Maxima Moralis- Relections from a Healing Mind
Cleveland, Independent Music, and the 1970s
by Michael Baker
In Memory of
Master of Beautiful Musical Expression
12/30/1942 Akron, Ohio
I. What Is This Shit Called Cleveland?
...And so we too
Came where the others came: nights of physical endurance,
Or if, by day, our behavior was anarchically
Correct, at least by New Brutalism standards, all then
Grew taciturn by previous agreement. We were spirited
Away en bateau, under cover of fudge dark.
John Ashbery, "Daffy Duck in Hollywood"
David Hume, the great skeptic, wrote that "Beauty is no quality in things themselves; it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them;" later, even more ornery, he claimed that "each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity where another is sensible of beauty." And yet, whether you are Helen Keller or Michelangelo, Cleveland, by the beginning of the 1970s, was terrifically grotesque. You woke up every day with the smell of soon-to-be shut factories oozing poisonous smoke, or with the malodorous reek of dirty bandages, seemingly leaking pus and infection. The river, the moribund Cuyahoga, slimed a sludgy serpentine path through the west side, meandering curvedly at non-critical junctures, unlike Paris's majestic Seine and its fabled arcing bend – that which separated distinct cultures and architecture. Here, our river was persistently inconvenient, never extolling one side's particularized glory over the other. The Seine is a protective dome, a wall serving as flowing tributary, connecting beauty with commerce, shopkeepers with legislators, the past and the future; the Cuyahoga was an unfunny warning sign: "Ye Who Ventureth Across, Cease to Remain Human." The town was a national joke, snickered at by Hollywood and belittled by the media in New Yawk; Cleveland was broke, whining, and losing its moorings. Anyone left over from the vast suburban migration of the 1960s was seen, by logical connection, as either a failure or simply lost. The town was soon embarrassing itself, by growing too weak to stand; Clevelanders became consumed with jealousy, of nearby Shaker Heights and Chagrin Falls, of the studied and acute reclamation projects in Pittsburgh and Chicago, of their other next-door losers, Bob and Carol and Zlobodan and Ivan, all yearning for their mythic immigrant pasts, twenty times harder than what they were experiencing in the Now, but nonetheless delusionally comforting to the anxious nervous systems of the cowering masses. It was a perfect place to lose your Nazi past, or to dump the bodies of your jilting girlfriends into Lake Erie – no one cared. Cleveland was not the end of the world, but you could hop a bus to Youngstown to find it.
The town, ever needful, was flying apart. Some heroic groups and their infantilisms, marked by deflation of individual egos and sad-sack weariness, sought musical outlets, but few were to be had. Certain spirited musicians, however, decided to try. Conversation was soon necessarily replaced by solitary creativity and that spirit of creativity could be grouped with other zealots to make way for shared visions which could then become some type of healthy conversation with a potential for commercialism. If you could bang an instrument, write bad poetry, or wear sunglasses, you could possibly escape, without, of course, physically escaping. But with a thirty-dollar guitar you could either transform that hideous place, or gambol in the open sewer systems. But you had to take a stand.
With your permission I shall begin with a warning label: do not expect rigid definitions. This essay does not trace the various genealogical oddities that can seriously lay claim to the both the background and the simultaneous pushing of these bands to their respective heights. At the end you will find a commentary section that will help to trace the 1960s histories and some of the outstanding contemporaries, both nearby and from the Akron area, an area that rivaled at times the musical greatness I am about to describe. What this essay will look at are certain elements of four bands, and how they reflect a linking arc that mirrors music microcosmically, from the Sun Sessions on, as well as 20th Century aesthetics, macrocosmically. To do this, I will rely upon philosophic definitions that blur, blind, and bleed into one another. Facts about art will get in my way.
