For a Rock Aesthetic
Andrew Chester / Richard Merton (aka Perry Anderson)
New Left Review, 59/1970
I. Andrew Chester: For a Rock Aesthetic
II. Richard Merton: Comments
III. Andrew Chester: Second Thoughts an a Rock Aesthetics: The Band
For three years rock music has been considered, both within and outside its social base, as a subject for serious critical attention; yet the standard of writing about rock remains poor and the major breakthrough to found a genuine rock aesthetic is still to be accomplished.
The biggest obstacle in the path of rock criticism is the notion of pop. The term is of course British, but the American word rock is not free of the pop mystification. Pop denotes a cultural, not an aesthetic object; the distinctive popular music of white urban youth, North American and British, that has developed in the past 15 years. The acceptance of a cultural definition of the object of criticism leads inevitably to a cultural as opposed to an aesthetic criticism. Musical form and musical practice are studied as an aspect of social relations, and significance is determined by social, not musical, criteria.
The moments of pop are such things as: — the rock idols of the fifties, ‘highschool’, ‘folk’, California, Motown, the British groups, acid-rock, underground. Pop criticism is not concerned with a musical appreciation of Presley or Holly, Beach Boys or Byrds, Stones or Beatles, Jefferson Airplane or Moby Grape. Of course the pop critics are lavish with pseudo-aesthetic judgement. But because their basic premise precludes the possibility based on the specifity of rock as a musical genre, they appraise either on totally extra-musical criteria, or on criteria imported illegitimately from the aesthetics of other musical forms.
The pop critic’s attitude towards the music is generally patronizing in the extreme: pop, and this is precisely why it is of interest, is the simple and vulgar music of the masses, lacking any genuine musical substance. The pop musicians who merit praise are those who attempt in their naive way to better themselves by learning from ‘serious’ music or from jazz, or who escape from the run of the mill in some non-musical dimension. No pop critic is interested in Dylan as a rock vocalist, even though his stature in this field is now comparable only to Presley; but every pop critic is fascinated by Dylan’s lyrics, now the subject of special university courses in the USA. A whole sub-division of pop criticism has developed to cope with the Beatles, the most interesting object of study since the most consistently popular. It is quite pathetic to read essay by Wilfred Mellers, Ned Rorem or Tony Palmer concerned with comparing the Lennon-McCartney songbook to Schubert or Poulenc, as if work in the genre of ‘song’ could have any aesthetic value in the midth-20th century, and as if such a conception has any place in the rock aesthetic, even for Lennon an McCartney themselves.
British writing remains almost totally dominated by the pop mystification. Two recent all-British works in book form complementary forms of cultural criticism, and exhibit a parochialism an philistinism that is distinctively British. Richard Mabey’s book is sociological journalism in the New Society/liberal studies vein. To give him his due, Mabey makes it explicit that his book is intended ‘principally for curious adults — parents, teachers, youth leaders — who ... are people perplexed about the role (pop music) has come to play in young peoples’ lives, and indeed in our society as a whole’. He is generous enough to admit that ‘it is no longer sufficient to discuss pop purely in terms of its social significance, because it now has, in addition, a quite definable artistic role’, but in those sections of his book where he is concerned to discuss ‘the music itself’, he concentrates almost exclusively on the lyrics (understandably, he takes ‘Protest music’ as a case study), and virtually the only specifically musical judgement to be found are in his liberal and largely uncommented quotes from articles by Mellers, Horowitz, Mitchell and other pop critics. Mabey’s personal musical reactions, as to be expected in the absence of any aesthetic framework, are naively subjective: (on Hendrix) ‘a slow-blooming, sostenuto top C, knifing its way from a guitar sound system working at a few hundred watts, can have the same effect as a feather brushed gradually up the spine’.
Nik Cohn’s book can be opposed to Mabey stylistically, but it shares many of the same premises. Pop from the Beginning makes hilarious reading; it is a celebration of pop in an idiom doubtless designed to match Cohn’s musical taste — a grotesque vulgarity sufficiently dated to be quaint. ‘The way I like it, pop is all teenage property and it mirrors everything that happens to teenagers in this time, in this American 20th century. It is about clothes and cars and dancing, it’s about parents and high school and being tied and breaking loose, it’s about getting sex and getting rich and getting old, it’s about America, it’s about cities and noise. Get the rich down to it, it’s all about Coca Cola.’ The coke parameter adequately maps Cohn’s musical field, and if anything with musical value happens to find itself on the right side of the fence, it’s no fault of his. Highschool is ‘the most POP pop ever’, ‘an exact reflection of what white American middle-class teenagers really liked and dreamed of’; Spectorsound, California and the early Beatles continue the story, and pop enters its final decline when Cohn’s heroes turns sophisticated and abandon the teenybopper millions to make ‘fine music’. Cohn’s aesthetic is a fairly straightforwarded musical Powellism, and he waxes as eloquent on the subversion of pop as Powell on that of the British empire. ‘(The Beatles) have changed. They don’t belong to their own time or place any more, they’ve flown away into limbo. and there are maybe a million acid-heads, pseudo-intellectuals, muddled schoolchildren and generalized freaks who have followed them there, but the mass teen public has been lumbered’.
Cohn’s vulgarity is of course forced. His book can be taken as an attempt at a pop aesthetic, which explicitly demands the liquidation of autonomous artistic development. Fortunately Cohn’s legions of crew-cut T-shirts have today a very tenuous existence outside his own nostalgic fantasy. Least of all in 1969 could such a book have been written in the USA itself.
American writing on rock must be considered more seriously. In his introduction to The Age of Rock anthology, Eisen correctly points out the intimate connection that exists between rock music and the youth rebellion of the sixties: ‘the whole (rock) movement is most involved with the idea that freedom lies in liberating that which has been repressed, even if it means the disruption of the on-going processes of our institutions’. Such an approach is of course essential in dealing with the cultural co-ordinates of rock music. But precisely because there is this connection, it is extremely difficult for the Americans despite their intuitively superior understanding of the field to tackle the specific problems of rock as music. Eisen’s volume is subtitled ‘sounds of the American cultural revolution’, but the great majority of these 38 pieces are concerned with rock only as an index of the cultural revolution, and not with the ‘sounds’. Most of the pieces that deal with the music itself fail to break with pop criticism. — Ned Rorem’s article from the New York Review of Books is reprinted here, together with a chapter of Mellers’ Caliban reborn. Only the three articles from Crawdaddy assume the problematic of a rock aesthetic, and Jon Landau’s careful piece on Dylan’s thematic development through John Wesley Harding helps to salvage an otherwise dreary book. But even Landau, and Meltzer in an article entitled ‘The Aesthetics of Rock’, betray a fundamental lack of conceptual framework necessary to begin rock criticism at the specifically musical level.
