Having Hugged Enough to Laugh at Hate
The Beatles, The Residents, Laibach and Kraftwerk in the Autumn of LoveI. Let Which Be?
by Kurt Gottshalk
The breakup of the Beatles in 1970, it seemed, was such a wrong committed against the English-speaking world - an affront to the promises of the decade just ended - that someone had to be blamed. It was unimaginable that four young men, having gone from teens into their early 30's together, shouldn't want to spend the rest of their lives working together. They represented too much to go away. And if there was never enough evidence to convict a culprit, a smoking gun was still entered as evidence: Let it Be, the album they couldn't finish, the chronicle of infighting and rivalries, the disappointing finale to rock's greatest achievement. It proved the unthinkable: that perhaps the Beatles themselves were responsible for their own undoing. But it was worse than that. The summer of love was long passed and the guys who sang "All You Need is Love" hated each other. What dark future awaited us?
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, that bible of rock canonization, says that "Let it Be, though it has the powerful title cut, is the most distressingly mediocre Beatles album. The songs generally lack focus, intensity, enthusiasm, originality - the Beatles hallmarks." I don't hold that claim up in order to prove it wrong. Since about the age of 13, I've more or less held that to be true as well - except that I couldn't stand the title cut either.
When, after two decades of inexplicable delays, the Beatles catalog was finally remastered for digital release, I got a copy of the mono box set, the one more truly representative of the band's wishes at the time. The mono box, however, didn't include Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road or Let it Be, the three final releases, which were issued only in stereo. The CD's were available individually, however, and I told myself I'd eventually complete my collection (having already bought all the LP's and the first round of CD issues). But despite owning the fetish-object box set, I didn't rush to complete the 2009 collection. What could ever, after all, make the Beatles sound fresh? Even surround sound and holograms wouldn't feel like a new experience.
When I finally came around to those final three, the real surprise was Let it Be. Whereas it was fun to hear the other two (the whole of the discography, really) brighter and more present, listening to Let it Be was a new experience. It had become a punchier, more exciting record, especially Ringo's drums. It no longer felt like the asterisk at the end of their career.
In truth, the record was pretty well dislodged from my memory by 2005, when I got around to getting the 2003 release Let it Be Naked, which removed Phil Spector's post production to let the raw tracks be heard for the first non-bootlegged time. With Spector's touch removed, even "The Long and Winding Road" became tolerable. It was still sappy and nondescript, but surprisingly the remastered version of the song reached a new height. Clearer and better balanced, it gained an emotional impact that had been lacking before. Paul's voice now seemed to crack with truth. That or I had grown older and more vulnerable to the attacks of sentiment. Either way, I found myself enjoying the album like I never had. It was well, it seemed fresh.
Let it Be wasn't the end of the Beatles though. Abbey Road may have been stitched together, but it was the last official recording before the Beatles long unable to be in the same room finally disbanded. But Let it Be persists as the archetype of sticking around too long, of rock indulgence. When in 1984 punk band the Replacements also called an album Let it Be, no more needed be said. The joke was obvious. But well before that, musicians were asking "If love is dead, what's left in its place?"
II. Let Who Be?
If the Beatles were posterboys of love, there was an even clearer personification of hate, one that six years after the release of Let it Be, an art project disguised as a rock band called "The Residents" chose to put on the cover of a mutant tribute to pop music.
The Third Reich 'n Roll featured a cover adorned with swastikas and a befuddling Adolf Hitler-like figure at the center (although it wasn't actually Hitler, or not only Hitler, a point we'll return to). It was the second release by the band, which carries on to this day (more than four times the longevity of the Beatles!) with a membership that remains a closely guarded secret. Their first album, 1974's Meet the Residents, spoofed the Beatles first U.S. record, resulting in a threatened lawsuit from the Beatles' labels, Capitol and EMI (although George Harrison is said to have proudly owned a copy). After being refused by Warner Bros., the Residents released their first album on their own, making them one of the first bands (along with the Beatles and Apple Records) to launch its own imprint. The redesigned album cover included an essay on the back entitled "Why do the Residents Hate the Beatles?"
