Thursday, February 19, 2009
Les nouveaus riches
Eddie Palmieri, "Colombia Te Canto," Lucumi, Macumba, Voodoo (1978)
As with any music, and especially with such genres as are tied to a specific time, place, and ethnic identity (of course all are to a certain extent), New Yorican salsa (the variety of the music that flourished in the Afro-Caribbean diaspora communities in NYC) presented to its exponents the challenge of how to evolve while neither forgetting their roots nor presenting them a self-parodic, self-conscious "hip new fusion." Palmieri moved from early '60s boogaloo and Cubano dance music through the ultra-modern hard-edged urban salsa of his contemporaries and mutual influences Willie Colon, Larry Harlow, Ruben Blades, et al, and by his legendary records of the middle and later '70s (The Sun of Latin Music, Unfinished Masterpiece, and this one among them), he was brilliantly exploring long compositional forms, pioneering a sort of episodic progressive Afro-Cubanism that dealt in vibrant and physical terms with politics, race, and history.
Sly and the Family Stone, "Just Like a Baby," There's a Riot Goin' On (1971)
For a barometer of the vast paranoid comedown from curious admixture of naivete and possibility percolating through the late '60s that the '70s represented, one could do a lot worse than to trace the progression of Sly Stone's music. Set next to the hyper-inclusive one-world party anthems "Thank You (Falettin Be Mice Elf Agin)," "Dance to the Music," and "Everyday People," 1971's There's a Riot Goin' On is a smutty, junk-fueled nightmare, the sound of a nation and world turning in on themselves, Free Love and "mind expansion" looking in the cold morning light perilously like ennui-fueled kinky sex and neurotic escapism. Sly seems to narrate the Great Hangover from a secluded drug den off 125th and 8th Avenue or Carnaby Street, a hazy foxhole from which he could view Nixon, Vietnam, and assassination through the shades that his dilated pupils and the oilfires burning steadily through American nights compelled him to keep on.
Henry Cow, "Falling Away," Western Culture (1978)
Arguably the flagship avant-rock band in the relatively brief history of experimental electric music, Henry Cow dared to compose and improvise oppositional and acute quote-unquote 'rock' with a tonal, harmonic, rhythmic, and conceptual palette unlimited by any of the bourgeois distinctions between the worlds of 'high' and 'low' culture. Free and avant-composed jazz, vanguard 'progressive' (in the non-reified sense) rock, post-Romantic classical music, and the sonic specificities of avant-garde tape and electronic music (Stockhausen, Babbitt, Subotnick, et al) that popular music was just learning to hijack were all constant and considerable factors in the Cow's music, which generally tended over the group's approximately five-year lifespan to the trajectory from a complex jazz-rock to perhaps the only music outside of Zappa to negotiate the 'classical'/'pop' divide in almost exact equilibrium without falling into 'rock goes orchestral' tackiness or Braxtonian pomposity (not necessarily a comment on his musical output, mind you).
While I refuse to polemicize HC and the related contingent against equally brilliant and more clearly rock-oriented progressive groups (Genesis, Yes, the early King Crimson, and company) in the way that the English critical establishment has come to regard as a comfort, I would tend to say that, of the European progressive groups of the era, Henry Cow most evenly and judiciously split the difference between the academic and popular worlds: whereas the aforementioned prog bands were essentially interested in obtaining for rock music an extended compositional and conceptual palette, the Cow truly was neither here nor there. "Falling Away," from the second of the two suites ("History and Prospects," composed by keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Tim Hodgkinson, and "Day by Day," from woodwind player Lindsay Cooper) that comprise their final studio statement Western Culture, finds them firmly in the amplified-chamber-ensemble territory that they were essentially the first to eke out.