The personnel for Elton John’s breakthrough album. Paul Buckmaster second from the left.
Strange and disorienting serendipity because this Child of the Seventies is just now–literally this week–catching up to Elton John’s first five albums, where Paul Buckmaster was an insistent and insidious presence.
Buckmaster–classically trained instrumentalist, composer, conductor and ace arranger–was the definer of Orchestral Rock for Modern Ears. In other hands, that would almost certainly would have been a dubious distinction. On some of those Elton John records it was a dubious distinction.
But his fingers were on (usually all over) a number of wonderful era-defining records in the early seventies: “Space Oddity,” “You’re So Vain,” “Without You,” Terrapin Station, numerous projects that involved him working with everyone from John (for whom he arranged the breakthrough hit “Your Song,” and “Tiny Dancer,” the closest Sir Elton ever came to a statement of balladeering purpose and one that has grown with the years) to Leonard Cohen to Blood, Sweat and Tears to Miles Davis.
It may not be a coincidence that Carly Simon, Harry Nillson, Elton John and Mick Jagger all waxed tracks that were contenders for their finest vocals when Buckmaster was handing them arrangements that begged for something more than they themselves may have thought they could deliver.
Which brings us to this, the greatest album closer in the history of Rock and Roll if only because it closed so much more than an album…and ushered in a New Age where all concerned would be subsumed….Including, just today, Paul Buckmaster.
Him and God should be having a very interesting talk about now. I’m rooting for a better understanding.
This year’s performing nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were announced last week. I always like to put in my two cents and I try to come up with a new approach each year. This year, with artists I have strong feelings about being in short supply on the ballot, I’ve decided to list the actual nominees next to the artist they most resemble (spiritually or temporally) who is more deserving.
You know. According to me.
And rock and roll. Let’s not forget rock and roll.
It’s a long ballot this year, so be sure to strap on your seat-belt. And please, if your sphincter is, as Ferris Bueller might have it, prone to making diamonds from charcoal, proceed with caution…
Actual Nominee: Bad Brains. I don’t really know much about them, but, listening on YouTube, they sound like every other hardcore band except the Minutemen. Like most such bands (not the Minutemen), they started out pretentious (jazz fusion according to Wikipedia and who is surprised?) until they found out where the true belief they could ,milk a ready-made cult career from lay. I only listened to a few cuts, but they certainly sound as if they always knew which side of the bread the butter was on.
Dream Ballot: The Minutemen. I listened to one of their albums all the way through once when I was in my twenties. I’m in my fifties now and I’m still waiting to reach an emotionally secure place before I listen again. I don’t know much about hardcore but I know real genius and the sound of nerves being scraped raw when I hear it.
Actual Nominee: Chaka Khan. Fine. Unlike most rock and roll narrativists, and most of the Hall’s voters, I’m not ready to forget about black people in the seventies. Speaking of which…
Dream Ballot:Rufus, featuring Chaka Khan. Yes, Chaka should be in. She should be in with her great interracial funk band, and they should pave the way for the other great funk bands, interracial (War, Hot Chocolate, KC and the Sunshine Band), and otherwise (Kool and the Gang, Ohio Players, Commodores). It seems like the more the nominating committee screws these things up, the more things stay the same.
Actual Nominee: Chic. They should be in. They’ve been consistently nominated for years but can’t overcome the disco hatred. No surprise there. Donna Summer had to die to get in. Even so, they aren’t the most deserving in this genre. That would be…
Dream Ballot:Barry White. Chic has been on the ballot ten times. You’d think they could nominate an even more popular, more innovative and more iconic artist from the same basic gene pool at least once. Come on people. Let’s at least try to make it look like we know what we’re doing!
Actual Nominee:Depeche Mode.Drone music. Admittedly, not my thing. Lots of hits in England and I don’t like to step on other people’s tastes, let alone their passions, but If somebody asked for indisputable evidence of why Britannia no longer rules the waves and soon won’t rule Britannia, I’d play them Depeche Mode music all night long. They could make up their own minds about whether that’s a good thing. Might be more useful if they at least pointed to something better, instead of a black hole.
Dream Ballot: Roxette. I was gonna go with Eurythmics, though they aren’t of the same ilk either (and might actually get on the real ballot some day). But, broadly, this is all Europop, and if there is going to be Europop, then there ought to at least be a fun single every now and then.
Actual Nominee: Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). The early lineup included Roy Wood, and the RRHOF is including Wood in the lineup that will be inducted if they get the votes. They aren’t including Roy Wood for what he did in ELO, which means they are tacitly acknowledging that this really ought to be…
Dream Ballot: The Move/ELO. They did this for Faces/Small Faces which actually made less sense (The Faces were a much cleaner break from the Small Faces than ELO were from the Move) but certainly opened up nominating possibilities. If you have two borderline deserving bands linked by shared membership, why not just put them together? We could have Free/Bad Company or Manfred Mann/Earth Band, maybe one or two others I’m not thinking of right now. It makes more sense than a lot of other sins of commission/omission presently on the Hall’s head. The Move were probably deserving on their own, despite their lack of success in America. ELO are marginally deserving anyway, and not just because of their massive success in America. Why oh why does the Hall continually shadow box. You had a good idea there a few years back. Run with it.
Actual Nominee: The J. Geils Band. It’s not that the J. Geils Band aren’t deserving. They are. And it’s getting late. They’ve been eligible for a long time. But if we’re mining the White Boy Stomp vein, then let’s go with my old standby…
Dream Ballot: Paul Revere and the Raiders. One of my criteria is that if you either helped define a major genre or helped invent an important minor one, you should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Raiders had a hand in inventing what came to be called garage rock. They certainly helped define it, ergo it doesn’t matter if you call garage rock major or minor. And they were the only band that fits well within even the narrowest definition of the ethos to have a major run of hits. That they’ve never been on the ballot for a hall that includes the Dave Clark Five and the Hollies (both deserving, but still) is silly, really. [Alternate pick: Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels.]
