Sunday, May 04, 2008

Two points and several afterthoughts:


The Cough

Significantly, “Sweet Leaf” Black Sabbath’s epochal paean to weed, starts with a cough, Ozzy hacking the lungful of the bong-hit he’s been hanging onto out into the crackling studio air. Immediately it’s dubbed out and panned between the speakers, time-stretched, the volume boosted.

If we’re going to get all dialectical about it, and we are, “Sweet Leaf” stands as kind of anti-“Isi” (see post below mayoral fatuity and Danzig clips) a grim corrective to its disembodied, post-human surf through the stars, and where “Autobahn” and Dusseldorf” start with the sound of liberating technologies, the car and the plane respectively, “Sweet Leaf” is here to undermine your Utopian assumptions, to plunge you back into the world of the body and a more ambiguous relationship to technology. There’s a resolutely demagogic anti-glamour to the way the cough is extended and phased to sound even rawer, more harmful, a flaunting both of the self destructive, painfully abject qualities of smoking, its soiled sublimnity, and partly an anti-progressive insistence on the primacy of the body, an insult, an enemy, no doubt, but also the only means by which its own limitations can be temporally escaped.

The scandalizing element to the cough is partly just, on the one hand, Ozzy asserting his prole provincialism; his lumpen, Brum, anti-Dandy resentment coming through, an attempt to puncture pretension (Sabbath were critically reviled at the time. And probably still are, actually.) It’s a levelling, populist gesture, an attempt to locate the performer in the same arena as the listener, the most elemental attempt at a raw universality in the face of the progressivist fantasy of the Left, the Summer of Love’s botched attempts at transcendence, against the notion of the Star,(Zappa, naked taking a shit, regarding the viewer quizzically, the old advice for meeting people who intimidate you: just imagine them on the toilet.) He coughs just like you do, Everybody Coughs, the body is the final, inescapable reality, the rock against which all symbolic mediations break and founder (this insistence on the real of the body corroding all of life’s bright fantasy is the basic black stuff, the heart of darkness that one of Sabbath’s off-shoots, Doom Metal, has always drawn upon, the abject-epiphany.) The body is a cage, but that cough and its immediate capturing and distortion, the interplay of pleasure and pain, flesh and machine, is the nexus of many of Metal‘s concerns.


The Riff

A cough, then the famous riff arrives in all its clammy, earthbound, shit-brown viscosity. There’s something tactile and effortful about that riff, the way it heaves itself up for a moment before collapsing in on itself again. When “Sweet Leaf” does pick up some velocity halfway through it’s a lumbering, hobbled lurch for freedom, the drums paddling frantically in the air and failing to make contact with the ground, all frantic preparation and failing resolution. Soon enough it stumbles gratifyingly back into the fatalistic repetition-compulsion of the riff. Half-rising then sinking back to its knees again, indefinitely. What “Sweet Leaf” says, effectively, is: Fuck it! You would never have made it anyway.


“Sweet Leaf’s” torpid, defeatist funk, captures much of Metal’s passive-aggressive anti-utopianism. The queasy thrill of giving up, the denial of any possibility of progress. To some extent this is just the band importing the blinkered, endlessly repeating, interchangeable masochism of the Prole work/leisure ethic: “we work hard and we play hard” the ability to absorb physical punishment as the index of “ knowing how to enjoy yourself.” Complaining about your lot is for wimps: just get on with it. But its roots are deeper: it’s not just that “Sweet Leaf” betrays a very British combination of solipsism, fatalism and masochism, it’s also heavily sceptical, anti-Futurist, anti-modern*, turned in on itself, retreating from any linear sense of history. Technology is just another form of enslavement, another yoke, a more glittering set of shackles and stocks to sit in. This may be why Metal has largely tended toward imagery of domination and submission, to the pagan, circadian world, to Medieval, pre-Modern motifs. Doom and Stoner**Metal’s world view is properly Manichean, (in contrast to the eschatological impulse of Death/Black Metal, which invokes revelation and apocalypse) anticipating a conflict between elemental forces of light and darkness that can never be resolved, only recast.

And the future?

The future was with “Sweet Leaf” rather than “Isi”, with Sabbath’s glumly ecstatic abandonment and retreat. “Isi” marks the end of an era where “Sweet Leaf” ushers in our times: Ozzy’s not normally regarded as a seer, but he knew it even then, the final line making it plain:

“You gave me a new belief/and soon the world will love you sweet leaf.”

