Charging Towards Fascism

About a month ago, I was at a party, and was introduced to a group of people I’d not met before, but who all knew each other, and who had very good reasons for wanting to make a good first impression on me. We’d been chatting for maybe two minutes, and then the following exchange occurred between them.

“Did you see about that migrant dying after hanging on to the bottom of an aeroplane to get here? I felt so sorry for him.”
“You what?!”
“I’m KIDDING! Of course I didn’t feel sorry for him. Serve them right for trying to come over here. I wish a few more of them would die, might stop them coming over.”
“Yeah. I don’t know why they don’t put all the immigrants on a big boat, sail it out into the middle of the ocean, and sink it. It’d get rid of them and replenish the fish stocks.”
“Good idea. I don’t know why they don’t do that.”

Now, the thing that really appalled me — far more even than the sheer lack of human decency involved, far more than the fact that I was stuck talking to people who were advocating the murder of my wife and couldn’t tell them what I think because neurotypical social rules apparently make advocating genocide less of a faux pas than calling an inhuman, monstrous, bigot an inhuman, monstrous, bigot — was that they seemed to think this was an appropriate way to talk to someone they’d only just met and wanted to impress.

These — admittedly stupid, admittedly ill-educated — people seemed to think that calling for the death of every immigrant was as uncontroversial a position as remarking on it being a hot day. Indeed, they considered preferring Man United to Man City considerably more controversial.

Meanwhile, the fact that there are roughly 5000 people in Calais who are desperate to come to this country — so desperate that they are willing to risk their lives to do so, and several are actually dying — is causing so much anger among politicians and the media that we’ve actually had elected politicians calling for us to go to war with France. Because of a “flood” of “cockroach-like hordes” of “migrants” (as we now apparently have to call them, rather than” people”) wanting to come here.

To put that number into perspective, it’s about a quarter of the number of people who were at a Beach Boys gig I was at in 2011. It’s such a small number that it’s not even a rounding error in the population figures. Yet the Conservative Party are currently screaming about how we need to make it harder for these people to get into the country (because apparently people regularly dying is just a sign that it’s still not hard enough), the Labour Party are screaming (with the honourable exception of Diane Abbott) about how the Tories aren’t going far enough, UKIP are calling for war with France, and Tim Farron has talked sensibly but everyone seems more interested in trying to trap him into “admitting” he’s a homophobe (he isn’t) because of his religion than in listening to what he has to say.

Now, I’m not Panglossian enough to say immigration has no downsides — nothing does, and I’m more than happy to have a proper debate on how we balance the right of free movement against the desire for community cohesion and the extra responsibilities immigration causes local government.

But the debate in Britain moved on, a long time ago. Now it’s not about immigration, but about *immigrants*. And it’s vile.

This country is getting more mean-spirited, more xenophobic, more unpleasant every day. I’m terrified we’re heading into actual evil, actual fascism, and accelerating more in that direction every day.

I don’t like it here any more…

California Dreaming: Woodstock

Crosby, Stills, and Nash had not originally intended to form a band at all.

Crosby and Stills had both been at loose ends after leaving their respective bands, and were looking for something else to do, and had been jamming together a little and writing the odd song. Graham Nash had left his own band, The Hollies, and moved to LA recently. But when they first got together, it wasn’t with any particular intention in mind.

It was just normal for the musicians who hung out in the Laurel Canyon area, where most of the LA-based musicians had moved, to sing and play when they got together in Peter Tork’s pool or Cass Elliott’s kitchen.

And Cass Elliott’s kitchen might be where it happened — or it might have been Joni Mitchell’s house. No-one seems quite sure. But either way, there was a party, and Steve Stills and David Crosby were singing a new song of Stills’, You Don’t Have To Cry. Graham Nash asked them to sing it again. And then he asked them to sing it a third time, and improvised a high harmony line over them.

The three-part harmony sounded stunning to those listening — the three men’s vocals gelled in a way that Crosby and Stills on their own hadn’t. It was very quickly decided that the three would try to get signed to the same record label (Stills and Nash were at the time signed to different labels, while Crosby had been dropped by Columbia) and record an album. The result, Crosby, Stills & Nash, featured two top forty singles and was one of the most influential albums of the late 60s.

But they had a problem when it came to playing live. Apart from the drums, played by Dallas Taylor, and a couple of acoustic guitar parts, all the instruments on the album had been played by Stills, and neither Crosby nor Nash was an especially accomplished instrumentalist.

The original plan was to hire a bass player and keyboardist to fill out the band’s sound, but instead of the keyboard player, they were persuaded by Ahmet Ertegun, and rather against their own initial urges, to take on an extra lead guitarist — Neil Young.

Young became a full partner in the band, now officially a quartet, while Greg Reeves, their new bass player (and flatmate of Young’s former bandmate Rick James) did not, although the next album, Déjà Vu, was credited to (in large lettering) Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (in smaller lettering) Dallas Taylor & Greg Reeves.

