BY MARK WESTON LASKOWSKI
Trying to Listen to Everything: ideas, opinions and some humbly offered suggestions on music from, and for, an avid listener.
Lately I’ve been pondering the notion of factionalism amongst rock and roll devotees. What forms has it taken in the past? What forms does it take in the present day? This all began when a Music Aficionado article headlined “The Year Rock Went to Pieces” popped up in my Facebook feed. In it, veteran music journalist Mitchell Cohen asserts that in 1978 "rock music resembled a combat zone more than a community."
Cohen cites seemingly solid evidence. Some listeners ate up the less adventurous sounds of Kansas, Foreigner and Journey on Album Oriented Rock radio stations. Others dove into acts such as Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and The Clash, all less embraced by commercial radio. He also points out that the Top 40 Pop charts of ’78 had more or less turned their backs on earthier rock and roll. What he calls "a tower of goo" had risen to chase away nearly all the more in your face, aim-below-the-waist music of yore. Dan Hill’s schmaltzy ballad “Sometimes When We Touch” went to #3 on the Billboard charts in February. Kenny Loggins had his first solo hit with “Whenever I Call You Friend.” These songs exemplify what sneaked in among megahits such as the Bee Gee's "Stayin' Alive" or the Village People's "Y.M.C.A." Cohen contends all these factors meant “the sound of 1978 was the door slamming shut on pop consensus."
The fair question to ask Cohen and anyone else who subscribes to his thesis: how much consensus existed before 1978? After all, in the Beatlemania-fueled film A Hard Day’s Night a reporter asks Ringo “Are you a Mod or a Rocker?” In response Ringo quips, “Um, no. I'm a mocker.” This funny (perhaps even slyly telling) scene may not have played well in the States in 1964. But in the United Kingdom turf conflicts between these two youth subcultures made immediate sense. Clashes between the two social groups had erupted into public violence, arrests and sensationalistic headlines. Rockers identified with '50s rock and roll such as Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent. Mods favored tight danceable R&B, ska and soul.
Such sectarian divides always propagate in this small yet divisive island nation, you say? At about the same time on this side of the Atlantic, Bob Dylan reigned as the revered darling of the coffee house, acoustic folk music scene. He unleashed controversy with his now legendary electric rock and roll set at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. After it, a more fully electric Dylan emerged with the release of Highway 61 Revisited and the following 1966 World Tour. Backed by the road-seasoned rock and roll musicians who had been The Hawks and would soon be The Band, Dylan took his electric sound on the road. Self-appointed folk music purists would—some figuratively and one, at one of his concerts, quite literally—would decry Dylan as a "Judas." Both popular music factionalisms occurred more than a decade before Cohen’s proposed high-water mark of divisiveness. Both clearly fail to resemble anything approaching consensus.
In his article, Cohen asks, “did anyone who liked Toto's first album, or Van Halen's, also like Devo's or Generation X's?” Point taken (for the record, I liked—and still like—most of them. I was a little late to the party appreciating Generation X’s debut and, on a purely personal level, no Toto at all, thank you. Life is short).
But rewind a mere ten years from rock’s supposed great factionalization. How many people who liked the Moody Blues (they released their third LP, In Search of the Lost Chord, in the summer of ’68) also liked James Brown (who released no less than four LPs in ’68, including his blistering Live At The Apollo, Volume II)? In that same year, how many people who were grooving to The Notorious Byrd Brothers (the psychedelic folk outfit’s fifth LP) also went out and purchased the Velvet Underground’s second studio LP White Light/White Heat?
Rock and roll has long incubated different varieties of Us and Them factionalism. Surely the almighty Beatles might be apt examples of Cohen’s theorized consensus. But while employed at the now erstwhile New Jersey Network Public Television at the end of the nineties, I had the pleasure of working on a local program involving a lot of aging doo-wop artists who had come up in Philly and New York City as street corner singers. More than one of them reminisced about how, initially, they greatly resented the Beatles when the fab four first broke big circa ’64. The next big thing did not awe these guys. They instead saw four foppish Liverpudlians knocking their beloved music out of the limelight. Nor did it escape them that the fab four were stealing the ardor of their women. I suspect such opinions existed more widely. Why else would Motown’s subsidiary label V.I.P. been on the verge of releasing R. Dean Taylor’s "My Ladybug (Stay Away From That Beatle)" as a single that year?