Actual Nominee: Jane’s Addiction. A sort of thrash band with sort of Power Pop vocals. They started in the mid-eighties and you can feel them giving in to the awfulness of the times on just about any record I’ve heard (which I confess isn’t all that many, those I’ve heard not making me feel like I’ve missed anything except more dreariness, more unearned angst, more acceptance of defeat as the natural and permanent human condition we should all just learn to live with). Again, I realize these punk/alternative/alt metal//indie/thrash/etc. bands have had a profound impact on somebody’s life. I hate having to dis anybody’s taste. Still….nobody should take the world this hard unless they’ve been in a war.
Dream Ballot: Big Star. It doesn’t even matter who you (or I) like. The RRHOF has a responsibility to history. Putting Jane’s Addiction on a ballot where Big Star have never appeared amounts to criminal negligence.
Actual Nominee: Janet Jackson. No problem here. Miss Jackson had an enormous career and deserves to be in, maybe even on this ballot. But I’m curious…
Dream Ballot:Cyndi Lauper. Leaving aside why Dionne Warwick–Dionne Warwick!–has never appeared on a ballot, and sticking to the same era, why not do the all the way right thing and go with Cyndi? She made the best album of the eighties, was the last truly inventive vocalist of the rock and roll era (just before the suits allowed the machines to take over–and at a loss on the profit sheet, too–because the machines never talk back), and her acceptance speech would likely be even more priceless than her average interview.
Actual Nominee: Joan Baez. Inducting Joan Baez into the RRHOF as a performer would be a joke. She’s never made anything resembling a great rock and roll record. She’s a perfect candidate, however, for my long-running common sense proposal to have a “Contemporary Influence” category, especially now that the “Early Influence” category is running dry. Other worthy candidates for a concept which could acknowledge great artists who influenced their rock and roll contemporaries without being quite “of” them, would be oft-mentioned names like Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson (country), the Kingston Trio (folk), or even Barbra Streisand or Dean Martin (pop). It would have also been the right category for Miles Davis (already inducted as a performer) and a number of blues acts. But, if this category is not to exist, then at least go with….
Dream Ballot: Peter, Paul and Mary. They were the ones who put Bob Dylan on the charts, two years before the Byrds. If you think this–or Dylan becoming a major star–was merely inevitable, you weren’t quite paying attention. Woody Guthrie never made it…and don’t think he couldn’t have, if PP&M had been there to provide the bridge to the mainstream (whether he would have accepted it is another question, but my guess is he would have). Besides, unlike most of the people who would properly belong in a Contemporary Influence category, they actually made a great rock and roll record…which is not nothing, even if they just did it to prove they could to people who thought “I Dig Rock and Roll Music” was only a joke.
Actual Nominee: Joe Tex. No complaints. No arguments. Joe Tex is the last of the first-rank soul men not to be inducted. He should be.
Dream Ballot: Joe Tex.
Actual Nominee: Journey. I love, without irony or reservation, “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin.” It’s a great record, period. And I don’t hate the stuff everybody else hates. i don’t listen to it, but I don’t run screaming from the room if it’s on either, or get a knot in my stomach that makes me want to start ranting about the decline and fall of civilization (and you know I can find endless reasons to do that). Plus, they sold a bajillion records. Still….Seriously?
Dream Ballot: Three Dog Night. The only reason Three Dog Night weren’t in a long time ago is they didn’t write their hits. If you follow along here, you know that’s not a good reason. Especially when, on average, their hits were a lot greater than Journey’s. (Alternate pick: Def Leppard…they have the advantage of being better than Journey and a more direct replacement. They just weren’t as good as Three Dog Night.)
Actual Nominee: Kraftwerk. Another good candidate for Contemporary Influence, especially since the Nominating Committee, which would control such a category, seems to love them. Again, this not being the case…
Dream Ballot: Roxy Music. Actually, I’m not the best person to make a case for them, but at least they had some hits and a tangential connection to rock and roll. This would also tacitly acknowledge and directly honor the fine work from Brian Eno’s and Bryan Ferry’s solo careers. And does anyone really believe they were less influential than Kraftwerk?
Actual Nominee: MC5. I let my MC5 CDs go in the great CD selloff of 2002. I liked them pretty well, but I never got around to buying them back. As one of the six great bands (The Stooges, Big Star, The Ramones, Mott the Hoople and one I’m about to mention were the others) who bridged the garage band ethos to punk, they should be in. I’d pick them last, mind you (The Stooges and the Ramones, the two I might have picked them ahead of, are already in), but they should be in. Some day. Meanwhile…
Dream Ballot: The New York Dolls. I wonder what might have happened if they had lasted longer. I always loved this performance on The Midnight Special (that they were even on tells you how great The Midnight Special was), where they start with about six fans and end with about eight. I don’t know how far another five years would have taken them…to a hundred maybe? a thousand?….but I bet they’d be in the Hall already if they had made it that far.
Actual Nominee: Pearl Jam. Of course they’ll get in. All that cred. They can’t miss. And that’s fine. They helped define grunge. That’s vital, maybe even major. Well deserving of induction. But here’s the thing…
Dream Ballot: The Shangri-Las. Just curious, but besides turning up the amps and groaning a lot, what did Eddie Vedder do in a quarter-century that Mary Weiss didn’t do, without a trace of his trademark stridency, in three minutes on her first hit? What new place did he get to? Go ahead. Explain it to me. Please….
[NOTE: For any of my fellow Shangs’ aficionados, this link contains an intro I’ve never heard before, plus the extended finale that I’ve linked in the past. It’s the story that never ends.]
Actual Nominee: Steppenwolf. Is Biker Rock really a genre? Is introducing the phrase “heavy metal” to the world enough, in and of itself, to ensure enshrinement? I’m not sure, but if either of these be the case, Steppenwolf should be voted in immediately. Just in case it’s otherwise…
Dream Ballot: Lee Michaels. Why not? If we’ve come this far down the where-can-we-find-more-White-Boys-to-nominate road, aren’t we just messing with people? (Alternate pick: The Guess Who.)
