The sea was further out than i’d even witnessed, so we wondered to it’s edge.
Those promised colours of sunset never emerged, hazed out by a mist rising off the unnervingly placid expanse of silent water. Vast concrete groins at equatorial distances cast heavy shadows across the beach leaving us with limited paths as we made our way down past the pebbles into the muddy sands.
The consistent orange halo of the town lights began to disappear with the sun as we descended and Hannah used her iPhone light to guide us across the tidal sandbanks interspersed with disgruntled heringulls. Blurred sunset fazed into a clear night with a crescent moon reflecting off flat water and rippled sands, the beauty of which still haunts my memories.
Neither of us mentioned the unusual warmth or lack of wind as we held hands walking home along that still water’s edge, and saw the others approaching.
Each figure appeared slightly elongated, which I put down to the moonlight, carrying a bucket in one hand and some kind of pickaxe in the other.
As we walked past the first we began to wonder what they were doing out here on such a curious night? Crustacean gatherers? Marine biologists? The strangers all seemed to stop at a their prescribed points and stare down at the ground, waiting.
Once we had passed the fifth ‘gatherer’ curiosity was beginning to get the better of us, and we made it out intent to speak to the next one we encountered as we progressed along the sandbanks.
“Beautiful night, i’ve never seen it like this before” Hannah announced in greeting to the next stranger as we neared. The stranger turned her head and replied.
“I’ve not seen you two here before, are you new?”
“I’m from London, but Stuart lives just up the road – what are you doing out here?” Hannah replied, and I clenched her hand perhaps a little too tight.
The gatherer seemed to have warmed to Hannah and beckoned us closer to where she stood – perching over one of the water pools the low tide had left between itself and the sea.
“This is where we find Her” the gatherer said, pointing to the stranded lake of water which until hours ago was part of the sea.
Perhaps sensing our nervousness the gatherer beckoned us further in and as we stared into the water I couldn’t help noticing how her features, which i’d previously put down to the moonlight, were rather accentuated in every way. Most strikingly her eyes, which glowed as blue as the moon. As I felt the rough strong hands grip my shoulders I realised we had not being paying attention to the location of the other gatherers.
“This one might have the blood” said a voice as I felt thud to the back of my head and fell into unconsciousness, my hand slipping from Hannahs.
The salt water brought me shaking back to consciousness as it washed in, and i spat it out of my mouth with a cough.
In my peripheral vision I could only see Hannah’s head. Her head was at the same level as my own. Her body too was completely buried in the cold wet sands of the beach .
“He’s wake, put the bucket on his head!” I heard a gatherer say before being plunged into darkness as one of their metal buckets was placed over over my head. Utterly trapped in the sand, I could feel my head was not alone inside this rusty helmet and something cold and wet caressed the back of my neck. I began to uncontrollably scream….
Swing – much like our recent instalment in Dancing music in the C20 on big band jazz – was a contentious development in the genealogy of jazz. Swing does indeed follow the same categorical evolution as charted by Armstrong, from ragtime to blues into jazz, but where Armstrong – in his genial openmindedness – considers all of these divisions to be fundamentally the same core music, the jazz elite reacted to the runaway popularity of swing with scorn.
Swing changed the direction of popular music. Its boom years of 1935 to 1945 are the high watermark of the general public’s tolerance of jazz, which prior to swing had been messy, noisy, rulebook-shredding stuff, and post-swing returned to restlessly innovative – but less danceable forms – via bebop and its infinite offshoots. These years also saw the recording industry come into its own as a cultural force, although The Great Depression had significantly reined in the industry’s ability to realise its potential as the economic powerhouse it would become.
Nevertheless, swing was the recording industry’s first child. The growing popularity of records as a way to experience music meant that this was the first dance music to be born within the mass public’s consciousness and disseminated via technology rather than orally, as folk music, as early American music forms had been up until then. Alongside MGM musicals – for which swing provided a symbiotic soundtrack – swing offered a gaudy, energetic and generally-positive antidote to the reality of the already-crumbling American Dream, which had been identified in James Truslow Adams’ 1931 book, Epic of America, as:
“…the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Under the leadership of bandleader Benny Goodman, swing would define pre-war and wartime American music; its borderless, raceless ubiquity and its popularisation of standards also mark it as the first genuine pop music. It was inevitable, therefore, that ‘serious’ musicians and jazz fans would find this popularity toxic, birthing in that eternal yin and yang tension of music fandom not only the world’s first pop music – but the world’s first hipsters!
