Since I watched Moonrise Kingdom recently, I thought it might be interesting to listen to a little Françoise Hardy. She doesn’t especially have a style. She sings a lot of different styles. It might be best to consider her a chanteuse. She is able to make me long for being in love. And sad. (More or less the same thing.)
But her early work is that classic French pop sound that I never seem to tire of. (Or that I just still like because it hasn’t been playing on the radio my whole life like the British Invasion.) A lot of Françoise Hardy’s albums are named, Françoise Hardy. She released albums of that name in 1962, 1963, 1963 (that’s right), 1965, and 1968. Today, we are interested in the 1968, Françoise Hardy. As is typical of these Morning Music posts, I’m limited to the videos I can find. But it really is a great one. It is “Comment Te Dire Adieu?” (“How to Say Goodbye?”) It is Serge Gainsbourg‘s lyrics for Goland and Gold’s It Hurts to Say Goodbye.
I’ve known the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” for a very time. But I seldom pay attention to lyrics of a song that I hear casually. Today, I looked them up. It’s pretty good. I like the connection of self-mutilation (“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel”) and heroin use (“The needle tears a hole… Try to kill it all away”). I’m not so fond of the externalization of the self (“What have I become, my sweetest friend”). But that’s a choice, and very typical of the genre.
The wonderful thing about a song like this is that everyone can related. You don’t have to be self-mutilator or a junkie. Even 14 year old kids feel like they’ve experienced it. When Trent Reznor wrote the song, he was only 29. And his greatest period of depression and despair came years after writing the song.
Depression Is Not Absolute
In the 12 Step mythology, one must reach “rock bottom” before one can “recover.” But the truth is that there is no rock bottom. As bad as you feel, it almost certainly will get worse. All that happens is that you get better at dealing with it. Depression and despair become decoupled.
I remember one of Vincent van Gogh’s last letters to Theo where he noted that he could get some canvases and paint and do some work, but comments what would be the point. I’ve misinterpreted that comment however, thinking that it came right before van Gogh’s suicide. But it didn’t. After writing that, he did get some canvases and paints and did continue on. In fact, he appears to have shot himself while painting.
Anyway, we continue on. Artists whine for us because it is certainly true that no one is interested in hearing us whine. Everybody’s got their troubles. And everybody thinks theirs are as bad as they get. Don’t make that mistake.
I couldn’t find a good copy of the album version. The change of “I wear this crown of shit” to “I wear this crown of thorns” is pretty much unforgivable. It trivializes everything else in the song. Sorry about that.
The Fourth of July always makes me think of the Minutemen’s song “I Felt Like a Gringo.” It tells the (true) story of the band taking a day trip down to Mexico on 4 July 1982. It ends with the line, “Why’d I spend the fourth in someone else’s country?”
I guess that’s why I don’t much go in for this holiday. I feel like an outsider. I think that’s a lot of my desire to live in Mexico: if I must feel like an outsider, I might as well be one.
Anyway, “I Felt Like a Gringo” was first released on the EP, Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat. It was the first Minutemen album I bought. Less than three years later, D Boon would be dead in a tragic car accident, and one of the best bands ever was finished.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone!
Got a ton of white boy guilt, that’s my problem,
Obstacle of joy, one reason to use some drugs.
Slept on a Mexican beach — slept in trash
American trash — thinking too much can ruin a good time.
I asked a Mexican who ran a bar for Americans
“Who won,” I said, “The election?”
He laughed, I felt like a gringo.
They played a song and they had some fun with us.
Why can’t you buy a good time?
Why are there soldiers in the street?
Why’d I spend the fourth in someone else’s country?
Today, we end this week of Negativland, in observance of the death of Richard Lyons. I’m going to jump ahead to their 1997 album, Dispepsi. I want to end with it because when I asked my boss if she knew the band, she said, “Pepsi?” She is the hippest person I’ve ever known. Of course, Negativland doesn’t have a song called “Pepsi”; I’m sure she’s referring to “The Greatest Taste Around,” which is the song we are going to listen to today.