Genius has a way of not paying attention to categories: Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Kafka, Balanchine, Picasso, F.L. Wright, and John Cage always seem to be tripping into one movement or another, but nonetheless, broad categories help us to adjudicate both cause and effect, and sort distinct periods. This, then, is not the history of the first egg farmer in downtown Des Moines or how many wives Artie Shaw had; rather, it is my musical love affair requited, relations outlined between young people and their ideals, a series of scenes in a city and its should-have-been condemned rock bars. This is a walking tour curing me of my demon lovers. This is a partial story of a besieged city on the frontier and its brave soldiers.
The bands to be discussed are the power pop neo-classical romanticists, Raspberries, and their extraordinary, and, for the most part, commercially successful first four albums from 1972-1974. Led by the charismatic and genuinely touched songwriter Eric Carmen, the Raspberries were America's second greatest power pop band of the decade, following only the genius-burdened Big Star. So many bands flowed from the hook-laden river of the Raspberries, if not from Ohio, that the Raspberries can be seen as both an end and a beginning, simultaneously (an unusual occurrence, perhaps), but understood better if seen as a band stealing their grease and thunder from times past, and doing it to deathly perfection. The Raspberries used thrilling melismatic ascensions, innocent playfulness, and brash fantasies to search outward where only crippled angels sing, gloriously. They are Romanticism incarnate.
The second band, carved out of the incendiary, smoldering white light/white heat of the mercurial Rocket From the Tombs, was formed in 1975, and soon recorded a batch of rough songs that single-handedly created the American underground, a hell where radio play and album sales went to die, but a purgatory that spawned the Do It Yourself ethic, the avant-garde leanings of noise bands like DNA and Sonic Youth, various subsections of Industrial music; with a pre-punk vitality, a love of the fearless and sublime and the grotesque, or the meatier aspect of the grunge movement, Pere Ubu, on their first three albums, rejected Romanticism in favor of Modernism, a earthquake-y and haughty aesthetic built on the premise that reason and faith and the recent past are finite and limited and untrustworthy. Pere Ubu used gushing scales and mountain peaks of dissonance to convulse the listener; the organizational structure of these early songs suggests that ambiguity and uncertainty are the content of life. Maybe, but one thing is certain: on their initial trilogy of LPs recorded between 1978 and 1979, Pere Ubu transformed rock and roll.
At the same time, across the river, punk rockers the Pagans started their ghost-like, legendary career with a series of singles, and within two years became (pick one) America's greatest band that no one ever heard, then or now, or, America's greatest punk band. The Pagans used blurred phrasing and thick forests of dark tones to vamp on a world that was crumbling away; while playing each nowhere loser gig, their fiery embrace of assault rock undermined Modernism's claim for authority: you can't have a steady view of the objective world if the subject himself is bleeding from his eye. Never comfortable with things like tours, sobriety, fair contracts, caring managers, the audience, or the future, the musically consistent, controlled Pagans were not far removed from either the Raspberries' steadfast stoppage of time or the Ubu-ian desire to change the hands of the clocks; it's just that the Pagans could not afford wrist watches. All three bands plundered sources to create prototypical, ferocious rock in the face of the enemy: American audiences.
It was also in 1977 that the gifted cult band Human Switchboard, following the transcendental examples of the Velvet Underground and Boston's Modern Lovers, released an EP; by 1981 they had the moxie and chops to record their one and only album to concerted audience deafness. Their stance was more complicated than the punkers' anarchic codes of conduct; equally post-modern in their rejection of its lofty idealization of the artist figure, Human Switchboard, instead of punk rock's concentrated fury, chose a type of partial reconciliation with history and themselves, enacting small dramas of ambivalent hope. Their music is rhythmically detached, anchorless at times, using a call-response dynamic, but with the phone off the hook by the end of the songs; their medium tempo projects refer always to an inter-group tension between the introverted and the extroverted. Their songs don't swing, they exhale; they were the high point of early 1980s new wave American music, fragile and dense, swirling and enigmatic, tender and fearful.
