Ole Bjerg – Making Money

Making Money: The Philosophy of Crisis Capitalism

Ole BjergMaking Money: The Philosophy of Crisis Capitalism (Verso 2014)

With Making Money, Ole Bjerg presents a philosophical — and psychoanalytic — analysis of contemporary economics and finance.  He draws explicitly from the theories of Slavoj Žižek. What he delivers is one of the most coherent offerings yet on the nature of contemporary economics.  The first parts of the book map out the basic philosophical/psychoanalytic concepts being applied, and briefly traces their roots.  Primarily, these involve assessments of the “orders” of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary.  These are concepts that Žižek imported directly from French psychiatrist/philosopher Jacques Lacan.  From that foundation, the theories are applied to explain the origins and conception of money itself.  This is among the most enlightening parts of the book.  Many others have explored this topic (notably, David Graeber‘s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2010), among others).  But this telling is rather concise, with much of the space in the book devoted to a theory of money that is scrupulously consistent with a single theory, rather than just a patchwork of isolated, if compelling, commentaries that stop short of articulating a unifying theory.  Then, in the final parts of the book, Bjerg tackles the elements of the recent crisis in the financial/banking sector, and concludes, briefly, with essentially a single policy recommendation.  Overall, he’s written one of the most compelling and cohesive accounts of modern economics and finance.  Although, no doubt, his reliance on the continental philosophy of Žižek for his analysis will rekindle all the usual disputes about the utility of continental philosophy.

The title of the book derives from the observation that banks are quite literally given the nearly unique privilege (aside from increasingly impotent governments) of “making money” from thin air.  In order to clear accounts between clients, and between themselves, banks use “fractional reserve” policies to loan out far more “credit money” than they possess (reserves) in terms of government-issued cash, gold, or the like.  This is sort of the basis for Bertold Brecht‘s quip from The Threepenny Opera, “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?”  Bank (credit) money now dwarfs government (fiat) money.  But in that empirical shift toward credit money, Bjerg also detects a philosophical shift.  Credit money fuels derivatives trading — the practice of banks and financial institutions making bets (default swaps, futures, etc.) derived from the “risk” associated with other financial activities (price movements on bonds or stocks, etc.).

The key narrative is an explanation of how money serves a symbolic function, and the modern world permits banks to create “credit money” independent of governments and ordinary citizens.  This narrative allows Bjerg to offer some quite substantial commentary on one of the most fundamental (and fundamentally unresolved) questions of economics: what is “value” and how is it determined?  Applying Žižek, Bjerg concludes that there is economic “value” that is a hard kernel of an unknowable truth (the Real), represented only by purely symbolic representations of “price”.  In the contemporary age, the imaginary “fantasy” in finance and economics is of “being in the market”, which posits that the mere ability to offer (symbolic) prices in the a market is the desire (ideology – in the imaginary order) that drives the economy. In neoclassical economics, statistics (math) and the “efficient market hypothesis” are the dominant ways that “being in the market” is expressed.

Bjerg faults “efficient market hypothesis” models for what Žižek has called (in In Defense of Lost Causes, referring to a Donald Rumsfield speech) “unknown knowns” in the four-part schema of kinds of knowledge: “known knowns”, “known unknowns”, “unknown unknowns” and “unknown knowns” (the last being the one that Rumsfeld neglects to mention).  The “unknown knowns”, according to Žižek, are “the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves.” This recalls Charles F. Kettering‘s quip, “It ain’t them things you don’t know what gets you into trouble, it’s them things you know for sure what ain’t so.”  Bjerg states that “risk management” embedded in models built on the “efficient market hypothesis” disavow the existence of systemic risk, and refuse to acknowledge the volatility and risk that they engender in the really-existing economy of the present:

“The knowledge that the model does not conform to the nature of actual reality is not incorporated into the model itself.  It remains an unknown known.”  (p. 229).

More specifically, Bjerg states:

“the unknown known of financial markets [is] the notion that prices in financial markets behave in a way that makes them subject to probabilistic reasoning.  This form of reasoning in finance presupposes the distinction between known unknowns (the direction of future price movements) and known knowns (the historic price volatility of an asset).  The unknown known is the very distinction between these two categories of knowledge.”  (p. 228).

