'Tis the season for celebrated mythology: The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll
Christopher Knowles is the author of the recently published book The Secret History of Rock 'N' Roll, which ties the rock-era music scene back to mystery cults formed "since the Stone Age." Christmastime is a festive season when we party hard, glory vicariously in exciting fables, and when some of us even shove our mystified beliefs in others' faces in the broader culture. So chatting with the award-winning writer of this elucidating tome on tropes behind our rock idols seemed like a great way to chop up myth, music, and magic just at the right moment in 2010.
Knowles has been a writer and editor for some time, and his Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes is also an excellent analysis of how ancient archetypes become cheap everyday thrills. But it was his tenaciously intense engagement with a certain UK punk-into-pop band in Clash City Showdown: The Music, Meaning, and Legacy of The Clash that got me into his work. I admire his passion and fierce intelligence at dissecting culture we enjoy and use to transcend our lives habitually. Below is our chat with Mr. Knowles about all these things.
Three Imaginary Girls: Chris, thanks for answering some questions about your book The Secret History of Rock 'n' Roll. I really appreciate it, as I had been thinking a lot about its topics lately -- how certain philosophical strains inform the songs and navigate the creativity of so many bands (even when those bands aren't completely aware that they adhere to any beliefs or type of behavior).
I'm sending you these questions during the Christmas season, a perfect time for such analysis -- as an example of how mythology and specific belief in something gets smeared around the culture, including the pop one. Was it your rigorous study of the super-mythologized The Clash on your long-running fan website and in the book Clash City Showdown that began your thought processes on these topics?
Christopher Knowles: It played a major part in it, but at the same time Clash City Showdown was about trying to peel away the mythology around the band and understand them as human beings. A lot of it was also about arguing that The Clash were a live band first and foremost, and that the weird feedback loop between the band and the audience played a crucial part in that experience. Their mythology was posthumous in many ways, because their reputation was in tatters from the period following Combat Rock up until the big Clash revival in the early 90s. They were certainly whipping boys for the British press for most of their career. They were also a punchline on the hardcore scene, even though the very same people who badmouthed The Clash were first in line when they came to town!
I think with any rock band the place you need to encounter them is their music. The mythology is simply the icing on the cake. Musicians were lionized during the classic age of Rock starting with The Beatles, but I'm not sure rock 'n' roll is the place to be looking for heroes. Music tends to look for broken vessels to express itself through, and that's certainly the case with these shamanic figures like John Lennon, Jim Morrison and Joe Strummer. Joe was a wonderful person in many ways, but he also required that people overlook his many less-than-admirable qualities. He could be ruthless to the point of sadism, which began in The 101ers, certainly continued with Mick and Topper's sacking and the incredibly abusive treatment of their replacements, right on up to his final days in The Mescaleros.
TIG: I was a huge fan of The Clash myself, till my first wave hardcore friends made fun of me for liking Sandinista! and I backed off a bit before Combat Rock was released. At first seemed to me to be that The Clash was completely secular, and not at all romantic -- primarily sociological-political in song messages. But then I began to realize that plenty of their songs were about love and sex ("Train In Vain," "Lovers Rock"), even metaphysical-apocalyptic ("The Sound of Sinners"), and with a very tight ethical sensibility ("Know Your Rights"). I found it ironic there was a religion building up around a pop art band that eschewed traditional faith belief systems though. You write that Sandinista! had "no punk rock on it at all," and that Combat Rock let you down. Do you think the reggae-based "Sandinista!" was out of their league spiritually? And was there anything on Combat Rock you think still stands up, and why/why not?
CK: Oh, The Clash were extremely spiritual, which is why they gravitated so strongly towards reggae. I think Rastafarianism offered them a spiritual model that had a lot in common with punk- the rebelliousness, the apocalypticism, the fatalism. Joe had been involved in a lot of quasi-cultish groups in the 70s- there was an Indian guru he and Tymon Dogg followed around for a while and he also spent some time with a mysterious Jesuit splinter group during his time in Wales.
