Category Archives: Classic Music Reviews

Britpop

 

All the noise surrounding Brexit triggered memories of a much healthier expression of cultural pride than that interminable shitshow.

Brett Anderson of Suede correctly labeled “Britpop” a “horrible term.” I would go even further and call it “offensive,” “misleading” and “demeaning.” The connotation of the word “pop” implies light entertainment for the masses, a consumer-friendly form of music manufactured to provide everyday people with simple songs they can whistle on their way to work. While that connotation is true for most music that has made it to the pop charts over the years, there have been at least two periods in popular musical history where artists chose to lead rather than follow, and raised the quality of popular music to an art form while losing little of their appeal to the common folk in the process. The first arose in the mid-60’s when the Beatles, Kinks, Stones and others followed Bob Dylan’s cue and moved beyond boy-girl tunes to explore human and social conditions; the second was the Britpop era in the mid-1990’s.

One notable difference between the two eras is that the golden age of the mid-60’s was a worldwide phenomenon; Britpop was primarily a British experience. Some Britpop bands enjoyed modest popularity in some of the Commonwealth countries and in parts of the European Union that Ms. May is so desperate to leave, but only Oasis made any significant inroads in the United States. Part of the energy fueling Britpop involved the rejection of the grunge music pouring out of the States at the time, but after being flooded with American music, movies and television shows for a few decades, many people in the UK had become, in the words of Joe Strummer, “so bored with the USA.” Britpop artists not only sang primarily of the British cultural experience, but unlike most of their pop forefathers, they sounded like Brits, refusing to Americanize their singing voices. Ethnocentric, self-absorbed Americans had a hard time relating to the stories and the accents, and albums that made it to the top of the charts in the UK failed miserably when crossing the Atlantic: Parklife never charted; Different Class peaked at #34; and The Great Escape died a regrettable death at #150.

It has been said that Ray Davies is the Godfather of Britpop, and there is plenty of evidence to back that up that claim. The American performance ban on The Kinks coincided nicely with Ray Davies’ blossoming as songwriter and astute observer of human activity. Since there was little point in writing songs that appealed to the American market, he focused on life in the mother country. Face to Face, Something Else, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur are all filled with songs about British life and British people. Ironically, those albums were generally ignored in both the UK and the US, but they provided a blueprint for future artists to integrate melodic rock and roll with lyrics featuring a unique blend of pointed satire and expressions of empathy for the poor souls in the queendom. I can hear The Kinks in all the Britpop bands, but most noticeably in Blur and Pulp. Britpop was not a patriotic celebration of all things British, but often an insightful and sometimes discomfiting look at British cultural dysfunction.

The humor and satire certainly helped endear the Britpop bands to the listening public, but they also produced some of the catchiest damned music of any era. Many of the best songs of the era practically demand you to sing along, a feature best demonstrated in live recordings of Oasis, where the fans threaten to drown out the band as they raise their voices in joyful unison. Beneath those catchy melodies are often surprisingly clever variations on musical norms, and similar to the songs on The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, prove much more challenging to play in the comfort of your home than might first appear. Britpop had a lot more musical and lyrical depth than the term would apply.

Britpop also celebrated youth and vitality, a theme best expressed through the works of Supergrass, Oasis and Suede. The celebration was not the rejection of oppressive conformity you hear in “My Generation,” but just about how damned good it feels to be young, hanging out with the gang, staying “young and invincible” with your testosterone flowing like a river in flood stage. The youthful energy of Britpop is quite palpable, but the reference to the male hormone reminds us that Britpop was largely a male phenomenon.

Unless you count The Spice Girls, and I don’t.

All this youthful energy and budding pride came together to allow the media to invent another term to describe the era: Cool Britannia. I’m 90% sure that people who embraced that term never heard the original song by The Bonzos, which in four brief lines ridiculed the idea that the British cognoscenti could impose coolness on a population. I can easily expose the faux nature of Cool Britannia by quoting a single sentence from the Wikipedia article on the subject: “The election of Tony Blair’s Labour government in 1997, seen by some as young, cool and very appealing, was a main driving force in giving Britain a feeling of euphoria and optimism.”

