The Evolution of the American Sound
Roots of indie, heavy metal, & alternative rock
One Sunday afternoon circa 1989 I heard “I Live in the Springtime” by the Buzz Saw on Bill Kelly’s Teenage Wasteland on listener-sponsored Upsala College’s WFMU. The station has always been difficult to pick up in Brooklyn, it comes over a little better in a car radio because its signal is transmitted all the way from New Jersey. Today, I couldn’t get the station at all on my crappy boom box!
I thought the Buzz Saw was peculiar because half of “I Live in the Springtime” sounded like the Everly Brothers and the other half was saturated in the most unusual metallic guitar playing I’ve ever heard. The guitar really sounds like a buzz saw on this track! My ears were used to the slick heavy metal bands that were immensely popular in the 80s: Van Halen, Iron Maiden, Metallica, and the like. I found that the polished recordings I was accustomed to hearing had amusing predecessors. Over time I noticed that a lot of earlier metal recordings sometimes sounded funny compared to what was current. Somehow 70’s metal bands like Uriah Heep, Nazareth, and Foghat sound awkward now. These bands are fun to listen to once in awhile and can be compared to “good” B movies. These bands were unwittingly a part of a transition leading to what we have now.
The British are given credit for everything, including Black Sabbath, but America developed its own flavor of heavy metal in the heartland of the Northern Midwest. My theory is that bands like the Stooges and the MC5, both from Michigan, and small regional Chicago area bands were pioneers in developing a unique American hard edge sound. LA and New York are well known for their innovative artists and Texas has always been a bastion great guitar players, but to me there is something you can point out in Chicago garage that is distinctive. After all, there was a big migration of black blues musicians to Chicago during the post-war segregation era. Chicago blues influenced the Rolling Stones, who influenced almost anyone who was in a garage band. Chicago blues was known for being electric and having brisk tempo. I think subconsciously the harsh winters and strife in the city (i.e., the many civil rights riots) made bitterness creep its way into the music.
How we hear music today is very different than it was in previous decades. We are a global society and everything is on Youtube.com. You are able to hear a recording by clicking on a link that I send you. In the early days radio was regional and local artists weren’t able to be heard unless their records, made of vinyl, were played by someone. FM radio was the first showcase for the indie band. WFMU was founded in 1958 and is the radio station that has had freeform format longer than any other station. Freeform radio is musical anarchy. It’s full of surprises because freeform DJs spin selections from whatever genre they wish on the same program. In the 1980’s WFMU would play (and still do) these proto-punk bands that only could be found on not-so-easy to find vinyl compilations. Many of these tracks were originally released on 45”s and are rare because a lot of original pressings wound up in the garbage. I would tape Teenage Wasteland with an curiosity about early garage rock that a decade after its conception was dubbed “punk” or proto-punk. These were the first indie bands. As a disclaimer, my cassette recordings of the shows which long since have deteriorated (really low grade cassettes) were used for my own personal use to help me in my selection of CD purchases. I hope in one way or another I was able to compensate some of the artists when I bought their music after hearing these tapes.
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The indie band was an American invention. Folks like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, just to name a few, started writing and performing their own material. Prior to that, Frank Sinatra and other vocalists including Elvis depended on writers for their material. Many country western and folk artists wrote but they were already set in their ways and most were not experimenting with musical form. The fact that rock artists were writing their own music was paradigm shift for rock. Buddy Holly was from Texas where he experimented with song structures based on cha cha, mambo, and other Latin rhythms creating a genre known as Tex Mex. Indie was born in the South.
Bill Kelly had often mentioned on his show that a lot of rock & roll is derivative, and my observation was that most of the great heavy metal guitarists cited Britain’s Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Rainbow as an influence on their playing before they mention Eric Clapton. So much was borrowed and built upon from Deep Purple. “Highway Star” from 1972’s Machinehead had all the ingredients of modern heavy metal. It draws from classical structure, baroque to be more specific, rather than blues. Eddie Van Halen, known and loved by many, has said that Blackmore was a primary influence on his playing. Hints of Blackmore are visible all over Van Halen’s playing.
