Despite the folk rock I’ve been posting, I’ve had the synth-bug for a couple months now and have been revisiting favorite albums made with analog synths. I spent Friday morning listening to the entirety of Bowie’s Low. I hadn’t saved much of the mostly-instrumental second side to my MP3 player, but I was paying particular attention to those tracks that morning. Each one makes me wonder what would have appeared on the scraped soundtrack to The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Reading the Wikipedia entry for the Eno co-authored “Warszawa“, I was struck by this paragraph:
It was used as a live opener on Bowie’s 1978 and 2002 tours. Rather than quickly delving deeply into loud rock music, the song was used to intentionally provoke the audience into a calm, holding them initially in deep suspense. Bowie’s choice to maintain a low profile during 1978was expressed through his entrance to the stage during this song, not singing, but simply sinking into the band and playing the Chamberlin until his cue to sing the lyrics.
So I looked up a live version, and just happened to find a 1978 Japanese concert film:
While I’m almost exclusively blogging about electric folk these days, I guess I could mention that Sean Murphy recently covered Jethro Tull’s “holy trinity” (Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, Passion Play) over at Pop Matters. I’d meant to link to it a week ago. It was brought to mind again today while I watched an old TV doc on prog rock which never once mentioned Tull. It was a reminder that this is Tull’s legacy: success by many standards (including record sales and tickets) but they never found a place in the usual rock histories.
Indeed, Jethro Tull have always confounded critics, and despite albums sales, hit songs, influence and longevity that make them a virtual no-brainer, it is above all the brain of frontman Ian Anderson that ensures they will remain forever on the outside, looking in. While groups who were wrongly reviled by critics during their heyday (think Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) have received their sanctified and justified reappraisals, it’s not in the cards for Jethro Tull. Even their ostensible moment of glory, a Grammy Award in 1989 for “Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance” was controversial, since they beat out the heavily favored Metallica for the honor. The fact that Tull was never, at any time, a hard rock or metal band only added to the absurdity.
It’s tempting to suggest that, like Yes, Jethro Tull made the mistake of staying alive, if not necessarily relevant, decades after doing their best work. But the fact of the matter is that they never got an especially fair shake, critically, even in their glory years. As everyone knows, progressive rock was maligned in the ‘70s and is often derided and/or dismissed today. Acts like Rush and Genesis, or Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, that now escape the scrutiny or ridicule, have not done so because the so-called mainstream tastemakers have come to their senses. Rather, the sheer weight of their achievements, coupled with accolades from younger bands, made it impossible for the people holding the keys to the kingdom to continue maligning them with any credibility.
You can substitute “folk rock” for “prog rock” in much of Murphy’s article (where it’s not about Yes), and the story remains the same.
The costumes and medieval imagery fell out of favor in the British folk scene at about the same time as rock turned its back on capes and the 20-minute organ solo, but Leige and Leif and Please to See the King are more likely to be acknowledged as influential folk rock albums today than Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses. Both recorded after Ian Anderson produced Steeleye Span’s Now We Are Six. I don’t know if interviews on this point exist, but I wonder if that decision – to enter the folk game long after it’s critical peak – was in any way influenced by frustrations at the inherent limitations of Steeleye’s electrified Child ballads? (Yet it was Johnson and Knight suddenly playing the synthesizers that marked that album’s departure. Mystery, mystery.)
Anyway. The point is Murphy is right in more ways than his article acknowledges.
Years ago, the BBC aired a three-part documentary on British folk music since WWII. I finally watched the first two episodes recently and do recommend it. Here’s a clip on The Watersons and Anne Briggs.
Ewan MacColl being Ewan MacColl, it is tough to criticize the documentary for letting him dominate the first two episodes. His story provides a political focus that is often conspicuously absent from documentaries on American folk music outside of a brief mention of The Weavers’ publicity trouble (also found here for contrast).
Still, with class politics steering the first episode, I was surprised that the second episode didn’t introduce many new political threads. That MacColl and others rejected the influence of the blues should open a conversation on race, but a brief mention of the American Civil Rights movement in connection to Bob Dylan does not cut it. The incorporation of the sitar by groups like The Incredible String Band and Pentangle hints at a larger picture of changing British attitudes toward race, art, and religion – not all of it necessarily glowing either. As with the American Beats and their attitude toward free jazz, the sitar came into vogue without full recognition of its history. Saying The Incredible String Band sought new sounds is only scratching the surface. Saying young guitarists looked to the blues for inspiration misses much of what Elijah Wald cataloged in Escaping the Delta about British audiences’ rejection of black blues guitarists’ electric work.
I’d enjoy seeing a more in-depth take on the folk of the 60s and 70s. There would be no way to do it without leaving someone out, but I’d hope more could be done with post-colonialism, drug-culture, electric instruments, or the anti-war movement.
Regardless, Folk Brittania is smarter than most music documentaries.
Fairport live on French TV. Worth watching simply to see a young Richard Thompson in action (that vibrato!), but also to see how he and Dave Swarbrick step up their game to recover from the recent departure of two key members.
A year ago, an editor at Drowned in Sound posted a sampling of the sort of emails he receives in his inbox in just one a day. I found it informative to see how publicity professionals write and interact with an editor – or how they tellingly fail with impersonal, badly timed, or badly-aimed releases. Even Rod Stewart’s agency gets it wrong by mentioning that he’s available for interviews only in the final sentence.
Jim Bianco posted 69 questions to his website for fans to answer. Then he wrote songs for them about their answers. I like it. It combines two of my interests: musicians using the internet for the sort of thing it’s actually good for and creating songwriting challenges for yourself.
CORNISH: Now on your website, you write that these songs that we hear every day on the radio, while we might relate to them, they’re fundamentally about someone else. But isn’t that kind of the point? Like, somehow it seems like this runs opposite of the singer-songwriter ideal?
BIANCO: Well, what I hopefully succeeded, what I attempted to do with these questionnaires is take the information from someone like yourself and make the song about you, inspired by you but also relatable to someone else. I didn’t want to just sit down and write a song that went: (Singing) My name is John from Ohio, you know, I like Italian food. That would be…
BIANCO: That would be a waste of time for everyone. So I attempted to make it a little broader while still using the details and information that I was given.