Young joined half-way through recording that album, but in time for the band’s first gig, supported by Joni Mitchell (who was at the time Nash’s girlfriend). Their second gig was rather more stressful — a music festival in Woodstock, New York, whose organisers had decided at the last minute to make it free. Half a million people showed up.

Joni Mitchell hadn’t gone to Woodstock herself — she’d had other commitments — but she heard about it from Nash, and she wrote a gentle song about it, with the chorus “we are stardust, we are golden, and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden”. Her song, titled simply Woodstock, was released on Ladies of the Canyon and as the B-side to the hit single Big Yellow Taxi.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young also recorded the song. They made a few minor lyrical changes — notably adding the line “we are billion year old carbon” to the choruses (it had originally just been a backing vocal line in the last chorus of Mitchell’s version), but the major change was to the music. In their hands it was a loud, noisy, hard rock track, with duelling squealing lead guitars played by Stills and Young, and with Stills growling out a blues-rock lead vocal.

The result had little to do with the pastoral, gentle, song that Mitchell had originally written, but was chosen for the end credits of the film released of the festival, which became a massive success, and the single went to number eleven on the charts. And Déjà Vu, the album from which it was taken, did even better, going to number one and having two other top forty singles released from it.

The band’s success was short-lived though — Stills and Young’s relationship had always been fractious, and Crosby was going through a particularly difficult patch in his life — and by the end of their summer 1970 tour they had split up, having released one last single, Young’s Ohio, a protest song about the shootings at Kent State University, which went to number twenty. While they would all continue to work with each other in various combinations in the future, and there would be occasional reunion tours, there would not be another Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young studio album until 1988.


Composer: Joni Mitchell

Stephen Stills (guitar, vocals, keyboards), Neil Young (guitar), David Crosby and Graham Nash (vocals), Dallas Taylor (drums), Greg Reeves (bass)

Original release: Déjà Vu, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Atlantic SD-7200

Currently available on:
Déjà Vu, Atlantic CD

On Toxic Masculinity and California Dreaming

A while back, I put up a post, which has now become an essay in the California Dreaming book, about how the white musicians in the book had built their careers because of an infrastructure that was there because of black musicians — they were, even if not racist themselves (and most weren’t) the beneficiaries of structural racism.

There’s also a structural sexism that I have to deal with, and that is rather more difficult.

I have tried, in these essays, to accentuate as much as possible the roles of women in the story, but it’s hard to escape the fact that women were marginalised, horribly, by the system, and by the people in the system. There simply aren’t that many records by women that fit into the story.

But I’ve been thinking more and more about why that is, and about how the LA music scene was about the fetishisation of a particular male, control-freak, idea of “genius”. An idea of the creative man as special that makes everyone else the tool of the boy genius.

This toxic masculinity seems to have caused two reactions among these “geniuses”. Some of them either died or came close to death young, from trying to numb their own emotional pain with drink or drugs.

The others… well, there’s a reason why Charles Manson was part of the LA music scene.

Kim Fowley – rapist
Jack Nitzsche – broke into an ex-girlfriend’s house and sexually assaulted her
Phil Spector – murdered a woman
John Phillips – abused his daughter
Jim Gordon – murdered his mother
Roy Estrada – in prison for child molestation

Most of these were peripheral figures in the story I’m telling, but there’s a definite continuum between at one end the license that was given to a Brian Wilson (to choose one of the figures from this story who is as close to blameless as it gets), through the control-freakery of a Zappa, to the violent misogyny of the men named above. If you get used to treating other people as tools rather than people, and if you’re in a culture where women aren’t highly regarded *anyway*… well, bad things will happen.

Now the problem is that all the things I mention above happened *after* the events I’m writing about. I have tried as best I can in the essays for the book (including the ones that haven’t gone on the blog but will be in the print and ebook versions) to emphasise that however good the music that resulted, the toxic behaviour of, say, Captain Beefheart, was utterly abhorrent.

But have I stressed enough that the culture of the music scene in LA as a whole was toxic? The focus of the book is on the music — and almost every track I talk about in it is one I consider truly great — but by focusing so much on the men who made it am I guilty of emphasising their manpain over the people who that culture hurt? But on the other hand, many of the people I’ve been writing about are, as individuals, largely blameless.

It’s not my purpose in the book to judge people — the book’s about the art. But it’s also about the artists’ lives, and the way they affected the art. I’m not sure that there’s a right answer to this, but, much as with the other piece I mentioned at the start of this, I know that just ignoring the issue certainly isn’t the right answer.

I’ll probably put something very like this into the book, as part of a foreword or endnote, but if anyone has any suggestions as to how I can deal with that better, please say…

California Dreaming: Sharleena

The Mothers of Invention had disbanded. Well…sort of.

Frank Zappa had brought the band to an end, tired of losing money paying the salaries of a large band. The final straw came at a show in 1969 when the Mothers were on the same bill as Duke Ellington, and Zappa saw Ellington backstage begging his agent for a ten dollar advance. Zappa had been losing a great deal of money, and seeing a musical legend having to grovel for ten dollars brought this into sharp focus. He wasn’t going to be paying the salary of a ten-piece band any more — he was going to try to make money, not lose it. So the Mothers split, and Zappa recorded a solo album, with Ian Underwood from the Mothers, a few of the best session musicians in LA, and Captain Beefheart guesting on one song. That album, Hot Rats, became Zappa’s biggest commercial hit, reaching the top ten in the UK.