The funny thing about the album is that the band was apparently afraid of being sued by Pepsi. This was not unreasonable, because as a band that made heavy use of sampling, pushing the bounds of IP law was kind of the norm. So the album cover does not have the word “Dispepsi” on it. It does have all the letters on it in various combinations. The album’s song list is done as a food nutrition label with the headline “Ideppiss Facts.” But Pepsi, wisely I think, had no intention of suing. Such acts are usually self-defeating. So the band started calling it “Dispepsi.”
Although “The Greatest Taste Around” is about Pepsi most prominently, the whole album is about Pepsi, Coke, the soda industry, and the idea of having to advertise products people wouldn’t normally want. The song “Hyper Real” is about the selling of New Coke. “Aluminum Or Glass: The Memo” does seem to feature an actual advertising memo. The whole album is brilliant in this way. It sounds great, but it is also great political and social satire: and it is all on YouTube.
“The Greatest Taste Around” is such an upbeat song that it’s easy enough to miss how scathing it is. “Tractors plowing down the hills: Pepsi! Ghastly stench of puppy mills: Pepsi!” All to a I-IV-V chord progression. Brilliant!
Album cover licensed under Fair Use, via Wikipedia.
Yesterday, I featured Negativland’s song “Christianity Is Stupid.” And I discussed how the song was used as the basis for a fake press release that claimed that the song had inspired David Brom to kill his family. The fact that so much of the media fell for the fake story seems to have delighted the band. Well, it’s hard to tell. Maybe they were outraged. Regardless, it inspired them. The first side of their next album, Helter Stupid, is dedicated to it.
There was always a little of The Firesign Theatre in Negativland’s work, and it really comes to the fore here. The following album side is composed of two songs. First is “Prologue.” This is made up mostly of a story that KPIX did on the fake story. And then we move directly into “Helter Stupid.” The basis of it is, I think, a sped up sample from Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby.” On top of it is an amazing sound collage with bits from the original song, more of minister Estus Pirkle, Charles Manson, and lots of media reporting on the fake story. And then there is lots of laughing.
We also get a commercial for “Al’s House of Meat (on the sirloin strip).” Then the people in the studio notice when they rewind it has evil messages. For example, “This child, is a child of evil.” And, “Last night he murdered his parents; tonight his target is his aunt and uncle.” Finally, they have some fun with the trailer of Death Wish II. You don’t have to be analytical to figure out what they are saying.
When I was a teen, this idea that rock songs had evil things recorded backwards on them was very big. As I recall, “Stairway to Heaven” had “Sweet Savior Satan” or something. But even when I was young, the idea that people would somehow pick up on something said backwards was ridiculous. But isn’t it just like Americans to look for something so fantastical to explain our violent culture when Death Wish II is given an MPAA rating of R mostly because of the sex?
Anyway, this is 22 minutes of brilliance. Really, listen to this. It is probably the greatest thing that Negativland ever did. (This is the whole album. The rest of it is interesting and funny, but not as great.)
Helter Stupid cover licensed under Fair use, via Wikipedia.
Probably the best known song from Escape from Noise is “Christianity Is Stupid.” I think I said yesterday that Negativland could do any kind of music they wanted, and we hear that with this song too. It would be compelling, even without the lyrics. But the lyrics are what everyone remembers. And the lyrics are, “Christianity is stupid! Communism is good! Give up!” Over and over. It’s got a very Nineteen Eighty-Four feel to it.
Apparently, the band took a sermon from Baptist minister Estus Pirkle. They grabbed seven words from it and rearranged it. Pirkle was known for his films like The Burning Hell (directed by Ron Ormond). Now, I think these of great bits of idiosyncratic art. But you can also tell that Estus Pirkle was a fire and brimstone preacher — and definitely an anti-communist. So it’s great fun that Negativland managed to take his words and say something that he would find revolting.
Escape From Noise was the first Negativland album on SST Records — you know Greg Ginn’s company created to put out Black Flag albums but also put out all of the Minutemen albums, as well as albums by a number of other great bands. So Negativland had found a home. And Escape From Noise was a surprisingly successful album. So they were expected to go on a tour. But SST had no money for it. What’s more, Negativland wasn’t really a live band. What to do?