Actual Nominee: The Cars. Cheap Trick got in last year and it’s nice to see to see Power Pop getting some love. The Cars were probably also the most successful New Wave band after Blondie (already in), so I’d always consider voting for them. However…
Dream Ballot: Raspberries. If you really started and/or mainstreamed the Power Pop thing (to the extent that somebody was going to be forced to give it a name), and if your best records are better than anything the thing produced afterwards (well, except for the Go-Go’s maybe), and your front man was the biggest single talent in the whole history of the thing, then shouldn’t you be first in line?
Actual Nominee: The Zombies. I like the Zombies plenty. But the depth of the Nominating Committee’s love for them is a little odd. A few great singles and a cult album (Odessey and Oracle) that has traveled the classic critical journey once outlined by Malcolm Cowley (it boiled down to everything now underrated will eventually be overrated and vice versa) is a borderline HOF career at best.
Dream Ballot: Manfred Mann. Especially if you include all its incarnations (and after the Hall-approved Faces/Small Faces induction, why wouldn’t you?), the never-nominated Manfreds are more deserving on every level. The first version made greater singles and more of them. The second version morphed into Bob Dylan’s favorite interpreters of his music and, along the way, made an album (called The Mighty Quinn in the U.S.) which sounds better to these ears than Odessey and Oracle ever did. Then the third and fourth versions (called Chapter Three and Earth Band) became long running jazz fusion/classic rock troupers. (And yeah, I love their “Blinded By the Light” in both its single and album versions. We all have our heresies.) Mann’s greatest genius was for discovering standout vocalists to sell his concepts every step of the way. And, whatever gets played from the stage of next year’s induction ceremony, I bet it won’t be as good as this…
Actual Nominee: Tupac Shakur. If this is going to re-open the door for pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa or LL Cool J or Eric B. and Rakim, then fine and dandy. They’ve all been on the ballot before. I hope they won’t be forgotten in the coming years, when pressure to induct more modern hip-hop acts grows and when five will get you twenty the Hall’s obvious but never acknowledged penchant for quotas and tokenism remains firmly in place. Still, for me…
Dream Ballot: Naughty By Nature. Yes, even above all the rest. I still think “O.P.P.” is the greatest hip-hop record. I still think “Mourn You Til I Join You,” is the greatest tribute record in a genre that has required far too many. I still think “How will I do it, how will I make it? I won’t, that’s how,” is the finest rap line, (just ahead of Ice-T’s “How can there be justice on stolen land?”) Plenty of early rockabilly stars made it in on less (and deservedly). So sue me.
Actual Nominee: Yes. Prog rock. Yes, of course. That will be very useful in the days to come. Most helpful.
Dream Ballot: Fairport Convention. This year, of all years, we really should find every excuse to listen close. Admittedly, next year promises to be worse.
Happy Holidays ya’ll…Don’t let the Grim Reaper get ya’!
Before he decided to become a full-time minster in the summer of 1974, my father was a paint contractor. Around 1972, give or take a year, he was hired to paint the interior of one of the Florida Space Coast-area branch offices of a prominent bank that operated within a stone’s throw of the Kennedy Space Center. When it came time to paint the top floor, which was taken up by the bank president’s office, it was decided that the president’s daily business was too important to be interrupted so my dad would just have to paint around him as he worked.
I’m not sure how all the logistics were managed, but the upshot was that, for a week or so, in the early seventies, my dad found himself in daily conversation with a guy whose brother was a mucky-muck at the Atlanta branch of the Federal Reserve.
Dad had the gift of gab in excelsis and it pretty much always elicited one of two responses in strangers: Either they got out of earshot as quickly as possible or they opened up and told him all the secrets they’d been careful to keep from their own mothers.
Maybe because he didn’t really have a choice, once he decided to stay at his desk, the bank president turned out to be the latter.
By the time my dad finished painting the guy’s office they were on sufficiently intimate terms for the gentleman to offer some very timely, in-the-know advice.
First: Build a bomb shelter in the back yard.
Second: In addition to plenty of canned food and ammo, be sure to stock up on the following three items:
Cigarettes. Bonded whiskey. Gold bullion.
In the coming when-not-if age of Economic Chaos, which would surely be upon us before the decade was out, those would be the only three items that had any real value as barter.
Normally, I doubt even my dad, who wasn’t immune to apocalyptic thinking, would have given it much thought. But, before my mother sounded the final voice of reason, he ended up kicking it around for a week or two. At least the bomb-shelter part.
I’m not sure I could blame him.
It’s one thing to have the guy ranting about End Times on the street corner hand you a pamphlet written in invisible ink. It’s another thing altogether to get the inside dope from a guy who’s chewing the fat with his brother at the Fed every day while you’re dipping a roller in the Antique White.
I relate this little story because, unless you were there, the early seventies can seem very long ago and very far away. And, even if you were there, especially if you were as young as I was, they’re really not much closer
The air is like that. It changes. And once it does, you can recall concrete events, hazy conspiracy talk and the smell of paint thinner a lot more readily than the atmosphere in which such memories were formed.
About the only way a story like the one about my dad and the ban president seems anything other than quaint now, when the end (bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!) really is near, is to listen to bands like War and Steely Dan.
Once upon a time, in the age of the Rising, they had the air in common.
* * * *
They had a lot in common besides that.
They rose to prominence in the same place (Los Angeles) at roughly the same time (early to mid-seventies), practiced definitive variants of a rather fluid concept bandied about as “jazz rock” in those days, and, despite neither band being long on marketing, as opposed to musical, personality, each enjoyed remarkably high and similar levels of commercial success:
War: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1970–79; 12 Top 40 singles, 6 Top 10 singles.
Steely Dan: 8 gold or platinum LPs between 1972–1980; 10 Top 40 singles, 3 Top 10 singles (with two more reaching #11)
That’s a lot of common ground. Especially considering they weren’t really soul mates.