The antipathy towards swing wasn’t just rooted in a disdain for the mainstream. Swing, as a continuation of big band’s methodologies, persisted in sidelining the polyphonic improvisation of New Orleans jazz in favour of orchestrated arrangements and, increasingly, Tin Pan Alley pop song structures. In his autobiography, Father of The Blues, WC Handy used swing as a codename for what he perceived to be the hijacking, commercialisation and ultimately dilution of African-American music by white entertainers:
“This brings to mind the fact that prominent white orchestra leaders, concert singers and others are making commercial use of Negro music in its various phases. That’s why they introduced ‘swing’ which is not a musical form.”
However, this sub-blog, as an investigator of genre prototypes, is not concerned with that golden age of swing Benny Goodman stuff – no Glenn Miller here! And when we examine swing’s “period of innovation” – defined by us as the first hour’s worth of key recordings germane to a given genre – we see that more than 70% of its musicians were black, the strongest showing for black composers in the series so far, with the exception of the almost-entirely African-American boogie woogie. The Casa Loma Orchestra and the dancer and light entertainer Fred Astaire were the only white early adopters of swing.
Swing largely took Fletcher Henderson’s strain of big band jazz as its starting point and so its genesis at least was certainly more African-American in demographic than anything else. Louis Armstrong had played in Henderson’s band, and Duke Ellington had started out in a similar big band ensemble, The Washingtonians. Along with Cab Calloway and Luis Russell, these men formed the cornerstones of early swing.
Unlike the musics more closely derived from ragtime and blues, which were often rural in origin and spread via travelling vaudeville shows, swing was an urban music, tightly focused geographically around industry recording hubs. Although Armstrong and Ellington were both the grandchildren of slaves (from New Orleans and Washington, DC, respectively), Calloway was from an affluent Rochester family, and Luis Russell was a Panamanian of Afro-Carribean descent (the first non-American in this series!), which perhaps demonstrates a growing diversity – or, at least, an eroding parochialism – in jazz now that radio and the recording industry were capable of transmitting music to an intercontinental audience.
Another factor that set these new musicians against their jazz progenitors was a more conventional, schooled musical training.
Fluent in violin, guitar trombone and piano, Russell had been raised in a family of music teachers, and was making a living as a professional musician by the age of 15. Similarly, both of Ellington’s parents were pianists – from opera and parlour backgrounds respectively – while Calloway’s family had recognised their son’s talents early on, and invested in private musical tuition for him. Only Armstrong had an edgier musical training – his cornet chops being mostly honed during his time in New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, a boys’ home that he had been sent to multiple times for juvenile delinquency, but who boasted a band directed by one of New Orleans’ finest trumpet players, Peter Davis.
By contrast, the received wisdom on New Orleans jazz suggests that the techniques particular to jazz were the direct result of a community crafting a new musical language using instruments with which they were largely unfamiliar. Apocrypha or not, jazz was thought to begin in New Orleans at the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898, when the port was flooded with decommissioned military units and their bands. The Red Hot Jazz website claims that the bands’ instruments were quickly and cheaply procured by African-Americans interested in music but who lacked a working knowledge of conventional techniques, leading to “to new and interesting sounds entering musicians’ vocabulary: trumpet and trombone growling sounds, wah-wah sounds, the use of odd household objects as mutes, and others”. The importation of African rhythmic ideas, “blue notes” and non-European scales, and endless improvisation, allowed a new musical form to germinate. The musicians were thought to predominantly play by ear.
