Pete's Blog

It Doesn't Swing

Here's a conversational thread guaranteed to annoy people at parties. The punk thing came along as a self-proclaimed antidote to the Cult Of Genius that '70s rock had bloated into. No more archival knowledge! No more authenticity! No more hierarchy of chops! Just inspired incompetents sharing the intensity of youth with other intense youth! Intensely! And, as Jelly Roll Morton would say, so forth and so on. Weren't the punks really just turning their backs on the black roots of rock and roll? Because it's too hard to play it well? And perhaps, just perhaps, there's a little bit of white-flight racism there? Just asking. Now for some on-the-one-hand-on-the other, with thanks to Steve Simels and his excellent blog Powerspop.blogspot: Lester Bangs wrote a piece on the CBGBs scene entitled"The White Noise Supremacists" and some of the original punk theoreticians -- John Holmstrom and Legs McNeill and a few others -- were stupidly racist suburban idiots in a "Why can't we be proud of being white?" kind of way. But England had the whole Rock Versus Racism thing early on, and English punk went mixed-race fairly quickly. Plus there was the whole Brit punk/Rasta and reggae connection. Then there's the famous quote from Danny Fields, who signed the Stooges to Elektra and later managed the Ramones. He said that he loved both those bands because there wasn't a trace of the blues in them. A promoter's hyperbole, it's true, but with a whiff of uncomfortable truth, despite the fact the Iggy started off as the drummer in a purist Chicago blues band. It's also worth noting that Fields was gay and a Jew - so much for the brotherhood of outcasts. I have to say that the Detroit bands usually cited as progenitors to Punk, especially MC5, seemed to be trying new and interesting ways to synthesize jazz and R&B into their own work - more interesting than the Summer of Love bands, anyway, of whom Matthew Katz, who managed Moby Grape (best of the SF bands, it says here) famously said, "They were breaking the first commandment. They were playing Elmore James badly." So what's worse, playing it badly or not playing it at all? I suppose there can be no hierarchies among the mediocre, but I'd rather take small advantage of an opportunity than miss it entirely, deliberately, like the current crop of young "hardcore" bands whose stiff, lifeless rhyhms and screaming, tune-free vocalists evoke nothing so much as Marine Corps boot-camp. My kids would take me to shows and I'd wonder why I wasn't responding and then realize, "It doesn't swing!"

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