I’ll lay into that in a bit.
But first, I’ll note one really big difference, which is how the usual suspects in the smart set generally felt about them:
Rolling Stone, listing the 500 greatest albums of all time, named three Steely Dan albums, at #145 (Aja), #240 (Can’t Buy a Thrill) and #336 (Pretzel Logic), to one War album, at #444 (The World is a Ghetto).
Robert Christgau gave four of Steely Dan’s studio albums contemporary grades of A- or better. He gave no grades of A- or better to any of War’s studio albums (he did give an A- to their 1976 best of).
Greil Marcus, in his invaluable “Treasure Island” list at the end of Stranded, included three Steely Dan albums. War was represented by one single (“Slippin’ Into Darkness”).
Dave Marsh, in The Rolling Stone Record Guide, was less enthusiastic about Steely Dan, giving three of their first six studio LPs a rating of 4 stars (on a 5 star system). But, though he called them “perhaps the most underrated black band of the Seventies,” he only gave two of War’s first seven studio LPs a grade of 4 stars (none higher), thus, oddly enough, helping insure that they would continue to be what he was purportedly lamenting.
Later, in The Heart of Rock ‘N’ Soul, a personal list of “the greatest 1,001 singles,” Marsh included three singles by each band. To be fair, War’s averaged out considerably higher in his rankings, but, basically, he called it a near-draw in an area where War was demonstrably stronger.
Once you get past these particular iconic writers/institutions, the crit-balance tips even more in Steely Dan’s favor, because few, if any, of the other white boys who have always dominated the basic narrative ever wrote about War at all, while many paid some kind of obeisance to Steely Dan (including their own chapter, by Ken Tucker, in Rolling Stone’s Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, a book in which War is mentioned exactly once–as Eric Burdon’s backup band on “Spill the Wine.”).
And, of course, circles of self-reinforcing logic being made to be unbroken, Steely Dan was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, in their fourth year of eligibility. War, eligible since 1996 and nominated three times, has yet to be voted in.
So it goes.
None of this has much to do with how great (or not) either band was/is. I’m not really big on the whole This-Versus-That dynamic. Sure it’s fun to play (Stax or Motown? Beatles or Stones? Prince or Michael? Tweedle-Dee or Tweedle-Dum?) but, really, I never thought those kind of choices said much about anybody, though the desire to make such choices might, and the desire to impose those choices on others definitely does.
So this isn’t a “War or Steely Dan?” argument.
It’s more like a thought experiment on why the critical assessment between two such evenly matched bands has so consistently favored one over the other.
Well, here’s a thought for the experiment.
How about, one group is Black and the other one is White?
Obvious though it is, it could still have consequences. So let’s let it dangle for a bit.
* * * *
Despite their similarities, as the covers of their respective breakthrough albums rather eloquently suggest, these bands were on rather different journeys:
I mean, you wouldn’t need the names on those covers to guess who was street and who was collegiate.
Which doesn’t mean they didn’t like each other personally or, as folks used to say, “dig” each other musically.
I have no idea if the respective members even knew each other and, while I can guess that they heard each other’s records (pretty hard not to), I have only a vague notion of how much, if any, impression those records made one upon the other.
Were they pushing each other, back there in that shared time and space? Inspiring each other? Making sure they at least kept an ear out for what the other was up to?
All of the above?
None of the above?
Hard to tell, beyond hints and allegations (which I’ll also get to in a bit).
A certain part of the truth is accessible, though.
In spirit and fact, War’s music rose from the neighborhoods Steely Dan, in spirit if not fact, cruised after dark in search of whatever might lend an edge to a pretty jaded existence: cool drugs, hot hookers, Jazz Heroes….inspiration. Black America’s traditional relationship to White America in other words.
This might have been no big deal. We are what we are. Nobody can blame the Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen for going to college. But this distinction happened to represent one of the gulfs White America and Black America needed to bridge if we were going to have any sort of future as anything other than the cobbled together, quasi-functional, political-economy-with-borders which was already dancing in the dreams of our conspiracy-of-intent overlords. Something was going to come out of the rubble of the late sixties. Whether it would be a step up or a step back was being fought out on the airwaves as much as anywhere else.
The gap would be bridged or the bridge would be destroyed. Mountains were bound to fall.
Whether they would fall on us was still a question, though, and just because we now know the answer, and know the mountain was made out of manure, doesn’t mean the why of it isn’t still worth exploring.
Unless, of course, we just want to give up.
* * * *
And the first factor in “bridging the gap”–in not giving up–would be what?
Maybe recognition of something elemental?
Like maybe a black band from the actual ghetto could offer a vision as stimulating and challenging as a couple of white guys (Steely Dan was basically Fagen, whose idea of “street” was the classically bohemian one of detesting his parents for moving to the suburbs, Becker, and whoever they felt like hiring at a given moment) who went to college (and, some might argue) never really left, even if Becker did drop out and Fagen, protesting a bust, did refuse to attend graduation?
That’s actually been a hard line to cross with even the most enlightened of the crit-illuminati. I’m not down with Wynton Marsalis much, but he was right to bristle at white critics who called Louis Armstrong (that is, even Louis Armstrong) an “instinctive” genius.
What did that mean? Marsalis wondered. That he didn’t know what he was doing?
Well, yeah. That’s exactly what it meant.
Some of this attitude has hung over the discussion of nearly every black musical genius–or great band–from the dawn of the popular-music-criticism-verging-on-intellectualism that jazz itself finally forced into existence in the twenties and thirties, to the last time I looked at my watch.
Yes, an Armstrong or an Ellington or a Miles Davis eventually gets the last level of respect, even if it’s bound to retain a slightly patronizing air which is frequently reduced to over praising. And, yes, a James Brown or a Jimi Hendrix gets it, too, though it’s usually couched as some form of Resistance-to-the-Man, which, sotto voce, is accepted as being as compulsory (for black people) and as much a product of the subconscious, as, well, instinct.