This version of history is fiercely contested by some, however, as at best an over-simplification and at worst, outright racism. Krin Gabbard, Professor of Comparative Literature, S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook, and Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, says this of the 1955 biopic, The Benny Goodman Story:
“White America’s conflicted response to the rise of Swing and its connection to black culture is clearly articulated in The Benny Goodman Story (1955), a Hollywood film aimed at whites with fond memories of the Swing Era. This film presents a set of common myths about jazz. In an early scene, the teenaged Benny is playing with a mediocre white dance band on a riverboat. Wandering to another part of the boat, he hears a band of black New Orleans musicians under the direction of the Creole trombonist Kid Ory (played in the film by the real Kid Ory). Benny has never heard such compelling music, and when he quizzes Ory, the trombonist says, “We just play what we feel,” a statement that perpetuates the myth that the pioneers of jazz were not trained musicians but primitive people who naively expressed their feelings through music. Endowed with the license to play from his feelings, young Benny immediately becomes an accomplished jazz improviser as he plays along with Ory’s group. Later in the film, after Benny has become a successful bandleader, Ory reappears to tell him that he has “the best band I ever heard anyplace!” Like many other films about white jazz musicians, The Benny Goodman Story found a way to diminish the real achievements of black jazz artists, who were most definitely not playing a music that was an unmediated expression of their feelings. The film also suggests that white artists like Goodman created a music that surpassed anything created by their African American predecessors. “
Swing was certainly less anarchic than jazz – it was feel-good orchestral music purpose-built for dancing. Although sections of a composition would be reserved to allow one instrument the opportunity to improvise a short solo, it was otherwise rigidly composed and musically complex. The lilting off-beat emphasis of the music is the titular ‘swing’, although the genre would not be known by that name until the arrival of Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean A Thing If Ain’t Got That Swing in 1932.
But was swing really the antithesis of jazz? In Escaping The Delta, Elijah Wald flags the jazz vs swing debate when tracking the subdivision of blues into an array of child categories:
“In jazz, there came a moment when a group of fans tried to declare the whole category closed. The New Orleans music originally called jazz was jazz, they said, and ‘swing’ was something else. Less hard-line members of the clan might even admit a Duke Ellington or a Benny Goodman to the jazz pantheon, but still barred boppers like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The New Orleans purists were dubbed ‘moldy figs’ and eventually lost the battle, and with their loss it was generally agreed that the word ‘jazz’ – like the word ‘classical’ – would apply to a huge range of musics, some of them so dissimilar that if one did not know the historical links one could hear no connection between them.”
Wald’s point is not that jazz was diluted by the admission of swing into the jazz dynasty. Rather, he is emphasising the point that Louis Armstrong made so concisely for us at the start of this article. “It cannot be said enough that musical categories are artificial constructs,” Wald argues, “useful for many purposes but meaningless and limiting for others.”
“Every category is defined with a set agenda in mind,” Wald continues. “Sometimes a historian wants to make a point. Sometimes a marketing executive wants to make it easy for consumers to find a particular kind of product. Sometimes a performer wants to distinguish himself or herself from previous artists, or those with whom he or she disagrees about something. There is nothing wrong with any of this, but there are always confusing examples that illustrate the limits of the taxonomy.”
In this series, we are interested in the taxonomies as markers staking out notable points of innovation in music that was made for dancing. As a science, it’s admittedly imprecise – Louis Armstrong was a working musician from the inception of jazz itself through at least a dozen relatively major shifts in the sound that prompted new evaluations and terminology, but all he heard in any of it was the ragtime of his youth.
Nevertheless, swing did introduce new elements to the jazz vocabulary – the ‘call and response’ between band sections, pioneered by Fletcher Henderson in the big band era and honed into a catchy, intricate pop music by swing, was a hit with audiences. And dancers were inspired by swing more than any dance music in the 20th century! The lindy hop, balboa, collegiate shag, charleston, jive, big apple and little apple are just some of the dances that come under the swing dance umbrella term of ‘jitterbug’.
Could it have been this unashamed commitment to keeping feet moving that caused fans of jazz – soon to become a music estranged from its dance music origins, a ‘head’ music – to consider swing so frivolous? White folks, yo’all sho is a mess.
We have spent some time lost inside one of last year’s best releases: Muscle Up, Dark Entries second reissue of Patrick Cowley’s psyche-o-tronic gay porn soundtracks (School Daze was the first, you should check it too).
