What if one of those days was today? What’s the picture of… alive or dead? This is beginning to sound all motivational Monday so I’ll spare you and present instead a bit of the great rock critic, Lester Bangs. If you can’t feel it from this, put the camera down and call the doctor on yourself.
A Reasonable guide to Horrible Noise
by Lester Bangs
Christgau calls it “skronk.” I have always opted for the more obvious “horrible noise.” Guitars and human voices are primary vectors, though just about every other musical instrument has been employed over the years, as well as smashed crockery (e.g, first Pere Ubu album, “Sentimental Journey”), scraped garbage-can lids and bongolated oil drums (early Stooges), not to mention phono cartridges, toothpicks, pipe cleaners, etc. (John Cage, Variations II). You probably can’t stand it, but this stuff has its adherents (like me) and esthetic (if you want to call it that).
Look at it this way: there are many here among us for whom the life force is best represented by the livid twitching of one tortured nerve, or even a full-scale anxiety attack. I do not subscribe to this point of view 100%, but I understand it, have lived it. Thus the shriek, the caterwaul, the chainsaw gnarlgnashing, the yowl and the whizz that decapitates may be reheard by the adventurous or emotionally damaged as mellifluous bursts of unarguable affirmation. And one could, if so inclined, take it even further than that: in his essential book The Tuning of the World, under the heading “Sacred Noise and Secular Silence,” composer R. Murray Schafer reports that during the Middle Ages to which we are after all now returning “a certain type of noise, which we may now call Sacred Noise, was not only absent from the lists of proscripted sounds which societies from time to time drew up, but was, in fact, quite deliberately invoked as a break from the tedium of tranquillity.” Or, as Han Shan also did once advise one of his Zen acolytes at Kyoto in lieu of canewhipping the whelp, “If you’re feeling uptight and truly would prefer to sail into the mystic, just chuglug two quarts of coffee and throw on side one of the first Clash album (Eng. edition) at ten, full treble, no bass.” Any more koans you need answered, refer ’em to Wild Man Fischer.
The point of all this, of course, is that hideous racket is liberating: to “go with the flow,” as Jerry Brown put it in his book Thoughts (City Lights, 1975), is always a wiser course of action than planting oneself directly in the path of the Seventh Avenue express, itself best portrayed on record by “Sister Ray” and the first New York dolls album. I am also firmly convinced that one reason for the popularity of rap music, like disco and punk before it, is that it’s so utterly annoying to those of use whose cup of blare it isn’t; more than once its fans have walked up to a doorless telephone booth I was occupying, set their mammoth radios down on the sidewalk five inches from my feet, and stood there smiling at me. They didn’t want to use the phone, but I find it hard to begrudge them such gleeful rudeness; how could I, after walking all over the city with my also highly audible cassette player emitting free jazz, Metal Machine Music, PiL’s “Theme,” Miles Davis’s “Rated X” and Iannis Xenakis’s Electro-Acoustic Music, part one of which the composer described as sound paintings of the bombing of Greece? So fair is fair, even given the differences in taste.
Which also extends into questions of set and setting. Once I was eating lunch with two friends near St. Mark’s Place, and a familiar sound started coming out of the jukebox. It took me a few seconds to recognize it, but that voice was unmistakable: “Hey,” I said, “it’s Lydia and the Jerks doing ‘Orphans’!” One friend laughed: “Well folks, enjoy your meals!” But she hadn’t noticed it until I’d brought it to her attention, and in context it didn’t sound all that more yakkety than the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” which immediately preceded it. Then of course there is the whole question of Muzak and whether digestion really is improved by the theme from Dr. Zhivago. Or whether heavy metal and punk are essentially the same sound, or disco and punk equally oppressive. but then, when Patti Smith reviewed in Creem back in ’75, she said she liked it precisely because it was oppressive, with which I at least partially concur. Everybody has their little peculiarities, as evidenced by the fact that some people actually like to listen to the radio! So perhaps I can best bear witness to my own by listing a few of the Gehennas of wretched squawl which have made me most aware that I am alive over the years:
The Stooges, “L.A. Blues,” Fun house (Elektra): After assaulting us for half an hour with six songs
including the bulleted-boar tenor sax of Steve Mackay, the Ann Arbor visionaries let the whole thing explode and melt all over itself in this arrhythmic 1970 offering, replete with igneous feedback blankets, Mackay blowing his brains out and disappearing forever, and the man called Pop mewling, snarling, sighing, and licking his paws.
