JOE CARDUCCI, Rock and the Pop Narcotic: Testament for the Electric Church.
Artforum, February 1996
by Simon Reynolds
When Rock and the Pop Narcotic was first published in 1990, it incited a fair bit of controversy, startling many by the sheer aggression with which Joe Carducci lambasted America's rock-critical establishment and lashed its sacred cows. The book's vitriolic tone stemmed from the persecution complex the author acquired at the helm of SST, the hardcore punk record label founded by Black Flag that made bands like the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Husker Du, and Sonic Youth underground legends but failed to win them commercial success. Completed well before Seattle grunge took the punk-metal esthetic into the mainstream, Rock and the Pop Narcotic was an attempt to write '80s underground rock into history. Now Carducci has published a revised edition of his magnum (and I mean whopping) opus, and, post-Nirvana, it has a different tone - a tweak toward told-you-so triumphalism. But the book remains vastly contentious.
Carducci's beef is that rock critics have foisted their postcounterculture, left/liberal agenda onto their subject matter. Blinkered by ideological projections, and lacking a rigorous formalist definition of rock as music, they're unable to distinguish between rock and pop (a pejorative in Carducci's universe); they appraise music as though its essence resided in songs, storytelling, and emotional and social resonance. Carducci relocates music's meaning in sound, specifically the real-time interaction between "the players of a guitar, a bass and a drum kit." For Carducci, rock's sparks fly only via the combustion engine that is a band. Temporary configurations (the singer/songwriter plus backing musicians, or the producer plus session hirelings or machines) are tainted because pop's producer-led esthetic can have no access to the rock epiphany: "multidimensional simultaneity," a.k.a. "the jam," that "superheated nexus in performance where each musician, while playing his part in the material, hears and feels and anticipates the greater whole as it is being reincarnated."
But why are the people, as well as the players, moved? Carducci discounts as peripheral almost everything on which rock crits expend 95 percent of their wordage, i.e., "rebellion," "attitude," the singer's charisma and/or neurosis, etc. For Carducci, both the "politics" and the "spirituality" of rock happen through the music's kinesthetics. It's the frictional interaction of riff and rhythm, tension and release, that signifies. This is spelled out in "The Lowdown on Heavy," a section celebrating the lineage that runs from Muddy Waters through Blacks Sabbath and Flag to today's grunge-metal units like Soundgarden and Kyuss. Carducci analyzes the musical devices these musicians deploy to create abstract yet visceral sonic allegories of struggle and perseverance in the face of a "negative or trying context." Heavy rockers, he argues, "produce powerfully articulated and textured tonal sensations of impact and motion, triggering hefty (nondance) motor impulses in the listener."
Carducci is equally as good at defining what's not rock. It's not the "light rousing high" of pop metal (he's mordant on Van Halen's "meringue" of "liquid, insensate fret math"). It's not Velvet Underground and family, either, because VU had nothing going on in the rhythm section. Insisting that rock is "not identifiable . . . by sound (say, fuzzed-out guitars), volume or speed," Carducci also eliminates most thrash metal and virtually all British guitar-based music since the Jesus & Mary Chain, whose classicist rock 'n' roll imagery and feedback sheathed the most rudimentary, metronomic drumming. Generally, Carducci is quite the Anglophobe: his introduction lets loose the stinging aphorism, "Rock is dead in America about as often as it lives in England." After heavyweights like Sabbath and Zep, he claims, Brit rock lost touch with the blues source; Limey bands reverted to their innate state of rhythmic ignorance, resulting in postpunk guitar outfits that sounded more like "electric busking" than rock, and in synth-pop units with drum machines. Programmed rhythms are a definite no-no for Carducci; the barely perceptible inconsistencies and the deliberate inflections supplied by a hands-on drummer instill a tension that engages the listener's survival mechanism, whereas the repetitive beats of rap or rave let the listener trance out. Underlying this disco-sucks/rap-bites attitude lurks, I suspect, a white-U.S.-male fear of loss of self through dance. This in turn seems connected with the homophobic remarks that litter Carducci's text: abuse of England's "pink stampede" of Bowie-damaged synth-pop gender-benders is one of his milder outbursts.