In nine short years, children from the playgrounds of Cleveland and its suburbs went from two top forty albums to a Human Switchboard full-length that is criminally out of print, an injustice that demands correction, immediately. For Clevelanders, the beer-stained anecdotes of older brothers could no longer hold together the collapsing center; at best, the ebullience mustered was dangling in the air, like globules of wintry spittle. Burning down the Hough section and torturing animals were the occupations of the unemployed. When rotgut vodka smashed against our meager ice cubes, we imagined Lake Erie battering the shores. The majority of our artists rejected the periodically backsliding MOR example of the Raspberries; they borrowed, instead, the courage from one another, and older models of subversion (local TV legend Ghoulardi; Pop Art and Minimalism; powerhouse music, both black and white, coming from nearby Detroit; nascent comprehension of earlier radical art movements from that self-destructive century) to forge, like smithies knee-deep in hot coals, a new Classic Rock. While the aesthetics and philosophical puzzles of culture were being defiantly met and answered, commercial avenues were being inversely slammed shut. You could wear a mask, wave defiantly towards the rotting decay, and allow your hands, now youthful instruments of change, to attentively draw imperfect lines on the sidewalks. And you could join a rock and roll band. This essay will try to answer what happens when rejects, losers, lunatics, and depressives grow brass balls and shout passionately into faulty microphones.
II. Europe, 1922: "Yesterday don't matter if it's gone"
The river's tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of City directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
T.S. Eliot, "The Wasteland"
"Europe is tired, old and decadent. It has no influence on anything worthwhile."
David Thomas, Pere Ubu (email to author)
You're a ghost la la la
I'm in the church and I've come
To claim you with my iron drum la la la
The Continent's just fallen in disgrace
William William William Rogers put it in its place
Blood and tears from old Japan
Caravans and lots of jam and maids of honor
singing crying singing tediously
John Cale, "Paris 1919"
By 1922, the world was suitably all shook up. Starting with the turn of the century, and increasing in perplexing intensity with each new destruction of a Victorian barrier or icon, what had once been optimism, certainty, and local, became despair, randomness, and global. The great World War shifted political boundaries, unleashing, as well, unimaginable acts of destruction. Three million young men died alone on the Western Front for five yards of worthless real estate, and I mean alone. Freud made it clear we knew not what we wanted, or that we wanted our mommas; take your pick, and then you can meet up with other pervs at the local pub on the nearest cul de sac. Einstein, pounding the last nail into our powerless palms on our crosses, claimed that the universe was equally unknowable, uncertain, and darkly connected to forces way beyond our control.
As usual, art was the first to accept, and then challenge, these scientific and empirical particulars of our diminished selves. Artists could no longer resort to Realism or Social Darwinism (as if!) or, most tellingly, the clamp of Romanticism, that which exploded from the graveyard poets, gothic novelists, Tom Paine's essays, Schlegal's theories, Goethe's verse, and antiquarian and sentimental impulses. Romanticism fought for individual expression, for unique stances toward a sublime Nature, simpler diction, and fought against the meta-narratives of the Enlightenment and Age of Reasoning. Art becomes consciousness. The subject is central; there is presence and meaning, if also torments of severe conflict and doubt. There are fragments, but through art and metaphor, potential aesthetic healing. Feelings are exalted over reason; individual potential and the ancient past are woven together; inner struggles and heroic self sacrifice become the norm; the remote and the exotic and the awareness of love's dark impulses are often greeted by increasingly-aware Napoleonic egotists, unafraid of clashes with evil. In music, it means freedom of form, universal emotions, an interest in the local and the colorful, not to mention organic synthesis, both compositionally and in tandem with nature. Social and artistic conventions were fought, as was calmness, balance, harmony, and/or precision. Virtuosity, and the miniature in form were elevated; arias were sung by the nobly defeated, with the forlorn lover serenely accepting the sword of a rival into his palpitating chest.
