Tuesday, April 20, 2021

"nights of sacred pleasure... more than any laws allow" - Jim Steinman, adieu


from Retromania, a little section on Meatloaf and Jim Steinman, in the chapter of the 1970s rock'n'roll revival and its long tail


"Innocence" is not the only thing that Seventies musicians sought and found in the 1950s.    As Fifties revivalism continued and diversified in the second half of the Seventies, two other "essences" of rock 'n' roll came to the fore. Some bands, like The Cramps, focused on rockabilly's febrile sexuality and "real gone" frenzy, making a fetish of obscure artists, those who'd never made it out of the Deep South. Others homed in on the histrionic  excess  of  rock 'n' roll's more poptastic and produced side, figures like Phil Spector, Roy Orbison, and Del Shannon.

Far and away the most successful version of the latter was Meatloaf.  He was stupendously successful: the multiplatinum Bat Out of Hell was one of 1978's biggest records, especially in the U.K. where it had the same kind of over-the-top appeal as Queen.  Meatloaf had first come to public attention in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (the 1975 movie version of Richard O'Brien's cult musical) in which he played a rock'n'roller called Eddie whose brain has partially been removed.  While working on the movie in 1974, Meatloaf also began his Bat Out of Hell collaboration with songwriter and "walking rock encyclopedia" Jim Steinman.

Steinman's approach to rock'n'roll resurrection was completely opposed to the reductionism of Creedence,  Lennon, and Glitter-Leander.   Phil Spector's "wall of sound" and densely layered "teenage symphonies" were the model.  Something of a rock'n'roll philosopher as well as a songwriter-arranger, Steinman talked eloquently about how the music's core was violence and hysteria.  Meatloaf, the Pavarotti of rock, had the only voice majestic enough to do his songs justice, he said.  Swollen both in width and length (several Bat Out of Hell numbers reached nine or ten minutes), Steinman's music grew as corpulent as Meatloaf's physique.   But the result wasn't so much rock opera as rock'n'roll opera: beneath the gassy bloat, the roots of the sound were clearly Chuck Berry and The Ronettes, while the songs deal with Fifties-type scenarios such as a Harley Davidson death-ride or making out in a Chevy and struggling to get the girl to go all the way. 

Steinman's manager David Sonenberg described him as having " the intellect of an Orson Welles… yet he's kind of frozen in the emotional body of a 17-year-old." That nails Bat Out of Hell precisely:  corny yet grotesque, arrested but overblown, as if rock's artistic and emotional development had stopped circa 1957 but its sonic form kept growing.  Bat Out Of Hell actually came out of an earlier Steinman project called Neverland that was primarily based around Peter Pan.  The songwriter hailed J. M. Barrie's story as "the ultimate rock-and-roll myth--lost boys who don't grow up."  Rock'n'roll,  Steinman argued , "has to do with being a teenager, the energy of adolescence. When it starts to get too adult, I think it begins to lose a little of the power." He complained that in the early Seventies, music "got real bland, tranquilizing". It lost touch with the epic quality of songs like Del Shannon's "Runaway", "that cross-roads, where romance became violent and violence became romantic. "  Singer-songwriters like "Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Jackson Browne" were "the exact opposite of my world", he continued, because they  wrote  about  grown-up stuff like " meaningful relationships".  


Steinman also makes a cameo in this piece:


GQ Style, winter 2009 

 by Simon Reynolds 

Just a few months before Michael Jackson died, I felt the urge to write about him for the first time ever. I was in a cafĂ© and "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough" came on and even though I must have heard it hundreds of times since first seeing the video on Top of the Pops in 1979, for some reason the song hit me like a lightning bolt. For all its falsetto-funk silkiness , the sheer aggression of the sound--the coiled rhythmic tension, the stiletto penetration of Jackson's voice--seemed to attack with the force of The Stooges or Sex Pistols . 