Oh, well. He looked pretty cute in his well-tailored suits. Who could have predicted he would be dumb enough to allow George W. Bush (not exactly the brightest bulb himself) to talk him into helping the Americans launch a crusade?

Conclusion: Cool Britannia was horseshit, but despite its horseshit name, Britpop was the real deal. Over the next few months, I’ll be exploring the music of the era through the following albums (please note that I’ve already reviewed all of Oasis’ studio albums):

  • Suede: Suede March 1993
  • Blur: Parklife, April 1994
  • Supergrass: I Should Coco, May 1995
  • Blur: The Great Escape, September 1995
  • Pulp: Different Class, October 1995
  • Supergrass: In It for the Money, April 1997
  • Pulp: This Is Hardcore, March 1998
  • Oasis: Familiar to Millions, November 2000

I reserve the right to throw in a few albums from the 60’s and 70’s during the series to keep my Baby Boomer readers happy.

The Who – The Who Sings My Generation – Classic Music Review

Over the seven years of this blog’s existence, I’ve noticed one telltale feature in the music criticism dished out by the big names in the field.

It is loaded with testosterone.

One data point in support of that theory is the curious truth that the vast majority of music critics are men, employed by competitive, for-profit enterprises. That combination by itself would lend street-level credibility to the theory that there’s a lot of virtual dick-waving going on in the field of music criticism, but it’s only a tantalizing clue that would never meet the standards of proof required by any credible legal system on earth.

Due to my insatiable sexual appetite and the desire to become the best fuck in bisexual history, I keep up on the scientific literature having to do with sexuality, including the impact of both estrogen or testosterone on the sex drive. When it comes to testosterone, there are several common beliefs that qualify as complete bullshit, particularly the notion that too much testosterone automatically results in toxic masculinity or chest-thumping syndrome. A relatively recent scientific study published by PNAS provides ample evidence that the manifestation of testosterone has less to do with uncontrolled aggression and more to do with seeking status in the pack: “These findings are inconsistent with a simple relationship between testosterone and aggression and provide causal evidence for a more complex role for testosterone in driving status-enhancing behaviors in males.”

There’s plenty of evidence of status-seeking behaviors in the work of male music critics: exaggerated language designed to anger or delight the reader, depending on the reader’s opinion of the music; the arrogant dismissal of contrary opinions; and, above all, the overuse of superlatives and absolutes. The critical response to The Who Sings My Generation is typical:

  • “The hardest rock in history” (Christgau)
  • “The most ferociously powerful guitars and drums yet captured on a rock record” (Unterberger)
  • “The Who Sings My Generation became the blueprint for much of the subsequent garage rock, heavy metal, and punk.” (Kemp)

Mr. Christgau, How do you measure “hardest?” If you have access to an ultrasound machine, you can measure the hardness of a dick, but what’s the objective measurement of “hardest” in music? And where’s your evidence to support the claim of “the hardest rock in history?” Did you test all the rock records in history for hardness?  On what scale? And Richie, where’s your measurement model concerning “ferocious power?” And Mr. Kemp, can you cite any evidence at all that shows that garage rock, heavy metal and punk bands first listened to The Who Sings My Generation before stepping on stage or into the studio? If not, why use the term “blueprint?” One would have to assume that the critics in question had instant recall of all the relevant rock albums when they generated this bullshit, a highly questionable premise indeed.

Fact: The Who Sings My Generation establishes the blueprint for 69% of The Who’s subsequent work. You’ll hear Keith Moon’s manic drumming, power rock enhanced by melody and harmony, Townshend’s aggressive guitar style, John Entwistle’s championship-level bass and evidence of Roger Daltrey’s immense potential. What’s missing from the album is Pete Townshend’s misguided yearning to create grand statements through full-length and mini-operas, making The Who Sings My Generation one of their least pretentious works. As debut albums go, it’s certainly top-tier, but like all debut albums, there are songs that work and songs that are pure album filler. The lyrics range from decent to pretty darned awful (Townshend gets songwriting credit but tried to pin the lyrical shortcomings on manager Kit Lambert). You can hardly hear John Entwistle at times, particularly on the original mono recordings (except for the title track), and The Who ain’t exactly The Who without a healthy dose of Entwistle.

