In a second we'll hear from this man, Mark E. Smith. But first, a quote from Jason Gross in this year's Pazz & Jop critics poll which got me thinking: Have artists lost the ability to act? Is reaction the only thing left? Or, to put it another way, has the post-modern condition taken hold to the degree that all artists have left is the ability to comment on what has come before?
Here's the quote:
“Lately we're getting bombarded by acts that cover the music scene themselves pretty well in their own tunes: Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip, the Hold Steady, LCD Soundsystem. This may mean that rock criticism is in danger of actually being replaced by the thing it's reporting on. At this rate, these acts will be bigger competition than the blogs out there.”
I think Jason's point is that the Hold Steady and LCD often employ lyrical narratives about what it's like to grow old in various pop music scenes. But I think his point could be equally applied to their music as sound — that Hold Steady equal a gloss on Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen; that LCD Soundsystem sound a bit too much like someone with a record collection that includes New Order, Steve Reich, and many a tasty electronic nugget I'm too busy to namecheck right now. Basically, my extrapolation of his point is that bands have become better articulators of the pop music canon than critics or other outside voices; and, more importantly, that they have more ability than critics to revive interest in older music with a flagging reputation. (And if LCD and Hold Steady are too obscure for you, look at how Kanye resuscitated the career of Daft Punk.)
Two artists who Jason didn't mention, however, highlight this idea even more pointedly: Jeffrey Lee Lewis and Dirty Projectors. They have created two of my most listened to albums of the past 6 months or so — Dirty Projectors with Rise Above a re-interpretation, from memory, of Black Flag's Damaged and JLL with 12 Crass Songs, a re-imagining — in studied detail — of the music of UK crusty punk band, Crass.
Where JLL's hyper-articulated vocals make Crass's intense rhetoric audible…
Dirty Projectors make Black Flag's hardcore punk-as-jazz sound almost unrecognizable…
…while somehow managing to maintain the group's emotional core.
After the jupm, more dense, overthought prose — and a slurring yet articulate Mark E. Smith!
What both the Projectors and Lewis are clearly doing is bringing the founders of hardcore punk back into the cultural conversation. Say what you will about Crass and Black Flag, but no one would accuse them of being trendy in 2008.
In figuring out if we should be concerned by re-imaginings like this, one could do worse than ask WWMESD? i.e. What Would Mark E. Smith Do?
Smith — lead singer of the early & enduring UK punk band the Fall — was recently interviewed on my favorite VBS.tv offering, Soft Focus. In it there is a passage where he is asked to discuss his negative inspirations — artists who he hated so much that it made him want to make music. (Sort of how George Bush inspires you to throw your television out the window.) For the relevant bit, watch from the five minute mark.
For those with slow internet connections, I'll quote:
Mark E. Smith: “When I was a teenager in 1970 fucking 3 whenever it was…there was a reason I created the Fall was to get away from fuckers like Pink Floyd, The Eagles, Neil Young…cause everywhere you went that was sort of a driving force…it wasn't the Sex Pistols that was the driving force to do something improper. All these groups who claim to be influenced by me I think they're more influenced by the Talking Heads to be honest…. (Descent into inaudible mumbling though I think you can hear him say the words 'Talking Heads' and 'British music'.)”
Host: “Do you like the Talking Heads?”
Mark E. Smith: “No, to me they're the enemy. That's why the Fall started.”
Smith is an OG icon of Manchester — Britian's working class capitol of post-punk. He's the kind of guy who sounds as if his brain has been so burned away by methamphetamine that the only thing left is wisdom. And I think Smith's point here is that even worse than the bloated and comfy likes of Young and Floyd, is a group like Talking Heads, a group who want nothing to do with punk's original spirit — a certain amateurism, an unstudied grace.
Mark E. Smith's point is that Talking Heads think before they act. Basically, that they're curators of culture first, creators of culture second. And probably that's what Dirty Projectors, LCD Soundsystem, Jeffrey Lee Lewis, and The Hold Steady are all about as well.