If you even remember what the “There and Back Again” section on this blog is supposed to be about, I have to admit that I’m cheating with this one. The loose conception of “There and Back Again” was a feature on this blog where I choose a classic album that I’ve never listened to before, listen to it a few times, and then write down reflections about the experience. There were a few reasons behind this- first, to remind people that just because you haven’t heard of one band or another doesn’t mean that you don’t get to talk about and enjoy indie music. Sometimes all of this stuff gets way too snobby. There’s a lot of bands I’m not familiar with, but I still consider myself to be a knowledgable music fan- so what if I never went through an obsessive Led Zeppelin phase? I want my readers to feel this way, as well. It’s also a good opportunity for other readers to remember a favorite classic of their own, revisit a forgotten album, or make fun of me for being lame (I realize I just contradicted myself, but hey, that’s how the world works).
The last “There and Back Again” I wrote was over a year ago, last May. The reason I stopped writing them was Lester Bangs. I chose The Troggs classic album, Wild Thing, as my next never-before-been-heard victim. The reason was Lester Bangs’ incredible essay on the band, titled “James Taylor Marked For Death.” As I listened to the album and reread the essay in preparation, I got a writer’s panic attack. How could I ever, in my wildest dreams, write something as good as this: “This was a no-jive, take-care-of-business band (few of the spawn in its wake have been so starkly pure) churning out rock ‘n’ roll that thundered right back to the very first grungy chords and straight ahead to the fuzztone subways of the future.” Oh Lester. Maybe rock journalism really should have stopped with you.
I got intimidated over writing about it, but Wild Thing has crept its way into my listening habits. I put it on every so often, and am now quite familiar with its “no-jive, take-care-of-business” sounds. That’s why I’m cheating a bit. I can no longer claim that I’ve never listened to this album before. Today, though, seemed like a particularly good day to revive my arguments from the article that I never had the balls to write (Lester, you have such an effect on me, if only you knew).
Today sees the launch of a brand new, extremely confusing effort from Pitchfork called Altered Zones. It’s not really a blog, and it’s not really an online music magazine, as I would classify Pitchfork. Instead, it’s a group of 14 Pitchfork-approved bloggers, most of whom I deeply respect, whose goal is to cover music that’s further under the radar than Pitchfork can manage to cover. Pitchfork writes, “In the last several years, there’s been an explosion of small-scale DIY music. Today, Pitchfork launches Altered Zones, a team of 14 music blogs dedicated to exploring these merging musical worlds, traversing genres from psych and drone to electronic and underground pop. The site’s mission is to highlight the most notable and adventurous new artists, and to serve as a focal point for the flood of creativity coming from deep within the music underground.” To me, this reads: “There’s so much music happening right now that’s at least sort of good, but some of it’s too weird or there’s simply too much to cover on Pitchfork. We can’t compete with smaller, cooler sites like Gorilla vs. Bear, so this is our way to stay relevant and perhaps generate more revenue, making sure that we can claim we are still the FIRST and the COOLEST name in the ever-expanding world of indie rock.” We’ll come back to all this in just a moment.
For now, back to the past. Let’s rewind through our fuzztone subways back to Lester and the Troggs. My initial reaction to the album is about as fuzzy to me now as the fidelity of the recording. I do remember realizing that Wild Thing was a key to my understanding of popular rock music, an “A-ha” moment, a realization of exactly what was going on long before punk exploded in 1974. It’s primal and simple and brilliant, suggestive and crude without being filthy, and stands the fifty plus years that have passed since its creation. In many ways, tt’s good because of its “firstness.”
I feel jealous when Lester writes about “Wild Thing.” He wrote the article in 1971; the Troggs covered the song five years earlier in 1966. That’s sort of like us talking about Apologies To The Queen Mary or Illinoise or Separation Sunday. Lester loves The Troggs. He apparently had routine wet dreams about the band. He likes them because they’re so unpretentious, they really meant it. They just want to find some girl to sleep with, and they set it to music to match. It’s not intellectualized, self-reflexive, nothing like that at all. It’s just an expression of good old penis and vagina, or something much cruder and more creative, if I were Lester Bangs.
