One of, if not the, most notorious band of the past few decades, the Butthole Surfer, made their name with their acid soaked albums, drugged out, strobed out, live performances and in general just acting like (or actually being) insane people.
There’s good news, in case you may have missed your opportunity the first time (or perhaps you never even knew that you had an opportunity the first time) Latino Burger Veil has re-released, on vinyl, “Psychic Powerless…Another Man’s Sac,” “Rembrandt Pussyhorse,” “Locust Abortion Technician,” and “Hairway to Steven” for your listening pleasure.
The 4 long out of print albums, originally released on the mostly defunct Touch and Go Records imprint, have been reintroduced yet again to a (slightly less) unsuspecting public on the band’s own Latino Burger Veil records.
For the completely uninitiated, here’s a brief recap. Ok, you all know The Flaming Lips, right? Well, they basically got their start by aping the Butthole Surfers. It’s complete acid freak out rock. The album titles alone should probably be enough to give a clue as to what is going on.
Personally, I have their first two albums, “Psychic….Powerless….Another Man’s Sac” and “Rembrandt Pussyhorse,” and I’m still amazed and perplexed by the music. It’s really like nothing else you’ve heard before. I think that lately I have been tossing that phrase around a lot, though it is safe to say that for something like this, it’s pretty close to the absolute truth.
If you haven’t read Michael Azerrad’s fantastic “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” which documents the American underground rock scene of the early 80s up to 1991, well first of all you need to do that right now. Seriously, as soon as you can. Read that book cover to cover. In that book Azerrad details the triumphs and struggles of, for example, The Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Big Black, Black Flag, and The Butthole Surfers, among others. One of the stories that I remember vividly from the book is about how at one point early in their career the Butthole Surfers were literally starving. Delirious and weak, band leader Gibby Haynes is crawling around on the ground for spare change not so he can buy food, but so the band can score some acid.
That’s what we are dealing with here. It’s pretty much the closest one can get to listening to controlled (barely) chaos. The songs thrash about wildly, held down by tribal pulsing and Haynes’ voice echoing ominously through the haze.
And with a name like The Butthole Surfers, one would have to suspect that this is going to be antagonizing music. That assumption would be correct. Everything from their name, to their infamous early live shows that included projections of penis reconstruction surgery behind the band that played in near total darkness, with topless dancers lit by incessantly flashing strobe lights (there’s also the story about the one dancer that came to find out she was epileptic while performing at a show. Her uncontrollable vomiting then become a bonus visual to freak people out at that show).
Their output could sway every which way from the actual honest to goodness hooks and verse-chorus-verse structure of “Negro Observer,” to the truly trippy “Waiting for Jimmy To Kick,” or their cover of “American Woman.” Errr, excuse me, “American Women.” Anyway, if you haven’t heard them before, or if you have only heard a little bit, then please check out the music. It’s interesting and unique and documents an important time in the evolution of the American underground music scene and these four albums are worthy of being brought back to the attention of music fans that may have missed them the first time around.
There’s a ton of videos of them live on Youtube that you should check out. And then you should head over to your local record store to pick them up, or they can also be ordered online. If you’d like to check out the one-sheet that the band released to announce the reissues, you can check that out here.
According to The Onion A.V. Club Steve Albini has stated that a new Shellac album has been recorded and will (hopefully) be released soon. Apparently, according to Albini, there are more songs finished than will appear on the new album. Out of the 10 songs that are finished 8 or 9 will appear on the band’s yet to be named follow up to 2007’s “Excellent Italian Greyhound.”
This is good news for Shellac fans, while at the same time news that will probably be ignored by everyone else. What I mean is that there are two kinds of music fans out there: those that are fans of Shellac (rabid, obsessive, die-hard fans of the Slayer ilk [and to that end, I would love it if people started yelling “SHELAAAAAAAAAACCC!!!” at each other when spotted on the street wearing a Shellac shirt]) and those that hate Shellac. I don’t think that I have ever met someone that just “sort of” likes them. They really aren’t that kind of band.