But what I really came away with was a vague idea, just a phrase really: "total music", the idea of a category of pop set apart from the merely excellent. Listening, rapt, I imagined the electricity of the Off the Wall sessions: Quincy Jones assembling the highest-calibre session players available, no expense spared, and pursuing perfection with an almost militaristic focusing of energy. The achievement: flawlessness so absolute that it didn't so much transcend commercialism as blast right through it, such that domination of the radio and the discotheques was merely a by-product, a secondary benefit, of the quest. "Total music" occurs through the synergy of talent, limitless funding, a really good idea… and something else: a superhuman drive, the "right stuff" that Tom Wolfe wrote about in connection with NASA's moon missions.

I imagine this intangible elan infused the making of Abba's music, or the classic recordings of the Beatles, Phil Spector, Brian Wilson. There's loads of music that I love and that probably means more to me than "total pop", records made by artists both more unassuming yet in some ways more narcissistically self-absorbed and idiosyncratic. But there's no denying the special charge that imbues music when it's made by people who know they're making history, who can be confident they're taking it out onto the largest stage available.

 In the Sixties there was a long moment where the best pop (in terms of constantly pushing forward and sheer musical quality) was also the best-selling: Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Byrds, Dylan, Beach Boys, Doors. (There's really only a few exceptions: Love, Velvet Underground). Aesthetic ambition and commercial ambition were indivisible. This folk-memory of this ideal persisted long after it ceased to apply, inspiring everyone from Bowie and Roxy to the major punk bands to the likes of U2, Bjork, Radiohead. 

But over the last couple of decades the two kinds of ambition have come to seem more and more tenuously connected, to the point where a phenomenon like the Beatles seems almost implausible, a fluke. 

 My dad had this maxim, something like: aim for the top, because if you fall short, you'll at least reach higher than if you'd aimed for the middle and fallen short of that. It's not completely true: o'er vaulting ambition can result in "EPIC FAIL", whereas a shrewd strategy of modest aspiration might lead to steady sustained successes. Still, remembering this motto led me to this thought: if you want to do great work in music or any art form, just as important as talent or imagination is the desire to be great. You might have the most refined melodic gift, the subtlest musical mind, but if you don't have that will-to-power, the balls and the gall… 

Certain bands only make sense at the top of the pop world: Springsteen and U2 were made to work in widescreen, to issue the most sweeping, speaking-for-Everyman statements. "Overbearing", "bombastic": the insults are merely the measure of their achievement, and nobody can take away those moments when they mattered (Born To Run, then again Born in the U.S.A., for Bruce; the majestic sequence from "Pride" to "Streets Have No Name", for Bono and Co). 

 Of course, there are artists who have the temperament of the world-historical genius but who don't actually have anything worth saying. Jim Steinman, the fevered brain behind Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell, Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart", and Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back To Me Now", exemplifies this syndrome. Steinman is far from deficient in the will-to-greatness: he's got an unbridled flair for the grandiose, plus the requisite perfectionist streak (he's been known to spend huge amounts of his own private money on projects when the original budget's run out). Unfortunately his ambition is not accompanied by the filter of taste, to put it mildly. 

 Talking of finances, the rise over the last decade or two of home studios and digital audio workstations, has meant that it's possible for artists to make massive-sounding and expensive-seeming albums for a fraction of what it once cost. It's much cheaper and easier to create the illusion of luxuriant orchestration or to pull off ear-boggling sonic trickery of the kind that would have taken days of intricate labour by George Martin and Abbey Road's white-coated technicians. Artistic ambition, in the old days, had to go hand in hand with commercial ambition, just to pay off the bills. Nowadays the two kinds of aspiration have become severed. The Colossal Sounding, Colossally Ambitious Album is today a sort of specialist subgenre of rock, purveyed by groups like Flaming Lips. 

And not just rock: take Erykah Badu, who renovates the tradition of politically engaged, autobiographically personal "progressive soul" masterpieces by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone, and Marvin Gaye. Her vastly ambitious New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) sold pretty well but it could never hope to achieve the mass cultural impact of Songs In the Key of Life or What's Goin' On. These are different times and Badu, like her buddies The Roots and Common, is catering for a niche market of historically-informed cognoscenti who still listen out for that kind of takes-the-measure-of-the-zeitgeist Epic.

