Wednesday, July 23, 2008

the primitives




Supersnazz * Flamingo * Teenage Head * Back in the USA * High Time

A friend and I had a conversation a few nights ago about our mutual fascination with American Graffiti... The Great Collapse cast a long shadow over American cinema in the 70s. American Graffiti ends right before the 60s become the 60s, at least in the popular understanding of the decade, and the film’s elegiac sentimentality for Malt Shop USA creates a sense that everything was fine until the 60s got out of hand and fucked it all up… We got to talking about how American Graffiti touched off a whole trend of TV nostalgia for the 50s and early 60s. There's Happy Days, of course, the title of which speaks volumes... And remember when they gave Sha Na Na that awful TV show? ...Even the TV version of MASH is set during the Korean War - never mind that the subtext is Viet Nam, or that the male characters somehow evince post-feminist sensitivity.


Nostalgia for the 50s in movies and on TV was really about the 60s. Something similar started to happen a few years earlier in music, a kind of pining for primitive (often 50s influenced) rock and roll. Aside from The Rolling Stones and The Stooges, the best examples I can think of are The Flamin' Groovies and MC5. The throwback element of the music was motivated by the same circumstances that influenced the backward looking aspect of the rural turn, but the nature of the reaction to the Great Collapse was different and had different consequences.




Supersnazz, the first full-length album from The Flamin’ Groovies, came from out of left field in 1969. It’s hard to believe that music this basic could come from a place as muddled and self-important as late-60s San Francisco. The Groovies lacked the reckless ferocity of The Stooges, but much of their music during this period was just as crude, in the best sense of the word. While mainstream pop and rock made increasingly hollow statements about love, war, peace, hate, and so on, The Groovies took a few very large steps backwards to an era when pop music was much less self-conscious and much more fun. “Love Have Mercy” sets the tone on Supersnazz with a melody line ripped off from “That’s All Right,” and then the band pays tribute to the likes of Eddie Cochran, Al Dexter and Little Richard with adoringly rendered versions of “Somethin’ Else”, “Pistol Packin’ Mama”, “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”, and “The Girl Can’t Help It.” The two-chord flippancy of “The First One is Free” ratchets down the refinement even further, as does the cartoonishness of “Bam Balam.” …Supersnazz mostly tries to take Rock ‘n Roll back to its roots, but the record also features a few somewhat more sophisticated songs with great guitar playing and even some strings (“Laurie Did It”, “Apart from That”). Listening to the album recently, I wondered if The Groovies wanted to give listeners a few glimpses of their ability to play more ‘evolved’ music. Either way, the glimpses are small and the band mostly keeps things uncomplicated, as if to insist that difficult times call for simple music…music the way it used to be...





MC5 also turned the clock back to a more rudimentary style, but in the process they rocked much harder and were more direct in their social commentary. The band's Back in the USA is a proto-punk classic. No flute solos. No Court of the Crimson King. Nothing too pretentious. Just cranked up guitars, great two and three-minute songs, and a bottomless supply of raw passion that makes you wanna dance and scream and get laid.

'...OK Kids, it's ROCKIN' time...!'

Actually, to reduce MC5 to a party band is an oversimplification. They were involved for some time with John Sinclair and the White Panther Party, and their live shows frequently provided a platform from which to spew hatred for The Man ('a lot of honkies, with a lot of money...'). Along with the good times on Back in the USA, there are flashes of social protest. 'They told you in school about freedom,' Rob Tyner sings in "The American Ruse", 'but when you try to be free they never let ya.' There's also an acute awareness of the 60s gone bad with the anger and violent imagery of "The Human Being Lawnmower" and "Call Me Animal", though it's the band's simplified approach that speaks most clearly about the Great Collapse. The album's bookends, Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA" and Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti", create a perfect context for what MC5 wanna do - inject old fashioned hedonism into the muck and mire of '69 America in terminal stasis.' ...The failure of the revolution was accelerating in 1969, but with the boppin' ecstasy of songs like "Tonight", "Teenage Lust", "High School", and "Looking at You", Back in the USA retrieves the original elements that made the youth insurgency crackle and spark.




Next time: More on The Flamin' Groovies and MC5...


3 comments:

Dan E said...

I love the Groovies, but for me Supersnazz has always been one of those "you had to be there" records. I never "got" the 50s revival trend of the late 60s and early 70s — I loved the source material, but longhairs boogieing their way through covers of "Rockin' Pneumonia" always seemed kinda lame to me.

At least the MC5's version of "Tutti Frutti" is completely cranked up, and their "Back in the USA" has a (given the context) a nice touch of irony, but they've never been the cuts I reach for when I want to share the glory of the MC5 with someone. Hell, I don't think I even have 'em on my iPod.

Flamingo, though — THERE'S a really underrated Groovies disc.

Max Stevens said...

I hear ya. ...Say, do you happen to have the alternate take of "Lookin' At You"? I keep hearing about it, but I don't know where to find it (I haven't learned how to 'share' music files yet). Apparently the two big guitar solos are even more intense than the ones you hear on the "Back in the USA" version...

Dan E said...

Are you referring to the single version, which they recorded for A-Square records in 1968? If so, yes I do have it — and it is fucking INSANE. Shoot me the proper email account where you'd want me to send it, and I'll hook you up.

But there are probably "alternate takes" floating around from the Back in the USA sessions, if that's what you mean. I'd have to dig through my archives to see if I have any that match the description...