And the band really couldn’t care less what you think. That is the way that they operate. I don’t know why I am bothering telling you this because if you have read this far then you already know. And reviews of Shellac albums are irrelevant to Shellac fans. So the best I can do is just say “hey, a new album is on its way” and that will be as good as saying that it is the best album released this side of the industrial revolution. I will say, however, that I never developed a taste for “Excellent Italian Greyhound.” In my opinion the two longer tracks “The End of Radio” and “Genuine Lulabelle” (clocking in at 8:27 and 9:17, respectively) really sort of ruin the pacing. I’m much more a fan of “At Action Park” and “Terraform,” not to mention their newest album at the time I was introduced to them, “1000 Hurts.”
Keep an eye out for the new album sometime in the fall, or perhaps the winter, or maybe early next year. Just remember this is the band that held off releasing “Terraform” for (I think) a few years because they were waiting for the artwork to be just right.
The new album will be coming out on the barely-operating-what-the-hell-happened-to-this-amazing-label Touch and Go. I know that I’m looking forward to hearing that Shellac guitar tone. That is what really hooked me on the band in the first place, well that and this chord that appears in “Wingwalker” from their 1993 Uranus 7″, which is interesting for a few reasons.
First of all the song is in D minor, which could probably be explained simply enough in that most likely the guitar and bass have their low E strings tuned down a whole-step. More interesting, however, is the arpeggiated chord that appears over tonic:
The pitches are E-flat, B-flat, C-flat, G-flat in a simple arpeggiation that cycles through in 4/4 over the predominating 3/4 meter in the bass and drums, resulting in a cycling of the downbeat E-flat from beat 1 in the 2nd measure to the upbeat to 2 in the following measure and the middle of beat 3 in the next measure before the entire pattern is shifted down a whole step. This could be notated in 4/4 and the same cycling would (of course) occur. The main thing to note is that the E-flat quarter note in the guitar moves against the bass line and the beginning of both patterns only line up every 4 measures.
Listen to “Wingwalker” below. The arpeggiation in question can be heard at :57 – 1:15
If the chord that is alluded under this arpeggiation is tonic (we assume so, as the bass focuses on D) while the repeated E-flat cycles through the guitar making it a different focal point (in addition to the off-kilter rhythmic element), then what is even going on here harmonically speaking? An E-flat minor triad (E-flat, G-flat, B-flat [a half-step above tonic, played over tonic?!]) with an added C-flat is truly curious in this context. Within the chord itself it is the C-flat that really gives the chord its flavor, playing against the B-flat of the triad creating a minor-2nd that rings out between the G and B strings. This is typically a chord used more by jazz players than by rock guitarists. I think that, considering Albini is the dude that cut notches in his metal pick when he was playing in Big Black so that he could get a purposefully abrasive sound, the added 6th (and consequent minor 2nd ringing that occurs) is used more to obtain an abrasive and dissonant sound than toward any voice-leading or contrapuntal concerns.
This chord, if re-spelled, sounds (well…is) the same as a major-major 7 chord (C-flat, E-flat, G-flat, B-flat). You can think of this sonority as a major triad and a minor triad embedded in each other. The major triad (C-flat, E-flat, G-flat) and the minor triad (E-flat, G-flat, B-flat) therefore have identical intervallic content, but serve two very different purposes. It’s a deep subject, and not one that I intend to get into here. Though I will add one last tidbit: Albini must have also found something interesting in this chord because he uses the exact same chord 14 years later on the track “Boycott” from “Excellent Italian Greyhound.” The one difference is that in “Boycott” the chord appears over a B-flat in the bass. This means that there is, one could say, another (or at least a different) layer of dissonance at work here as the bass support isn’t all that supportive. The B-flat is, remember, one of the pitches that creates that unstable (dissonant) interval of a minor 2nd. This, of course, is not to mention that “Boycott” is nearly atonal in its construction, but that is a discussion for another day.
