Friday, January 31, 2020


a piece written for the Wire in late 2001 about the potential cultural / musical implications of the World Trade Center attacks

In the aftermath of  9/11/2001, commentators in every field of art and entertainment joined the culture-wide consensus-chorus that "nothing will ever be the same again". Many argued that a new spirit of civic commitment and self-sacrifice would inevitably spill over to culture, with artists becoming more engaged and tackling more profound themes, and the public craving deeper, more demanding work. There were hasty announcements of  "the end of  irony", predictions that a new seriousness would wipe away the vapid, trivial pop culture of the last decade or so. 

The precedent that everyone seems to be reaching back for is WW2 and the reconstruction that followed: the moral (and morale) uplift created by a stark Good Versus Evil struggle, and the sheer energy and can-do spirit generated by the mobilisation of entire populations and economies, led to hopes of rebuilding a better world. But the "WTC-as-Pearl-Harbor/Bush & Blair as Roosevelt & Churchill" parallel doesn't really hold; at best, this is a choice between lesser evils. For most of us non-combatants, the "war against terror" will be passive and ultimately enervating, as we watch the professionals rain death (and food parcels) down on remote populations, while the home front will entail the emergence of an Israel-style security state, with constant and debilitating sense of being both under siege and under surveillance.  It's hard to imagine either a massive project of social renewal like the Welfare State, or a great era of artistic creativity, coming out of this.

It's not at all clear how the repercussions of 9/11/2001 will play out in pop culture, let alone its semi-popular and marginal adjuncts. With a few exceptions (hip hop, most notably), music had seemed like it was ever more compartmentalized and sealed-off from "the real world", developing according to its own self-reflexive trajectory.  But maybe History will impact pop music and  recreate the conditions that prevailed in the postpunk era. When I was a youth, bands rarely mentioned music in interviews, political issues were so much more urgent; it was a context in which a song like UB40's "The Earth Dies Screaming" getting on Top of the Pops seemed like a crucial intervention. The recent spate of rock bands like Radiohead and U2 speaking out against globalisation, Third World debt, etc. already suggested a return to activism, altruism, and earnestness. Actually, having chafed against the irony culture for a long while, I already feel a slight pang for that cosy, harmless decadence. Indeed, it seems likely that a certain sort of acerbic, bitter irony is going to be an essential weapon in these days of bizarre reversals--like the way Bush, the President dedicated to narrowing the gap between church and state, has suddenly been recast as global defender of  secular liberalism against theocratic absolutism.

Where the WTC horror might  have at least a temporary dampening effect is on musics based on  the aesthetics of devastation: extreme noise terror, aural bombardments, apocalyptic soundscapes, traumaturgy, ambient fear. From DJ Scud's "Total Destruction" and Techno Animal's Brotherhood of the Bomb to the death metal covered by Terrorizer magazine, it all starts to seem, if not questionable then at least.... superfluous, surpassed by reality. Why was it supposed to be a good thing to do in the first place?

The alibi, I guess, is that it's not about vicarious delight in wanton destruction (as with small boys who love blowing stuff up,  Hollywood disaster movies), but  about waking people from cultural slumber, confronting them with the worst that can happen.  In times of numbness, ersatz emergency gets those atrophied adrenal glands pumping. But when everyday life is sufficiently raw-nerved, thank you very much -  who wants to experience simulated armageddon as entertainment? Stuff that soothes,  or helps the tears flow, seems more suitable -- Harold Budd, Sandy Denny. 

Of course, terrible things have been going on for, like, ever -- massacres, massive bombings,
cumulative collateral death tolls that are way bigger. But as they say, it makes a difference when it's close-to-home.  That's literal in my case: I live about one and a half miles from the site, and even now,  a month later, the air is sometimes fouled by the wind-born vapors from what is essentially a gigantic slow-burning crematorium. 9/11 has fatally interfered with  my appetite for "destruction" (meaning cultural/sonic images thereof).  Even something like Tricky's "Aftermath," one of my favorite pieces of music ever,  might be a tough listen in the future, the  lines about going "looking for people" having a new resonance -   just as sharing my 2 year old's delight as he points at a glistening airplane in the wonderfully blue skies over Manhattan will now always be accompanied by a shudder. 

