Listening to Television’s “Marquee Moon” for the first time in forever, I’m reminded of why this is one of my favorite records of all time. One of those records you only listen to once in a blue moon but every time you do you think “MAN, why am I not listening to this every day?”. Because every single time, there’s something new. As deeply 70s-sounding as it is, it’s also really not at all. It could have very well been produced by some hot new indie band today. One with a great ear for melody and arrangements.
I was involved in a song tournament in an online message board (and believe me, I’m completely aware of how ridiculously geeky that sounds, and it is, but it’s also fun) about music of the 2000s. It’s simple– 16 people draft a team of 10 or so songs each, then the rest of the board votes on the best team. My team went on to the semifinals, after which it was crushed by a team that featured White Stripes and Queens of the Stone Age songs in it. Which was to be expected.
After the 2000s tournament, a 1970s tournament was started. I didn’t sign up fast enough, so I was relegated to watching from the sidelines. The first-round picks for the 1970s tournament included songs such as “Let it Be” by The Beatles, “Imagine” by John Lennon, 2 Led Zeppelin picks, 3 Pink Floyd picks, Neil Young, etc. Now, far it from me be it to actually shit on those songs or bands. They’re, for the most part, pretty great songs that have earned their place in the annals of rock music for a reason. My beef comes from the fact that these songs, while important and “great” and culturally significant… seem kind of… boring.
Not the songs themselves, but the choices. The choices seemed uninspired. “Imagine”, as iconic as it is, as important as it was to the declining counter-culture, is, in essence, a simple piano pop song. It’s an anthem, no doubt, but one lacking every single bit of intensity, emotion or excitement that I personally associate with the 1970s. The Pink Floyd songs selected were all from the era in which they had stepped away from the demented and psychedelic insanity of Syd Barrett. “Let it Be”. though a great song, is a remnant of the decade preceding it.
And this may be just my thing– the side of the 70s that I’m personally interested in, musically, was everything that had to do with stepping away from the oppressive thumb of 60s “classic rock”. In doing away with the overly self-conscious and self-aggrandizing communal, spiritual aspect of the Woodstock generation. To strip away all the pretense and self-importance and just write angry, rebellious, intense, brilliant fucking pop songs. To make music fun again.
Again, this is more my problem than anybody else’s, since the 70s were also the decade of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. But the side of the 70s that really interested me was what was going on (seemingly simultaneously) in two very different scenes in the mid-70s; New York and England. For me, some of the most exciting, imaginative and wildly unpredictable music from the decade came from that movement. “Punk”, “new wave”, whatever you wanna call the change that happened in popular music around 1975, purported to be a Year-Zero new start, but in fact, like all half-decent revolutions, it was an amalgam of the best bits of what had preceded it.
So in this craziness you had the “DIY, guitar-bass-drums, make it in your Dad’s garage” back-to-basics approach of skiffle (accompanied by the idea that nobody over the age of 19 should make records, and no record ought to be longer than two-minutes-thirty), you had filtered through all the bullshit and culled the best bits of glam-rock (sexually ambiguous dressing, great hair, ear-splitting guitar noise), and you had the 1960s beat-group sensitivity for melody. You had the influence of both Phil Spector and Pete Townshend, who showed this generation how to write songs (with an ear for the sugarshot and melodic) and how to play their instruments (with furious abandon), respectively.
Add to that the ghetto/outsider mentality and heavy bass feel of dub reggae and the deliberately difficult sounds of Krautrock and electronic music being produced in the old continent. Throw in a seriously pissed-off attitude to their parents’ generation, suddenly seen as having let “their” generation down really badly, and on top of that, a renewed awareness of (and interest in) ska/bluebeat, and what have you got? You get The Talking Heads. You get The Damned. You get The Jam. You get Eddie & The Hot Rods. You get The Ramones. You get the genius of Television. You get the New York Dolls. You get what’s, in my opinion, the most fruitful melting pot known (to date) for popular music. I believe the tidal wave of innovative, clever, thinking-outside-the-box music that poured out in that period has never been equalled, and set the bar for the current indie scene (I see some of that wildly innovative spirit resurfacing over the last couple of years).
I guess my frustration in seeing this 1970s tournament go down and people going with the easy, obvious, VH1-rock-retrospective picks would be nothing compared to my frustration after having picked all my favorite songs and seeing them lose against a team with “Stairway to Heaven” in it. Oyy. The small defeats of a wannabe pub-rocker, I guess.