Carducci's real bugbear, though, is America's bleeding-heart rock-crit establishment. In "Narcorockcritocracy!," a rambling 100-page-plus rant, he blasts the crits' cherished illusions about rock's innate political sympathies. Carducci's own allegiance is unclear, though his jibes at "Big Mother" (the welfare state) suggest his politics lie somewhere between libertarian right and punk anarchist. Yet he is a strikingly class-conscious theorist, and the social stratum with which he aligns himself is the one he deems most productive rock-wise - i.e., working-class/lower-middle-class males. Rock and the Pop Narcotic contains a caustic vein of antibohemian contempt for arty eggheads, middle-class ideologues, and other "mind groupies" who siphon off rock ideas and put them in the service of "assorted perceived solidarities: generational, cultural, political, social, class." Insofar as they appraise bands according to nonformalist criteria, these people are enemies of rock.
Carducci's sexual politics are more explicit, appearing to lie somewhere on a continuum embracing Sam Peckinpah, Robert Bly, and Henry Rollins: the same belief in rugged frontier masculinity, the same fervent work ethic. Compare Sam's and Hank's fear that if they stop working they'll dissipate with Carducci's attack on early-'80s Brit-pop's "anti-American, anti-macho, anti-work aesthete[s]," for whom "the very strength of the rock esthetic had become something to debase." Read between the lines and Carducci comes close to diagnosing rock as the prime symptom of a late-20th-century crisis of American masculinity: music as the agonistics of young men looking for somewhere to direct their surplus energy, now that it's not needed for manual labor or warfare.
Carducci's achievement is as impressive as it is unlikely: he has managed to write a thoroughly plausible explication of rock's power from an illiberal, populist perspective. Reading, you often recoil, but you have to work damn hard to outthink the rigor and surgical finesse with which his points are argued.
JOE CARDUCCI, interview
The Wire, 1996
by Simon Reynolds
Originally published in 1991, now re-issued in a dramatically expanded
'remix', Rock and the Pop Narcotic is arguably the most penetrating book about rock music ever written. That's because Joe Carducci's subject is rock MUSIC, as opposed to the hot-air haze of myth, pseudo-sociology and biographical gossip
that most rock books purvey.
What enabled Carducci to cut through the crap and get to the meat of the
matter is his double status as both outsider (conservative with a small 'c', he
goes against the grain of rock's left-leaning sympathies) and insider (he was one
of the gang-of-four who ran legendary hardcore label SST). Initially invited to
manage the label while its founders Black Flag were on the road, Carducci's
involvement lasted half-a-decade, before he departed in 1986 to return to his
original vocation--script-writing for the movies. But in another career swerve,
he decided to write a book about rock, impelled by the "persecution complex" he'd
acquired at SST--the feeling that the US critical establishment had wilfully
ignored the most significant rock of the '70s and '80s. Amongst many other
things, Rock and the Pop Narcotic traces and canonises the lineage that
Carducci believes is the true path: Sabbath/Ramones/Motorhead/Black Flag/Husker
Du/Nirvana. Grunge--the fusion of punk and metal into an all-American hard
rock--happened after he finished the book; in the revamp, it provides the
punchline, the absolute vindication of Carducci's creed.
"When I wrote the book", Carducci says, on the phone from his home in
Wisconsin, "quite a few underground bands had signed to majors, but nobody had
sold any records. If it had stayed at that level, if Nirvana had never happened,
the people who write the history of rock--and in America, that's a coterie of
critics who used to work at Rolling Stone--would still have ignored it."
In order to explain why bands like Black Flag and Meat Puppets were the true
'80s exemplars (and why the artists that were critically revered--Springsteen,
U2, REM, Prince--were "non-rock" frauds), Carducci was obliged to formulate a
rock aesthetic. For Carducci, rock's essence does not reside, as most crits on
both sides of the Atlantic maintain, in "songs" and story-telling, but in riffs
and rhythm. In his book, Carducci shifts attention from all the places that
rockcrit situates meaning (lyrics, attitude, rebellion, the singer's
charisma/neurosis, the collective ideals and anxieties of the rock community), to
the materiality of the music itself. Historically, rock is "rock'n'roll made
conscious of itself as small band music"; rock signifies through its kinetics,
the way that a performance embodies an abstract-yet-visceral drama of conflict,
struggle and perseverance, in the face of a hostile environment. Rock's unique
epiphany is when four or five players come together on the One, creating
"multidimensional simultaneity" a.k.a "the jam": transcendence through collective
toil, a perfect mesh of individual expression and unitary discipline.