Hear “Boycott” below, and listen for the chord when it appears at :14-:24
So back to the song “Wingwalker.” We would normally think that the bass would support the chords, or arpeggiations or melodies that appear above it. For instance, if the bass is playing a D, and the song is in D-minor then one might safely assume that the chord over top could feasibly be tonic (D, F, A) or maybe the sub-mediant (VI = B-flat, D, F), or the subdominant (iv = G, B-flat, D)…or some other chord with an actual D in it. Instead, what we get is a chord that not only doesn’t contain the pitch that is supporting it, but the chord has pitches that clash with that supporting D. For example the E-flat is a half-step away, and the B-flat and C-flat create a split third sounding a major-third and a minor-third away from the D (though the C-flat would technically be an augmented 2nd, but is enharmonically equivalent, for those keeping track).
I haven’t even mentioned yet that an E-flat chord of any kind is not diatonic to the key of D-minor. Even if we consider it as a C-flat Major 7 chord instead of an E-flat minor add 6, there is still no C-flat anything in the key of D-minor. No matter how you spell the chord, or how you configure it, or what you consider a non-chord tone, there is no way to make this chord work in the context of D-minor.
It’s not some strange minor Neapolitan in root position with an added 6. This is for a few reasons: first of all, that’s just too odd, that never happens, and the reason that it never happens is because how would that chord even function? And speaking of function, a Neapolitan (normally a major chord built on the lowered 2nd scale degree, for those you that may not know) usually moves to the dominant, at least eventually. This chord moves to some other non-diatonic chord. The guitar never makes it to the dominant.
It’s definitely not a chromatic mediant of some sort. In order for that to happen you’d have to enharmonically respell the chord, which, fine, you can do that, I mean we are trying to look at all the possibilities here. Maybe it’s not C-flat Major 7, that is a bit odd, maybe it’s a B Major 7 chord. But if it was a B Major 7 chord that would mean in the context of D-minor it would be a Major 7 chord built on the raised 6th scale degree (#VI). No. Again, how would that function and that’s just too odd.
Lastly, what if we considered it as a secondary function? I mean, would it be satisfying by any stretch of the imagination to consider this chord as a Dominant chord with a Major 7 in the key of e minor (VM7/ii)? Well, no, because that would mean that the 7th of the chord would be the raised 4th scale degree, which would be some sort of Lydian mode type alteration.
This is all too complicated, and the purpose of music theory is to come to an understanding of how the music functions within its own context. This song, or at least this section of this song is not adhering to a tonal structure. It might be simpler to put this into the context of post-tonal analysis.
Remember how I mentioned above that the chords, no matter how you spelled them (either minor triad with an added 6, or a major triad with a major 7th) that they had the same interval content because they were the same pitches just in a different order? Well in tonal music the spelling of chords, and the classifications make all the difference. It’s all about the function of the chord. An altered pitch has a tendency, in the tonal sphere, to do certain things, to fulfill certain expectations. This leads to all sorts of great things like musical expectations and the thwarting of those expectations.
But how do we look at things if we find that the music is not functioning within a tonal realm; if these voice-leading tendencies are not considered in the context of the music? In that case we consider the similarities of the structures that are present in the music. Just like triads and 7th chords are used in the tonal language to contrast each other, collections of pitches that are built in a similar manner are used to give shape and meaning to non-tonal pieces.
Take for example a major triad. It consists of a note, a note a major-third above it and a note a minor-third above that. Now take a minor triad. It consists of a note, a note a minor-third above it and a note a major-third about that. So these major and minor chords have the exact same interval content, but in the context of a tonal composition they function differently, and because of other musical considerations (that are also within the context of tonal music) they sound different despite being essentially the same.
So let’s look at the chord: E-flat, G-flat, B-flat, C-flat. I will cut out all of the very laborious, confusing (you’re probably confused enough as it is) and complicated post-tonal theory stuff and you’ll just have to take my word on some stuff. That chord and the chord that follows in the example above, the final 4 measures where the chord simply shifts down wholesale a full step…because all of the pitches are moved the same distance, nothing about the intervallic content of the sonority has changed. It’s the same as moving, say, an A-major triad down a step to get a G-major triad; same exact content, different pitches.