Marcus’ book, with two small exceptions, is a collection of articles from the San Francisco underground paper Good Times. The contributors belong to the political generation of the Civil Rights and Free Speech movements who now fit uneasily in the middle ground between revolutionary politics, drop-out and Humphreyan liberalism. Seen from this position, rock and politics appear virtually synonymous.
Sandy Darlington’s review of the Cream at winterland ballroom makes the point succintly enough: ‘In a society that seems to be breaking down into Establishment White vs. Black, Lyndon vs. Stokely Carmicheal, we are emerging as the Third Force, like a coalition between Yugoslavia and India, what you might call the mostly white alternative. In a world of KFRC Top Forty vs. KDIA Boss Soul, we are KMPX FM Rock, complete with all the contradictions of people who advertise Peace and Freedom, Record City, Pepsi Cola and Highway Patrol on the same station’. ‘Week after week we go inside the music, and as they play and we listen and dance, the questions and ideas slowly germinate in our minds like seeds. This is our school, our summit conference. This music is more than entertainment. It describes and helps us to define a way of life we believe in. So what are we going to do about it? The Cream along with Lyndon and the Mayor are helping us to plan our summer.’
Darlington and the other contributors evoke more successfully than I have read elsewhere the feel of rock music; or at least its cultural significance for the generation who reached their teens in liberal middle-class homes under Eisenhower, and now, after Kennedy, Civil Rights, Vietnam, LBJ, LSD and the beginnings of revolutionary struggle by black and by white youth, find themselves in their mid-twenties on the surviving campus islands of American liberalism as the Nixon administration sets out to bring the war back home.
But only one of the pieces in this book makes the break from cultural to musical criticism, Langdon Winner’s historical treatment, ‘The Strange Death of Rock and Roll’, and it is precisely Winner’s recognition of the necessity of a rock aesthetic that spotlights its absence. ‘Since the coming of the rock renaissance’, he writes, ‘there have arisen a large number of self-appointed apologists who insist that what rock needs is an elaborate justification. Rock is valid, they maintain, because it is social criticism or because it is a new form of jazz improvization or because it is the true poetry of our time ... but rock is an art form in its own right with its own rules, traditions and distinctive characteristics.
It needs no gift pass from Dizzy Gillespie in order to enter the gates of musical immortality.’ Certainly, but it is just these ‘rules, traditions and distinctive characteristics’ that we need to know, and so far there has been scarcely an attempt at such a systematic exposition that would found an aesthetic of rock.
This is the problem with which we are now confronted. In England some good writing on rock has been produced, in the shape of articles by Tim Souster and Michael Parsons in The Listener, and Alan Beckett in the New Left Review. But these writers are at their best in applying aesthetic concepts brought (legitimately) from other musical and artistic fields. Thus Parsons’ piece on Vanilla Fudge analyses the group’s use of musical reference and of the second hand. Alan Beckett’s article on the Stones is principally a psychoanalytic interpretation of lyrics and vocal delivery, despite some interesting comment on Jagger’s vocal style. These writers have developed a successful second-order criticism, that is perhaps adequate to their job of explaining rock, or pop as they misguidedly still call it, to the straight public: they do not seem to be developing a set of first-order concepts that come to grips with the internal structure of rock music itself.
This project requires answers to the following questions, among others:
a) what structural co-ordinates of the music are determined by its commitment to dance and to lyric?
b) what other structural co-ordinates of rock music are determined by its socio-cultural base?
c) what defines rock music’s borders with other contemporary forms such as jazz, blues and soul music, and the different schools of ‘serious music’?
d) what are the effects of rock music’s domination by the vocal, particularly on the development of instrumental styles?
e) is this domination by the vocal an essential characteristic of rock?
f) what, underneath all prevalent mystification, are the artistic projects at work in current rock musical projects?
g) what specific criteria have been developed in practice to attribute aesthetic value to rock instrumentation, vocal technique, group playing, song writing, and to what extent do these define a coherent aesthetic field?
It must be understood that aesthetics is the politics of art; any art form that develops beyond a naive spontaneism is strongly affected, in the direction of its development, by prevalent aesthetic ideologies and the definitions they provide of the artistic project. For rock, the struggle for artistic autonomy was won by the mid-’sixties, but this was immediately followed by a period in which mystifying ideology had a deleterious effect (in Britain the whole Indian business), and today much of the best music is being poduced by groups that have for various reasons escaped this emasculating influence (Family/The Band/Creedence Clearwater), whilst musicians even of the stature of Hendrix, and the best groups of the West Coast revival, (Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Country Joe and the Fish), seem to be floundering in confusion. I believe that rock not only has a great potential for its own development, but is also capable of exposing the pretentions of contemporary ‘serious’ vapidities, and helping jazz out of its present blind alley, with a music that provides a complex structure of aesthetic values of a new order to match the revolutionary changes in social relations that are on the agenda in the advanced capitalist countries in the late 20th century. The possibilities are there, but, as in politics, conscious practice is necessary to exploit them.
Notes on ‘For a Rock Aesthetic’ 
1 Richard Mabey: The Pop Process, Hutchinson Educational 1969.
2 Ibid., p. 7.
3 Ibid., p. 15.
4 Ibid., p. 21.
5 Nik Cohn: Pop from the Beginning, Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1969.
6 Ibid., p. 133.
7 Ibid., p. 54.
8 Ibid. p. 134.
9 The Age of Rock: ed. Jonathan Eisen, Vintage Books 1969.
10 Ibid, p. xiv.
11 Rock and Roll Will Stand: ed. Greil Marcus, Beacon Press 1969.
12 Ibid., p. 76.
13 Ibid., p. 80.
14 Ibid., p. 52.
15 The Listener Jan 23rd 1969.
16 NLR 47.
by Richard Merton
The impulse behind Andrew Chester’s attack on the notion of pop music is correct. ‘The pop critic’s attitude towards the music is generally patronizing in the extreme.’ Indeed. After contumely or scandal, patronage is the entrenched mode of bourgeois consumption of plebeian art. The question arises, however, if it is a Marxist response to this mode merely to invert its terms, and insist on the exclusively musical values of rebaptized ‘rock’, abstracted from the social formations of which they are one of the effects. Chester’s project, in fact, rapidly runs into shoals of contradictions. Rock is advanced as an authentically aesthetic category, capable of evicting the cultural illusions of pop. Yet rock itself is not ‘free from mystification’. Unsurprisingly: for it cannot cover all the phenomena of Chester’s own object. He himself later asks, what are the frontiers between rock, blues and soul?
Many of the groups mentioned by him operate in the interstices ‘between’ them. In effect, no concepts for constituting the autonomy of rock as an aesthetic object are provided by Chester, so that his plea for one ultimately becomes a petitio principi. The absolute antinomy between ‘aesthetic’ and ‘cultural’ criticism with which the article begins ends by collapsing into an immediate identity: thus Chester can finally affirm that ‘aesthetics is the politics of art’. The danger of a mechanistic reductionism is exorcised at the front door only to install itself the more firmly by the back door.
