Recent Cultural Happenings will be a semi regular series collecting recent findings in the cultural realm I’ve experienced mixed with reappraisals or new vantage points of stuff I’ve always known.
Taking a leap off of the Buzzcock’s 1978 single (A-side ‘Love You More’/B-side ’Noise Annoys’), I’m finding myself swirling in an ever changing, but never ending delirium, of wonderful, blissful noise. The gist of Shelley’s pen in that previously mentioned single implied the wonderment in guitar fury (or being disruptively loud in general) with it being a young sensibility, the distinction made that “pretty girls, and pretty boys” will always have mothers who complain that ‘noise annoys’. It creates a chasm of auditory difference (aka defiance) where often in rock only a visual or lyrical one existed. I imagine that the sonic quality of the music has always been a problem on some level, but then it did take a while for the music to get really out of control and more readily resembled ’noise’ than it did ‘tunes’.
To these ears, the Who, and specifically Pete Townshend experiments in feedback are largely where it all started. I said in the past that bootlegs from 1966-68, the most famous of which is a April 1968 Fillmore East performance, are the vintage of the group that I now cherish over all else and it was a performance that night of an album track from 1967’s Sell Out called ‘Relax’ that set everything in destructive, forward motion. Eventually I’ll fully capture my thoughts on the track, but suffice to say I’m not lying when I say that, to me, it’s the most important performance in rock history, and therefor a singular artifact for the development on late-20th century art. The members of the Who coalesce from individual members of a group into one mechanical noisy object there; turning the songs almost 10 minutes into a convulsing, screeching wreckage. Elsewhere the Velvet Underground would be similarly experimenting (since the Fillmore East is in New York we wonder if the Velvets are in attendance that night), but their noise is a meandering, atmospheric kind. Not altogether unenjoyable in itself (in fact I love it), but when barriers are being destroyed, I happen to prefer they be assaulted in a full out frontal barrage. The Velvet Underground didn’t have the armaments that the Who had at their disposal for such an attack as unfortunately the world was only blessed with one Townshend, Moon, and Entwistle each.
It was with all this noise on my mind when we put the 2014 documentary Lambert and Stamp on last night. Judging a documentary with content so up my alley was always going to be difficult for me to be objective about, so really, I don’t pretend otherwise. It’s a wonderful immersion into the English world of the early to mid-1960s, and it’s shown in vivid detail thanks to the film backgrounds of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp (you’ll remember that they initially approached the Who while making a cinéma-vérité film on youth culture, but instead decided to document their managing of the band instead when they became ardent fans of the group) and the mountains of footage they shot. Much of this has never been seen before, certainly not at this length and with this level of completeness, so while you can become immersed in the unraveling of an important passage in Pop history, you’re also in for a special rare treat. All the living members recount the story with fresh insight and starkly honest assessments.
Much of any discussion inside any documentary on the early Who would tackle a bit of the mod culture they were a part of, and Lambert and Stamp succeeds wonderfully here, complete with several passages from famous mod and Who fanatic ‘Irish Jack’ Lyons. Our own Saturday night mod excursion was the monthly Windy City Soul night at Chicago’s Empty Bottle where rare Northern Soul 45’s are spun. A slightly thinner crowd then normal afforded those in attendance a welcomed bit more room to glide about to the shimmering stomper soul. While much of that music isn’t altogether ‘noisy’, you would be amazed to really study soul of the era to hear just how much fuzzy guitars were starting to be implemented in the R&B sound (plus, any exuberant music blared this loud over a club PA is going to generate some level of ‘noise’ for those in attendance).
I suppose our last cultural happening post had a bit of the noise too, the sustained screeching of the Red Aunts’ ‘I’m Crying’ had me humming about as you’ll recall, and their aesthetic no doubt is what moved me onto the next discovery (well, that and a nice tip in their direction), Olympia, Washington’s Broken Water gave me the next noisy sugar fix the past few days, specifically their 2010 release, Whet. It’s mostly a lower register affair, save track 5 ‘Heal’ whose very title implies it’s the release of the entire record. It plays that way too; the previous 4 tracks are all hazy feedback thumps, culminating with track 4, ‘Spore’, which is three minutes and 50 seconds of the band searching to capture the feedback loop within the hurricane. They do, and hold the hum triumphantly, before the song closes to slashing vibrating guitar and distant saxophone squeaks. ‘Heal’ then begins with a fuzzy bassline before a picked guitar (the cleanest sound on the album so far) mirrors the lullaby like vocals. It’s a nice bit of beauty amidst all the noise, even if track 2, ‘Hear’ was the one that had me returning most often (it’s as chugging and enveloping as it is chiming and clattering). Around a minute in the track absolutely takes off to the races around which a howling verse echoes the speed. From there, I plucked Providence noise-rock band Landed and their 2008 compilation How Little Will It Take via spotify. ‘Hear’ is the ‘heaviest’ Broken Water get on Whet, so there was an inclination of why I’d welcome Landed into my ears as their souped up bass driven noise pummel is something else entirely. There is a lot of song craft here too; which is saying something in a genre where tunes aren’t often as melodic as these. It can be paved over with layers of murky thudding, but it’s always a driving, welcome force. Additional return listens prove welcome, probable, and essential; these are dense tracks with intricacies that only repeated listens can probably unearth.
Perhaps it’s circular; with my mind immersed in the idea of a Buzzcocks’ track featuring a guardian snuffing out the enjoyment emanating from a teenage bedroom stereo (in Risky Business it was the Dad saying, “Is this how I left the equalizer?”) I started re-reading John Stuart Mill’s slim volume, On Liberty. It seemed apropos that if you’re going to put out into the universe what most would consider noise pollution that you feel comfortably grounded in your spatial limitations and freedoms. I watched the second GOP debate in a virtual stupor then, thinking what do all these gasbags going on about ‘liberty’ actually do to sustain and free the individual? From their mouths perfectly clear language has me doing a 180; the guitars that roar and bleep are suddenly comparatively tolerable and un-objectionable. Traditional ‘noise’ to our Buzzcock mother is no longer bleeding amps, but rather those that can’t understand Mill’s Third Basic Liberty principle: the freedom to unite with others (not to mention what a hawkish foreign policy means within the harm principle). Yes, the noise of obnoxious rhetoric annoys. Maybe that’s what they meant all along.