Monday, August 6, 2012

Lucifer Sams and Satanic Majesties: Cult Sects of Rock Gods

Who is Pink Floyd? Cold experiments and saxophones. Twenty minute opuses and barren atmosphere. Faceless, immobile, serious musicians. Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall.

Who are The Rolling Stones? Sleazy sex and heroin. Mick’s lips and strutting. Blues, booze, and Berry. Exile on Main Street and Some Girls.

Who are The Beach Boys? Surf and sun. Hot rods and bikinis. Prancing old Reaganites in Hawaiian shirts. “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Surfin’ Safari”.

Who are The Who? Rock operas and ponderous proto-metal. Bluster and bashing. Classic Rock radio staples and Broadway bounders. Tommy and Who’s Next.
Four of Rock’s institutions as they’re understood by the masses. When their congregations file into the hallowed halls of their local stadiums to hear the hits, the hits are what they most often receive. A sacrament of the familiar, fulfilling essential stereotypes, banishing the obscurities to torchlit basement gatherings where the freaks and obsessives huddle around turntables to spin gouged copies of Their Satanic Majesties Request and fifth generation bootlegs of SMiLE. Bruce Johnston calls them “the one percenters”: the one-percent of The Beach Boys’ fans who hope to never hear “Kokomo” again but cannot get enough of “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow” and “Do You Like Worms?”

Classifying these acts as cult bands is a far-fetched stretch. They are among the most enduringly popular in Rock history. The Beach Boys were the biggest white American Rock band of the ‘60s, scoring three number one hits in their hey day and another some 25 years after their debut. Pink Floyd are responsible for one of Rock’s all-time bestselling and most iconic records. The Stones and The Who may only fall behind The Beatles and Led Zeppelin in the British Rock race. Yet within each of those band’s expansive histories lay genuine cult items; recordings that the majority of their fans and the bands, themselves, generally ignore. The cultists these oddities have attracted feel decidedly stronger about SMiLE, Their Satanic Majesties Request, The Who Sell Out, and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. We are the one percent.

Cult items are natural products of any long and fruitful career. Perhaps The Beatles and Zeppelin are the only top Rock bands of the classic era who don’t really have any, which is likely because both had relatively short careers that produced relatively few records. Had The Beatles continued making music for another decade, it is possible that at least one of them might have dipped through the cracks. It was inevitable that The Beach Boys and The Stones would make their cult records, because they both created tremendous bodies of work (as of this writing, The Beach Boys have made 30 albums; The Stones made 22 and are apparently at work on another) and are both confined by most people into tight compartments. Those people include the artists, themselves. Brian and Dennis Wilson were the only Beach Boys who really seemed to recognize the genius of the stereotype-defying SMiLE, with its fragmented structures, whimsical humor, and stoned avant gardism. Mike Love famously (perhaps apocryphally) warned Brian to not “fuck with the formula” of surf and hot rod songs. He hated Van Dyke Parks’s poetic, cryptic lyrics and most of the guys claimed they felt degraded by being forced to simulate barnyard noises and orgasms by a giggling, LSD-infused Brian during the sessions. Keith Richards is similarly embarrassed by the blues-eschewing, psychedelic onslaught Their Satanic Majesties Request, dismissing it as “flimflam” in his autobiography. Mick’s embarrassment seems to cloak a genuine affection for the record, constantly vacillating between deeming it “nonsense” and “lovely” throughout the years.

The Who—so eager to align themselves with movements like Mod and pop art— and Pink Floyd—so consciously weird— were more like cult bands by nature who somehow managed to make major works by catching the zeitgeist’s waves at just the right times. As the L.P. became serious art in the wake of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, both bands made records so innovative and carefully crafted that they defined this new attitude toward Rock like few other LPs of the period: The Who’s rock opera Tommy and Floyd’s dense concept album Dark Side of the Moon. Meanwhile, the equally experimental Sell Out —a harmonically rich and very humorous homage to pirate radio, complete with lysergic adverts—missed the upper regions of the charts in England and the U.S. This uncharacteristically delicate, colorful, and beautiful work was one of The Who’s most underrepresented albums on stage and the “Greatest Hits” compilations that are more popular than much of their proper catalogue. Pink Floyd’s Piper is less obscure than these other obscurities, but it is the record most divergent from the rest of its band’s work because it was largely piloted by a band member who would soon depart the group and reality: Syd Barrett. In a recent documentary on Wish You Were Here, surviving Floydians speak indifferently of Piper and diminish its status by framing it as a primitive precursor to their bigger, better-known records.

Perhaps a reason each of these albums has been somewhat swept under the rug by their creators is that they each bear the residue of disappointment and trauma. SMiLE marks the beginning of Brian’s break from reality and the end of The Beach Boys as a hit machine. Their Satanic Majesties Request was cobbled together during a year fraught by nonstop trials and the very real possibility that Mick, Keith, and Brian Jones were headed to prison for piffling drug charges. The Who Sell Out housed just one heavy Rock song in the classic Who mode, a track that was Pete Townshend’s greatest hope for a breakthrough hit. Even though “I Can See For Miles” was The Who’s highest charter in the U.S. (Billboard #9) and a top-ten hit in the U.K., he always regarded its failure to take the number one spot as his greatest failure. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn coincides with the downfall of Syd, a marvelously creative person who, like Brian Wilson, would soon succumb to a cocktail of hallucinogen over-indulgence and mental illness.