Bandmember Richard Lyons came up with an idea to get the band out of having to tour. You will remember that Richard Lyons died last week, and he is the reason that we are listening to Negativland this week. He put out a press release that stated that mass murderer David Brom was inspired by the song “Christianity Is Stupid” to kill his parents and siblings. It stated the FBI had told the band not to leave town. Many news outlets picked up on the hoax press release and ran with it. And why not? Everyone always thinks that pop music creates murderers.
The following recording of “Christianity Is Stupid” goes along with scenes from Metropolis, which I still can’t believe wasn’t a hit when it first came out. And if you haven’t seen it, shame on you. Here is a beautiful print of it for free: Metropolis.
Image of Richard Lyons cropped, rotated, and reduced from one taken from Rolling Stone, licensed under Fair Use.
Today, we reach what is widely considered Negativland’s masterpiece, Escape from Noise. It is the perfect mixing of sound and music. It also has the advantage of being more song oriented. As we saw yesterday with the first side of A Big 10-8 Place, songs mixed into one another and what was called a song was almost arbitrary. Here, that’s not really true. Whether you think that’s good or bad is up to you. I don’t think it much matters.
But for today, we will listen to “Car Bomb.” What I especially like about it is that’s it’s kind of a parody of maximum rock-n-rock. But it works as maximum rock-n-roll and is also better than the vast majority of maximum rock-n-roll. The truth is that Negativland could do anything, because they understood sound — a fact that was clear enough from their previous albums.
Escape from Noise album cover image via Wikipedia, licensed under Fair Use.
Negativland’s third album A Big 10-8 Place is widely considered their first great album. A lot of it is reminiscent of John Lennon’s “Revolution 9.” But I’ve always thought of that as Lennon trying to do Stockhausen without actually understanding Stockhausen. Negativland are fully in the tradition of musique concrète, but from a pop music standpoint. This is especially true on tunes like A Big 10-8 Place, Pt One. But that tune is pretty subtle.
Similar, is the other long song on the album, 180-G, a Big 10-8 Place, Pt Two. It is a 15 minute long sound collage with directions on getting from San Francisco to Concord (the band’s home town). But I must admit, having grown up here, I don’t much follow the directions. They talk excessively about “180 and the letter G.” I don’t know what they mean. Hwy 180 is down by Fresno. But it’s not supposed to make sense. There are various other aspects of the directions like, “You’re going to have to shoplift.” It’s an amazing piece of music. Do check it out.
I really want to introduce you to “Clowns and Ballerinas.” But I don’t want to give you the wrong idea of Negativland. Then again, I’m not sure it is possible. It’s like the blind men and the elephant. Negativland is so many things all at once. And the best thing to do with them is to listen to a whole album — or at least an album side. The first side of A Big 10-8 Place starts with “Theme from a Big Place” then goes into “A Big 10-8 Place, Pt One” and ends with “Clowns and Ballerinas.” So I’ve made a playlist so you can listen to the first side of the album. I think you will see what I mean — how it works as a whole better than it does as a collection of songs:
Album cover image taken from Amazon, licensed under Fair Use.
Negativland’s second album, Points, goes more in the direction of pure sound collage. It’s really remarkable stuff. Listening to it, I try to remember what technology was available. It was 1981, so it was mostly tape recorders and analog synthesizers. I’m on record as being against synthesizers from the early 1980s, but this is because it was when the digital ones came out. And so you got a lot of stuff that all sounded the same. But analog ones had been around for a long time and people did different things with them. Negativland did a lot of interesting stuff on Points.
The song I want to highlight is quite odd for the album, “The Answer Is…” It sounds like they discovered their grandmother’s electric organ. And, in fact, I’m sure that’s exactly what they did. But it just goes to show that you can do great work with any tool at all. But in addition to sounding like a little concert in your grandmother’s living room, there is a little bit of Ronald Reagan saying, “The problem isn’t being poor, the problem is, um, the answer is…” They cut it there. It’s perfect because that was generally the answer that Reagan had.
Remember, this album came out in 1981. It was probably recorded shortly after Reagan was elected. What a great way to come into adulthood! Looking back, it’s so embarrassing. Reagan really was a mediocrity in all ways. This song is a great tribute to him. Anyway, check this out. It’s probably unlike anything else you will hear this week, month, year.
Points Cover image taken from Amazon, licensed under Fair Use.