* Though both may aim at a kind of restitution of the pre-modern world, Modernism’s secret nostalgia. “Neu” believe technology will readjust man’s relation to the cosmos returning us to a pre-Copernican sense of scale, a universe of interleaved crystalline rings with man heroically repositioned at its centre.
**“Sweet Leaf,” is considered the great archetypal Stoner Rock track not just for its subject matter but formally, in all its monolithically undanceable funk***. Zepplin might have tried to get there first with “Black Dog” John Paul Jones wanting, apparently to write a song that people couldn’t “groove” to, but the point remains the same. Rock and roll turns into Rock or Metal when the urge to dance is both simultaneously invoked and denied. All the trapped kinetic energy goes straight to the head, and head banging is nothing more than the attempt to shake it loose before it reaches terminal buildup. Stoner Rock uses weed to intensify the hit.

***Early Rock’s guitars were trebly, twangy, bright and sharp, another element in the songs rhythm, something to add extra layers of propulsion, to up the tempo, in music designed to be danced to, with a partner. Rock and roll was dance music, it hit the hips, the feet, the waist, made you twist, jive or hop, but Metal and Heavy Rock begin to play up the immersive**** qualities of distortion and amplification, the catch-scratch fever of early Rock guitars, a kind of bright white spasm of intensity over the top of the rhythm section, gives way to a thicker more enveloping sound, it starts to slow down, turn away, saturated with smoker***** solipsism.

****“Heavy” is immersive without offering up the broader sonic environment of ambient or shoegaze’s numinous, edgeless fuzz, it’s only when we get through to Doom/ Sludge and Drone Metal that riffs are primarily textural, slowed down to the point where the kinetic charge is so extrapolated that the shifts, when they do occur, are experienced as seismicly unsettling, one world collapsing into another. With Sabbath you’re up medium close, you can still take the whole object in, there’s a proscenium arch above them, with Drone Metal you’re up too close, you can’t even see the riff. And it’s this perspective on it that allows for a dramatic, object-oriented relation. Which is why most Heavy/Stoner Rock feels pyramidal, vertical in its constructions and deconstructions, its emphasis on the spectacular, an awe-inspiring monument being assembled before your eyes, while Drone buffets you around and shifts the ground beneath your feet.


***** Stoner Rock is a nebulous genre: “Sweet Leaf”/ “Masters of Reality” is generally regarded as the jump off point for both Doom Metal and Stoner Rock, though the later category of Stoner Doom has retroactively corralled a whole set of overlapping antecedents. By Doom Metal I’m basically going for a lineage that runs Sabbath******/St Vitus/ Earth/ Sleep/ Electric Wizard. I’m tempted to add Flipper but they’re too dubby (even if it’s dub via “Metal Box”) and dub adds a bit too much space to the sound. There’s also the overlapping, equally weed-friendly genre of Space Rock (Monster Magnet, Orange Goblin, etc.) but this has too much keyboard- generated tonal colour and rococo embellishment, too much flange and wah-wah. It’s too florid to be attributed to a line of descent from Sabbath. Hawkwind’s the key there. Kyuss probably owe more to Space-Rock than Doom , though frankly Kyuss’ spongy/springy low end woomph shares a lot with the reviled (but, inevitably, not by me) genre of Sport Metal (early Korn, Deftones etc) Are Kyuss basically the Meat Puppets gone Nu-Metal?
****** Although maybe we should really start with Blue Cheer. Their version of “Summertime Blues” stretches the original’s jerky catharsis into an anti-expressive melange of detuned guitar and leaden drums. In Blue Cheer’s proto-Metal take there really ain’t no cure for the summertime blues, just as their version of The Stone’s “Satisfaction” mangles the original’s measured Wigger strut, alternately speeding it up and dragging it out to the point of collapse. Finally, perhaps Blue Cheer are just too willfully anti-groove******* to be properly hailed as the forefathers of the genre. They’re too Avant, you might as well try and head bang to “Out to lunch”, there must be the sense of a groove too great or slow to actually dance to, on the great, “Doctor Please” the guitars actually sound prolapsed, hanging down over the rhythm section, flapping greasily. Blue Cheer’s deliberate distortion of many of Rock and Roll’s signifiers, the deliberately strangulated Johhny B Goode riffing on “ Love Gun” etc. probably locates them in more of smart-arsed Po-Mo punk tradition. It’s no coincidence that both the Cheer and Devo have covered/desecrated “Satisfaction”, surely?
******* In some ways the anti-dance accumulation of successive waves and peaks of kinetic energy in Heavy/Stoner Rock isn’t that removed from Disco’s mille plateaux, though this overturns the critical shibboleth that Disco largely incarnates a female form of jouissance (and is therefore ideologically acceptable) whereas Rock's dynamics are phallic and ejaculatory. This certainly wouldn’t apply, for example, to Uffomamut’s latest, which is as metronomically, mechanically built up and stripped down as any Disco track. The objection may not really be a formal one at all, but merely cultural. Both go beyond Pop’s three-minute pleasure principle into a world in which darker and deeper forms of ecstatic experience are entrained. Disco largely voids the song form, Heavy Rock (of the sub-genre kind discussed here) deliberately slows it down and extends it, broadens it out. Decoupled from any revolutionary rhetoric drugs become a form of retreat rather than transformation. Metal's anti-glamour and Disco’s insistence on glamour (I’m going for glamour here as a set of surfaces so dazzling that any apprehension of corporeality is fully suspended, in which certain effects of light and geometry sheath the subject in a post-human dazzle) may just mean Disco is Metal without the scepticism. Who knows, maybe on the deep level Tony Iommi and Giorgio Moroder have more in common than you might imagine.