Romanticism, and its evil, bullying twin brother Realism, was by 1922 kaput. The avatars of these rejections of middle-class sensibilities were manifold and international, and barely cognizant of each other, let alone new philosophies. The year itself was no better or worse than most in that century of self-slaughter, cheap mechanics, deteriorating school systems, and dime-store celebrity status. Gandhi was thrown in jail for half a dozen years; Mussolini grabbed the Italian reins; the USSR was formed; Tut was unearthed and insulin was discovered; Louis Armstrong was working on his soon-to-be revolutionary embouchure. The first self-winding wristwatch was made, making it easier for us to count down to the next genocide. Milhaud, founder of Le Six, symphonic colorist, and quirk composer, teacher to Brubeck down the road, began experimenting with the mutation of recorded voices for his idiosyncratic contributions to classical music. It was an opening salvo for the greatest year in culture since Shakespeare artistically wrestled with his son's death and bled Hamlet, four hundred years ago this morning.
During exhilarating 1922, the most important poem since Wordsworth was published, "The Waste Land," by the expatriate, melancholic and anti-Semitic prig, T.S. Eliot. Across the water, about Dublin, the greatest novel ever written, Ireland's James Joyce's Ulysses, came out, an ironic, self-encompassing ocean. Both works established comical irony and precarious allegory over immanence and metaphor; the parts, bitterly, reflected the whole. There were broken links to history's glories, and self-reflexiveness, demotic slang and thwarted sexuality that helped to rudely usher in Modernism. Although fragmented and seemly indeterminate, the characters here still moved in worlds of hierarchies, totalities, and systems of mass culture that were, fortunately for these two elitist authors, dichotomized by a real separation of the high and low. These are masterly, powerful narratives that fear machines, broken families, and ruptures from the past. These are narratives sadly inadequate to the pressures of a new world. But within them, through human contact, reading of myths, and apolitical rigor objectifying experience, great personal expression, through the filter of unsteady, but also unflinching, gazes of artistry.
Wittgenstein, in 1922, published his influential Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; Alban Berg finished Wozzeck, the first great post-Wagnerian opera of depth, creativity, and originality, filtered through the twin glare of WWI and Schoenberg's Serialism; Walter Gropius, while putting the finishing touches on the magisterial Bauhaus compound at Dessau – the century's first great example of urban architecture, where function and purpose pushed aside bourgeois aesthetics and mindless adornments – submitted his outstanding skyscraper entry for the Chicago Tribune competition. Gleaming, soaring, unadorned, and pragmatic, it was a prototype for genius and the disasters of public housing and urban renewal. He won second place. These men, not to mention Faulkner, in his 1922 masterpiece Light in August, were the creators of High Modernist tradition. Ambiguity, obscurity and complexity were valorized; socio-economic changes are induced by technology and the Industrialized State; self-consciousness, experiment with form, language's ability to generate form; the yearning, at times loveless and ascetic, for neo-classical figures; the trust in scientific methodology. In Modernism there are paradigmatic syntheses, movements of depth and distance that create narratives of grandness and significance. The writing is impressionistic, without non-fixed points of unreliable narrators; genres are blurred; spontaneity and smaller forms are celebrated; history is barely knowable, but lost and tragic. Dadaist collage is a new art form, as are the writings of the unconscious (Freud, Yeats, and Surrealism). The voice, the subject, no matter how hollow or scared or scarred, speaks in a master code that becomes a recognizable type. The avant-garde's ceaseless urge for the new is understood as bodying forth, like witnesses to a lynching or funeral jubilee, its new artists stripped of trappings, families, and gods.
While these creators were adeptly mixing traditional, native sagas with global allusiveness, incorporating freer forms and more shocked audiences, they were, paradoxically, creating darker anti-heroes: characters, so to speak, who get shot by policemen as they contemplate suicides. This is an art free of nostalgia, lacking a reverence for au courant terms, utopias, governmental maxims, parochialism, vigor, and scandal-less phenomena. My favorite picture of the year, Paul Klee's "Head of Man (Going Senile)," is garish and cartoonish and decomposingly bright-eyed. This is not the torment of Van Gogh, or the compositional rigor Picasso of Cubism, or the expressionism of Beckman, or the abstractions of Kandinsky. This is a recognizable idiot, laughing at other people's jokes about himself. This is a Clevelander.
