Rock History and Visual Culture
In the age of the internet and multi-channel television, the relationship between music and visual culture is intensifying and multiplying. Music videos continue to abound, now that more and more genres have their own digital space. Live appearances on chat shows, comedy shows and so on are still a common feature of the TV landscape. And the music documentary has made a surprising comeback after a 1990s decline. How to assess this new settlement between sound and vision?
One starting point is to recognise a paradox. Amidst all the futuristic claims of a new digital era, there is a veritable explosion of history on our screens – including musical history. Film biopics gain Oscar nominations and drooling reviews (Ray, Walk the Line, Control). In a different budgetary world, cable channels fill their gaping schedules with cheap documentaries tracing the careers of musical ‘legends’ such as Paul Anka or Marc Bolan. In between, there are more serious but nevertheless predictable attempts to tell the story of musical genres (Soul Deep, Ken Burns’ Jazz). Martin Scorsese lends his auteur credentials to series on Dylan and the blues, which are then repackaged as glossy DVD box sets.
YouTube adds fascinating new levels to this retro culture, providing a virtual archive of musical history, from the sublime (Stevie Wonder at his peak performing Superstition on Sesame Street) to the predictable (a thousand indie boys walking through urban decay; ten thousand rappers stooping to peer into a ground-level camera). Inevitably, though, this fabulous resource is being read through the lenses provided by older discourses about rock and soul’s golden ages.
What does this musical history boom mean for our understanding of screen culture – and for that matter, musical culture? There’s a strong sense even amongst those most drawn to retro rock culture that the relentless looking back to the 1960s and 1970s is unsatisfactory. But classic rock fans tend to blame the victim, claiming that pop just hasn’t been the same since Elvis, Hendrix and Bowie shocked baby-boomers’ Mums and Dads with their wiggles, thrusts and pouts. The music nostalgia boom encourages a sense that the sixties and seventies formed not only a golden age of popular music, but a golden age of popular music’s visual power too.
I’m very sceptical about the idea that pop has declined since the golden age of rock and soul. And I’m convinced that the visualisation of this nostalgia is deeply mythological.
Let’s take TV first. Rock musicians were on the whole quite suspicious of TV. If the rock and soul revolutions involved some musicians attempting to gain greater autonomy, they were only rarely going to find that autonomy on television. On the other hand, there were plenty of musicians and managers willing to make all the compromises necessary to work with television, given the rewards involved. We may remember glorious moments of rebellion, but these were few and far between. In the UK, the television norm for popular music was a mimed public appearance on a live half-hour show such as Top of the Pops, or a guest appearance on a ‘variety show’. Some of the most important of these were fronted by bland popular music figures such as Cliff Richard and Val Doonican, performing agonising comedy sketches alongside light covers of recent pop hits. (The US equivalent would, I think, be shows hosted by Johnny Cash and Andy Williams).
One of the most mythologised moments in rock history is Jimi Hendrix’s appearance on one such show, hosted by the Scots singer Lulu in 1969. What is striking is how many accounts portray Jimi Hendrix as sullen, angry and anarchistic, when in fact he is smiling, polite, charming.1 His reference to not playing ‘rubbish’ is self-deprecating rather than aggressive.
Those rock musicians with the necessary resources turned to the cinema, which had greater prestige as higher entertainment, in spite of Elvis’s disastrous forays. These cinematic ventures could take the form of surreal quasi-experimentalism (the Beatles), allowing one’s iconic status to be confirmed through allowing in the direct cinema cameras (Pennebaker on Dylan, The Maysles brothers doing the Stones) or basing a feature film around concert footage (Led Zeppelin, The Who).
In cinema too, though, the evidence for a golden age is sparse. Sections of the feted A Hard Day’s Night are painful to watch. For all the recent hero-worship and star-struck fascination (I’m Not There), Dylan comes across as a self-absorbed prick in Don’t Look Back. Perhaps the nadir of classic rock’s encounter with the movies though is Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same. Actually, this may even have been the nadir of rock culture, period. The group hired their own filmmakers to film them in concert, and to produce fantasy sequences that they and their infamous manager Peter Grant had devised. Journeys are undertaken often on horseback or in vintage cars. Women are rescued or are seen preparing food for their swains. The film opens with Grant and a crony, dressed as Chicago gangsters, shooting up a group of ghouls who are seemingly supposed to represent the corporate rock industry. Here the truth is revealed: prog-rock, presented as a coming of age of youth culture, was very often about adolescent boy fantasy, more Tolkien than Tobias Wolff.