If nothing else, the novelty of the band would eventually get them noticed. In an era where David Bowie, Alice Cooper and Frank Zappa were becoming major players, the Residents were still beyond the pale. But acclaim had so far eluded them: They had moved about 100 copies of Meet the Residents by the time work began on Third Reich 'n Roll. Rock - the epitome of teen culture - was itself just a teenager, stretching its wings, seeing what it could get away with. And with Third Reich 'n Roll, it was going to get away with a lot.
The album is comprised of two murky, side-length medleys of pop hits originally recorded by such chart-topping acts as Chubby Checker, Cream, the Doors, Lesley Gore, Iron Butterfly, Them and ? and the Mysterians, culminating in a version of the Beatles' "Hey Jude," during which they interpolate lyrics from the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil." Was the pairing just a cage match between the two titans of '60s rock? Or were they expressing sympathy for the devil that was the Beatles. Or was that devil perhaps the expired band's own corporate interests?
Maybe even more radical than the band's blurrily plodding cover versions was the package in which they were housed. The two side-long tracks were titled "Swastikas on Parade" and "Hitler Was a Vegetarian." The red-and-black cover prominently featured Dick Clark in a Nazi uniform and holding a carrot. It might have been offensive if it hadn't been so odd.
The Residents had recently been introduced to Krautrock bands such as Can and Faust by a record dealer in their adopted home of San Francisco when they started conceiving their sophomore release. The notion of applying the sound of those experimental German bands to American pop songs intrigued them, and resulted in a stylistic shift from the more acoustic first album, even incorporating commercial recordings into the music. They are often cited as the first to sample James Brown, years before any rap act did so.
The video project Vileness Fats was the collective's primary concern through 1974 and 1975, but during that time, they also developed the idea of a concept album about fascism in rock and the corporate interests pushing music into a manageable commodity. The elements fell into place: corporate control of the marketplace (an element of classic fascism), the fascist leader who perhaps seized more power than any other tyrant (Adolf Hitler), and the figure who most represented the commercialization of rock'n'roll up to that point (Dick Clark). The homonym built from "Third Reich" and "Rock 'n' Roll" closed the circle.
The painstakingly cut-and-pasted cover image wasn't the only place the band made use of the Nazi swastika as an emblem. Having not yet adopted they eyeball masks that would become their trademark, the band designed ludicrously oversized swastika headgear, accompanied by swastika eyeglasses and Hitler mustaches, to use in publicity shots for the record. One of those photos would be incorporated into a window display at Rather Ripped (the store where they discovered Krautrock) along with baby dolls wrapped in gauze, a large skull and of course copies of the album. There in the bastion of free expression, the reaction was protests, angry phone calls and bricks through the window. After several days, the store took the display down. The irony that the protests were the result of the depiction of a leader who famously censored art and music was not lost on the band. The Residents didn't hedge on its vision until a new and heavily censored version of the cover was devised from German distribution.
So maybe San Francisco hippies weren't ready to embrace the avatar of hate. But even still, his visage being incorporated into a pop art project would have been unthinkable just a few years before. And even moreso in Hitler's homeland.
III. Let it Ride
While to the Residents, reasonably enough, the Krautrock bands sounded German, to some in Germany they represented an attempt to Americanize and to distance themselves from the recent shames of their homeland. Germans of the Residents' generation were having a serious identity crisis. Born just after World War II, they were in the dark shadow of their nation's past but they mostly hadn't actually witnessed the atrocities of Hitler's regime firsthand. Their own zeitgeist was not uncommon to the rock'n'roll generation, but to them it was undoubtedly more profound. They wanted to be American. They wanted to be Elvis.
