The meta-bands parade (1st place)

2nd place

1. The Sex Pistols

In this parade we’ve surveyed a few types of meta bands. Some were bands that were formed for the purpose of one project, some were bands that for a while maintained an identity that constituted a comment on the world. The most important bands in my opinion are those whose meta commented on pop culture itself, and in that they advanced pop’s understanding of itself. But there was only one band that really took it all the way, a band that not only its identity but also its career reflected the truth of pop. Therefore, it places first on our parade.

To understand how it all began, we must go back to Dada. We have remarked that it was an art movement that undermined the belief that Man can find the order at the basis of the universe, and rather aspired to express the chaos of human existence. While human culture creates a hierarchy of things that are important and redundant, positive and negative, sublime and degraded, dada cancels this hierarchy and just blends it all together. Dada was an important part of modern art ever since its inception in 1916, but there were also those who aspired to take it into real life. A group that was active in France in the sixties and called themselves the Situationists took the spirit of dada to the streets and dreamt of a day when social order will collapse and life will be total chaotic freedom. They were part of the revolutionary spirit of the end of the decade, and their dream took form in May 1968 when the masses went out on the streets and the French state seemed to collapse into anarchy. This moment was characterized by a lot of creative and exciting events that thrilled the youth, and the Situationists were responsible for some of them. But the vast majority of society feared anarchy, and after three days order was reestablished. Only the intoxicating memory was left in the minds of those who experienced the moment, and some were dreaming of recreating it.

One of those people was a Brit named Malcolm McLaren, who was inspired by the Situationists and wanted to import their spirit to his country. He recognized the similarity between that spirit and the spirit of early rebellious rock’n’roll, and wanted to combine them. From the beginning of the seventies he was running a fashion boutique in London, and along with his partner, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, created provocative clothes that drew imagery from rock’n’roll’s history or other outrageous sources to clothe the youth and thus put the spirit of dada back on the streets. The store changed its name and style several times, and in 1976 it was called ‘Sex’ and sold clothes based on sexual fetish gear (back then considered abhorrent perversions). The clothes made some noise, but it wasn’t enough for McLaren. He realized that if he truly wanted to recreate the moment of 1968, he will have to enter the realm of pop music, form a band that will be a display window for his boutique and market the clothes to the world. His idea was to assemble a band of youths who can’t play instruments or write music, and still make them famous by creating a series of provocations that will entice the sensationalist British press. Out of the kids who were roaming around his store he chose four: Steve Jones, a young ruffian, became the guitarist; his friend Paul Cook assumed drummer duties; John Lydon, a punk sporting a rebellious attitude, theatrical abilities and bad teeth that earned him the nickname Johnny Rotten became the singer; and the squad was completed by a guy called Glen Matlock who was the bassist. McLaren formed an advertising company that would take care of creating provocative advertising campaigns, and the Sex Pistols were on their way.

In that, McLaren manifested an important insight about pop culture: not just that the image is part of the art (this was already known), but that the media outlets are also part of the palette a pop artist uses. The media works in certain known ways, and he who knows how to manipulate it can use it to create his image and statements about the world. In the sixties there were already bands (such as the Who) who displayed the budding of this realization, and David Bowie refined it to the level of high art, but they still regarded music as the essence of their art. For McLaren, the music wasn’t important at all – he wanted to prove that even a band that makes anti-music can be a hit through clever manipulation of the media. But there was one thing he didn’t take into account: that the group of kids he assembled had their own insights and ideas.

The band members were already part of the youth culture that emerged along with rock’n’roll, a culture that had its own history and consciousness. This culture, too, had moments it wanted to relive: those moments when a new ecstatic experience is born and becomes the basis for a new pop music style. These boundary breaking moments are similar to the Dadaist moment, but what’s more important is the experience itself. This consciousness does not want anarchy, it wants to remain in a world that has rules and structures so it can break them again and again and create more ecstatic experiences. The problem was that in the middle of the seventies, after the glam moment was over, pop seemed to have ceased creating such experiences. The rock world was ruled by progressive rock bands that were producing long and boring pieces and kept on preaching Hippie values and believing they made the world better, but did not connect with the new generation of youth. At a time when the age of affluence was coming to an end and the revolutionary thought of the sixties devolved into violent ideologies, the new generation needed a new kind of music to express its feelings. Young New York bands were returning to the garage music of the mid-sixties and playing it faster, generating short energetic records expressing frustration and angst. Rock critics were also attacking the progressive rock bands that emphasized instrument virtuosity above manifesting raw youthful feelings, and as a counterpoint they extolled the virtues of rebellious garage music which they started to call “Punk”. The Sex Pistols adopted this spirit and started developing their punk while drawing from other influences: the Velvet Underground, the first rock band to sing about the harsh urban reality; MC5, the revolutionary band from Detroit that created aggressive and lashing rock that reflected the violent spirit of the late sixties; and the Stooges, also hailing from Detroit, which took MC5’s style and turned it into raw and nihilistic energy. Inspired by the Stooges, Cook and Jones created music that got rid of all remnants of melody and harmony that remained in rock and left only the pure and eruptive energy. To the ears of the public it sounded like the anti-music that McLaren wanted to create, but for the Pistols and their generation this was a natural development that purified rock from any non-essential elements. But they also learned how to control the waves of energy, which enabled them, along with the theatricality of Lydon who implemented everything he learned from glam, to infuse a lot of drama into the music. Johnny Rotten affected a singing style that expressed all the sarcasm, scorn, anger and loathing that he and his generation felt, and sounded like a monster that sprang straight out of the subconscious of the time. Glenn Matlock, on his part, turned out to be a rather gifted songwriter, and helped the band create some good songs before McLaren decided to sack him and replace him with someone who was less musical but much more suitable image-wise: John Simon Ritchie, better known by his nickname Sid Vicious. Vicious got his name from a Lou Reed record which he favored, but once it stuck he did everything to live up to it and became a symbol to punk’s in-your-face attitude. With this band of misfits, McLaren set out to shake the ruling order.

The band’s first single came out in November 1976, and it is one of those records that changed the world. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ talks about the fun of anarchy and the wish to bring it to the UK, a wish that the Pistols probably got from McLaren. But for them, anarchy isn’t political but existential. The Punk doesn’t want anarchy, he wants to “be anarchy”, to feel that fun moment of breaking all the rules. McLaren thought he was carrying the torch of radical Modern movements, but the Sex Pistols were completely part of the Pop consciousness, and millions of youngsters all over the world identified with their message.

The British media reacted as expected, and described the Sex Pistols and punk as a threat to the future of the kingdom and human civilization. The band’s scoundrel behavior, amplified through the marketing gimmicks of McLaren and Westwood, grabbed the headlines for months and thrilled the youth. The next single was timed to the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s “Silver Jubilee”, which was celebrated during June 1977 with much pomp and grandeur. Several weeks ahead of the event, as the monarchy was brandishing itself, the Pistols released ‘God Save the Queen’, a record in which Rotten recites slogans of admiration for the Queen in a sarcasm dripping tongue while at the same time describing the reality of her subjects who are living a futureless existence. We are your future, he tells the British public, positing the “barbaric” Punks as a mirror-image to the future of the UK and Western society. The release was accompanied by images that showed the Queen dressed as a Punk and other gimmicks that positioned the band as the antithesis of the national celebration and made every respectable Brit livid. Punk’s greatest moment.

The record reached the top spot in the UK charts, terribly embarrassing the music industry during Jubilee and leading to the chart being published with the first place blacked out. And this was just one instance in which the Sex Pistols made a mockery out of the music industry. Reacting to the popularity of the band among the youth, the record label EMI hastened to sign them, but the band soon enough did something to scandalize the public and embarrassed the label so much that it was compelled to release the Pistols and pay them a large sum of money for a few weeks of work. This was repeated with the next label they signed on to, and earned them some more easy money. McLaren, who had Jewish roots, was quick to exploit the situation to assume the role of a Fagin leading a group of bandits swindling the system, and irritated the public even more. Thus, the Pistols exposed the contradictions at the basis of capitalism and ridiculed them, inserting some more chaos into the system.

The effect on the youth was immediate. To all those kids who felt alienated to the ruling order, the Sex Pistols were an epiphany that allowed them to express themselves and create an identity that would manifest their inner self. The mantra “no future” became liberating: if there is no future, you can focus on finding happiness in the here and now, on experiencing the ecstasy of punk to its fullest and creating new things based on what you feel inside and not on what society expects you to do for future success. During the months when the Sex Pistols grabbed the headlines, hundreds of new bands sprouted all over Britain like mushrooms after the rain, and shortly after they began to sprout all over the world. Most of these bands played the basic punk style – aggressive, fast garage rock – but there were those who got the deeper message of punk’s “anti-music”: if you don’t need to know how to play or to follow any “musical” principles, you can make your own rules. While the established record companies were exposed in their hypocrisy, young entrepreneurs began forming their own independent labels that were willing to allow bands to experiment, and enabled new styles to develop. The young new musicians started to examine the hidden possibilities in machines and electronic devices, inventing electronic and industrial pop; to fuse rock’n’roll with black styles like funk and ska; and explore new worlds of sound. For a moment, the possibilities seemed endless.

Punk inserted the spirit of dada into the mainstream. The modern consciousness that dominated politics, the media and the academy perceived Man as progressing towards realizing his ideal, and therefore created a hierarchy of things that express the ideal humanity and things that are still part of Man but we are trying to transcend. Punk records, in response, took us right into the reality of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, and acted it out while claiming that this is the true nature of the modern reality. They did it not just on their records, but also in the punk identity that they adopted: they spitefully accentuated those very things we were supposed to transcend, compelling society to face them as an integral part of humanity. Everything that was considered ugly, rude, perverted, animalistic or filthy was proudly externalized, and became a stylistic statement. In that, punk became a magnate to all those who felt weird and rejected for their oddness, a tribal identity that they could at last feel part of. In the face of a world that wanted to emphasize the human and not the industrial, the punks emphasized artificiality, particularly through their hair that was dyed in unnatural colors. On top of that they adopted the symbols of all the political movements that were considered taboo in the West, mixing up Nazi, Communist and Anarchist symbols and adding them to their style, enhancing the shock and disgust that the public felt when seeing them. When a group of punks roamed the streets of UK cities, it forced humanity to view the part of it that it always worked hard to deny.

The rise of punk was the moment when Bowie’s insight became widespread in youth culture: the realization that what makes rock’n’roll special is the adoption of something alien to what your culture grasps as essential to your identity as human, and the ecstasy that is generated by the transformation it brings to your being. But this moment was also what “killed” rock’n’roll: since punk adopted at once all the aliens and practically liberated us once and for all from the modern demand to “become a Man”, it left us with no possibility to experience this transformation ever again. Punk inherited Bowie’s insight that you must always examine the identity you created for yourself and ditch it the moment it no longer expresses your inner self, but now it seemed that there was nowhere to go after you’ve discarded your old identity. In the second half of 1977 the music industry adjusted to the new reality and began marketing the young new bands under the label “new wave”, and their “anti-music” suddenly became mainstream. The fashion industry also adjusted and began incorporating punk accessories into the clothes it designed, and punk gradually ceased being the “other”. The Sex Pistols, as a meta-band that reflects reality, had to react to this new state of things. What would their response be?

In October, the Pistols released their new single ‘Holidays in the Sun’, inspired by a trip they made to West Berlin, the western city surrounded from all sides by a wall and beyond that totalitarian Communism. The title is ironic: the Brits love to spend their holidays in a Sun lit place somewhere, to escape the dreary coldness of their country; the punks, on the other hand, choose to have their holiday in Berlin, the edge of the free world, where contemporary human reality is exposed in its naked horribleness. Johnny Rotten begins, in his usual sarcastic tone, to describe his dream holiday in the insane reality of Berlin which represents the direction the world is marching towards, the “no future”. But then, reality becomes too real even for him. When he looks over the wall, he sees the people there living a much harsher reality, and suddenly he understands the ramifications of the collapse of the Western world which punk enacted and celebrated. All of a sudden, he feels that punk no longer represents his inner truth, that he has no reason to be there, that he doesn’t understand what he is doing. He looks around in hope for another reality he can escape to, but he has nowhere left to run: he reached the edge. Cracks are beginning to form in the music of the band, and eventually it devolves into a chaos in which the instruments don’t play together but against each other, while Rotten throws himself against the Berlin wall in search of another place to be in. And then, he splits in half: on one side he continues to be the punk Johnny Rotten who reached the edge and is meaninglessly banging himself against the wall, and at the same time he is John Lydon, looking contemptuously at the character he created and scolds it. “I don’t understand this bit at all,” he says, alienating himself to the song he is singing, alienating himself to Johnny Rotten and to punk. At the end of the record, Rotten bids us his final farewell.

Lydon left the band shortly after, and did what he learned from Bowie: created himself anew. His new band, Public Image Ltd., was arguably the most important post-punk band. Their first single was released in October 1978, and in it Lydon directly attacks Johnny Rotten and describes him as no more than a fake persona that was thrust on him and was someone else’s creation. From here on he intends to control his public image, but here he encountered the problem that post-punk had to deal with: how do you create yourself as something real, when rock’n’roll can no longer provide the truth? In the coming years, Lydon and PIL will connect to ecstatic experiences provided by other styles – funk, hip-hop, rave – in an attempt to recreate that moment of truth.

John Simon Ritchie, on the other hand, did not know how to set himself free from the punk image he was identified with. A heroin addict, he was swallowed up more and more by the psychotic character of Sid Vicious and became a symbol of everything punk represented, especially its downfall. Following Lydon’s departure, he became the central figure in the band.

The band’s primary project in 1978 was the movie The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, that told a fictional tale loosely based on the history of the band. Malcolm McLaren made himself the main protagonist in the story, and described it all as a swindle that he concocted aimed at duping the public through creating a sensation that will become popular and make him lots of money. Again, it was all ironic – the aim was not to claim that they did it all for the money, but to earn the Pistols the image of the greatest bandits in history, those who manipulated the system better than any robber that came before them – but this attitude paved the way to the cynicism of the eighties, the decade in which many pop artist shamelessly jumped head-first into the capitalist game in which money is everything. At the end of the day, all McLaren cared about was using the band to create a string of Dadaist events, and he didn’t care that he was playing with the lives of actual boys. Instead of restraining Vicious and helping him kick the habit he continued to push him, leading to the tragic end in which Sid murdered his girlfriend while he was under the influence of narcotics, and died shortly after from overdose and heartbreak. Sid’s tragic story is the most alarming warning in the history of pop to the consequences of not knowing to change in time.

McLaren reacted to Sid’s death the same way he reacted to anything else: treated it as yet another event that can add to the notoriety of the band. But this was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the remaining members of the band, and it disbanded in the beginning of 1979. McLaren continued his experiments with other bands and also began a surprisingly successful music career of his own, in which he took underground styles like hip-hop and house and mixed them with other things to create exotic concoctions. But the Sex Pistols remain his greatest creation.

The moment of the Sex Pistols and punk – from the end of 1976 to the beginning of 78 – is the culmination of everything we discussed in this parade. The pop meta bands were commentaries on the world of pop, and the main thing that happened in the years we focused on was pop’s struggle to free us from the outdated Modern consciousness. The main idea of the Modern project – using human intelligence to decipher the secrets of the universe and thus transcend Man’s animalistic nature and create a wholly enlightened humanity and a Utopian society – was good for its time and took us several steps forward, but in the twentieth century it was mainly detrimental. In opposition, pop posed its own ideals: reclaiming all the “animalistic” sides of Man, accepting them as part of us and learning how to incorporate them in constructive ways; understanding that there is no universal and eternal “truth” but every time and place have their own truth; finding the truth of your time and creating yourself anew based on it, leading to an identity transformation resulting in ecstatic joy; forming tribal identities around these ecstatic sensations, and living in them as long as they represent the truth; and fighting for the rights of people everywhere to change as they wish and adopt whatever tribal identity they desire. The meta bands accompanied, reflected and facilitated this process, mocking the Modern consciousness and thus freeing us from it, and at the same time criticizing the problems in pop consciousness and helping to solve them and create a coherent and moral worldview. The punk moment was the moment when the number of people who internalized pop consciousness reached critical mass, and since then they are running growing parts of our world. In other words, this was the moment when the Modern Age ended, and the Pop Age began.


The meta-bands parade (2nd place)

3rd place

2. Parliament

What is the thing that has turned American pop music into the most powerful artistic medium of the 20th century? We can name quite a few reasons, but the main one is that it developed out of a dialogue between blacks and whites. When the black slaves were brought from Africa to America their white masters forbade them to keep their old customs and imposed Christianity and European culture on them, and over the years the slaves lost touch with African traditions. But some traces remained, and one thing remained stronger than all: the music. Although they lost touch with African music as well, its rhythmus kept on being part of their being, part of the way they talked and walked. When they would put on shows to entertain their masters, they would perform European songs and dances but do it in their own rhythmic way. And it kept on going after slavery, creating the process from which American pop music developed: the blacks would take something from white culture and do it their way, creating a new style. White youngsters would be drawn to this style and try to emulate it, doing it their way. This would always generate panic at first, since whites were not supposed to behave like the “primitive” blacks, but in time this style would take over the mainstream. This would help blacks integrate in the American society, because the adoption of the style by the mainstream culture would make them look less alien, but not all blacks were pleased about it. There were always young African-Americas who felt that their identity was robbed by whites, and wanted to create something all of their own. Thus, they would once again take something from white culture, perform it in a way that was considered “primitive” by the dominant culture (but in their mind connected them to Africa, since it was also considered “primitive”), and create a new style. And again there would be whites who would be taken by the style, and the cycle continued.