 Although a singer, Badu regards herself part of hip hop. Surprisingly, given its sketchy record with the Album, rap has been one of the main places this decade where commercial ambition and artistic ambition have remained tightly entwined, with performers like Outkast, Jay-Z and Kanye West putting out sonically adventurous, alternately self-glorifying and socially-conscious albums that sold in huge numbers. It stands to reason that rap is richly endowed with "the will to be great" because the genre is all about self-aggrandisement. What LL Cool J called "talking on myself" still defines the art's core: MCs exalt their own ability to dominate and defeat the competition, finding the most vivid, witty, unique and creatively brutal ways of describing their prowess. 

 Rap expresses and exposes the ugly side of pop's ambition: its profoundly inegalitarian streak, a drive towards status, glory, preeminence. The aspiration to greatness often comes with a certain monstrousness of personality. Look at Morrissey. Pop stardom was always, he frankly admitted, a form of revenge exacted on the world for his outcast adolescence. But when society's "mis-shapes" (to use Jarvis Cocker's term) become stars, the result can be unsightly. The retaliatory narcissism of early Smiths lyrics ("the sun shines out of our behinds", "England owes me a living") is one thing when the singer is a skinny wisp only a few years out of obscurity. But from a fifty year old pop institution with the build of a bouncer, striding across arena stages and tossing the microphone cord with lordly disdain, it starts to look like any old showbiz prima donna. 

 Rap has its own Morrissey in Kanye West. I never used to understand hip hop fans complaining about his monster ego (this is rap, what did you expect guys?). But after the bloated self-pity of much of 808s & Heartbreak and his disruption of the MTV Video Awards, I'm starting to see their point. 

 The supreme case of the will-to-be-great turning rancid is Michael Jackson, of course. Around the point he started calling himself (and insisting on being called) the King of Pop, Jackson 's output shifted from "total pop" to "totalitarian kitsch": the nine gigantic statues of MJ as a Dictator built at his requirement by Sony and installed in European cities to promote 1995's HIStory: Past, Present & Future, Book 1, the fascistic promo film for that record with Jackson in full Khadaffi-style regalia amid hundreds of soldiers. Think too of the Versailles-like indulgence and corruption of Neverland, and that peculiar quasi-dynastic marriage to Lisa Marie Presley, daughter of the King. When pop stars try to externalize the grandeur inside their music, to make reality match up to its utopian absoluteness, the results can be grotesque, a tragic-comical catastrophe of nouveau-riche kitsch. 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

the king of grunge (DMX, RIP)

"...As superthugs go, DMX is the most interesting, because he doesn't glamorize the gangsta lifestyle. Produced by Ruff Ryders chief soundboy Swizz Beatz, "One More Road To Cross" has the accursed, burdened heft of Blacks Sabbath and Flag--a perfect fit for DMX's stoic description of a carefully planned liquor store heist that goes bloodily wrong. "The Professional" is a bleak glimpse into the mind of a hired assassin ("Shit ain't go too well/THAT'S MY LIFE/Know I'm going to hell/THAT'S MY LIFE") while the betrayal-and-retribution themed "Here We Go Again" starts with the insuperably fatigued murmur "Same old shit, dog/Just a different day". This vision of thug life as agony, repetition, and endurance is communicated as much through DMX's hoarse rasping timbre (pure Ozzy/Rollins) and his flow (alternating between pay-close-attention-this-is-hard-earned-knowledge-I'm-sharing slow to rapid-fire blurts like he's got too much pain to cram into the rhyme-scheme's stanzas.)"