Now, if we take all the pitches, including the bass: D, E-flat, G-flat, B-flat, C-flat and then after the guitar moves down a whole step: D, D-flat, A-flat, A, F-flat…well, there are ways of measuring the intervallic content. Perhaps I will return to exactly how that is done in another post, I don’t need to go on for another 1,000 words here. But, those chords, despite not functioning in a tonal context, are actually found to be, how we say in the trade, “maximally related.” This means that those collections of pitches have a lot of things in common in an intervallic sense. Basically, many of the puzzle pieces that fit together to form one chord can be taken out and fit into the other chord.
I think that in later posts I not only want to come back to some more post-tonal analysis of rock tunes, but I also would like to specifically investigate the way that Shellac’s “Boycott” is put together.
Thanks for reading this far. I know that this is all very confusing for those that are uninitiated into the world of music theory, but stick with me. I’m going to do my best to bring you up to speed and take the scariness out of it as best I can.
You wouldn’t think that the abrasive and angular music of Shellac would have much to do with Marnie Stern’s music, or that either of them could be linked to one of the most prolific, brilliant, thought provoking and curious concert pianists of the 20th century, but they are. Canadian pianist Glenn Gould has influenced generations of pianists, but I don’t think that anyone has ever discussed his influence on artists outside of the concert hall.
Gould was a Canadian pianist, born in 1932. Even those with just a passing knowledge of his work are at least somewhat familiar with at least one of his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Those recordings work like the bookends of his recording career. When he was first given a record contract he decided that the then seldom heard, obscure Bach piece would become his debut recording. That was in 1955. Some 26 years later his re-recording of the same piece would lead to heated debates in the music community for decades. Those two recordings only give a tiny bit of insight into the way that Gould’s mind worked. He was constantly deep in thought and concerned about his role in the interpretation of the works that he performed. Without a doubt the man was a genius.
Not only was he obsessively driven toward pushing himself, he was intensely interested in pushing the bounds of how music could be realized in the age of new recording technologies. Gould would often remark that the state of recorded music (keep in mind when he was alive, from 1932 to 1982) would not only allow musicians to push the bounds of music, but that people at home would soon be able to create and modify those recordings through their own “knob twiddlings.” Of course he was talking about the way that music could be manipulated on home stereos via various volume, balance and equalizer controls.
It was his contemplations on the effect that the recording studio would have on music that drove him to be one of the first true “recording artists.” In documentaries such as The Alchemist viewers can watch as Gould endlessly annoys the recording engineer, constantly telling him where to cut the tape while referring to the score. Gould’s score had indications for not only the usual dynamics and articulations, but also indications of where the sound would be. Would part of the score sound distant and reverberant while another sounded more up front? How would those things be able to work together. Gould was truly able to use the recording studio not to simply preserve his performances, but also as an extension of his abilities as a pianist and musical mind.
Gould was not only interested in recording the works of Bach, Webern, Scriabin and others, but he was also interested in composition. His compositions came in the form of a 3 part “contrapuntal radio documentary” called the Solitude Trilogy. “The Idea of North,” “The Latecomers” and “The Quiet in the Land” explored Gould’s interest in the northernmost part of Canada, which reflected his own comfort in solitude and singularity.
When Steve Albini says that Shellac only writes songs about two things “Canada and baseball” it could very well be true, most notably in the song “The Idea of North.” This one is kind of obvious, being that the song takes its name directly from Gould’s radio documentary. Perhaps the same desolate mood of isolation and prohibitive environs that Gould explores in his documentary are interpreted by Shellac in the opening of their song. The sparse, spacious bass line invites listeners to consider the ambience that surrounds it. Perhaps Albini’s vocals that near complete obfuscation are meant to evoke the image of someone thinking outloud (barely) to themselves as a representation of the inquisitive, often self-obsessed way that Gould would.