Some of the more daring commentators have broached the whole question of  the carnographic sublime, writing honestly about the appalling splendor of  blazing fusilages piercing the sundazzled glass, the sheer spectacle of the  towers crumbling. Even dotty old Stockhausen, who got in such trouble for his dumb remark about the WTC attack as "the greatest work of art in history," was clumsily reaching towards something worth addressing: the extent to which apocalypse, carnage and cataclysm are embedded in the "libidinal economy" of the avant-garde. From Hendrix's aural pyromania to Einsturzende Neubauten's end times scenarios, from underground hip hop producer El-P titling his solo album Fantastic Damage to kid606 ally Electric Company using a picture of a collapsing building on the front of his latest release for Tigerbeat 6, imagery of waste and warfare seem to offer figures for absolute desire, excess, too-muchness; it's the 20th Century sublime, man-made (where the 18th Century's sublime was rampaging Nature)  but inhumane and anti-humanist.  Underground dance  music of all kinds is full of this kind of imagery, from drum'n'bass to gabber. For some years now dancehall reggae has been dominated by fire imagery, whether it's gangsta gunfire or the Rasta vision of Babylon being destroyed by the cleansing flames of Jah's righteous wrath (the fantasy is essentially the smiting of infidels, something that appeals in postcolonial vassal state Jamaica for precisely the same anti-globalisation, anti-Amerika reasons it does to Islamic jihadists).

The events of the last few weeks have made me question my own pleasure in this kind of imagery. I've also had pause to consider the way a rhetoric of crusades and a messianic, rallying mode of address has tripped off my critical tongue at various points over the years-- something that is paralleled by the way underground musics like drum'n'bass envisions themselves in paramilitary terms, as guerrillas, renegades, armies of underground resistance,  even terrorists. Then again, as silly as it seems when the real thing flares up all around, maybe "culture" is the safest, most harmless place for this kind of soldier talk. Music and the discourse around it can sublimate desires for mission, insurgency, single-minded purpose, our will to believe and our craving for the absolute.

Monday, January 27, 2020

a reasonable economy

pop culture and the economy
FACT magazine, 2009
by Simon Reynolds

Because I've written a book on postpunk--actually two books now, with Totally Wired, the new collection of interviews--every so often someone will ask me "Simon, now that the economy's up the shitter like it was in the late Seventies and early Eighties, d'ya reckon there'll be a massive upsurge of radical music on a par with postpunk then?"  And you know,  it would be gorgeous to think this was on the cards--some compensation and consolation for the utter fuckitude of all things economic for the foreseeable.  But I think there' s a problem or several with this by now rather clich├ęd equation of hard times with vibrant music.

For a start, the complete opposite argument can just as easily be made-- and often has been, in fact.  

For instance,  there's that slightly glib but nonetheless grounded in truth connection that people make between the Thirties (wracked by the Depression, shadowed by the rise of fascism, with  world war on the horizon) and escapist entertainment (showbiz glitz, the big band swing era, Hollywood musicals with baroquely elaborate dance sequences--sometimes in swimming pools). I remember commentators in the early Eighties using this Depression/showbiz analogy as an explanation for the rise of New Romanticism and the video-pop of Adam Ant/Duran/Boy George.  Disenchanted veterans of 1977 all, they lambasted the nouveau glam as a retreat from punk's political commitment and confrontation into vapid fantasy and fancy dress.

Another problem with the bad economy =  good music theory is related to its logical corollary, the notion that a booming economy creates complacency and thus a glut of lame, tame music. Actually, the complete opposite is generally accepted to have happened in  the 1960s. When prosperity (Macmillan's "you've never had it so good") and the American-style consumer society (supermarkets,  TV with commercials on, etc) arrived in late Fifties Britain, the post-War culture of austerity and deferral of gratification was thrown off.  Teenagers and young adults had money in their pockets to burn on clothes, music and other forms of self-expression through consumption. The resulting epidemic of pleasure-principled living-for-now was the foundation of the Swinging Sixties boom in pop, fashion and countercultural malarkey of every kind. Plentiful employment --in those days you could walk out of one job and into another the same day-- bred a spirit of insouciance and insubordination in the young.  