III. Raspberries: Heroes and Villains, Power Pants, White Bread
I never knew how complete love could be
Till she kissed me and said,
"Baby, please go all the way,
It feels so right
Being with you here tonight,
Please, go all the way,
Just hold me close
Don't ever let me go."
I couldn't say what I wanted to say
Till she whispered, "I love you so,
Please go all the way,
It feels so right
Being with you here tonight,
Please, go all the way.
Just hold me close
Don't ever let me go."
Raspberries, "Go All the Way"
Fifty years after 1922, fifty years after the great physicists Heisenberg and Schrödinger, separately, began in earnest their path-breaking graduate studies, establishing quantum physics as the century's great intellectual insight, the Raspberries, and their pre-Edwardian hairdos, sought to go the other direction, back in time, not just to the Beatles and the Who and the Kinks, but to the 19th Century, into the rapturously concupiscent arms of Romanticism. Their songs soar, with rubatos of expressive suspense, with supple four-bar phrasing, with the cult of the singer – Eric Carmen's voice authored three or four singles of lasting permanence and four albums of sturdy conception within the power pop mode that have yet to be equaled. Square and sturdy, harmonious and tonal, and blissfully unaware of the Cuyahoga Valley choking itself to death, the songs themselves, no matter how they oscillate between major and minor initially, return, after a scant three minutes, to their true harmonic center of gravity. The cadence is direct. The background singing is joyously sung in key. The codas accelerate. The expositions are logical. America's supreme power pop band – Big Star transcends this at-times limited genre – return to the past without lament or irony or fear, but it is a recapitulation, a memory, not genius. Given the bracing drums, or Wally Bryson's superb lead guitar work of fragile webs of delicate dissonances, the sophistication of production values and intricate chorus, and the bright, singing codas sonorously ending where the other songs began, this music reproduces emotional art, not art that bewilders or confronts.
Mired as they were in bland memories of Romanticism's hopeful optimism, with the Enlightenment's valorization of Reason and Progress as their dotty aunts, the Raspberries did not have to establish the necessary and sufficient conditions of personal liberty or identity. Their heroes were demi-gods from across the Atlantic: longhaired mods and tiny cons, agile and luminescent, baroque and brash, glazed with the perfected glare of adoring flashbulbs – John L and Paul Mc., Peter and Roger, Ray and Dave (get well, my brother...), Herman and his hermetic pals, Roy Wood, and the Small Faces' dynamic diminutive, Little Stevie Marriot, inch for inch, the baddest ass of them all. The Raspberries' four albums, Raspberries, (the you-scratch-it, you-sniff-it cover), Fresh Raspberries, Side 3, and Starting Over, totaling a mere 143 minutes, are aided immeasurably by both the maturing and evolving pellucid production and sound talents of Jimmy Ienner, the boys' George Martin, and the vastly-underrated stinging guitar punctuations of Wally Bryson. For the first three albums, Jim Bonfanti played drums, Bryson was on lead and sang, Carmen sang, wrote or co-wrote the majority of the songs, banged keys, and switched from bass to rhythm, and the great David Smalley played first rhythm, then bass, and sang, hand-clapped, and wrote some real pop gems. Scott McCarl replaced Smalley and Michael McBride took over from Bonfanti on the last album.
The Raspberries' genesis dates from the pools of two outstanding Cleveland power pop/garage bands, Cyrus Erie (Carmen, Bryson, McBride, and Bonfanti) and the Choir, whose many permutations included Wally, again, and Smalley, and who created a monster local hit which is still to this day a must for fans of 1960s American underground music, "It's Cold Outside." There was no substantial scene, however: the Outsiders rocked hard for blondies at beer halls. The James Gang (whose founder Jim Fox gigged with the other great local garage heroes, the Outsiders), first with wacko guitarist great Glenn Schwartz, then with the idiot savant and soulful Joe Walsh, was just getting their considerable talents together, culminating in 1970's Rides Again, a record that still swings hard, steady, and ready. But the Raspberries, for their considerable growth and transcendent musical chops, seemingly sprang fully formed, like Athena's head, with the opening, crushing chords of the first album's "Go All the Way," saying, "Sniff this, baby dolls."