What is the preliminary mistake that produces this logic? Confusion of the regional autonomy of the art-object from the other instances within a social formation, with an idealist ‘independence’ of it. An aesthetic and a cultural criticism of contemporary music are complements, not opposites. More than this: a cultural criticism, as I shall try to show, is a condition of the discovery of the specific novelty of rock/pop for an aesthetic reflection on it: correctly evoked by Chester in his concluding lines as music ‘that provides a complex structure of values of a new order to match the revolutionary changes in social relations that are on the agenda in the advanced capitalist countries’.
Let us take, simply for the sake of demonstration, the precisely opposite road to that advocated by Chester. In other words, let us deliberately abstract from the melodic or instrumental quality of these song as ‘music’ to interrogate their character as ‘popular’. The familiar simplicity of the phrase conceals a quicksand. Who are the people? Here Chester’s formal rejection of the categories of bourgeois criticism is paradoxically accompanied by a surrender to one of its most characteristical delusions. Rock is the ‘music of white urban youth’ in the past 15 years. What has happened to a materialist analysis here? Such feeble latitudinarianism allows Chester to enthuse over a gushing hymn to these delusions by Darlington as ‘evoking more successfully than I have read anywhere else the feel of rock music’.
The rules of politics are here pertinent to art. The ‘people’ (Lenin, Mao) are never a stable category: their identity is mutable and conjunctural, because they are perpetually redefined by the conflict of the classes and their culture. This should be the ABC of a Marxist critic. Chester’s formula abandons the whole alphabet. In fact, this music is neither exclusively urban, nor necessarily white, and it is never — above all !- asocial ‘youthful’. It is the product of concrete social classes and groups in different social formations, and the history of it over the past ten years is largely that of the permutations and displacements of its locus between all these. Not in spite, but because of these very variations, the ‘people’ who have produced as appropriated this music define and legitimate its character as ‘popular’. The most cursory examination of its evolution since the fifties will show this.
The origins of this music in the fifties stemmed from the oppressed black population of the United States, South and Border (Charles/Berry), and the rural white poor of the South (Presley) — i.e. three groups very far from Chester’s allusions. It as at this date an exclusively American phenomenon. Outside the USA, everything else was a colonized imitation of it. Then, in the early sixties, the take-off of an authentic British popular music, no longer a naturalization or pastiche of American sounds, occurred: it can be dated from 1962, in fact, when the first Beatles numbers hit the charts. Sociologically, the British pop music which was born then represented a wholly new phenomenon. It was the product of a certain economic ‘emancipation’ of working-class youth in a social formation overwhelmingly dominated by manual labour (70 per cent of the population), with no rural hinterland: a pattern altogether foreign to the USA. This marked British pop off from its American predecessors from the start. Its artists were in their majority escaped workers or proletarianized petty-bourgeois: it was a national and plebeian and not a regional or minority art-form. There is no space here to document all the consequences for its character that derived from this fundamental fact.
Suffice it to say that the impetus of this music was generated by the deep spontaneous revolt of working-class youth against British bourgeois society which it articulated (ideologically, hence often voluntarily). The precondition of this revolt was economic: its products were cultural — musical, sartorial, sexual and so on. So much is a truism. Yet these products constituted in the first instance a violent inner reversal of a whole complex of traditional working class values in Britain — the puritanism and utilitarianism of the national proletariat, that Tom Nairn has called the ‘deadly mediate assimilation’ by the working class of its oppressors. Today, the fleeting (?) reappearance of skinheads is perhaps a last reminder of how frontal an attack on the established working class ways of living and seeing this generational revolt was. In the UK, popular music derived from this collective drive, and acted during the mid-’sixties as a compressor for it: hence the force of British rock. The congruence between this sound and the liberatory ‘moment’ of the mid-’sixties was in this respect virtually complete. At this moment, British rock achieved international dominance, counter-colonizing much vanguard American music. The strictly aesthetic gains of this great wave coincided with the practical cultural upheaval of the time (itself determined, of course, elsewhere). Its zenith can be dated with some precision: 1967, the year of Between the Buttons and Sergeant Pepper.
What has happened since then? Ian Birchall has recently advanced the thesis that the ‘economic crisis began to break down the feeling of security. Unemployment began to creep higher, affecting particularly the youth just leaving school. Wage restraint, price and rent increases, cuts in social services, all meant a steady erosion of living standards’.  He argues that the renewed ‘insecurity’ of British society rendered the ‘controlled revolt’ of rock increasingly unviable, and hence produced the ‘decline and fall of British rhythm and blues’. This line of argument is evidently reductionist: musical structures become epiphenomena of fluctuations in the economic order. It would be more correct, in my view, to see the causes of the rock crisis within the cultural constellation of which it was from the start an integral part. It was this constellation that had run to its own inherent limits by 1967.
This had nothing to do with any failure: it was its success which checked it. For a certain sexual-cultural emancipation of working class was for most purposes a fait accompli by the date (not universal: but generally available as a possibility). There is nothing surprising in this: bourgeois society had retreated at one level (ideology: family and decency) but recuperated on another (market expansion: mode). Since property and work relations remained unaffected, nothing fundamental had been changed, in the short-term anyway. The radicalism of the initial revolt thus spent itself swiftly, because of the very attainability of its ostensible targets. Today, its manifest themes have lost any aesthetic charge.
It is this conjuncture which defines the present state (future impasse ?) of British rock. Once the apparent goals of the revolt behind it were achieved, the music which articulated it was suspended in a void. Not that an ulterior development thereby became impossible. On the contrary, just as the very ‘narrowness’ of wage demands in a factory act as both a symbolic condensation and confiscation of a deeper refusal of a total life-condition of exploitation, so the very ‘limitations’ of the cultural revolt of proletarian youth could condense and conceal a latent general rejection of a complete life-situation. But whether in the case of strikes or songs, the dreams imprisoned in them can only be released into consciousness by the passage to politics proper. Nothing guarantees that British pop music will make this transition. Its eclipse will perhaps be visible tomorrow. The sounds themselves, as they are currently produced, are the only signs of what might happen.
Recent Beatles’ and Stones’ albums are initial, suggestive evidence. Since neither The Beatles nor Beggars’ Banquet were adequately analyzed when released, it may be worthwhile to consider the divergent solutions to the general dilemmas which they represent, without attempting any total appreciation of these records.
Before proceeding, a note of warning. It is the evident conviction of Michael Parsons (NLR 49) and others, perhaps also Andrew Chester, that it is impossible to detach and discuss separate devices within a work, without falsifying the total art-object. Thus Parsons reproached an earlier comment of mine on the Stones that was (deliberately) restricted to their lyrics, as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘external’ to the ‘symbolic representation of experience’ in pop music, as in all art. More recently, Sam Rohdie had made a criticism of Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meanings in the Cinema that is not dissimilar in spirit: ‘It is on the level of themes alone, the complexity of ideas, that Wollen ranks and judges directors’. Rohdie complains that Wollens’s semantics of the cinema neglects its properly aesthetic statute.