I mentioned that the transition from angry three chord teenage angst to a fine tuned metallic music machine is an interesting road to examine. It might have its roots in the origins of effects, some that were discovered by accident. One story goes that one night a surf/rockabilly artist dropped his tube amp and tore its speakers. The result was more feedback and overdrive. Soon it became obvious that this texture could be used for to give the musician a more expressive palate.
The great Surf guitarist Link Wray of North Carolina used this primal technology to create overdrive by slashing the speakers of his amp with razor blades (some accounts say screw drivers). Blues artists such as Johnny Lee Hooker and Howlin’ Wolf were experimenting with reverb and other effects around this time. Jazz pianist and bandleader Sun Ra put reverb and digital delay on horns, percussion, and the kitchen sink on his albums Cosmic Tone for Mental Therapy and Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow.
The Little Boy Blues were one of the most prolific proto punk bands in the Chicago and capitalized by not playing “clean.” They released a few LPs BBS (Before Black Sabbath). Their track “You Don’t Love Me,” breaks into a guitar solo the way Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” does. You would think it was a band imitating Zep but it’s pre “Heartbreaker.” The LBB’s other material is pretty eclectic. They knew how to stay on the heavy side with their classics “The Great Train Robbery,” and an old mod standard “I Can Only Give You Everything.”
“I Can Only Give You Everything” is an example of how some musical forms fade and then become a peculiar curiosity decades later. The innovative Beck used its riff on “Devil’s Haircut” the opening track of Beck Odelay. It’s kind of a mambo with a fuzz bass; the guitarist takes a slick solo when the band breaks as he does in “You Don’t Love Me.” I think the mambo beat has become passé in rock. Most bands stopped using it somewhere in the 70s shortly after Sabbath assembled “Ironman” without instructions. Mambo is an American invention that was made popular by NYC’s Tito Puente in the 1940’s and it became the rhythmic foundation of much American rock & roll in the 50’s. Mambo was a key ingredient in the Beatles’ appeal in America (e.g. “Twist and Shout”).
Chicago bands stick out because of their use of fuzz. The Great Society (not to be confused with Grace Slick’s pre Jefferson Airplane SF band of the same name) used it artfully, giving their pop song, “I’m the One for You,” is interesting spin on what would sound like an Everly Brothers’ song if it were played without the saturation. The effect enhances the dissonances in musical intro. This can be found on the Target Fuzz: I’m Gonna Stay compilation on the Teenage Shutdown label. Also from Chicago, The Nobleman’s “Short Time” also has a mambo-like feel but with the same crunchy texture as Black Flag’s “TV Party” which was about fifteen years later.
I can compare the tracks from Chicago with bands of that time from California and I noticed that with a few exceptions, California psych bands used effects in more subtle way. Cali-psych used distortion which didn’t dominate the rest of the instrumentation most of the time. Blue Cheer, from San Francisco was the exception. They put out what was arguably the first heavy metal album Vincebus Eruptum in 1968. Like the MC5 from Michigan, they had more than one guitarist and overdrive was a central element in the sound that made the music a new genre. Blue Cheer is known for their cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” which sounds like it could have done in Seattle in 1993. Their live performance as a trio of “Summertime Blues” on American Bandstand is riveting footage.
What was Ritchie Blackmore doing when Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum came out? He was working on Deep Purple’s The Book of Taliesyn, their debut album. He wasn’t doing heavy metal yet. It is psych with heavy keyboards and very European sounding. It’s brilliant and you can hear early embryonic heavy metal. Most of England was approaching hard rock the similar to how musicians in LA were, not over using the overdrive and still maintain the sensory overload.
Lyrical content changed as garage rock took on a punk attitude, a sarcasm introduced by the Rolling Stones which wrote songs like “Baby You’re Out of Time” and the misogynic “Under My Thumb” which weren’t love songs but about romantic vendettas and wearing the pants. Half Pint & the Fifths’ “Orphan Boy” from Chicago has a rhythm section that sounds like the Stones and tells the story of a street urchin who lives the life of a hobo who spends his life on the street and in pool halls. It has some clever lines like, racking pool balls a nickel a game, / and everyone calls me by my first name. It has no flashy guitar solo, it would detract from the lyrics if it had a solo. It has a driving backbeat like Chicago blues does.