In the mid-1950’s, when white youth got turned on by rhythm ‘n blues and made it into rock’n’roll, it gave young black musicians more radio time, and some of them created a new style. The secular rhythm ‘n blues merged with religious gospel (music that was born when blacks started to sing Christian hymns in the churches in their own rhythmic and ecstatic way), to create what was known as soul music. Soul maintained the religious ecstasy of gospel, but married it to lyrics that dealt with earthly matters that cause ecstasy, such as love, sex, dancing and solidarity. Soul music was the dynamo of the Civil Rights Movement, which came when African-American preachers started to step out of their churches onto the streets and demand that Christian principle, like the one that says that we are all born equal, would be manifested in a society where blacks are equal to whites. Rock’n’roll and soul developed simultaneously, two brother styles, and formed a foundation on which blacks and whites could develop a shared consciousness that would overcome racism. During the sixties, the Civil Rights Movement achieved many victories and abolished all the remaining racial biases in American law, but when it came to overcoming that racism of consciousness it achieved only partial victories.

And again, there were blacks that felt that this process is robbing them of their identity, that the demand for equality is based on them actually giving up their uniqueness and adopting white culture, and looked for ways to free black music. The philosophy behind gospel and soul embraced the view that Man’s essence is his soul, whereas his body is only a receptacle. One reason blacks were considered inferior by whites is that they were perceived as more bodily, and soul practically accepted this hierarchy that placed that soul above the body by claiming that blacks too have a soul. In the mid-sixties arose a new black consciousness, one that wanted to turn this hierarchy on its head, one that wanted to create music that accentuates the body and takes pride in it. Rhythm ‘n blues, rock’n’roll and soul were all based on the backbeat: that is, the accent is always on the even beat in every bar (if a bar has eight beats, the accent would be on the second, fourth, sixth and eighth), giving the music an enormous forward thrust and making the listener feel as if his soul blasts through the confines of his body. In the mid-sixties, black musicians began breaking the backbeat and make rhythmic music that spitefully accentuated the odd beats, throwing a monkey wrench into the forward thrust. The brass, guitars and human vocals, that in rock’n’roll and soul rang out in long notes that gave the feeling of soul eruption, kept on ringing out but in shorter spurts, as if they were percussion instruments. The result is music that doesn’t allow the eruption to leave the body but locks it inside it, producing a frenzy that has to manifest itself in dancing. This style was called Funk (a word usually related to body scent) and it represented a new level of black pride. Whites always said that blacks are funky like beasts. Now the blacks answered by adopting that “funk” and taking pride in it, looking for ways to produce a supreme culture from it.

This was also reflected in a new and more aggressive political attitude that arose in the second half of the sixties, in which blacks refused to integrate in American society but joined the revolutionary spirit of the time and demanded a revolution that would fundamentally change society. The reversed hierarchy of funk put blacks on a higher level than whites, and so did some of the political movements of “Black Power” that sprang in those years. This attitude resulted in the destruction of solidarity with white liberals that brought the accomplishment of the beginning of the decade, and did not bring any new accomplishments. By the end of the decades a sense of failure set in: Martin Luther King’s dream of a society that will be blind to skin color and live harmoniously did not materialize. Funk, which at first embedded itself in black politics, receded into itself in the early seventies, and began distilling its essence. The style that emerged was based on what was called “The One” – the first beat in every bar. All instruments would accentuate the first beat, and then go their own ways until they met again on the one. It was characterized by long pieces that had no development, and thus sounded very repetitive to the ears of whites who find it very hard to connect to them. To connect, you had to overcome the Modern conditioning to progress towards something and learn to enjoy the experience of dancing in one place, learn to love what you are and not think you have to be something else.

One of the people who developed the style was George Clinton. Clinton began his musical career in the doo-wop age, and in the sixties he was a member a vocal group called the Parliaments which sang soul harmonies Motown style. But even then he was funkier than Motown, as we can hear in the Parliaments’ greatest hit ‘I Wanna Testify’, released in 1967.

Following legal complications that appeared when it turned out that there was another group called the Parliaments, Clinton just left the band behind and abandoned the vocal style. But he kept the musicians that provided the instrumental backing in the Parliaments’ records, and with them he created a new band called Funkadelic, which as its name suggests merged funk with psychedelia. While the Hippies regarded psychedelia as a journey into the recesses of the mind to find answers to existential questions, Funkadelic’s music dove into the recesses of the mind in order to free our consciousness from its detachment from the body and teach us to reconnect to our body and realize that the keys to happiness are locked within it. The mind is only one part of the body, teaches us the music of Funkadelic, and it has many other magical realms. Rather than turning the parts of the body against each other and determining that one should dominate the other, we must learn to unite them in harmony.

In 1974, Clinton was once again free to use the name Parliaments, but decided instead to form a band called Parliament, which would operate simultaneously with Funkadelic but will take another direction (although some of the musicians played in both groups). In the beginning of 1975 Parliament released the album Chocolate City, which prophesized a US which will have a black President in the White House, and how cool and funky it will be then. But this was far-fetched, and Parliament realized that if they want to create this fantastic world where black people rule and dictate their values, they need to create a meta-reality. In their next album, which came out at the end of that year, Clinton and company reinvented themselves as a group of aliens from outer space to bring the funk to the people of Earth, to teach them all to dance and give themselves to the power of the One, and thus bring harmony, peace and joy. In other words, while Funkadelic presented a combination of funk and psychedelia, Parliament combined funk with glam. Whereas Funkadelic dressed in a way that merged the unkempt Hippie look with African-American freakishness, Parliament took it even further with a futuristic glam look that made them otherworldly. The band contained the keyboardist Bernie Worrell, who used the synthesizer to produce funky electronic sounds and provide the required futuristic vibe; Bootsy Collins, the grooviest man on Earth, whose bass guitar pervades every part of your body, shaking its membranes and making it break out in uncontrollable dance; Maceo Parker, sax player extraordinaire and leader of a brass section that could shoot you to heaven; and a long line of members that were all at once great musicians and one off characters. And with this identity of afronauts from outer-space, they descended on the world.

In that, Parliament became a meta-band that embodies the aforementioned dynamics between blacks and whites in pop, and the place that African-American musicians take in it. The African-Americans completely lost their original cultural identity and had to adopt the European culture that was imposed on them, and all they had left was the rhythm. To be emancipated of the imposed identity and “return to themselves”, they therefore had to extract themselves from the European culture by taking elements from it and fusing them with their rhythms, creating a new identity in the process. And when that identity got assimilated into white culture, they had to do it again. That’s how it was with all past black styles, but the musicians creating these styles were not aware that this was what they were doing. Parliament was already fully self-conscious. While Ziggy Stardust defined the essence of rock’n’roll as the fusion of elements from your own world with something that comes from another world, Parliament defined the essence of funk as the understanding that you (as a black man in the West) are from another world, and embracing that understanding. From here on, all that was left for them to do was to develop that world, and pose it as an alternative to the Western white world.

Parliament started doing so in the album Mothership Connection, released at the end of 1975. The album opens as we’re listening to our local radio station, when it is suddenly taken over by an unfamiliar voice who introduces himself as Lollipop Man. Lollipop Man tells us that he is from outside of our world, coming to us from the mothership that is floating beyond the stars of the chocolate-milky way, and that he has something to give us. He found that our world has disconnected from the Funk, the source of human energy and vitality, and as a result we’ve become ailing and miserable. Granted, there is funk music out there, but it is diluted and blended with soul and rock (among his examples he mentions David Bowie, who at the time found in black funk and soul the new alien to fuse with rock, and thus to free himself from glam that no longer gave him any answers), and is not powerful enough to reconnect us to the source. To counter, he introduces P Funk, short for Pure Funk, the cure to all our problems. Then he hands the microphone over to Starchild, another afronaut, who proceeds to tell us of the Mothership Connection, which is the P Funk music that comes from the Mothership and connects us back to our essence, back to The One from which we take our vitality and happiness.

In this, Parliament are reviving an old myth, the myth of the chariot that will come down from the sky and take us to heaven like it did the prophet Elijah. Several gospel songs celebrate this glory day, when the Lord will reveal himself in his chariot and save the African-Americans from their plight. When they performed ‘Mothership Connection’ on stage, Parliament would get into a gospel section in which Glenn Goins would start to sing ecstatically about the Mothership that will descend to Earth and take us to Funk Heaven, driving the crowd into a frenzy, promising them that if they sing and want it strongly enough, the Mothership will come. Preachers in black churches did the same thing for decades, in the days of slavery and after it, but never fulfilled their promise and the day never came. But Parliament had something that these preachers did not have: special effects…

And the Mothership does indeed come, and for the rest of the album teaches us the secrets of P Funk, the road to happiness. Their next album, The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, came out in 1976 and expanded on the mythology. It turns out that our world already had visitors from outer-space, many years ago, but they realized that the human race is not ready to receive the pure funk. Therefore they buried the secrets of P Funk inside the pyramids in Africa, until the day they could be revealed. Now that the descendants of Africans in America have reached the right level of consciousness, they can receive it and spread it all over the world. P Funk, then, is not reserved only for blacks. The blacks, being “aliens” in American society, being those who always go one step ahead of white culture to maintain their alien identity, are those who discovered it, but from here on it is supposed to become the property of everyone like every other musical experience they came up with. Later on we find that Starchild was sent to us by Dr. Funkenstein, who is sitting in the Mothership and creating funky clones based on the formulas found in the pyramids, to disperse P Funk all over the globe. He has sent these clones to us, to spread the word. And in performance, he even graced us with his presence.

In the next album, Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome, from 1977, Funkenstein and Starchild take it a step further. With their “bop gun”, they hit earthlings and change their genetic composition according to Funkenstein’s formulas, to bring them to “funkentelechy”, self-fulfillment, thus turning them into happy, sensual and dancing people. But they have an enemy. Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk refuses to dance, refuses to be funky, and plots to foil the afronauts’ plans. For that matter he creates placebo, music that sounds like funk but lacks its essence. He is called Sir Nose for his Pinocchio nose, because when you fake the funk your nose gets longer, but he doesn’t care. That is indeed the danger of introducing a new musical experience to the world: it gets copied by musicians who don’t get its essence, and the music industry proceeds to produce “placebo” records in this imitative style and market it to the public who mostly can’t tell the difference either. And so, what is pure and real at first becomes diluted and bogus. In this album, we get a happy ending: the afronauts invent a powerful flashlight which concentrates and enhances the bop gun’s beams, and with it they manage to hit D’Voidoffunk, instill the funk essence into him and make him dance.

But the war did not end there. D’Voidoffunk returns in the subsequent albums accompanied by similarly unfunky allies, and tries to bring back the dark to everywhere the Afronauts’ flashlight hit. The battle is waged not only in Parliament’s (which released three more albums before dissolving in 1980) albums, but also those of Funkadelic and other projects involving the members of the band, and the mythology expanded larger and larger. And it was waged in the world outside the albums as well, because it turned out that funk was exactly what pop culture needed in order to find its way in the eighties. Previously we’ve described how Modern consciousness collapsed at the end of the seventies, and with it the ideas that we must work for a better tomorrow and aspire to become the perfect “Man”. This was a victory for pop, but it also eliminated the ability to get to heaven: the ecstasy of the rock’n’roll experience, the one that takes you to heaven, is the result of breaking out of the identity of “Progressive Man” that Modern culture imposed on you. But once the Modern ideal died and there was no longer a demand to progress, there was nothing left to break. Pop needed a new ecstatic experience, and funk was there to provide it. Funk does not try to break out or progress to anywhere, but teaches you to give yourself to the repetitive beat and enjoy the place where you are, liberating your body from the stiffness instilled in it by millennia of Christian repression. Post punk and industrial bands that at the end of the seventies reflected the shattering of the Modern consciousness, started in the eighties to infuse funk in their music and find the meaning of life in it. With that, white pop realized that ecstatic dance is the way to heaven, and in the end of the eighties this brought the rise of rave and dance culture, which is comprised of hundreds of different tribes of individuals who come together to dance around a shared musical experience. In the past, white musicians were in the yoke of the perception that dance music is inferior music, but thanks to funk everyone realized that it is actually the most supreme form of music and that music that doesn’t make you want to move your body is missing something. Meanwhile, black music presented hip-hop, which purified funk of any non-rhythmic elements. Funk is at the basis of almost every dominant pop style of the past 35 years.

Parliament weren’t solely responsible for that, but they played a central role. And their meta philosophy, which demands of the black musicians to always be one step ahead and pose themselves as the “other”, continued to be influential. In New York, several hip-hop musicians started at the beginning of the eighties to infuse synthesizer sounds and a futuristic approach into their music and created electro; and in the middle of the decade, some black youngsters from Detroit took the P Funk ideology seriously and explored ways to use synthesizers and machine sounds to express the futurism and otherworldliness of the black man, creating repetitive music that was at once both funky and mechanic and gave birth to techno. At the end of the eighties pop witness the rise of gangsta rap, an angry form of hip-hop that came out of the black ghettos (neglected in the success driven America of that decade) whose stars assumed anti-social characters that displayed all the elements of black culture that were still frightening to white people, but in the beginning of the nineties it brought us G Funk (G for gangster), which used samples of P Funk to make gangsta rap more positive. Gradually, G Funk pervaded the mainstream and infused all these elements into it, and at the turn of the millennium it completed the journey that pop made in turning blacks into an integral part of American society, no longer its “other”. Shortly after that the US elected its first African-American president, and what Parliament envisioned back in 1974 became a reality. Thus, Dr. Funkenstein’s clones continue to spread in our world, and make it better. D’Voidoffunk still controls many parts of it, and there are still people who repress the body and sexuality in the name of religious of moralistic values and people who demand to live for the future or the afterlife instead of enjoying the here and now, but their numbers are getting smaller.

But this victory came at a price. Once the blacks stopped being the “other” of American society it eliminated the tension that created the dialogue between blacks and whites, a dialogue that was the main driving force of music in the 20th century. Blacks no longer feel like aliens in America, no longer driven to express their alienation in music, and no longer provide alienated whites with something to escape their world with. We are still on the lookout for the tension that will create the dialogue that will drive the music of the 21st century.

1st place

The meta-bands parade (3rd place)


3. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

In the beginning of the seventies, David Bowie felt that the road to Heaven is suddenly blocked. In the sixties, the Beatles’ years, it felt like new ecstatic experience will keep on arriving and you’ll be able to build paradises around them and dwell in them until they dissipate, but now they suddenly stopped coming. At first rock’n’roll was like a never-ending party, but now it became rather dull. In his first albums, Bowie was a sensitive poet who sang about this conundrum in different ways, but did not try to find solutions. His art only reflected the situation, sometimes directly and sometimes in an ironic and theatric way in which he would assume a character of a man that is still stuck in the old logic and thinks what he does will get him to heaven, but we as listeners understand that he’s delusional. A big part of his criticism was aimed at the revolutionary rock of the late sixties, which adopted the Modern logic that aspires to create a perfect society in the future, and he showed that this logic leads to oblivion. But gradually, we hear his albums trying to do something else: is it possible to form a new logic, one that can get us back to heaven?

Bowie’s explorations into the history of rock’n’roll and pop culture led him to a number of conclusions. First of all, he realized that every truth is temporary. Reality is perpetually changing, there is nothing that is stable and permanent, and anyone who wants to live in the light of truth must therefore change along with it. Every period in time has its own truth, and to be happy one should find that truth, live in its light for as long as it is still the truth, and ditch it when it ceases to be the truth. What is the truth, then? The truth is that part in you that cannot express itself in your outer identity because you do not know how to express it – your culture does not have the concepts that enable you to articulate these inner sensibilities. How can they be expressed, then? This was Bowie’s great illumination: to express your inner truth, you need to converge with something that is alien to your culture and yet enchants you. When you unite with something that negates your current logic it results in the shattering of your identity, and then all that is left is the new fusion that you’ve created, which becomes your new truth and your new identity. This identity is boundless, homogenous, and can develop in many directions, granting that your existence will be ecstatic and joyful. Moreover, it provides an outlet for anyone who has the same sensibilities as yours, and then they adopt the new identity and you all come together in a loving unity and create a paradise.

Armed with these insights, Bowie set out to create the identity that will express them. Whereas the theatrical identities he created in the past existed only within the albums and only for one track in them, now he intended to create an identity that will be identified with him in reality as well and tell its story over an entire album. Moreover, the album was supposed to be a reflection of reality, reflection of what this character will do. The character, as mentioned, was supposed to be someone who is expressing things that are alien to the prevailing logic, so Bowie decided it will be an alien that comes from Mars. His band, which until now was a regular backup band, will henceforth be called the Spiders from Mars.

Again, it is not enough for the identity to be alien – as alien as it is, it must also have something enchanting that will appeal to the sensibilities of the kids who feel alienated to their current identity. Bowie began looking for aliens of this type, and one of the first things to present themselves to him was the movie A Clockwork Orange that came out at the end of 1971. The hooligan gang that are the protagonists of the movie was shocking and against any rules of decency and morality, and yet there was something about their aesthetic and style that was cool and exciting to the youth. Bowie cut his hair short like the Droogies in the movie (until then he had long hair according to the Hippie fashion ruling the pop world) and like them he adopted boots as part of his new wardrobe. His idea was to make him and his band look similar to Alex and his gang in the movie, minus the violent aspect. In this identity he appeared on TV in February 1972 and sang a new song, which was destined to become the opening track of his upcoming album. The song ‘Five Years’ throws us straight into a new reality, describing our world at the moment that we learn that it has only five years left. Meaning, that the Modern logic, the logic that determines that we must dedicate ourselves to progressing towards a better future, has lost all meaning. The plot of the album takes place in a world that has no future, and we must find our happiness in the here and now.