The implicit presumption of both critics is the Platonic-Crocean belief in the work of art as an intuitive-expressive unity. Della Volpe has shown, over and over again, that any materialist aesthetic must reject this mystical notion absolutely: the art-object is a construct, whose materials are in principle multiple and dissociable. These different materials can be studied separately; if they prove later to be discrepant, this only means that the work in question is, precisely, badly constructed.
All fecund contemporary aesthetics has in practice acknowledged this: how else could the work of a Warburg or a Panofsky have been possible? Ben Brewster’s generally correct reply to Rohdie speaks of the ‘polyaesthesia’ of the cinema: this is the adequate term provided that it is made clear that it applies not only to the cinema, but to all other significant art forms as well, from painting onwards. The same is true of rock, naturally. A dissociation of the materials of this music is thus not only legitimate, but essential for an aesthetic theory (reconstruction) of its constructs.
In an earlier comment in NLR, I wrote: ‘Perhaps a polarization Stones/Beatles such as Adorno constructed between Schoenberg and Stravinsky might actually be a fruitful exercise. Suffice it to say here that, for all their intelligence and refinement, the Beatles have never strained much beyond the limits of romantic convention: central moments of their oeuvre are nostalgia and whimsy, both eminently consecrated traditions of middle-class England.’ The chronological context of this judgement was a comparison of the respective role of the Beatles and the Stones within the general co-ordinates of rock sound. The Beatles did, however, obviously play a role within the great wave of 1962-67. Their output since is thus of considerable significance. Their personal ‘success’ — capitalization into a millionaire holding company — has been sort of caricature of the collective ‘success’ of the generation of the class which produced them. The results can be seen in their first independently produced album: The Beatles. Once the obstacles against which British rock was initially formed had fallen, it no longer had any determinate direction to it. What The Beatles represents is precisely a sort of musical radicalism, robbed of its object, revolving on itself. The outcome is logically self-subversion: parody and pastiche. In the absence of other targets, Lennon’s mordancy is simply turned against the various genres which have formed the background and accompaniment to their music. Thus the critical ‘charge’ of The Beatles is reduced to a circular process of more or less competent mimicry, little of which rises to the point of actual wit. The Beach-Boys, Donovan, Presley, Dylan or Crosby are each taken off; eventually the Beatles’own earlier contributions are included to complete the mirror-references. Musically, the result is necessarily mediocre (the scattered straight numbers in the volume are somewhat better, if by now marginal). At the same time the peculiar cosiness of much of the Beatles’ earlier output has noticeably dwindled in this album, giving place to black humour. In other words, Lukacs’s metetricious Sphäre des Angenehms — the ‘realm of the pleasant’ — has merely been inverted to produce its symmetrical opposite: the unpleasant. The critical charge, once again, remains internal and self-enclosed. There is no foray beyond the sealed glass of the studio.
Abbey Road, the last album, is undoubtly superior to its predecessor, although it adds curiously little to it. The apparently heteroclite sequence of numbers are unified under the dominance of a hitherto submerged layer of the Beatles’ sound. English cosiness and whimsy have traditionally been the vices of music: both may be defined as bogus attempts to simulate childhood values (security/fantasy) in an adult idiom. They are, naturally, endemic to English middle-class culture, with its child-centred pre-occupations since Victorian times. Both are obviously incompatible with an aesthetic effect. In Abbey Road, however, the Beatles have freed their work of this characteristic vitiation by making explicit the use of childhood materials. Apart from more or less routine contributions (Something, Oh Darling ), the novelty of the album lies in Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Octopus’s Garden, Here Comes the Sun, Mr Mustard, and Golden Slumbers, not to speak of the ‘All Good Children Go to Heaven’ of You Never Give me Your Money. In different ways all of these work by a formal reversion to more or less childish images and idiom, and thus handle their potential in the only possible appropriate way: without mediation. The result is for the first time coherent: safety beneath the waves.
The rest of the album dabbles in modish an mystified themes, resumed in the final affirmation of ‘The Love You Take’, suitably sung in choir-like unison. In these respects (ideologically), the brutal truth is that perhaps the most significant thing about the record is its title. Where are the Beatles ‘at’? Answer: Abbey Road, St. John’s Wood — not only a long way from the Mersey, but a null zone even of bourgeois London. Felicitous infelicity.
The Stones’ album Beggars’ Banquet, contemporary with The Beatles, forms an instructive contrast to it. Lacking the paramount position of the Beatles in the charts, the Stones have always been obliged to heed certain dictates of the market, which the more successful group has recently been able to ignore. Thus it was obliged to produce a psychedelic album (Their Satanic Majesties Request) despite the evident divorce between its traditional pre-occupations and those of the phase. Paradoxically, the result was often a tension between the genre and the group which yielded some of their finest (She’s a Rainbow) and most acrid music (2000 Man), while some of the contemporaries who adopted to the mode more genuinely often became its more or less maudlin victims. The occasion for Beggars’ Banquet was doubtless, once again, prompted by the market. A return to the heavy rhythm and blues style for which the group had won its early fame may have seemed the safest option in the increasingly uncertain musical conjuncture of 1969. This formal framework once again contrast with the uses to which it is put. Apparently a regression, Beggars’ Banquet in fact represents a considerable progress beyond the previous horizons of the group. The cultural radicalism within British rock turns inward into pastiche on The Beatles: ‘weak solution’. In the Stones album, it moves outwards towards political and social objects beyond: ‘strong solution’.
The most obvious track here is, of course, Street Fighting Man. Released virtually simultaneously with the Beatles’ lamentable petty-bourgeois cry of fear Revolution, its ideological credentials were certified by Mayor Daley in person. For our purposes, the most important element of the record, which situates it well beyond even, say, the Doors — is the non-equation of music and politics in it, and the parallel non-assimilation of the USA and Britain. All facility is here rejected (rock = revolution: Doors/Airplane). The theme of the number is precisely the lack of revolutionary traditions in England (In sleepy London town, the game to play is compromise solution) and the necessary surrogate role rock may play in the absence of them (What can a poor boy do/ except play in a rock-and-roll band?). The composition is thus an exact statement of the destiny of music in a society which blocks any political prolongation of the people’s art. The complexity of this structure is characteristic of the Stones’ work. The other tracks of Beggars’ Banquet represent an enlargement of previous themes into a wider focus. In an earlier comment, I remarked that: ‘The Stones have repeatedly and consistently defied what is the central taboo of the social system: mention of sexual inequality. They have done so in the most radical an unacceptable way possible: by celebrating it. The light this black beam throws on society is too bright for it. Nakedly proclaimed, inequality is de facto denounced.’