[from a review of  And Then There Was X alongside records by Jay-Z, The Lox, Juvenile)

WE ARE FAMILY: the Rise of the Rap Clans and the Hip Hop Dynasty

director's cut, New York TimesMarch 12 2000

by Simon Reynolds


When rapper DMX accepted a trophy at the Billboard Music Awards last year, he took the stage flanked by a squad of fellow artists from the Ruff Ryders label. It's hard to imagine anyone in rock doing this---Trent Reznor, say, menacingly surrounded  by the roster of his label Nothing. But in hip hop, such shows of collective strength are growing more common, as  rap labels increasingly style themselves as families. Like the mafia families whose Hollywood mythology has so influenced gangsta rap,  these labels compete to dominate the lucrative hip hop market, and in this symbolic war of clan against clan, loyalty is exalted as the supreme value.

 The two biggest forces in contemporary rap, the Yonkers-based Ruff Ryders and the New Orleans label Cash Money, both ferociously project a sense of clan identity, through logo-based regalia and unity-themed songs and album titles such as "I'm A Ruff Ryder", "Ruff Ryder's Anthem", Eve's Ruff Ryders's First Lady, and  "Cash Money Is an Army". Cash Money also has a supergroup, Hot Boys, composed of the label's biggest solo stars---Juvenile, B.G., and Lil Wayne.  As it happens, both labels are literally family businesses: Ruff Ryders was started by the brothers-and-sister team of Darrin, Joaquin and Chivon Dean, while Cash Money was founded by brothers Ron and Brian Williams. As if in recognition of their similar ethos, the two labels have joined forces for a massive rap tour currently crossing the USA.

 Although crews, cliques and posses have always been part of hip hop lore, rap's dominant lyrical mode has hitherto been first person singular.  But in the last year or so, ego has been eclipsed by what you might call "wego," the collective triumphalism of Ruff Ryders's "We In Here" or Hot Boys's "We On Fire". In the wake of Cash Money and Ruff Ryders's success, other labels are presenting themselves as families or Cosa Nostra-style syndicates. "You Are About To Witness A Dynasty Like No Other" proclaims the sticker on Jay-Z's new album, referring to his Roc-A-Fella label's proteges Beanie Siegel, Memphis Bleek, and Amil, while Murder Inc. has combined its roster into the Hot Boys-style supergroup The Murderers.

The idea of the rap group as a blood-brotherhood was pioneered in the mid-Nineties by the Wu-Tang Clan, the ten-strong band of MCs centered around producer the RZA. While the lyrics and cover art self-mythologized the group as warrior priests wielding arcane knowledge and encrypted language as weapons against power, the Wu-Tang Clan simultaneously operated as a shrewd entertainment corporation, signing its members to solo deals with different record companies and diversifying into all manner of Wu-branded merchandizing offshoots: clothing, a comic book, a website, the video-game Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style.  So iconic was the Clan's logo at the group's 1997 height of prestige and popularity that rap paper The Source could feel secure about using it as their cover image, rather than a recognizable celebrity face.

Wu-Tang's branding strategy was taken further still by Master P.'s label  No Limit, whose assembly-line turnover of releases all have  instantly recognisable cover art (garishly hyper-real "ghetto fabulous" tableaux created by design team Pen & Pixel) to match the identikit  New Orleans gangsta sound of the records.  Ironically, the Pen & Pixel look has been appropriated by countless second-division hardcore rap labels, hoping to get accidental sales from fans picking up unheard what they assume is a debut from the latest recruit to the "No Limit army". Master P. also goes in for diversification in a big way, building a business empire reputedly worth $361 million through No Limits toys, clothing, and a series of inexpensively made straight-to-video movies.

Influenced by Master P.'s acumen, Cash Money and Ruff Ryders have their own movies in production. And both labels have imitated No Limit's strategy of market saturation and hitting while you're hot. DMX has released three albums in barely more than eighteen months, and the first two months of 2000 has seen a flurry of Ruff Ryders debuts from The Lox and Drag-On, with a new Swizz Beatz compilation and Lox-man Jadakiss's own solo album soon to follow.