That is, a band like War could only write/sing/play with such conviction about the world they knew–a world writerly sorts were free to ignore or acknowledge as they saw fit–because it was the world they knew. They were geniuses of observation.
Well, maybe not geniuses, but, you know, really funky and kinda smart about stuff.
The way black people just naturally are.
On the other hand, a band like Steely Dan–i.e., a couple of cool cats like Becker and Fagen who, admittedly could not have been cool in any context except that of the Rock and Roll America they were determined to mock–could imagine things.
They were thinkers by God!
And that narrative became all but officially signed, sealed and delivered, no matter how often Becker and Fagen’s lyrics were clearly rooted in personal experience…
Or how often War’s lyrics were clearly flights of imagination…
And that was before any discussion of the music behind the lyrics, which, in Steely Dan’s case, tended to make the critics who took them to heart from the moment they showed up in the early seventies wax lyrical and, in War’s case, tended to make them wax either not at all or along the lines of Christgau’s jeering “blackstrap-rock.”
Ha, ha, ha.
That’s one side.
And, on the other side, you get, for instance, Tucker in his History of Rock and Roll piece:
“Becker and Fagen had already evolved a procedure that guaranteed a certain amount of tension and surprise, and at its best generated a flow of little pop epiphanies: genre riffs are set off by contrapuntal rhythms…then these clever contrasts are polished and hammered down by rock-intense playing.”
Okay, maybe Lonnie Jordan and Bebe Dickerson and the rest of the men of War were lucky, being spared that sort of praise. But note the active verbs: evolved, generated, polished, hammered down.
So far as I’ve been able to tell, War has never been discussed in similar terms and, even if it happened, it’s unlikely they’d find themselves credited with a phrase like “evolved a procedure.”
That’s reserved for the college kids…by other college kids.
* * * *
Now, none of this would matter if Steely Dan had, at some point, really been a better band. We should all know the dangers of quota-based tokenism by now. But Steely Dan at high tide wasn’t greater than War at high tide.
Simple evidence there…They weren’t greater because nobody was.
Sure, some bands sustained greatness longer. But when War was locked in–roughly from 1971’s All Day Music through the 1976 single, “Summer,” which turned out to be their last big hit, they were a cosmic American band on a level with Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens or the original Byrds.
They just couldn’t get the white boy press to hear it that way.
Absent a “personality” White America’s newly self-appointed intelligentsia could latch onto–a Sly Stone or George Clinton who could serve as an identifiable “Wow man! He’s so-o-o-o great!!” cool kid, whether they liked it or not–they were simply never going to get the level of respect that a similarly anonymous (and, yes, similarly great) white band like Steely Dan could take as a matter of course.
It wasn’t the public, by the way, who failed to “get” it. Along with everything else, War easily crossed race and class barriers on the radio that Steely Dan never got within shouting distance of. (You can go here and scroll down to the War entry for a sense of just how far they reached.)
And they did not do so “instinctively.”
They did not do so by dint of failing to pass the great test of Art. They did not fail to imagine music that made the world larger instead of smaller.
Quite the opposite.
* * * *
Which brings us to the real divide. And the real cost.
Great bands. Same time and place. Some overlap to be sure.
Steely Dan’s famous first single, for instance, sure sounded like somebody in their camp was deeply into the mix of specifically L.A.-style garage funk which War, working their way up from the streets so many out-of-towners wanted to own, already embodied.
And, even if the white boy brigade had trouble hearing it, War’s occasionally mordant wit certainly wasn’t without a tinge of the irony Steely Dan specialized in.
So, in addition to all the stuff I mentioned at the top, they had enough else in common that it’s not too hard to imagine them covering each other’s songs.
Because, all their very real differences aside, sharing a time and space mattered, too, and more because of the time than the space.
In that time–and every space–the spirit of good old rock and roll, lingering in the aftermath of ’68, the year it probably wasn’t yet quite so evident we could never walk away from in the way we had managed to walk away from 1812, 1861, 1929, 1941 was still potent. Which meant that, for as long as Rock and Roll America lasted, Black America and White America were bound to keep invading each other’s space, looking for a way forward.
In that all-important respect, Steely Dan were no pikers.
But War went further.
Steely Dan was finally minimalist, introverted, elliptical. It was hard to imagine them ever being so corny as to name their albums after hit singles.
There’s a fine line, though, between cutting to the heart of the matter and cutting the heart out of the matter. On the first two cuts of their first album–“Do it Again,” and “Dirty Work”–this sounds very much like a line Steely Dan could have walked. Even the rest of the first album’s tendency towards obscurantism-for-its-own-sake didn’t entirely negate the possibility.
By the end of that first LP, though, they weren’t so much walking the wire as clinging to it from below, with one hand slipping.
They more or less held on for the next three albums, more than enough to make them justifiably rich, famous and celebrated. And holding on was an achievement, plenty enough to keep the music alive through the increasingly woozy lite-jazz descendency of their late period and, for the attentive, all the years since.
But one is justified in asking: Where’d the vision go?
Nowhere, really, because, after those first two luminous cuts, it never quite developed into a vision.
Visions, it turned out, were corny, too. Just like naming your albums after hit singles.
So, eventually, the cool kids who had spent their lives cutting themselves off from anything that could be misinterpreted as a little too heart-on-the-sleeve, ended up being the mushiest thing on the radio in a time (the late 70s) when the radio was turning to mush.
To be fair, War faded as well.
Embracing a vision costs, too. Just like avoiding one.
Instead of turning to mush, they simply lost their edge. The sharp blade became a dull blade. Better than late Steely Dan, but hardly what they had been…or what Steely Dan had been.
It’s certainly possible to argue that Steely Dan had it right. If the mountains were going to fall anyway, why not make sure the mountains fell on somebody else? Why not remain on the ridge, in safety? “If you live in this world you’re seeing the change of the guard” for sure. But this ain’t Fort Apache. It’s not as though honor were at stake. I mean, what’s cornier than that? Especially if, by remaining in safety, you might even get yourself proclaimed a visionary.