Another alien that Bowie appropriated was stardom. The star system, which characterized Hollywood and the music industry, was hated by Hippie logic. Hippies wanted to express inner truths, and stars seemed to them like a manifestation of fake exteriority. Why did they perceive it that way? Because the Hippies were still in the yoke of the old logic that said that truth is eternal and permanent, and since our exterior changes it cannot be the truth. Our inner world, the “soul”, was conversely seen as permanent and therefore real, and the Hippies required music that will express the soul. But Bowie, as mentioned, realized that truth is changing and our inner world is also changing, and therefore you can externalize this interiority and create an outside identity that will constitute a truth. The star, whose image is always artificially created, was for him a model of this process. While Hippie rockers presumed to elude the game of pop stardom, Bowie aspired to construct himself as the biggest and shiniest pop star of them all, as someone whose very essence is made of stardust. His new identity was therefore called Ziggy Stardust, and had a style that emanated maximum glamour. This style, that combined science fiction with glamour, became known as glam rock.

And there was another thing about glam. Bowie’s main inspiration was the underground gay culture, which was then beginning to surface. It had a few things that attracted him intellectually. First, their campy style perfectly matched the glamorous style he wanted to adopt, and he acquired the help of gay fashion designers to assemble Ziggy’s wardrobe. Secondly, their campy irony suited Ziggy and the Spiders, who were a meta-band which reflected the rock’n’roll world. But more than anything there was this feeling that the traditional gender categorization that inserted men and women into predefined and rigid draws is just wrong, and that human sexuality is much more diverse and fluid. Gay culture attracted not only homosexual but also every other sexual deviant who fell outside the normative definitions, because only in it they found a community willing to accept them as they are. Bowie, now, decided to absorb all that and merge it with rock’n’roll. In January 72 he declared in an interview that he is bisexual, and turned the androgynous Ziggy into character that provided a model of identification to all those who felt different and ostracized due to their sexuality. And so, with an identity that combines rock’n’roll, sexual fluidity, glamour and alienation, he posed himself as something completely alien to the prevailing logic and yet exciting and tantalizing.

Back then, Bowie was still a marginal and unknown rock singer, but in the first half of 1972 Ziggy and the Spiders began performing and building an audience. In June came the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, containing eleven tracks which all stand on their own as an independent piece but together they also form a story. The opening tracks describe the sense of loss of direction and meaning in a world that has no future and its inhabitants no longer know how to reach Heaven, and the birth of Ziggy Stardust as the Messiah that brings the answer. The fourth track, ‘Starman’, portrays the moment in which Ziggy arrives in his spaceship and broadcasts to the kids through rock’n’roll radio stations to present them with his alternative, and their ecstatic reaction as they all feel like they’ve found the thing that represents an inner truth they hitherto could not express. Bowie performed this song in July on Top of the Pops, presenting Ziggy Stardust to the British youth. By then, he and his band already perfected their glamorous and androgynous look, with the multicolored outfits, the makeup and the glitter, and were ready to amaze the world. And they certainly did amaze, in a performance that seemed like it came from another world. At one point he wraps a limp arm around the shoulders of guitarist Mick Ronson, in a manner that a “real” man was not supposed to touch another man, and clarified that he represents a different kind of sexuality. And the moment in which he looks directly at the camera and points at the home viewer was the moment in which many alienated boys and girls felt like he was telling them: I’m here to bring you salvation.

And what Bowie prophesized in the record became reality. Youngsters from all over Britain, and later other places in the world, felt that Ziggy speaks to something inside them and liberates them, and immediately adopted the new identity he offered them. The next tracks on the album elaborate on the character of the bisexual and glittering superstar Ziggy, as well as describing the euphoric state his fans experience when they can finally express themselves and find others like them with which they can form a community and come together in a loving unity. But then, the Utopia begins to unravel. The initial thrill is gone, and the need to recreate the experience again and again drags you to radicalize the elements of your identity and stretch it in every direction until it can no longer maintain the harmony. The album describes how Ziggy gets addicted to his stardom until eventually he sees himself as standing above others, thus destroying the sense of unity, and how his fluid sexuality pushes him to go further and further until the sex is no longer an expression of love but of obsessive lust. And so, he falls from Heaven back into an alienated existence, taking his fans down with him. The closing track of the album, ‘Rock’n’roll Suicide’, shows Ziggy after the fall, when he can no longer recreate the same joyful experiences. This action of externalizing the inner truth is also an action of spiritual suicide – once you’ve externalized it, you sentenced it to be gradually corrupted until it can no longer bring you joy. But then Ziggy makes his last discovery: while his identity was corrupted, a new inner truth grew inside him and inside others, a new sensibility on which it is now possible to form a new happy identity. Just like Ziggy once came to save his fans, no someone else comes and saves him, and shows him how to be happy.

That’s the story of the album, and it is actually the story of all the communities that sprung out of fifties and sixties rock’n’roll. They all went through this process of rise and fall, and the Spiders from Mars were therefore a meta-band that reflected all that has happened in rock’n’roll before them. But since Bowie already understood this process, he was smarter. He experienced the rise of Ziggy Stardust, and it occurred exactly as predicted in his album, but he had no intention of going through his fall. Bowie kept on criticizing himself, asking if he is still rising or if the fall had begun. Towards the end of 72 he began appropriating elements of Japanese fashion in Ziggy’s look, and thus maintained his alien aura (Japan was still a different and scary world at that time). He shaved his eyebrows, began using much heavier makeup and dyed his hair in flaming red, giving himself a look of a Japanese kabuki character. Out of that emerged a new identity – Aladdin Sane – that still played Ziggy Stardust but did so theatrically. At the beginning of 1973 came Aladdin’s eponymous album, and its first track – ‘Watch that Man’ – reveals that Bowie no longer identifies himself with Ziggy, but feels as if he’s watching him from the sidelines and doesn’t comprehend exactly what he’s doing. As mentioned, he continued to perform under the name Ziggy Stardust, but he was actually already in a new identity, that of Aladdin Sane.

Aladdin’s name is a pun. On the one hand he is Aladdin Sane, who continues to produce magical characters from his lamp and entice his fans’ imagination. On the other hand he is A lad insane, who feels how the need to go further and further with the elements of Ziggy’s identity that are driving him closer and closer to a rock’n’roll suicide. One of the characters Aladdin released from his lamp is the Jean Genie, whose name is a paraphrase on the French artist/criminal Jean Genet, who posited his homosexual character as something diametrically opposed to everything the bourgeois culture represents. Bowie combined Genet with rock’n’roll, sings a song that eulogizes the Genie as a model of a totally free existence, but with an underlying tone of bemoaning the loneliness of such a life.

On a more morbid note, ‘Drive-In Saturday’ describes a world that went through an atomic holocaust, and the surviving youngsters forgot how to have sex. They watch old movies and listen to rock’n’roll records, trying to imitate the motions described in them to reignite the flame of sexuality, but to no avail. What Bowie expresses here, as on other tracks of the album, is the fear that once we used something to construct our identity, it’s as if we killed it forever. The sixties sexual revolution, to which Ziggy was the most radical embodiment, liberated sexuality from its shackles, but it can lead to all of the thrill being gone out of sex.

In the end, Bowie felt that Ziggy ran its course. He no longer brings him the ecstasy and joy as he did at first, and for that there could be only one solution. In the beginning of July 1973 he ended a triumphant English tour with a concert at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, and used the opportunity to perform the final act in Ziggy’s play. Ziggy was at the height of his fame, a comet that within a year conquered British pop and became the greatest musical sensation, carried on the adoration of his fans who regarded him as the second coming. In front of this enthusiastic audience, Ziggy ended the show by announcing that he is quitting the stage forever, and as everyone were still in shock and trying to process the information he began performing ‘Rock’n’roll Suicide’, which now gained its true meaning. The official announcement of his retirement came the next day, ending any lingering doubt. Ziggy Stardust was dead.

But it soon became apparent that the suicide was Ziggy’s alone, not Bowie’s. Bowie shed the Ziggy skin, which no longer reflected his inner feelings, and moved on. Actually he was already Aladdin Sane, and only needed to kill Ziggy in a dramatic fashion to get his fans to realize it. And throughout the seventies, he would carry on doing that. Every year he would create a new identity through merging with something alien, and release an album that would represent this identity. The opening track of every album would express the crisis which the previous identity came to, and the subsequent tracks would show how the new identity resolves the crisis and makes his existence harmonious and happy again. And through these albums, Bowie also dealt with the ethical question that this lifestyle invoked, eventually creating the ethics of pop culture. These ethics determine that you must always be attentive of your inner truth, and create an identity based on it. When this identity is no longer happy, it means it no longer represents your truth, and therefore you must change. This you do by opening yourself up to something that is alien to your logic but infatuates you, because that means that it reflects your current inner truth and by merging with it you can create a new happy identity. In order for you to live this lifestyle of constant change and remain happy, you must live in a free and pluralistic society which will allow you and all those aliens to coexists, influence each other and change whenever you want, and therefore these ethics also demand that you fight to create such a society. Moreover, the history of pop shows us that an inner truth is never particular to you alone but is shared with others, so the new identity constructed from it is a tribal identity which enables you to live in a happy and loving community. To be able to experience this love you must of course be an emphatic human being who is open to other human, and not do anything that will harm others and harm that part in you. Furthermore, you must think of the entire human race as your brothers and sisters, because every individual can belong to one of your communities, now or in the future. Through this process of uniting with others and creating new identities you also build bridges between humans, enhancing social solidarity and marching the world towards a better future.

The Beatles, in their albums, expressed several ideals, each fine in itself but hard to combine together: the emphasis on joys of the present above working for a speculated happiness in the future, the determination to be true to yourself and not live by outside dictations, the yearn to unite in love with others, the aspiration to change the entire world into a good and loving one, and more. These ideals drive anyone who grew up on their records, but the problem was that they seemed to contradict each other. Bowie’s ethics showed pop culture how you can dovetail all of them to create a coherent set of values that will allow you to live a happy life. Sgt. Pepper asked the question, Ziggy Stardust provided the answer. Now, all that was left was to make the world familiar with this answer.

2nd place

The meta-bands parade (6-4)


6. The Residents

And so we have come to the most enigmatic pop group of them all, the band that enigma is its very essence. The obscurity, mystery and mythologizing surrounding the Residents are so great that there is no point in going into their history and trying to discern fact from fiction. But we can try to understand the meaning of it all, to ask what is behind the eyes?

What do we know for sure? The Residents released their first recording in 1973, which was called Santa Dog and contained two singles that included four songs, each of them in a different style and allegedly performed by a different band, but all similar in that they begin in a conventional way but then turn bizarre. For that purpose they formed the label Ralph Records, creating the impression that this is a label that already hosts several artists and generating an initial buzz in the music press which was interested to hear what more it has to offer. But anything that Ralph Records put out after that were Residents albums, and today it is obvious to all that all these “bands” were actually the Residents themselves. The first album they released under their own name was Meet the Residents, in 1974, and it already constituted a declaration of intent. The name of the album paraphrases Meet the Beatles, the Beatles debut album in America, and the cover is also a vandalistic paraphrase on the cover of that album, defacing the fab four. The vandalism continues in the album itself, in which every track contains music that disregards any basics of good taste and distorts sixties pop beyond recognition. The opening track is a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots are Made for Walking’, but it is so grotesque that it takes some time until you notice it.

The band’s second album provided some context to this music. The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll contains two side-long pieces that take many rock’n’roll classics (mainly rowdy garage classics), knead them all together to make them into one long pastry, season it with typical Resident sounds and serve it all to the listener. The names of both pieces ties the music to Nazism, and it seems that what they say is: you Hippies think rock’n’roll freed the world and made it better, but its combination of barbarism and messianic delusions actually leads us to fascism. The band members maintained anonymity, presenting an antithesis to the rock bands that externalized the personalities of the band members and made them no less important than the music. In contrast, the Residents were an amorphous entity whose members were merely residents who presumably changed over time. To add a visual element to the music, they began filming surrealist clips.

In 1977, as the punk revolution transformed the pop world, the Residents’ music started to sound more comprehensible. They also figured out the way to make their bizarre sound more communicative, closer to standard pop. And all along they kept on putting out their surrealist clips, for which they are considered today, along with Devo, as pioneers of video-clip art.

In 1979 they released the album Eskimo, which presented a new concept. The album contains musical pieces that sound more like plays, with background noise and people speaking a peculiar tongue. The cover explains that the album is dramatizing stories from the Eskimo culture, and explains every track and how it pertains to the traditions and everyday life of the Eskimos. The explanation wraps up in a declaration that all these things belong to the past, since Western culture “saved” the Eskimos from this hard life and put them in houses, where they now sit and watch reruns of TV shows. The irony is clear: Western culture’s pretension to be a liberator and savior is a baseless presumption, and what has actually happened is that a race of people that lived authentic lives according to the traditions of its forefathers was corrupted and degenerated by it. The album, then, is a social criticism of Western society.

But not in the way we think at first, because the irony here is actually pointed elsewhere. When you listen more attentively, you realize that the language we hear isn’t actually Inuit, and the stories don’t really represent Inuit culture. What is really happening here is that music that presumes to represent the authentic culture of other people shows the same Western pretension and patronizing attitude it presumes to criticize, and seeks only the exotic in Eskimo culture. The album is a parody of these humanists who presume to speak for other cultures and blame the West for what it does to them, when they too are completely ignorant about these cultures and treat them as a monolith.

On the album cover, the Residents introduce the look that will henceforth be their most identifiable: wearing a tuxedo (perhaps in order to look like penguins and “stand up with the Eskimos”, except penguins belong to the South Pole whereas the Inuit live in the North Pole), and hooded with what looks like giant eyeballs. The reversal is complete: whereas with other pop groups the crowd is an anonymous spectator, in the Residents’ case it is the band that is anonymous and spectates us, mocking our human flaws.

The next album came out in 1980 and was titled The Commercial Album, and it constitutes the moment in which the band presumably “sold out” and started making records that beckon the mainstream. Except the style remained the same grotesque noise, and to get it played on the radio anyway the Residents pulled a clever prank: the album contains 40 tracks, each exactly one minute long. The band then purchased advertising time on the radio, and since every ad slot is a minute long they could use it to play one of the records in full and thus shove it into the programs in spite of the producers. Some of these records were actually cool, and earned their own video-clips. Here are four of them.

In 1981, when MTV was launched, the Residents suddenly received much greater exposure than in the past. The stock of videos that were available to the producers wasn’t great initially, so the weird Residents clips became quite popular with them. The Residents became a well-known brand in pop culture, and upheld it by hiring people to appear at events in tuxes and eyeballs. A mythology was created around the history of the band, satiating the media’s hunger with a plethora of fictional tales. In that way they managed to preserve anonymity and mystery and maintain their cult band status, despite all the publicity. They kept on making music in the same trademark style, and created dozens of albums and other multimedia projects. Of all the bands in our parade, the Residents is the most prolific and the most durable. What hides behind the eyes? Who cares?

  1. Spinal Tap

We’ve reached the top five, and here we find the most legendary rock band of all, the band that is somewhere between Mozart and Bach, the band whose sound is so heavenly you must listen to it in Dobley, the band whose biggest hit is played on two bass guitars and an additional double-bass, the band that will not compromise its artistic license to put an oiled naked woman on its album cover unless the record company says otherwise, the band whose drummer died from choking on someone else’s vomit, another drummer died from spontaneous combustion and a third drummer died because he visited the grave of a former drummer and the grave combusted. The band is so notorious that I don’t know if it even needs introduction, and so divine that anything I can write will pale in comparison to its greatness. Nevertheless, we shall say a few words about it.

In the beginning of the seventies, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer were two up and coming comedians, members of the American comedy ensemble Credibility Gap that also included David Lander. McKean and Lander were college buddies, and there they already created the characters of Lenny and Squiggy, a pair of dummies speaking in nasally voices and silly accents. Playing this duo they found success on TV, mainly through the sitcom Lavern and Shirley, and even released an album of comical songs in which they were accompanied by the young guitarist and comedian Christopher Guest. In 1979, McKean and Guest teamed up, and together with Shearer they formed the fictional metal band Spinal Tap for a TV sketch they wrote together with actor Rob Reiner. This is where it all began.

Shortly after they decided to expand on the idea, and in 1984 Reiner presented his directorial debut, This is Spinal Tap. Reiner plays an American commercials director named Marty DiBergi who decides to make a rockumentary about his favorite band, the British band Spinal Tap, and document their tour in the States. He begins by enthusiastically describing the band’s greatness, and how he managed to capture the magic of a rock concert tour. There were plenty such movies in those days – these were the years when Hollywood’s ranks started to get filled with young directors anxious to make rockumentaries about their favorite bands and explain why they’re so great. But when we start watching DiBergi’s movie, it rapidly becomes apparent that there is a huge disparity between what he described to us at first and what he actually caught on his camera. David St. Hubbins (McKean) the guitarist-vocalist, Nigel Tufnel (Guest) the lead guitarist and Derek Smalls (Shearer) the bassist are revealed as a bunch of completely uninspired rockers who always just conformed to the trending styles and are now making metal, and as men who at the age of forty are still mired by infantile sexuality, asinine pretensions and detachment from reality. The gap between what they pretend to be and what we see onscreen produces one of the greatest comedies in movie history.

But unlike many other musical parodies, this movie isn’t just funny but also musically gratifying. When we see them in concert, they play some kickass rock. The songs (all original compositions) are satires of metal clichés, but they work, even though something always goes wrong…

Even more well-known are the interviews DiBergi conducts with the band members, which contain some priceless gems that became part of rock’s and pop culture’s heritage.