"I wanted to figure out what at essence made rock a musical tradition
separate from neighbouring genres like R&B and folk. Rock has something of the
playing orientation of jazz, but it takes what, in an open-ended jazz format,
might have been a free-swinging energy, and pens it into a folk-ballad structure.
That threatens to contain the energy, and it's in the resistance to that
constraint that you get rock's special tension-and-release. Jeff Beck described
Beck, Bogart and Appice as 'musical thuggery'. Of course, that's not the only
flavour you can have: there's artists like Robin Trower or the guitarist in Mazzy
Star, who are refined and light in their touch."
In Rock and the Pop Narcotic, Carducci stresses the importance of rock's
"physical but non-dance energy". While the disco-sucks subtext is striking,
Carducci says he was really trying to distinguish his heavier-than-thou rock
aesthetic from guitar-based but non-rock traditions like Beatles-esque songcraft
or producer-oriented AOR (Boston, Def Leppard). Although he surprisingly admits
to liking electro, he doesn't think much of dance music, regarding it as "service
music" that rarely escapes its social function. "Hip hop never got away from the
dance imperative, and indeed it's gotten more seductive, with the slower and
smoother gangsta rap. But there was a time when Public Enemy was pushing the
genre, and doing something aurally related to rock music, with the attack of the
Carducci's real objection to rap and rave music, and to post-rock bands that
borrow their ideas, is the supercession of the band format by the producer, who
uses hireling session musicians or machines. He mourns the disappearance of
real-time recording in favour of the un-real time of studio-based music, and the
replacement of 'hot' hands-on drumming by 'frigid' programmed rhythm.
"There's something missing [from dance music] that a programmer can't supply.
In rock, there are so many mediocre drummers you might as well have a drum
machine as some of these guys. But when you have a good drummer, it's a living
system: he's playing with the wrist, responding to what he's hearing in a million
different ways, and that's something that very hard for a computer to duplicate."
Carducci's Luddite defence of rock's manly, manual skills is a response to
the dis-embodied, white-collar nature of digitalized pop; in this respect, heavy
rock is as embattled as any heavy industry. Carducci doesn't just believe in the
work ethic, his is a work aesthetic. Which is why musclebound sweatpig Henry
Rollins is such a totemic figure in his book, and why Rollins' has returned the
compliment by re-releasing Rock and the Pop via his publishing imprint 2-13-61. Hank's first band Black Flag, with their strenuous post-Sabbath dirges and
tireless gigging, remain Carducci's model rock unit.
Carducci actually dubs SST's ethos "new redneck". Throughout his book,
there's a vein of anti-bohemianism, a contempt for egghead dilettantes who borrow
elements of rock but whose "cool", brain-oriented music doesn't pack the "heat"
emitted by lumpen, less critically-esteemed bands (a prime example being his
teen-fave, the greaser band Steppenwolf). Joe remains suspicious of hipster
towns like New York and San Francisco; he believes that the most powerful rock
comes from less over-acculturated areas, like the light-industrial, blue collar
zones of Los Angeles, from where Black Flag and Minutemen originated.
One of the most remarkable things about Rock and the Pop Narcotic is that
it offers a thoroughly plausible explication of rock's appeal, written from a
right-of-centre perspective. Breaking with the Left/liberal values that have
dominated rock discourse since the late '60s, Carducci describes himself as "part
of the puritan reaction against '70s decadence". A self-confessed "sociophobe",
his politics are somewhere in the blurry zone between anarchism and libertarian
right. As for his sexual politics, he's a bit like a grunge Robert Bly: rock is
where male biologically-programmed energies are sublimated, now that they're no
longer expended through hunting, heavy labour or warfare. The dark side of
Carducci's masculinist aesthetic emerges in the homophobic slurs which litter the
text, like his jibes at the "limey fagwave" of "Bowie-damaged" art-rockers that
he blames for destroying Britain's virile blues-based rock tradition.
Carducci's illiberal bent carries through to his next project, Stone Male:
Requiem For A Style, a history of Westerns and other genre movies, in which he
celebrates the granite-jawed hero who uses few words and under-emotes (Wayne,
Eastwood, Bronson), as opposed to neurotic "blowhards" like Brando, Dean and the
rest of the method pack. Stone Male promises to be as controversial as Rock and the Pop: "A lot of the acting profession is very connnected with theatre's homosexual culture. I'm writing about actors who are non-theatrical: in the early Westerns, they'd often worked their way up from handling horses. The
heroic image affects you more if the actor's non-professional. That interests me
'cos I don't like over-acting".