In the piece, he goes on to complain that nothing as good or as pure as the Troggs was happening anymore. He questions the fact that kids went inside and watched television at the beginning of the summer, instead of running wild outside finding each other “till at least some of the scholastic poison accumulating like belladonna ever since September is plain crazied out of your soul.” He claims if that’s the case, he’s an old fart and the pure, sexual message of “Wild Thing” was lost (he was 23 in 1971, the same age as me right now).
By our current sexual standards (it’s only a matter of time before pop music videos turn into straight-up porn), The Troggs probably seem pretty tame. But that’s not what’s important about Lester’s argument today. In 1971, rock and roll was only a decade or two old. In 1966, just a few years old. It’s at least sixty now. The fact that Lester was even able to question that nothing as good as The Troggs was going on in music only five years after is a staggering fact to think about. Because the entire scope of the history of the genre was so much shorter, he was able to make these really bold statements about rock and roll. Critics (bloggers) today have to look at a much greater intellectual scope than Lester ever had to be held responsible for. Can you imagine someone saying “There’s nothing really as good as Separation Sunday happening these days. I think rock and roll is over.” That’s just…that’s a ridiculous statement.
And now is where we come back to Altered Zones. Lester Bangs was able to write so forcefully, so wonderfully, so absolutely and earnestly about The Troggs because there just weren’t as many bands. There wasn’t nearly as much history, nor were there as many bands simultaneously existing at once because of recording and sharing technology. The salty sweet Troggs were able to be more singularly influential than I can imagine any one band being today (and don’t you dare start Animal Collectiving at me, mister). It seems like Altered Zones is the ultimate recognition of this fact. To me, Pitchfork has become the gatekeeper for rock/pop music today. Sure, it’s a little snobby, but it covers a lot of mainstream acts (and has made previous unknowns into mainstream ones) and nearly everyone I know checks it at least occasionally. You’re supposed to hate it because of its hegemonic hold on the music industry, but you should also respect it because a lot of the times it’s right. So why do they need an entirely new website to cover all the bands that aren’t quite big enough yet? Shouldn’t they just cover what’s good and leave it at that?
But it’s true, music has fractured into so many pieces, so many good but not absolutely great bands, that Pitchfork can’t maintain its cool status by covering everything it needs to. I see the logic in starting Altered Zones, but it’s also scary. This signals that we really are sacrificing quality for quantity, to be able to say that we were the first to discover a good band, rather than to smartly declare one band ultimately great (what up, Chris Weingarten). This leads me to a common phrase that rolls around my head: WWLT? What would Lester Think?
Sometimes I think Lester would love so much of the music that’s around now. He’d love bands like JEFF the Brotherhood, Double Dagger, Turbo Fruits. If he truly liked what he said he liked about The Troggs, then he’d be sitting pretty today, digging every garage-sounding band putting their record out on their own little DIY label. He’d be like some proud granddaddy of the kids, the never aging music critic god, smiling down at all of the young bands looking proud. That, or he’d be totally disgusted at our unoriginality. The repetition of the form would bore him to death, even if the earnest nature of the bands delighted him. So, Altered Zones, I don’t know. Based on their first taste of musical selections, I like nearly all of their suggestions. Still, those are bands I mostly like, not love. I think we’ll all need to monitor how Altered Zones’ relationships with Pitchfork and monetary gains grow in the future. Ultimately, I hope that they remember to absolutely keep it about quality and not discovery, though I am disappointed that Pitchfork couldn’t have merely done that in the first place.
I think Lester would be disappointed that those 14 bloggers (and myself) don’t just find a few tracks to listen to and go roam the streets of their respective cities looking for a good time. In the meantime, I’m going to keep listening to Wild Thing. This stuff is good. I suspect that even if this record came out today, Lester would still be right about them. They’d rise to the top, and Lester would still write, “Their music was strong, deep as La Brea without sucking you straight down into the currentless bass depths like many of their successors, and so insanely alive and fiercely aggressive that it could easily begin to resemble a form of total assault which was when the lily-livered lovers or pretty-pompadoured, la-di-da luddy-duddy Beat groups would turn tail just like the tourists before them and make for that Ferry Cross the Mersey.” Take that, present day rock criticsm.