This offers a strikingly clear explanation for how neoclassical economics can create complex mathematical formulas to model economic activity that fundamentally break down due to a lack of connection between their variables and the real world — an effort to act as if the symbolic is the real, in Žižek’s/Lacan’s terms.  The denial of the ideology that desires “being in the market” facilitates and reinforces financialization of the economy.

There is a kind of dual causality in modern finance and economics that places money further away from “real value”.  Symbolic constructs (financial derivatives) are piled on top of symbolic constructs (prices, risks), with the “belief in being in the market” seen as the endgame.  This sort of thinking ties the two symbolic constructs together such that each legitimates the other, while marginalizing the role of “real value” (production, etc.).  The inherent limits of “real” production imposed by scarce labor and raw material resources is sidestepped to allow theoretically unlimited “credit money” creation.  This sort of thinking also basically sidesteps the notion of conscious political objectives beyond the mere creation and maintenance of “a market”.  A few examples in the book highlight this.  Right after the 2007-08 financial crash, Ben Bernanke claimed that “we won’t have an economy on Monday” without a government bailout of the financial sector, which reveals a mode of thinking that only recognizes a desire for financial markets to exist (“being in the market”) and no discernible desire for other political ends, such as equality, public health and welfare, etc.  Rather than an explicit discussion of the desires that political processes should pursue, the desire for “being in the market” is disavowed — assumed away.

The analysis in Making Money is meant to be a purely philosophical proof.  This is the book’s single greatest strength.  If you come to it looking for a catalog of citations to other writers, particularly economic ones, who have reached the same (or different) conclusions, then you are looking in the wrong place.  There have been, indeed, quite many economists who have reached essentially all the same conclusions as Bjerg (Veblen, Hudson, Keen, Hossein-zadeh, Nasser, etc., etc.).  But many critical economists, all “heterodox” ones who work almost entirely outside the realm of mainstream recognition, sometimes have an unfortunate tendency to write griping tracts that wallow in a sort of “sour grapes” mentality.  They bemoan that how no matter how correct they are, no matter how logically superior their arguments, no matter how many facts support them and contradict competing theory…no one listens — going so far as to even suggest that mainstream economists get where they are precisely because they are wrong.  Bjerg cuts through all of that.  He provides, in a sense, an independent proof.  He is able to step partially outside the fray, and describe the key aspects that bound the fray, because he resorts to psychoanalytic techniques.  Making Money places continental philosophy and psychoanalysis alongside anthropology (Graeber), sociology (Bourdieu), physical science (Soddy), and maybe a few other academic disciplines lining up against neoclassical economics, which is looking increasingly isolated from all other academic disciplines and rather nakedly aligned with the finance/banking sector and their political parties in a strictly partisan way.

That recommendation Bjerg makes at the end of the book?  Well, Bjerg arrives at the same conclusion that Nobel prize winning chemist Frederick Soddy arrived at almost a century ago: elimination of fractional reserve banking.  This sole policy proposal is about denying banks the ability to create “credit money”.  However, Soddy is not mentioned here — nor, for that matter, is Marx and Engels‘ demand in The Communist Manifesto: “5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.” Instead, Bjerg cites Irving Fisher‘s “100 percent reserve” proposal, and latter-day economists who endorse Fisher’s proposal (which was adopted from Soddy).  Whatever Bjerg’s reasons for citing the people he cites, this has the implicit effect of downplaying Soddy’s reputation as a “crank” and accentuates Fisher’s status as a respected pillar of conservative economics, thereby allowing Bjerg to proffer a grand compromise between politics of the left and right to reform finance.  More than likely, Bjerg will be ignored just as much as Soddy, Veblen, and all the others.  That is too bad, because at a conceptual level this book is far more compelling than anything dealing with economics that touches the bestseller lists.

But there is something else useful about Bjerg’s critique.  His appeal is at the level of psychology.  He is not directly politically attacking the captains of finance as being “bad actors”, though the result of his proposal would be to completely remove the greatest windfall privilege of the banking and finance sector and thereby decimate the finance sector as it really exists today.  Rather, he is trying to reveal what the banking sector desires through their economic theories.  At this level, anyone can ask: is that what I desire too?  It is hard to change desires.  But psychoanalysis posits that it is possible.  Bjerg is suggesting that it is better to work to desire something (anything) in the “real economy” of production than to merely desire “being in the market”.  The elimination of fractional reserve banking would be the most direct policy approach in making such a change.  It would allow the question of how money is created to be politicized, that is, put forward as a topic for explicit political debate.