Similarly, student grants were considered a basic right then, and because the prospect of life after graduation wasn't so fraught with anxiety about getting on a career track, students treated their three years at college as a period for self-exploration and creative experiments with lifestyle--also known as "pissing about."  Some versions of this theory are almost Marxist in their base-governs-superstructure pinpointing  of the end of "The Sixties" as the autumn of 1973, when the oil crisis began: OPEC flexed its muscles, Western economies tightened, everything started getting more expensive  (including records, which had been so cheap that punters could afford to be experimental with their music taste).

There is a sort of historical-echo version of the Sixties-as-fueled-by-good-times thesis, in which acid house mania and the Second Summer Of Love were sponsored by  the late Eighties boom; the plucky promoters of the big orbital raves of 1989 are further seen as go-getting entrepreneurs, "the children of Thatcher".  I've also seen a theory touted that the USA's late 90s "electronica" explosion was synched to the investor-fever for info-tech start-ups and the resulting economic climate of "irrational exuberance". But while irrational exuberance is the absolutely perfect phrase to describe the Big Beat rocktronica of Chemicals/Fatboy/Prodigy/Underworld etc, I think this thesis is fatally America-centric--as if the very meaning and existence of this music was somehow determined by the Dow Jones Index, when of course it really goes back to the early Nineties, which happened to be a period of economic down-turn.

Fact is, you can generally bend the socioeconomic evidence to suit whatever argument you seek to make.  There is nearly always a sense of malaise and crisis going on in the world, on some level or other.  Even in the Sixties, for all the affluence and all the self-confidence of youth, there was no shortage of dread and paranoia, from the Cold War to Vietnam. Especially in the second half of the Sixties, you saw the early stirrings of the same things-- labour unrest , racial tensions,  war in Northern Ireland--that cast such somber shadows across most of the British Seventies.  Rave, for all its euphoria and hippy-dippy dress sense, and its fortuitous coinciding with positivity-conducive  events in geopolitics (the fall of Communism circa 1989), can also be interpreted as an escape from reality, which by the early Nineties was taking a more somber hue thanks to a recession, the Gulf War, and interminable Tory rule.  In this reading, rave is a flight from the dead-ends and blocked opportunities of the UK's stagnant social system, into a drug-enabled dreamworld of classless, multiracial unity.   Similarly, Britpop a few years later can be taken (depending on your musical sympathies) as either the UK getting its groove on again, feeling cocky and invincible, preparing the ground for New Labour, or as a self-deluding spasm reliant on recycling ideas from earlier phases of England's pop glory and on the artificial ebullience of cocaine, and as such merely mirroring Blair & Co's style-over- substance and empty rhetoric of renewal.

The truth is that it's hard to see that there are clear-cut connections anymore between the state of the economy and the waxing-and-waning of popular music-as-force-for-change.   I say "anymore" because it  feels like there once were such connections, and moreover that it would make sense that there were. How could music and pop culture be sealed off from everything else that is going on in the world and in the lives of we who make it and listen to it? Yet in a sense that is exactly what I think has come to pass:   at some point along the way music and the social/economic became uncoupled. I felt it more strongly than ever last year, in fact, when as far as I could see pop music totally failed to reflect the momentousness  of what was going on in America, the most world-historical election I've lived through as a conscious adult. 

The one real-world force that I think we can say for sure is affecting music --in terms of its base conditions of possibility--is technology.  The landscape of music production and music consumption as we approach the end of this decade is vastly different from 1999. It's been transformed by filesharing, YouTube, MySpace, music siphoned into your mobile phone, and numerous other innovations in the way music is distributed, accessed, and created.  We're at a point where musicians increasingly cannot even give away their music (because the sound-saturated consumer is constrained by one commodity that remains finite and precious--listening-time).  Where the "event" horizon of an album occurs and is finished with long before the record even officially released, because of the leaks that musicians and labels are incapable of preventing.  