The beer halls of Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Dsseldorf and Köln had been an important part of the development of European rock'n'roll when the Krautrock generation were children. Even the Beatles cut their teeth playing all night in the the German "beat clubs." And while they were both in their teens when the beat clubs loomed large, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider weren't aspiring rockers. The two met at art school in the late '60's, sharing an interest in sculpture and classical music, especially the contemporary experiments of the French composer Pierre Schaffer and their countryman Karlheinz Stockhausen, both of whom were working with electronics and amplification. They formed an ensemble, first called "The Organization" and later "Kraftwerk," to pursue their own ideas of electronic music (the 2008 documentary Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution does an excellent job at telling where the German visionaries were coming from). They weren't the only ones. The bands Amon Düül and Popul Vuh, for example, were also interested in incorporating electronics, but had the attachments of American and British youth culture. With long, improvised jams and even longer hair, most of the Krautrock bands were looking to stake claim to a corner of the hippie movement. The members of Kraftwerk, however, were their fathers' sons. They were one of the few to take a German name (it translates as "power plant"). The first album under the name Kraftwerk (after a release by the Organization) included a track called "Vom Himmel Hoch," its title translating as "From Heaven Above" and perhaps borrowed from an old German hymn. Some thought they heard the sounds of bombs dropping from the sky in the music.
The concept developed slowly. Albums issued in 1970, 1972 and 1973 were dominated by Hütter and Schneider, largely on acoustic instruments and with guest musicians on two of the four titles. But in 1974 - the year Meet the Residents came out - Kraftwerk released a record that would reach a level of commercial success no one could have anticipated.
The side-long, synth-heavy title track on Autobahn became an unexpected hit in the nascent disco movement, and a three-minute edit released as a single reached #25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and fared even better in Europe. The band hadn't yet adopted the robot personae that would make them famous. They hadn't entirely abandoned the use of flute and violin yet, and some of the new quartet lineup were still sporting long hair. But they were clean cut and smartly dressed. They didn't look like rock stars. They looked German.
Autobahn struck something even more deeply German as well. The "auto way" was a natural metaphor for the lulling, repetitious music stretching in front of the listener along for a ride. But the German highway system was also, in the shame-faced apologies of their parents' generation, what the Third Reich had done right. The implications of singing the praises of the roadway and singing in German no less, where most of their peers sang in English could not have been lost on the band. It's a dark sort of national identity, but not a false one. Irony never seemed to be in Kraftwerk's repertoire. Instead, it might be taken as an analog to a country singer extolling the beauty of the western United States: it's not necessarily an endorsement of the genocide which resulted in people of European descent dominating the land, but at the same time, well, here we are.
The album was hardly an espousal of fascism but nevertheless, and especially in Germany, it was an unmistakable acknowledgment of the unmentionable.
IV. Laibach Be
The Beatles and East Europe, free love and fascism, came together like never before in 1988, when the Slovenian industrial band Laibach released an album in which they covered every song on the Beatles' Let it Be except, oddly enough, for the title track. With their stark, militaristic imagery, it made for a statement on life behind the Iron Curtain that was both hilarious and profound. Kraftwerk may not have delved into irony, but Laibach almost certainly did. According to Trouser Press, they thought it was the Beatles worst album. They set out, it seemed, to lay it to waste.
Let it Be, Laibach's ninth album, was released at the dawn of the Slovenian independence movement which would eventually result in the dissolution of the Yugoslavian republic. Foment had been rising since the death of Yugoslavian president Josip Broz ‘Marshall' Tito in 1980. A measure of Tito's popularity can be found in the fact that in 2011 the Slovenian Constitutional Court ruled against the naming of a street after Tito, a former ally of Stalin's, saying that his name was synonymous with human rights violations. In 1988, presumably, few in Slovenia were interested in letting things be.
Laibach's militaristic style had already been the subject of controversy. They were accused of being both extreme leftists and extreme rightists. When asked, they reportedly responded that they were fascists as much as Hitler was a painter, a response perhaps equal parts poetic and distressing given the fact that Hitler did in fact paint.
As is the case with Kraftwerk, it's all but impossible to imagine that such implications were lost on the band. Their homeland had a long history of occupation and external rule. They were a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I, and divided between the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and Austrian, Hungarian and Italian rule after the war. In 1941, Yugoslavia was invaded by Hitler's Axis Powers while Italy continued to occupy the southern region of the Slovenian territory. Under the Third Reich, some 83,000 Slovenes were sent to concentration camps. By the time Laibach's founder, Dejan Knez, was born, Slovenia was enjoying a period of relative autonomy and economic growth, although not without ethnic tensions. Early versions of the band started performing in 1978, two years before Tito's death. Originally performing under the name "Salte Morale," they soon soon changed their name to something which represented fascist occupation: Laibach, the German name for the Slovenian capital of Ljublijana.