Collection of Modern Jazz

Collection of Modern JazzWelcome to a “virtual” compilation album of jazz from 1960 to 2009, intended to be an introduction to jazz music from that time period for anyone with an interest.  It is generally meant to be a follow-up to a compilation like The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, with a focus on a later time period.  In moving into more modern periods of jazz history, the listening experience can be more challenging for many because there begin to be marked departures from familiar modes of musical practice.  With regard to literary practice, the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovskii wrote of “laying bare the device” and the technique of “defamiliarization” (or “estrangement”), which are key elements underlying most modernist art movements that, as a general rule of thumb, all rely on a fairly high degree of audience sophistication.  The same holds for modern jazz.  The music here does get quite challenging at times, and is more along the lines of serious, intensive listening music than casual background or dance music.  That is as much a reflection of trends in music history as a reflection of choices among the trove of great recordings that could easily replace the selections here.  Every effort has been made to take that into consideration in keeping the overall set as accessible as possible for relatively novice listeners, but without shying away from important recordings that make for challenging listening.  All that said, listening to this compilation should probably be prefaced with some understanding of the roots of jazz prior to 1960.  The criteria in making selections has been to attempt a reasonable sketch of the musical innovations of modern jazz, with attention also paid to historical trends in the sense of well-known sub-genres.  Songs — and some artists — already represented on other compilations like The Smithsonian Collection, have been excluded here to avoid redundancy.  It is important to note that this compilation does not track only popular, heavily marketed trends in a rote manner, and so anyone who believes the mainstream account that “jazz just died” at some time in the 1970s should probably look elsewhere for a more sanitized overview that pretends jazz hasn’t kept on surviving at a smaller scale via independent, underground, and publicly-subsidized outlets.

This collection is arranged roughly in chronological order by recording date, though it is not strictly chronologically arranged.  For each song selection, the songwriting credits, first release, recording date/location, and personnel are listed to the greatest extent possible, though precise information is not available in every case.  Compiler’s notes are given for each selection as a guide for those seeking clues as to suggested musical elements to listen for, as well as to provide reasons for the inclusion of certain tracks.  This collection is not comprehensive and exhaustive, of course, and so it does make some omissions of many great and worthy artists and recordings.  Moreover, numerous popular movements like “smooth jazz” and “acid jazz” are not represented, as some argue those are not properly called “jazz” at all, at least in the sense that their audiences tend to be outside those historically associated with jazz as such.  In order to allow a greater number of different recordings to be represented, while still allowing the collected material to hypothetically fit on a reasonable number of compact discs, many selections are presented in edited form.  While those selections deserve to be heard in their complete form, the difficult decision to present edited version seemed necessary given the length of most modern jazz recordings.  In earlier eras jazz musicians were limited by recording formats that only offered a few minutes worth of recording time.  With technological advances, recordings could be made of indefinite duration.  Many musicians have taken advantage of that fact.  With the advent of digital music, listeners programming this collection electronically can perhaps ignore the suggested time edits, which are merely a byproduct of the limitations of physical media.

Anyway, the primary objective of this collection is to serve as an educational tool to introduce new listeners to modern jazz.  It is hoped this will be a a launching pad for the exploration of the wide and varied interstellar universe of modern jazz.  It is hoped that listeners will follow up a careful review of this collection with explorations of other jazz music.  The personnel lists, record label listings and compiler’s notes hopefully provide some suggestions for additional listening.  But don’t stop there.  For more introductory jazz resources, see Jazz Resource Guide. Continue reading Collection of Modern Jazz

Iggy Pop – Préliminaires


Iggy PopPréliminaires EMI 50999 6985782 9 (2009)