We live in a new music reality that is post-geographical (people feel like they are plugged into sounds and scenes they're never had an unmediated experience with) and where music for more and more fans is something you'd never dream of paying for.  The recession has pushed some record shops and labels out of business, but they were shaky and doddering on the brink anyway because of the technological earthquake that's already happened.  The way people surf its shockwaves, or react violently against it, might well lead to the next convulsion in music. Indeed, in the same way that punk rock was prefigured in various forms (the Stooges, pub rock) for a good six years before it happened, we've probably already seen some of the anti-reactions taking early shape: the revived, ever-growing importance of live music and the festival, a resurgence of interest in analogue forms like vinyl, cassette and fanzines.  All suggest a craving for unmediated experience (or equally for tangible media, cultural objects you can hold and keep), for presence, for the Event. It seems unimaginable, but it's possible that the next underground will exist entirely off-line. Equally, the next big thing could be that there's no next big thing…. just further entropy (the "not with a bang…" scenario).  But I doubt very much that any of these outcomes will be affected much by the credit crunch, collapsing property market, rising unemployment, etc. A new musical idea--a really new one, whether within music itself, or in the ways we use music-- will surely catch on regardless of whether the economy is fallow or fertile.   

Friday, January 17, 2020

Putting the 'pop' in populism: Glam Rock and Trump

Is politics the new glam rock?

The Guardian, 14 Oct 2016

by Simon Reynolds

Look back at the history of glam rock, and you keep running into things that seem like premonitions – previews of the scary and dangerous man running for the American presidency right now. In his mid-1970s interviews, David Bowie talked about “a strong leader” destined to “sweep through” the western world: a charismatic superhero who might emerge not from conventional politics but from entertainment. Sometimes Bowie’s tone was ominous. At others, he’d make it seem like a necessary corrective to a Weimar-style state of decadence, talking with seemingly approving anticipation of “a rightwing, totally dictatorial tyranny” that would clean up all the mess made by the permissive society.

At his most extreme, unguarded and cocaine-addled, Bowie proposed himself as a candidate for the job, whether as British PM, as the “first English president of the United States”, or maybe even as ruler of the world.

Another future-spectre of Trump was Alice Cooper’s pretend run for the presidency in 1972. It took the form of the single “Elected” and its hilarious, delirious video, but nonetheless had a curiously convincing tone of megalomaniacal demagoguery about it, as Cooper boasted that he and his “young and strong” followers would take “the country by storm”.

On the surface, Trump and the glam era’s stars couldn’t be further apart. What does Trump have in common with Ziggy Stardust, apart from orange hair? The Donald is a bigot, a macho bully, a philistine, a proud ignoramus. Bowie and the brightest of his peers were androgynous aesthetes, intellectually hungry and sexually experimental.

And yet there are some unlikely affinities, as I discovered while researching Shock and Awe, my history of glam. As signaled by his gilded tower on Fifth Avenue, Trump surrounds himself with glitz. Trump and the glam rockers share an obsession with fame and a ruthless drive to conquer and devour the world’s attention. Trump actually plays “We Are the Champions” by Queen (a band aligned with glam in its early days) at his rallies, because its triumphalist refrain – “no time for losers” – crystallises his economic Darwinist worldview.

A mirror of oligopoly capitalism, pop is a ferociously competitive game that sorts the contestants into a handful of winners and a great mass of losers. Propelled by a stardom-at-all-costs drive, many of glam rock’s principal characters nimbly reinvented themselves and in some cases trampled others on their way up. They willed their fantasy selves into existence. This same ethos of “Don’t dream it, be it” (as articulated by The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr Frank N Furter) could be seen in the type of fandom that glam inspired. It had an imitative quality never really seen before in pop: audiences dressing up, copying the hair and makeup. Roxy Music’s fans, responding to the sophistication of the group’s image and artwork, to audience flattering lyrical winks such as “sure to make the cognoscenti think” – costumed themselves as members of a make-believe aristocracy. Bryan Ferry recalled how some would turn up to the shows in full black tie, as if attending an Oscars ceremony.

Trump’s appeal is generally seen in terms of his doom-laden imagery of a weakened, rudderless America. But there is something else going on too: an admiring projection towards a swaggering figure who revels in his wealth, free to do and say whatever he wants. Trump is an aspirational figure as much as a mouthpiece for resentment and rancour.

“I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal, explaining the role of bravado in his business dealings. “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.” He and co-writer Tony Schwarz coined the concept “truthful hyperbole”. That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it cuts to the essence of how hype works: by making people believe in something that doesn’t exist yet, it magically turns a lie into a reality. As the saying goes, fake it till you make it. Bowie’s manager Tony Defries used this technique to break the singer in the US: travelling everywhere by limo, surrounded by bodyguards he didn’t need, Bowie looked like the star he wasn’t, until the public and the media started to take the illusion for reality.

