Bad Musician, Good Rock?

 

Recently, Keith Emerson, keyboardist for ’70’s prog rock pioneers Emerson,Lake and Palmer died. There was certainly no Bowie/Lemmy outpouring of grief over this particular rock passing. Two reasons, one Emerson wasn’t particularly relevant since the very early ’80’s when the style of music ELP created went out of style. It never really made much of a return so he’d been toiling in relative obscurity since then. And two, there is something off putting about progressive rock for many music fans. Which is to say, Keith Emerson wasn’t cool.

Progressive rock was music played by rock musicians that incorporated ideas of classical and jazz music in an attempt to make rock and pop a higher art form. It was in many ways a reaction against the hit single, AM radio and the simplicity of much of rock and pop music. This genre was over represented by British/European musicians if that matters.

The great writer, (check out his definitive Nirvana book, Come As You Are and also This Could Be Your Band), Michael Azzarad posted on Facebook something to the effect that he had a minor affinity for Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s live record, Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends but ultimately bands like ELP were what drove him to punk rock. I have to say, this mirrors my own experience right down to the actual album. It’s been well documented that punk rock and disco, (and later hip hop) were a reaction against what many felt was the pretentious, overwrought and unglamorous music that FM radio played. Songs were long with lots of instrumental soloing, and were either structurally complex or else more like jazz pieces where the theme would be introduced and then the soloists would take over until exhausted and the theme would be reintroduced at the end the song. This was especially apparent in live performances, I had a live Mountain record where their song Nantucket Sleighride took up two full sides.

There was also an idea of corporate rock. This was music that appeared to pander to corporate profit imperatives, music that was created to move massive amounts of units. Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles and Peter Frampton created multi-platinum blockbusters that appeared to change record companies’ business models. As Todd Rundgren once put it, if one record can sell 10 million copies, why can’t all of them sell 10 million copies? The musician as artist was being replaced by the musician as a commodity, (though I may be overstating this-I’m sure many in the music business thought of musicians as commodities since the start of the recording era).

Punk rock sprang out of New York city with a big fuck that to both of these stimuli. Deconstructing rock and roll back to it’s origins as a simple music form that pretty much anyone could play, it also brought a snotty nose defiance and anger that really hadn’t surfaced in popular music maybe ever. Punk rock also brought fashion with it, something that had been lacking in all but glam rock in the post-hippy rock world.

Disco was the other side of the same coin. It was totally fashion oriented, bringing a new sense of excitement, glamour and romance to music. People could dress up, do their hair and go to a dance club to party and engage in the mating ritual. This again gave the middle finger to long haired, blue jean wearing, pot smoking players who soloed for hours in front of an audience who looked pretty much the same as their heroes. It is important to note that not all of these rock bands or even most of them, were progressive rock bands. However, with their pretentious classical leanings and their fairies and hobbits lyrics, prog rock bands were looked upon as the worst of the worst.

Long historical set up for this, apologies.

The whole reason for this piece is, why doesn’t Keith Emerson or his music matter to most people? Keith Emerson was an extraordinarily talented musician with a classical background who had clearly put in Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. ELP were a trio of virtuosos (or at least two out of the three) as were the musicians in most prog rock bands. On the other hand, punk rockers needed only a rudimentary knowledge of their instrument. In fact, playing too well was often seen as a negative in punk circles, the Bad Brains notwithstanding. Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols did not get the bass gig because of his chops, he replaced a much better player in the band. His fame was a result of his ability to inhabit the anti-social caricature of the punk rocker.

Since then, maybe before then but definitely since then, there has been an idea floating around popular music that there is something honorable or authentic about being a bit crappy. That if you play too well or sing too well or your song is too well written and catchy that you suck in some existential way. Looking at the history of rock and roll, there has always been an element of wildness, abandon and a theatrical not-giving-a-shit that really does define much of the more exciting music of the past 50 years. Starting with Jerry Lee Lewis banging and stomping on his piano to the MC5 and the New York Dolls and Iggy and the Stooges to the original punk bands from the ’70’s to Guided By Voices and (maybe) Pavement in the ’90’s, this idea of a general looseness to the performance is seen as high art to many music lovers. IT SHOULD BE NOTED HERE THAT THESE ARE SOME OF MY ALL TIME FAVORITE BANDS.