Iggy Pop has had a fascinating solo career.  He burst on to the scene in the late 1970s as a shell-shocked hard rock survivor who crashed the disco-era party with his unique brand of ironic electro-pop/rock.  From there, he veered all over the place, from more hard rock to palatable pop/rock but always gravitating toward rock music of some sort.  As he got older, his act just seemed more and more absurdist.  Here was a guy well into middle age still thumping away with the kind of music rarely associated with anyone over thirty.  Even at his worst moments, there was always intrigue in the sheer train-wreck quality of the spectacle of it all.  He just kept on being the same Iggy Pop…a character that fit Hunter S. Thompson‘s description of the “Brown Buffalo” Oscar Zeta Acosta in a memoir published in Rolling Stone Dec. 15, 1977: “one of God’s own prototypes–a high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production.”  In that one could laugh at his music being used in ads to sell cars and oceanliner cruises.  Something did change later on.  Almost, at least.  Iggy released the disastrous Avenue B in the late 1990s, which was leaden with despairing lyrics and hinted at some kind of bongo-laden electro-pop that didn’t rock very much.  But it looked like just a blip on the radar as he moved back to familiar hard rock with his next recordings (even if hindsight reveals at least potential in the likes of “I Felt the Luxury”).

Fast forward to 2009 (right past a horrifying reunion of The Stooges).  Iggy releases Préliminaires.  Just a few seconds into the album it is clear something is very different.  The opening “Les feuilles mortes” could pass for Leonard Cohen.  Being sung in French, comparisons to Serge Gainsbourg wouldn’t be out of place either.  The rest of the album goes off in other directions, even to spoken word (like Avenue B).  It largely stays away from rock, moving instead within the ambit of more adult-oriented pop, blues and the like.  This raises the question: why now?  It would seem that if he was going to commit to a new and different direction, he would have done it long ago.  Iggy never had a voice that could be called impressive.  Here he goes about as far as his abilities permit.  But he’s very clearly trying to push himself.  And, surprisingly enough, it all works.  Then again, maybe that’s not so surprising considering that this is just another example of Iggy being a creature of his own making, and when he does something that flies in the face of reason and common sense he’s completely in his element.  What differs most of all from his earlier failed effort at something new is that he goes for it all the way here.  He just dives in.  He also focuses on what he likes in life, instead of wallowing in hurt feelings, and he runs with musical ideas he’s probably harbored an interest in for a long time.  So no wonder this may just be a late-career classic.

Wayne Shorter – Speak No Evil

Speak No Evil

Wayne ShorterSpeak No Evil Blue Note BST 84194 (1966)

You don’t have to know thing one about jazz to enjoy Speak No Evil. As party jazz or a stepping stone of mid-sixties post-bop (that leans ever so slightly towards the avant-garde), this album seems to appeal to everyone who hears it.

Wayne Shorter made a name for himself as a brilliant songwriter. Speak No Evil even features one of his most beloved standards, “Infant Eyes,” which is the song that often brings people to the album. The mistake some make is to only think of Shorter as a songwriter. His sax style was his own, with a smooth melodic style like Freddie Hubbard only much mellower. In 6/4 on “Wild Flower,” Shorter’s lines create graceful motions. Hubbard and Shorter mix vibrato perfectly with the dance-like melody.

The horns sound bright even though, when you get down to it, the harmonies are unusual. Take the swinging 32-bar number “Witch Hunt” or the robust blues ballad “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum.” Shorter makes each song a classy affair. The album is somewhat eclectic in the songwriting, but it floats so effortlessly off the disc that there is no trick to taking it in its entirely. “Speak No Evil” is among the more distinctive tunes. Its medium tempo falls perfectly between a casual lope and a driving jaunt. Shorter steps outside his usual self. He soloing is more textural. Against precisely executed dissonant intervals Shorter and the band make themselves right at home. Again, as interesting as the compositions and improvisation is, there is no need to understand any of it to enjoy it all. Wayne Shorter as a bandleader gave opportunities for each of the stars in his band to shine. There was a lot of shining to be done.

Herbie Hancock slides in and brings along much of the style of the Miles Davis Quintet.  He is relaxed enough that his piano performances jump out from the rhythm section without having to force it.

Of course, the entire band is brilliant. It’s that something extra a bandleader can’t plan for. The December 24, 1964 recording session had everyone stealing the show simultaneously.

Classic jazz doesn’t get any more classic than Speak No Evil. No matter how or what you like in music, you can find it all here. Dig it now rather than later.

The Toasters – Skaboom!


The ToastersSkaboom! Moon Ska (1987)

Many consider The Toasters to be the first important band of so-called “third wave” ska.  This album is probably the best example of how they earned that recognition.  Skaboom! is an extremely fun record of dance oriented cuts.  All things considered, this is probably one of The Toasters’ best albums, if not their very best album.  The songs are campy, adolescent and full of silly, ironic posturing. In other words, it has all the things that draw people to this kind of music.