And then, as soon as most of the members had found other work — Art Tripp joining the Magic Band; Jimmy Carl Black, Bunk Gardner, and Buzz Gardner forming a hard rock band, Geronimo Black, with Tjay Cantrelli of Love; and Lowell George and Roy Estrada forming a new band, Little Feat — Zappa started putting together a new lineup of Mothers.

Other than Zappa himself, Ian Underwood was the only continuing member (although Don Preston would later rejoin the band, temporarily replacing George Duke), but Zappa wanted to have a “rock and roll band” and so kept the Mothers’ name.

The reason he wanted to have a rock band is that he had a new idea for making his music more commercial, while still allowing him to make the kind of satirical comments he wanted — the band were going to satirise the pop music scene, singing about the lifestyle of bands on the road, groupies, casual sex, and other aspects of the culture that was growing up around rock.

But to do that, Zappa needed some genuine pop stars in his band — someone who could easily be recognised as a genuine teen idol, and who would also have the comic skills to sell the comedy routines that were going to be part of the new stage shows.

He chose Micky Dolenz.

Dolenz was asked to join the band in 1969, as Zappa knew that the Monkees TV show had come to an end. Unfortunately, Dolenz would have had to quit the Monkees, and while the band were winding down, he didn’t have the money to buy himself out of his contractual obligations, and so he had to turn Zappa down.

Meanwhile, the Turtles had split, and Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan were at a loose end. They’d been offered roles in the LA production of Hair, but decided that it would be the death of their careers. Kaylan had also been offered the role of lead vocalist in a new band formed by two songwriters he knew, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, but Steely Dan didn’t want Mark Volman, and the two came as a package deal.

So when Volman and Kaylan met Zappa backstage at a one-off reunion of the original Mothers, they were eager to join his new group. That eagerness was not necessarily shared by Zappa’s new rhythm section, Aynsley Dunbar and Jeff Simmons, who thought of themselves as serious blues-rock musicians, not pop performers or comedians, but Volman and Kaylan soon won them round with their musicianship.

Volman and Kaylan were both technically excellent singers who had trained in sight-reading, they were genuine pop stars, and the fact that they were fat and so didn’t have the normal glamorous pop star looks was an advantage, as was their stage rapport. It also no doubt helped that Kaylan’s cousin was Herb Cohen, Zappa’s manager and co-owner of his label.

The first fruit of this new band was Chunga’s Revenge, released as a Zappa solo album, but definitely the work of the new Mothers, with Volman and Kaylan (under their new stage names The Phlorescent Leech (later shortened to Flo) and Eddie) singing on the six songs with vocals (there were also four instrumentals). The songs were mostly either jokes about sex, about the music business, or both.

Sharleena is typical of the new Zappa. Lyrically it’s a love song so banal that it parodies love songs, while still being able to be taken seriously should any buyer wish to do so. But musically, its a showcase for the vocal skills of Volman and Kaylan, who have at least four distinct vocal styles in the song. It starts with a parody of their falsetto harmonies, deliberately abrasive and dissonant, before going into a smooth, “serious” version of the same style, a lush, resonant, two-part falsetto harmony.

The two also then create a “Frankenzappa” voice, singing in unison with Zappa on the main verses in a lower register, so that the lead vocal sounds like a single composite voice, while they also add extra harmonies. And at the end, Kaylan takes on yet another vocal persona, this time a stronger, rockier, voice, belting the lyrics out.

Zappa had traded woodwinds and tuned percussion for pop vocals, wah-wah guitar, and a blues-rock rhythm section. The 1970s would show whether that was a sound decision, either artistically or commercially, but here we leave him, and his new Mothers.


Composer: Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa (guitar, vocals), Howard Kaylan (vocals), Mark Volman (vocals), Ian Underwood (saxophone, piano), George Duke (organ), Jeff Simmons (bass, vocals), Aynsley Dunbar (drums)

Original release:
Chunga’s Revenge, Frank Zappa, Bizarre/Reprise MS 2030

Currently available on: Chunga’s Revenge, UMC CD

Linkblogging For 24/7/15

Apologies for having a couple of days off from blogging — I was at a funeral on Wednesday and that left me so drained I ended up going to bed at 6:30PM yesterday. I have two blog posts 90% done each — a Batpost, which will go up as soon as I get up in the morning, and a Caldream post, which will be up on Sunday — so if I can get some writing done tomorrow I’ll actually have a backlog. But for now, links.

How Democracy Works, by Andrew Rilstone

Peter Watts on the networked-cyborg-rat-brains paper

Another of Jack Graham’s pieces of Doctor Who fanfic featuring a female Doctor

Animals that might go extinct if no-one eats them

Tim O’Neill does Go Set A Watchman as Ayn Rand

And Why you don’t need two-factor authentication