Sunday, August 28, 2005

Culture wars of the past

It's funny how culture battles of the past smolder on even years later. I have in mind here a battle between factions on the same side, not a divide on the level of Jerry Falwell versus Jerry Garcia, say. Rather, Beatles versus Stones, that staple of the late 1960s.

The dying embers of this ancient dispute were revived by a NY Times op-ed about the Beatles and their lasting impact. I didn't personally think the op-ed added a whole lot or said much of enormous interest, so I figured the Times' internal op-ed selection politics must have been at work in some unknown way. But judging from the volume of letters about the op-ed that the Times published in today's Week in Review, it must have been a real audience pleaser.

Anyway, two of the letters revive the Rolling Stones fans' side of the dispute. The op-ed had obtusely cited the Beatles' "Revolution" as indicative of the revolutionary political spirit of music at the time, so the first letter rightly points out that "Revolution" is anti-political activism, and indeed "the Beatles' declaration of blissed-out withdrawal," whereas the Stones sang that "the time is right for fighting in the streets."

Yes, and (showing my age) I actually remember how much the radio stations played "Revolution" even though it was the "Hey Jude" B-side, a fact that my brother and I attributed to the quietistic message radio stations hoped people would glean from it. But on the other hand, "Revolution" is intense and heartfelt (certainly not a "blissed-out" song), reflecting taking the violent emotions of the time seriously, whereas the Stones' "Street Fighting Man" comes off in retrospect as phony and insincere playing to the audience (albeit with a great riff). Showing once again one of the Beatles' chief advantages over the Stones. Perhaps because they were provincials who had to make things up for themselves rather than (until they made it big) plugged-in London hipsters, they were less prone to just do the cool thing rather than their own thing.

The second letter dismisses the Beatles as a "kid's band, perfect for daydreaming and first romances, but not for the long haul, where only the blues and the toughest rock 'n' roll [a la the Stones] can help see you through." Yes, it certainly is easier to keep going if you don't need fresh inspiration but can just keep on doing the same thing with less and less energy and originality for decades on end.

For almost all of the great 1960s bands that kept going (e.g., Stones, Who, Kinks) I greatly prefer what I call the "before the bombast" phase of their work, meaning the early stuff before they got too grandiose and/or rigidified. Making their more inspired work pretty much coterminous with that of the Beatles, leaving aside the Stones' Exile on Main Street and Some Girls.

But of course the real dichotomy of the 1960s, identified once in a Brian Eno interview that I read, was Beatles versus Velvet Underground. With all due respect to the Stones' great early work, this one is a tougher call. Interestingly, while Eno of course endorsed the VU side of this divide, both he and John Cale (of the VU's first two albums) have done a fair amount of work that sounds more like a thoroughly de-sillified Paul McCartney than like "Heroin" or "The Black Angel's Death Song."

I have been listening in the last few days to a 1970s Cale album (Paris 1919) as well as the Eno-Cale album from 1990, both of which are pretty and melodic. So who needs the great divides eventually.

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