The lively “Talk is Cheap,” a staple of the band’s shows that was later re-recorded, opens the album.  It’s an energetic track that puts on display the archetypical horn arrangement style of third-wave ska. The group had by this time brought a full horn section into the band–perhaps the only feature that distinguished them from most of the second wave/2 Tone bands.  A re-recording of “Pool Shark” follows, giving the album even more energy behind a rollicking organ riff.  Some of the songs then lessen in quality somewhat.  But even through the lesser material, The Toasters hold on to the things that make the album such a blast to listen to.  Solid tracks like “Manipulator,” “ABC’s,” and “Now or Never” keep the album moving at a brisk pace.

What makes this particular album more enjoyable than later Toasters albums is that the band, eleven members strong, seems to be genuinely having fun.  The film noir embellishments, the melodic quotes and the dub-styled toasting all sound fresh, and they are done without any pretension. It wasn’t long before The Toasters began dealing almost entirely in cliches, becoming stuck in a sort of delusional self-parody mode.

Skaboom! has been reissued numerous times, with the reissues often adding in the entire Toasters/Recriminations EP and some tracks from their debut album Pool Shark.

Fela Ransome Kuti & Africa 70 – Expensive Shit

Expensive Shit

Fela Ransome Kuti & Africa 70Expensive Shit Soundworkshop SWS 1001 (1975)

Black President. The Nigerian James Brown. Fela Ransome Kuti. Fela Anikulipo Kuti. By any name, Fela was the king of Afro-Beat. Expensive Shit is one of the most direct and abrasive albums he made, and he made many of those.

A little background may be in order. Fela was one of music’s most outspoken activists. Fela constantly put his own life in jeopardy to let his voice be heard. He declared his house (named The Kalakuta Republic) seceded from Nigeria. His mother died in 1977 after she was pushed out a window by Nigerian soldiers. The government conducted repeated raids hoping to grind Fela into submission. Expensive Shit responds to one such incident. Fela explains, “The men alleged I swallowed some hemp. My shit was sent for lab test. Result–negative. Which brings us to…Expensive Shit.” As the story goes, they tried to plant drugs on Fela and he quickly swallowed the evidence. In jail, he was understandably more popular than the government and was able to avoid leaving any testable “results”. This incident was only one among many.

So “Expensive Shit” and “Water No get Enemy” comprise the album. Fela sang in Pidgin English in order to reach a wider audience, while adding some English and Yoruba at times. He actually developed his unique Afro-Beat music while in the United States. His international travels distinctly influenced his views and music. Fela’s ideal of Africanism (much related to Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism) spoke against colonialism and against the abandonment of Yoruba traditions. “Expensive Shit” mocks those who tried to falsely persecute him. With its murky militancy, the song questions acceptance of the values of Nigerian oppressors. Fela was a man willing to put himself at grave risk for his beliefs. He had no kind words for anyone who would do otherwise. “Water No Get Enemy” has the grooviest moments on the disc. Fela sings of water as mirroring the fluid forces of nature interacting with mankind. He desires acceptance. He knows of competing natural forces, but he makes the point that goodness itself is unassailable.

What is more, Afro-Beat is known to be highly addictive. In it, melody is derivative of rhythm. Fela is aware of Western pop music’s melodic vocabulary but keeps traditional African conception in the forefront. Expensive Shit works on both fronts. He used electric keyboards, electric guitars, and saxophones, but he used them to create modern African music (which is to acknowledge that modern = traditional). Fela didn’t want Africanism to become outdated. He wanted African ideal to survive by adapting. His cultural homeland always came first. Though Fela didn’t strictly play music within ancient structures, he did stay within the spirit. Afro-Beat was about coexistence.

It is important to remember why Fela made this music. In safe American homes it can be a shock to believe the things he was up against. He didn’t find anything funny about peace, love and understanding. Fela’s message was for the whole world. Even with some isolated progress, he had setbacks. His noble efforts sadly continue to be duplicated around the world. It is illusion to think of a victory. In terms of social consciousness, Fela Kuti instead sought a modern life cycle where perhaps destruction was illusory as well.