Plenty have weighed in on the value of Steely Dan’s vision. Ken Tucker’s take is standard, even exemplary, in that respect. And the “vision” is not illegitimate.
But War, greater or lesser by more objective standards, went further in this respect.
Their vision–long unacknowledged by critics who think what really matters is voting reliably Democratic and retweeting #BlackLivesMatter (or whatever hipster movement, prepared to make no difference either, takes its place next summer) to all their friends–was bracketed by their first and last important singles:
Pure L.A from beginning to end….and contextually shocking.
The surfers had sent out a vision of L.A. and it was shooting the curl at Malibu.
The folk rockers had sent out a vision from Laurel Canyon and it was peace, love and long hair, plus harmonies, guitars and groupies.
The Doors had sent out a vision from the Whisky and it was “Father I want to kill you, Mother I want to….a-a-a-a-a-a-g-g-g-g-g-h-h-h-h-h-h!”
War checked in a generation before the rappers and said, quietly and then not so quietly: Hey, it’s our town, too.
And what they really meant, a message that resonated from Compton to Cape Town, from Mexico City to Montgomery, was it’s our world, too...And if you want to do something about it you could start by giving us a little basic respect.
In that sense “down at the beach or a party in town, making love or just riding around,” the most intense action juxtaposed with the most laid back, an insistence that Los Angeles and the world belonged to black people from Compton as much as beach boys (or Beach Boys) from Hawthorne, was at least as revolutionary as “the world is a ghetto,” and also sent the message that revolutionary and “incendiary” were not the same thing.
They didn’t share Steely Dan’s underlying, deeply cynical assumption, one that moved much of SD’s audience even if they never quite bought it themselves: If the world can’t be saved, it’s really a bummer, but let’s all be thankful it can at least it can be endured, one joint at a time
* * * *
War had a white harmonica player but they otherwise consisted of American-born black men who recognized Rock and Roll America’s fundamental challenge: If we’re ever going to get anywhere, Black America and White America are going to have to challenge each other’s space and learn to get along.
Steely Dan, despite their jazz element, were white men committed to protecting the space off to the side which elite White America has always very carefully preserved for itself, a space that has always been most ably defended by folks who are the longest way possible from being “racist.”
The Dan weren’t for invading anybody’s space.
And one could say that their once false assumptions have become the norm. They’ve certainly become the collegiate norm, which is one reason the overlords are pushing “college” on everybody (bilking suckers being the other). Whether they’ve also become true is a question for the future, a future I suspect is looming nearer than we think as we become less and less capable of producing art that can either wound or heal, let alone do both at once.
Whatever future is coming, someone will be left to look back and judge us like all the other fallen empires who, funnily enough, we really had very little in common with.
It will be for them to study the moment when the balance was being tipped and decide who gave a nudge in the direction of the Void and who shouted a warning.
Chances are, if you took the easy way out, greatness won’t really absolve you then.
And if there is no judgment?
Well, there will sure be a lot of Steely Dan fans.
And War, still shouting in the wilderness, won’t make any sense at all.
It’s that time again: Anyone wishing to participate in fan ballots can go HERE or HERE (second one actually has a small impact on the official voting).
Angst-Is-Me (meaning, me-me-me-me-me-me-me!): That’s one of the three main themes for this year’s ballot. Regrettable, but I suppose inevitable, given the direction “rock and roll” took once the rock and roll coalition fell apart in the late eighties. This will no doubt be a running theme in the future.
Anyway, count me uninformed on an era where Green Day (who I do sort of like) could pass for comic relief. I tried You-Tubing some Nine Inch Nails and Smiths. Really I did try–just couldn’t get all the way through any of their songs. But at least they seem to have struck a deep chord with their fans and I never begrudge anyone their own Shining Path.
“Sting,” on the other hand, has always struck me as a likely product of some government conspiracy–which government I’m not sure, but the Dark Arts must surely be involved. Anyway, I’m loathe to vote for a solo artist who is already in as a member of a group.
That leaves out the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, too. He’s far more deserving than Sting. I don’t even doubt that he’s Hall worthy–you know, once all the deserving people who aren’t already in have been taken care of.
Before I get to that, I’ll address the second major theme: Catch-As-Catch-Can.
This would include two “blues-rock” acts (the seminal Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the sturdy Stevie Ray Vaughan), the by-now obligatory rap act (N.W.A., a good one at least), a hard rock act (Joan Jett) and those fun-lovin’ auteurs of trance music (Kraftwerk).
So, in order:
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band: Fine. They would fit perfectly in my proposed category of Contemporary Influence. That would be a category where the Hall’s Nominating Committee, which already decides on Nonperformers, Musical Excellence, Sidemen, Early Influences and the like, induct artists who clearly influenced rock and roll during the rock and roll era, but don’t easily fit the Rock and Roll Performer category. It’s probably too late for this to happen, with perfect candidates like Miles Davis, Albert King and Muddy Waters already inducted as performers. The PBBB aren’t anywhere near as epic as those acts (or Patsy Cline or Peter, Paul and Mary, to mention a couple who could define my proposal). That being the case, they are basically taking up a spot on the ballot that would be better filled by far greater sixties’ “cult” acts like Love or Fairport Convention…or popular ones like Manfred Mann or Paul Revere and the Raiders.
Stevie Ray Vaughan: Solid, of course. I’d even call him rock and roll, since, by the time he came along, bringing straight blues to a mainstream audience was a kind of holy act. Not as holy as the Persuasions preserving–and modernizing–doo-wop into the seventies’ maybe, but honorable just the same. I could imagine voting for him, but only on a much weaker ballot than this one.
N.W.A.: Again, I could imagine voting for them (actually did vote for them the last time they were nominated), mainly as a way of honoring Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, who ended up being far more consequential than their original group. Maybe next year.
Kraftwerk: If we must, shouldn’t it be Roxy Music?