Many readers objected to this passage. Parsons critized it this way: ‘What can de facto mean here, and who does the denouncing? ... There does not seem to be any grounds for assuming that the Stones themselves, in their performance, adopt a critical attitude towards it. Merton’s interpretation is quite extraneous to the music itself.’ Classical example of intentional fallacy: an artist’s private purpose is not determinant of the objective meaning of his work. This meaning is only given by the pattern of his oeuvre. In the case of the Stones, the proof that the analysis I advanced then was not arbitrary is to be found in Beggars’ Banquet. For exactly the same aesthetic mechanism is at work in two of its key tracks. The difference is that the object has now shifted from the sexual to the sexual-social (Factory Girl) and then to the straight social (Salt of the Earth). This mechanism is the Stones’ use of derision. Celebration of inequality is incompatible with it, because it taunts the oppressed to liberate themselves. The insistently jeering note of so many Jagger/Richards compositions is a form of solidarity. In the early songs, this solidarity was sexual: affection. In Factory Girl, it retains this moment, yet now lends it an explicit class character. Punctuated with raucous echoes of a factory siren, the song is a caustic list of unpersonable ‘proletarian’ defects (waiting for a factory girl / who’s got curlers in her hair / knees are much too fat / got stains all down her dress / gets me into fights) which precisely through them create an effect of exuberance and equality. Salt of the Earth is more audacious in conception: here Jagger utilizes the odiously anachronistic tradition of the ‘toast’ to patronize (insult) the ‘poor’, celebrate (humiliate) the ‘humble’, salute (scorn) the ‘uncounted millions’. The derision is no longer a first-order device, of which liberation is the second-order effect: it is itself a second-order effect of a first-order device. Emancipation here only occurs in the third instance. The track itself is cross-structured with a refrain of a very different character — a desolate personal avowal of isolation and vulnerability vis--vis the masses — which breaks repeatedly across the arrogant ruling-class lines trampling (freeing) them. These four effects are held together in an extraordinary construct, one of the boldest yet most delicate British rock has ever achieved. The album as a whole suppresses any vestige of the liberal category of ‘Protest’ music, which Chester rightly denounces.
Nevertheless, one record does not make a sound. British uncertainty has coincided with a shift of the musical centre of gravity back to the USA. Not to its starting-point, however. On the contrary, the new locus of vanguard American music — the new site of the ‘people’ — is neither rural white poor nor black (as in the States during the fifties), nor urban working class (as in England during the sixties): it is the middle class college population and its periphery. US capitalism hat notoriously generated a vast student sector, quantitatively away beyond anything in Europe. It is this unprecedented phenomenon which has produced a whole new sound, sometimes improperly designated Art Rock because its verbal and literary resources are much greater than that of any previous phases. There is no space here to examine its emergence or antecedance. American critics themselves have not yet done the preliminary demystifying work that would be necessary to establish its diverse lineages. In particular, persistent adulation of Dylan renders any clarification impossible.
Suffice it to say that Dylan’s undoubted historical importance should not be confused with his aesthetic claims. Within the metamorphoses of American rock, he plays something like the same role as Chateaubriand, fons et origo of European romantic literature in the last century: an omnipresent influence, monumentally reedy, vain and feeble in itself, yet paradoxically fecund and liberating for its successors, because of its impacts on genre, Dylan’s self-pitying verse and prophetic posturings again and again produce inferior art (sometimes nauseatingly so — items such as Just Like a Woman are a nadir by any criteria). Yet out of these vapourings have emerged groups like the Byrds and the Band.
By contrast, such truly great predecessors of Art Rock as Brian Wilson have been generally ignored by orthodox critics. Understandably. If Dylan is false poetry, the Beach Boys are the poetry of the false. All the difference between good an bad art is there. Marx said that religion was the ‘soul of a soulless world’: the alloyed, computed sounds of the Beach Boys (or in another dimension of the Supremes and Tamla) are the soullessness of a soulful world. The mechanical, serial, recurrent universe of US capitalism is reflected back, not in a spiritualization which laments or denys (comforts/conceals) it, but in an exaltation which mirrors (defines/reveals) it. Imperialism has every need of a sentimental ‘soul’ as consolation for its victims: is it a chance that the Wilson clique should be entering elections under this very ensign (Labour has Soul)? In this connection it is necessary to make one last comment on contemporary American rock: black music has temporarily been snuffed out in the era of black politics. Charles or Berry could paradoxically produce their art within a traditional white-assigned role as entertainers, while the black population of the USA was passive and depolitized. It was then an authentic liberation (the only one?). Once the ghettoes had risen, the function of entertainment naturally became incompatible with the duties of struggle. Their successors (Charles himself in his after-life) ceased to have any aesthetic meaning, and the category of ‘soul music’ emerged. Today, an insurgent black sound has yet to replace the miserable infantilism of Franklin or Brown.
Chester’s project is to rescue rock from pop criticism by affirming its autonomous aesthetic values. The ambition is a laudable one. Chester’s final protocol of questions is a significant step forward. But it cannot be achieved by simultaneously denying the popular character of this music — its nomadic shifts from one exploited or radicalized group to another within Anglo-American imperialism.
Indeed, if the formula is taken literally, it ultimately leads only to an inversion of the condescension it rejects: hyperbolization of the possibilities of the genre, which becomes capable of ‘assisting’ jazz and ‘exposing’ all other contemporary music. Parsons’ emphasis on the restrictions of its musical material are here a sane corrective. The unique aesthetic significance of rock is not its creation of a musical art of a complexity comparable to Vivaldi or Telemann. This kind of claim it will probably never be able to honour. The true merit and significance of rock lies elsewhere: it is the first aesthetic form in modern history which has asymptotically started to close the gap between those who produce and those who appropriate art. I alone thereby prefigures, amidst its innumerable poverties and confusions, the structure of future art, in a liberated social formation: communism. It is in this deepest sense of all that it deserves to be called a people’s music. With a promise such as this, what need is there to borrow supernumerary credentials for it? The limits of rock can be calmly accepted. An unlimited principle is contained within them. The best practitioners today are well aware of the character of their art. Perhaps the most powerful track of Beggars’ Banquet is entitled No Expectations. It ends: Our love is like the water / that flashes on a stone /our love is like our music / it’s here and then it’s gone. Water — clear and vacant: stone — hard and still: music — beauty as elementary and ephemeral as the brief moment of one across the other.
Notes on ‘Comment’ (by Richard Merton)
1 Lenin, Collected Works. Vol. 9, p. 112. Mao: ‘The concept of "the people" varies in content in different countries, and in different periods of history in the same country.’ Selected Readings, p. 351
2 ‘The Decline and Fall of British Rhythm and Blues,’ in The Age of Rock, New York 1969. Elsewhere, this is an intelligent and perceptible article.