"Go All the Way," and the thirty-eight songs that came in its wake, follow the traditional laws of gravitational force set down by Sir Isaac Newton and Hawthorne, California's princely Wilson Brothers: keep it simple, short, stupid, and sweet, and you will remain intact. The songs' vignettes investigate and then revolve around the two primary mythic patterns of the Western male mind, such as it is: (A) Boy Meets Girl, Boy Fucks Girl (or its comic-tragic inversion), (B) Boy Sees Girl, Boy Wants to Fuck Girl, Another Girl Walks In, and, like Buridan's Ass who passively starves staring at his potential plentitude, He Can't Decide Which One to Fuck. The band's music, however, did evolve: the drumming got better every album; Eric's voice got increasingly potent and plastic; the band was more comfortable in the studio; the bridges in the songs became tighter and more linking, and the harmonies got more raggedy and adventurous; Smalley became a song-writing force; the harmonies became libidinously-charged with fervor; and the guitars became crunchier, freer, and nastier. But what stayed the same was a worldview so elementar, it's almost batty: the idea of the stable Subject as a centralized presence is never questioned, nor are the scenarios ever tested, or even challenged: Mass culture and Relationships and Endings are given. There is no friction, no irony, no doubt, with no reductionism of perspective or insight. Look at the song titles: "Rose Colored Glasses," "Ecstasy," "Making It Easy," "I Saw the Light," "Let's Pretend," "I Can Remember," "It Seemed So Easy." Dr. Seuss has more frissons, more dark restlessness with the discrepancy between the temporal and spatial aspects of our lives: Sorry, boys, but Time does eat away our insides, and Cleveland was falling apart.
What keeps these songs from falling over deep cliffs of saccharine idiocies and maudlin self pity is that remarkable instrument. Carmen's voice, a voice that like Sam Cooke's, or Dion's, or McCartney's, or Eddie Kendricks', or Peter Ham's, or Colin Blunstone's, or Carl Wilson's, combining passion and range, emblematic of the Romantic conception of the heroic virtuosity of a musical genius. In synch with the compositional logic of Romanticism as seen through power pop pupils celebrating closed worlds – the dizzying acceleration of changeless, beneficent nature, the utopian desire for endless love, the purity of life and society, liberty and the giganticism of musical effects – Carmen's voice seems almost captivatingly Baroque, in that it chooses order over chaos while merging technique with emotionalism. It is courtly, sentimental, and ceremonial; in its exuberant and ebullient contact with the heart's blood it oozes joyously with a unified release from Pascal's definition of Man: "A curiosity…a chaos, a contradiction…of all things…of the truth and the sewer." Faith defeats Reason in a male t-shirt contest; the criticism of society, such as it is, remains conservative – power, incumbency, and individual excitation are transcendent here, not variation or deception.
Who needs change when you can sing like this? The singing is euphonious and achingly sweet, and by the second album – on the first it is more chiming and honeyed – with the additional example of the bluesy Marriot, the voice is supple and appealing, a high tenor that can break glass and hearts. His articulation is the best in rock history, alternating seamlessly between jerky staccato and smooth legato. Slightly percussive, slightly like a wind instrument, the voice soars, bending notes like a lovesick Paganini. And like a small pagan, Carmen screams, cajoles, and never surrenders; he lives in nature, where he prowls for conquests. His voice often descends with the immediate melody, then shifts direction, slows down and caresses the young girls' ears; after the first chorus he's back alone, without his buddies' chanting encouragements; he counterbalances in a lower octave, daring the tequila-soaked feminine victims, and after some ornamentation and embellishment, there is often a silent break before the full-throated wolf is released: the melody is slow to re-gather, but everything comes together in a unified ending, whole. The doors on the convertible slam simultaneously shut, and it's off to bachelor pads in Pepper Pike or Rocky River.
