In a recent conversation about music, my wife pointed out that I tend to gravitate towards stuff that is very raw and simplistic. I believe “garagey” was the term she used. She’s absolutely right. I guess this has long been the case, but I had never really thought about it consciously until she brought it up. I mean, I’ve certainly done my fair share of writing and espousing the virtues of raw, primitive music, but I never really considered just how much my listening preferences are dominated by these characteristics.
Turns out it goes all the way back to my early childhood. My mother had a bunch of old 45s that she used to play on the regular, and the gnarly garage rock stuff was always my favorite. In particular, I loved “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen, a band from Minneapolis, Minnesota that fused garage rock and surf music (though I have no idea what the hell a band from MN actually knew about surfing). The song’s catchy beats, totally deranged vocal performance (I challenge any punk or metal vocalist to try to sound as genuinely unhinged as Steve Wahrer does here) and stripped-down, blue collar sound were like nothing I’d ever heard before (or since, for that matter). The Trashmen were punk before there was such a thing and I was hooked. The song is below, just in case you haven’t heard about the bird.
As I got a little bit older, I learned about KISS and Alice Cooper from my uncle, whom I considered to be the epitome of cool. Of course, both KISS and Cooper would morph into slick, heavily produced acts over the course of their careers, but early on, both bands combined an electric sense of urgency with an uncomplicated musical approach to create rock ‘n’ roll at its most primeval. It didn’t hurt that they also looked like sleazy superheroes (I seem to remember an MTV commercial with Alice Cooper where he was holding a boa constrictor or something blowing my young mind), but even back then, the music came first for me, makeup, fire-breathing and dragon boots a close second. All the beheadings and pyrotechnics in the world don’t mean shit if you can’t come up with a three-minute and thirty-second ass kicker of a tune. I think people tend to forget just how gnarly and garagey KISS was when they first came out. Here’s a reminder in the form of “Deuce” from their self-titled debut album.
Alice Cooper on the other hand, comes from the same Detroit hard rock tradition that spawned the Stooges (more on them later), The MC5, etc, and the reckless abandon of that particular corner of the rock universe is well documented. Before going solo, Alice Cooper put out some seriously down ‘n’ dirty rock records, such as Killer and Love it to Death. The music positively drips with unbridled angst and lust, tapping directly into the hormone-induced dementia of youth. Just listen to the way Cooper’s classic “I’m Eighteen” seethes with the confusion and desperation that accompanies the awkward transformation from child to adult (“I’m in the middle without any plans / I’m a boy and I’m a man / I’m eighteen and I don’t know what I want”). Who the hell hasn’t felt like this at one time or another?
By the time junior high and high school rolled around, I was reveling in metal bands like Megadeth, Sepultura and Pantera. Keep in mind that this was during the nineties, so these bands had grown out of their unrefined beginnings and were releasing sonically pristine albums like Countdown to Extinction and Chaos AD, great stuff, but not what I needed to satisfy my unconscious inner cravings for musical filth ‘n’ fury.
Luckily I discovered punk and proto-punk, which I owe to Metallica. Thanks to their cover of “Last Caress,” I started investigating a band called the Misfits, which in turn lead to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols as well as their forebears the Stooges and the MC5. My Misfits worship has been overly documented at this point (here and here), but their importance to my musical evolution really cannot be understated. Glenn Danzig and his band of ghouls re-awakened my addiction to crude and unsophisticated music, with their direct, catchy approach and ’50s rock swagger. I was also obsessed with the Stooges’ Fun House; I’m pretty sure that record was the filthiest thing I’d ever heard at the time. Side one is composed of four of the raunchiest rock songs ever put to tape in the form of “Down on the Street” “Loose” “TV Eye” and “Dirt.” Iggy Pop was directly channeling the depraved fantasies of every sexually frustrated teenage boy (including yours truly) on “Loose,” just check some of the lyrics for proof.
Now I’m putting it to you straight from hell
I’ll stick it deep inside
I’ll stick it deep inside
Cause I’m loose
I’ve often borrowed Henry Rollins’ phrase about wanting to “fuck on the floor and break shit.” Well kids, Fun House is the soundtrack to fucking on the floor and breaking shit, along with getting completely hammered and doing a shitload of bad drugs. It wallows in wild-eyed, lowbrow, STD-infested sleaze and chokes on its own vomit. In other words, it’s one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll records ever made, beaming reptile-brained sex-mania directly into your skull. Listen to “Loose” below, just try not to let it transform you into a strung out, alcoholic fuck-monster.