3 ‘Wage claims ... express a demand for as much money as possible to pay for the life wasted, the time lost, the freedom alienated in working under these conditions. Workers insist in being paid as much as possible not because they put wages (money and what can it buy) above everything else but because, trade-union action being what it is at present, workers can fight the employer only for the price of their labour, nor for the control of the conditions and content of their work.’ André Gorz, Stratégie Ouvrire et Néocapitalisme.
4 ‘Rolling Stones’, NLR 49.
5 ‘Signs and Meaning in the Cinema’, NLR 55. Rohdie would presumably protest even more vehemently against the same critic’s articles on directors in NLR 23 — NLR 42, signed Lee Russell.
6 See Il Verosimile Filmico Rome 1954 in particular the essay ‘Problemi die unae Estetica Scientifica’.
7 ‘Comment’, NLR 55.
8 Indeed Levi-Strauss has notoriously praised the cinema to the extent that it mimics opera.
9 ‘Comment’, NLR 47.
10 In other words, certain categories only survives within their genre: transposed out of it, they change their sign. Hence the phenomenon of the whimsical. Is an aesthetic of children’s literature possible? Gombrich has shown how even a secondary form like caricature can yield a canon.
11 NLR 49. In the analysis here, I again deliberately refrain from adding a single word about the other materials (melody, instrumentation, vocalism) which combine with the lyric to produce the musical constructs in question. There would be no difficulty in demonstrating that they would extend the line of analysis taken here. Any reader who doubts this may consult Parson’s counter-criticism of Satisfaction and (particularly) Back-Street Girl, in NLR 49. He will see that far from disproving my original comments, they precisely develop and confirm them at further levels of the score. In other words: the music is coherent.
Second Thoughts on a Rock Aesthetic: The Band
by Andrew Chester
In replying to Richard Merton’s comment on my first article, in NLR 59 I take the opportunity to clarify and correct some of my own positions, and also to attack some basic errors in Merton’s conception of the aesthetic status of rock music and its relationship to politics.
I willingly concede to Merton that ‘the regional autonomy of the art-object from the other instances within a social formation’ should not be confused with ‘an idealist "independence" from it’. I did not intend to claim such an independence, though I admit that in attacking the reductionist position I may have bent the stick to far in the other direction, particularly in my last paragraph. Not did I intend to reject ‘the ABC of Marxist criticism’, i.e. the importance of studying a popular art in relation to its shifting social base, but this was not what I was concerned with in this article. What I did attempt, in the very limited framework of a book review, was to raise some of the questions which would have to be solved in order to found a canon of rock musical criticism. Merton despite some excellent critical insights, refuses to accept this problem, and this leads him into quite a different enterprise, rock political criticism.
Firstly, insistence on the dissociable character of artistic devices, while in itself correct, is used by Merton as a pretext for dismissing the task of studying also their inter-relation. Merton excels in discussion of rock lyrics, but disarticulation of a lyric from the complex musical totality runs the risk of involuntarily subsuming this lyric under the category of ‘literature’, and applying pre-existing critical canons foreign to the genre. In the absence of an analysis of the function of lyric in rock performance in general, and in the work of the group discussed in particular, there are no grounds for the sweeping judgements of artists that Merton freely dispenses on the basis of lyrics alone. Merton merely hints at this articulation when he speaks of the ‘alloyed, computed sounds of the Beach Boys’, which presumably ‘fit’ (Brian) Wilson’s lyrical celebration of the US cultural universe; when he dismisses Dylan on the basis of one or two examples of ‘self-pitying verse’ — conveniently disregarding the greater part of Dylan’s oeuvre — one wonders whether Merton’s taste for tempting literary inversions (false poetry / poetry of the false) is not prevailing over serious analysis.
The difference between the poetic and the musical functions of lyric, and the pitfalls of confusing the two, can be illustrated by a simple, almost trivial, example. In Long Tall Sally Little Richard sang: ‘well long tall sally she’s real sweet she’s got everything that uncle john need’. Once written, this couplet is immediately banal. But in the song the fact that the vocal line is broken after ‘got’ and not after ‘sweet’ produces an aesthetic charge that depends precisely on the tension between the verbal and musical messages that a sung lyric carries. Merton claims that, although in his discussion of the Stones he ‘deliberately refrains from adding a single word about the other materials (melody, instrumentation, vocalism) which combine with the lyric to produce the musical constructs in question’, nevertheless ‘there would be no difficulty in demonstrating that they would extend the line of analysis here taken’. I this instance that may be true. I am not so sure that the articulation is always so simple.
Merton’s second point is that, while rock music cannot claim the ‘creation of a musical art of a complexity comparable to Vivaldi or Telemann’, its ‘true merit and significance’ is that ‘it is the first aesthetic from in modern history which has asymptotically started to close the gap between those who produce and those who appropriate art’ (Merton’s emphasis). ‘It alone thereby prefigures, amidst its innumerable poverties and confusions, the structure of future art in a liberated social formation: communism.’ He opposes this combined aesthetic/cultural legitimation of rock to my ‘hyperbolization of the possibilities of the genre’. But what precisely is involved in closing the gap between producers and appropriators? Is this a social gap, or one of artistic appreciation? Merton’s description of rock as a ‘people’s music’ strongly implies the former. But this is a very dangerous ground. Sections of the Left still echo the populist defence of ‘folk’, skiffle, etc as forms desirable because everyone can join in. If the social distance between producers and appropriators is at issue, then all forms of avant-garde and experimentation are threatened as ‘anti-popular’ and therefore anti-communist or counter-revolutionary. A rabid campaign on just these lines was run against this year’s Camden Festival by certain left-wing groups; in fact the limited space that such festivals provide for avant-garde forms is generally the only positive feature of otherwise turgid municipal ventures. The real gap between producers and appropriators that rock music has tended to bridge is that of musical appreciation. It is not that rock is a limited form and therefore close to the masses. Rock music, as it has grown to maturity in the last few years, has in fact cultivated an aesthetically sensitive mass base, which, allowing for all its mystifications and illusions, is continuously sharpening its critical faculty.
I would not want to quarrel with Merton on the nature of art under communism; there are no conceivable scientific grounds for such prophecies. The case is rather that the critical sophistication of the student rock audience — a stratum of non-workers, but a plebeian one — prefigures a situation in which the working masses also will have sufficient free time for the demanding tasks of artistic production and appropriation.
The meaning of the term, ‘people’s music’ and of the ‘gap between those who produce and those who appropriate art’ are crucial questions. Merton’s implicit answers can be seen in the canon he employs to appraise the Stones’ development. ‘For our purposes, the most important element of (Street Fighting Man), which situates it well beyond even, say, the Doors — is the non-equation of music and politics in it.’ (Merton’s emphasis.) Merton’s whole analysis in fact reduces the Stones’ development to one of ideological progress alone. The stones have reached a high point because they recognise the non-equation of music and politics, and are thus able to harness their musical medium to a political message. The reason that this is also good art (of a kind) is that the message (solidarity with the oppressed) is expressed via the devices of derision, patronisation, etc. This sophistication is apparently sufficient to rate Salt of the Earth as ‘an extraordinary construct, one of the boldest yet most delicate that British rock has ever achieved’.