Muscle Up is very special indeed. As Maurice Tani points out in his reminiscence of Cowley and 1970s San Francisco in the lovely essay that comes tucked with the release, this is music better understood in its context of rapid change, both societal (counterculture, sexual revolution, fight for gay rights) and technological (better access to cheap music-making tech). It was part of a wave of change that Cowley rode to the end.
His music generally, and specially here, challenges all attempts to fragment the unity of the human experience into unhelpful dualisms between mind and body, art and science, nature and technology, experimentalism and pop. It is multi-functional, multipurpose, boundary-ravaging. You can use it to have transcendent sex, to go on science-fiction flesh odysseys, definitely to boogie among ectoplasmic clouds, in altered gravities.
As we listen to it, scenes of dudes banging each other transmogrify into the psychedelic landscapes of an Alain Goraguer film, Lalo Schifrin’s turtlenecked Frisco thrills are augmented with sexy comixxx curves, ejaculatory arpeggios give lift off to Carl Sagan’s interstellar mission.
Dazed and delirant, we imagine a future where humankind overcomes its current troubles, abolishes scarcity, fear and prejudice, and realises its creative potential, while keeping an edge, a necessary sense of danger. Patrick Cowley’s music helps us dream of that future, he’s one of its prophets.
Muscle Up also includes “Somebody to Love Tonight”, an instrumental version of what would eventually become Sylvester’s legendary ballad of longing “I need Somebody to Love Tonight”. This reminded us of the Dirty Sound System mixtape where we first heard that song. There, it was accompanied by “Who” by Odyssey (aka Vangelis).
This piece of otherworldly, cosmic jet–set soul is today’s bonus for you.
But is L.I.E.S. dance music really? We don’t think Ron Morelli, the man at the helm, is keen on that association. It is not a coincidence that the two L.I.E.S. compilations so far are called “American Noise” and “Music for Shut-Ins”, you know.
In fact, we reckon the L.I.E.S. crowd would rather be chainsawed and barbecued by the gimps from the Hills have Eyes than spending a minute surrounded by the polished post-humans of the EDM movement.
Thing is, this makes L.I.E.S. non-dance in a way, and dance in another.
It definitely makes them dance – the only dance in town, in fact – in the harsh, uncompressed, violently psychedelic universe their music so consistently evokes.
This is the wasteland left over after Crash Course in Science abolished all chances of the singularity with a vicious EMP blast, a place of angles and abrasion whose hyperrealism is not of the flesh but of the metal. Possibly a dystopia for our current selves, also a utopia for older senses and instincts which today lay dormant, and which L.I.E.S. cultivate with coyote wisdom and punk malevolence.
Here are a couple of artifacts in their toolkit.
CP/BW, featuring Corporate Park and Beau Wanzer, is the perfect illustration of the description above.
If Butthole Surfers made techno, it would be like this. Gnarly, somewhere in between murderous and quite funny, definitely more funky than it has the right to be. It makes us think of the cadre of brain-fried mechanic-cum-sculptors in W Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive preparing a float of killer robots awful like H Bosch’s take on Boston Dynamic’s cyber-beasts, and unleashing them upon the merry tech revellers of Burning Man to give them the visionquest of their lives.
Inexplicably, we missed out on his 2014 L.I.E.S. release, Territories, but today we make amends.
Territories follows up after HASSAN, a concept album about Hassan i Sabbah, Master of Alamut and founder of the sect of the assassins. Its theme is still one of portent and mystery, but at a more fundamental level than secret history, that of geography.
The music in Territories powerfully describes the sheer strangeness of geography, the glyphs in the face of the land and the scars in its body, the grim logic with which it erases itself, birthing emergent architectures and excessive contrasts, as if conceived by romantic colossi.
It walks over the land in drones that crack and pop like the joints of an achy pilgrim writing a secret message with the twists in his path, it flies over the land too, and its synths chirp like kosmische birds surveying an alien planet. It is still most definitely dance music, but for a party that will last for millennia, until the cosmic police comes to shut it down.
Solar Bears returned a few weeks back with their new album, Advancement. It’s out on Sunday Best and you can grab it here.