Of course ‘70s self-indulgence is now a staple of rock’s retro culture. Filmmakers are quite conscious of the gentle parody of This is Spinal Tap. But what do we say about a culture that actually thinks this stuff is worth celebrating to this degree, even with the wisdom of hindsight? After all, Led Zeppelin have been one of the key players in the current rock nostalgia boom. Their reunion gig in 2007 was one of the most hyped musical events of that year – and The Song Remains the Same was released on DVD in 2007 to considerable excitement in the music press.
As Simon Reynolds has pointed out, retro rock documentaries are just one part of a huge musical retro industry, encompassing ‘band reformations and reunion tours, expanded reissues of classic albums and out-take crammed box sets, remakes and sequels, live performances of classic albums in their original sequence, rock histories and biographies galore’.2 Reynolds is rightly scathing about this culture, and offers up his own ‘Law of Retro’ – whereby ‘the vitality of a music genre bears an inverse ratio to the amount of historical knowledge built up around it’. But Reynolds also registers that the recent boom in music documentary is providing some interesting material, some of which runs counter to the classic rock nostalgia boom. He cites recent films on Berlin techno and Bristol dubstep, but also more mainstream documentaries on Wilco and Metallica and even retro pieces on some slightly more unusual and marginal figures – Joe Strummer, Shane MacGowan and Scott Walker.
Reynolds also mentions DiG!, Ondie Timoner’s film about the contrasting fortunes of two US indie bands as they attempt to make it. Matt Stahl has analysed how DiG! offers a parable concerning the benefits of accommodation with capitalism.3 By setting the hedonistic but balanced Dandy Warhols against the mentally ill lead singer of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Anton Newcombe, DiG! portrays to its audiences a new model creative worker, imbued with mass society critique, but little more politically. I think Stahl is right, and that this captures beautifully the development of indie or alternative rock since the mid-1990s. Criticism of poverty, inequality, the opportunism and egoism of private interests, and the destruction of social bonds brought about by capitalism (‘social critique’ in the terms of BoltanskiThe New Spirit of Capitalism) is muted. What remains is an emphasis on disenchantment and inauthenticity, and the limits capitalism places on freedom, autonomy and creativity (‘artistic critique’ in Boltanski and Chiapello’s terms).4 Both critiques are important, but the latter has been thoroughly absorbed into capitalism, say Boltanski and Chiapello.
So DiG! ends up revealing some deeper truths about the realities of musical culture, in spite of its intentions. This is something that the modern rockumentaries share with older variants such as The Song Remains the Same. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is particularly impressive because it seems intentionally willing reveal its stars as sensitive multi-millionaires, who must have their personal guru perpetually present to guide their creativity. Drummer Lars Ulrich is seen strolling around his remarkable collection of Basquiats and Dubuffets, as he prepares to sell them at Christie’s for a breathtaking fee.
Strangely then we seem to be experiencing a golden age for certain aspects of visual culture, in the form of the revived rockumentary, and the glorious resources of YouTube. But these are still buried buried beneath the nostalgic retro culture that still dominates popular music. It’s time to clear that debris away and live in the musical present, while looking and listening back in a more enlightened way.
3. Home page image. Design by Peter Alilunas.
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- See the journalist John Walsh quoted in Keith Negus, ‘Musicians on television: visible, audible and ignored’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 131,2: 310-330. Negus’s article is a rich set of reflections on music and visual culture. [↩]
- http://reynoldsretro.blogspot.com/2007/12/tombstone-blues-music-documentary-boom.html [↩]
- Matt Stahl, ‘Sex and Drugs and Bait and Switch: Rockumentary and the New Model Worker’, in David Hesmondhalgh and Jason Toynbee (eds), The Media and Social Theory, London and New York: Routledge, 2008. [↩]
- Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2005). [↩]