When I was 15 I lived in a world operating on assumptions I didn’t make and couldn’t figure out. Some students would kind of get it, be able to get a little bit of conversation before it started to become clear it was too different for me to actually understand. The music was where it would always fall apart. “Oh, Three Doors Down has a song like that!” Yeah but it’s got so much fuzz on so many instruments I’m not even sure what notes are being played. “LCD Soundsystem really gets that across!” With what? There’s no melody I can follow through the beats. “Check out The National, all their songs are about that.” I guess if I read it as poetry, but the meaning all gets muted by the sounds. I couldn’t articulate any of these gripes, though, I just decided they didn’t really feel it. I couldn’t have told you what it was, though. Not until I heard an album from 1975 that felt it, and then followed the influences and mythologies of that into every major rock release 10 years before and 5 years after that album.
This isn’t a journey through the emotions of classic rock from someone who got to it later, though. This is a way to establish that there is something that old albums do to get at a core emotion that it’s a lot harder to get now, but the way we talk about any music more than 20 years old really just betrays the fact that it was an emotional appeal, a plea from people who needed to let it out and rules be damned to people who didn’t even know there were rules in the first place, but sure heard the message better without them. Conventional ways of discussing music ceased to be useful. Lester Bangs’ writing reads like a fiery sermon from a Great Awakening preacher when he praises Iggy Pop’s Raw Power. Robert Christgau explored moods and what ways people wanted to feel them with songs as illustrations rather than focal points. The writing about the art became as emotional as the artists always had been when they played songs.
This all existed while an old guard watched and asked questions about form and format that the listeners couldn’t answer, and the musicians figured it was besides the point of what they were making. Listen to The Who’s “My Generation” and try to find what part of that song’s power could be replicated by someone who’d only read sheet music. Sure Entwistle has some great licks and Moon goes nuts on the drums, but the power rests in the weight that each instrument has simply because of how they made the notes and beats sound. It’s a might that you can’t write down, you have to hear.
Was that confusing? Good. The word to summarize all that is “timbre,” the qualities of a sound not described by pitch or volume. I avoided it because that word doesn’t get the feeling across. When we shorthand feelings like that it really does betray how it felt to be listening to that song in 1965, which should be the point of discussing old music in any venue designed for public consumption. Discussing how artists learned from each others’ melody constructions, chord progressions, and production techniques are mostly useful when written by and for people who already understand how that all translates to what we feel from when we hear it. There were plenty of sounds that flew around the 1960s that didn’t wind up resonating with people enough to have a lineage. Baroque Pop was a whole fad in Britain in the mid 60’s but besides Sgt. Pepper nobody felt it enough to take it and roll with it. What emotions made Baroque Pop not stick but the blues based rock of Cream and that weird hillbilly variant called Americana by The Band have a continuing lineage?
I don’t have the answer to that, it’s why I asked it. It’s the sort of way
we should be approaching every discussion of music too old to immediately make sense to someone under 30, and the writing about old music today makes it hard to even think to ask those questions. Rolling Stone had always been code switching, trying to reframe these feelings into language that could translate it while keeping writers like Hunter S Thompson on board so they wouldn’t lose sight of those emotions. Many sets of writers and editors later, they got stuck in the framework of “how does this map onto those bands this publication is tied to” instead of the framework of “what words can get this music to make sense to people who don’t get it yet” and let me tell you, as someone who intuits the emotional appeal of Patti Smith and can sometimes understand the emotional appeal of Megan Thee Stallion, Rolling Stone does an awful job of bridging the gap in anyway that makes sense once you listen to “WAP.”
Music is the silliest place to get bogged down in numbers. Musicians are people with a lot of emotional turmoil and not enough clarity to put it into any words. We learn the esoteric terminology of half steps and perfect fifths because once you know the sounds those words mean, you can figure out the feelings they come together to produce. It’s not easy to learn, but once you know it you can hear other people’s feelings clearly through their songs, and then add your pain to whatever part of it they tapped into.
Every publication dedicated to classic rock obscures this instead of articulating it. Now that every contemporary publication besides Rolling Stone has been dead and decaying for decades (except Village Voice, which lasted a good bit longer but had a long painful death) the websites that have cropped up to discuss those albums and bands treat all this music as from a time when people thought more and were deliberate in their decisions and that yielded great art — as if anyone doing as much heroin as Lou Reed did during the Velvet Underground years has even the ability to have as many thoughts as Kendrick Lamar must every time he goes into the studio, and the audiences of the time valued all that thought and deliberation that went into it. I’ve seen too many younger people buy into this nonsense to not be burned by it. Too many times I spend a good amount of time talking about how Led Zeppelin III is inspired by Bob Dylan’s time in the basement of Big Pink with The Band only to lead to me saying “yeah that section where they sing [X] really resonated with how I feel like…” and then they don’t know how to talk to me anymore.
Of course there’s some music from the era that predicted this. It’s getting harder each year for me to listen to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who. A song meditating on the inevitability of the new to become old and flavorless from nearly 50 years ago stings extra. The parting on 1968’s left is now the parting on 2020’s right. I would hope they would at least smile and grin at the change all around them, but when Daltry spews Brexit nonsense I don’t even have the comfort of thinking that at least he would not get fooled again.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.
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