Book Reviews

MRR #444 • May 2020

Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music Edited by Sandra Choron

When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.*

—Plato, The Republic

(as paraphrased by Tuli Kupferberg, THE FUGS)

    Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting-Edge of Recorded Music is the PBS documentary project comprised of over 160 original interviews with artists arranged into eight theme-oriented segments. The slick oversized hardcover book MRR was given to review features biographies “in their own words” of twenty-one artists, performers, producers and engineers, while the TV episodes are organized around developments in recording technology and techniques instead of musical sound, genre or history. BEATLES producer George Martin’s final project, Soundbreaking was not a labor of love, inclusion, erudition or illumination so much as a promotion of artistic individualism and techne. A celebration of artists and their techniques. 

    The project embodies the 19th century “great man theory” transposed from history to music. From this perspective, unique individuals with natural attributes—superior talents, heroic endurance or transcendent inspiration—come to be highly influential and have a decisive effect on music. Like “great men,” great artists are not made but are born or can be summoned forth by some unique moment in time according to the theory. Instead, they are ultimately the products of their environment. Or as playwright Bertolt Brecht rhetorically asked about the “great men” depicted in his poem “A Worker Reads History”: “He alone?”

    So Soundbreaking doesn’t deal with how rock and roll as a musical genre came to be or changed the world, but rather how Les Paul’s novel invention of the solid body electric guitar or Eric Clapton’s “brilliant” use of that guitar changed that genre. This perspective ignores that “great artists” are rife with flaws, contradictions or outright villainy and whitewashes the unsavory aspects of their character. We’re encouraged to disregard that John Lennon was a wife beater, Eric Clapton a racist, Phil Spector a murderous psychopath, Beck a Scientologist toady or Paul McCartney a banal turd because they are “musical geniuses.” Soundbreaking mentions that Elvis Presley and LED ZEPPELIN stole from black musicians only in passing, thus sidestepping a broader discussion of the historical importance of black music to rock and roll. In intentionally avoiding any overarching historical or sociological framework—context if you will—what results is a scattershot “hit or miss” approach. All of which means that Soundbreaking is often temporally jumbled, topically muddled and ultimately lacking either an individual or historic pivot.

    Before going further, there’s much to be admired about Soundbreaking. Many of its interviews and themes are brilliant, provocative and informative. Its aesthetics are gorgeous, from the archival black and white film footage to the studio quality sound and the elegant coffee table book. The series is full of amusing, stunning, even revelatory moments. For all its shortcomings and boring interludes, the series is riveting and the book collectible. Some artists (Tupac Shakur, Kanye West) and types of music (underground, independent) are barely mentioned. No matter what approach is taken or how comprehensive the intent, aspects are invariably left out (Patti Smith, punk rock). The complaint that Soundbreaking fails to see the forest for the trees still means there are plenty of wonderful trees to enjoy.

    Given the sheer volume of information the book and series have to offer, a few examples will suffice. In the category of “genius artists,” numerous musicians marvel at Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” technique, yet nothing is mentioned of how demanding, abusive and egomaniacal the legendary record producer was let alone any broaching of the issues of mental illness or homicide. The interview snippets and chapter devoted to Joni Mitchell, while insightful, fall short. “I’m a painter first,” she says. “ So to me, a producer is completely unnecessary. […] When I began to record, most of the men were very resistant to taking instruction from a woman. And a producer is often a sycophant, a babysitter. If you know how you want to make your house, you don’t need an interior decorator. […] When I got my first record deal I requested that I would not have to work with a producer for personal reasons so that I could continue my experimentation and allow my work to unfold organically.” Her rapturous praise for self-production notwithstanding, Joni Mitchell reveals that sexism in the music industry is the real reason she didn’t want a producer, a subject that is never revisited.

    The episode “Sound and Vision,” about the rise of MTV, is a waste, an incomplete portrayal of the profit-driven cable TV channel that presents MTV as trite, derivative and not at all cutting edge. By contrast “The World Is Yours”—the episode devoted to rap, hip hop and sampling—is a true revelation. Denied access to musical instruments not to mention recording studios, record contracts and industry support, rap and hip hop artists used sampling to revolutionize music at the time. Called the “musical equivalent of Adam’s rib,” the art and practice of sampling didn’t just add sound samples to an artist’s song as yet another element of musicality or kind of instrumentation. The artists using the technique intended to make sampling into its own art form, a way to create new songs and original music, and was therefore also a profoundly political act. “Sampling is basically the ability to take a piece of a song and then loop it,” record producer Jimmy Jam says. “You make it go over and over again and then create a new song.” 

    Culture commentator Jason King makes the connection to politics explicit when he asserts: “There’s a kind of political aspect to the sampling of PUBLIC ENEMY. They were sampling particular artists, particular sounds that referenced the entire history of black musical materials. They connected the past to the present to the future.” But the music industry, including many musicians, equated sampling with stealing other people’s music despite the fact that “[t]here’s really a limited number of notes and a limited number of chords, and these have all been replayed throughout history” according to record producer Mike Simpson. Unlike individual cases claiming legal harm (SPIRIT v. LED ZEPPELIN, Sean Hall et al v. Taylor Swift), the whole corporate music industry sued rap and hip hop artists for copyright infringement and used both legislation and tracking technology to crush the art and practice of sampling. So, unless you’re a multi-millionaire rapper like Kanye West who can afford to pay exorbitant fees for sampled beats, sampling is illegal.