Consider this: The Who Sings My Generation “was later dismissed by the band as something of a rush job that did not accurately represent their stage performance of the time” (Wikipedia). Couple that with another annoying piece of data that the album was out of print in the U. K. for twenty-two years. Townshend and Daltrey didn’t embrace the album until a series of remixes appeared beginning in 2002 after they started fretting about whether or not they’d saved enough money for retirement. So, let’s cut the testosterone-driven hyperbole, ignore the boring male bluster about greatest, best and biggest, and explore what The Who Sings My Generation is all about.

If you’re looking for proof that this is one of the greatest début albums of all time, you’ll be sadly relieved of that delusion after listening to the first three tracks. All three could have fit nicely into the go-go scenes from any Austin Powers movie, which is as backhanded a compliment you’ll ever see. “Out in the Street” is a pepped-up traditional blues number delivered in a hip mod tempo with decent girl group harmonies and avant-garde guitar from Townshend (they’ll appropriate the shimmery strummed intro for the later release “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”). Roger Daltrey sounds completely out of his league on the James Brown tune “I Don’t Mind,” and its only a warmup for a greater sacrilege later in our program. “The Good’s Gone” opens with the so-1960’s jangle of a Rickenbacker and moseys along at an unexciting pace with a poorly double-tracked vocal from Daltrey dripping with forced attitude. The go-go-dancers of the period would have danced mindlessly to all these songs (after all, they were paid to do that), so I suppose they have period value . . . but opening an album with three of your weakest offerings isn’t the best way to build the fan base. The first two songs do remind us that The Who had a solid grounding in blues and R&B, an essential education for any serious rockers. That foundation enabled The Who to become one of the great power rock bands, ensuring that their music was rooted in the erotic component of R&B and blues.

But what placed The Who in the upper echelons of rock music is that they weren’t a one-trick pony. They were one of the few bands to really master two forms of rock: power rock and melodic rock. Later they would meld the two in dramatic fashion in songs like “Behind Blue Eyes,” but at this stage, they were just beginning to explore and expand their melodic skills. The first song demonstrating this talent is the simple but catchy tune, “La-La-La Lies.” The song itself is pretty straightforward pop song that The Who take to another level through Keith Moon’s choice to emphasize the toms in a shuffle pattern that sounds like slowed-down skiffle with a Motown kick. While Moon is holding up his end of the bargain, Townshend and Entwistle combine for some luscious choral harmonies in the chorus and finale, and Daltrey sounds perfectly comfortable in the role of earnest, frustrated lover.

“Much Too Much” is a song that isn’t sure which direction it wants to take, in large part due to Daltrey applying too much tough-guy attitude over a background of sweet harmonies. I tend to tune him out and focus on the rhythm section, where Keith Moon holds things together with restrained (for him) tom and cymbal work. Though later in the timeline he would sometimes become a parody of himself and eschew structural support for bursts of madness, on My Generation you can appreciate his remarkable talent and stunning range of attack.

The title track comes next, and when I originally reviewed “My Generation” on Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy, most of my commentary had to do with the utter stupidity of famous line, “Hope I die before I get old.” Well, I still think it’s a fucking stupid sentiment on multiple levels, but let’s put that aside and focus on the music. Roger Daltrey’s stuttering vocal is one of the most compelling vocals I’ve ever heard, capturing the uncertain rebel rejecting adult rules and regulations while having no solutions to the conflict other than a childish wish that the old farts would just fade away—James Dean’s angst set to rock music. And then there’s Entwistle’s bass emerging from the limitations of mid-60’s recording technology, earning himself the big solo after flattening us with some incredibly nimble bass runs. And though you may not pay much notice to it with Daltrey and Entwistle garnering most of the attention and Keith Moon letting loose, Pete Townshend should win the best supporting actor award for serving as the rough glue that holds it all together through his no-bullshit rhythm guitar attack.