Early in his career, Trump grasped that – like a pop star – he was selling an image, a brand. Licensed out, the Trump name gets affixed to buildings and businesses that he doesn’t own, let alone run. He’s an extreme version of what people on Wall Street call a “glamour stock”: an investment that outperforms the market based on an inflated belief in its growth potential or on even more intangible qualities of cool and buzz. Twitter has been described as the ultimate glamour stock, its attractive image vastly out of whack with its ability to make money. A glamour stock will keep on winning right up until it loses – when the gulf between its perceived value and actual wealth-generative potential gets too huge, when reality finally disrupts the reality distortion field surrounding it.

Self-reinvention was the strategy used by glam stars such as Bowie and Marc Bolan. You can see the same chameleon-like flexibility at work in Trump’s career. Once upon a time he was a Democrat, on genial terms with the Clintons. Years ago he used birtherism as the launch pad for a political career; now he’s dropped it, as a political liability. It’s the same with his recent rabble-rousing rhetoric about “building a wall”. Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer analyses the agility with which Trump evades attacks by discarding ideas: “He merely creates new Trumps.” Bowie conjured up new personas to stay one step ahead of pop’s fickle fluctuations and keep himself creatively stimulated. With no fixed political principles, Trump’s only consistency is salesmanship and showmanship: the ability to stage his public life as a drama.

And it’s the drama that holds the public’s attention – the edgy promise of a less boring politics. The New York Times recently quoted a voter who confessed to flirting with the idea of voting for Trump because “a dark side of me wants to see what happens… There is going to be some kind of change, and even if it’s like a Nazi-type change, people are so drama-filled. They want to see stuff like that happen.”

Emerging after the earnest, authenticity-obsessed late 60s, glam was a period in which rock rediscovered a sense of showbiz and spectacle. Pop history has repeatedly cycled through such phases of glam and anti-glam: Bowie/Roxy razzle-dazzle was supplanted by scruffy pub rock and street-credible punk, which in turn was eclipsed by the neo-glam of the new romantics. A similar shift occurred in America when glitzy hair metal was displaced by grunge’s mud-slide sound and earth-toned clothes.

You can see similar dynamics at play in today’s politics. Hillary Clinton sits squarely in the unglam corner: a worthy but dull public servant, supremely accomplished at everything required of a leader except what the public perversely craves – being an entertainer. She’s a “value stock” – one of those companies that over time doggedly outperform the glamour stocks, but simply don’t inspire spasms of irrational exuberance.

The real anti-glam leader of our age, though, is Jeremy Corbyn. Bearded and low-key, he’s the UK political equivalent of Whispering Bob Harris, the presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test, who couldn’t hide his distaste when visually flashy, image-over-substance bands such as Roxy Music, Sparks and New York Dolls appeared on the TV program.

Corbyn is viscerally opposed to – and fundamentally incapable of – political theatre, the very thing that has carried Trump so close to the White House. Corbyn tried to change the format and feel of prime minister’s questions, saying he wished to “remove the theatre from politics”. In one particular PMQs, he responded to Cameron’s slick pre-scripted gags with the schoolmasterly reprimand: “I invite the prime minister to leave the theatre and return to reality.”

As for oratory, Corbyn seems instinctively averse to all those elements of spoken language – cadence, musicality, metaphor – that sway the listener irrationally. But as Gary Younge argued recently, his plain-spoken delivery is taken as a token of sincerity by his followers, who “have not come to be entertained; they have come … to have a basic sense of decency reflected back to them through their politics”. This is how a personality cult has built up around him, despite his honest and accurate admission: “I’m not a personality.” It’s very indie, very alternative rock, the way that the absence of charisma has become the source of a curious magnetism.

Once in a blue moon, a politician comes along who combines pop star allure and all the less glamorous qualifications such as temperament, competence and knowledge. Barack Obama has both kinds of cool going for him: perfect comic timing at the White House correspondents’ dinner, calmness and clarity during moments of Oval Office crisis.

Politics without any element of charisma is certainly a dry affair. But the cult of personality can be dangerous outside the realm of showbiz, its proper domain.