 Ruff Ryders and Cash Money have built their empires using techniques that are now a predictable procedures in the rap business. Reinforcing the all-for-one, one-for-all clan image, rappers from the same roster guest on each other's tracks; new artists are introduced to the public through cameo appearances in the single/video by the label's established stars. Cash Money have taken this twin strategy of cross-promotion and artist-development to the furthest extreme. Other rap artists will feature R&B singers or big-name rappers from other labels on their tracks in order to add more-stars-for-your-money sales appeal. But Cash Money's tracks never feature outsiders---the "guests" are always only other Cash Money artists.

 Still, it would be incorrect to suggest that hip hop's family values are just an ideological gloss for business realpolitik. The family is basically a microcosm of socialism, based around the same ideals like sharing, altruism, and self-sacrifice for the greater good.   Effectively, the rap clan works an  enclave of collectivism within capitalism's rapacious cut-throat competition, and as such it offers solace  and security in what would otherwise be a desolate moral and emotional void. Ruff Ryders's catchphrase  "Ryde or die" divides the world into a starkly opposed them and us: people you'd kill versus people you'd kill for/die for/ride into battle alongside. Taken from a "blacksploitation"-era cowboy movie, the name Ruff Ryders recalls the going-out-in-a-blaze-of-glory romanticism of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch.

Lyrically, DMX avoids two of gangsta rap's staples---flaunting wealth and abusing women-- to focus almost exclusively on loyalty, betrayal, and retribution. His yearning for a surrogate family is expressed through an obsession with dogs strikingly different from the incorrigibly lecherous canine persona adopted by George Clinton circa "Atomic Dog". DMX's use of the term "dog" to refer to himself and his clique stems from admiration for the way wild dogs run in packs and domesticated dogs give their owner's unconditional love. In song after song, DMX insists "I will die for my dogs". He imagines this canine fraternity becoming a kind of pedigreed dynasty: "My dogs, the beginning of this bloodline of mine".

DMX's doom-and-gloomy imagery--album titles like It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, songs like "The Omen"-- has as much in common with angst-wracked industrial and heavy metal artists such as Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Korn as with other rappers. A crucial aspect of his Gothic imagery is what the philosopher Michel Foucault called "the Medieval symbolics of blood", as seen in the title of DMX's second album Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. Thicker than water but easily spilled,  "blood"  is a highly charged word in DMX's  vocabulary. Its  ambivalence condenses gangsta rap's violently polarized emotions, the way it's forever oscillating between love and hate, loyalty and skullduggery, unity and dog-eat-dog struggle.

Gangsta rappers have found a reflection of these hot-blooded passions in Hollywood's Mafia films, whose families disregard the broader society's morality and instead cleave to a privatized morality: a neo-Medieval ethics of loyalty and revenge that operates only in the domain of  kith and kin, plus bondsmen unrelated by blood but who have sworn fealty to the clan. With its code of honor among villains and its family structure, the idea of the Mafia  resonates with hardcore  rap partly because of the way it maps onto the street realities of gangs and turf wars.  But it's also because the idea of family offers a kind of unity that seems more tangible and grounded than allegiance either to the abstract, remote and problematic entity known as the United States of America, or any of the various forms of African-American nationalism. In rap, patriotism contracts to the compact and plausible dimensions of a clique, and usually one tied to a place---a project (like Cash Money's Magnolia neighbourhood in New Orleans), a borough, or at its most expansive, a city. As well being expressed territorially, loyalty is increasingly registered in quasi-genetic imagery--the family, the clan, the dynasty. [DMX would start a label called Bloodline Records]