    Soundbreaking’s TV episodes start in the present, jump backward and forward, repeating until timelines are often hopelessly jumbled. Various themes become muddled with too much attention to detail and fascination with minutia, racing to connect all the dots in an episode until the viewer loses sight of the bigger picture. Clear narrative structure frequently suffers. The series hits many high notes, to be sure. But they can’t be sustained because of uneven tone, style and method.

    I grew up believing rock and roll was a revolutionary form of music, only to experience my favorite rock songs become soundtracks for car commercials. At the risk of getting mired in an intractable “form vs content” debate, I’d contend that both form and content can be revolutionary but both are easily co-opted. The deliberate dodging of historical and political context in particular means that all these wonderful artists—no matter how “great” or “brilliant” they might be—amount to a loose gaggle of unassociated talent. No one stands out above any other, leaving George Martin—“the fifth BEATLE” who knew and worked with most of these artists—the default pivot of Soundbreaking: Stories from the Cutting-Edge of Recorded Music. Thus life imitates art.

 

*When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them. —Plato, The Republic (original quote)

Teaching Resistance: Radicals, Revolutionaries, and Cultural Subversives in the Classroom Edited by John Mink

Writing this review is so surreal. I began reading this book in my 8th grade classroom and am finishing up the review sitting at home after being quarantined indefinitely. The world is at a standstill, and people are fighting for their lives in the first global pandemic in a century. For teachers, traditional pedagogy has been replaced by Zoom meetings, concerned parents, and a constant worry that students have access to basic necessities like food and a safe place to live. The world changed on us very quickly, but teachers (most of the ones I know, at least) are still doing what they can to provide equitable resources to students with compassion and patience. Teaching Resistance is a guide for those of us who are trying our best to create a safe, nurturing space where our students’ needs are met in the least restrictive, most progressive ways. If you are into punk, radical politics, activism, or are looking for a practical, relevant education book that is student-centered and real, skip this review and just go buy it. Better yet, get your school to buy it for you.

Teaching Resistance, edited by Fleshies vocalist and teacher John Mink, collects and expands on entries from MRR’s column of the same name. It includes essays from educators, writers, and students all across the world (particularly interesting are the insights given into politically/culturally repressive areas like Palestine, Serbia, Bible Belt America, and even prison). It also has engaging interviews with radical teachers, including punk lifers like Alice Bag and Martin Sorrondeguy (Los Crudos, Limp Wrist).

Although the perspectives are varied, the common threads that bind many of the pieces together are much like punk itself at its best: classrooms need to be anti-racist, anti-authoritarian, culturally relevant safe spaces where students and teachers feel comfortable to exchange ideas and work together to grow and learn. In these reflective essays, educators write about how their time spent in DIY punk enabled them to reach kids of all backgrounds. The techniques range from simple listening and caring to fighting forces that would threaten their safety. In his essay “Cops Out of Our Schools,” Mink expresses this by saying, “It has been shown, time and time again that teachers who are genuinely dedicated to the core (non-institutional) philosophies of their profession can, through radically innovative practices and active subversion of the institutional aspects of their jobs, play a major role in helping empower their students to take greater control over their own lives and potentially become catalysts for effective real structural-social change.” I can’t think of a better mission statement for modern teachers.

These accounts show the dedication many radical teachers have for their students and the sacred space of a peaceful, open learning environment. The chapter by dwayne dixon (the lowercase letters are intentional), a professor at the University of North Carolina, details how he confronted armed far-right agitators who were marching to protect a campus Confederate soldier statue right outside his classroom window. (Side note: a happy surprise for me was when one of my 8th grade students described her summer experience pulling down this controversial symbol of white supremacy). Similarly, there is a powerful essay describing how leftist and Antifa groups combatted Neo-Nazi riots right across from Berkeley High School. I don’t have to elaborate on how concerning the growing trends of conservatism, fascism, and anti-intellectualism are, but the reports from the front lines, as it were, show powerful people standing up and demonstrating what activism can accomplish.

Among the issues addressed in this collection that are of particular interest to me are ways of working with students who often “fall between the cracks” in the traditional public school structure. I am fortunate enough to work in a public creative arts magnet school that has a very diverse population, both racially and economically, and has a relatively large number of LGBTQIA+ students. I sympathize with students and teachers who have to spend time in places that are not accepting or equipped to best meet their needs. Chapters on reaching out to kids who have experienced trauma, working with the children of immigrants (Sorrendeguy’s lengthy interview was particularly insightful here, as was Bag’s, where she advocated for students learning in their first language), students who have physical and learning disabilities, and those who are not neuro-typical are so relevant and rare in standard educational texts, and I appreciate their inclusion and perspectives very much.