But the generosity of this judgement has an aura of unreality. The devices cited as translating the Stones’ ideological progress into a artistic construct are entirely non-specific to the medium of rock music — or any other form of sound. There is scarcely an indication why Salt of the Earth, or indeed the whole Beggars’ Banquet, could not be discussed in exactly the same terms if it were not heard at all. True, Factory Girl is ‘punctuated by the raucous echoes of a factory siren’, and we can assume that Jagger and Richard’s derisive lyrics are also sung with derision. But this is like judging the performance of a play by the writer’s stage directions. Merton does not even see the integration of lyric into the musical structure as a problem, as is shown by his remark that ‘a return to the heavy rhythm and blues style for which the group won its early fame may have seemed the safest option in an increasingly uncertain musical conjuncture of 1969.’ The ‘rhythm and blues style’ is here seen as a purely contingent factor. The crisis of British rock, for which Beggars’ Banquet is the ‘strong solution’, is a priori assumed as soluble by ideological development alone.
We are here at the heart of Merton’s mistake. Lyric, and the ideological themes it supports, are for him not merely a level that can be dissociated for analytical purposes; this level is implicitly taken as dominant in the complex musical totality. No wonder there would be ‘no difficulty’ in taking the ‘other materials’ into account. For Merton never questions that these are subordinate, mere material for ideological expression. At best, ‘the music is coherent’; at worst, there is ‘tension between the genre and the group’, as on Their Satanic Majesties Request, but the sole source of this tension is the ability of the other materials to serve the (dominant) ideological theme. This in turn explains Merton’s use of the term ‘people’s music’. The narrowing gap between producers and appropriators is not just social: it is, more precisely, ideological. The real value of rock music for Merton is as an index of the consciousness of its social base, to be encouraged as it discards mystifications and moves towards a revolutionary anti-capitalist consciousness. I would not want to decry this instrumentalist attitude. Rock music may provide Marxists with a sensitive political barometer, and they may quite legitimately seek to harness musical practice to political requirements. But this must be clearly distinguished from an appraisal of rock as music.
One group that will serve as a test case for Merton’s conceptions is The Band, to which Merton pays tribute: ‘yet out of (Dylan’s) vapourings emerged groups like the Byrds and The Band’. In the process of discussing the group, I will attempt to answer some of the questions raised in my earlier article. Despite Merton’s complement, I believe The Band is singularly impervious to his critical canon. On all readings Merton should find the band aesthetically barren. The matter of their lyrics seems to echo the sentimentality of the country music industry. Elderly sailors longing for retirement, unfaithful servants (and slaves — Jawbone?), the demise of the South in the Civil War. Even the more realist themes of storm, crop failure and agricultural unionism are far removed from social criticism; they are treated with resignation, and bear no relation to the life of The Band and their audience. The band would not think of using second-order devices that play such an important role in Merton’s critical canon, nor can these be discovered as objective structures in their work.
At first sight The Band might not register well on the ‘pure musical’ criteria that I have supported:
Their music is far from experimental or avant-garde, and they are not prodigous instrumentalists However I precisely want to attack the thesis that defines the basic musical structure or rock music as inherently restricted, on the basis of criteria by which groups like The Band would be playing a very uninteresting music indeed. Is rock music a genre which cannot compete with, for example, western classical music as an aesthetic object, for want of formal complexity, and so needs the consolation prize of cultural significance that Merton holds out? I believe this is a capitulation to bourgeois ideology. Adequate space for formal elaboration is certainly the necessary basis of all significant aesthetic expression, but the notion of ‘complexity’ hides many ambiguities, and the opposition that Merton accepts between rock = simple and classical = complex, is in fact one constructed on the basis of the specific mode of complexity of classical music itself.
Western classical music is the apodigm of the extensional form of musical construction. Theme and variations, counterpoint, tonality (as used in classical composition) are all devices that build diachronically and synchronically outwards from basic musical atoms. The complex is created by combinations of the simple, which remains discrete and unchanged in the complex unity. Thus a basic premise of classical music is rigorous adherence to standard timbres, not only for the various orchestral instruments, but even for the most flexible of all instruments, the human voice. Room for interpretation of the written notation is in fact marginal. If those critics who maintain the greater complexity of classical music specified that they had in mind this extensional development, they would be quite correct. The rock idiom does know forms of extensional development, it cannot compete in this sphere with a music based on this principle of construction.
Rock however follows, like many non-European musics, the path of intensional development. In this mode of construction the basic musical units (played/sung notes) are not combined through space and time as simple elements into complex structures. The simple entity is that constituted by the parameters of melody, harmony and beat, while the complex is built up by modulation of the basic notes, and by inflexion of the basic beat. (The language of this modulation and inflexion derives partly from conventions internal to the music, partly from the conventions of spoken language and gesture, partly from physiological factors.) All existing genres and sub-types of the Afro-American tradition show various forms of combined intensional and extensional development. The history of jazz is largely a transition from one to the other, later punctuated by a reaction against ‘Europeanization’ and a ‘return to the roots’. The almost purely intensional from of the rural blues has only received critical attention in the past decade or so, and still largely remains a minority preserve. The 12-bar structure of the blues, which for the critic reared on extensional forms seems so confining, is viewed quite differently by the blues man, for he builds ‘inwards’ from the 12-bar structure, and not ‘outwards’. Complexity is multi-dimensional and by no means strictly quantifiable, and the aesthetic capacity of the country blues shows the complete adequacy of a purely intensional mode of construction to an immensely subtle and varied project of aesthetic expression.
If jazz aimed to transform intensional into extensional, musical structures, rock sought a reverse path. The founding moment of rock music was the creation of a white analogue to blues vocalism, which was achieved in its classical form with Presley’s Sun recordings of 1954-1955. Taking elements from both blues and country sources, the qualitative novelty of rock, first only effected at the vocal level, was a singing style that fitted into the framework of country songs rather than 12-bar blues, and whose modulations and inflexions were determined in the first instance by the cadences of Southern white speech and gesture. The primacy of the vocal that characterizes both blues and rock is almost inevitable in an intensionally constructed music which still uses instruments designed for extensional expression, and was noted in the ’fifties, not so much by the titans of southern rock, Presley and Lewis, for whom this development was almost intuitive, but by the more articulate of their disciples.
Thus Eddie Cochran: ‘In rock’n’roll the beat is only supplementary to the human voice. It’s the voice, coupled with an extraordinary sense of emotion, which lends to rock’n’roll a personality not sensed in other types of music’ (from an interview in New Musical Express 1958).