The tragedies at the cores of SMiLE and Piper have been particularly over romanticized by cultists who celebrate Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett as mad geniuses. Too often the emphasis is placed on their madness rather than their genius. What happened to these men was sad, not romantic. Yet their brilliance is best born out on the mad cult albums they created. SMiLE is a new-and-improved rule book on songwriting and recording, its tracks spliced together from short, meticulously crafted segments. If the SMiLE Brian was working on in ‘66/’67 was to be anything like the one he made as a solo album in 2004 and the one compilers recreated in 2011, those fragments would have fit into grander suites. Orchestral and picturesque, superimposing bells and strings and fuzz guitars and glorious block harmonies atop each other, SMiLE would have been the most musically rich experiment of 1967 had it not been kiboshed. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is fresh and phantasmagoric, erupting with imagination and color, friendly and scary and very, very, very English. It is warm and human in a way that none of Pink Floyd’s more epic statements are. That human face is Syd Barrett’s, and his loss meant an entirely different band that may be enjoyed by Syd-cultists but not with the same passion.

Their Satanic Majesties was another grim milestone, recorded over a year in which Brian Jones would become more and more dependent on drugs and begin sitting out more and more recording sessions, even though his creativity is such a driving factor on the album. But one look in his zonked eyes in the “We Love You” promo film shows just how far gone he already was two years before his death. The rest of The Stones, however, were on the verge of entering their most critically lauded period on the heels of their most critically reviled L.P. Likewise, The Who were primed to bounce back from the perceived personal failure of The Who Sell Out. Both groups followed their troubled records with signature comebacks: The Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”; The Who’s Tommy. Poised to pick up the slack amidst The Beatles’ disintegration, they rarely looked back on their late ’67 offerings. The Who made Sell Out’s “Tattoo” a fixture of their live sets for years, but the album didn’t seem to exist otherwise, relegated to record store cut-out bins. Satanic seemed to exist as an aberration to be laughed about during interviews and the necessary stumbling block to make the “alright now” comeback of “Jack Flash” such a triumphant “gas, gas, gas.” Decades later, The Stones would finally play a couple of the album’s tracks—“2000 Light Years from Home” and “She’s a Rainbow” —in concert; freakish sideshows to the main attractions of “Satisfaction”, “Brown Sugar”, “Start Me Up”, and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”.

With these albums out of their creator’s hands, they each took on new lives in the claws of cultists. Syd Barrett became the poster boy for Rock’s most outrĂ© galaxies. Low-fi weirdos Television Personalities secreted a number called “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives” on their brilliant debut album …And Don’t the Kids Just Love It. Punk bands that made their mission to eradicate “boring farts” like Pink Floyd embraced outsider Syd as a hero. John Lydon, whom his future fellow Sex Pistols discovered slinking down the King’s Road in his “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt, loved Syd enough to name his pet hamster Sid (sic) the Vicious. A future member of his band, of course, would adopt that name too. The Damned were major Syd fans/post-Syd Pink Floyd-haters too. When their scheme to rope Syd into producing their second album Music for Pleasure fell through, they settled on drummer Nick Mason as a consolation prize (and regretted doing so when he displayed an utmost lack of interest in helming the band). Damned tracks like “Nice Cup of Tea” and “Gigolo” are explicit tributes to the man. More recently, Captain Sensible covered “Octopus” for a Mojo magazine tribute to Barrett’s debut solo album.

The Damned pledged similar allegiance to Their Satanic Majesties Request. Captain Sensible recently wrote, “I’m actually NOT much of a Stones fan either…. some of the unmitigated garbage that this bunch of bored rock stars have churned out in the last few decades would have killed most bands …But I LOVE Their Satanic Majesties Request. It is an album that rewards frequent playing.” The Damned made good on that love by covering “Citadel” on their “Friday the 13th” E.P. The Brian Jones-worshipping neo-psychedelicists Brian Jonestown Massacre paid full-length tribute to the album on their sprawling, fascinating Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request.

In 2005, Minuteman Mike Watt corralled former That Dog-singer/violinist Petra Haden to record an a cappella recreation of his favorite Who album, Sell Out. Even after receiving its long-overdue official release last year, SMiLE will forever remain the ultimate cult album, inspiring bands from R.E.M. to The Flaming Lips to The Wondermints (who later became Brian’s backing band) to create similarly ethereal music.

The oddness of these albums’ most prominent fans speaks to their own oddness, their own cultiness in light of the artist’s most famous, most monumental work. Meanwhile, a young generation of fans continue to embrace these records perhaps more readily than they do Tommy or The Wall or Tattoo You or Surfer Girl. Robert Larham recommended Sell Out among his essential ‘60s albums in The Hipster Handbook. Last year’s SMiLE Sessions box set was a rabidly anticipated media sensation rarely seen in the realm of classic rock archival releases. Syd remains the hip face of Pink Floyd, and Piper and Sell Out are the only albums by their creators to be profiled in Continuum’s 33 1/3 book series. Though it has not experienced a revival similar to its partners in cultdom, Satanic Majesties seems to be winning over more and more fans as The Stones’ blues and Rock & Roll purist reputation becomes less and less relevant. If nothing else, it has become less taboo to praise the record, as witnessed in 21st century reassessments by Kurt Loder, Richie Unterberger, and well, me. We one percenters may find ourselves in the majority in the end.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released 45 years ago today.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
All written content of Psychobabble200.blogspot.com is the property of Mike Segretto and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.