As to the last two Clash albums, you really have to factor in the absolute chaos and dysfunction behind the scenes. Topper had gone off the rails, Paul was disengaged in many ways and Joe and Mick essentially worked separate shifts in the studio. There was also a major tug of war over musical direction in that Joe and Paul wanted The Clash to be rooted in rockabilly and reggae and Mick wanted to incorporate synthpop and dance music, which he did with Big Audio Dynamite. By the time it came to recording Combat Rock they lost their sense of discipline and togetherness, and ended up taking a lot of really powerful material and watering it down beyond recognition. And it's because they tried to compromise between these two opposing impulses that were tearing the band apart. Compromise and rock 'n' roll don't mix well.
But Sandinista! was where the band split itself in two. They tried a little of everything and by the time it was over figured out how they wanted to proceed. Unfortunately, it was in two totally different directions. But it's the weirdo, wacked-out reggae and dub stuff on Sandinista! that I still really enjoy. All of the key tracks- 'Magnificent Seven', 'One More Time', 'Charlie Don't Surf', 'Somebody Got Murdered' and so on- are much more effective to my ears in their live incarnations. Same goes with Combat Rock- there are live versions even of B material like 'Car Jamming' and 'Ghetto Defendant' out there that will blow the top of your head off, not to mention stuff like 'Know Your Rights'. Jerry Garcia once said that The Grateful Dead didn't play so well for machines and the same goes for The Clash, in my estimation. If anyone knew how much time I spent listening to Clash bootlegs, they'd have me committed.
TIG: This book is specifically about the mystery religions and how it relates to rock music. Some of us have already heard that the Doors were "Dionysian," or that some control freak band leader was an "Apollo" with his group, or that some band member was a paradoxical combination of the two. Bands seem to jump out at you as conforming to an archetype, such as Seattle hard rock group Heart being lovely and powerful "Earth Mothers" or Neil Young's mordant POV being Orpheus-like. What were the first bands/cults connections you made? And as you were writing it, did any pairings of bands/cults come up that surprised even you, the author?
CK: The thing that blew my mind when writing this book is when I really dug into the ancient accounts of these cults and discovered that they had their own heavy metal bands and cross-dressing glam rockers. The descriptions of the Korybantes - which is an umbrella term for a whole host of interchangable priesthoods - read like excerpts from an old issue of Kerrang! or something. And these guys were heroes all across the ancient world, regardless of age or social status. Seriously, the only difference I could determine between them and modern metal bands is that they didn't have electricity. And there was the same evolution we saw in heavy metal, where it started out as a kind of androgynous thing and got progressively more macho, to the point that the Korybantes and the rest of them were performing in full hoplite armor. Another of these ancient metal priesthoods was called the Kouretes, which means "the young girls." All I could think of was The Pink Fairies, who were this British biker band from the 70s who dressed up in leather.
The Galloi were another thing altogether. They were eunuch priests of the earth mother Cybele and her son Attis who were notorious for being completely over- the-top insane in their performances. When I read about the Galloi dressed up in women's clothing, screaming at the top of the lungs and cutting themselves with potshards I kept picturing Iggy in the glam days with his satin evening gloves and gloss lipstick, crawling on broken glass and smearing himself with peanut butter. And as far as I can tell the Galloi were also the inventors of headbanging.
TIG: I recently had a kerfuffle with a band whose songs I described as "spiritual" in a review and they were distressed I was making them sound "religious." My point was that whether or not they had a particular belief system, their work is still about belief in something, even if it's "just" love, due to deontological complications around it (losing trust, betrayal, transcendence). I didn't quite convince them that their angry break-up songs calling for the wrath of the fates was "spiritual," possibly due to their being raised Orthodox and then rejecting that. Did/do you have a lot of confusion regarding this aspect to your book? People who just don't see how the cultural shaping from ages-old religion can be defined from outside the belief system of the artist as belonging to it? That you can group an artist based on what they sing about, how they live, and how they sound, as a matter for discussion and extrapolation -- which may have nothing to do with their own "core values" or tradition?