12 comments:

Dominic said...

Great stuff.

On this account, I'd say Sunn's "My Wall" is Doom/Stoner ("stand in the thrall of my tidal wall" - finitude, bodily exhaustion, abject slumping before the reaper; "old mother fucker" who sounds like a character escaped from Riddley Walker*), whereas "Orthodox Caveman" ("eternity opens...the cemetery lights up again", a line from Mayhem's Freezing Moon) is Death/Black...

Dominic said...

* where her name is Aunty:

"Every body knows Aunty. Stoan boans and iron tits and teef be twean her legs plus she has a iron willy for the ladys it gets red hot. When your time comes you have to do the juicy with her like it or not. She rides a girt big rat with red eyes it can see in the dark and it can smel whos ready for Aunty. Even if they dont know it ther selfs the rat can smel if they're ready"

Dominic said...

Doh! I mean "Candlegoat", not "Orthodox Caveman"...

Anonymous said...

Dominic...at some point you and I need to sit down a over a bottle of sparkling mineral water and just really try and clarify all these genres, for our own sake if no-one else's...actually we must invite Walter along too...in fact, when can we have a Metal Conference????

steve57 said...

excellent work - though I can never work out why people fixate on Sweet Leaf so much, it's never been particular favourite of mine, there's such better Gold of theirs, before and after. Hell, I'd even take a couple of Dio Sabbath tracks before that (sorry).

(mind you, a mate of mine used to sing in a rock covers band called Sweet Leaf - they used to specialise in biker festivals and dodgy south London boozers)

Have you read Rat Salad? Essential reading for the Sabbathophile and quite amusing with it.

Anonymous said...

What needs to be brought in here is some discussion of the Butthole Surfers' hijacking of the riff/the baggage/the history in their brilliant "Sweat Loaf" -- adapting Sabbath for the age of Satanic provocation (Judas Priest trial, Tipper Gore vs metal etc).

Anonymous said...

ahh.. i did originally have a footnote on Sweat Loaf but abandoned it... maybe i could extend it as.. well.. i do love the Buttholes...

steve57 said...

If you're gonna do Sweet Loaf, how about Shut Up, Be Happy? Sabbath music, Biafra words, put together by Ice T and first heard by these ears as an intro tape for Megadeth... - that's enough to keep you going, no?
(or even Orbital's Satan - unless of course the S-Loaf intro is taken from elsewhere)

also - watch out for a Buttholes show in London this year, or so I hear...

Anonymous said...

the iceberg is one of my favourite albums of all time and i revere Ice-T for his stuff on that...unfortunatley less keen on Biafra....not sure about the later Buttholes...last one i heard was the Worm Saloon thing which was good but a bit straight Ministry /Helmet.. have you ever heard that double live album...a fucking monster...Locust and Hairway are just awesome yet strangely i dont have either of them..i like the orbital track too... whats te Eon track that samples that "Satan!"?....actually Hoodlum Priest must win the number-of-references-to-Satan-in-a dance-track award ...

Dominic said...

Ice-T was always a not-so-closet metaller. Very similar worldview in a lot of ways...

Anonymous said...

true, true....the rap/metal overlap has always been there and there has been a lot of mutual admiration between the scenes.. in fact the lack of conversation between black and white musics that the Blissblogger mourns has still gone on with metal to some degree...I think the general anti-Funk-metal/metal hip-hop thing is odd...maybe again it was the machismo/lack of "sophistication" that made it critically infradig

wonky said...

it's tony iommi's cough not ozzy's, and ozzy didn't write the lyrics -- geezer butler did.

ozzy's just the man in the front.