That first power rock masterpiece is followed by their first melodic rock masterpiece, “The Kids Are Alright.” I reviewed this previously as well, and I am absolutely sticking to my original perspective: “Another melodic rock classic, this story of mild teenage angst is sheer delight. Validating The Count Basie Effect that tells us that the simplest choices are often the best, the opening chord—a pretty run-of-the-mill D5—was voted the second most distinctive opening chord after (duh) “A Hard Day’s Night” on Rock Town Hall. The melody moves beautifully and gracefully through the scale, and the harmonies sound so good they almost put me into a waking dream state of pure ecstasy. Keith Moon’s relentless attack gives the arrangement rock song credibility by tempering the sweetness, and Townsend’s supporting guitar gets right to the edge of lead guitar orgasm without crossing the line into explosion, leaving that pleasure for the listeners. And where did this diamond land on the US Charts? #106. Shee-it.”

Right when things are beginning to move along swimmingly, The Who completely, utterly and unreservedly blow it by giving us another cover of James Brown—and not just any cover, but the ultimate James Brown melodramatic masterpiece, “Please, Please, Please.” Daltrey is so far out of his league here, it’s embarrassing—kind of like pitting the Boston Red Sox against the local Pee Wee League team. In every film I’ve seen of the Godfather of Soul performing “Please, Please, Please,” the audience is in a state of rapture, uncontrollably screaming in orgasmic delight. The only screaming I can imagine coming from the audience in response to The Who’s version is “We want our fucking money back!” Without a doubt, this is one of the worst examples of white guys trying to go black and failing miserably.

In protest of this appalling act of musical debasement, I give you the real “Please, Please, Please.”

The Who return to sanity with “It’s Not True,” a bouncy little number with provocative lyrics desperately in need of a punch line. The first two verses give us a series of outrageous accusations made against the narrator, giving us the impression that valuable insight lies ahead:

You say I’ve been in prison
You say I’ve got a wife
You say I’ve had help doing
Everything throughout my life

I haven’t got eleven kids
I weren’t born in Baghdad
I’m not half-Chinese either
And I didn’t kill my dad

Nice set-up, but the deflating conclusion is that narrator denies all the rumors and reminds us that spreading gossip isn’t a very nice thing to do. Thanks for the tip and thanks for nuthin’!

Skipping lyrical challenges entirely, “The Ox” is a hyper-speed romp where Townshend, Moon and Nicky Hopkins take a simple blues progression and deliver an exciting performance with faintly ominous overtones. I can understand why The Who rarely played this tune live (it’s just your standard three-chord progression) but the sounds they created in this piece served as a scratch pad for musical ideas that will manifest themselves in later works. The stop-time segment where Nicky Hopkins’ piano takes over presages the more dramatic passages in “Baby O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Townshend’s mastery of the lower strings is on full display here, and he will go on to use that talent to strengthen the bottom of Who classics like “I Can See for Miles” and “Summertime Blues.”

That blast of energy is followed by the only Townshend lead vocal on the album, “A Legal Matter,” a song I covered in the MBB&B review. In short: melodically similar to The Stones’ “The Last Time,” ludicrously sexist, but I find no flaws in Townshend’s vocal and guitar work. And speaking of legal matters, the closing track “Instant Party (Circles)” wound up in High Court, the center of a copyright dispute between producer Shel Talmy and the band. As it’s not much of a song in the first place, I think this is a classic example of misguided male aggressiveness, where men fight about trivial things like who’s the best quarterback in history or which team’s cheerleaders have the biggest tits. Who gives a fuck? Who’s the judge? Those cheerleaders are never going to fuck you, so what’s the point?

All which brings us neatly back to where we started. I think part of the reason many (not all) male critics engage in hyperbole is because men are generally uncomfortable of expressing emotions other than anger and the thrill of victory. Instead of telling us how the music made them feel (which is what music does—makes us feel) they have to filter those emotions through the testosterone factory in their nuts to retain membership in the pack.

I’ll tell you how I feel about The Who Sings My Generation: I was excited to pick up so many clues of their future direction in the music, absolutely enthralled by their unique sound, deeply impressed by the potential on display, thrilled by their melodic and harmonic flights, wet and sassy when they kicked ass, and I’m still fucking pissed off about “Please, Please, Please.”

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

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