It was a long time before I found my next rawness fix. That fix came from black metal. As I’ve remarked previously, I wasn’t sure what to make of black metal when I first heard it. It was like no other metal out there. It was a whole other kind of raw; cold and ragged and high-pitched and fucking ugly. Forget about sexual frustration; black metal takes sex out of the equation all together, unless we’re talking about sodomizing someone with a crucifix or an edged weapon. Black metal replaces (or possibly transforms) rock ‘n’ roll’s unbridled lust with pure hatred. Sexual frustration turns to misogyny turns to indiscriminate misanthropy.
I dived headfirst into Darkthrone’s now-classic “trilogy” of black metal albums (A Blaze in the Northern Sky, Under a Funeral Moon and Transilvanian Hunger), along with Mayhem’s Live in Leipzig (which I’ve already written about here), to try to get a better understanding of black metal’s unique primitivism. I can’t say exactly how it all finally came together for me, but if you follow the progression of those three Darkthrone recordings, you can hear the band’s shift from a more traditionally rock/metal-based approach into something totally new and alien, a musical vocabulary made up strictly of hate, sorrow and darkness, rubbed raw and utterly tormented.
With its reverbed-to-hell production scheme, haunting tremolo-picked guitar-work and Norwegian lyrics, “Over Fjell Og Gjennom Torner” from Transilvanian Hunger is a perfect example of black metal’s ability to create a totally frigid and foreign soundscape, a cold and haunting rawness that owes next to nothing at all to rock or punk as most of us understand them (or does it? more on this later). Just like Fun House and Love it to Death, Transilvanian Hunger sounds like it was recorded in a pitch-black garage, albeit a garage at the south pole of ice planet Hell.
Black metal is (or was) outsider music in the truest sense. Its otherness appeals to those of us that have spent most of our lives feeling alone in the crowd, as if no one on Earth can hope to understand the war going on inside our heads. I know I spent many days and nights feeling that way prior to meeting my wife, utterly convinced that no one would ever truly understand my inner workings. Black metal, specifically the Norwegian/second wave movement, was born of these kinds of feelings and ultimately resulted in the nihilism and misanthropy that forms the core of the genre. In spite of finding that deep level of understanding and connection that most of us crave, I still look upon the majority of the human race with nothing but disdain, and this is why black metal’s primitive, scornful sonic attack continues to hold its appeal. What it often lacks in catchiness, it makes up for with passion and emotional depth.
While black metal is by no means the only genre in modern metal to tap into this primordial vein, I think it represents the purest distillation of the raucous proto-metallic blood that started boiling in the 1950s and 60s. Bands such as Circle of Ouroborus, Nuit Noire and Aanal Beehemoth have certainly shown us that black metal can seamlessly co-exist with elements of garage rock and punk/post-punk, that they are in fact branches on the same musical tree, in spite of black metal’s aforementioned otherness and deliberately alienating atmosphere. Hell, one could argue that black metal progenitors such as Venom and Bathory had way more in common sonically with early Alice Cooper and the Stooges than they did with other metal bands, which probably explains why I love them so much.
So there you have it, the whys and wherefores of my eternal subconscious love affair with all things musically simple, direct and raw. Of course, this isn’t to say that I can’t or don’t appreciate progression and proficiency, lord knows I love me some Atheist, Gorguts and the like. But, I think a flaw inherent to modern metal is that bands often lose sight of the song in favor of a “hey, look what we can do!” approach to composition and an over-reliance on directionless instrumental wang-dang-doodle that lacks the pathos I’ve discussed so throughly over the course of these fifteen hundred or so words. A lack of pathos ultimately equals a lack of of impact upon the listener, an anti-song that says nothing at all. Good music, like all good art, should act as an extension of the different facets of the human condition. For me, practitioners of the primitive such as Alice Cooper, the Stooges and Darkthrone (as well as the others I’ve mentioned throughout this piece and beyond) hit that emotional sweet spot again and again, balls to bones.