How did the metal people react to this mirror that was put in front of them and made a mockery of their beloved style? With unmitigated love. Spinal Tap was adopted into the bosom of heavy metal, and is listened to as if it was a bona-fide metal band. How come? Can it be that the metal people don’t get the joke? On the contrary, they get it better than anyone else. Spinal Tap integrates into the style because the genre it was making fun of, the glam-metal of the early eighties, is itself an ironic style. Most glam-metal people know how silly their hobby is, but they embrace this silliness as a poke in the eye of a world that they perceive as taking itself too seriously. And so, Spinal Tap was regarded as not just a band that makes fun of glam-metal, but also as the band that best expresses its spirit. Rob Reiner went on from there to become a successful and prolific director; McKean, Guest and Shearer all scored with other comedy projects; but the band refuses to go away. It is now impossible to tell reality from fiction with Spinal Tap: they continue to unite, continue to create music, continue to go out on tours, continue to kill drummers in bizarre ways, continue to provide hilarious interviews, and continue to draw crowds that come not just for the laughs but also for the music. Here they go again.

4. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

At the end of 1966, the Beatles were fed up. After four years of Beatlemania, of being in the eye of the storm formed around them, the fun was gone. Daily life in the mid-sixties was exciting and fascinating, but they felt they want to find out what’s behind contemporary reality, deeper truths about existence. In their last album Revolver they were already beginning to make music that relied heavily on studio technology and elaborate orchestrations and was impossible to recreate onstage, and now they wanted to see this direction through. At the end of the year they barricaded themselves in the Abbey Road studios and began working on their next album, determined to make an album that will be an art piece in itself, not just a platform for live performances.

The initial idea was to make an album about their childhood. This was typical to the psychedelic era: the feeling was that the psychedelic experience takes you to a primordial state in which you look at the world with a child’s eyes and see it for the first time, and one of the ways to express it was with records that sounded like children’s songs with a psychedelic sound. The first song they recorded was ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, in which John Lennon’s imagination wanders back to a Liverpool garden that he used to play in as a boy. The studio production distorts the singing and music in various ways and affects as unrealistic atmosphere, as if we’re in a dream. The lyrics, too, create a dreamlike misty kaleidoscope, as if the garden is in a place beyond logic, beyond the everyday life.

The second song was ‘Penny Lane’, where they recall a street in Liverpool. There is no surrealism here – the record just portrays the daily reality in the bustling street. And yet, this record too puts us beyond daily life, since the singer is not taking part in all this commotion. He just sits back and lets life wash through him, a passive observer of the world.

The desire to transcend daily existence accompanies Western civilization since its early days. The Christian belief is that “this world” is only a passageway we must go through to get to the “true world”, and daily life was therefore perceived as meaningless. Western philosophy largely also treated the everyday world as “not real”, mainly because it is ever-changing and undergoes birth and death whereas “absolute truth” is perceived as eternal and constant. Moreover, Western consciousness always related truth to happiness, and Western Man therefore always aspired to reach the absolute and eternal truth out of the belief that it will lead him to eternal and absolute happiness. Thus, when Western Man felt a transcendental and joyful ecstatic feeling, he concluded that he must have touched absolute truth for a moment and aspired to find what’s behind this experience. When people like Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary first presented the psychedelic experience that is achieved through the use of hallucinogenic drugs, they couched it in those terms: as an experience of absolute joy, emanating from the fact that it opens the door for us to see the ultimate truth about our existence. The Beatles’ turn towards psychedelia and transcendence, then, was supposed to lead them as well to seeking the eternal truth, but the Beatles were not like Huxley and Leary. The latter were still enslaved to the Modern consciousness, so they were still looking for the constant and eternal truth behind the impermanent everyday reality. But the Beatles were already operating with a pop consciousness, and so it led them, as we shall see, to another place.

The next song they recorded, ‘A Day in the Life’, describes everyday existence. The record exists on three different planes. The “lowest” place is that of regular daily action: waking up, combing your hair, catching the bus to work etc. But the human being also reflects on his reality, and this is described through the singer telling us about newspaper articles he is reading (taken, by the way, from real articles that appeared at the time), which leads his stream of consciousness to reflections about existence, reflections that take him higher and higher until he reaches the ultimate ecstasy. But he does not remain forever in that highest plane. The ecstatic experience lasts only for a moment, and then he descends back to the plane of everydayness to begin the cycle again. The record, then, takes the hierarchy that Western thought created about the relation of everyday life and what’s beyond it and flips it on its head. The perception was always that one has to escape everyday life to reach the world of truth. The Beatles remain in everyday life, in the “day in the life”, and find their truth in it. The experiences of absolute joy do not come from touching anything eternal, but they are simply products of our daily actions. Our everyday world is the world of truth, and reflections upon it and momentary escapes to powerful ecstatic experience serve only to enrich life in it.

At the same time, a new concept for the album was born: they will make this album not as the Beatles but as a different group, which will have a different style. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (typical name for a band of the psychedelic era) will tackle other subjects than what the Beatles traditionally sang about. The idea to make a return-to-childhood album was ditched, and the two first songs were eventually released as two sides of a single and were not included on the album. Instead, the album became a reflection of that world beyond everyday life, a world we can dwell in and be happy for a while. The cover shows the members of the club, all men and women of spirit who influenced pop consciousness, all people who can take us to that place.

The album was released in June 1967 and created a sensation. The Beatles showed that you could use pop music to articulate profound statements, and for many this was a revelation. The record companies, that until then allotted limited recording time to rock’n’roll artists, now opened the doors of the studios wide for them to create an album that would rival Sgt. Pepper, and the artists began exploring all the possibilities that were opened before them. It had negative effects: it led to the affliction that plagued progressive rock, albums that were closed within themselves with no connection to the outside world. But it also allowed many pop artists to expand their means of articulation and create albums that were profound and coherent statements about the world and at the same time contained tracks that became hits that changed the world. The album itself is not the Beatles’ best, but influence-wise it is almost unrivaled in the history of music.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a meta band in that it represents a meta-world, a place beyond our daily world where we can experience happiness. But while traditionally that meta-world was perceived as a place in heaven that we reach in the afterlife, or a place in the future which we will reach after a revolution that will create a utopian world, in pop consciousness it is located elsewhere, and the Beatles are primarily responsible for that. The Beatles (and not only in this album) specialized in records that make the listener feel like they are in a magical garden, a place where life is dedicated not to work but to play, where there is no hate and war but only love and peace, where people aren’t trying to step on each other to get ahead but are busy creating and inspiring one another. But these gardens are never the Garden of Eden – that is, they are not eternal. They are inside our world, part of our life and what gives it its meaning. There are many ways to achieve ultimate happiness, and the band members displayed that in their personalities. John Lennon was looking for happiness in escaping reality to ideal worlds (in this album represented mainly in the track ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ in which he chases an ideal woman inside a surrealistic wonderland), George Harrison went the Buddhist way of self-annihilation and absorption in the stream of existence (represented on the album in ‘Within You, Without You’), Paul McCartney was more in tune with past ideals and sought continuity and how you can harness the new experiences into the existing spiritual heritage and combine the new musical ideas with traditional musical conventions (represented mainly in ‘She’s Living Home’, that merges pop with chamber music played on harp and a string-quartet and tells the story of a girl who runs away from her parents’ home but also focuses on what it does to them and expresses the wish they’ll find the way to renew the connection), and Ringo Starr just wanted to enjoy the fun of everyday experiences (represented on the album in the McCartney-written ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, whose emphasis on the importance of friendship serves to counter-balance Lennon’s and Harrison’s escape into themselves). The Sgt. Pepper band conveys the realization that there is no one Garden of Eden but many different gardens of Eden, and so we want a world that has diversity and the capability to hold all these gardens. In one day in the life we can visit several of these gardens, and that’s much better than existence in an eternal paradise where nothing ever changes.

This duality is evident also in the movie Yellow Submarine, an animated film inspired by Beatles music that was released in 1968. Sgt. Pepper’s dream become a country called Pepperland, where people live in love and harmony and dance together to the tunes of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But then this land is conquered by the Blue Meanies, who hate beauty, fun and ecstasy and want only to dominate others. Only one inhabitant manages to escape in a yellow submarine and then he discovers that beyond Pepperland there is also our everyday world, which hosts a band mystifyingly similar to Sgt. Pepper called the Beatles. The Beatles agree to help him, and take the yellow submarine through enchanted worlds based on their songs, before reaching occupied Pepperland. There they impersonate Sgt. Pepper, and with the magical powers of their ecstatic and loving music bring back color and joy to the place and cause the terror regime of the Blue Meanies to crumble.

The Beatles themselves were hardly involved in the making of the movie, but when they saw the almost-finished product they became enthusiastic and wanted to add a little of their own. They provided the creators with some unreleased recordings, and the last of them, ‘Hey Bulldog’, became a scene in the movie in which the Beatles release their Sgt. Pepper dopplegangers from captivity and the Fab Eight give the runaround to the Blue Meanies’ four-headed dog. The only time when we see “both” bands together.

The movie’s plot, in which a tyrannical regime is brought down by music, may seem like a ridiculous fantasy, but it is far from it. All totalitarian regimes in our world draw their legitimacy from pretending to represent the eternal truth and demand total submission from their citizens as the way to Paradise. Pop represents the antithesis of that, and therefore these regimes always try to prevent it from reaching the ears of their subjects. But pop always found a way to get through, change the folks’ consciousness and thus cause the regime to lose its legitimacy and eventually fall. Modern consciousness believed the world will be better if we find the absolute truth and live by it. Pop consciousness outlines a different way to a better world: if we give every community the freedom to develop its truth, and work on creating harmony between the communities, we will gradually get nearer to a world that is free, diverse, rich, and peaceful. The various and numerous worlds created by pop are constantly expanding and slowly smoking out the Blue Meanies that are still left in our world, those who attempt to enforce their own truth on others and do not recognize their right to live their own lives. We’ll get to Pepperland eventually.

3rd place

The meta-bands parade (12-7)


12. The Rutles

The Modern age was occupied with the attempt to build Man as an enlightened being, one that transcends the jungle where other animals dwell. The Modern state, that mighty apparatus, was perceived as a tool to take Man there, to educate and cultivate him until it becomes a creature that transcended its instincts and lives a life of reason. The belief was that if everyone was educated by “high culture”, it will advance humanity to the point where there will be no more violence and suffering. But in the 20th century it already became clear to any reasonable person that this is vain project, that Man is not a logical creature who stands above nature but merely a sophisticated ape, that his presumption to be able to find the order of the universe is ludicrous, that giving power to the state to run our lives is dangerous. And yet, the West continued to operate under the yoke of Modern ideas and continued to believe that Man can stand above nature. This was bad for humanity, but for satire it was a perfect situation, a prolific breeding ground for comedy that mocks all these pretensions. And the satire did not fail to come.

One of these satiric currents begins with the Marx Brothers. The brothers had a vaudeville act in the beginning of the 20th century, and at first they mainly made music. But then it turned out that they had comic talent, and they began to develop a stage act that was mainly screwball comedy laced with musical numbers. Starting from 1929 they took their comedy to the screen in movies that had no plot or logic but were a random and surreal salad of gags, an anarchic carnival during which they slaughtered all the sacred cows of “high” culture and destroyed any semblance of “good form”. The Modern ruling system was displayed in all its bureaucratic and oppressive stupidity, “cultivated behavior” was shown in all its hypocrisy, conservative values were revealed in all their emptiness. Multi-talented, they were also gifted instrumentalists who obliterated “serious” music by combining it with comedy and unruly jazz. For two decades, the Marx Brothers released a series of films that made a mockery of anything the Modern culture held with high regard, and provided release for anyone who felt bound by the view it tried to enforce on humanity.

In the beginning of the fifties, shortly after the Marx Brothers’ last film, their spirit was taken into radio by a British comedy team. The Goon Show, a radio program that ran throughout the decade, introduced skits that poked fun at the overly self-important British culture and at Modern culture in general. With stupendously gifted comedians like Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan who could play many characters and many voices, with lots of novel comical sound effects that studio technology now had to offer, the Goons presented comedy that was inspired by the Marx Brothers and had the same surrealistic and anarchic humor. Many British kids of the time were influenced by this show.

Among those kids were the four lads who formed the Beatles, and they drew much of the Goons’ frivolous spirit into their music. In the beginning of the sixties, shortly after the Goon Show went off the air, the Beatles were signed by a label that specialized mainly in comedy records, including by Sellers and Milligan. Since the Beatles were not considered “serious” music they needed a comedy label to sign them, but the man who headed this label, George Martin, had considerable experience in recording both comedy and music and he employed this experience to help the Beatles lace their records with Goons-like sound-effects and gain the same anarchic feel. Peter Sellers himself recognized the Beatles as successors and worked with them, and their first two movies were screwball comedies inspired by the Marx Brothers, only with rock’n’roll replacing jazz. The Beatles’ generation already saw clearly how ridiculous the Modern consciousness was, and it was easy for them to mock it. But as the sixties went on, this generation decided that mockery isn’t enough, and began to try and draft an alternative. The Beatles’ albums of the second half of the decade were already looking for new answers, and their third movie Magical Mystery Tour, that came out in late 1967, combined the surreal humor with the more serious surrealism of psychedelia. Unfortunately the movie wasn’t very good, mainly because the Beatles weren’t good enough comedians, and is considered today as the thing that marks the beginning of their downfall. The bigger problem was that the rock’n’roll generation started taking itself and its music way too seriously, and actually adopted archaic revolutionary ideas belonging to Modern logic. While Beatles albums always mixed the seriousness with musical jokes meant to remind us not to take them as something sacred, a lot of youngsters began to perceive the albums of the Beatles and their peers as the one and only truth.

Magical Mystery Tour nevertheless marked the beginning of something. The movie features the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, a comical band that conflated psychedelia with nonsensical humor. A year later the Bonzo Dogs became the house band for the comedy TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set, a show hosted by an ensemble of young comedians who soon adopted the name they will be identified with from here on: Monty Python. At the end 1969, just a few months before the Beatles broke up, Monty Python’s Flying Circus went on air, offering the mixture of anarchic and psychedelic humor that the Beatles tried to achieve and showing them how to do it right. The Beatles themselves recognized the Pythons as successors of the band’s spirit, and Beatle George Harrison even became the sponsor of their movies when they ran into financial difficulties. Monty Python were the ones who took the spirit of the Marx Brothers into the seventies, a decade which they ruled with their TV show and with several feature films, and they held the line of biting satire that deconstructed the basis of Modern thought. In 1979 they released the movie Life of Brian, which demolished the myth on which the view that Man should transcend nature was built, the myth of Jesus Christ. But this was their last great movie, because from here on this type of satire became outdated. The paradigm that dominated Western thought, the paradigm that saw the ultimate goal of society as advancement towards the creation of an enlightened Man, collapsed once and for all.

Which left satirists like Monty Python in a state where they had to look for new material to make fun of, new sacred cows to slaughter. And back in the mid-seventies, Python Eric Idle already started another project. Together with Neil Innes, who was the leader of Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and later co-wrote some Monty Python skits, he created a TV show that was supposedly broadcast by a small network in the small fictional county of Rutland. Rutland Weekend Television was a parody on London Weekend Television, a network that was founded in the late sixties to produce “quality” TV but then fell into the hands of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch who turned it into one of his detestable cash dairies. The show was broadcast for two seasons in 1975-76, and on its second season it introduced the Rutles, Rutland’s domestic band.

Looks and sounds familiar? The Rutles were of course a parody on the Beatles, and the short segment on them in RWT was expanded in 1978 into a feature length movie titled All You Need is Cash, in which Rutland TV’s nincompoop broadcaster sets out to explore the myth of the legendary band. If you can no longer effectively laugh at Modern consciousness, then you can instead laugh at pop consciousness and those who took the Beatles too seriously. Idle was Dirk McQuickly, styled after Paul McCartney, Innes was Ron Nasty (John Lennon), Ricky Fataar was Stig O’Hara (George Harrison) and John Halsey was Barry Wom (Ringo Star). The music was written by Innes and always sounded very familiar, even if you never heard it before…

And the movie goes on and lampoons the entire history of the Beatles… excuse me, the Rutles. This is practically the first rockumentary.

The movie is droll and entertaining, but not enough. You can’t do an effective parody on an entity whose humor is the basis of your humor, and anyway the Beatles aren’t ridiculous enough for a satire of them to make burst out in laughter and feel release. Only in the next decade did pop begin to sprout some really preposterous things that were worthy targets for the arrows of satire. But the music is pleasant – the magic of the Beatles works even when it’s just imitation – and the Rutles remain a beloved band. They united several times since then, put on shows, and even made another movie. In 2003, a year after George Harrison’s death, Neil Innes joined Monty Python when they took part in the (recommended) concert held in his memory, and paid him the respect he deserves.

11. The Blues Brothers

Who did the torch of satire pass on to from the hands of Monty Python? This honor belongs to Saturday Night Live, who came on American television in 1975. The idea was to make a Monty Python inspired skit show, but do it live and make it more American. Several unknown young comedians composed the regular (albeit changing every year) cast of the show, and every episode was guest hosted by a known entertainment figure. While Monty Python’s satire dismantled conservative British values, Saturday Night Live was more occupied with the pop world, and while the Pythons were old-fashioned musically and their songs were in music hall style (mainly because they aimed to mock traditional British culture), Saturday Night Live drew its energy from rock’n’roll, provided by the house band that was made of several excellent and revered rock musicians. The biting satire was amplified by the excitement of something happening live, the feeling that anything can happen, and good things happened often. It is no wonder that when the Rutles wanted to conquer America they first appeared on SNL, and some SNL cast members later appeared in the movie. But SNL had its own meta band, too.

The Blues Brothers emerged out of the anarchic spirit of the show, a spirit that was perfect for making good rock’n’roll. Jake and Elwood Blues were John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, both part of the original cast, and they were two white boys who imitated certain mannerisms of black singers: snazzy dressing, cool demeanor, ecstatic dance. In that they were like most other white rockers, but they accentuated the amusing and ridiculous side of it. Then again, they were good enough to make their covers of rhythm ‘n blues classics fun to watch, especially with help of their fantastic backing band. This band contained Steve Cropper and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, formerly of Booker T and the MGs, the legendary band that played on almost all of the outstanding soul records of the label Stax. One of Stax’s biggest hits, ‘Soul Man’, also became the calling card for the Blues Brothers. Jake and Elwood are no Sam and Dave, but they have enough talent and enthusiasm for their performance to be a riot.

