Sunday, August 9, 2015

"Passion is what it's all about": Lester Bangs on rock & roll

Lester and friends
In 1980, two years before he died, Lester Bangs wrote a book about Blondie. His mild disillusionment with the hastily-conceived and -written project is well known, yet the obscure book is worthy not only in terms of the money it fetches; in it, Bangs gives one of his most passionate yet lucid definitions, and defense, of rock and roll. Years ago I came across an edited chapter from the Blondie book—the hilariously titled "In Which Yet Another Pompous Blowhard Purports to Possess the True Meaning of Punk Rock"—in Clinton Heylin's anthology The Penguin Book Of Rock & Roll Writing, published in 1992, and it still resonate with me. Nothing ground-breaking here from Bangs, just a solid restatement of what draws him to rock & roll. Listen to your favorite "brutal, mindless, primitive, vicious, base, savage, primal, hate-filled, grungy, violent, terrifying and above all REAL" rock & roll album as you read these three excerpts. Or turn on and turn up the embedded links:
The truth is that punk rock is a phrase that has been around at least since the beginning of the seventies, and what it at common means is rock & roll in its most basic, primitive form. In other words, punk rock has existed throughout the history of rock & roll, they just didn’t call it that. In the fifties, when rock & roll was so new it scared the shit out of parents and racists everywhere, the media had a field day. This stuff was derided mercilessly, it was called "unmusical," it was blamed for juvenile delinquency. Sexual depravity (well…), if not the demise of Western civilization as a whole. It was said that the musicians could not play their instruments; in large part, by any conventional standards (what they used to call "good" music), this was true. Does that matter now to the people who are still listening to those classic oldies twenty years later? It was said that the singers could not sing, by any previous "legitimate" musical standard; this was also true. It was written off nearly everywhere as a load of garbage that would come and go within a year’s time, a fad like the hula hoop.

Is any of this beginning to sound vaguely familiar?

The point is that rock & roll, as I see it, is the ultimate populist art form, democracy in action, because it’s true: anybody can do it. Learn three chords on a guitar and you’ve got it. Don’t worry whether you can "sing" or not. Can Neil Young "sing"? Lou Reed, Bob Dylan? A lot of people can’t stand to listen to Van Morrison, one of the finest poets and singers in the history of popular music, because of the sound his voice. But this is simply a matter of exposure. For performing rock & roll, or punk rock, or call it any damn thing you please, there’s only one thing you need: NERVE. Rock & roll is an attitude, and if you’ve got the attitude you can do it, no matter what anybody says. Believing that is one of the things punk rock is about. Rock is for everybody, it should be so implicitly anti-elitist that the question of whether somebody’s qualified to perform it should never even arise.

But it did. In the sixties, of course. And maybe this was one reason why the sixties may not have been so all-fired great as we gave them credit for. Because in the sixties rock & roll began to think of itself as an "art-form." Rock & roll is not an "art-form," rock & roll is a raw wail from the bottom of the guts. And like I said, whatever anybody ever called it, punk rock has been around from the beginning—it’s just rock honed down to its rawest elements, simple playing with a lot of power and vocalists who may not have much range but have so much conviction and passion it makes up for it ten times over. Because PASSION IS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT—what all music is about.


Seventies punk largely reflects a reaction against the cult of the guitar hero. Technical virtuosity was not a sine qua non of rock & roll in the first place and never should have become. Not that brilliant rock hasn’t been made by musicians whose technical chops were and are the absolute highest. But see, that’s JUST THE POINT. Just because something is simpler than something else does not make it worse. It’s just the kind of hype a lot of people started buying in the late sixties with the rise of the superstar and superinstrumentalist concepts.

There was punk rock all through the sixties. The Seeds with "Pushin’ Too Hard." Count Five "Psychotic Reaction." "Talk Talk" by the Music Machine. And many others. It was simple, primitive, direct, honest music. Then, in 1969, Iggy and the Stooges put out their first album. Throughout the seventies, that and their subsequent two albums became cult items with small groups of people all over the world, who thought these records were some of the greatest stuff they had ever heard. They were also some of simplest: two chords, a blaring fuzztone, Iggy singing lyrics as simple as "Can ah cum ovah to-nat? Can ah cum ovah to-nat? Uh said uh we will have a real cool taam—to-naaat! We will hayuv—a real coool taam! To-naat!" Get it? It was, as Ed Ward wrote in Rolling Stone when it appeared, "A reductio ad absurdum of rock & that might have been thought up by a mad DAR General in a wet dream." [Note: I can't resist intruding and adding Ward's next sentence: "They suck, and they know it, so they throw the fact back in your face and say 'So what? We're just havin' fun'."] Except where he was being sarcastic, I thought that was a compliment: the Stooges’ music was brutal, mindless, primitive, vicious, base, savage, primal, hate-filled, grungy, violent, terrifying and above all REAL. They meant every note and word of it.


[The New York Dolls] didn’t "get away" with anything. They did what they could and what they wanted to so and out of the chaos emerged something magnificent, something that was so literally explosive with energy and life and joy and madness that it could not be held down by all your RULES of how this is supposed to be done! Because none of ‘em are valid! Rock & roll is about BREAKING the form, not "working within it." GIVE US SOME EQUAL TIME. Let the kid behind the wheel. Like Joe Strummer of the Clash says, "It’s not about playin’ the chords right, for starters!"
As many do, I wonder often about how Bangs would've reacted to the metronome sheen of popular music made in the 1980s. I wonder where he would've found his nervy rock & roll—it never went away, of course, and it would've been great to read his mad, anxious, righteous, rockist, occasionally annoying wanderings after it.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

While I think Lester Bangs deeply understands an essential aspect of rock music, he allows this to limit his perspective of what "rock" can and must be. At the end of the day rock IS an artform, just like any musical genre. To pit rock against classical as if they're antitheses is misguided and ignores the values they have in common. Bangs is ironically a conservative in his own way - a rock conservative.