Punk and Free Jazz Meet at the Crossroads

November 17, 2009

By Tom Barry, Social Sciences

In a recent ConX posting, Professor Sean Rule, one of COCC’s esteemed mathematicians who freelances during off hours as the drummer for the local punk band Hands on Throat, reflected on the various meanings attributed to punk and its practices.  As Rule stated, it is a form of music often misunderstood by those who do not know its history and purpose.   This is due to many factors, including  punk’s utter disregard of the culture industry including  the organizations, artist and repertoire (A&R) folks who determine what’s hot and what’s not.

The recording industry produces music that meets the industry conditioned desires of the audience.  The industry makes it.  The audience accepts it.  The industry produces more.  Then the audience comes to desire it.  With new organizational strategies and technologies, such as iTunes, the industry becomes increasingly involved in directing listeners to the new artists of the day, artists who are mostly reproductions of the artists who have been chewed up, lost nutritional (market) values and spit out.  Because of its economic imperatives and influence on behavioral conditioning, the industry is not responding to audience demands but rather identifies and reconfigures the demands in ways that best accomplish the industry’s mission.  In the words of Theodor Adorno, a social philosopher and ardent critic of the culture industry, “the culture industry not so much adapts to the reactions of its customers as it counterfeits them.”

While I think George Ritzer’s term McDonaldization is often overused, the concept has certain and valid applications to the production of music.  McDonaldization refers to the fact that an increasing number of life areas follow the organizational principles of the fast-food chain.  The principles include predictability, uniformity, control through automation, and calculability.  The mass production of music follows these principles and, as result, we get exposed to an extremely limited range of music.

Aside from the pressures to conform to industry demands, Professor Rule addresses another core component of understanding punk.  This is the desire to have a voice that is otherwise silenced by dominate society.  The reaction against the corporatization of music is not only about the desire to exercise artistic freedom; it is a symptom of a larger social reality where institutions disregard the voice of people and will only hear that voice if it is presented in a particular manner determined by the industry itself. 

Punk’s development as a medium to air grievances has common ground with the origins and purpose of the Free Jazz movement of the 1950s/1960s.  During this time of advancing democratic ideals of equality for all and an increased consciousness of structured racial inequality, African American artists, from all arts, turned towards the “black aesthetic,” art developed, produced, and performed by and for African Americans.  It was political and truly free.  It was also misunderstood by dominate culture.  But unlike punk, there were no twenty second songs.  Instead, Free Jazz artists performed songs that lasted twenty, thirty, and forty minutes.  Try putting THAT on a record, Columbia and RCA!


Book Exchange at Work – Success or Failure?

November 10, 2009

By Ralph Phillips, Computer & Information Systems

Over the summer, I frequented a number of coffee shops with book exchange programs and participated in one here in town. It was great. I discovered some new books and was pleased to see that books I left were taken–hopefully by someone who enjoyed them and later passed them on.

Why not set one up at work? Creating a book exchange isn’t difficult at all. A common area where many of your co-workers congregate is an ideal place to set up a book exchange. You could leave a stack of books on a counter, but I went for the much more official cardboard box with sign approach (see video). I wanted my co-workers to enjoy a couple of great books I read recently and leave some new ones to keep the exchange thriving.

We’re at week seven in the term and all of the books I started with to “seed” the book exchange box are still there. It does look like someone left a magazine, but that’s been the only activity.

Optimism ahead…

Perhaps this book exchange needs a little advertisement. Or, maybe I’m not using enough technology (a common excuse for many of my failed experiments). Plan B will be to check out an online book exchange like BookMooch. The way BookMooch and similar book exchanges work is to provide members with a much larger selection of free books. It’s actually kind of a cool process:

  1. List the book(s) you’ve got available to give.
  2. When somebody requests your book, you mail it to them (you pay the shipping).
  3. Mailing a book earns you a point.
  4. You can now use your point to request a book from anybody else. They ship the book to you.

That’s about all there is to it. The rules are pretty simple, and you need to give at least one book for every two that you receive. You also get partial points for listing books. I’m going to start my BookMooch account by listing:

  • The Marine Aquarium Handbook (apparently my Florida hobby doesn’t sell well in Bend, Oregon)
  • The New Saltwater Aquarium Handbook
  • Touching the Void
  • About a Boy
  • The Complete Guide to Marathon Walking

In a later post, I’ll report on my experience with BookMooch.

“Why do you guys sound like such unbelievable crap?” An analysis of the post – mainstream hardcore thrash community’s population and draw

November 3, 2009

By Sean Rule, Math

photo1So, I’m a musician.  Well, actually, I’m a drummer; I hang out with musicians.  And the guys with whom I hang out and play music play very loud, very thrashy, very energetic music.  As a result, we usually play to very few people.  We have our moments of well – attended glory (see photo 1, courtesy of Dearric Winchester at Focus on Infinity Photography), but, usually, we play to about 30 people, give or take a few.  And, they’re usually highly inebriated.

 This is nothing new to me; I’ve been playing drums in punk rock bands since many COCC students were learning their ABC’s (some would say that’s why I should stop), and the turnouts have usually been abysmally low.  This is not something that upsets me; that’s the topic of this little piece.   

