the standard narrative (pushed in promotional materials for reissues of the album), faced with a commercial crises for lack of album sales, he capitulated to the forces that his debut leaned against.  The transformative idealism of the debut was gone, which suggested asking new questions and creating new attitudes to fit those questions, and it its place a kind of empty idealism that was all about action stripped of context, kind of like running on a treadmill — there is the illusion of movement (breaking free) that really keeps the runner in one place.  This was somewhat similar to what French “new philosophers” of the 1970s (Michel Foucault, Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann, etc.) did, when they asserted that the only revolutionary project is that of self-realization.  And yet, this album is quite an effective sellout effort!  This is the sort of album that can be appreciated much like Leni Riefenstahl‘s Nazi propaganda film Triumph des Willens [Triumph of the Will].  If this sort of comparison seems like a stretch (see also “Godwin’s Law”), then consider that alienation and isolation were preconditions for totalitarianism according to Hannah Arendt.

So maybe it is time to rethink Springsteen’s “blue collar” bona fides.  There are few, if any, albums from the 1970s that so succinctly capture and redirect the populist underpinnings of neoliberalism as dynamically and persuasively as Born to Run.

Bowie – Diamond Dogs

Diamond Dogs

BowieDiamond Dogs RCA APL1-0576 (1974)

After the glam hard rock of Aladdin Sane and the nostalgic (and poorly-received) Pin Ups, David Bowie returned, somewhat, to the theatrics of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From MarsMick Ronson and The Spiders From Mars are gone, but Bowie’s own guitar playing is sturdy and effective, if more economical and scrappy.

“Rebel Rebel” is one of Bowie’s catchiest guitar riffs.  “Diamond Dogs” is another great one here, with its solid glam beat and gracefully dingy horns.  Of the tracks that aren’t on the radio or best-of collections, “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me” is perhaps the best, and most instructive.  It (and the soulful “We Are the Dead”) points towards Bowie’s focus on his singing that would lead to the R&B rave-up title track to Young Americans and the excellent cabaret ballad “Wild Is the Wind” on Station to Station.

There is a concept of sorts behind this album, something about a dystopian future like in George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four (Bowie was denied rights by the author’s estate to make a direct adaptation of the novel).  The concept helps the album, not in the direct structure of a cohesive overall story line, but in providing a kernel of inspiration that gets individual songs going.  There is more social commentary here than on perhaps any other Bowie album.

Really, Diamond Dogs is one of Bowie’s best.

Death Penalty

The death penalty should apply only to those who claim power in the name of others, like world leaders, military and police commanders, and even (sometimes) business executives.  Serial killers and minor criminals are usually pressed by mental health concerns and poverty in a way that makes prison or commitment more appropriate.