The Null Device
Posts matching tags '1960s'
Fifty years ago, the governor of Indiana received an obscenity complaint about the (all but incomprehensible) lyrics of a rock'n'roll song, “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen, which he passed to the FBI. Before they could prosecute those involved, they were faced with the problem of determining what the lyrics (which had been derived from a calypso number from 1957, originally in a cod Caribbean patois, but rendered incomprehensible by the braces worn by the Kingsmen's lead singer) actually meant, and prove that it was actually obscene; and so began an exhaustive investigation, in which the valiant G-men strove, with McCarthyite zeal, to uncover the sinister plot against America's youth by deciphering exactly what kind of filth the lyrics might be:
The subsequent report on the song – unearthed in 1984 by video producer Eric Predoehl – runs for more than 140 pages. The records of the FBI's various attempts to work out the exact kind of obscenities that Louie Louie supposedly contained make for fantastic, demented reading. You can picture agents slowly going nuts as they desperately struggle to pin something, anything, dirty on the lyrics, regardless of whether or not that something makes any sense or actually features in the lyric. "Oh my bed and I lay her there, I meet a rose in her hair," suggested one interpretation. "We'll fuck your girl and by the way," offered another, failing to answer the fairly obvious question this provoked: what, exactly, is by the way? Some of the interpretations were quite lyrical – "Hey Señorita, I'm hot as hell" – although others were not: "Get that broad out of here!"One ad-hoc translator thought it was about masturbation: "Every night and day I play with my thing." Another particularly creative agent seemed to think it centered around the subject of performing cunnilingus on a woman who was menstruating – "She's got a rag on, I'll move above" – which, with the best will in the world, seems a spectacularly improbable topic for any rock band, no matter how raunchy, to be addressing in 1963. Another, more creative still, seems to have actually invented a perversion to fit the garbled vocals: "I felt my bone … ah … in her hair."
In fact, the bureau's persistence says less about the Kingsmen than the era in which it took place. Intriguingly, the concerned letters about Louie Louie and the start of the FBI's investigation coincide with the Beatles' arrival in the US: I Want To Hold Your Hand began its seven-week run at No 1 on 7 February, their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show – watched by 73 million people and considered a seismic event in US pop culture – came two days later. These days, we tend to think of the moptop-era Beatles as uncomplicated, unthreatening and universally adored, but to a certain kind of reactionary mind, the Beatles were anything but uncomplicated and unthreatening. Their very appearance marked them out as unfathomably strange and alien (in one extreme version of this response, far-right British politician John Tyndall, described the Beatles in 1963 as "effeminate oddities … looking for all the world like the members of some primitive African tribe", before accusing them of ushering an era of "weirdness in the male type"). Furthermore, after several years in which rock'n'roll appeared to have been entirely denuded of its provocative power – its initial rawness streamlined and diluted with parent-friendly intimations of pre-rock pop by Bobby Darin, Paul Anka, Bobby Rydell et al – you only had to look at the reaction the Beatles were getting to know that rock'n'roll was suddenly an incredibly potent force once more.The investigation failed to produce anything more than paranoid fancy, but did have the unintended consequence of transforming an incomprehensible, otherwise forgettable rock'n'roll ditty—one which would have almost certainly been swept from history by the tide of Beatlemania months later—into an anthem of pure rock'n'roll rebellion by fiat, a sort of Necronomicon of the moral panics that spanned the gap from the McCarthy Red Scare to the Satanic panic of the Reagan years, its very lack of definition allowing interpreters to read their own demonologies of choice into it. And many, amongst them Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins and The Clash, did versions, filling in the blanks with mundane vulgarities of their own devising (and a few cribbed from the FBI report), to varying effects.
An interview with underground comic author Daniel Clowes, in which he talks about a number of things, such as the pitfalls of hipster parents trying wrongheadedly to introduce their kids to interesting culture (and, in the process, making it deeply uncool):
I think about that a lot with my son. I don’t want to inflict the stuff I like onto him. He’s only eight, so right now I could get him to like anything, pretty much, but when he’s a few years older I really don’t want him to respond to anything because I like it too much or not enough. I want him to sort of find his way into his own stuff, so it’s something I have to constantly modulate. I don’t want him to associate this music with me, I want him to discover it on his own and then I’ll go like, “Well, I happen to have all their records!”In short, you may be hip and credible, but once you have kids, your position as a parent will, in the eyes of your kids, be like antimatter to all the cred you have carried forth from your bourgeois-bohemian extended adolescence. And so, a generation is produced to whom Black Flag and Pavement will be as naff as, say, Engelbert Humperdinck or something. Or, in the post-loungecore, post-Yacht Rock age after irony has folded in upon itself, perhaps it's the act of having opinions about music that will carry a patina of daddish uncool, with record collections and discographies being inherently cringeworthy; perhaps, to the hip kids, music will be, as Jarvis Cocker put it, like a scented candle, a ubiquitous low-value commodity beneath caring about.