“I could see how easy it was to get a whole rally thing going,” Bowie said in 1974, recalling the height of Ziggymania in Britain a few years earlier. “There were times when I could have told the audience to do anything.” In another interview of that era, Bowie spoke of the way Hitler “staged a country”, combining “politics and theatrics” to create the ultimate spectacle. “Boy, when he hit that stage, he worked an audience … [Hitler] created this thing that governed and controlled the show for those 12 years. The world will never see his like.”

Let’s hope the Trump show will be cancelled next month.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Pompes of the Divell: Guitar Solos and the Majesty of Maximalism

(the piece I most enjoyed writing this year, apart from this one maybe)

Flash of the Axe: Guitar Solos
from Excess All Areas issue on musical maximalism, The Wire, September 2019.

by Simon Reynolds

I can distinctly remember the first time I let myself enjoy a guitar solo.  1983, I’m at a party, “Purple Haze” comes on - I just went with Jimi, surrendered to the voluptuous excess.  There was a sense of crossing a boundary within myself, like sexual experimentation, or trying a food that normally disgusts you.

You see, growing up in the postpunk era, we were all indoctrinated with less-is-more. Exhibitions of virtuosity were frowned upon. Folklore told us of a time before punk, a wasteland of 12-minute drum solos and other feats of “technoflash” applauded by arenas full of peons grateful to be in the presence of their idols.  Minimalism wasn’t just an aesthetic preference but a moral and ideological stance: an egalitarian levelling of rock’s playing field, letting in amateurs with something urgent to say but barely any chops. Gang of Four went so far as to have anti-solos, gaps where the lead break would have been. Postpunk was an era of amazingly inventive guitarwork, but even the most striking players, like Keith Levene, were not guitar-heroes in the “Clapton Is God” sense. The guitar was conceived as primarily a rhythmic or textural instrument.  An example of how the taboo worked for punk-reared ears: David Byrne’s unhinged guitar on “Drugs” sounded fabulous, but Adrian Belew’s extended screech on “The Great Curve” made me flinch. 

There was a sexual politics aspect to postpunk’s solo aversion: the guitar, handled incautiously, could be a phallic symbol.  Willy-waving nonsense was resurging with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Bands like Iron Maiden were competing for the hearts and minds of youth. So if you supported the DIY feminist-rock revolution represented by the likes of Delta 5 (tough-girls and non-thrusting males united), you made a stand against masturbatory displays of mastery. Solos were, if not outright fascist, then certainly reactionary throwbacks to guitar-as-weapon machismo.   

In those days, on the rare occasions I liked anything Old Wave -  Blue Oyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” say – the solo would be something to grimly wait through until the good stuff resumed (the Byrdsy verses). Then came Jimi, triggering a rethink. Another key moment in  punk deconditioning came ironically courtesy of one of the class of 1977: Television, who I also heard for the first time in 1983. Where Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” solo lasts just 20 seconds, Tom Verlaine’s in “Marquee Moon” is a four-minute-long countdown to ecstasy. Its arc is unmistakably a spiritualized version of arousal and ejaculation, building and building, climbing and climbing  until the shattering climax: an extraordinary passage of silvery tingles and flutters, the space of orgasm itself painted in sound. 

The mid-Eighties was coincidentally when the idea of the guitar-hero began to be tentatively rehabilitated within post-postpunk culture, from the Edge’s self-effacing majesty to underground figures like Meat Puppets’s Curt Kirkwood, who channeled the spectacular vistas and blinding light of the desert into his playing.  Then came Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis and his phalanx of foot-pedals, churning up – on songs like “Don’t”– not just an awesome racket, but solos that were sustained emotional and melodic explorations.  In interviews, Mascis namedropped long-forgotten axe icons like James Gurley of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Paul Leary and his band Buttholes Surfers signposted their influences more blatantly: even if Hairway to Steven’s opener hadn’t been titled “Jimi”, its blazing blimps of guitar-noise would’ve reminded you of “Third Stone From the Sun”.

This kind of winking, irony-clad return to pre-punk grandiosity was the rage in underground rock as the Eighties turned to Nineties. But where Pussy Galore covered (with noise-graffiti) the entirety of Exile on Main Street, that band’s Neil Hagerty, in  new venture Royal Trux, stepped beyond parody towards something more reverent and revenant. The pantheon of guitar gods – Neil Young, Keith Richards, Hendrix – inhabited ghost-towns-of-sound like “Turn of the Century” and “The United States Vs. One 1974 Cadillac El Dorado Sedan”.  But the effect was more like time travel than channeling – the abolition of a rock present that Trux found unheroic.