It is, like their previous work, a garden of hauntological delights. Tripping through the perma-disturbing vision of a deranged 70s educational science programme, via early Warp (who became adept at distilling the pure horror of library music) and on to our retro-futuristic world of Night Drives. By 2016 I think it’s fair to say we have reached Schrodinger’s hauntology. All genres and cultural touchstones are now replaced by the ghosts of themselves, until you look at them. Then we have to make up our damn minds. And we’re bad at that.
Gravity Calling nails that drum intro with the bass eq’d out just long enough for the full Cybertron-ian force of the drum programming to hit. And an exquisite hit it is, propelling us through wistful synth melodies and on to intricate, punchy crescendos, meshed perfectly with those drums. Before it all falls away, as it surely must. For we’ve gazed at it all too long.
Although the series will not always follow a step-by-step evolution of one particular sound, – watch out for some curveballs coming your way soon! – the previous instalments of Dancing music in the C20 have so far mapped derivatives of cakewalk – early examples of ragtime, blues, jazz and big band – and examined how each iteration added or subtracted key elements from an existing formula to arrive at the characteristics unique to their particular taxonomy.
This week’s instalment, on boogie woogie, is no exception. Boogie woogie broke ranks with the pattern up until now of each new iteration of the blues family increasing in musical complexity, an obvious symptom of which was the swelling of the size of musical ensembles – from the basic blues unp groups to the near-symphonic proportions of the big band. Boogie woogie, however, was resolutely un-epic and non-ornate. It was brilliantly stripped-down dance music, more reminiscent of the piano rags of Scott Joplin than the New World fantasias of George Gershwin, but injected with a pounding and insistent rhythm that could carry a dance floor without full-band accompaniment.
The Jazz In America website lists some of the characteristics of ragtime as:
It was born in gin mills, lumber camps and rent parties.
There was not much subtlety to the music – poor to bad instruments and unschooled instrumentalists.
Volume was produced by physical strength.
Form was always a blues; songs had no real beginning or ending, much like African music.
Emphasis on rhythm rather than melody.
Return to breaks to create tension and to rest the left hand.
The left hand, which never varied, could have been an outgrowth of “stride” piano.
Boogie Woogie patterns were personalized much like the field hollers and hawking cries.
The left hand ostinato (a repeated figure) served as a forerunner of rhythm and blues.
Percussive and rugged.
Uneven and unpredictable.
Eight-eighth notes to the bar or at least an eighth note feeling.
Use of octaves, trills, etc.
A two voiced music.
Rhythm and color were more important than chords.
Right hand embroidered and supplied filigree
Blues scale with chromaticism.
Many other melodies transformed to boogies. (i.e., “Bumble Bee Boogie,” “Begin the Beguine Boogie,” “Chopstick Boogie”).
Although 12-bar appears on a cursory listen to form the basis of a lot of boogie woogie tunes, measures were often of an uneven length and subject to change at the player’s whim – consistent with the improvisatory nature of much early blues. The right hand would introduce a new melodic idea with each chorus, or improvise freely throughout, while the left hand would hammer out the driving “eight to the bar” 8/8 rhythm that later provided an engine for rhythm and blues and rock and roll.
The distinctive chug of boogie woogie was often considered analogous to that of a steam train, which prompted American folklorist and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax to write of boogie woogie in The Land Where the Blues Began:
“Anonymous black musicians, longing to grab a train and ride away from their troubles, incorporated the rhythms of the steam locomotive and the moan of their whistles into the new dance music they were playing in jukes and dance halls. Boogie-woogie forever changed piano playing, as ham-handed black piano players transformed the instrument into a polyrhythmic railroad train.”
It’s a romantic interpretation of the form’s rhythmic sense, but Lomax sometimes come under fire from modern music historians for allowing such romanticism to colour his studies in a way that could be perceived as patronising and borderline racist.
Our playlist of early boogie woogie almost exclusively features solo piano performers. Emphasising that boogie woogie is dance music through and through, almost all of the early lyrics to these songs are about dancing or inciting audience members to dance.
Interestingly, while our previous playlists compiling the earliest instances of recorded ragtime, blues, jazz and big band featured a majority of white players, our boogie woogie playlist features just one white performer – Kansas City Frank. Is this a signal of recording technology and opportunities becoming more available to black musicians by the mid-1920s, or was there something about boogie woogie that made it less appealing or accessible to white audiences and musicians?
