Rock and the Pop Narcotic 1999
Photo by Naomi Petersen
Interview by Randy Gelling
"Rock literature barely exists in reality," is only one of the more pertinent insights in Joe Carducci's Rock and the Pop Narcotic. First published by Redoubt in 1990, then put out by Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 press in a revised and updated version in 1994; Rock and the Pop Narcotic puts forth a caustic, revisionist history of rock music where the working class tradition in rock is traced through such underappreciated styles as surf, garage, punk and metal.
He also mounts an extensive, convincing attack against the '60s rock critic establishment (et al. Rolling Stone) and their creaky hippy ideology. It may strike some as ironic that one of the most articulate writers on rock music is not a rock critic by trade, but also right-wing in politics. Carducci has worked in the "music industry" since the late '70s and was an important figure in the early, peak years of the seminal American punk label SST.
Today, Carducci is working on several different projects: on the music side of things he has recently started the label Owned and Operated with members of the rock group All, and has created a side-label of strange-roots music called Uplands records. He also runs an independent film production company, Provisional, and their film Bullet on a Wire was on the 1998 top ten list of the L.A. Times. I talked to Carducci over the phone in Laramie, Wyoming to see what he makes of the present condition of rock.
PSF: Why did you write Rock and the Pop Narcotic?
As I was leaving SST I thought that even with what we accomplished, I didn't think there was any sense that the punk rock underground would be remembered. If you think about it, the punk era-starting with the Ramones- was the first time a new sound didn't succeed and didn't get on the radio. The first New York bands barely got on major labels and they didn't succeed enough to warrant new signings.
So once you got to when I was starting in the business, in '78-'79, those bands coming up had no chance to get signed by Sire. Not if they were the Sleepers or the Misfits or Black Flag- that prospect, for about five to six years, was almost impossible. Again, this is for a rock band, there were people like the Red Rockers or Romeo Void, some of these people who lightened up their sound got onto major label distribution deals. But this was an unusual situation, where the lack of major label interest allowed SST to grow because we did five Husker Du albums, six-seven Meat Puppets albums, Minutemen and Firehose records. You had that kind of continuity and the bands had nowhere else to go.
It wasn't until '83 that our own distributors started snooping around Husker or the Meat Puppets' door and seeing how many records they were selling and then starting their own labels and trying to stab us in the back with our own money- offering the bands an advance when they were slow to pay us. It got to be a funny situation. But we had real good, realistic working relationships with those bands and so Husker left for Warner Brothers in '85. But until that happened there wasn't any real prospect of that even occurring.
So, getting back to the book, I thought, "If I don't write this book, who is going to write this book?" Who's going to put something out there that puts the lie to the assumption of the older generation of rock critic: Greil Marcus, or Christgau? I took it easy on Christgau because at least he was in the game reviewing records. But I think that whole generation's assumption was, "Well this is a nice underground play pen that these kids have."
They didn't think in terms that this was continuity with whatever they liked about '60s and '50s rock. This was where the action was. That's why I try to divide pop from rock so you can see that the stuff they call rock n' roll, which might be Soft Cell or Flock of Seagulls- that it wasn't rock n' roll. That was part of the Phil Spector tradition of pop, you know, Motown maybe, but it had nothing to do with Stax.
It wasn't so much that I had been at SST, it was more that I had been at Systematic before that, and they were the first independent distributor that didn't import major label punk rock from England. The other companies like JEM, and Dutch East were essentially import operators. The Buzzcocks, the Clash, the Sex Pistols and Magazine- all those bands were on English major labels essentially. Systematic's relationship, as far as importing went, was with Rough Trade and that included Factory, Crass and all those labels.
But we put together American independents and that was very difficult. Aside from a couple of labels like Poshboy, Dangerhouse, Dischord and SST- it was mostly bands doing their own records. But to knit that all together we had to track those bands down individually and this is a very large country.
I didn't know everything that came out in the late '70s and early '80s but I had a much clearer view than most people and I felt responsible--like this stuff might be forgotten. It wasn't clear yet: now there's an awful lot of young writers who I hear from because my book was of use to them and they're talking to me about bands from the period when I was doing stuff who I've never heard of. They're not just collectors: they're archaeologists.
PSF: In a recent interview I read Simon Reynold's says that you are "the most class-aware writer on rock." What do you think of this?
What I think happened in the '60s was a class phenomenon. I've got a partner in my film company who's a musician and he's about twelve years older than me. His band is called Stop and Listen Boys, and he was in the Holy Modal Rounders for a bit. He's of the generation that bought the Elvis singles on Sun records and then when Elvis signed to RCA and, as they say, the music died--he got into folk music. Because they were in college, they were getting more "sophisticated" so they got into folk--the blues and all those Harry Smith reissues had just come out on the bootleg OJL labels. So he was a good resource for my book because I could see that the first generation of rock n' roll people dropped rock n' roll as if it were kid music when Franky Avalon, Dick Clark and the industry tamed it.
