In 1970, I bought my very first LP. It was a cheap double album sampler called “Fill Your Head With Rock”. I bought it with money I had been given for my 14th birthday. The album was essentially a tacky marketing ploy by CBS, but it introduced me to a number of artists that have remained favourites to this day, Leonard Cohen and Taj Mahal amongst them. I really loved one track that was jarringly different from the rest. It was Stomping Ground by Moondog, a sparse sort of orchestral piece, no guitars or vocals or even any conventionally structured melody in the usual sense. It looped around like a Möbius strip, with a snare drum banging out a military beat. It was short and peculiar, certainly not rock music, but not classical music either. I found it compelling.
Far from being transient, my teenage interest in rock music grew into something rather dominant. I have given over a very large part of my life to music. As a teenager, I read every edition of the Melody Maker from cover to cover, later the same with NME and Q magazine and, for the last 20 years, Mojo. I have pedantically detailed knowledge about the music that was made between 1930 and 1980. Our house is overflows with CDs, records, instruments, amplifiers, a jukebox and ephemera accumulated over decades as a performer. There is a large pile of guitar magazines in our toilet.
I am an unschooled and self-taught musician. I have played in blues, punk, country, soul, and folk bands, as well as old-fashioned guitar rock outfits. I first picked up a guitar because I wanted to play like Jimi Hendrix, and after about 25 years of hard practice, I could. Sort of. I am not brilliant at jazz, and I have never really mastered reggae, which is distressing, but I can put on a pretty convincing show in most other genres where it is unnecessary to be able to read music.
The main consequence is that nearly everything new that I hear now sounds like something else from 40 years ago. My offspring complain that I give the impression that they were born too late for the authentic stuff (I saw The Who, The Stones, The Beach Boys, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Bob Marley, The Specials, U2 and many others when these artists were young, exciting and still alive) and that new rock music is the dregs of a dying counter-culture (well, to be fair, I did say exactly that a couple of blogs back). I still get great pleasure from listening to and making music, but I cannot deny that my palate is a bit jaded.
Leaving nostalgia aside, objectively we are living in a great golden age of music making. The medium of distribution has changed, and huge amounts of music are available. This means that we have lost the charts and any semblance of a separation between the mainstream and the avant-garde. Musical taste no longer distinguishes generations. Apart from the old people on their third farewell tour, rock stars are a thing of the past. Thank goodness for that. A lot of them were pretty unpleasant. There is some interesting new rock music around, but mostly the form looks well past its sell-by date. Folk and a range of other vernacular forms are more exciting at present.
Looking back over the 46 years since I bought ‘Fill Your Head With Rock’ from the record shop in Blackheath Village, the big surprise is that, of all of those artists on the LP, it is Moondog who stands as the inspiration for much of the music that I find most vibrant and exciting in 2016.
Moondog was the assumed name of Louis Hardin, born in 1916. He totally lost his sight in an accident aged 17. From the Second World War to the early 1970s, he was a Manhattan landmark, stood at the junction of 6th Avenue and 54th Street. He wore home-made robes and a Viking helmet. Sometimes he just stood, holding a spear. Sometimes he busked his own music on instruments he devised and built himself. Most people thought he was a vagrant, but he had an apartment and a country retreat. In fact, although his eccentricities were uncontrived, he was not a naïf at all. His music was well-regarded from the outset. He knew Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Leonard Bernstein, Igor Stravinsky, Lenny Bruce, Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs…he knew everyone in the cultural elite in post-War New York, but he went his own way. In the late 50s, he made an album of children’s songs with Julie Andrews. In the late 1960s he recorded two albums for CBS, which is how a track ended up on the rock LP that I bought. His CBS albums did not sell well at the time, but they are highly sought after now.
Moondog invented minimalism according to Steve Reich and Phillip Glass (Moondog denied it and said JS Bach was pretty minimal). His influence can be clearly heard in the works of Terry Riley and John Adams. The minimalist composers have had a major impact on popular music. The introductions to ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and ‘Baba O’Reilly’ by the Who are little studies in minimalism, not dissimilar to the rounds on Moondog’s CBS LPs. Phillip Glass collaborated with David Bowie during the latter’s Berlin period. Brian Eno, who ran away from rock stardom in Roxy Music, invented an even more stripped back form that he called Ambient Music (among a dozen or so other important innovations). DJ Shadow’s ‘Endtroducing’ was a lot closer to the legacy of Moondog than to hip-hop.
I would never have heard of The Lost Jockey but for the accident of knowing one of the band. In the early 1980s, they were making really interesting music in near total obscurity, although they got some encouragement from Steve Reich. These days, musicians making similar music probably still do not make a great deal of money, but they do have an audience. My personal favourites, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, have been around for a long time and they are still intermittently making strange music. They make a huge, shifting sound that is all texture and rhythm, which is what Moondog’s legacy is all about. Music freed from the tyranny of melodic structures, without collapsing into the unlistenable. Nils Frahm, Gabriel Prokofiev, and Go Go Penguin are young and they are producing great music right now. In fact, Go Go Penguin are based in Manchester and they gig around the area regularly. These days, I find this stuff much more exciting than the rock music of my youth, but that may be old age. I hope not.
The Viking of 6th Avenue disappeared from Manhattan in 1974, and everyone thought he was dead. He was not. He had gone to Germany. He did not bother to return to America until 1989. He made his only British appearance at the Meltdown Festival, at the invitation of Elvis Costello in the 1990s. He died in 1999. 26th May 2016 will be his 100th birthday.
It is generally accepted that, in the 1950s, the DJ Alan Freed introduced the term Rock’n’Roll to the wide world through his radio programme Moondog’s Rock’n’Roll Show. Freed had to drop the Moondog bit after Louis Harding sued. 60 years later, rock music looks mined out, its intrinsic limitations starkly exposed. Moondog pointed out musical directions that so far have only been partly explored, with no horizon in sight. Rock is dead….long live Moondog.
If you do not know this music, try clicking on some of the links. This stuff takes a bit of getting used to, but it is worth the effort.