The Beach Boys – Friends


The Beach BoysFriends Capitol ST-2895 (1968)

Brian Wilson’s fingerprints indelibly marked the best Beach Boys music. Though the whole band was contributing, Friends comes together under Brian’s guiding hand.

The opener “Meant for You” sums up the album: “As I sit and close my eyes, there’s peace in my mind and I’m hopin’ that you’ll find it too/ and these feeling in my heart, I know, are meant for you.”

Friends is essentially the Beach Boys’ version of a spiritual/gospel record (like Wild Honey was their version of a soul record). The groups’ vocal harmonies made a strong return. What had changed, though, was the overall mood. A calmness and peacefulness had set in with each and every band member. The music reflects all the warmth inherent in the vocals. Friends is practically a childrens record.

The easygoing spirituality of Friends is not its only achievement. The Beach Boys were still amidst their period of greatest creativity. “Transcendental Meditation” with its unusual sax lines even foreshadows The StoogesFun House slightly. The songs don’t have the overpowering dance beats of the Beach Boy’s best-known material but Friends takes a more sustainable approach. Brian’s brilliant producer’s instincts help songs like “Anna Lee, the Healer” all the right notes, all the right timbres, and all the right dynamics. “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” runs through Brain’s everyday activities and gives general directions to his Bel Air home. This is a dramatic statement of values. The autobiographical is what is important. His overtures present the classic theme of universal progress (for example, Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”; Jesus: “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will understand that you are children of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you live in poverty, and you are the poverty.”). Once there are strong individuals, there can be strong societies. Brian Wilson was certainly doing his part.

Friends is Brian’s personal favorite of all the Beach Boys albums. Everything the group did beginning with Pet Sounds and continuing through (and past) Friends was a (relative) commercial failure, but of course these same albums are the group’s most innovative and enduring works. Friends may not get the fanfare that comes with having hit songs, but it is one of the Beach Boys’ most likeable albums. It’s vulnerable, yet insightful and content–the common characteristics of all of the Beach Boys’ best music.

The Units – Ready For the House

Ready For the House

The UnitsReady For the House CORWOOD 0739 (1978)

So, I want to say that Jandek is the antidote to any ill-conceived notion (sometimes espoused by me) that all the final frontiers of music were crossed in the 1960s.  But, it gets better than that suggests, so read on.  Jandek really perfected meta-music.  This collection of tuneless warbling, credited to “The Units,” seems to show a profound disregard for anything that would appeal to the listener.  This sounds like music recorded in the basement of a very, very empty house, one with an imposing and almost oppressive sense of isolation.  And there is this man, of some sort, playing music there, for his own purposes, whatever those are.  And yet, here you are, listening to it.  This was recorded, released!  So why would you, me, anyone…why would we listen to it?  As the doubters say, are we a pretentious lot, listening to it to be contrarians, or something like that?  I think not.  The key to this, if there is one, is that it’s just brutally honest expression.  It’s naked, daring, bold expression of a type rarely put forth into the public, for the cruel human social structure to critique, attack, put down, or — even if it was a long shot — love and admire.  Philosopher Paul Feyerabend suggested that the only universal methodological rule for the progress of science was epistemological anarchism, that, in essence, nothing is sacred or true and everything is permitted.  Has Jandek proved that for music, and all arts too?  William S. Burroughs said that the function of art is is to remind us of what we know, and what we don’t know that we know.  And so, with Jandek, the reductionist removal of any clear reliance on structure or accepted method has, paradoxically — and awesomely, I may add editorially — exposed some kind of hidden potential for human connection through the sharing of experience, or shared experience if you prefer.  Wasn’t that kind of always something we knew?  And if Ready for the House was insufficient to establish any of this, Corwood Industries has survived as an outlet for scores of these albums to be continuously kept in print.  And long after this was achieved, and Jandek was established as a notably obscure purveyor of “outsider art”, bands emerge to perform this music live.  Folks, this has started to get interesting…

The Misfits – The Misfits Box Set

The Misfits Box Set

The MisfitsThe Misfits Box Set Caroline CAR 7529-2 (1996)

The Misfits.  It’s almost iconic that TV sitcoms and movies are going to show the “rebel” or “delinquent” teenager/adolescent with a Misfits poster in his room, or wearing a Misfits T-shirt.  Yes, watch some old “Saved By the Bell” re-runs to confirm.  Watch David Cross’ cameo in the movie “Men In Black”.  The evidence is there.  For those reasons, I never bothered with The Misfits for a long time, despite the growing number of friends over the years who have loved them tremendously.  When I finally gave them a shot, since my wife had the box set, I could finally hear for myself what it was all about.  And now I love it.

