I'm aware that I've been a little lax of late, with "May on my iPod" falling by the wayside. In my defense, it was the debut gig of my duo Shadow/Play this month, and my life became absorbed by rehearsals and general stress-related inertia. Coupled with a busy work schedule (oh to be a starving but subsidised artist!), and my first forays into published music criticism, and it was inevitable that Rusted Shadows would get somewhat neglected. I did still get round to giving an overdue glowing review of Gene Clark's No Other, so it ain't all bad!
But I return, and to make up for my largesse, I've decided it's "feature" time again. And this month, I intend to focus on three fundamental albums that have come to define what it means (or should mean) to be "underground" or "independent" in rock music. Three albums that defined these very terms. On top of that, I will dedicate some space to other records that also played a huge part in bringing the underground into rock folklore.
These days, with "indy" apparently meaning more that a band sports skinny jeans, Converse and floppy hair, as opposed to any statement on said band's financial status or musical style, it's easy to forget that there once was a time when bands would scrape out an existence well out of the spotlight. These days, in truth, "indy" should mean the multitude of acts that don't make into the pages of the NME and either remain internet phenomena or aren't signed to anything more than a Type-like micro-label. The Libertines, Blur, The Kooks, Kings of Leon, The Killers? Not independent, no matter what the aforementioned toilet paper rag may claim. But between 1967 and 1970, it appears certain visionary bands were able to make real waves whilst flying very much under the mainstream radar. The internet has allowed a similar train to gain some momentum of late, but compared to those halcyon days, it's very much hit-and-miss, with most promising oddballs eventually getting swallowed up by the corporate monsters.
And yet... Maybe it stands too far apart and ahead of all competition, being almost impossible to categorise in its scope and vision. It also feels intrinsically linked to Warhol's vision, and his desire to respond to what was coming out of California at the time. Not so much a garage-rock (loft-rock, maybe?) album but a dirty, sophisticated, New York version of Monterey Pop psychedelia (its closest cousin maybe the deceptively sunny psych masterpiece by Los Angeles quintet Love, Forever Changes, released the same year). The Velvets would take their vision into even more noncommercial and extreme directions, meaning The Velvet Underground & Nico is more an amuse-bouche of the underground rock genre (after all, it was intended to be a big deal, and only shit promotion from MGM, coupled with Warhol's increasing disinterest, that caused it to sink), even though it set the scene.
Sitting awkwardly alongside such a magnum opus were the much less ambitious trio of The Seeds, The Deviants and The 13th Floor Elevators.
These three uneven, often musically basic records would have a lasting influence on punk and grunge, but ultimately seem like glorious (and gloriously weird) failures, hamstrung by drug excess and a lack of proper musical talent. But then again, that is part and parcel of what defines garage-rock, and by extension the sixties/seventies underground in its entirety: the low budgets make getting something truly transcendent that much harder to attain, with attitude being far more important than chops and virtuosity.
Volume and darkness seemed to be the going trend in the rock underground by this point. The idealism of the Airplane and the Dead, and the commercial triteness of Pink Floyd and the Beatles had become stifling, especially in the wake of Manson and Altamont, and those bands on the periphery of the "scene" were duly responding with bile and fury. Even some of the mainstream was going that way, with the Sabbath acting as a grim shadow to Led Zep and Deep Purple's more fey strands of metal, whilst sinister and sophisticated King Crimson emerged as the most exciting band of the nascent progressive rock scene. And let's not forget the dark turn the Rolling Stones' music took in the wake of Brian Jones' untimely passing. Hippiedom was in its death throes, commercialism was rearing its ugly head, but the underground was somehow making itself heard, and its vibe was permeating everything.
So what of my triptych? For whilst all of the above are excellent, ground-breaking albums, three masterpieces for me sum up what it means to be a proper, unfettered underground (or independent, or garage - you choose) band.
Of course, I could not let The Velvet Underground slip by with such a complimentary but only cursory mention of their first, superlative, album. For, as I have said in the past, The VU are the greatest, most important rock band that ever walked this timid earth, the only band to truly capture, in all its depraved glory, what it means to fucking rock, not just with a guitar but as a way of life. If their debut established that a rock band could also be smart and artistic, then once they had dispensed with the beautiful but intrusive presence of Nico (who would go on to create wonderful albums on her own, I must say, before Nico fans get on my back; I just think the best Velvets moments mostly happened after the German chanteuse had left), they truly flew, albeit in the face of what it meant to be a popular pop-rock band.