Joan Jett: The thing about Joan Jett is that–except for a few sides–I’ve always liked the idea of her better than the actual music. And I can’t get this quote from Suzi Quatro (who’s never been anywhere near the ballot) out of my head, (re: how she finally got through a scene she kept muffing on the set of Happy Days): “I finally decided to imitate Joan Jett imitating me.” I guess there’s a theme here: I’m not anxious to vote for somebody when there’s a better somebody who keeps not getting nominated.
That brings me to the year’s third theme, which, thankfully, is the recognition of long overdue R&B acts from the actual rock and roll era and which made up my entire ballot:
War and Spinners: I wrote about both in depth in my previous post. They are, by far, the two most deserving acts on this ballot and two of the half dozen or so most embarrassing oversights on the Hall’s record to date. Time to end all that.
Chic: I’m actually fairly lukewarm on them. But it’s clear disco isn’t going to get any further respect–that more deserving acts like K.C. and the Sunshine Band and (especially) Barry White–aren’t getting on the ballot unless and until Chic gets in. They’ve reached double-digit nominations and they fit the year’s best theme so this was an easier-than-usual call.
The Marvelettes: No, they aren’t the Chantels or the Shangri-Las, who have been unable to breach the Induction wall because the moat of ignorance (or, just possibly, chauvinism) separating the Hall’s voters from their beholden duty is deep and wide. But they are deserving–they had Motown’s first #1 (symbolic but symbols matter) and a long string of truly great singles. Easy choice, even with the caveats.
Bill Withers: Uncategorizable (as I wrote about here). Too much his own man even to really fit in with The Rising (see the War/Spinners post for details). I suspect he’s been helped by the now easy availability of his once difficult-to-hear early catalog. But, whatever good vibes brought him from nowhere to buzz-worthy in the past year, (in the fan voting, he’s doing the best by far of the acts I’m recommending) I hope they last. His induction would represent real hope for thinking outside some of the Hall-defined boxes that have become far too small for comfort.
Or, putting it all a little more simply: This…
I mean, the End is coming soon enough. Let’s not hit the accelerator just yet.
The only previous times a black artist had Billboard’s #1 album of the year were in 1956 and 1968. ’56 was Harry Belafonte and Calypso. ’68 was Are You Experienced?, by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which was actually two-thirds white. Great as Jimi Hendrix was, the ofay component certainly didn’t hurt sales any more than Harry Belafonte’s purely mainstream image had done in the fifties.
In brief, black acts who identified strictly working class and hardcore representatives of the Street did not have #1 albums in Billboard’s Top 200, let alone the best-selling LP of a given year.
War was technically multi-racial. They had a Danish harmonica player and their Latin vibe was evidently sufficiently authentic to make them something like honorary citizens of Southern California’s Hispanic immigrant community.
But their music and their politics (that is, the politics of their music) were reflected in the title of their best-selling album and were a long way from the zones occupied by the music of Harry Belafonte, Jimi Hendrix, or any black (or white) artist who had the bestselling LP of any other year in the twentieth century (several rappers have taken the honors since 2000 as the world finally caught up to what War was saying all along..which was, basically, “watch out!”).
Of course, many–maybe all–of the last century’s bestselling album acts had working class followings. Hard to sell millions to the suburbs alone (even for Carly Simon or Elton John, the more or less typical examples who preceded and followed The World is a Ghetto at the top of the charts).
But there is a difference between having blue collar fans and making blue collar music. Big difference in the head and an even bigger one in the gut.
It isn’t only White America that appreciates the distinction. There’s no way to prove these things absolutely, but it is probably safe to assume that Black America loved Roberta Flack and Diana Ross–the only other black artists who scored #1 albums between the beginning of 1972 and the end of 1974–as much or more than War and probably did so irrespective of class distinctions or tax brackets.
Still, it is remarkable to think that War could nail the ethos of the coming reactionary age–when middle-class erosion would become not merely a reality but (so much more significantly) an accepted one, so thoroughly and resoundingly the default position of the entire political economy that everybody knows all talk of revival (whatever the source) is nothing more than can-kicking and no one can any longer conceive of a future where it will ever be anything else–so completely to the wall in 1973, let alone that they could storm the charts with it.
And more remarkable still is that everything–the entire serio-comic zeitgeist, up to and including the almost-too-perfectly divine absurdity of reaching #1 on Billboard with an LP anchored to a thirteen-minute instrumental that would have been right at home on one of Miles Davis’ jazz-fusion experiments from the same era and kicked off by a hit single that was either a complete goof on a children’s television hero or a Borges-level essay on the entire modern history of the political economy (race and class included) of the American Southwest, take your pick–is right there on the cover with its knowing cross between what you can’t really see in Rear Window and what’s available in the background of Superfly.
The ground, in other words, where most of War’s music–and most of American life–takes place.
Something to think about the next time the KISS Army starts complaining about how long it took to get their boys into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (where, for what it’s worth, I think they belong) while War, who made half a dozen albums of similar quality and import to this one, waits…and waits…and waits.
(For my thoughts on the artists I feel most strongly about, you can go here, here and here…Donna Summer has since been voted in)
As always, congratulations to all nominees, even those I don’t love…and best of luck. Nominees are thus:
Nirvana, Kiss, The Replacements, Hall and Oates, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Chic, Deep Purple, Peter Gabriel, LL Cool J, N.W.A., Link Wray, The Meters, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, Yes, The Zombies.
My rundown…(as usual, having nothing to do with who I think will get in, just my assessment of how deserving each nominee is)
Nirvana’s a no-brainer. Kurt Cobain’s suicide effectively ended the rock and roll revolution that rolled out of Fats Domino’s left hand in 1950, threatening the end of hate and war. I blame us, not Cobain, for the ultimate failure but in any case you can’t get much more influential than that.
The Replacements haven’t made much impression on me. Major cool factor going for them but if we’re focusing on cult bands, I don’t really understand why they would be voted in ahead of Big Star or the New York Dolls.