Before the line-up changes for Staring Over, caused by ego, jealousy, and epic battles over blow dryers, the prototypical Raspberries song was a loud, irreligious orchestral chant, radiating benedictional and inexorable incandescence. The first album suffers slightly from sappy confectionaries, and is probably with Rundgren's group Nazz the whitest music ever recorded, but Fresh has the Raspberries' most intelligent songwriting, even if it's bogged down with Beatles' mimicking at times. On the first three albums, though, some of the finest pop singles and songs ever written were performed with toughness, grit, and severe logic, if contrarily they all seem – initially – to benefit too much from angelic harmonies, conventional chord structures, and slick, sleek production: "Go All The Way," "I Wanna Be With You," "Let's Pretend," "Tonight," and "Ecstasy." In fact, there might be a lot of bad faith that comes from listening to these miniature operettas of pomp and circumstance as they lean towards the perfect past, longingly, with their outrageous swoops and swooning – it's aestheticism defeating asceticism at every turn, with songs that increasingly take on a biting musical edge that in no way diminishes their voluptuous beauty. The mood never shifts, nor does the world decay or disappear. If there are fragments, they are momentary, as if ask, on Thursdays, should the boys go the bowling alley with brunettes or to the carhop with blondes? This childlike simplicity, not Pere Ubu's resignation, nor the Pagans' snottiness, nor Human Switchboard's self-sacrifice, marks the Raspberries as exultants, lovesick tenors of the bel canto tradition of the late 19th Century. The fragments become whole through the artfulness of the pursuit. The Raspberries are musical men of honor: their repertoire stayed the same, but their chops and seriousness deepened into structures few bands visited with such pleasures or subtleties.
The first album is the prettiest, the second the most grandly poppy, the fourth shows some tired wings by the second side; it is the third record, Side 3, that shows the Raspberries at their most dramatic: languid and lush vocals, two fine contributions from Smalley, songs moving freely from the solo aria mode into recitative choruses, with quickening rhythmic urgency that constantly burns away Cleveland's summer haze. Side 3 triumphantly remains something of a curiosity. It invokes so deeply the British Invasion with Midwest grit that it seems unlikely to gain converts to its cause, but that would be a mistake – imagine anthemic odes and theatrical creations that sound like a hypothetical Big Star second album had it been recorded with Chris Bell, the formidable Chilton instead seeking meaning from the Alps and the cosmos. Add Mick Taylor-like musculature on guitar, resist the stubborn aggression of transistor radio's pleading, tell Eric Carmen to sing himself hoarse, and then turn up all the dials. The album is nearly bookended by the band's two raunchiest rockers, the glorious opener "Tonight" and the penultimate and churning "Ecstasy." Here, and elsewhere, Bonfanti shakes the cobwebs out: he drums with true abandonment. Smalley's drunken background singing is more jagged, a great variation within the simple songs; his Spartan bass transposes the melodies, as if we can hear Carmen saying repeatedly, "Louder! Faster!" The singing embraces more soulfulness, more of the inspired wailings of Steve Marriot's heroic voice. His diaphragm explodes on every song, with amplified and vibrating resonance. He trills, he croons, and he's a little bit country, a little bit rock, as on the excellent, Poco-like "Should I Wait." The recorded sound is without fault.
On most of the songs there is a lively, brisk accented spirit of allegretto, with harmonic chord sequences that so sweetly fit the dynamics of the ballsy, but sugary, notes that resolutions end with achieved consonance. This is a firm and closed world. Although the music, with its Who-like surges, is often contrasted with Carmen's thrilling singing, everything is of a piece, so much so that there are songs here that achieve a kind of temporal palindromic quality: in the middle, the song reverses on its stormy axis, then traces backwards the time order from the first half. This is tingling music, simultaneously sumptuous and austere, with no wimpy ballads, no rip-offs from the lads from Liverpool. It is one of the best albums of the 1970s, from either side of the Atlantic.