The reasons for punk rock’s low turnouts are subject to great speculation around the Hands On Throat (my current band) practice space.  The first and most obvious explanation is the character of our music.  Most mainstream “punk” bands (by the way, that phrase is idiotic in itself; by definition, punk rock needs to be reactionary to the mainstream) write catchy, melodic, poppy, easy – to – aurally – digest songs that are the “correct” length.  My band writes songs in collapsing keys that grate against the ear, whose tempos start and stop so frequently that you can’t bop your head to keep time (let alone dance), and whose lengths vary from 20 seconds to 4 minutes (with a median of around 2.5 minutes, I’d imagine).  Add to that the vocals, which are usually screamed at top volume and maximum snottiness, and you’ve got a recipe for a room clearing.

“Sean!  You’ve just described the solution to your problem.  Fix your songs!”, you might exclaim.  Well, you see…that’s it.  I don’t want to fix anything, because I don’t think anything’s “broken”.  Take, for example, the entire body of one of my favorite compositions, “Look Ma…Opposable Thumbs!” (you can listen here)

What sets us apart?  Not much.  Just timely execution of clever evolution. Stylized monkeys all are we.  Don’t take yourself so seriously.”

That’s it.  That’s the idea I needed to convey.  It took 10 seconds of screaming, and just about a half of a minute for the entire song…but the idea gets delivered.  It wouldn’t work in any context, other than hardcore thrash.  Somehow I don’t think Green Day could’ve pulled it off (nor could we have pulled off “Basket Case”, their first big hit after signing to a major).   

What’s the formula for a hit song?  Who knows?  I certainly don’t, and most “artists” don’t either.  Producers and engineers often get hold of a raw song idea and morph it into something it wasn’t and will never be again, outside of the confines of a studio.  It’s no longer real; it’s a façade.  Digital recording has made this worse; now, any jokers with a PC and an illegally downloaded version of Pro Tools can pollute MySpace with their “band’s” “songs”.  But I digress.

Wait a minute…maybe I’m onto something!  Back in the early 90’s, shows were announced via fliers.  This required paper and footwork.  We would roam the streets hanging fliers on light posts until we were asked to stop by local authorities, at which point we would go door to door to the closely knit punk community’s residences and drum support.  Nowadays, bands “flier” by posting jpegs online.  As far as I can tell, very few people actually look at these postings, or, if they are seeing them, they’re not moving people to make it down the show.  Actually, I think that the internet has made it harder to book shows.  We’re all inundated with material online, so if a flier is added to the mix, who’s to say it isn’t simply flushed out of our minds like a forwarded email about the perils of drinking coffee?  Or was it plastic bottles?  Ah, whatever.

OK, so the answer is that 1) my band writes annoying music, and/or 2) the internet is ruining everything.  Hmmmmm…that seems too easy.  Maybe it’s pop music itself.  Let’s revisit that one.

Consider the equal tempered scale: 12 notes, perfectly arranged, which can be arranged into ear – pleasing patterns.  From that scale, musicians for hundreds of years have built melodies.  Some are very well known: the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th symphony; Barber’s Adagio; Louie, Louie.  But, what makes a melody great?  Memorable?  Timeless?  There are a whole infinitude of possible combinations of these notes, yet only some are pleasing, and fewer still ring true years after their recordings.

 As a thrash band, we’re not trying to make pretty music…we’re trying to make quality music, in the vein of great bands (you’re never heard of) like Refused, Propaghandi, and DownSet (see note 1 below) . We’re trying to craft lyrics that are at once succinct, poignant, and thought – provoking.  We want to sing (and scream) songs about equality, positivity, and awareness.  I want to play my drums as fast and as hard as I can possibly play, driving my band and the few folks in the crowd to the very brink of collapse…and to get people’s attention away from their Blackberries and their beer, so they can hear what’s on our minds. 

photo2Yeah, this kind of music is an acquired taste, like anise biscotti or Guy Ritchie films.  As such, our devotees are few and far between.  But, once the taste sets in, it never lets go.  See photo 2?  That’s a picture emailed to me about 4 years ago from a guy who used to watch my old band, Plow United, play in Philadelphia.  The phrase he had tattooed on his chest, “at least I’ll die believing”, comes from the Plow United song, “The World According to Me”:

As I go, from day to day, I keep my head before me. And if time should end today, at least I’ll die believing.”

I wrote those lines in 1993.  More than a decade later, I received that picture from 3000 miles away.  Tell me that isn’t rad.

We’ll never be “successful” in the normal sense.  I won’t have a gold record.  The records I do have, however, are sold, traded, and stolen worldwide.  Our songs are floating around, some on cassette tapes, some on CD, and some online…and I love it!  I’ll never have a video on MTV, but I’m constantly sent (from former bandmates, scenesters and friends) forums and videos that have popped up with comments like, “I wish I had a chance to see them live… their music changed my life”.  We’re not pretty, we’re not easy listenin’, and we’re not sonically agreeable…but we’re real.  And that, I think, is what people like.

At least, the 30 that come to our shows.    

Endnote: Interestingly enough, I was going to hyperlink a My Chemical Romance song (“Welcome to the Black Parade”) in this blog to compare a commercial pop band (them) to a nasty, abrasive hardcore band (us).  However, Warner Brothers (MCR’s label, I presume) pulled the clip.  That means that, rather than let fans enjoy the song and its video, they’d instead chose to deny fans the avenue to spread attention.  Never have I been happier to not be attached to the commercial machine that is the record industry.  Do It Yourself!

[1] If you choose to watch these clips, you might notice things like, “Hey!  DownSet sounds like Rage against the Machine!”  Yup.  DownSet was, however, around years before RATM’s mainstream success.  Why Rage got popular and these guys didn’t is beyond me.  Also, I suppose I should warn you…there are some “bad words” in there.  George Carlin, rest his soul, would be thrilled.