The Germs, “Forming” / “Live” (What? single): It was all downhill for Darby and Co. after this 1978
debut. They could not yet play the rather standard-issue Ramonesclone headbangisms of their album, so they had to toddle along a guitar and rhythm track that sounded like Malt-o-Meal being trailed from dining room to TV set, while Darb puled burble whose chorus you could tell he had reached whenever he repeated the words “Pull my trigger / I’m bigger than…”
A Taste of DNA (American Clave EP, 1981): The lead instrument in the new, improved DNA is neither Arto Lindsay’s slamming and scrapings of the electric twelve-string guitar he never plays chords on nor his laconically imploding epiglottis. It is Tim Wright’s bass, which ain’t even bereft of melody. and Ikue Mori cuts Sonny Murray in my book. Sure wish Ayler was alive to play with these folks (don’t laugh; Ornette almost played on “Radio Ethiopia”) – he played “skronk” (the word sounds like something straight from his bell) if anybody ever did.
The Sounds of the Junkyard (Folkways): Recorded live, of course, and quite a bit more soothing than you would expect, though with titles like “Burning Out an Old Car” you know it can’t miss.
Yoko Ono, “Don’t worry Kyoko, Mummy’s Only Looking for a Hand in the Snow” (flip of John’s “Cold Turkey” single, and side two of Live Peace in Toronto LP, Apple, 1969-70): Interesting not only for John’s churning blues-unto-feedback guitar riff and how far ahead of her time Yoko was vocally(though dig Patty Waters’s “Black Is the Color” on ESP-Disk in early sixties) but for lyrical correspondence with Lydia Lunch’s “Orphan’s,” featured on Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (Migraine EP, 1980): If, as Christgau says, “Arto is the king of skronk,” then Lydia’s slide guitar work certainly qualifies her as queen. guys in my sixth-grade neighborhood used to entertain themselves by tying the head of a cat to one hot-rod fender and its tail to another and driving the cars apart slowly, which sounded a lot like part of this. Unless it’s for Catholic-school beatings by nuns, nostalgia doesn’t account for Lydia’s passionate “Baby Doll” wailing. If you only want to try one, make it this – nothing more deathly shrill has ever been recorded.
Jad Fair, The Zombies of Mora-Tau (Armageddon EP, 1980): Jad is half of 1/2 Japanese, and with his brother David made a 1/2 J. three record set that I still haven’t been able to listen to all the way through. A previous EP containing such highlights as “School of Love” was great, but this might even be better for the way Jad integrates atonal air-raid guitar with sub-Jonathan Richman white-burba-infantilismus vocals that as they natter tunelessly onward actually tell little stories (“And I said, ‘Dr. Frankenstein, you must die,’ and I shot him” and you hear the gun KABLOOIE!). This may be a whole new songwriting genre, or at least one terminal of the Lou Reed “I walked to the chair / Then I sat in it” school of lyrics.
Lou Reed: Metal Machine Music (RCA 1975): Don’t see this around much anymore, but it sure caused a ruckus when he sprang it on Transformer / Sally Can’t Dance rocky horror fans: a two-record, hour-long set of shrieking feedback run through various pieces of high-tech equipment. Sounded great in midwestern suburbs, but kinda unnecessary in NYC.
Blue Cheer, Vincebus Eruptum (Philips, 1968): These guys may well have been the first heavy metal band, but what counts here is not whether Leigh Stephens birthed that macho grunt before Mark Farmer (both stole it from Hendrix) but that Stephen’s sub-sub-sub-sub-Hendrix guitar overdubs stumbled around each other so ineptly they verged on a truly bracing atonality.
The Mars EP (Infidelity, 1980): With Teenage Jesus, DNA, and the Contortions, this group was
featured on the watershed No New York LP (You mean you don’t own a copy? What are you, sick or something?). But for my money this piece of beyond-lyrics, often beyond-discernible-instrumentation psychotic noise is their absolute masterpiece – despite John Gavanti, their version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which I have never been able to listen to all the way through. This is not “industrial” but human music, and so what if said humans sound like they’re in a bad way? You are too. As it grinds and grieves and grovels, you cannot deny that they certainly plow what they sow. best cut: “Scorn.” Best rumor: Somebody dropped the original tapes, produced by Arto Lindsay, in water. And accidentally, at that.
-Village Voice, 30 September – 6 October 1981