His meeting with L.A. garage rock quintet The Rockets was a moment of rock serendipity that has rarely been equaled. The rhythm section of The Rockets was made up of Danny Whitten on rhythm guitar, Billy Talbot on bass, and Ralph Molina on drums, and they combined unbelievable funkiness with unbelievable levels of incompetence, in a way that only Neil Young could love, and led to one of the greatest albums of the Canadian's career: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969). The magic of Crazy Horse was that they allowed Young, a disturbed, fragile and angry folk-rocker, a platform in which to make his sound loud, without putting the kind of pressure on him that the Springfield did. Talbot and Molina were minimalist, but built rock-solid bases for two of Young's most elegiac pieces: "Down By the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand". On these lengthy masterpieces, the drums and bass become a blank canvas for his guitar and voice. And what a guitar! What a voice! At one time, Young's voice was considered so dismal that he wasn't allowed to sing on his own tracks for the Springfield. Yet his sensitive, fragile warble elevates "Down By The River" or "Running Dry" to elegiac heights, the vulnerability adding to the doom-like vibe of the tracks, as if they were sung by a kid stuck in a closet whilst untold demons roam the corridors outside. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere brought soul into garage rock, adding an emotional depth that transcends the raw power and sturm und drang that characterises most of the above-mentioned music. Neil Young, especially with Crazy Horse, will break your heart. As for the guitar, well I have heard enough guitar solos to elevate a million souls to heaven, but no-one can beat Neil Young in his pomp, and he has rarely bettered "Cowgirl in the Sand", as delivered to an unsuspecting world in 1969 on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Fuck Clapton, Page and Gilmour - no-one beats Neil Young when Crazy Horse let him fly.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere brought the hippy Topanga Canyon vibe into somewhere darker, more abstract, jazzier and grungier. Indeed, the look Young sports on the album cover would become the style of Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder and other grunge icons nearly 30 years later. Less than a year after this album, Young would embark on a lucrative, but frustrating, path, as he joined the ego-fest of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, exposing his wondrously underground sounds to a wide -and appreciative- audience, and perhaps already showing how the "indy" rock world could be easily and tackily absorbed into the mainstream. Luckily, Young would be too slippery to obey market concerns, as his controversial mid-seventies output would emphatically prove.
Much of The Stooges appeal will always be down to front-man James Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, who, for all his bonkers stage antics (self-harming, nudity, swearing at the audience...) was very much the thinking man of the band, the lyricist, jazz-lover and friend of Bowie and Reed. But never underestimate Scott Asheton's ability to hold a beat like a heavy metal metronome, whilst Ron's scything, ever-soloing guitar (he had that remarkable talent of being both lead guitarist and rhythm) is like a coiled snake, scooting around Pop's voice as he moans, roars, sneers and yelps. The Stooges defined a rock dynamic that moved away from the twin-guitar-with-vocals approach of the sixties bands, and back to pioneers like James Brown and Little Richard, where the voice and guitar don't so much duet as duel. On "Dirt", the pinnacle of Fun House, The Stooges lay aside their high-octane, full-throttle attack in favour of a dirty blues groove, whilst Ron Asheton's guitar, with its peppering, never-ending solo, comes across like John Coltrane's sax. Yes, it's that gorgeous. Iggy's lyrics of self-harming and self-loathing are just the icing on the cake. "Dirt" proves that The Stooges could be subtle and smart, whilst the rest of Fun House saw them flexing muscles and battering the senses in all their garage-punk-metal glory. The Stooges were well ahead of their time, a true punk outfit, but with the personality of a post-punk band. They managed to predict both The Sex Pistols and PiL. Need I say more?
If anything, my (un)holy triptych perfectly demonstrate just how intangible "garage", "indy" or "underground" rock can be. Lou Reed, Neil Young and Iggy Pop are all now mega stars, who have eased, perhaps reluctantly, into elder statesman territory. Such is life. The Stooges, Crazy Horse and The Velvets are now often the first bands on the lips of the latest band to be signed to Universal or Sony. The underground is now so vast as to be incomprehensible, whilst our old idols only make sense in reverse. Again, such is life. Or at least music. And with the endless horizons come new artifacts from decades long past: true underground and lost gems, such as Alexander Spence's Oar or Tangerine Dream's incredible debut, Electronic Meditation. Both came out in the period I've been describing in this feature, and in so many ways they go beyond even the heady heights of my triptych. But the trio I have ultimately chosen bridge the gap between noncommercial music and the mainstream, tearing angrily at the fabric of popular trends to take things, whether they knew it or not, to new levels. It would happen again with PiL, Joy Division, The Cure and Television, amongst others. The underground won't leave the mainstream alone, and for that we should be eternally grateful, even if it makes no sense.
My '66-'70 Garage Playlist:
1. The Seeds: "No Escape" (from The Seeds)
2. The Seeds: "Up In Her Room" (from A Web of Sound)
3. 13th Floor Elevators: "You're Gonna Miss Me" (from The Psychedelic Sounds Of...)
4. 13th Floor Elevators: "Roller Coaster" (from The Psychedelic Sounds Of...)
5. The Electric Prunes: "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night) (from Nuggets)
6. The Velvet Underground: "Venus In Furs" (from The Velvet Underground & Nico)
7. The Velvet Underground: "Heroin" (from The Velvet Underground & Nico)
8. The Deviants: "I'm Coming Home" (from Ptoof!)
9. Blue Cheer: "Doctor Please" (from Vincebus Eruptum)
10. Blue Cheer: "Parchment Farm" (from Vincebus Eruptum)
11. The Edgar Broughton Band: "Death of an Electric Citizen" (from Wasa Wasa)
12. MC5: "Kick Out The Jams" (from Kick Out The Jams)
13. MC5: "I Want You Right Now" (from Kick Out The Jams)
14. Flamin' Groovies: "Heading For The Texas Border" (from Flamingo)
15. The Velvet Underground: "The Gift" (from White Light/White Heat)
16. The Velvet Underground: "I Heard Her Call My Name" (from White Light/White Heat)
17. The Velvet Underground: "Sister Ray" (from White Light/White Heat)
18. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: "Cinnamon Girl" (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
19. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: "Down By The River" (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
20. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: "Cowgirl In the Sand" (from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere)
21. The Stooges: "Dirt" (from Fun House)
22. The Stooges: "1970" (from Fun House)
23. The Stooges: "Fun House" (from Fun House)
24. Tangerine Dream: "Journey Through A Burning Brain" (from Electronic Meditation)
25. Alexander Spence: "Grey/Afro" (from Oar)
- J.Phimister, June 2011