WORD

5 Dec

Bangsreader

Maybe this gets to it: the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, the Crystals, the guy singers too, all those old classic rock n’ roll songs were fueled by one thing: sexual repression, and consequent frustration. They may have been sexist, they may have been neurotic or even masochistic – sometimes I think the reason pop music was invented in the first place was to vent sick emotions in a deceptively lulling form. THEY WERE LITERALLY EXPLOSIVE WITH ALL THAT PENT-UP LUST AND FEAR AND GUILT AND DREAD AND HATE AND RESENTMENT AND CONFUSION. And it gave them a kind of anarchic power, which can still move us.

Listening to certain Shangri-Las sides, you might find yourself laughing and crying at the same time. And the Spector stuff…not just the storied Wall of Sound but the urgency in those girls’ voices spelled pure sex, distillate of every scene between a boy and a girl at the drive-in, vacant lots, house when the folks were out, wherever we found to sneak off to back then to see how far we could take it this time.

All that frustration got channeled into rock, all those powerful emotions were way out front and there was plenty of meticulous detail in the productions behind them. They were like magnificent tapestries depicting the most embarrassing and ridiculous yet painful situations, and they stand to this day.

While Blondie hardly constitutes a Wall of Sound, it wouldn’t be fair to hold that against them. They’re not the Blondie Orchestra, they’re a good little rock ‘n’ roll band which has been steadily evolving from the garage without ever losing sight and understanding of what was good, if not better than the rest, back there. Their songs are mostly good. Debbie’s got about as good a voice by traditional “singing” standards as a lot of people who recorded in the early Sixties. But you wouldn’t dare line one of these cuts up next to a Phil Spector or Shangri-Las production, because it’d sound downright pallid. The reason you wouldn’t is that (as I keep harping on) the music seems to have no really strong emotions in it, and what emotions do surface occasionally, what obsessions and lusts, are invariably almost immediately gutted by fusillades of irony, sarcasm, camp, what have you, ending up buried.

IF THE MAIN REASON WE LISTEN TO MUSIC IN THE FIRST PLACE IS TO HEAR PASSION EXPRESSED – as I’ve believed all my life – THEN WHAT GOOD IS THIS MUSIC GOING TO PROVE TO BE? What does that say about us? What are we confirming in ourselves by doting on art that is emotionally neutral? And, simultaneously, what in ourselves might we be destroying or at least keeping down?

In the last few years we have seen the rise of a type of music perhaps previously unknown in human history: music designed specifically, by intent or subconscious motivation, to remove what emotions might linger in the air around us, creating a vacuum where we can breath easier because we’re not so freaked out by each other even though we still don’t communicate. That’s your basic disco, of course. But it’s not just disco music that does this. It’s all kinds of music and you can talk all you want about Muzak and the wimsy weasly pre-rock popular music our parents lived and loved to, “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window,” but that wasn’t the same because all those songs were based upon a view of social intercourse pretty much agreed by everyone listening. Whereas no such thing exists now…

[With Blondie] what you get is pervasive coldness, and even that’s not so bad, since they don’t just write pop love songs. What are they driving at in most of their lyrics? Are they telling you to leave them alone? Are they kvetching about their career? Are they concocting little sagas based on everyday events that never become compelling? Or are they being deliberately mundane to the point of madness? What, if anything, do these people actually care about?

Or if all they want to do is entertain, then why do they act so serious about what they’re doing? Maybe they think they’re Dorothy Parker, commenting lightly and wittily on the passing mobs without ever getting in too deep. Which is okay, except… It’s impenetrable. Talk about walls of sound. THEIR MUSIC IS A WALL. It’s designed that way, most likely from self-protective instincts that’re not necessarily unjustified or misguided but… they’re dealing in media that ostensibly communicate…then eventually the audience begins to receive an impression of some hemetic body of people, a little cabal, who’ve locked themselves in and are nursing a siege mentality when nobody is really out to get them.

The press ain’t nice, don’t play fair, you get burned once and you’re more careful the next time. But you don’t walk around in these giant suits of armor and exoskeletons steeling yourselves against the new attacks every corner you turn. Sooner or later, you would have to say something you really mean. “Shayla” and “Union City Blue” come closest, but they’re both third-person songs. When are Blondie gonna write a first-person song …that expresses how they can truly feel about themselves, each other, their friends, lovers, acquaintances, relatives, the landlord, ANYBODY, ANYTHING? Just make it definite and act like you mean it.

“On The Merits of Sexual Repression”
Lester Bangs
Blondie, 1980

(As reprinted in Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader Morthland, J ed)

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