The cinematic representation of Mafia history in films like The Godfather and Goodfellas often involves an ultimately fatal tension between family loyalty and business logic, as Medieval values imported from Sicily collide with American capitalism.  Clan elders are disrespected, bad blood sets brother against brother, rival families feud and go to war,  because conflicts arise over the new market opportunities represented by  drugs. In rap too there's a tension between the rhetoric of "til death do us part" fealty and the provisional, contractual reality of business relationships. Although The Lox were originally members of the Ruff Ryders milieu, the trio eagerly became henchmen of Puff Daddy, who signed the group to his Bad Boy label, altered their name (originally the Warlocks), persuaded them to tone down their hardcore street style, and coached them in writing radio-friendly songs. But when their debut album for Bad Boy failed to make them rich, the Lox defected, re-plighting their troth to Ruff Ryders, and releasing the  ghettocentric We Are The Streets this January. Other examples of rappers shifting allegiances between different labels/cliques include ex-Death Row artist Snoop Dogg signing on as a No Limit soldier and Eve originally being a protege of Dr. Dre's Aftermath label before affiliating to Ruff Ryders. All this suggests that rap operates less like feuding clans and more like another lucrative entertainment industry based around symbolic warfare, sports--where top players are hired guns and transfer their loyalties at the drop of a check.

Still, for some at least, the thick-like-blood rhetoric is for real. DMX, in particular, regards loyalty as a transcendent value. In a hyper-capitalistic world where market forces tear asunder all forms of solidarity and everybody has their price , he claims: "They do it for the dough/Me I do it for the love". In a skit on his third chart-topping album ... And Then There Was X, an unidentified hanger-on declares he'll do anything to get the money he desperately needs. DMX issues a stern reprimand: "Dog, you got to think about loyalty first, know wha' I'm saying? You got loyalty, money will come.  You got a lot to learn."

Sunday, April 4, 2021



Head On 


Spin, January 2000

by Simon Reynolds

Head On is a twisted, tripped-out  brother to Les Rhythmes Digitales Eighties-

influenced Darkdancer. But  where Jacques LeCont's fond exhumations of Shannon and

Nik Kershaw are typical French retro-kitsch, Super_Collider  treat Eighties electro-funk as

a prematurely curtailed modernism. This English duo (producer Cristian

Vogel and singer Jamie Lidell) pick up where Zapp's "More Bounce To The Ounce",

George Clinton's "Atomic Dog," and Janet Jackson/Jam & Lewis's "Nasty" left off.  This 

era of  dance music just before sampling totally took over fascinates because of its crush

collision between trad musicianship and futurism:  you can hear the players struggling to

extract funk from unwieldly and unyielding drum machines, sequencers and synths.  Hence the apparent paradox whereby  the best Eighties dancepop still sounds amazingly modern  while much contemporary dance music sounds retro--because today's producers get their funk by

proxy, through sampling Seventies sources like vintage disco loops or jazz-funk licks.

Head On  gets me flashing on the boogie wonderland of the post-disco, pre-house

interregnum--the bulbous synth-bass and juicy-fruit keyboard licks of Gap Band, Steve

Arrington, Man Parrish, D-Train, SOS Band. But as you'd expect from someone who

records solo for avant-techno labels Mille Plateaux and Tresor, Vogel's version of

bodymusic is decidedly mangled and alienated-sounding, while Lidell croons a kind of 

cyborg hypersoul--grotesquely mannered,  FX-warped, yet queerly compelling. 

Head On's highlight  "Darn (Cold Way O' Lovin')"  has a groove that bucks and writhes like a rutting

hippotamus. "Take Me Home"  is robo-Cameo, featuring a digitized equivalent of slap-bass

and Lidell's most blackface  warbling (imagine a bionic Steve Winwood). And "Alchemical

Confession" is the kind of black rock I always hoped Tackhead or Material would deliver,

all acrid guitar squalls and Lidell flailing like Jamiroquai in a meatgrinder (now that's

something I'd pay to see).  

A few years ago, Vogel  released  an EP called "We Equate Machines With

Funkiness". Funk has always existed in the biomechanical zone between

James Brown aspiring to be a sex-machine and Kraftwerk finding the libidinous pulse

within the strict-time rhythms of automobiles and trains. When a band's playing has too much

fluency and human feel, you don't get the  tensile friction that defines da  funk (which is why an excess of

jazz influence sounds the death-knell for any dance genre's ass-grind appeal).  Super_Collider,

though, have a perfect grasp on funk's uncanny merger of supple and stiff, loose and tight.