The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A music lover's confession: I love "bad" music

Friends who know me well, know that a significant part of my collection is made up of what music others would call bad, stupid, in bad taste, crass attempts by an artist to cash in on the latest trend, or a deliberate attempt to offend or shock.

I think a more accurate term would be "music you either love or hate."

For example, my latest acquisition, "Bombay Disco: Disco Hits From Hindi Films 1979-1985," is a bizarre mix of Indian percussion pounding out disco rhythms, high-pitched Indian singing, and a riot of sitars, cheap electric guitars, exotic string arrangements, and from what I could tell, any sound a person could identify as being from India.

Keep in mind, I don't buy these kinds of CDs indiscriminately. I did listen to the samples in the store first (yes I still go to record stores), and found it to my liking. As I purchased the disc, the young guy at the counter nodded and said, "oh yeah I got to check that one out too."

It's that empathetic understanding by two jaded music fans who heard it all and who have abandoned ordinary norms of taste and now wallow in the bins of the abandoned, discredited, or passé. To feel again the thrill of discovery.

The best way to describe it is that it was obviously an attempt by the Indian film industry to duplicate the success of Saturday Night Fever, a disco classic in it's R-rated version, and a sappy love story with a good soundtrack in it's cleaned up version.

Of course India being India, they chose the latter. Which is understandable considering that they equate an on screen kiss as tantamount to butt pounding jokes on South Park.

The disc is full of everything I likeabout hard  charging  Hindi music. Exotic rhythms, punchy bass, great Indian style vocals and music, with atmosphere that hints at the sleaziness of a dive strip bar in San Francisco's North Beach area.

It's probably more like a merchant Marine sailor's view of India, since the general atmosphere of a Hindi film is more like an old Abba video on MTV.

Does the music have a cool trashy aura, or am I just putting it there?

I don't get hung up on such questions, it's good enough that my friends roll their eyes when the CD is played. But don't get me wrong, I didn't buy it purely for shock affect, it's very ultra cool music for anyone wants to hear something out of the mainstream.

These types of records aren't unusual. In the 60s when psychedelic music was at its peak in the Western world, it didn't operate in a vacuum. Musicians from countries as far away as Nigeria did psychedelic music, often adding it to the funk they already picked up from James Brown.

Even Brazil in the 60s had its own psychedelic pop movement, which was actually critically acclaimed, and thus out of the scope of this blog entry.

I wasn't always like that as a music collector. It was after I joined a punk band that changed my ear for music forever. Suddenly sounds that were harshly dissonant started to become sweet sounding, or more "real."

Before Punk, I totally didn't understand the free jazz movement of the 60s and thought John Coltrane had made a horrible mistake recording the infamous Ascension album. Now the music makes perfect sense and I see it as one of his greatest works.

Also my view of audience acceptance changed. Before our first gig the leader of our band informed us that the club owner had advised him that's since Punk was still very new,  and they didn't know what was good or bad, we would be booked again if we either got loud cheers or provoked extreme hatred and boos from the crowd.

In other words, don't be boring. I won't go into all the details of what we did in our 20 minute debut to be booked again, suffice to say I would never do any of it again at any polite dinner party.

For one thing, most of it was staged and assisted by shills in the audience, which shocked me at first, but I later learned it was common practice by the other bands at the club. I later became a pretty good shill myself for bands that we were friends with, and could put on a convincing show of wanting to assault the lead singer for his insults and shoving me off my chair before the bouncers dragged me out (and let me back in through the side door).

It was the entertainment business, and all in good fun.

But that pretty much ended my normal habit of buying the latest James Taylor record, or even the Stones or Led Zeppelin. In fact I became reluctant to buy any record that was critically acclaimed or popular.

Instead I began to seek it all out: avant-garde, electronic, punk, and especially ethnic music.

Like most such impulses, that settled down to a specific taste, bad music.

The actual technical term is "so bad that it's good," or "good-bad" music and there's always some sort of an element of humor, however dark or esoteric.

One of the pioneers of bad taste in music was Dr. Demento, whose radio show is probably most remembered for launching the career of Wierd Al Yankovic, but introduced the listener to a host of classic cuts like Fish Heads, Kinko The Clown, and other cuts that had a spark of genius and humor to the right set of ears.

There is such a thing as bad music, I mean really bad music. Probably the classic of that genre was the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton's version of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper movie sound track. It's probably the only movie I ever went to where people started booing.

Most of the "good-bad" music can't really be created by design. The singer or artist has to have the enthusiasm of someone attempting a piece of music that's either thoroughly out of their depth or coming from incredibly bad taste energized by the conviction that it's a true piece of art.

One of my favorites is the Butthole Surfers' "Lady Sniff, a nearly atonal mix of pre-grunge guitar, a bad attempt at sounding like a rough cowboy singer, and an assortment of realistic sounds like farts, vomiting, sounds and strange exclamations that have distant roots in redneck vocabulary.

It was put together as ingeniously as an old Spike Jones number, and it's become the best song that group ever did that very few people ever hear.

My other favorite sub genre of bad is what seems on paper as lousy cover numbers. Again, it just can't be a bad cover like a karaoke backing track. It has to have the passion of an artist or group who think they're doing a very cool version of the song, or are at least doing their best to shut the producer up by doing it as quickly as possible but just have too much talent to do it totally bad.

The jazz great Ella Fitzgerald probably did one of the stone classics of bad when she did a big band version of Cream's Sunshine Of Your Love. Her piano version was merely bad, just another typical attempt by many artists of the time to tap into the 60s youth market.

But the single version, that was something else. With a full band blasting out the guitar riff, Ella became transcendent.

Many people would bring up Frank Zappa in a discussion like this, but he's really in a different category. His music was pure genius and satire, disguised by obnoxious song titles.

One of the classics is Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music,"which to most ears was nearly an hour of what sounded like scraping metal. Most understand that he did that to get out of this RCA contract, and it was a record that turned off even many of his own fans.

Ironically only a few years later, copies of that record were fetching $50 apiece, which is the ultimate tribute that a record buyer can bestow on a piece of music that wasn't intended to be liked.

I'm only covered a few examples. Avant-garde classical would require a blog entry of its own, and most performance art tries to be bad and shocking, which violates the most important rule of good-bad music, which is it can't be your intent to be bad.

Good-Bad music is actually an aesthetic, a specific taste, and it must manifest a genius and humor that wasn't the intent of the piece.

It's like any other form of music. You combine the elements together, and what comes out of the mix is really unpredictable. It could turn into a hit song, bore people, or simply be misunderstood until the right people hear it.

Sometimes it takes time, but genius has a way of persisting until it's discovered.