I put in a vote for N.W.A. last year (they were bound to be edged out by Public Enemy and they were), but I think this is a slightly longer and stronger ballot so I wouldn’t put them in my top five this time around.
LL Cool J has been on the ballot before and he would be a solid pick. I’m going in another direction this year, a little more true old school, but I could easily imagine picking him in another year where there was slightly less competition.
I like radio-friendly Yes, which is about four songs. Every time I try to go deeper I get lost.
Peter Gabriel brings up one of my pet peeves, which is giving ballot slots to artists who have already been inducted (Gabriel is in as a member of Genesis). If the artist in question is a slam dunk (Michael Jackson say) or at least a truly strong candidate (Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Clyde McPhatter) then I have no problem, but I don’t think Gabriel is in that class. Again, I like his radio hits, some of them a lot. I’d probably vote for him ahead of Yes, but in my own little circumscribed world, that isn’t necessarily saying much.
Ah, Kiss. On the basis of “Domino” alone, I will definitely vote for them some day. But they would make it much easier for me if they promise to play “Beth” and “Hard Luck Woman” at the induction ceremony and then get off the stage so Ace Frehley can close the show with “New York Groove.” (And for anyone who thinks I’m kidding, all I can say is you don’t know me very well as yet. They make the decision to stand by what they were best at, I’ll vote for them in a heartbeat.)
Deep Purple have a claim on helping invent/define heavy metal and the “classic” rock format. Thinking hard….
At least Cat Stevens is not a cult act in the manner of recent inductees Leonard Cohen/Tom Waits/Laura Nyro/Randy Newman. I mean, he had a string of hits, which is a quality I happen to like in a practitioner of a best-seller genre in a popular art form. But why he would be on the ballot yet again while Jackie DeShannon and Carole King (as a performer) wait in the wings is a mystery.
The Zombies have been bubbling under for years and at last they’ve made the ballot. I like them fine, but if there has to be another Invasion band in the Hall (and I’m not saying that there does, though I’m also not saying I object, strictly speaking) then I would rather it be Manfred Mann. Or, given the recent induction of the Small Faces and the Faces as a single unit, why not Manfred Mann/Manfred Mann’s Earth Band? That I’d probably go for.
Chic is a perennial nominee and they will certainly get in one of these days. I’m slightly torn on them because I like them in theory a bit better than I do in practice and I have a sneaking suspicion that their admittedly massive influence wasn’t the net positive most make it out to be. A tad detached for my tastes. Put K.C. and the Sunshine Band in this spot and I would be a bit happier. Put Barry White in this spot and I would go “duh” and put a check mark next to his name. His continued absence is bewildering….Still, on the basis of “Le Freak” and all those really great Rodgers/Edwards producing credits…I’m thinking.
The Meters are a group I’ve heard and read about a lot more than I’ve listened to and that’s on me. I should do better by them. Until I do, I’ll take a pass.
The Hall loves putting blues acts in the “performer” section of the Hall. This is as good a place as any to renew my call for a “Contemporary Influence” category, which could include seminal acts ranging from Patsy Cline to Herbie Hancock to Peter, Paul and Mary who have had a truly sizeable impact on rock and roll and the rock era generally without actually being rock and roll performers much (or any) of the time (even in the context of my own extremely broad definition of the term). It’s probably too late for that, as strictly blues performers now dot the Hall’s performer roster, as well as Miles Davis (who would have been perfect for the category and frankly still would be). Whether the Paul Butterfield Blues Band would be a true fit for that imaginary category is an interesting potentinal debate. Meanwhile, getting back to reality, I simply restate my previous call from last year: Honor Mike Bloomfield in the side-men category and start using this slot for someone else.
Rock n’ Roll:
Link Wray. Good God yes. And about time.
Top 40 Giants (Seventies/Early Eighties Division):
Hall and Oates are apparently the cause celebre of new Nomination Committee member Questlove, who evidently brought a lot of hip-hop credibility and a sense of Black America’s genuine love for the last of the blue-eyed soul giants to the process. There was a time when I would have seen this as a borderline call at best, but I’ve been familiarizing myself with their box set over the past year or so and, speaking as someone who values “hip hop credibility” about as much as I value “punk credibility,”–i.e, as another term that makes me basically want to swallow my own tongue and choke to death–I’m now calling them a no-brainer and kicking myself for needing to be reminded. Just to prove there is such a thing as personal growth, I should confess here and now that I once took out a contract on their lives when their version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” was rising up the charts. Basically I felt they needed to be stopped. Boys, you may not be the Righteous Brothers, but I’m nonetheless officially glad my man Guido never found you. It’s all good now–and he probably would have come after me when he discovered I didn’t really have the ten grand after all.
I was far from the only one who suspected that the announcement of Linda Ronstadt’s Parkinson’s diagnosis might prompt the Hall to continue it’s macabre habit of noticing epic female vocalists once they have an incurable disease. As I mentioned before, at least Linda is getting off relatively easy since it’s only her voice that died, while Dusty Springfield and Donna Summer needed an actual date with the Grim Reaper in order to be deemed worthy. Then again, this is just a nomination. We’ll see how it works out in the end. For what it’s worth, Ronstadt, whose voice was the foundation stone upon which the seventies-era California Rock scene was effectively built, has been eligible since 1992. She should have been in at least fifteen years ago. A lot of people have suggested that if she ever made it out of the nominating committee she would sail to election. Now that this theory is finally being put to the test, I hope I haven’t been truly paranoid all these years in suspecting it wouldn’t be that simple. We shall see.
In summation this is a good batch of nominees though, as usual, I could imagine it being still better. I could easily vote for nearly everyone on this ballot in a given year, especially N.W.A., LL Cool J, Kiss and, of course, Nirvana. As with last year, I’m leaving off the most obvious choice (in this case, Nirvana) on the grounds that they won’t need my support. You can go to the Hall’s voting site here to cast a let-my-voice-be-heard-in-however-small-a-way ballot.
I’m casting mine for Ronstadt, Hall and Oates, Chic, Deep Purple and Link Wray.