Soul Man

This is what rock’n’roll is – whites trying to imitate black culture – and the Blues Brothers reflected the silliness of it. But there is also something very essential about rock’n’roll: when someone from one culture internalizes behaviors from another culture, they free themselves from the logic of the culture they grew into, and experience the ecstasy of breaking borders. And when the culture they grew up into seems to them to be hypocritical and baseless, like fifties and sixties youth felt towards the Western Modern society it grew into, this ecstasy is compounded tenfold. The movie The Blues Brothers, which came out in 1980, shows precisely this picture. The Modern system, represented in the movie by the police, appears absurdly ludicrous, as it appeared in the Marx Brothers’ movies. This system put one of the brothers in jail, but in the beginning of the movie he is released and the two brothers go out on a wild trip during which they drive the system crazy, and at the same time do rock’n’roll with the help of some of the giants of African-American music in electrifying guest appearances. The wild laughter of anarchic comedy blends into the ecstatic wildness of rock’n’roll, generating a feeling of exulted liberation. And when this happens, you might also “see the light” and find another logic, a logic more in tune with the spirit of the time.

In the end, the Blues Brothers are caught and put back in prison. But it is not a sad ending – it is exactly the ending that is called for by the new logic that pop bequeathed us. Modern logic aspired to create an absolutely free human society, one where everyone is free. Pop understands that there is no such thing as absolute freedom. We always grow into a world ruled by certain dogmas, dogmas that were appropriate in the past but no longer reflect the spirit of time. Freedom is the moment when you break this pattern that was imposed on you and liberate yourself from these dogmas, but this freedom is always temporary, because the new logic you create will eventually cement into a pattern that will be a new prison. And that is a good thing, because it means that in the future you will have the ability to experience that freedom again. This insight can already be found in ‘Jailhouse Rock’, one of the early rock’n’roll hits. The record tells of a wild party that erupts in a jailhouse, and engulfs the prisoners and the jailers. This creates an opportunity to escape, but the prisoners elect not to do so: it is much more fun to remain in jail and experience the momentary ecstasy of breaking chains. The ideal that the Modern logic offered us – a society that if free forever – is dismal and boring. The aspiration of pop is not to escape the prison and achieve eternal freedom, but to remain in prison and break its chains again and again. And so, the Blues Brothers go back to penitentiary, and symbolically end the movie with ‘Jailhouse Rock’.

The problem was that pop’s assaults made the Modern logic crumble, and suddenly it no longer constituted a prison you can dance in. Therefore, both music and satire found themselves at a loss in the eighties. Saturday Night Live experienced its all-time low during this decade. But don’t worry: something new always emerges, and the eighties gave birth to new conservative values for us to mock. By the early nineties, SNL was already back in full force and experienced another blooming, satire was biting once again, and in music there were also new directions.

10. Disaster Area

Besides the six group members and Neil Innes, Monty Python’s Flying Circus had another writer on the team. His name was Douglas Adams, and after the show went off the air he took their surrealistic humor to other regions, to the world of science fiction. The result was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a work that is all meta, a work that looks at our world through a distorted prism that enlarges everything that is absurd about it, and turns these absurdities into entire worlds that our heroes travel through. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is both the name of the book and the name of a guide book that our heroes carry with them and contains definitions of different phenomena in the universe. Through this meta Adams ridicules the grand aspirations and allegedly “noble” philosophical ideas of humanity, especially its attempts to find the final and absolute answers to existential questions, but he also mocks little anecdotes of modern daily life and pushes them to very funny extremes. More than anything, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy shows how ridiculous our life is from an outside point of view, and demands of us not to take it too seriously. It began as a series of radio programs in 1978 and became a novel in 1979, a novel whose success led to four sequels. In 1980 he published the second installment, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and there we find the rock band Disaster Area, a band that lives up to its name to such an extent that every place it performs in is immediately declared a disaster area. Here is how Disaster Area is defined in ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“Disaster Area was a plutonium rock band from the Gagrakacka Mind Zones and was generally regarded as not only the loudest rock band in the Galaxy, but also as being the loudest noise of any kind at all. Regular concert goers judged that the best sound balance was usually to be heard from within large concrete bunkers some thirty-seven miles away from the stage, whilst the musicians themselves played their instruments by remote control from within a heavily insulated spaceship which stayed in orbit around the planet – or more frequently around a completely different planet.

Their songs are on the whole very simple and mostly follow the familiar theme of boy-being meets girl-being beneath silvery moon, which then explodes for no adequately explored reason.

Many worlds have now banned their act altogether, sometimes for artistic reasons, but most commonly because the band’s public address system contravenes local strategic arms limitations treaties.”

Adams, in short, has created the ultimate metal band, a band that doesn’t crack it up to 11 but to over 9000, a band so loud that it is impossible to portray and you must hear it to understand, but you can’t hear it because the area in which the band plays is off limits. He made fun of metal, and through it all of rock, but he also created a legendary band. The “plutonium rock” of Disaster Area lives up to the metal ideal in a way that no rock band can ever hope to achieve, and because of that, it deserve an honorary place in the annals of rock, and to be ranked in the top ten on our chart.

9. Throbbing Gristle

In 1916, smack in the middle of WWI, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was sitting in exile in Zurich, in neutral Switzerland, and continuing to analyze the nature of human society and weave his dreams of a perfect society that will emerge after a worker’s revolution. This was the essence of Modern consciousness: the belief that Man progresses towards finding the truth about his nature, and once he finds that truth and lives by it he will reach peace and prosperity. But not far away from him, in a theatre house in the same Zurich, operated at the time a troupe of six members that undermined this very consciousness. They called themselves “Cabaret Voltaire”, and presented a novel and radical perception of art. Their art did not aspire to reflect the truth “behind” perceived reality, but simply to reflect reality as it is at every moment: chaotic, random, devoid of any logic or purpose. Art, philosophy, religion and science operate on the assumption that there is nevertheless order behind all this randomness, that there are laws governing it, and the former three usually also believe that there is a purpose behind it, that humanity is marching towards finding the order that will make everything logical, moral and clear. Cabaret Voltaire aspired in their art to undermine this very assumption, to laugh at Man’s presumptions, to make us embrace reality in all its diverse randomness and realize that there is no purpose behind human existence. At a time when modernity has turned Europe into a slaughterhouse in an atrocious war that no one could explain, they could not believe in that anymore. They called this new artistic approach “Dada”, and set out to dismantle Modern consciousness.

The rest of the world didn’t generally react this way. Despite the horrors of the war that casted doubt over the belief in progress and enlightenment, most intellectuals were still in the yoke of the need to find the absolute truth to realize the potential of “Man” and make him and his society completely enlightened. Art was also still immersed in it and kept on aiming at reaching truth. In the next few decades, whenever someone in art dismantled the ruling logic it was seen as a Dadaist moment, but every time it eventually just became a new style that once again presented itself as reflecting the truth and order beyond perceived reality. The actual worldview of Dada, the claim that there is no ultimate purpose, was something that Western consciousness refused to accept. Or, if it did accept it, it treated this notion as tragic, as a realization that causes the human existence to lose its meaning.

But in pop culture, Dadaist notions began to percolate, and blended into something that Dada did not have: an alternative to the Modern consciousness. At the same time that Cabaret Voltaire started performing in Zurich, the US saw the rise of jazz, which may have not come with any aspirations to make great art or undermine anything but was similar in some respects. Jazz was also spontaneous and chaotic, a steaming cauldron of sounds that negated the acceptable musical logic and contained some sounds that were perceived by the ears of the time as “non-musical”, and it too wanted to capture the moment. What the Dada artists comprehended only after reflection about the history of Western philosophy and art, the jazz musicians felt intuitively. But it had something more: jazz was rhythmic, enticing the body to dance and the soul to total ecstasy, and whoever felt that ecstasy realized that the perfect world can be experienced at this moment and there’s no need to look for it in something that is beyond everyday existence. This was the seed that jazz planted in pop culture, and it worked on it in a similar fashion to the way Dada worked on Modern consciousness, and yet differently: in pop, every new style emerged from the dismantling of the prevailing logic, and like Dada served to undermine Modern consciousness a little more, but at the same time it also further strengthened pop consciousness, the consciousness that aspired to experience Utopia in the here and now.

Pop provided an alternative in the field of comedy as well. The WWI years are also the years in which the Marx brothers began developing their trademark comedy, a comedy typified by the same scathing, random and absurd humor of Cabaret Voltaire but deriving its energy not from “high” art but from pop culture, and this was the beginning of the comedy strain we followed above, the satire that helped pop in its war against Modern consciousness. While Modern consciousness became more and more tragic as the realization that the Modern ideal is unreachable sank in, pop remained comical and optimistic, more powerful than anything Modern art had to offer, and slowly conquered the minds of people and liberated them from their enslavement to the idea that you have to work to create the world of tomorrow. Gradually, Dada found itself operating in a vacant space: except a thin layer of backwards intellectuals no one cared anymore about Modern art, so Dada’s attacks became meaningless. Pop conquered the world in the sixties, and its optimism replaced the desperation that typified Modern art. But even pop could not ignore for long the two events that dealt the final blow to the belief at the basis of Modern consciousness: the Holocaust and the atom bomb. When it became apparent that the aspirations to create a perfect society and a perfect Man lead to the modern state simply eliminating anyone who is seen as standing in the way of the ideal, and that the advancement of modern technology provides them with the means to do it and even with the means to destroy all of humanity, the belief that Man is marching toward fulfilling his purpose became an empty shell. Statesman and educators may have continued to speak in terms of progress long into the seventies, but anyone who opened his eyes to reality realized that you couldn’t carry on talking like that after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Pop consciousness also realized that you can’t go on celebrating the moment when such dangers lurk at our doorstep, but you should employ critical thinking that would help change the situation. In 1973 a band that called itself Cabaret Voltaire, after the creators of Dada, formed in Sheffield and aspired to deconstruct pop using Dadaist means. The music of Cabaret Voltaire wasn’t happy and ecstatic – it was a mixture of electronic sounds and environmental noise inspired by the industrial city they grew in. ‘The Dada Man’, one of their first records, is a good example of their style.

The Dada Man

In the world of “high” art, in the meantime, there were already those who realized that art that hides itself in museums, theatres and concert halls is toothless art, and looked for ways to reconnect. The sixties saw the blooming of what was known as “performance art”, artists that came from the tradition of European art and wished to take it back to the streets and to places where it could confront the public. Performance art was known for its provocative nature, for its attempt to assault the spectators in places they don’t expect it and rock their world. Operating in northern England was a collective of performance artists that called itself COUM Transmissions, led by a guy called Genesis P-Orridge (genesis porridge is kind of what Dada is trying to achieve) and a girl called Cosey Fanni Tutti (some knowledge in opera makes the name even funnier). They began as a musical outfit that produced crazy cacophony, but then turned to visual art, conflating traditional English imagery to taboo things like pornography, Nazism, excretions and more. They got involved in the medium known as “mail art”, which entailed printing their provocative imagery on postcards and sending them to random people, forcing them to confront these things that Modern consciousness tries to suppress. They were notorious in their local area but not beyond that, but then, in 1976, the pop world begat punk, which had a similar attitude to theirs and used the same imagery. Orridge and co. realized that they can shock a much larger audience through pop, and returned to their musical roots. The result was Throbbing Gristle, a band that wasn’t exactly a band – it was a performance of a band. At least at first, Throbbing Gristle was just another performance art project, a group of artists presenting itself as a pop band. The music was akin to the music of Cabaret Voltaire: a combination of synthesizers and machine noise along with more standard instruments like electric guitars. Their first single, which came out in 1977, contained ‘Zyklon-B Zombie’, a song about a Jewish girl in the Holocaust standing naked in front of the entrance to the gas chambers. The record was sort of a parody of punk, and distorted it to such an effect that the singing becomes almost inaudible. The lyrics, a macabre combination of horror and pornography, reflect that dark side of the Modern world.

Influenced by the “do it yourself” ideology of punk, Throbbing Gristle formed the label Industrial, and began releasing their albums by themselves. Along with Cabaret Voltaire they are considered to be the founding fathers of industrial music, a style characterized by the addition of machine sounds and other urban and technological noises to the music. To the ears of Modern consciousness, it did not sound at all like music. The Modern goal was after all to liberate “Man”, and Man was perceived as an organic being that grows through history until it realizes its potential. Technology was regarded as a tool to help him achieve this goal, not part of who he is. Music was always perceived as expressing the essence of Man, his spirit, and therefore should not have contained anything that is inessential to him. Throbbing Gristle’s music performed the Dadaistic deed of mixing everything that belongs to Man’s world at the moment, without determining what’s essential to him and what isn’t. All the things deemed “inessential”, things we must eschew to achieve Man’s potential – mechanism, repetitiveness, pornography, fascism, genocide etc. – were thrown into the musical mix, posing a mirror that showed Modern humanity in all its ugliness and undermined the Modern pretension of advancement towards the creation of a perfect Man. The record ‘Hamburger Lady’ is based on a true story of a woman who was burned in her upper body to such an extent that she looked like cooked meet, but modern technology enabled the doctors to keep her alive and extend her suffering. This is what Modern consciousness tried to hide from itself: that progress might lead not to the enhancement of happiness but rather to the enhancement of suffering.

Industrial music was effectively the more extreme version of punk, which dealt with the same issues. But punk was also much more popular, and its seizing of the mind of the youth constitutes the moment when Modern consciousness collapsed completely in the West. This was actually also the death of Dada, which is meaningful only as a counter-reaction to Modern consciousness. Throbbing Gristle disbanded in 1981, but industrial music did find a way to adjust and remain relevant. In the mid-eighties, Cabaret Voltaire fused the mechanic sounds with funky rhythms and began making danceable and ecstatic music, mingling in with the pop bands and the world of techno music. It is a process that new wave went through as a whole: if in 1977 pop announced that there is “no future”, that the Modern era is leading us to apocalypse and doom, then in the eighties it gradually began to internalize that this realization does not make existence meaningless (Modern consciousness, on the other hand, loses its compass in an existence that isn’t directed towards the future). Pop, after all, is looking for utopia in the present, not in the future, and as long as the present is here we can experience utopias. The horrors of the modern world continued to be part of pop’s content, but the aim was to make them part of the mixture that generates something ecstatic that shoots you to heaven. Genesis P. Orridge travelled the same path: along with his band mate Peter Christopherson he formed a new band called Psychic TV that continued to explore dark matters, but in 1988 saw the light of electronic dance and became part of the loving and utopian world of acid-house. Dada was left behind.

At the end of the eighties, the Soviet monster that was born out of Lenin’s delusions collapsed, signaling the death of Modern consciousness in the West as well. Modern consciousness, which was responsible for spawning Nazism, Communism, the Holocaust, the nuclear race and other monsters, is pretty much behind us, and the danger that these monsters will return has subsided. As a result, the belief in an imminent apocalypse has also diminished considerably, and it’s hard for us today to connect to the sensitivity at the basis of the Dadaist industrial music of Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. But their explorations into the fusion of Man and machine are still relevant, and are important building blocks in today’s pop.

8. The Timelords

Besides The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams had another project on his hands in 1979: he was appointed head writer of Doctor Who. The longtime British TV series tells the story of an alien from a race called “Timelords” who travels space and time in a vehicle called TARDIS that looks like a public phone booth, accompanied by humans and alien companions. The show invites us to meet famous characters of human history and get another perspective on them, or takes us to other worlds that give us another perspective on elements of our world. It could be claimed that The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is just and absurd and exaggerated version of Doctor Who, a show that similarly has a combination of British humor, satire, and lighthearted approach to philosophical questions. The show began its broadcast in 1963 and was on for 26 consecutive seasons until 1989, leaving an indelible mark on British and global pop culture (so much so that it couldn’t remain in oblivion and was relaunched in 2005, better than ever). A year before it was canceled we got a demonstration of its influence, when a duo of musicians who called themselves “The Timelords” released a single that overtook the first place in the British chart. The duo had other names throughout the years, incarnations that were more well-known and productive, but the short moment when they were the Timelords was the moment when their “meta” reached its peak.

The Timelords were Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, two names that were already quite familiar in the pop scene of the eighties. In the middle of the decade they decided that they were tired of the rock world that became no more than a money making machine, and they are going to fight it. Their initial influence was Iliuminatus, a book trilogy that came out in the seventies and was for conspiracy theories pretty much what The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was to science fiction – that is, told a satirical story that poked fun at them. The world of Illuminatus is controlled by nefarious bodies that scheme to maintain their power, and there are heroes that fight them in a funny and absurd plot. Cauty and Drummond called themselves “The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu” (or the JAMs for short), after one of the renegade groups in the book. This symbolized their fight against the pop industry, but at the same time it also signified the fact that they are ridiculing the myth of the rock band that fights against the system and that they realize that it too is no more than a marketing ploy of this industry. This is what happened to the pop world in the eighties: it was trapped in a reality of mirrors endlessly reflecting one another, a reality in which you couldn’t tell who is lampooning whom and who is reflecting whom, who is real and who is bogus, who is being ironic and who is just a cynic. Musically, the JAMs adopted hip-hop, especially its habit of sampling bits of other records and weaving them together to create a new record. Although they were Brits who were whiter than pale, they chose the hip-hop names Rockman Rock and King Boy D, hired rappers to rap on their records, and used hip-hop to deconstruct pop. In 1987 they released an album in which all the tracks were made of samples that took the piss out of of pop’s sacred cows, for instance this track in which they demolish the Beatles’ “sacred” ‘All You Need is Love’ and juxtapose it to records that were considered detestable by rock connoisseurs, like Samantha Fox’s ‘Touch Me’.