The conceptual pair of extensionality/intensionality is a step towards constructing a matrix for critical examination of the contemporary rock scene, and obtaining a purchase on the more strictly musical levels of the total product. Sixties rock derives essentially form the attempts of middle-class students in the early ’sixties to reproduce, at a more sophisticated level, the music that they had appropriated in the ’fifties, without at the time being able to work in it. After the demise of ’fifties rock, these musicians explored the roots and relatives of the rock genre, delving both into white country music (via ‘urban folk’ / ‘protest’), but more fruitfully into the rural and urban blues. The idiom of the blues, which took some years to learn, was the key to the production of ’sixties rock, and opened up very substantial new fields of musical development. (British rhythm and blues in the ’sixties had a similar birth, though its development was mediated by its national setting.) But the limitation of ’sixties rock has been its inability to achieve a real integration of its adopted materials. In general, its intensional development is derivative from the blues, and its extensional development is parasitic on the European tradition. Paradoxically, though rock is recognized by both musicians and audience as a well-defined musical category, the interstices between rock and other genres seem far more habitable than the mainstream itself. Solutions adopted by major US groups include acceptance of a derivative musical identity (blues groups such as Canned Heat), extensional elaboration of rock/blues formal elements (Grateful Dead); reliance on theme/lyric/stance and other non-musical levels (Doors/Country Joe); backsliding into country and western (Byrds) or jazz (CTA, BS & T); ’fifties revivalism (Creedence Clearwater). Even Jefferson Airplane, perhaps the most impressive group of the ’sixties generation, whose music is least obviously parasitic on other forms, depend in the last instance on contrapuntal and harmonic structures, that are firmly in the European/extensional tradition. Closely connected with the failure of ’sixties rock to achieve the new synthesis it explicitly aims at is the gross disparity between the calibre of its instrumentalists and its vocalists. Middle-class (male) white youth learnt blues guitar well enough to be accepted as equals by black musicians; their singing rarely rises above mediocrity, a fact that demands psychoanalytic explanation.
The one major group that, for all its limitations, is firmly anchored in rock as an independent genre, is The Band. The alone among important contemporary groups work at a purely intensional development which continues the enterprise begun with ’fifties rock. This is the reason why they manage to produce work a musical value yet without significant lyrics or theme, without experimentalism, without recourse to a merger with other genres, and without any problems of presentation: the music alone speaks.
It is no coincidence that The Band’s history has run an entirely different course to that of other ’sixties groups. Their origins are working class, and all except Levon Helm are Canadian. They were formed as far back as 1959, as backing group for the Arkansas-born Canadian rock king Ronnie Hawkins, and the ‘strange death of rock’n’roll’ passed them by. Later their work with Dylan in his most creative phase (1964-66) widened their horizons of composition and production, and after Dylan stopped touring they retired (like Dylan, but with very different consequences) to up-state New York to work for the first time on their own music. Their intense professionalism and the rigour of their collective instrumental work have never been endangered by the demand of being cultural symbols as well as musicians (the ruin of such promising groups as Country Joe/Doors), and these qualities are absolute requirements of the ultra-sensitive capacity to turn thought into sound that intensional construction demands.
An important determinant of The Band’s particular style is that, unlike fifties rock (and mechanical attempts to revive this project, such as Creedence Clearwater), they do not rely on a unique vocalist. Given the role of the human voice in rock music, this absence determines both the vocal style affected by all four of the Band’s singers, and its instrumental style. Lacking the vocal genius that the genre was originally designed for, The Band’s vocals continuously strain against the upper limits of the male register (the region most responsive to changes of timbre), and even strain to emerge at all. Simultaneously, the backing instruments have a for more important role to play than in fifties rock. The simple country rhythms of guitar and acoustic bass (no drums) were sufficient against the virtuosity of a Presley. The Band has to rely predominantly on its rhythm section (a misnomer) for intensional development. Presley’s vocal lines, designed to carry the whole musical message, could glide securely over a rhythmic backing that served only to underpin them. In The Band’s music, the vocal constantly hesitates and hangs on a note while drums and bass build whole structures of arrival and non-arrival, anticipation and resolution. on the bridge passages between chord changes. The best example of this is the opening track on Music from Big Pink, the Dylan song Tears of Rage, where these unconscious devices condense in a superb musical construct. Here the verbal message of the lyrics is clearly subordinate to the music, whereas the reverse is true even on Dylan’s rendering of the song accompanied by The Band on the ‘basement tape’. Dylan still works at delivering a verbal message. On Music from Big Pink the verbal message is a residue left after the lyrics have been bent to serve as a vocal line. What comes through more strongly than the precise events described, are the connotations of the lyrics as a whole. The theme of filial ingratitude perfectly matches The Band’s own performance, in which the music appears to have so painful a birth.
The Band’s construction is astonishingly pure rock, whose aesthetic values are purely musical. It is not a synthesis that will propel the music on a radical forward course. This will not happen until or unless the problem of rock vocalism is solved. I am not suggesting that very different departures, such as cross-fertilization of rock with certain ‘serious’ forms (e.g. Velvet Underground or Soft Machine) may not be a more secure way forward, and may not be from certain perspectives more aesthetically rewarding. There is no question here of rank order — a conception quite alien to materialist criticism. Yet the extensional constructions of the ‘experimental’ groups lead away from rock to realms where quite different critical canons must be applied.
To conclude, I would like to attempt some partial answers and correctives to the set of questions presented in my earlier article.
Structural Co-ordinates and Socio-cultural Base. The internal co-ordinates of a musical from are not mechanically determined by its social base. The relationship is one of compatibility. Musical practice has a relative autonomy, and to each social group correspond certain acceptable genres. Analysis of this compatibility is an important and so far almost unexplored question which will require both historical materialist and psychoanalytical interpretation. The role of the lyric in rock music has been a major theme in the present discussion; as for dance, it is the intensional development of rhythmic inflection that made possible the qualitative break in dance styles that took place once rock music had been appropriated by its new audiences.
Dominance of the Vocal. What I attempted to grasp with this expression is in fact the dominance of intensional over extensional modes. In rock music, the overwhelming primacy of the vocal has been reduced with the development of electronic instruments and techniques, but rock remains a genre ‘dominated’ by the vocal, which only tends to disappear in the ‘frontier’ territories.
Music and Ideology. Artistic projects will continue to be distorted by ideological mystifications until dialectical materialism is generally accepted (and appropriated) as a world outlook. By ‘aesthetics is the politics of art’ I meant to stress the importance of the ideological struggle against these mystifications, and of materialist analysis of artistic problems, by critics and the direct producers themselves as a requirement for the progress of al forms of art.
Notes on ‘Second Thoughts on a Rock Aesthetic’
1 See ‘For a Rock Aesthetic’, NLR 59 and ‘Comment’, NLR 59.
2 This statement is most strictly true of classical music in the narrower sense — i.e. as opposed to ‘romantic’. But post-classical ‘serious’ music only marginally departed from the extensional principle until the post-1945 era of electronic experimentation.
7 hours ago