As a young critic during this period, I tried to stage my own abolition, a transvaluation that erased the now stale and hampering postpunk values I’d grown up with and ushered in a new vocabulary of praise:  a maximalist lexicon of overload and obesity. Revisionist expeditions through the past were part of this campaign.  When Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” had been inexplicably reissued as a single in 1982 and became a UK hit, I could not have imagined anything more abject. But reviewing a Lynyrd box in 1993, I thrilled to the swashbuckling derring-do of that song’s endless solo, a Dixie “Marquee Moon” whose slow-fade chased glory to the horizon. 

This was the final stage of depunking: the enjoyment of lead guitar as pure flash. At a certain point in rock history, solos ceased to have an expressive function and became a self-sustaining fixture, existing only because expected.  Soon I found myself taking pleasure in such excrescences of empty swagger as John Turnbull’s solo in Ian Dury’s “Reasons To Be Cheerful.” I even started looking forward to Buck Dharma’s spotlight turn in “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”.


Apart from a few academic studies of heavy metal, a surprising dearth of serious critical attention has been paid to the guitar solo. The exception that springs to my mind is the novelist’s Geoff Nicholson’s Big Noises, a collection of pithy appreciations of thirty-six notable guitarists, ranging from obvious eminences like Jimmy Page to cult figures like Allan Holdsworth and Henry Kaiser. But although Nicholson is insightful and evocative when it comes to a particular player’s style or sound, and generally revels in loudness and in-yer-face guitar-heroics, he rarely dissects specific solos.   Perhaps it is simply very hard to do without recourse to technical terms. At the same time, the mechanics of “how” do not actually convey the crucial  “what”—the exhilarating sensations stirred in the unschooled listener. 

Why does the discrete spectacular display of instrumental prowess get such short shrift from rock critics? Partly it’s because of the profession’s bias towards the idea of communication—seeing music as primarily about the transmission of an emotion, a narrative, a message or statement. Prolonged detours into consideration of sheer musicality is seen as a digression, or even as decadent. I think another factor behind this disinterest in or distrust of the guitar solo is a lingering current of anti-theatricality – the belief that rock is not a form of showbiz, that it has higher purposes than razzle-dazzle or acrobatics. A guitar solo is like a soliloquy, but one that is all sound and fury, signifying nothing (or nothing articulable, anyway). It’s also similar to an aria, that single-voice showcase in opera, the most theatrical of music forms. Adding to the distaste is the way that guitar soloing is typically accompanied by ritualized forms of acting-out: stage moves, axe-thrusting stances, “guitar-face.”  This makes the whole business seem histrionic and hammy, an insincere pantomime of intensity that’s rehearsed down to every last grimacing inflection rather than spontaneously felt; an exteriorized code rather than an innermost eruption.  

How would you start to formulate a critical lexicon to defend, or at least, understand, this neglected aspect of rock? In the past, I’ve ransacked Bataille’s concept of “expenditure-without-return”, seeing a potlatch spirit of extravagance at work in the sheer gratuitousness of sound-in-itself. That in turn might connect the soloist’s showing-off to an abjection at the heart of performance itself – the strangeness of exposing one’s emotions and sexuality in front of strangers. Another resource might be queer theory and camp studies, especially where they converge with music itself, as in Wayne Koestenbaum’s book about opera, The Queen’s Throat. The guitar hero could be seen, subversively, as a diva, a maestro of melodramatics.

The ultimate convergence of these ideas would be Queen - the royal marriage of Freddie Mercury’s prima donna preening and Brian May’s pageant of layered and lacquered guitars.  Queen’s baroque ‘n’ roll made my flesh crawl as a good post-punker, but as a no-longer solo-phobe, I’ve succumbed to their vulgar exquisiteness. From the phased filigree of “Killer Queen” to the kitsch military strut of “We Will Rock You”, May’s playing is splendour for splendour’s sake – a peasant’s, or dictator’s, idea of beauty. Anti-punk to the core, and perhaps the true and final relapse of rebel rock into show business.

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