A year later they changed their name and became the Timelords, and published a booklet they called The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) in which they instruct pop novices on how they can get to number one in the UK chart. The name change signified a change of attitude. They no longer assumed the characters of guardians against the conspiracy, but of aliens who are taking a top-down view of pop and scoff at it. The Manual is written with a pen dripping with irony, and attempts to bust all the myths that arose around pop and its idols. Among other things they provide another reason for creating a record based entirely on samples: it refutes the myth of originality. In their view, there is no such thing as “original music”: every new musical number just reassembles things that were already done, whether the creator is aware of it or not. Those who sample are simply those who are no longer lying to themselves and others. Earlier in the year they’ve already provided an example of how you can make a hit this way, with the single ‘Doctorin’ the TARDIS’, a record that conjoins sampled sounds from Doctor Who with two glam classics: Garry Glitter’s ‘Rock’n’roll’ and Sweet’s ‘Blockbuster’. The winning combination conquered the first place in the British chart, and to troll the media even further the Timelords claimed that it was created by a singing car and sent the car to do the interviews in their place. The car, which suspiciously resembles the Blues Brothers’ Bluesmobile, also fights Daleks.

This derisive attitude towards pop isn’t new. There were always people who despised pop and asserted that pop records are nothing but a consumer product that the industry churns according to a tried and tested formula of hit making, and selling it to the masses who remain unaware of how they are manipulated to like this music. But this too is no more than a myth that the manual debunks. The pop industry actually has no idea how to create a hit, say the Timelords, because while it is true that hits are made according to a formula, the formula can only work when applied to a style that is in tune with the spirit of the time. Only the musicians that emerge from that generation and understand its sensibilities can create music connected to the spirit of the time, and only they can, if they choose, turn this music into hits that will go to number one on the charts. In other words, the Timelords are not mocking pop itself, whose potency and importance they understand, but only those who form fantasy myths around it or those who are only interested in producing hits. The Manual also noted that there are periods in pop when a truly important style emerges, music that expresses a completely new sensibility that changes the world of its listeners. And it just so happened that the year in which they wrote their manual saw the rise of such a style.

House music was born in the beginning of the eighties in Chicago discotheques, and purified disco from its soul elements to leave only the danceable merger of man and machine. At first, it sounded to many as another step on the way to losing our humanity, but then, in 1987, house musicians found a the ghost in the machine, the way to use the technology to produce novel psychedelic sounds that would take the mind of the listener to other regions. The result is what became known as acid-house, and when this style crossed the ocean to Britain, it became the basis for what was called “Rave”, a style that uses synthesizers, computers and electronic instruments to create ecstatic, danceable and uplifting music. Rave absorbed house and techno and generated a bang that changed everything. In 1988, pop experienced a new beginning.

Why did rave have such an effect? Because it was exactly what the spirit of the time demanded. Modern consciousness was trapped in the project of creating the perfect Man, and the struggle was between two lines of thought: the one that perceived “Man” as universal and aspired to create a global and unified human society, and the other perceived “Man” as an individual and propagated that every individual develop themselves. The universalist school was the first to realize that all this belief in “Man” is bunk, and the belief in creating a universal human society collapsed during the seventies. That led the individualistic school to believe that it won, and during the eighties there arose a new conservativism that put the emphasis on the individual, on an ideal of a capitalist society where everyone will operate on selfish motives and think only about self-advancement. But actually, the fall of “Man” meant that the belief in the individual was also wrong, and the claim that selfishness is good was baseless. Rave was the thing that liberated the minds of the youth from this cynical individualism and enabled them to find the “together” again. Rave creates a tribe in which individuality disappears and everyone dances together in loving unity, transcending the selfish world around them for just a while, and this sensation was the basis for the new pop.

Drummond and Cauty were there just in time to capture this spirit and employ their formula on it to create triumphant records. ‘Doctorin’ the TARDIS’ already combined their hip-hop sampling with anthemic and danceable house, but was in some ways a parody of house (its title paraphrases the house hit ‘Doctorin’ the House’ by Coldcut). When the spirit of rave swept them, it was easy for them to transform their identity and turn their Mu-Mu into something tribal. The result was another name change, and now they were called Kings of the Low Frequency, of KLF for short. And as the KLF, this duo of satyrs that at first seemed like no more than a musical joke turned around in 1990 and released The White Room, one of rave’s greatest masterpieces. This album is not a joke. The irony is still there, the defining imagery is still there, but it gets swept away by the enthralling music, one long rave consisting of tracks designed to take the dancers to heaven.

But the KLF did not forget their origins, and in 91 they remade one of their earlier records, ‘Justified and Ancient’. The message of the single was a call to the world to stand by them in their struggle against the cynical music industry, and since it was about standing by them, there was no one more fitting to sing it than the singer most well-known for standing by someone – yes, the KLF contacted Tammy Wynette, the country singer made famous by her hit record ‘Stand By Your Man’. A duet between rave and country is one of those jokes that only Drummond and Cauty could come up with, but guess what? It works.

In 92, the duo realized that the joke had played itself out, and they are too famous and successful to be able to make effective satire. They announced their retirement from the pop world, changed their name again to “The K Foundation”, and moved to the pretentious world of “High” art to spread their Dadaist terrorism there. But what they did in their few years in pop was not forgotten. They were a mirror to their time, and pointed at ways to get out of the cynical eighties and pave new roads. The two styles they’ve combined – hip-hop and rave – are the two styles that provide the basis of pop in the past 25 years, because they are the styles that best express the truth of our time. Today we know that there is no universal or individual “Man”, but every one of us is a compound of many different things, none of them particular only to us or shared with all of humanity – the thing that makes each of us unique is the quality of the compound. For each of our traits we can find those who are like us and form a community with them, and in that way we also expand our personal world. Since those years, rave split into hundreds of different tribes in which we can unite with those who share our love to the same musical style, and it represents this tribalism; whereas hip-hop, in its composition of samples, represents the ability of each individual to mix all the tribes they belong to and create their own individuality. Eighties conservatism is still with us, and actually it currently dominates the system and imposes its cynical and rapacious capitalism. But the truth of pop digs underneath it, justified and ancient, and will win in the end. From the outside pop may seem superficial and trivial, but it is bigger on the inside.

7. Devo

May the 4th, 1970, was a dark day in American history. In reaction to violent protests of students in Kent State University in Ohio against the Vietnam war, the national guard opened fire and killed four of them, an act of excessive and tragic institutional violence that was the result of the tensions created by the revolutionary atmosphere of the time. The event was immortalized by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in their record ‘Ohio’, which describes it in the context of a struggle against an evil regime. This was the Hippie view: we are living under a bad regime and must instigate a revolution that will bring about a new society and achieve Utopia. But in the university itself there were some students who viewed things differently, and their reaction to the event was to form their own band, whose name and image would reflect a different view, diametrically opposed to that of the Hippies.

Devo is short for “Devolution”. This is an idea that was born in religious circles in reaction to the theory of evolution presented by science, and maintains that Man did not evolve from the ape but it was actually the other way around: the apes were once humans that devolved to the level of animals because they renounced faith. The devolution people blamed science and modernity for taking Man away from his spiritual origin and precipitating this downfall. Devo took this idea and secularized it, and their attack was not on modernity but on consumer culture, which they claimed is infantilizing Man and turns him into an ape. They regarded the political violence and feral rock’n’roll of the time to be symptoms of this devolution, and reflected it in their image. They were a rock group that played guitars, but did it in a robotic and repetitive manner and added electronic synth sounds, an expression of a humanity losing its soul. The visual aspect was also very important in their art, and in the early days of Devo, in mid-seventies, they assumed the image of scientists exploring devolution. Because the visuals were so important they filmed several video clips for their records, and are considered today one of the pioneers of video-clip art. ‘Jocko Homo’ (ape man) presents their vision of humanity.

This was the B-side of their debut single, which came out in 1976. The A-side was ‘Mongoloid’, which showed another characteristic aspect of their art. The record tells of a mongoloid man who lives among the “normal” people and leads a perfectly regular bourgeois life, and no one notices anything different about him. And that is because he is not so different: all of us, imply Devo, have become mongoloid because of the world we live in. They had other records in that vein, and the band members did not look like long-haired rockers but adopted a “normal” look (besides the strange clothes) to show that they are merely a reflection of our society. Another typical look was radiation suits, a reflection of our life in a nuclear world that causes degeneration. In their performance of the Rolling Stones classic ‘Satisfaction’, they best reflect humanity as they saw it. The original record was an attack on consumer culture, which the Stones claim does not provide real satisfaction but sells us cheap knockoffs. Their version expressed the hunger for something better, hunger that gives humanity its vitality. In Devo’s version, on the other hand, there is no hunger, and humans are portrayed as automatons driven by basic urges and without a will of their own.


In 1980 Devo released the album Freedom of Choice, in which they pretty much ditched the guitars and used mainly synthesizers to express the mechanical nature of contemporary humanity. Several tracks sound like capitalist manifestos and eulogies to the American way of life, but their real meaning is of course to imply that these are some of the things that lead to devolution. The new image of the band contained a hat that was called Energy Dome, making them look like Lego constructs, or a technological plant, or coneheads, and anyway not at all like Man as we would have liked to imagine him. ‘Whip it’ sounds like one of those records designed to drive us to get up and improve our lives, the type of pep songs that characterize the American spirit. That’s the way that the Americans like to picture themselves, but the clip shows them to be a bunch of ignorant, violent and sexist rednecks.

‘Whip it’ was the band’s biggest hit, got heavy rotation on MTV and won them many new fans. Naturally, most of these fans did not get the irony in their art and got on Devo’s nerves. Suddenly they felt that American culture is absorbing and incorporating them, and their reaction was the album New Traditionalists, in which they portray themselves, ironically of course, as the new conservatives. The new look of the band consisted of boy scout suits and President Kennedy wigs, as if they were good ole’ American boys. At the dawn of President Reagan’s era, the beginning of Reaganism which preached that Americans live in a good and just society based on traditional American values, Devo were there to lampoon this illusion. It appears that their look was meant to imply that the revolutionary sixties generation, which Kennedy was one of its heroes, evolved into middle-aged bourgeois conservatives who vote for Reagen. Religion wasn’t spared either, and during that time they also began to appear as Dove, a bogus Christian rock band that played the soft rock typical of this genre, but used it to perform Devo songs. Meanwhile, Devo’s video clips continued to feed MTV with imagery of the type that people didn’t really want to see. ‘Beautiful World’ describes the beauty of the world we live in, but gradually exposes the ugliness we are trying to hide.

Devo kept on being a popular band throughout the eighties and kept on doing their thing, but increasingly lost direction. Both their music and their image were incorporated into the mainstream and don’t look and sound so weird any more, and as a result lost their ability to shock. But they are still fun.


The meta-bands parade (18-13)


18. Gorillaz

From 1995 up to the end of the millennium the pop world became a rather boring affair. The feeling was that not only rock had run its course, but hip-hop and electronic dance have also lost direction. MTV, which for the last decade-and-a-half was the center of the world for youth culture, became bland and boring. This was also how Blur’s vocalist Damon Albarn and his illustrator friend Jamie Howlett felt. In 1998, when they couldn’t take it anymore, they decided to form a fictional band that would be a parody on the pop world of the time. Gorillaz were sketched by Howlett and contained four members: 2D the vocalist, Murdoc Niccals the bassist, Noodles the guitarist and Russell Hobbs the drummer. Albarn provided the music with a changing line of musicians, and it was basically a rock band with elements of electronica, dub, hip-hop, trip-hop and more, which gave it the required strangeness. An Internet homepage, groundbreaking for its time, was created and provided a fictive biography and a fictitious world, and the band was launched. It created quite a buzz at the time, but the music, to my ears, was rather insipid and just blended it with the dull sound of the era.

The main historical significance of Gorillaz was that this was the first notable band whose base was the cybernetic world, and in that it marked the shift in pop culture’s point of gravity, from music to the Internet. From the fifties onward, a kid who felt alienated from the world they grew into and wanted to scream their truth in its ears could do so through rock’n’roll and the styles it spawned. Through pop music the youth could also find those who felt like them, those who were moved by the same artists and musical styles that expressed their inner truth. In other words, the way kids expressed themselves and discovered their identities was through music. But when the Internet began infiltrating their lives in the nineties, communities developed in it that enabled everyone to express themselves and find kinship, and music lost its significance. Pop music had to adapt to this situation, and in the first decade of the new millennium it got used to simply being part of these communities. Rock no longer regards itself as the thing that will change the world, and understands that there is actually no longer a “world” but many worlds. This millennium’s rock bands are mainly busy making music that fuses styles from all of pop’s history, like the amalgamation that Gorillaz offered, and learned to turn the stew into something that is at least interesting to listen to. Gorillaz improved as well, and offer better music and animation.

Gorillaz, then, are a reflection of a momentous moment in pop, the moment when the vanguard moved from music to the Internet. They wanted to parody the old world, but today they look more like the heralds of a new one.

17. The Crescendolls

So rock realized it is time to move to the Internet, but rock isn’t really suitable for the Internet era. Rock is after all music for and by jocks, while the Internet belongs to the nerds. Nerd music is electronic music, the music that developed from the German motorik of the seventies, the synthpop of the new wave, the electro that came out of early eighties hip-hop, the house that was born out of disco in mid-eighties Chicago, and the techno created at the time in Detroit. This is music created mostly not by playing instruments but by programming machines, and its essence is the formation of novel sounds with a futuristic feel. This music broke big at the end of the eighties, and it is the most suitable for the Internet era. In the 21st century, it becomes more and more dominant.

Daft Punk came out of the French house scene of the late nineties, music that offered house with a tinge of French sophistication, and became a leading electro-house band. Then again, their name suggests that they may have been doing electronic music but they were also a statement on the rock world and derived their imagery from the golden decades of pop. They are indeed different from most other electronica artists in that they have an image beyond the music, not unlike the rock bands of the past. Kind of a fusion between Kraftwerk and the Residents, the duo always appeared hooded in spacesuits and produced funky and tantalizing sounds from their synthesizers. In 2003 they decided to make an hour-long animation film to accompany their music, and of course there was only one source they could turn to to provide the futuristic animation they required: Japanese anime. This was one of the Gorillaz’s “mistakes”: they were drawn by Jamie Howlett, known mainly for his Tank Girl comics, and their imagery was therefore taken from punk. But punk belongs to the pre-Internet world, whereas Japanese anime already dwells in it and is connected to it. Daft Punk did it right, and the result is Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem. The movie tells the story of a band of blue-skinned aliens who are abducted by a greedy music industry impresario and brought to Earth where they are put into a machine that brainwashes them, changes their looks and makes them forget their origin and think that they are human. Once he has them under his control the impresario turns them into a popular band called the Crescendolls and makes a fortune on the back of their talent, and the main plot revolves around an attempt by a hero from their own planet to rescue them and bring them back home.

This is the most familiar story of the rock age: a band that expresses something alien to the mainstream, something pure that was not processed by the system, is corrupted when it becomes part of the music industry which treats it merely as a product. One of the main questions that rock deliberated was how to remain pure and express something real in spite of the industry’s demands. Here the story is retold from a nerdy point of view: the Crescendolls may look like a rock band and play guitars, but the music we hear is electro-house, and the story is told using sci-fi imagery like blue-skinned aliens and identity-wiping machines. The Crescendolls are sort of what the Internet era sees when it looks at the history of rock and tries to learn from it how not to fall into the same traps, and this is what makes them a meta band.

One of the most celebrated rock masterpieces to tell this story is the album Wish You were Here, released by Pink Floyd in 1975, presenting an autobiographical account by the band of the way in which it was corrupted and lost its way the moment it became part of the system. Pink Floyd use synthesizers to produce industrial machine sounds that represent this system, this heartless apparatus they succumbed to, whereas the singing and guitars represent the human side trying to break away from the system and express itself in its purity. But the album is pessimistic, like all of their albums, and Pink Floyd never figured out the way to be free of the machine. The dichotomy that Pink Floyd and lots of their rock peers imagined between Man on one side and the industrial and capitalist system on the other is an illusion – actually, technology and economical systems are the products of the human spirit, are part of Man. The music of Daft Punk and many other electronic groups already express a consciousness that is aware of it and tries to find solutions based on this awareness. In the clip shown above we hear human singing converting seamlessly into synthesized sounds and then returning to the human voice, as if they were both on the same scale, not conflicting entities. This music displays an understanding that you cannot detach Man from the system he created, and he must find his truth inside it.

And this is one of the lessons of the rock age: despite all the corrupting power that the pop industry holds, only within it can one create great art. When a pop band is required to deal with the demands of the system and find the way to nevertheless remain authentic, it does what art is supposed to do: showing us how to live within society and still be happy. The Internet opened the way more than ever before for artists to find an audience without first going through the system, but artists who do so represent in their art only escape from the challenges of life, and that is art that has no power. If the art of the 21st century wants to achieve greatness and be as meaningful as it was in the rock age, it must remember this lesson.

16. Zlad!

Zlad! Is the brainchild of Australian comedian Santo Cilauro, who in 2003 created, along with some mates, a traveling guide to a fictional Eastern European country called Molvania. Molvania is a combination of all Eastern European negative stereotypes put together, and of course it had to make fun of their music too. Santo assumed the character of Zladko Vladcik, and “Zlad!” is either his stage persona or the name of the band that includes him and a female keytarist. In 2004 they released a video to a song that was touted as Molvania’s contender in the Eurovision. The terrible (and hilarious) song did not make it to the Eurovision, unfortunately, but on the Internet it went viral.