There are three basic components to The Misfits’ sound.  They had the songs, they had the singer, and they had the gimmick.

The group’s debut single is a weird and highly forgettable slab of disco-inflected sleaze rock, with a bad recording of a good song on the B-side.  But they hadn’t found a guitarist yet.  Probably around the time they did find their guitarist, or in any event by around 1978-79, they seem to have written the bulk of their classic songs.  They went on to record and re-record these into the early 1980s, with only some of these recordings seeing proper release.  But the song were always there.  They were propulsive, with a strong sense of melody, and a lethargic, pseudo-lazy, slacker’s sense of rhythm.  Even when the lyrics were stupid or adolescent or both, the songwriting still provided great melodies.  The songs also frequently leaned toward catchy sing-along choruses, a good measure of the reason for the group’s continued cult following.

The songwriting might have been irrelevant had The Misfits not had a great singer in Glenn Danzig.  He was the main difference between The Misfits and so many other punk bands.  Other than Nina Hagen, perhaps no other punk singer had his control and range.  Danzig’s vocals are what allowed The Misfits to actually put into practice their developed sense of melody in a way few others could realize, even if they had the inclination.  So the undercurrents of 1960s East coast doo-wop revival are there in the recordings and are convincing enough as to make them easy to overlook.

The gimmick the band had was a fixation on horror movie themes.  The band logo kind of says it all.  Now, The Cramps certainly were also doing something similar.  But where The Cramps focused on divining the countercultural implications of late-night TV and monster movies (at least up through their early 80s record label feud), The Misfits focused on humoring a kind of comic-book horror aesthetic.  A small but noticeable difference.  Funny though, how those two bands that must have seemed the most trivial at the time have held up so much better than so many other gimmick-less punk bands of the day.  If nothing else, and even if you find no substance in the gimmick, the Misfits’ gimmick gave them a common cause to rally around, and tended to unify everything in their recordings.

As for everything else, the sound of The Misfits triggers associations with kind of the basic elements of punk.  Comparisons to The Damned, or any other notable punk band of the late-1970s makes for a fair characterization of the sounds The Misfits’ banged out of their instruments.  After they had exhausted recording their earliest compositions, the well sort-of ran dry, so-to-speak.  They only really wrote a few great songs into the 1980s.  It wasn’t long before their gimmick stopped being a joke, and they seemed to start making it a grave and serious matter.  By the time of the original group’s final full-length album, only their second, they had turned into a rather faceless, unremarkable punk-metal band (and Danzig went on to Samhain, who were that only much much worse).  What happened to drain them of their creativity and originality makes for a good question, and one that I can’t answer.  The group reformed with a series of often high-profile replacement members.  But who cares.  Fortunately, this Misfits Box Set is only about the original band.

Operating as an independent act, with their own record label, The Misfits had tremendous difficulties releasing material, though freedom from the constraints that go hand in hand with better distribution might have been necessary for them be what they were in the first place.  Despite a number of highly productive recording sessions in the 1970s, they didn’t release much of those recordings during their existence as a functional band.  And what they did manage to release was often the more inferior material, looked at in hindsight.  And so this box set is invaluable.  It’s all pretty damn good.  Listening to the whole thing straight through will find you listening to a lot of the same songs over and over again, but hey, even with a lot of repetition they are still good songs!

If you ask me, and if you’ve read this far you are asking (sort-of), the best Misfits recordings were scattered across singles, EPs, the first of their two albums, and vault-clearing compilations like this box set.  Some of the material released prior to this box set hides behind needless echo/reverb.  Some originally unreleased versions of songs benefit from punchier guitar, even if the vocals don’t jump out front-and-center.  And some songs just feel right at certain tempos.  The great thing with this box set is that you can pick the version of each song that feels right for you.  They are all right here (that is, except for the bulk of Walk Among Us which is the only Danzig-era material not on this box set).

If you hear a few Misfits songs and like them, go straight for this box set and save yourself all the trouble of attacking them piecemeal.