And now is the era of the Cool Dad. I know lots of parents who I just think, like, “God, if my parents had been like that I would’ve been into all this cool stuff.” Luckily they weren’t, so I discovered all that stuff on my own and they sort of disdainfully shook their heads at the stupid stuff I was interested in. But there are a lot of things that I don’t respond to. I’m not into video games, so I can just see my son becoming, like, a video-game tester as his job or something. Developing video games.Clowes touches on the mainstreaming of comic-book/nerd culture:
When I was in high school, if I’d gone up to a girl and said, “Would you like to go read some of my Thor comics with me?” they would’ve just thought I was the lowest form of human life. That would’ve been so unimaginable. I was actually on the subway in New York and saw this, like, Attractive Teenage Couple, and the guy was like, “Hey, wanna go see Thor tonight?” and the girl was like, “Yeah, yeah.” And I just thought, that is just blowing my mind that that is happening right in front of me.And touches on the way that, by reducing the amount of friction required to discover something, the internet has reduced the value of merely knowing about cultural products as badges of belonging:
I could tell you right now about some obscure filmmaker and you could know more about him by midnight than I would’ve been able to find out in 10 years when I was your age. But I don’t know that it would mean much to you unless you really connected to the guy and kept following it and doing more and more research. It’d just be like, “Yeah, I know about that guy,” and then you’d move on to the next thing. There’s something about having it be like a mystery that you have to solve and figure out that really connected you to this weird culture back then.
It also used to be like, you’d buy an album by a recording artist and there’d be one or two good songs on it, and there’d be all the rest that were just kind of to fill up the album, and you’d work your way through that and learn to like the other songs after a while, and then you’d wait till the next album came out. And now it sort of feels like everything is all the greatest hits. You learn about a musician and you immediately can figure out what their 10 greatest songs are, and you just listen to those and you don’t experience the full breadth of their failures and mishaps and all that stuff. I feel like that’s how all culture is. And I’m as guilty as anybody else now—if I hear about an author or something I go straight for their most well-known book and read that first, and, you know, I don’t have that experience of kind of building up to that. You don’t wanna read the rest of their books after that because you figure, “Well, I’ve already read the best one. It’s not gonna be much better than that.”The interview also touches on the settings of Clowes' works, the aura of alienation in his characters, and his aesthetic formative experiences having been a reaction to the cultural upheavals of The Sixties:
As a kid I loved the look of the early ’60s, kind of the pre-hippie era, just the haircuts and clothes and the way women dressed, it was really appealing. And then all of a sudden people started wearing, like, filthy clothes and messy hair and stuff. That seemed really hideous and horrible to me. It definitely relates to what was going on in my life at the time because, as with many kids who grew up then, my family was just disintegrating while all that stuff came in, so it represented this chaos that was entering my life. But I still have an affection for that pre-1968 look, that kind of saturated Technicolor look. That seems like the real world to me, or like the way things should be.
The first two in a series of articles about the history of rock'n'roll-influenced pop music in Japan, through the 1960s and 1970s: Part 1, about the rise and decline of Beatles/Stones-influenced, tightly controlled "Group Sounds" bands and the rise of the psychedelic rock that followed, and part 2, about the rise of the Kansai underground protest-folk scene and its influence on Japanese rock:
In 1966, The Beatles came to Japan, playing a series of five concerts at Tokyo’s Budokan. In doing so, they transformed rock and roll into a phenomenon among Japanese youth. Within months, an unprecedented number of Japanese rock bands, each with their own take on the sounds of The Beatles or The Stones, were debuting. The Japanese press started writing articles about the new, controversial band boom, which they had termed “Group Sounds” (or GS). The Japanese music industry, however, was slow to adapt to Japan’s changing musical climate. Labels assumed a high degree of musical control, often forcing bands to record compositions by in-house songwriters instead of their own material. Only in live performances were the GS groups granted creative control. Many groups refused to preform their singles at all, instead playing from a repertoire of covers and original songs.