So the intent was to poke fun at eastern Europeans music and the Eurovision song contest, but actually the “meta” here turned out to be something else (and maybe that was the intent all along). This is one of the first videos to herald the birth of a new musical taste, the taste of Internet culture. This culture likes vids that make you wonder “what the hell is going on here?” (or, in the more common form, “WTF??”), and they have the tendency to go viral and achieve fame. The Internet loves randomness, meta-logic, something that is not supposed to work but works anyway. Whereas in the radio era the best way to express yourself and be heard was the pop hit, in the Internet era it is the viral video, and anyone who wants to express themselves musically and get the world to take notice has to create a video-clip that obeys the new rules and becomes viral. Through YouTube, anyone today can create a virtual persona and upload videos, and the models provided by 20th century pop are now an inspiration to millions of kids, many of which have become YouTube stars, who employ this accumulated knowledge. Many of them also create ironic personas, displaying a deep understanding of the meta aesthetics we describe here. The Internet is also home to the trolls, those who are out to provoke and elicit angry reactions, and in the first years of the Internet the trolls were just people who enjoyed being anti-social, but over the years the troll developed and changed. Latter-years trolls are often YouTube personas, and there are quite a few creative and sophisticated trolls who understand the random logic of the Internet and their actions comprise statement on the way it works. The “meta-troll”, or the “cannibal troll”, is someone who intentionally creates something bad that would bait other trolls to attack it, and thus generates a large amount of views that make his video go viral. The most successful meta-trolls are those that make intentionally bad music, and Zlad was one of the first to show the way. His claim to be from the future suddenly seems to have some credibility.

15. The Monkees

What was the first “boy band”? One can claim it was the Beatles. When Brian Epstein discovered the fab four from Liverpool and became their personal manager, he first of all sought to create an appealing image for them, with the suits and the mop-top haircuts, and later to amplify the unique personality of each of the members. But the Beatles were already an authentic rock’n’roll band before Epstein found them, with years of playing in crowded cellars in Liverpool and Hamburg under their belt. If we’re looking for the first band that was preconceived as a concept, we need look no further than the Monkees.

The Monkees were the brainchild of two young Hollywood producers, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who decided to create the American answer to the Beatles. They pitched to NBC network the idea of a TV series about a rock group of four members with unique personalities, just like the Beatles, that will generate hysteria among the teenyboppers. Hundreds of young musicians were auditions for the parts to find those who fit the personalities, four cute guys who could act and sing were chosen, and in September 1966 the show debuted. The four pals Mickey, Mike, Pater and Davy provided a mixture of slapstick, surrealism and rock’n’roll, and the anticipated hysteria among American girls did not fail to arrive.

It’s nothing new the Hollywood, the fabrication of images. Up until the 1950s, movie stars were characterized by an image they would play in every movie, and the public relations apparatus built around them was designed to amplify this image in the public’s eye. The thing that was new in Schneider and Rafelson’s idea was the realization that we are in an era of bands, so they created an image for an entire band and for each of its members. To equip the band with music they turned to the Brill Building tunesmiths, then still connected to the pulse of pop culture, and the latter did not disappoint and furnished the band with a line of hits.

At its core, the Monkees project displays denigration of pop music. The band’s concept shows that its creators thought that the whole point in pop is to provide teenyboppers with some objects of desire, four cute boys they can fantasize about and express their awakening sexual feelings. All the boy bands created since are based on this concept. But whoever thinks that this is the essence of pop is gravely mistaken – this is just the lowest common denominator. Because every generation of teens has new sensitivities, and the pop world allows these sensitivities to develop and become new ideas and new cultures. Part of the music does indeed remain on the level of satisfying the base urges, but another part goes in creative and sublime directions. While Schneider and Rafelson were busy trying to cook up the American answer to the Beatles, the Beatles themselves moved on, and a month before the Monkees went on air they released their album Revolver, which took them far away from basic rock’n’roll and screaming girls towards deep and elaborate music created in the studio. Rock’s spirit moved on with them, and the Monkees found themselves trailing behind. The band members, who as we recall were no more than paid actors selected for the parts and not a real band, rebelled: they felt that the music they were making was meaningless and infantile, and wanted to do something more meaningful that will keep them in line with the other rock bands. Rafelson and Schneider also felt that they wanted to do something more “real”, and in 1968 the Monkees released the psychedelic movie Head, based on a surrealistic script written by Jack Nicholson, one of the representatives of the fledgling counter-culture. Schneider and Rafelsom carried on from there and used the money they made off the Monkees project to produce and direct subversive movies that expressed counter-culture values, and along with a generation of young actors that included Nicholson along with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and others they made Easy Rider and other important films. The Monkees, in the meantime, achieved their freedom and became a bona-fide rock band, but they were hounded by their past and were never taken seriously. They would always be considered as no more than a boy band.

And yet, the Monkees did contribute something of importance to the pop world. The opening theme for the show, ‘Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees’, is the first time that a rock’n’roll band sang about itself, the first time a band showed awareness to itself as part of the world it sings about. Fifties and sixties bands perceived the music as their art, and did not think of the band as an art piece in itself. The next decades will see bands that will regard themselves as part of their art, that will build their image according to a certain concept, that will regard the world as a stage and their existence in it as a perpetual theatrical act. A lot of the bands mentioned here learned in some way or another from the Monkees, the first band to be conceived as an idea.

14. The Village People

One glaring thing about this parade is that it is made almost entirely of white male bands. It is no wonder that this is the case: these bands are a statement on the way humanity thinks of itself, and up until recently, when you’d discuss humanity, or “Man”, it was the white man you would talk about. Therefore, the mirror image also had to be that of the white man, shown in some ironic way. When black or female bands wanted to attack the way Western society perceived itself they did not have to get cute but could do it directly and in their own name, and present their alternative. Homosexuals, on the other hand, are a more complicated issue.

Homosexuality was illegal in the West until the middle of the 20th century, and gays had to hide their sexual identity – “remain in the closet”. They looked like “straight” people, but developed secret codes that enabled them to recognize each other. Out of this underground culture came what is known as “Camp”, which is a distinctive taste and attitude towards the world. The essence of camp is an ironic attitude towards the straight world: the homosexual imitates the behavior of heterosexual men or women, but takes it to extremes. Thus, the gay person is belonging to the straight world without being outcast while at the same time extracting themselves from it (they “camp outside” it, and that could be the meaning of the term ‘Camp’ when it started to be used at the end of the 19th century). Camp evolved and expanded throughout the 20th century, and sent its tentacles deep into pop culture and the fashion world. A campy person is someone who lives life ironically, a person whose identity is a statement on the society they’re surrounded by. Camp is always meta.

In the sixties homosexuality became legal in the US, and in the West in general. But the LGBT community was still largely underground, because socially they were still hated and persecuted. One place in which the LGBT community found sanctuary was the discotheques of Manhattan, where they could dance and hang out with each other in clubs or nights that were distinguished for them. And there, in the gay clubs of Manhattan, arose a new musical culture, a new musical logic. The Disc Jockeys in the discotheques began playing the records not separately and per request as they did before, but as part of one extended piece according to their own vision. These DJs developed techniques that enabled them to switch seamlessly from record to record, or play two records simultaneously, and so they used existing records to create one long piece that lasted for hours and took the dancers on a magical trip. The DJs played mainly funky rhythms over which they put more melodic styles like psychedelia and soul, with sixties love messages. This musical culture was called “disco”, and in the second half of the seventies it crossed over and conquered the charts with dance records that combined mellowed funky rhythms, technological manipulations and melodic soulful singing. These mainstream records were largely cleaned up of any gay themes, but the style still had a sufficient amount of camp.

And there were also gay musicians who found in disco a venue to express themselves. Among them was the composer Jacques Morali, who along with (straight) lyricist-singer Victor Willis wrote some songs with a gay subtext. After the songs were recorded and found initial success, Morali immediately auditioned some singer-dancers to form a band that will perform them live, and the concept of the Village People (that is, people who come from New York’s Greenwich Village, considered an LGBT stronghold) was born. The band assumed comic-book figures of male archetypes – there was the policeman (Willis, who was also the main vocalist), the soldier/sailor, the cowboy, the Indian, the biker and the construction man – as a campy statement on American machoism. The first single was ‘I am What I am’, an anthem of self-pride, but it didn’t go very far. The second single, however, crystalized the band’s identity, furnished it with its first hit, and became its anthem.

Those were the Village People: a group of mustachoid machos singing hymns of masculinity. They also had records that dealt directly with life in the community and hope to be free of persecution, but their biggest hits where those were they masqueraded as straight men and made fun of them. The third single takes place inside the walls of the YMCA, that male-only Christian club. Needless to say, what the singer has in mind when he hangs out with all the boys is not very Christian…

…Whereas ‘In the Navy’ is a celebration of the navy, and the “masculine” life you find there…

The Village People were hugely popular (mainly because most listeners didn’t get the joke), and today they are pop icons and the band most identified with disco. The band members were replaced several times – they are not recognized on their own count, but as their characters. The people who portrayed the characters weren’t necessarily gay, but the overall concept remained true to camp aesthetics. They did not invent camp “machoism” – it was always part of camp – but they were the ones who inserted it into the consciousness of the masses: today, everyone can recognize their campiness. And the effect was far reaching: while in the past gays were regarded as sissies and straight men displayed their machoism to distinguish themselves from them, today anyone who is “too manly” will be perceived as gay, as someone who accentuates his masculinity as a campy statement. And so, ironically, the Village People contributed to the sublimation of human society.

13. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem

When the worlds of “serious” and “popular” music drifted apart during the 19th century, “serious” music began to retreat into opera and concert halls, while popular music was mainly part of what was called Variety shows: entertainment events in which the stage would be successively taken by different kind of entertainers, such as singers, dancers, instrumentalists, comedians, magicians, acrobats, jugglers, puppeteers, ventriloquists and so forth. In Britain it was shown mainly in halls and was called Music Hall, in the United States it was mainly wandering acts that were called Vaudeville. In time, all these various entertainment fields grew and developed and became worlds of their own, and it was hard to combine them all together, but there were still variety shows up to the middle of the 20th century. In the first days of television, in the fifties and sixties, variety shows could still be found on it (like for instance the Ed Sullivan Show), but after that the pop world became so huge that it could no longer be contained in such a format. Nevertheless, in the second half of the seventies there came another variety show that took over the world: The Muppets, that wonderful puppet theatre created by Jim Henson and friends, was a TV show that was at once a parody on variety shows and also the best variety show ever. At a time when pop was at its apex, the Muppets made fun of everything that happened in it from the days of Music Hall and up until the time of cinema, TV and rock’n’roll. Every week the show hosted one of the giants of entertainment, from the elders of the clan that started out in vaudeville to the latest stars of stage, radio and screen, and every episode was a string of brilliant gags that parodied every aspect of the entertainment world and displayed endless creativity and anarchic humor. The Muppets were and still are loved by people of all ages and walks of life, from young to old, from the squarest to the most rebellious, and the classic series from the seventies still slays with its humor.

Naturally, their satire had to also reflect the rock world of the time, and for that Henson and his fellow puppeteers created Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, a band that brought together several rock archetypes. Dr. Teeth, the leader, was a freaky and flamboyant keyboardist, the last in a line of smiling pianist dandies which begins in the Romantic age with Franz Liszt through jazz pianists like Fats Waller and up to rock personas like Dr. John. Floyd Pepper, the bass player, was the grooviest Hippie ever, a super-stoner with acerbic humor and a smoky bluesy voice. Janice, the hot guitarist chick, rivaled him in grooviness, and the saxophonist Zoot was a weirdo by any measure. But most famous of them all was of course the drummer Animal, whose character was the quintessence of everything a rock drummer should be without any supplements: a crazy bobbing head of hair with four limbs banging in all directions. This band played with some of the jazz and rock greats and was worthy of each and every one of them. Here they are with jazz singer Cleo Laine.

At this time pop already achieved full confidence and realized that what it has to offer is worth a lot more than what “serious” art was trying to peddle, and that the “serious” music people are nothing but pathetic dried-up fossils who are stuck in the past. The representative of the “serious” and elitist art aficionados on the show was Sam the Eagle, who was on a mission to make the Muppets a “cultural” show in the spirit of people like Hayden and Mozart, or what he thought was their spirit. What people like Sam don’t realize is that in the 18th century the highest aspiration was to cultivate Man and make him more refined, and thus art was sublimated, but in our time the Western Man is cultivated enough and what we are looking for now are new roads to ecstasy. Beyond that, the “serious” approach actually eroded the music it so glorifies, and made us forget that in the 18th century it wasn’t taken that seriously but contained lots of anarchy, sexiness, laughter and silliness. Whenever the Muppets performed a “classical” piece they found a way to demolish it in a funny way, and in that they actually restored the vitality that was extracted out of it by the stuffed “high art” people. Here’s what happened when the Electric Mayhem were asked to perform a minuet from that century…

Beyond the comedy, Electric Mayhem was a terrific rock band. The studio musicians were pros, the puppeteers imitated the movements of real musicians in an amazingly realistic way, those who dubbed the voices of Floyd, Janice and the Doctor were excellent singers, and the anarchic spirit of the Muppets was exactly the spirit needed to create genuine rock’n’roll. Here they take a piece of Billy Joel classic and do it even better than Joel.

And we can’t leave without a little more Animal, whose presence alone should be enough to earn Electric Mayhem a place in the Rock’n’roll Hall of Fame…


The meta-bands parade (24-19)


24. The Strangeloves

When the Beatles took the US by storm in 1964 other British bands immediately followed in their wake, and the American pop chart was conquered by what is known as “the British invasion”. The tunesmiths of the Brill Building suddenly found their livelihood in danger, as public taste changed and demanded that performers would write their own songs. Three New York songwriters – Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer – had the brilliant idea to deal with this new reality by pretending that they too came from oversees. They formed a band called the Strangeloves, and adopted the personas of three brothers – Miles, Giles and Niles Strangelove – who came from Australia. Their fictional biography stated that they came from a family of successful sheep breeders, and that they’ve learned the unique beat that typified their records from the local aborigines and from the Maasai tribe they met while traveling Africa. To complete the image, they wore strange wigs and spoke in a fake Australian accent. This was enough to create some hype, and now all that was left for them to do was to create records that would be good and weird enough to fit their image. And at that they had better success than most of their peers, because they had a better understanding of the nature of rock’n’roll.

To understand what made rock’n’roll so revolutionary one has to remember the environment it grew in. The 1950s where the time when the modern project reached its zenith and seemed set to accomplish its goal. The goal, as it was laid forth in the 18th century, was to create a new and enlightened Man, a Man that has learned to sublimate his animalistic sides and delay immediate gratifications for the benefit of society. The perfection of this project was supposed to bring world peace and the formation of an enlightened human society that would care for the welfare and happiness of all its subjects. The Western society of the fifties regarded itself as cruising on the road to achieve that goal, but the youth that grew into it did not feel that way. They could see that the adults’ pretensions of enlightenment contained a lot of hypocrisy, and since they did not experience the previous awful decades they could not appreciate the progress achieved. This was the first generation that felt financially secure and was therefore more focused on leisure than work, and this was also the first generation to live under the threat of nuclear annihilation and to not know if it would live to see tomorrow. All of this produced a consciousness that did not want to postpone immediate gratification for the sake of a better future, but wanted everything here and now. Rock’n’roll, with its wild abandon, gave them just what they wanted. The culture guardians reacted with panic and thought that not only the modern project but civilization as a whole was in danger because of this music that releases the animalistic urges, but they did not realize that rock’n’roll had something else: the contradiction it created with the prevailing modern logic resulted in a sensation of all the boundaries breaking down, and this sensation is accompanied by a wondrous and transcendent feeling of ecstasy. And this is the thing that pop culture will always try to relive: not the feeling of achieving instant gratification, but the amazing sensation of breaking the prevailing logic by a new ecstatic experience that is in tune with the spirit of the time. This sensation doesn’t last for long, since a new logic soon crystalizes on the basis of this new ecstatic experience, but then comes a new musical style that once again breaks the paradigm and provides a new ecstatic experience. In this way, pop regenerated again and again, and gradually dismantled the Modern logic to introduce a different logic.

In the sixties pop did not fully understand this process yet, but already sensed it. 1964 saw the release of Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove, which displayed Modern logic as a total sham and showed that under the civilized veneer Man remained an ape that is not capable of controlling the sophisticated technological systems he created and is leading himself to extinction. The Strangeloves took their name from the movie, but they had no pretense to be anything more than an ape. The single ‘I Want Candy’, which came out in 1965, was a perfect expression of a consciousness that is no longer willing to postpone any immediate gratifications. Previously we witnessed one attempt by Brill Building writers to adapt to the spirit of the time and make garage music, which produced the hit record ‘Sugar Sugar’. “You are my candy girl / And you got me wanting you,” sing the Archies, but they sing it in a sweet and unthreatening manner from which we can deduce that they are capable of controlling this urge. The Strangeloves, on the other hand, display no such mastery over their primal urges, “I want candy” they scream like a toddler wanting candy, transferring this infantile demand to the age of puberty and to a desire to a hot girl named candy. The “Maasai” drums complete the urge-releasing jungle atmosphere, and the result is one of the masterpieces of garage.

Their next single was more self-aware. ‘Night Time’ derides all the people who are working and saving their money for the future, whereas the hero also works but spends the money he earns on the wild night life with his hot girlfriend.

This typified the consciousness of early rock’n’roll: it was already aware that it was offering something better than the Modern formula, something based on fun in the spheres of leisure and play and not on working for the future, but couldn’t yet say exactly what it was. Therefore, the lyrics were characterized by intentional infantilism and barbarity, by demands for immediate satisfactions. In the second half of the sixties rock’n’roll began taking itself more seriously as the voice of the new generation and attempted to articulate deeper statements (it even started calling itself “rock”, to distinguish itself from teenybopper rock’n’roll), but in the process it began internalizing parts of the old adult logic and distanced itself from the initial ecstasy. The Strangeloves, meanwhile, broke up, but two of its members, Feldman and Goldstein, formed a new band called the Rock & Roll Dubble Bubble Trading Card Co. of Philadelphia 19141, and in 1969 they released a record that was a parody of bubblegum music.