When the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came from England at the end of '63 and '64, that was their revelation. As college kids now, they thought, "Oh, you mean you can really do something with this kid stuff?" They had either dropped it or never listened to rock n' roll: they were more "sophisticated" than that.
So they backed into rock n' roll by being impressed with the English bands. And then Dylan went electric and consecrated the fact that rock n' roll was worthy of their interest. But they forgot about everything that happened between '58 and '64. And that's the Wailers and Link Wray and all kinds of amazing stuff. But they were all blue collar, small town bands. Paul Revere and the Raiders starting in '58 in Boise Idaho, and they're playing R&B. I thought it was a class phenomenon that rock critics credited those British bands with reacquainting American youth with R&B. It didn't happen that way. It reacquainted them with R&B, that's true, but...you see that with the '60s generation as it goes on...the '60s generation habitually observed everything as if it were happening for the first time. You know, very self-referenced. And so in that sense I'm very class aware, in the study of art for sure.
PSF: In the book there is some liberal use of the words "fag" and "faggy." Why did you decide to use these words and what kind of response did you did get about using them?
I didn't hear a whole lot of response. I put out the book and started work on other stuff. I got some reviews but some of the critics I wrote about, for whatever reason. didn't want to write about the book. Except for Christgau, I heard that Marcus was going to review for the LA weekly but in the end he didn't do it. I think they were unsure because they didn't know who I was, really. And that's important, it's sad, but true of the music audience- you want to know someone is cool and then you'll evaluate their artwork. That's why a dead artist has an advantage over a live one because a dead artist can't disappoint you anymore.
But getting back to the question; the frame of mind I went into writing the book was I wanted it to read like it came from the scenes I was part of. Portland was a tiny punk rock scene; Berkeley was a bigger, different type of scene; and then Los Angeles and specifically Hermosa Beach at SST was also a completely different scene. I wrote it more from the Los Angeles scene perspective because Los Angeles was notably less political and wilder and freer in scatology or whatever you want to say is the impolite, or impolitic, approach of surfer and hardcore kids and LA generally. When I first got back to L.A. in the fall of '81 the first thing a friend of mine did was take me out for a chili burger. In those days in San Francisco or Berkeley there was no way someone would take you to go have a chili burger. It was way too declasse, or sleazy and way too much meat. So I came to appreciate L.A.'s lack of airs; unlike the Bay area.
So as far as that word I think the word faggot or fag... It's one thing to call someone that personally in a public space, but it's another thing to use it as a cultural term that I believe everyone knows. I think homosexuals use the term the same way I do. It's about a posture and that posture has been around rock n' roll for quite a while. Actually it's been around at least since the blues. You see a few 78 (rpm) titles that are about the homosexual underground and maybe some of those bluesmen were gay. The weird self-policing on those kind of issues was part of what the problem was, so I just figured, well I'll just take advantage of leaving the business and not worry about it, use it when it's apropos. It's also written in an almost absurdist style, a collision of academic and street styles. I thought that it was funny.
PSF: The book was very funny, your writing style reminded me of Lester Bangs.
Yeah, well I've never done any drugs, and then my style changes. I like contrast, I like writing a couple of sentences that are almost textbook academia and then going right into the toilet for vaudeville blue jokes or something. I just like the contrast of putting things next to each other, to make a point, but also just as a stylistic device that I think is amusing or interesting.
PSF: After reading the book I became more aware of class biases--Anglophilia, etc--among music fans and it became rather depressing.
Yeah, several people have said that when the book came out it allowed them to see how predictable things around them were. The difficult nature of it is that kids are attempting to fit in, not fit in here but fit in over here, and there aren't that many individualists, and in a band you have to have three or four people who can kind of get into a similar vibe and it's really rare, and it's rare to last five years when it does occur. And the audience... I would see Greg Ginn or Henry Rollins talking to their fans after a show and they would be astonished by the miscommunication between what their performance means to them and what the audience takes of it. You have to be motivated by what you're doing and not be hoping for glory or comprehension because it's very easy to see how people get disappointed by the sheer level of bad shit and unconscious herd instinct. It's a different world now and I can see the fanzine culture and the internet culture is running down the consensus that a pop format needs. And its gotten even more fractious and small and so the internet will smash that to pieces. The Top 10 right now is all pop-hip-hop and apparently it's teenage girls buying those singles or calling the radio stations to hear TLC and Britney Spears.
PSF: The thing with that hip-hop is that it is watered down even by hip-hop's own aesthetic standard, if it has one.
Those artists are totally on the puppet model of Motown or Phil Spector or Dick Clark. They're just producers who get a song, they're not real artists in the rock sense for sure, and not even in the sense of people like Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder; who were writers who eventually took control of their output. These kids are getting ripped off, you know it, but they're not really doing the work anyway, I guess.
PSF: Do you think the same thing has happened with country music as what has happened to R&B?