Straight out of high school the Shady Daze from the Chicago area played the rant “I’ll Make You Pay.” You have to hear it to believe it! It sounds like hundreds of garage songs of the period with those same three chords, an antiquated form of punk rock that came to a dead end. But it stands out because there is a certain energy in it that pushes this track over the edge. I compare tracks like this to extinct species of mammals: deers with horns sprouting from their snout, creatures that look like Jar Jar Binks and mastodons. Developmental curiosities.
I want to make a brief mention and give a nod to some early indie bands from Minnesota. The Litter, who still play now and had a few well done albums. Their tracks “(Under the Screaming Double) Eagle” and “Mindbreaker” were ahead of their time. “Faces” by TC Atlantic is wonderful novelty that maximizes the use of effects without compromising musicality. Minnesota has always had an interesting music scene and is known as the the home of Prince and Husker Du. There and in other areas of the Northern Midwest a lot of these early indie bands started writing songs with a 1950s sensibility before the opened up to the possibilities of a more esoteric approach to music. “Candy” by the Litter is a campy snapshot of this phenomena.
From Minnesota to Michigan. Is it the harsh climate that inspired this machine metal esthetic? The MC5 broke out of the blues, though they have a few tracks like “Motor City Burning” that was a blues cover written by Johnny Lee Hooker in support the Black Panthers. After all you had to get into the door some how, and the blues got them through the door I’m sure. You don’t known how many baby boomers hate the MC5, they appeal to Generation Xers who have a chip on their shoulder. Ahead of their time, “Sonic” by Fred Smith and Wayne Kramer on guitars, as well as the rest of the band, have been a primary influence on so many of the great grunge bands to come up in the next generation in Seattle. Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, and others listened to the MC5 and the Stooges to build their sound. I do want to mention that Seattle did have some history in the making of indie and heavy metal in the early days besides the fact that Jimi Hendrix grew up there. Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs (“Louie, Louie”) and the Sonics were from Seattle. The Sonics were a very different proto-punk band. Listening to a number of there songs you can see them veer off from being a bar band to designing a truly grungy sound. “He’s Waiting” always cracks me up, the track is a successful departure from the blues into the next rung on the evolutionary ladder.
Free jazz had found itself into the melting pot when Sun Ra, who I mentioned above collaborated a lot with the MC5. These recordings are rare and I first heard them on WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station.
Heavy metal really hasn’t changed too much since I was in high school in 1985 when saw Yngwie Malmsteen’s first North American performance at the late great L’Amour’s in Brooklyn . L’Amour’s showcased everyone from Ace Freely to local bands like the Cro-mags and White Lion which got their start in that club. Like the blues that by 1957 had been frozen with all it’s ingredients that identify a song as blues, heavy metal had its characteristics defined by 1985. There is still a lot the artist can do within the heavy metal format. Bands like Megadeath and Saxon are progressive and very musically sophisticated, though you might think the format of heavy metal is limiting.
Cheap Trick, who were formed in the 70s, is from Chicago and fits the profile of the hard edge music from the Northern Midwest. Though it was common by 1977 for bands that weren’t heavy metal to have metal or punk traits. By then there was so much music that was being circulated that regional distinctions had just about been obliterated. It is almost impossible to say “those guys sound like they’re from Connecticut” or anywhere else because modern media has blurred regional features of music and our culture in such away that we even have lost our drawls and accents when we speak. We are a global information society. I know a band based in NY State that has a drummer that lives in England. How do they practice? The drummer gets sent tracks he is to play on, (Soundcloud.com comes in handy), practices to the track, then later he meets the band on their tour when it’s time to play live.
The 80’s brought the Dwarfs to us out of Chicago and in the 90’s Ministry and The Smashing Pumpkins. All pretty edgy bands. These bands help me state my case that Chicago bands have always been masters of loud music. The White Stripes, one of my favorite bands, is from Detroit and also carries on the tradition of the American sound. Jack White has developed a unique palate of musical ideas that are independent of the blues even though we can see in the film It Might Get Loud that he shows his gift for the blues. Though the White Stripes have been around a while, White’s sounds are fresh and new.
I’m open for debate and for hearing other opinions if anyone thinks otherwise. I hope you give some of these tracks a listen, and I hope you find them as amusing as I do.