On the other hand we have Marnie Stern, with her song “Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling,”takes the idea of Gould’s radio documentaries a bit further. In this song Marnie creates a tone poem of sorts where after narrating the actions of characters those actions are then assigned an idiosyncratic sound or motive. She begins by explaining “I will paint you a picture that’s inside my head.” Following that introduction she begins to describe that you are now standing in a room while “around you is a solitude trilogy,” and a bit later “you sit down and start to think of ideas of the North,” which is followed by it’s sound that is a chromatically ascending line. After the narration is complete and the scene has been set she begins to place the motives on top of one another, creating a contrapuntal sound collage much in the same way that Gould did with his intercut ambient sounds and multiple interviews at once. In this way Marnie is creating a bit of a miniature homage to Gould’s radio broadcasts.
We can now see how these two artists have made their influence blatant, but it still remains to be seen why they chose to do so. What is the deeper connection between Gould and his work and that of Marnie Stern and Albini and Co.?
Gould’s singular personality broke down a lot of the barriers that existed between classical music and popular music in his day. He was famously quirky and thoroughly interesting, not to mention self-aware. He knew that people were sometimes more interested in the spectacle of Glenn Gould, the character that was Glenn Gould perhaps more so than they were interested in the performances of the man himself.
Glenn Gould was punk rock before punk rock was punk rock. He did things his way and he couldn’t possibly care less what people thought of that. He knew that he was brilliant enough to do his own thing, to do things his way, and not to let anyone else dictate to him how his art should be presented. He was obsessed with his own perfection and never stopped wondering how he could better express himself. This much is clear simply by listening to (as mentioned up a few paragraphs) his two renditions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. He didn’t just perform and record a piece to leave it behind. No, those pieces, everything that he played, stayed with him and he was constantly thinking about them and learning to think about them in new ways.
This sort of work ethic and perfection is mentioned several times by Marnie Stern across all 4 of her albums. Obsession and a focus on her passion are a consistent theme in Marnie’s lyrics. In “Grapefruit” the lyric “keep on keep at it, keep on, keep at it” is repeated like a mantra. On her most recent album “The Chronicles of Marnia” in the song “You Don’t Turn Down” she states, nearly a cappella that she’s “Got to get obsessed and stay there now.” “Keep on, keep at it, keep on, keep at it” from “Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket!!” cover these themes in both its lyric and the song’s very title.
I think that Shellac’s awareness that they are a band unlike any other band around today, and that they staunchly disassociate themselves from the music industry as much as they can, supporting Touch and Go since the begining. And I think that this anti-industry stance is pretty well known because of Steve Albini’s famous tome against the corporate music world. In addition to all of this It seems that they relate more to Gould’s overall attitude, whereas Marnie Stern relates more to his obsessive desire to improve.
I’m sure that there must be other examples of Glenn Gould’s influence, even in slightly more indirect ways, can be found throughout independent rock music. It’s clear that, as Alban Berg famously said to George Gershwin, “…music is music.” It doesn’t matter how it is classified or how it is created, and perhaps the clearly constructed borders between genres that one imagines are in fact not there at all.
For more information on the life of Glenn Gould, and to hear the entire Solitary Trilogy follow these links:
“The Idea of North,” “The Latecomers” and “The Quiet in the Land” can all be heard in their entirety at the CBC’s site as part of their legacy audio collection. “The Idea of the North” was commissioned by the CBC as a way of introduction for themselves and have become a large and important part of Canadian culture, just like the man himself.
There are several books on the life of Glenn Gould. The first “biography” written about him was less of a biography and more a study of what made Gould the genius that he was. His habits, his practices, how he thought about music. It’s by Geoffrey Payzant and is called “Glenn Gould: Music and Mind“
You should also check out the documentary by Bruno Monsaingeon called “The Alchemist.” He actually did a whole series of documentaries about Gould, but this one is my favorite for showing Gould at work in the studio after he had permanently left the concertizing life to focus on his recording career.
Finally, my favorite movie of all time “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.” It mixes interviews with Gould’s contemporaries alongside vignettes depicting his life. Colm Feore does an incredible job at portraying Glenn Gould.