Well I know it sounds funny
But I'm not in it for the money, no
I don't need no reputation
And I'm not in it for the show
I just want a hit record, yeah
Wanna hear it on the radio
Want a big hit record, yeah
One that everybody's got to know
Well if the program director don't pull it
It's time to get back the bullet
So bring the group down to the station
You're gonna be an overnight sensation
I've been tryin' to write the lyric
Non-offensive but satiric too
And if you put it in the A-slot
It's just got to make a mint for you
I fit those words to a good melody
Amazing how success has been ignoring me
I use my bread making demos all day
Writing in the night while in my head I hear
The record play
Hear it play
Hit record, yeah
Wanna hit record, yeah
Wanna hit record, yeah (number one)
Their songs had, previously, been irretrievably engaged with the other, more interesting lovers, or boys hanging together. Here, bitterness creeps in, as the problems of relationships become real. The banal context of self-love has been replaced with obsessions, questions, and silent airwaves. The vocabulary of the artist has shifted from boy running around, fawn-like in the fern and dale, to a man slugging it out on the assembly line, shifted from immanent artistic triumph to crass commercialism. The rest of the album suffers from songwriting that's often trite and fatigued, even if such songs like "Play On" and "I Don't Know What I Want" prefigure Cheap Trick at their best. But the Raspberries' zeal for hit records never abated; they were ironically caught up in that monster of capitalistic expectations. By the mid 1970s music had found, both ideologically and through the physical presence of increased production, more stations, larger venues, and greater expectations of profit. This accelerating pace demanded new customers and the mindlessness of former fans in their capitulations for uniformity and minor variations on accepted forms. The Raspberries dared – yes, that word fits – to add grit, soul, crunch, and tough love on their third album, and the girls went back to their idiot neighbor boys, boy toys encased in muscle t-shirts, whose Marlboros accidentally flicked ashes on their sun-burnt shoulders.
The efficiency of the product is buoyed by the increased development of distribution. If it smells like it is going to sell, put it on the radio, or near the front entrance of the mall record store. The economy demands not modified customers, but customers thirsting for the agreed-upon "popular." By the fourth album the scratch and sniff wonderment and freshness had faded; what was left was a series of bar bands, for everyone but Eric Carmen, who understood the process better than most. You want ballads, I've got a million of them. You want the same song as last year, in a prettier wrapping? No problem. And why not? He had just achieved five minutes of transcendental power pop perfection in "Overnight Sensation," a song featuring an introductory piano figure that suddenly, shatteringly – like the guns at Ft. Sumter – leads to the first of radical dynamic and timing shifts. Like Gaul, the song is divided into three parts: the piano's meditation on composure, a soaring chorus, and the main melody, wistful and punishing, with some of the best rock drumming ever. There's a false ending, as if the boys couldn't let go of their past, their shiny hopes, and their piled banknotes. But everything fades: the minor thirds of the melody, the tender and moving voice against the aggressive rhythm section, the superb intonation...
The Raspberries might have been corny, and limited in their vision and blissfully unaware of the 20th Century – play all the hits and the girls will come! – and might have preached too heartily the virtues of friendships, first dates, and walks on the beach, but somebody had to try to put the fires out in Cleveland. And they did it with panache and punch. Dig the good vibrations. Get popped.
As we will find out soon enough with the next three bands, there is no correlation between artistic achievement and commercial success in America. Just because many teenage boys from North Dakota go see a Kiss concert (over and over and over), those actions do not make that band suck even slightly less. America's persistent disloyalty to excellence afflicted the Raspberries; their best album sold poorly. The rhythm section said goodbye at about the same time as America did, and on the last true Raspberries album, only ghostlike traces remained of the prior songs that vanquished the high/low division in mass culture. Despite all odds, our remaining heroes, Carmen and Bryson, threw all their raspberries into one basket, the opening track for Starting Over, "Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)," a heartbreakingly beautiful object of permanence, on par with the Beach Boys' twin youthful mini symphonies to God, "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains." The aspiring and inspiring singing, the cement-breaking drumming, the perfect pitch production, is the currency of a band on its last legs – it's a map of nearly-forgotten impulses, an intimation of a utopia that only exists between the cash register and female pudendum.
Cleveland in the 1970s Part IV
Cleveland in the 1970s Parts V-VI
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