Wednesday, December 3, 2014

alternative rock history #1

One blogpost I never got around to writing up: trying to imagine a world in which Godley & Crème’s 1977 album Consequences was as massive as the record company thought it was going to be.

Consequences was this concept album the duo did immediately after leaving 10c.c. at the zenith of that group's success ("I'm Not In Love" etc). 

A triple LP, in a deluxe box (like a classical box for a Wagner opera or something), with a 20 page booklet and four full-colour illustrations outlining the Concept.

It was made using the Gizmo, or Gizmotron to give it its full name: this sort of reinvented guitar they’d developed to simulate orchestral textures.

Consequences was a huge production, blurring the lines between pop, radio play, and comedy (Peter Cook was involved).

Now this is what interested me: the record company, Mercury, actually priced it even higher than a triple LP needed to be. They thought it would sell as this quality, high-cultural thing, a prestige purchase. They were thinking, I guess in the wake of Mike Oldfield and so forth, that this was the direction music was going.

But it took so long to make--18 months--that by the time it came out in the autumn of 1977, punk was all the rage. The album was a total bust.

That got me thinking about what circumstances would have had to prevail for Consequences to be a Tubular Bells level smash. I concluded that punk would either have had to not happen at all, or happen earlier, in a smaller way, such that it was all over by 1977.  It was just bad timing for Godley and Crème, their record came out at the worst possible moment.  The Wall was massive a few years later, as was Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (similar in many ways –  double elpee, lavish booklet, use of actors and spoken word, beautifully detailed and spacious production with lots of stereophony and alien electronic sounds  – a movie on wax, basically, with a cast of dozens).

My thinking was that there was a structural necessity in the music scene (and record industry) for something like punk to happen - the erosion of that whole level of small-club music that created intimacy and community between fans and audience;  the need for something that reflected teenage lives and frustrations, working-class real life; the gap for an aggressive hard rock with hooks and easy-entry levels of musicianship etc etc.  But what if all that came about earlier?  Say, in 1974, and had happened with less fall-out in terms of  political resonances and repercussions.

A premature punk, lacking the ideological content that span off into the massive renewals of postpunk, DIY, anarchopunk,  etc.  Such that it had all blown over by '77.

One scenario I came up with: what if  The New York Dolls had happened, had lived up to the hype, established a huge popular audience rather than the cult following that largely consisted of rock critics and people like Morrissey and the brothers Sylvian and Jansen? What if "real kids" rallied to them?

How could that have happened? The only way I could see was  if one of the original members whose role was, shall we say, "decorative" went missing early on in the band's existence, through misadventure of some kind. And the replacement turned out to be their Glen Matlock figure, a proper tunesmith and anthem-builder. Like say a future Ramone, maybe.

If McLaren found this Ramone-enhanced Dolls a little sooner, and perhaps even had the bright idea of steering them into the hands of a Chapman / Chinn...

Leading to a wave of Dolls-copyists across the UK, managing to vent pent-up aggression / frustration effectively but non-consequentially (in comparison with punk), and taking a lot of the actors and prime movers of 76/77 out of the equation early.... Causing Mick Jones to form a Dolls/Mott type band, something as poppy and insignificant as Generation X, and Strummer to molder on in the Grove squatland, becoming a Tymon Dogg-like figure, a raspy busker.

But the innate self-destructiveness of the Dolls would probably have won through anyway... meaning that the moment would pass quickly...

Going back to Consequences (and another problem with my counterfactual is the, er, limitations of the material itself in terms of its mass appeal), I love this story about some of studio shenagians G&C and their engineer got up:

"Three days were spent producing a saxophone sound from an electric guitar; each note of a guitar solo was recorded separately and faded in on the track, which was then sent through a speaker and out of a rubber hose with perforated cigarette paper at the end. Enough pressure was displaced by forcing the sound through the holes of the cigarette paper to give the rasp of a saxophone."

Wouldn't have been much easier, and cheaper, simply to hire a saxophone player?

Of course there is a further level of the alternative rock history scenario which I never got around to thinking about - what would be the consequences of Consequences being consequential - actually selling and being popular? Would the Gizmo actually become part of the standard arsenal of rock and pop groups going forward? One of the accusations leveled at the record at the time was that it was little more than a demonstration record for the new instrument, an advertisement....  G&C imagined they would be selling them by the thousand.

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