I know a lot of you are really saddened by the death of a music legend last week. So I figured that we should commemorate Richard Lyons’ death by listening to a week’s worth of Negativland.
According to Rolling Stone, Richard Lyons had been fighting cancer for over 12 years. He had a very aggressive kind of skin cancer, which sucks, given that most forms are relatively trivial. He apparently did not suffer much. But he was only 57.
Richard Lyons formed Negativland in 1979 with his high school friend Mark Hosler. They lived just down the road from me in Concord. The band itself is normally described as “experimental.” That’s true, but doesn’t mean all that much. But you just have to listen. Some of it is hard to call music at all. Their focus has always been on sound — not that there is too much of a distinction there.
It’s hard to know where to start with Negativland. The first self-titled album is fascinating. It’s a sparse combination of music and found sounds. Some of it reminds me of stuff that Laurie Anderson would do later. For example, “4” (all the songs on Negativland are simply numbered) reminds me of Example #22. I hear a lot of things that remind me of other music — stuff that comes both before and after — but it’s hard to put my finger on it exactly. Overall, the effect is riveting.
I can’t find individual tunes from the first album. So I’ve embedded the whole thing. It’s worth listening to. But I’ve cued it at “6.” I don’t have much of a reason for doing it, other than that it is the only song that has what could be called lyrics. And they include the oddly hilarious, “Seat be sate; play Black Sabbath at 78.” The lines are delivered by David Wills, the third founding member of the band.
Image of Richard Lyons cropped, rotated, and reduced from one taken from Rolling Stone, licensed under Fair Use.
As I’ve been picking through these early years of Merle Haggard, it’s hard not to get angry. To most people, he is remembered by his most vile and largely artless work: “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Are the Good Times Really Over.” Those three reactionary songs are hard to get past. And it isn’t all. I like the song “Workin’ Man Blues,” but he has to ruin it with that crack about welfare. But there is a depth of feeling in his early work that is irresistible. Take, for example, “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” off Sing Me Back Home.
Story songs are tricky, especially when you don’t have much of a story to tell. And the story of “Hickory Holler’s Tramp” is a simple one. The singer’s father turns to booze and runs away with another woman, leaving his mother with 14 children to raise. So she becomes a prostitute, and the song is a celebration of that. And of course it should be. You do what you must for those you love. The song is highly sentimental, but it is hard not to find it touching.
Of course, there really is no disconnect between “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” and “Okie from Muskogee.” It’s just a question of empathy. Haggard understands a mother abandoned with children to raise, since that was the story of his mother, although under very different circumstances. But the stereotype of hippies he used again and again indicate that he knew nothing of the young people he stood in opposition to. The key issue is that songs are very personal. If you don’t have empathy, you lose something really important. And what you are left with are less edifying emotions.
But “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” is a really beautiful song:
Album cover licensed under fair use, via Wikipedia.
Some of Merle Haggard’s early albums were really just rushed together collections to capitalize on hit singles. That was the case with Branded Man. But the fact was that Haggard’s work was so strong at this point in his career that the albums are still great. But I don’t especially want to talk about the album when the title track is so interesting.
It tells the story of a man who has been released from prison who finds that society will not let him forget his past. One doesn’t need to have been to prison to feel that the world just won’t let go of your past. And despite Haggard’s success after he left prison, I know that he is speaking from experience.
My favorite line from the song is, “I paid the debt I owed them, but they’re still not satisfied.” That was written in 1967 when society was actually far more forgiving of past indiscretions than it is today. The truth is that when someone goes to prison, they never pay their debt to society. We are, on the whole, an awful people. And there is no end to the punishment. It goes on and on until you die.
I suppose you could justify the whole thing by noting that people are afraid. But I don’t much think that’s the case. I think that people simply lack empathy. I’ve long found it fascinating that people who live in high crime areas are more forgiving than people in low crime areas. That’s not about fear; that’s about a lack of imagination regarding the lives of others.
Just the same, “Branded Man” also shows the other side of this. Even if society did manage to forgive the singer, it’s hard to think that he would see it that way. The saddest line in the song is, “Determined I would rise above the shame.” Well, shame is an internal thing. But at least the singer knows he should feel shame. Too bad the society itself does not.
Branded Man album cover image licensed under Fair Use, via Wikipedia.