So factionalism existed way before '78 and persisted into the next decade. After reading Cohen’s article, I remembered reading a review for Left of the Dial: Dispatches from the '80s Underground published not long after Rhino released the four-disc box set in 2004. I wish I could quote from it. I spent hours googling several online haystacks yet failed to recover this particular needle. The Left of the Dial anthology offered 82 tracks from a wide variety of '80s bands that, in theory, the mainstream, corporate rock world ignored. The review pointed out that the anthologizers made some socially tone deaf choices. Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark’s 1980 “Enola Gay” shares placement on one of the discs with The Cramp’s “Goo Goo Muck.” On another, Depeche Mode’s 1986 “Black Celebration” becomes an unlikely neighbor to Hüsker Dü’s “Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely.” The Replacements’ 1984 “I Will Dare” represents a strange bedfellows box set track mate to Ultravox’s 1981 “Vienna." A distinction existed between people into the likes of Hüsker Dü and those into Ultravox and their ilk. I recall the reviewer observing that most listeners with allegiances to the former wouldn't want to be in the same room with those into the latter.
In the age of Reagan, I was one of those proudly raucous teens-aging-into-a-twenty-something who would have vamoosed the party—if not threatened to smash things up a bit—if someone had cued up a Depeche Mode track more than once. I feel squeamishly silly confessing this some thirty years later. What was it at that time that made some of the songs collected on Left of the Dial beloved by me, others simply OK and a handful absolutely unacceptable?
When I listen to Ultravox’s “Vienna” now, I find that I like it a lot. Sure, I might quibble with the use of the Roland CR-78 drum machine (rarely can I get comfortable listening to those damned things). That aside, the song offers a complex yet sturdy arrangement. I hear hooks aplenty (especially the chorus). The song's scope sweeps me up in a way that signals a kind of noble grandeur. Twisted bonus—Midge Ure’s vocals at times evoke the crystalline tones of Jon Anderson. Fuss with the arrangement and production a bit and "Vienna" could sound, to anyone who didn’t know the difference, like a song by Yes.
I would argue something dramatically different from mere musical taste influenced my thinking at the time. I had conflated my listening choices with my personal identity and a youthful, no doubt somewhat garbled, worldview. I’m sure I would have told you something along these lines: Ultravox or Depeche Mode make music for the poseurs to shake their derrieres at the club du jour, but The Replacements or Hüsker Dü—they mean it, man! Today I feel like I fondly remember, but have ultimately outgrown, that line of thinking. Did any one of those bands desire greater commercial success any more or less than the other? Was any one of those bands less committed to their craft, if not their art, than the other? (I can’t resist digressing to observe that The Replacements complicate this question as they elevated a commitment to avoiding commitment to an art form, if not a philosophical stance.)
Now I’m at the age where my listening choices more purely reflect my preferences, my mood at any given time or a desire to explore new territory and feed my ongoing curiosity. I still have visceral negative reactions to stuff that I personally find to be irrelevant crap. I’m confident I won’t find myself taking deep dives into the music of Justin Bieber or Ke$ha any time soon, but the pool of music that would chase me from a room grows smaller and smaller.
Long gone are the days when I forged some sort of personal identity politics through my musical choices. And here in the second decade of the 21st century, that kind of musical factionalism seems to be evolving, softening—maybe beginning to go away—among listeners in general. My close to home and admittedly anecdotal indicator of this would be my own son’s listening habits. For the past decade—as he has gone from teens to twenty something—his listening habits have been a hipster bricolage of varied genres. Equally at ease listening to Death Metal, Alternative Rap, Post-Rock, Emo, Skate Punk and dips back into classics and curiosities from the mid-‘60s through the nineties. He knows no musical deal killers or prejudices similar to my Depeche Mode or Ultravox repellants of yore.
I posit increased musical genre ecumenicalism, at least for relatively middle class white males (my particular bubble, sans generation), is a trend on the rise and here to stay. What’s the driving factor? Music has freed itself from per unit costs and physical media. According to Glorious Noise’s tracking of Soundscan’s data from 1996 to 2014 sales of physical and digital albums combined dropped 58%. CD sales dropped 69%. According to a CNN Money article, “total revenue from U.S. music sales and licensing plunged to $6.3 billion in 2009, according to Forrester Research. In 1999, that revenue figure topped $14.6 billion.” Nearly a 60% drop. Last year the Recording Industry Association of America reported industry totals at $7.65 billion. According to Billboard, this was the first double-digit uptick in dollars since the end of the ‘90s, but a far cry from the glory days.
When I was I kid, I collected music. Now my kids stream it. When I was a younger, I rigorously identified with some music while soundly rejecting other music. The youth of today tend to sample, surf and construct far less self imposed boundaries. While factionalization existed before 1978 and persisted after it, the days of Mitchell Cohen’s pop consensus may be arriving.
Mark Laskowski writes poetry, fiction and essays and has done so off and on for the past thirty three years. He regularly posts meditations about rock and roll history on his labor-of-love Facebook page Your Daily Dose of Rock and Roll (www.facebook.com/YDDoRandR). Central Pennsylvania born and raised, he currently resides in the southwestern area of his adopted state of Massachusetts. Follow him @marklaskowski.