Okabayashi quickly became one of the most prominent members of the Kansai Folk movement. His 1969 URC debut demonstrates the level of freedom Takaishi’s label granted its artists. Watashi wo Danzai Seyo contained songs criticizing the Vietnam War (“Sensou no Oyadama”), Japanese labor conditions (“Sanya Blues”), and the perils of Japan’s capitalist aspirations (“Sore de Jiyuu Natta no Kai”). Okabayashi also wrote songs that explored taboo topics like the discrimination against descendants of Edo Japan’s pariah caste, the burakumin (“Tegami”). Although Okabayashi was often critical and sardonic, he expressed a great deal of hope for a brighter future in songs like “Tomo yo” and “Kyou wo Koete.” Okabayashi’s blunt lyrics about sensitive topics caused the JRIA’s standards committee to ban many of his songs from being broadcast on Japanese radio. The most infamous of these songs is “Kusokurae Bushi,” or in English, “Eat Shit Song.” Even after removing a verse concerning the Japanese Emperor, which centered around a pun between “God” and “[toilet] paper,” “Kusokurae Bushi” was banned from radio and recalled from record shops.In the second article, an interesting point is raised about authenticity, with many in Japan's rock scene regarding rock-style music sung in Japanese, rather than English, to be inauthentic, thus framing rock as a specifically ethnic genre (much in the way that one might argue that, say, Balkan folk songs in English would be inauthentic, or possibly in the way that rap not performed in an American accent was regarded as "wack" for a decade or two).
The BBC News Magazine takes a look at the biggest-selling records of the 1960s, revealing that, in contrast with the super-groovy sounds later associated with the decade, they were, by all accounts, not very cool:
the best-sellers of the Sixties include healthy dollops of yodelling, crooning and clarinet-tootling among the recordings that are now part of the rock canon.Among the 1960s biggest-selling recording artists in the UK were easy-listening crooners like Ken Dodd, Engelbert Humperdinck and Frank Ifield (who not only crooned and didn't rock but also yodelled; completely unironically, of course) and wobbleboard maestro Rolf Harris. As far as I know, none of them ever ended up on a Ben Sherman T-shirt.
Of course, the 1960s and "the 1960s" are completely different things and shouldn't be confused with each other. The former is a stretch of ten solar years, starting and finishing at arbitrary points, whereas the latter is a cultural construct created in retrospect by observing what happened in the former, filtering out inconveniently outlying points and making up stories about it until a narrative emerges. And as the narrative emerges, often events that happened get subsumed into the background. So, while in the 1960s, groovy youth culture flourished in reaction against a more square status quo, and this status quo was the backdrop; "the 1960s", however, were a riot of psychedelic colour and stylish coolness; everybody was a Mod or a Rocker or else taking acid and listening to the Beatles. Much like everybody in the 1970s was a punk, a disco dancer or a super-smooth yacht rocker, and the 1980s were all about new-wave synthpop, fluorescent colours and the odd bit of hair metal.
It's like a cultural equivalent of the psychoacoustic audio compression used in MP3 files. When a sound recording is encoded to a MP3 file, the algorithm analyses it and discards the frequencies that a human listener wouldn't notice. A MP3 file is essentially a caricature of the original recording made up of the more salient frequencies; your brain fills in the gaps and you don't notice the difference. In a similar way, the historical process of interpreting a decade involves thrashing out its salient characteristics and discarding the rest. It's an ongoing process, and "the 1960s" (and "the 1970s" and "the 1980s" and onward) keep evolving in line with contemporary tastes; "the 1960s" which The Bangles and Lenny Kravitz referenced in the 1980s is not the same as the more rockist, geezerish "the 1960s" of post-Britpop lad-indie Britain. Neither, however, featured Rolf Harris.
The International Herald Tribune has an interesting summary of the impact of 1968's upheaval on France, its society and politics:
May 1968 was a watershed in French life, a holy moment of liberation for many, when youth coalesced, the workers listened and the semi-royal French government of President Charles de Gaulle took fright. But for others, like the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy, only 13 years old at the time, May '68 represents anarchy and moral relativism, a destruction of social and patriotic values that, he has said in harsh terms, "must be liquidated."
French society in May 1968 "was completely blocked," Geismar said. A conservative recreation of pre-World War II society, it had been shaken by the Algerian war and the baby boom, its schools badly overcrowded.
"As a divorced man, Sarkozy couldn't have been invited to dinner at the Élysée Palace, let alone be elected president of France," Geismar said. Both the vivid personal life and political success of Sarkozy, who has foreign and Jewish roots, "are unimaginable without 1968," he said. "The neo-conservatives are unimaginable without '68."
André Glucksmann (former Maoist student), who still supports Sarkozy as the best chance to modernize "the gilded museum of France" and reduce the power of "the sacralized state," is amused by Sarkozy's fierce campaign attack on May 1968. "Sarkozy is the first post-'68 president," Glucksmann said. "To liquidate '68 is to liquidate himself."