The record mentions the “serious” rock of the time but rejects it as unsatisfactory, and declares its love to bubblegum pop that preserves the spirit of early rock’n’roll. There was something prophetic about this record, but its music, and bubblegum pop as a whole, did not really preserve early rock’n’roll’s spirit. Only in the seventies would there come artists who understood that you can articulate deep statements that are based on rock’n’roll ecstasy, and would purify rock’n’roll from the archaic modern logic.

23. Max Frost & the Troopers

At the end of the sixties, rock began to absorb elements of the old Modern logic, and one of these elements was the belief that one must postpone instant gratifications and work on creating a perfect world. Rock’n’roll, which brought the youth more joy than anything else the world had to offer and made it a lot happier (or so they thought) than previous generations was perceived as a new truth, and this generation despised the grownups who were incapable of understanding rock’n’roll’s inner truth. But if at first this truth was based on the notion that joy is to be achieved in the present and not in the future, then at the end of the sixties part of rock began to assume a revolutionary identity that aspired to impose this truth on the world and bring about a better future. And as it happens with every revolutionary stance that wants to impose its truth on the world, it very quickly became violent. 1968 was a rough and violent year, and rock music played a part in this development.

Hollywood’s first reaction was the movie Wild in the Streets, a low-budget, trashy flick which reduces things to absurdity but does a pretty good job in capturing the spirit of the time. The hero is a young and hunky rock star named Max Frost who leads a rock band that includes his foxy girlfriend Sally Le Roy on keyboards, a bass player called the Hook who plays well despite having a hook for a hand, and a black drummer called Stanley X (played by none other than Richard Pryor). When a politician asks for their support in a campaign to lower the voting age and give more power to the young generation, Frost suddenly discovers the massive political power he has as a rock star with influence on the youth (which during this period, the “baby boomer” period, became a majority in society). In no time he becomes the leader of a political movement that intends to place everyone over the age of thirty in concentration camps and leave the world to the youth. The film displays quite well all that was preposterous in the revolutionary thought of the sixties, and revolutionary thought in general.

The band is not mentioned by name in the movie, but when the soundtrack was released it was posthumously named Max Frost & the Troopers. The songs were written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, one the Brill Building’s most prolific songwriting teams, and they do a fine job. Of course it doesn’t have the power of true revolutionary bands like the Doors or MC5, but it is a pretty good parody of sixties revolutionary rock, and the soundtrack played a big part gaining the movie cult status.

22. Venus in Furs

Glam came along in the early seventies and put rock back on track. In opposition to rock’s drift towards more “serious” directions (i.e. directions that adopted archaic values), glam went back to basic ecstatic rock’n’roll and did it in defiance of “serious” rock and its values. The more simple side of glam contained bands that played joyful music that was kind of a combination of metal with bubblegum pop, but it also had a sophisticated side that mocked the values of modernism and espoused the values of pop instead. The pivotal figure of this side of glam was David Bowie, who merged rock with theatre and presented through his art a parade of characters that try to fix their world and make it perfect but always fail. Those were ironic characters, characters that were meant to reflect Modern logic and display what is wrong with it. To present this irony Bowie drew a lot from gay culture and its ironic camp style, and influenced all of glam whose artists assumed theatrical and androgynous personas. In that, glam helped open the way for homosexuals and other sexual deviants to publicly display their differences and made society more open, but this wasn’t the essential thing about it. For Bowie camp was only an artistic mean, and eventually he dropped it and moved on to characters that had different influences. Other glam artists, who were mostly straight, also moved on. There were those who got the point and followed Bowie into the new worlds he explored, but there were also those who felt betrayed.

One of the latter was the gay movie director Todd Haynes, who in 1998 created the movie Velvet Goldmine (names after a Bowie record) which sets out to find, Citizen Kane style, why Bowie and glam betrayed him so. The movie shows that Haynes simply did not understand the essence of glam. He thought that glam was the embodiment of Oscar Wilde’s spirit in rock’n’roll, a campy style that looked at the straight world with sardonic irony from a gay point of view. What he didn’t get was that glam’s irony was a different kind of irony, an irony that looked at the Modern world sardonically from a pop point of view. Through his scorn of the Modern attempt at creating a perfect world based on eternal truths, Bowie liberated us from the perception that this is the goal of our existence, towards a different perception that perceives every truth as temporary and always tries to live according to the truth of the moment. Therefore, to remain true to himself he had to move on when glam finished its course – it was not self-betrayal as Haynes claims in the movie, but the exact opposite.

So the movie fails philosophically, but visually it is a ravishing celebration of glam. Haynes took all that was good in glam and poured it into the main figures, and the movie is a feast for the eyes. The beautiful Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays the hero Brian Slade, kind of a hybrid of David Bowie and Jobriath, and his band Venus in Furs (named after a Velvet Underground record) performs some glam classics (albeit none of Bowie’s, who thought the movie distorts the essence of glam and vetoed the use of his songs) and also songs written especially for the movie by glam-influenced musicians. The true members of band (that is, those who recorded the songs in the studio, not the actors in the movie) are famous rockers like Thom Yorke from Radiohead, Bernard Butler from Suede and Andy Mackay from Roxy Music, but the main thing about it is the visual side.

The movie has another fictitious group called Wylde Ratttz, which comes from America and represents the two American bands that influenced glam: the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. Here, too, those who are actually playing are famous musicians – Ron Asheton from the Stooges, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth and others – but once again, the main thing is the visual side, in which Ewan McGregor delivers a fairly good imitation of Iggy Pop.

Bottom line, this movie is Haynes’ statement on how glam “should have” been. Venus in Furs is the ultimate glam band if glam was really the embodiment of Oscar Wilde in rock. Through this band, Haynes employs glam to articulate a campy statement on the world, and that’s what makes it a meta band.

21. Bad News

At the end of the seventies, following pop culture’s attacks, the Modern consciousness that aspired to create a perfect human society crumbled. Unfortunately, most people have not yet internalized the logic of pop and the alternative it offered, and were left with nothing to guide them. And so, the breakdown of the old mentality caused the social bonds to disintegrate, and what followed was a decade that was characterized by selfishness and cynicism. Rock music had no answer to this crisis, since its logic came from a rebellion against the old world, and once the old world collapsed rock too had lost its meaning. Rock ceased regenerating from that point on, and all it could do was play around with its existing elements or intensify them. One of the expressions of that was metal, which at the beginning of the eighties became a dominant rock style. Metal carried on the legacy of garage in refusing to adhere to “musical quality” criteria, instead opting for primitive music that focused mainly on mindless fun. But the “mindlessness” of rock up to that point had a deep facet as well: it came from the understanding that the old thought structures were intellectually bankrupt and we must rethink things, and beyond garage’s destruction of thought there was also an attempt to look for new values. In early eighties metal mindlessness became its own end, turning the rock world into a rather silly affair.

Satire experienced a similar crisis. After many decades in which satire busied itself mainly in mocking Man’s pretensions of creating a perfect world, it now had to find new targets to aim its arrows at. Monty Python, Britain’s and the West’s leading comedy ensemble in the seventies, lost direction at the beginning of the new decade due to this twist. Its best British stand-in was the Comic Strip, a comedy team numbering seven members (Rick Mayall, Dawn French, Alexei Sayle, Adrian Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders, Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson) whose satire lashed out in all directions and looked for new ways to have a laugh. Back then it was called “alternative comedy”, today it looks like the beginning of the comedy that typifies our time. Among other things, the Comic Strip’s satire was aimed at the world of pop, and in 1983 they presented Bad News, a magnificently dumb metal band. Edmondson was Vim Fuego the vocalist and lead guitarist, Planer was Den Dennis the rhythm guitarist, Mayall was Colin Grigson the bassist and Richardson played Spider Webb the drummer, while French and Saunders portrayed stereotypical female types of the metal world. Fuego had artistic aspirations and constantly tried to take the band beyond the superficial conventions of the style, which always led to arguments and fights because the other band members were loyal metal fanatics. Beyond featuring in episodes of the Comic Strip’s TV show, Bad News actually functioned as a real life metal band in the years 1983-88, including tours and recordings (done with the help of Brian May, guitarist of legendary glam band Queen). In its comedic-musical performances, Bad News made fun of everything that was stupid and vacuous in the eighties rock world. Unfortunately, there was another band at the time that did it better than them, and so they are largely forgotten. Shame, they were funny.

20. Wyld Stallyns

During the sixties and seventies, rock was the forefront of Western spirit, and attracted the most intelligent, creative and revolutionary forces among the young who wanted to create new values and worldviews through it. In the eighties it lost this status, and became no more than just another musical style. The intelligentsia moved on to newer styles, leaving rock to those who just wanted to have some mindless fun. There was still a lot of brains in rock (mainly in what was known as “alternative rock”), but styles like metal (discounting the underground scene of alternative metal bands that broke through only towards the end of the decade) gave it a rather daft image. The movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures came out in 1989 and was a reflection of this stupidity, but turned it on its head.  The film focuses on the trials of the two teenage kids Bill and Ted, who practice in their parents’ garage and dream of making it big with their band Wyld Stallyns. They seem like a couple of numbskulls who can’t play for shit and would never amount to anything, but then we move forward 700 years into the future and find that the Wyld Stallyns had achieved fame – and not only that, the values that the band promoted in its songs (silly rock’n’roll slogans like “party on”) have become a basis for the future human society, a perfect society that has transcended all wars and problems. This society regards Bill and Ted as its prophets, and when it detects a danger to the future of the band it sends its own delegate back in time to ensure that history gets back on track. The movie then becomes a delightful screwball comedy in which Bill and Ted travel to the future and the past in a time machine that looks like a phone booth, Dr. Who style, and teach famous historical figures to party on in the spirit of rock’n’roll. The movie is yet another manifestation of the spirit of garage rock: we may seem dumb to you with our primitive music and weird slang, but actually we are smarter than you and represent the better future.

But only seemingly, because it is actually a double-edged irony. The thing that the movie is really mocking is exactly this belief that rock held, which here is taken to extreme and revealed in all its absurdity. Many eighties rockers still believed that they represent the better future and kept on mouthing the old clichés, but these clichés have become hollow. The movie is a parody that makes fun of these clichés, and the next decade will see quite a few movies that will combine rock clichés with sixties-seventies cinema clichés and will express the realization that the era in which they were relevant is long gone. Bill and Ted were the inspiration for the comic duos of the nineties – Wayne and Garth, Beavis and Butthead, Jay and Silent Bob – who all behaved like dummies, but their dumbness is an ironic dumbness that makes a statement on the aimless culture surrounding them. The best rock bands of the decade, like Nirvana, reflected this loss of direction in their songs and lamented it. Rock ceased being a compass, and pop culture was busy looking for something else to show it the way.

The Wyld Stallyns, then, took Bad News’ satire and cranked it up to eleven, laying the final coup de grace on rock’s pretensions. The movie was a surprising hit and spawned an animation TV show and also a 1991 sequel, in which we finally get to see the Wyld Stallyns in concert. The song is a 1973 glam anthem by Argent, remade for the movie by glam legends Kiss.

19. The Pop Group

There are bands which I deliberated whether they have a place on this parade. For instance the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa’s outfit, a band that ridiculed the pretensions of all styles and cultures while making a musical salad of all of them. But the Mothers of Invention perceived themselves as a real band, and the irony was in their music and not their image, so they do not belong here. Or Roxy Music, a glam band that comported itself like a project of high art, fashion and culture, but actually exposed their emptiness. Or the Slits, an all-girl punk group whose members acted like young male rockers and thus made fun of the masculine rock world. Not to mention the Dead Kennedys, a punk outfit whose lyrics’ macabre irony was even more poignant than its provocative name. But glam and punk are two styles in which the irony is inherent, in which the image of the band is supposed to be accompanied by a wink, so I left all of them out except the ones I consider the most important (and which we shall get to). The same thing goes for post-punk.

Glam and punk were ironic in their image, but musically they were just rock’n’roll. Their derision was aimed at everything else, at all the values of the old world that seemed hypocritical and deceitful to them, but rock’n’roll still presented truth to them. They were also those that determined that pop values are superior to modern values, and promoted the former. After punk, however, came the realization that rock’n’roll had run its course, and pop values have now become part of the system to such an extent that they too became hypocritical. Post-punk began criticizing and deconstructing rock’n’roll and pop, musically as well as ideologically. There are several post-punk groups that can fit here, but the Pop Group, just by virtue of its name, it the most suitable.

I guess it’s time I explained what I mean by the word “Pop”. For that, we need to return to its source. In the middle of the 19th century there was a split in Western music, as part of the musical world started to perceive itself as “serious” music and referred to music it regarded as “unserious” as “popular music”. The perception was that only “serious music” contains spiritual depth and expresses truth, while popular music is a commodity meant only for entertainment. When we are required to determine if a certain musical piece is “serious” or “popular” we find out that it is impossible, since it is actually a subjective definition and what is mere entertainment for one can be a deep truth for another, but the “serious music” people are convinced that their definition is valid and despise “popular music”. Creators of “serious music” are anxious not to be seen as someone who has “sold out”, and so they limit themselves and take care not to allow anything that is seen as belonging to the world of popular music into their own creations. This elitist perception survived to this very day: every new style is at first seen as belonging to the world of popular music, but in time it begins to develop “serious music” pretensions and distances itself from the charts and the entertainment world. Jazz, for instance, has by now completely detached itself from this world.

In opposition to this stance, there arose in the 20th century a different stance, which reached its peak in the seventies. This stance holds that the attitude of “serious music” stifles and kills music, whereas popular music (or “pop”, as it is called by its fans) is the most supreme art form of them all. In distancing themselves from the world of entertainment, the creators of “serious” music are distancing themselves of the most basic musical form: the three minute song, a short and ecstatic piece that instills joy in the listeners, that makes them want to get up and dance or go out and change their world. Pop, on the other hand, regards this form as the basis of all music, and any musical style that no longer produces such pieces as a dead style. It’s not that “heavier” forms have no merit, but in order to be really good they must draw their spirit from the experience expressed in the short forms. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven wrote music for short songs and dances, and then took the ecstatic spirit of this music into heavier forms like masses, symphonies and concertos, where they could develop things out of it. But in the course of the 19th century, classical music composers started to drift further and further away from songs and dances and regard them as forms that a “serious” musician must shun, and as a result they lost connection with the human spirit and classical music lost its vitality and in the 20th century became a dead horse. “Serious music” stays away from dance halls, comedy and pornography, and music that is unwilling to deal with sexuality, laughter, dance and all the other things that are considered “entertainment” is music that limits itself to a very narrow range of human experience and thus renders itself a depleted and valueless form of art. Moreover, this detachment also causes music to lose its ability to affect reality. In Beethoven’s time his music was part of everyday life and his compositions were played in festivals and entertainment events, attacking people wherever they went and generating transformations in their souls. But after him classical music began to gradually shut itself in concert halls, a place people go to only to hear classical music, and so it is heard only by those who are used to it and does no longer generate any changed in the world. Similar processes happened in jazz, which disconnected in the seventies and stopped churning out hits that would attack people while they listen to the radio.

Rock, collectively, decided not to let it happen to it. There were of course many rock bands that did more somber material, but they were respected only if they maintained connection with the more entertaining side of the music. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention made music that crushed and subverted all pop conventions but still drew its power from rock’n’roll, and were therefore revered by rock fans. But when the seventies brought the rise of what was called “progressive rock”, rock that derived its values from classical music and presented slow and lengthy pieces with inner changes, it caused rock to detach and lose its spirit and brought the reaction of punk (beginning at the end of 1976) which lashed out against progressive rock and demanded a return to short and wild records. This is actually the moment in which the logic of Pop ripened and realized that it is superior to the logic of “serious music”. On the other hand, punk hated the pop industry and tried to escape it by being an “anti-musical” style that treaded on everything that was always considered beautiful and aesthetic in music, keeping only the rowdy and thrashing ecstasy of rock’n’roll. Alas, it turns out that every kind of music becomes beautiful once you get used to it, and by returning to three minute records punk made it possible for the industry to absorb and incorporate it. What was called “new wave” was simply a label that the music industry put on punk and the styles that came in its wake, which it marketed as the next phase of rock’n’roll. Post-punk (whose first sprouts could be spotted at the end of 1977) rose against this reality, and its groups looked like punk bands but broke rock’n’roll’s musical conventions to distinguish themselves from the more commercial pop bands. They attacked punk for its commercialization, while still drawing from its aggressive energy.

The Pop Group came from Bristol, England, and was one of the leading post-punk bands. Their music treated punk as if it was a modelling balloon, bending and twisting it in all sorts of ways with the incorporation of styles like jazz, ska, funk and dub. But its ironic name reminded everyone that this is still pop, and actually what pop is supposed to be.

As mentioned, rock tried its hardest not to lose contact and always remain a pop style. But that turned out to be impossible. Every musical style, sooner or later, loses its vitality and its ability to carry the spirit of the time, and rock too eventually drifted into its own world. Post-punk, that sounded so subversive and transformative in its time, sounds today like regular music you hear in rock records and performances.

It’s not that this music is without merit. There are still good pieces being created in the fields of rock, jazz and classical, creations that enrich and develop the worlds formed around these styles. The problem begins when the fans of these styles perceive them as “serious music” that is superior to the newer styles. For such people, music is no longer a way to overcome present challenges and instead becomes mere escapism, a way to avoid current reality. These people are seen by Pop consciousness as stuck in the past, disconnected from the truth of today’s reality, and therefore worthy of scorn. Much of the scorn of the bands we discuss here is directed at those people.