Country has the best aspects of Tin Pan Alley so it's not as vulnerable as R&B. R&B... the generation gaps or changeovers are really severe in black culture and it has to do with the embarrassment of their past... most white people aren't really trying to delineate what a black person goes through. The white people who tend to be sympathetic can't really understand what a black person has got to deal with- they have to deal with shame. How that manifests itself in pop culture is each generation of blacks pulls the music away from their elders very abruptly and brusquely and so there's this sort of ahistorical energy to black music. Whereas in country it's the exact opposite. Even when they're producing for suburban audiences, and we're coming off a pretty bad period, there are always a dozen masterpieces on country radio. I've been listening to country radio lately, just to get a fix on it, and there's an awful lot of fiddles in it and not so much completely bogus crap. Alan Jackson has a song called "Little Man," and some woman has a song called "Fancy," which is a real nice, very southern story song about a girl whose mother puts her in a tight dress and has to send her away to the city because she can't afford to feed her anymore. (Laughs) It's like a '60s era, real southern woman's song.
PSF: What do you think about modern rock movements like the Chicago post-rock scene?
The Chicago scene interests me a lot, although I don't have a lot of the records. Now you can read about Tortoise and Prekop in skate magazines. I don't know what accounts for that except that the hardcore kids are getting older and maybe they're getting bored of the Offspring. But Chicago was really backward in the late '70's and through most of the '80's--it had a couple decent bands but it didn't have a scene that had any confidence in itself so they tended to imitate British styles because I think New York and L.A. styles intimidated them. The scene was really small and hooked around dance clubs rather than live venues. Good live venues really didn't getting going until the mid-'80's. But it was cheap to live in Chicago and finally a critical mass of people moved there from the greater mid-West and broke open the lock... I don't know how good all the music is but I knew one of the first bands doing that kind of musique concrete-using tape manipulation and turntables- that was Repulse Kava. They didn't stay together; one of the guys was my partner in the film company and I keep telling him, "You should've stayed in Chicago."
I think that Chicago is an interesting music-based scene. I think in terms of rock tradition, so to my mind it's a narrow tendril from the trunk. I'm tempted to say that it can't go anywhere, but it's not that it can't go anywhere, it's just that someone has to incorporate it into a rock format for its influence to rebound into the mainstream of rock, if not pop. And it probably will because there's not a lot of influences to pull from these days that haven't been worn out.
PSF: How do you view the SoCal scene in Southern California?
The California thing... After working with All I can see that the Descendants/All have left in their wake hundreds of bands doing their approximate pop/punk approach. And then I listen to Offspring and I hear T.S.O.L in the singing style and lack of melodic sophistication. The Orange County bands like the Vandals and even the Adolescents (who I liked) rhythmically they weren't sophisticated at all. Very two-dimensional music even when it was good. And that to me is the pop dead end. It's succeeding and people are hearing those bands but it's not music to fire a new generation of rock bands that are going to be any good. There's just not enough to it.
PSF: In Rock and the Pop Narcotic you come down hard on almost all British rock since the post-punk era. Do think things have things improved at all?
That stuff is harder, I know there's an legitimate underground of played music in England. I happen to have a tape of Ozric Tentacles and some Bevis Frond, so I know there are people like Billy Childish who in British terms are certainly Luddites. But there's been so much damage to the tradition because it's not like in America where a certain percentage of kids in any grade school just gravitate towards being in a band. I remember there were kids in bands from the fourth grade on in the schools I went to. In those days they were playing "Gloria" or "96 Tears" and now, unfortunately, they're playing Offspring. (Laughs) So there are a lot of problems here but the tradition itself survives. That's where I thought Bowie was such a catastrophe. That's why the word "fag" has meaning, because it wasn't that the people who were faggy were necessarily homosexual. The people in these bands who were faggy were all chipping away at the tradition. The tradition can take a lot of abuse and ridicule but at a certain point, in a culture where it's a transplant like in Britain, you can kill it. You can kill the impulse to be a drummer or to be good if the cult of the manager tells you that, "We know Sigue Sigue Sputnik are terrible, that's what's wonderful about them." It's ridiculing show business but in a way...
In England it was bit like the black American generation cutting off the tradition as abruptly and viciously as they can. In England that meant cutting off the tight little group of people who started in '59- from the Beatles and the Stones to Black Sabbath and Bad Company was all one generation. They all did nothing but bone up on American music, black music and learning how to play the best that they could. I got a tape of a Chicken Shack album from a friend. Even if you were a connoisseur of British blues rock you may not think that Chicken Shack was chickenshit. And yet it's a fucking great album, it's unbelievable how many good songs are on the record. And it isn't genius but they did a lot of work to find their own voice in someone else's tradition. But after David Bowie and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, there were several weird Europeanizations of rock music and what you end up with is a pop scene that doesn't have any rock music anymore. But I'm not current so for all I know the British are likely to generate a real obstinate underground again.
Rock and the Pop Narcotic is now available from Redoubt Press.