It doesn't seem a context within which the Virgin Mary would appear with the advice to just "let it be," and even if that song was left off the album, the military marches and institutional choirs that dominate the album are far from a peace-and-love pastiche. "One After 909" makes the listener worry about what might be waiting at the other end of the train trip (and oddly interpolates Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water"). The British folk tune "Maggie Mae" is replaced by a growled German folk song. The only respite to be found is in their angelic rendition of Lennon's "Across the Universe," one of his oddly nihilistic paens, the point of which seems so often to be missed. Like his later hit "Imagine," in which he proclaims that the sky is empty and godless, "Across the Universe" is an ode to nothingness. In the Communist Bloc, that might have seemed like heaven.
V. Embracing Adolf
How soon is too soon? The Onion waited three weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks before breaking the unspoken ban on humor with its perfect "Shattered Nation Longs to Care About Stupid Bullshit Again" headline. But at the risk of measuring atrocities against each other, that was an isolated incident. And we were perhaps six decades more callous by the time of the World Trade Center attacks.
So what exactly was happening after the sun set on the summer of love? What made the Nazi musical in the Mel Brooks 1968 movie The Producers and the strange love-under-axis-powers songs of Serge Gainsbourgh's 1975 album Rock Around the Bunker allowable? The punk rally against anything that might vaguely be described as "fascist" (sometimes whilst ironically wearing swastika armbands) in the latter part of the '70s made sense as a sort of lashing out, but what was going on in the years immediately before punk broke? Was the holocaust being somehow accepted? Were we trying to come to terms, like children perhaps, by making jokes?
It was probably simpler than that, and perhaps nothing more than a series of copycat crimes. Maybe Mel Brooks simply broke open the floodgates twenty-some years after the end of the war and a few others were able to slip through before they were closed again. Or maybe this is all nothing but undue weight given to a series of coincidences. Maybe just enough time had passed.
Whatever was happening, or even if there wasn't just one thing happening, it's worth looking back on that cultural moment. We are more sensitive to joking about racial and ethnic prejudice and oppression today than we were 40 or 80 years ago. At the same time, however, we're quicker to joke (at least on television and on the Internet) about our current day arch villains, though none today seem so heinous as Hitler, or at least as calculatedly efficient. That, however, may just be a product of the ever increasing speed of media.
But it's an interesting cultural touch point to consider. Were we so aglow after the summer of love that we cut ourselves a little slack? Or were we so jaded or hungover that we just, so to speak, let it be?
In 1997, the Nazi regime was given another comedic treatment, perhaps the best of all of them. Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful was a touching if imperfect story about a father trying to keep his young son entertained, to preserve his innocence, in a Nazi concentration camp. While the film received largely positive reviews and won Grand Prize at the Cannes awards and took Oscars for Best Actor and Best Foreign Language Film, there was a strong undercurrent of film and social critics saying that the movie made light of the holocaust or painted a less-than-horrible picture of life in a camp. Benigni for his part said that Life is Beautiful wasn't a film about the holocaust but a film by a comedian about the holocaust.
"There's been some people, not a lot, but some people who felt in a very, very strong way like I touched something untouchable," he told Erika Milvy in an October, 1998, interview for Salon.com, "The last thing I wanted was to hurt somebody or be offensive with the memory of the holocaust, because I started from the opposite idea, of course. I wanted to make a beautiful movie and especially to say something poetic."
Benigni probably wasn't consciously referring to the much debated declaration from German philosopher Theodor Adorno fifty years earlier, that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. Adorno later recanted, saying that "perennial suffering has as much right to expression as the tortured have to scream." Here, Adorno nicely boils the issue down to what it should be. We might object to the swastika being used as ironic, or for shock value, or to get a laugh, but all are simple expressions.
Art, or music, needn't always be beautiful. And poetry needn't always be palatable. And somehow 40 years ago - after love had failed to conquer all - rock'n'roll decided to take a hard look at the ugly. It might have been some sort of cleansing, or just the music growing up. But if after all this time it's still a bit unpalatable, maybe that just shows that they were on to something.
Also see Kurt Gottshalk's books online
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