An article in The Age talks about the role of pop lyrics in the cultural shift of the "1960s":
For a while they were a very effective form of mass media, communicating notions about authority, sex and drugs to kids around the world. This mattered because other media, such as newspapers, television and films, were still very conservative. Eventually they caught up, but until they did pop lyrics had an importance they have never had before or since.
But others, particularly those about sex, contained messages that were able to be played on radio only because so few people knew what they meant. In some cases, this was because few people paid close attention to the words. In other cases, it was because the words were obscure, at least by the standards of the time. (It was, let's not forget, a period when Ian Fleming could call a woman in one of his bestsellers Pussy Galore.) This meant lyricists could get away with sentiments that were pretty blatant, even by more recent standards.
For the markers of cultural change, I referred to my favourite book on the period, The Sixties, by American academic Arthur Marwick. He likes the idea that the decade was a "mini-renaissance" that actually ran from 1958 to 1974. In the first of those years, the forces that had been building through the 1950s (civil rights, affluence, the extension of adolescence through expanded higher education) accelerated. The latter date is when the end of the West's participation in the Vietnam War and the impact of the oil crisis hit home.
Meet the Partridge Family Temple, a parody religion/bunch of hipsters/creepy religious cult in Portland, Oregon, who dress in flamboyant 1960s fashion, hang around in bars, and seem to be partial to a spot of the old ultraviolence.
Although the idea of basing a religion on a sappy 1970s sitcom sounds like a joke, Fairlee insists he's serious. As he explains it, The Partridge Family was, in fact, the living embodiment of religious archetypes which have echoed through humanity from the earliest days. Shirley Jones is the virgin mother earth goddess; she had children, but no father was ever mentioned in the show. David Cassidy was the satyr or male sex god, a fact supported by his legendarily large phallus. Danny Bonaduce, the constant trouble-maker, was the loki or devil character. And Bobby Sherman, a one-episode guest, was the grim reaper, driving a hearse in his own spin-off series, "Getting Together."Incidentally, Shaun Partridge appears to be part of the same vaguely Satanistic hipster-misanthrope hate-is-great milieu as Boyd Rice and Jim Goad.
The Graun's Jonathan Freedland's broadside against the mythologisation of the 1960s, a decade much of whose alleged uniqueness and revolutionary character says more about the self-absorption and historical ignorance of those who grew up during it than about any genuine transformation of the world:
Note how everything they did was a first, a "revolution". Most have quoted Philip Larkin so often - "sexual intercourse began in 1963" - they've come to believe it, imagining their bedhopping was a genuine innovation. They seem unaware of the hedonistic 1920s, the naughty 1890s, the bawdy 18th century, to say nothing of the Roman and Greek empires. No, in their eyes, promiscuity was unheard of till they invented it.
They were "the first teenagers" too, as if before 1960 children mysteriously skipped from age 12 to 20 overnight. I know, I know - they're referring to the youth rebellion that gave the 60s its fire. Except that wasn't new either. In 1911, 30 kids walked out of Bigyn school in Llanelli, to protest over the caning of one of their peers, sparking a pupils' strike across Britain. Young people were at the forefront of the conscientious objection movement in the first world war a few years later. Whenever there has been a call for change, youth has usually been its voice.
(Though wasn't the whole deal about "the first teenagers" being that they were the first generation in which a large proportion of the adolescent population had the disposable income to create demand for cultural goods marketed specifically at them, hence the rise of rock'n'roll and youth culture and all that it spawned, eventually giving rise to MTV and PlayStations and, arguably, the bulk of the mobile phone industry and such?)
The oddly-named Cutie Morning Moon is a website chronicling the rise of garage rock (or "60s punk", to use a ghastly piece of retroactive categorisation) in the 1960s around the world. It has some interesting pieces on Chilean and Hong Kong beat bands and the teenage rock scene under the watchful gaze of Big Brother behind the Iron Curtain, and also links to this piece on the history of Australian rock. (It doesn't say anything about importation of electric guitars having been illegal during the Menzies era, so that particular factoid may be an urban legend.)
Two art links filched from bOING bOING: firstly, a gallery of 1950s/60s TV commercial art; a lot of it very groovy in that 50s/60s way (hipsters take note). Secondly, this gallery of contemporary Japanese op art; optical illusions which do weird things as you look at them. (Well, some of them did; others didn't have an effect on me.) (Also, the second page didn't seem to load properly in Mozilla, though Safari had no problems.)
Former Swingin' Sixties it-girl and veteran actress Julie Christie (still venerated by '60s fetishists, and the subject of a song by Spearmint) has revealed that she suffers from autobiographical amnesia, a rare condition which strips away short- and long-term memory. Which may mean that her subjective experience of her glory days is now less than that of her fans.