My problem is not with these bands as, see my capitals. My problem is with the idea that the art form that has dominated my life can be properly performed badly. No one says the same thing in the literary world, in film making or any other art form. This offends me. I would love to think that the greatest music was performed by the greatest musicians and was written by the greatest songwriters just like the greatest novels are written by the greatest writers.

Keith Emerson was certainly a great musician. He was also a pioneer in terms of his use of the synthesizer in a live context. His Moog part in Lucky Man was likely the first time many people had ever heard a synth on the radio or ever. Were he in another art form, he would likely have been revered, not just at the peak of his popularity but in perpetuity. However, for the last 40 years, he and his band were offensive to many, a joke to more and worse, uncool to most. Why, I need to ask? I am also asking myself this question. No one laughed harder at the CREEM Magazine review of their album Works, which had the headline, But Only As A Frisbee. I embraced the Ramones, Sex Pistols and Clash while discarding any affinity to ELP. Yes and even Van Halen, (temporarily). The only progressive rock I held onto was Utopia because, well, Todd Rundgren!!

This didn’t last too long. As I’ve written before, being narrow minded and snobby about music is pretty much the stupidest thing you can do. I snapped out of it. A couple of years ago, I actually impulse-bought the aformentioned, Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends, a 3CD live set that was the only recording of theirs I really liked. There is a killer version of their best piece, Karn Evil 9, First Impression. (Boy that title really brings back memories of why I stopped liking them).

Sometimes people will play me music that they’ve done or are working on and it’s dissonant and unmusical. I might point that out to them and they’ll say, “well that’s what I was trying to do. That’s what I like.” So you like shit, I think to myself? I think that’s it for me, people justifying their inadequacies. Maybe because they mistakenly believe they know something that others don’t. Or because someone else might have done something less than perfect in a perfect way before them. What that means is the bands I spoke about earlier in this piece may have not been perfect in terms of their virtuosity but the end result ended up being revelatory in terms of its artistic expression. But that’s them, it doesn’t give lesser artists the right to claim their own looseness is all that matters without the payoff of a song as original and culture changing as Blitzkrieg Bop or God Save The Queen or Search and Destroy or Bulldog Skin. I remember reading in, (again) CREEM Magazine, a writer complaining that the trouble with Bob Dylan is that he made people think they could write about nothing and it would seem meaningful. Which I took to say, you can do something in the style of someone else but without substance it remains, without substance.

Let me try this. Music may be more sensual than other types of art. Which is to say, it is not like a story or other narrative art. It enters your consciousness in a different way and makes you feel it, (or not) in your heart, mind and body. So you might like or not like a song based on your own predispositions of beauty. It’s much harder to articulate why you like a song than it is to say why you like a book or movie or play. You say, I like the Dolls because I like that they sound out of control and I like that feeling. Or I like Steve Aoki because all I want to do is dance. This helps me a bit because it means that it’s okay to like a recording of your grandma singing her favorite gospel song more than Steve Vai playing 10 notes a second for two minutes. Because one touches something inside of you and the other doesn’t.

This doesn’t negate my, relative, disappointment over the lack of respect so many hip music lovers gave Keith Emerson. Someone who is that talented and who was honestly attempting to push both musical and performance boundaries should be remembered only fondly. Even if you didn’t actually like his music.


3 Responses to “Bad Musician, Good Rock?”

  • Jonathan Shelnut Says:

    Any new TPOH coming out? I’ve been a fan since the beginning and i’d love some new Moe!

  • Joel Says:

    Loved it Moe! At 13 I was a huge ELP fan. Works came out while I was getting into Zep and Aerosmith and I never returned to that brand of prog. I remember while in Edmonton in the early 80’s going to the rep cinema to see the Olympic Stadium ELP flick and walking out. Of course by then it would as all about Simple amazing new and improved he Gang of 4!

  • Dodo Says:

    Be interested to know what you think of a similarly “uncool” that also had a prodigious output of material and excellent songwriting: the Pet Shop Boys?

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