HEY! Get updates to this and the CD and 7" blogs via Twitter: @VinylUnderbite

9 February 2013

Bob Dylan - 'Bringing It All Back Home' (Columbia)

I grew up with an oppositional view of music. Music was so tightly tied to the social aspects of growing up in America in the late 80s/early 90s that it meant something. What bands you liked = who you were. And by my early teenage years I was hellbent on constructing such a personal definition that was unique from the others in my adolescent sphere, yet also grounded in something. I did my research - when I decided that "punk" was the ultimate reaction to the unjust society (which, of course, I had no remote understanding of), I went to the library and properly studied it. Even then I had some respect for the history of music, but only a Gestalt history - where the central figure was Lou Reed, not Dylan. And because I was only capable of seeing culture developments in opposition to one another (rather than synergistically - didn't I learn anything from James Burke's Connections documentary series?), I ended up with a pretty screwed up view. The way I saw it, I liked Descendents and not Smashing Pumpkins like the other kids at my school; this meant that embracing Descendents automatically meant a rejection of everything Smashing Pumpkins "stood for", which by extension was the entire capitalist patriarchal society that dominated the earth. (A funny concept for a band writing songs like 'I Like Food'). So my understanding of music - and believe me, for years, there was nothing else I consumed or thought about except music - highlighted the moments and quotations which supported my already existing narrative. I think that's what everyone does anyway - we pick and choose the facts we like - but how do these existing narratives get constructed? A subject for deeper investigation, maybe when we get around to the R's and do the Stones .... Anyway, I remembered reading about Johnny Rotten making a t-shirt that says "Fuck Pink Floyd", and quotes from SST 80s guys that emphasised their isolation and commercial futility -- this was the language to me. It was us against them, and the history of rock and roll being spewed out by Rolling Stone magazine and the Greil Marcus-style critical canon was privileging the commercially successful artists, not the real innovators. Fuck Dylan, fuck the Stones, especially fuck Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac and all those dinosaurs -- the real Rock and Roll hall of fame, as I saw it in 1994, should have housed the Dictators and Fugazi, not Clapton and Foghat.

Twenty years later I'm hopefully a bit more nuanced in my view of the world and especially culture. The irony is that I came to embrace many of the so-called 'classic rock' artists who I so blatantly rejected when I was young; I got into classic rock in my late 20s, and particularly Dylan, who I spent years never completely understanding why everyone liked him so much. To me (in the 90s), Dylan was a culturally significant figure who wrote vague, bland folk-rock songs and went through a bunch of phases including a shitty Christian one, and who was worshipped by a legion of obsessive rock writers who were basically being hoodwinked. To me, in this decade, Dylan is fucking awesome, though for reasons that are often intangible. I might still mostly agree with my 90s view, if I were to remove the word 'bland' from the above sentence, but over the years, and especially as I've had my own life experiences, Dylan's power has crept up on me. I'm still picky about his output - this is actually the only Dylan LP I own, and only because i picked it up years ago for dirt cheap and I rarely listen to it -- and I favour the Basement Tapes-era stuff (particularly the 4CD bootleg), the more mystical and funky bits of Desire, and the vastly underrated New Morning album. I think if you care about rock music at all, and I sure do, then Dylan is unavoidable. I didn't try explicitly to like or dislike Dylan - it just happens. Cover versions help, such as Fairport Convention's brilliant renderings or the amazing-beyond-words cover of 'It's All Over Now, Baby Blue' by 13th Floor Elevators. 'Baby Blue' is here to close the LP and I realise while listening to it that it's buried in attitude, as is pretty much everything that makes early Dylan great. I don't want to pontificate on what Dylan 'means' because there's already a huge (and mostly horrible, I imagine) volume of semi-scholarly literature about that. But there's something that grew in me as I became more confident in my own life and creative choices, and that thing is frequently tickled when listening to these overplayed classics. Being an American abroad perhaps contributed to it as well - in Britain I couldn't understand how everyone was just worshipping the man, and my pleas that Neil and Roy Harper were actually better songwriters went unheard -- and eventually I guess I just wore down. Actually when I watched that film I'm Not There, I was quite taken by it - and I realised just how much I was a Bob Dylan fan. And what's also great about confidence is that I'm happy to like anything I like - just wait until we get to the J's and I can write about how brilliant 90s San Francisco pop-punk band J Church are -- without the need for oppositional, elitist demarcations.

5 February 2013

Ian Dury & the Blockheads - 'Do It Yourself' (Stiff/Epic)

What sense can we make of Ian Dury? The currents of popular music in Britain are always unsteady, and Dury's run of records around the time of punk are hard to place. Compared to Sex Pistols, the Clash, or Sham 69, this is a whole different beast, yet there's something still ragged and attitudinal going on here. 'Inbetweenies', the opening cut, sounds almost like a joke; it, like the rest of Do It Yourself has a crisp, tight beat that is almost disco-like; I guess it would situate Dury closer to New Wave, though there's more of a pub-rock edge with the guitars. In some cases he feels like a working class British James Brown - not that there's much soul, but that there's driving, repetitive rhythms over which Dury sounds like he is free-associating. And his vocals are nothing like Brown or any conventional singer - his Englishness is almost exaggerated, someone off-key, and weirdly charming. I don't know why I feel such a need to categorise everything, particularly Dury, who is maybe best viewed as an anomaly of the times, albeit a fairly normal-sounding one. Can't I just enjoy something as good rock music? When the beat starts to fall away, as on 'Sink My Boats', I like the direction - there's more honesty and personality on display. 'This Is What We Find' is the album's best song, even though it sounds like Madness. I used to have his first album but it disappeared somewhere over the years; I have no real understanding of what Dury did after this, but according to Wikipedia he died in 2000. But Do It Yourself - despite the title, it's a polished affair - I wonder if this was a tongue-in-cheek reference to Desperate Bicycles, etc also happening at the same time? Or maybe those weren't even on Dury's radar.