This is an excellent collection that I can’t recommend enough if you teach in any capacity. It is compassionate, thoughtful, and authentic. You never know who will walk through your classroom door, but it is your duty and privilege to connect to them and share ideas. In his interview, Sorrendeguy says, “I think that is how I think of education in general. It can really make that impact on somebody. My friends in Southern California used to talk about huellas; leaving fingerprints. We leave fingerprints everywhere. It’s like when people talk about a ripple effect. You’re leaving a mark, and you may walk away and go on in life, and you don’t even realize the fucking impact you made

My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters with Lou Reed, 1972-2013 Compiled by Michael Heath

For a wallflower like myself some records and bands are like good friends. I don’t have many real people in my life, a few very close friends and family but not a large group of buds or acquaintances.

So on some lonely night when maybe I don’t want or can’t reach out to someone, me and a good record can sit down and they’ll speak, I’ll listen and the record understands me better than anyone else could.

Then there’s Lou Reed (and the Velvet Underground). That’s not a friend on my record shelf, that’s family.

I can’t remember where I first heard the Velvet Underground but it was probably in a movie. I was hooked quickly, specifically on the first Velvet Underground record and Loaded and as time has gone on records that I didn’t understand when I was 16 like Street Hassle, the second self titled VU record or Metal Machine Music have become favorites.

It’s rare that a band or an artist can grow with you, or that you’d even want them to. I still have trouble with those later Bad Brains records. Some bands don’t even get that far and you can only wonder what would have been. Team Dresch will always be crystallized in two great albums and a few singles.

Lou though kept on keeping on. Some of those records I will grow into and others I can’t ever see understanding, like Lulu.

I don’t much care when celebrities die. I don’t know them. I have only this small piece of their lives which is their work. Like when Bowie died. David Bowie is great but for me, I don’t really know/care for his work after The Lodger. I’m sorry that a human being doesn’t exist any more but I don’t know that person.

When Lou died however, it stopped me in my tracks. I called my best friend, or they called me, I can’t remember now and we talked for a while, the Velvets mean a lot to both of us. I cried, which I’ve never done when a famous person had died.

But Lou is family, the cantankerous uncle. The cool guy you can never get close to.

This book of interviews which covers most of his career, there is precious little from the Velvet Underground days, and most of his interests.

There is an interview specifically about his photography and another from a Kung-Fu magazine where he talks about his interest in Tai-Chi. To paraphrase Lou, it covers his drug phase, the no-drug phase, the Prozac phase, the no Prozac phase, etc.

It’s interesting to see how the many of the writers here relate to Lou’s music. It becomes easy to see why he is so frustrated with them. They don’t appear to be fans past 1972’s Transformer. To be in your twilight years after almost 60 years of writing and recording material and be asked about songs from your first couple of records must be grating.

They also lean heavily on the songs of substance abuse and “deviant sex” as if that’s all he wrote about. Not even “Venus in Furs” is only about S/M. Even in the darkest depths of Lou Reed’s words there is a tenderness and depth that most other writers could only dream of.

As the afterword by Pat Thomas points out, “There is no reason for me to tell you why Lou Reed is great. Hopefully you know that and if you don’t, well, I can’t help you now.”

Lou comes off in this book as a three-dimensional person. Which is amazing since interviews generally paint an artist as the embodiment of whatever work they are promoting at the time and thus lose the color of an individual.

In some of these interviews Lou Reed is shitty to the interviewer but in some cases he appears provoked, in others not so much. The Australian interviews from the 70’s which can also be found on Youtube are particularly entertaining for the way Lou plays with the press.

Any of these interviews taken by themselves might have that quality but seen zoomed out, as a collection, you see a person. A very gifted person, who was a proselytizer of the power of music, a nerd about electronics, a diligent song writer and a patron of the arts.

It’s pointed out in the foreword by Luc Sante that there are some interesting through lines in the book: his mercurial relationship with John Cale and his continued, almost blind, adoration of Andy Warhol, to name two.

For me, I have always been a little troubled about Warhol but Lou knew him and has much more reason to appreciate him. He mentions often in these interviews that it was Warhol who, during the recording of the first Velvet Underground record, told him not to bend to anyone’s will, to not change anything for anyone.

It’s easy for a person like myself to look up at Warhol from the street and think about what he did to Valerie Solanas (and what she did to him) along with others in borrowing (read: stealing) ideas and credit as well as his lack of, well, making work in the manner that I think of as making “art” with a capital A.

But Lou is smarter than me and he saw Andy’s hard work, whatever that meant to him.

I don’t read this as an admirer of every single record Lou Reed made, in fact some things he has done are down right garbage in my opinion, but what I get from these interviews is that it’s all right to feel that way. Lou seems to feel that way but if you’re not ever trying, pushing, forging ahead with ideas and technique how can you ever get anywhere? Sure, there will be missteps but if great work comes out of it, then the whole ends up being much more than the sum of its parts. In Lou Reed’s case, it certainly was.

P.S. – The book’s layout and printing are absolutely wonderful. There is such care put into this book that one wonders why all books don’t have such a patina.