Blues historian LeRoi Jones wrote in his book Blues People that “The piano was one of the last instruments to be mastered by the Negro performers, and it was not until the advent of boogie woogie that Negro musicians succeeded in creating a piano music that was within the emotional tradition of Negro music.”
However, although boogie woogie recordings did not emerge until after the largely African-American ragtime, blues, jazz and big band musics had blossomed in the recording industry, Eliot Paul’s That Crazy American Music cites evidence that northeast Texan boogie woogie was significantly older than any of these styles, dating back to the 1870s at least.
Jazz was a modern music, uniquely American and ’20th century’ in tone – growing to take full advantage of modern technology and media – so it perhaps make sense that its demographic would be more cosmopolitan in nature than boogie woogie. And blues’ light entertainment popularity made its form more accessible to whites, who comprised many of the genre’s initial wave of recording stars. With its spiritual home in Texas gin mills and lumber camps – rather than on the heavy-touring vaudeville circuit – boogie woogie perhaps remained a more “authentically” black working-class music for longer than its musical cousins, reflected by its strong African-American identity by the time it did receive recording industry exposure.
An early example of the boogie woogie rhythm in copyright is considered to be Artie Matthews’ Weary Blues, published in sheet music in 1915, and recorded by Louisiana 5 in 1919.
The first ‘complete’ boogie woogie record is most likely Jimmy Blythe’s Chicago Stomp in 1924.
Pinetop was a very influential but somewhat enigmatic figure. He worked with blues star Ma Rainey and shared a house with two other titans of boogie woogie piano – Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons – while the three were trying to make it in Chicago. Decades later, Ray Charles would reinterpret Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie for his signature song, Mess Around.
However, no photos of Pinetop exist, and he died young – he was shot by accident in a fight that erupted in a Chicago dancehall. Pinetop was just 24. The incident occurred the day before a prestigious Vocalion recording session – an action that no doubt wrote a sizeable chunk of his oeuvre out of history – and is depicted by Robert Crumb in his illustration The Death of Pinetop Smith (up top).
Crumb wasn’t the only visual artist that had been inspired by Pinetop. Pop artist Claes Oldenburg outlines a proposal for a public monument to Pinetop in his book Proposals for Monuments and Buildings 1965-69. Oldenburg proposed that an electric wire run the length of North Avenue and Clark Street in Chicago, “along which at intervals runs an electric impulse colored blue so that thereʼs one blue line as far as the eye can see. Pinetop Smith invented boogie woogie blues at the corner of North and Larrabee, where he finally was murdered: the electric wire is ‘blue’ and dangerous.”
It’s an imaginative tribute, but concepts such as this and Oldenburg’s underground monument for JFK – “The corpse of the public figure is sealed in a plastic shape in the position of a well-known photograph of the subject. This shape is then suspended by a thin wire inside a colossal version of the same shape. The figure hangs upside-down and rotates slightly with the movement of the earth.” – arguably work more effectively in the imagination than they would in a public space.
In the record we are featuring today, Delia Gonzalez transforms with subtle alchemies what would otherwise be just (just!) a crystalline demonstration of formal beauty, and gives it new dimensions of mystery. In Remembrance becomes a haunted chamber where echoes of past lives flutter like butterfly wings, the void pregnant with significance and feeling that remains after a best friend, a good person, goes away, perhaps forever.
DFA’s press-release says this could be an alternate score for Don’t Look Now. We think it would also suit Candyman’s doomed lovers, escaping, dancing, dying through the ages, across forlorn modernistic ruins.
More than a decade ago, Delia Gonzalez collaborated with Gavin Russom to create one of the finest records of the millennium so far, the astounding Days of Mars.
In summary, Days of Mars takes John Carpenter’s tight eeriness and applies it to the vastness of the cosmos. It contains a key that will unlock in your immediate environment – in the movement of bodies in the street, in the eyes of a friend, in the geometry of a skyline in dusk – portals into vistas of truth and infinity.
We featured Days of Mars when it came out all those years ago. Today we remember it.