CK: "Spiritual" is just another one of those very worthy words that's been devalued through constant abuse. The ancient Mystery cults experienced spirit in a very profound way, they didn't sit around and talk about it for hours on end. They drank, drugged, and fucked their way to Heaven, while the drums pounded and singers screamed. It was about pulling you out of your mundane reality and shoving you face first into the realm of the gods. It was very much a shamanic spiritual experience, something that seems to be out of fashion these days as well. But I think most people grasp the distinction, that this book isn't talking about religion as we understand it today. I'm not a big fan of religion, whether it's about Jehovah or The Clash. Religion is the great discussion-ender.
As to the archetypes, you really need to strip things down to the essential experience. Customs, beliefs, traditions- these are all transitory. I looked at the core of what the artists were expressing. No one is going to expect a hardcore band to espouse Mithraism or for Sonic Youth to preach the Corpus Hermeticum. But beneath the cultural trappings the artists are tuned into the same thematic currents that the Mysteries put into the context of religion. Theistic religion, rather. Dogma, exclusion and intolerance are more alive than ever, whether you're talking a religious or secular context. Religion is essentially an expression of politics and politics have infected absolutely everything in our lives these days.
TIG: Has anyone actively disagreed with any of your groupings since the publication of the book? Artist or reader? Reviewer or fellow critic?
CK: Not yet. If anyone wants to try, they should prepare themselves for a donnybrook.
TIG: Were you tempted to include artists in the actual religious music "ghettos," such as more rock-based Klezmer players or Christian rock, or artists that profess non-mystery cult beliefs (Low, for example, who come from Mormon backgrounds)? Why or why not?
CK: Not really, because I had to deal with the usual space limitations, which are a symptom of the economic quagmire that publishing is in. That really forced me to focus on groups that people are familiar with for the most part. Even the lesser known artists are household names to serious rock fans. I also wanted to show the progression of influences in the various archetypes, particularly when it came to dealing with genres like metal and punk. You can't understand Nu Metal without talking about Killing Joke, for instance. You can't understand Emo without talking about Ian Curtis and Rites of Spring. There are any number of groups I would love to have written about - Cheap Trick, Jefferson Airplane, and XTC come to mind off the top of my head - but there were other artists that better defined their respective archetypes. I did put in some sidebars that explored some of the various religious traditions some of these artists come out of.
TIG: Why do we need "rock gods"? It seems like we have a desire to worship (even when we reject organized religion), and the mystery cults from beyond the ages keep giving and giving types -- virgin sacrifices, resurrections, seasons in hell, immortal hellhounds on our trails -- no matter what the genre or period we're going through. Is this just intellectual, artistic laziness on our parts, clinging to tropes and "twist endings"? Or do all these rise and falls and recurrent experiments with musical-social power satisfy something in us we can't get otherwise?
CK: I don't know how much power the rock gods have these days - we're definitely in the "fall" part of the cycle. One of the reasons I wrote the book is that I see rock 'n' roll as being very much adrift. The creative fields have been pretty fallow the past few years. You have the old guard who are still packing the stadiums and you have some energy and excitement in the indie scenes but not a lot of resonance in the culture at large. We also have this kind of AOR scene (what I call "Nickelback music") which gets some play on rock radio but doesn't seem to be setting anyone on fire. It just feels obligatory and middle-aged. Maybe the energy you once had focused on rock is in the dance clubs now, which have that Dionysian vibe but don't really resonate in the culture at large either. Not the way rock did in the 60s, 70s and 80s, certainly. A lot of it has to do with where we are as a culture. We've never seen rock 'n roll as part of our heritage the way Jamaicans see reggae or Mexicans see mariachi, and that's what I'm looking to change. Rock 'n' roll is in America's DNA and was in it long before America even existed.
TIG: You edited one of my very favorite comic book fanzines (Comic Book Artist) and wrote Our Gods Wear Spandex. Any comic book examples you could have made in the book, as a strange troika of cult god-musician-superhero?
CK: I was an associate editor, actually. That entailed writing editorials and features, but mainly it entailed being Jon Cooke's daily sounding board for a number of years, since that magazine was very much his. As to superheroes and rockers, even though there's been so much crossover over the years they're two very different expressions. Pre- and post-adolescent, to put it bluntly. Superheroes are about a need for a father, mother or big brother figure, and rock stars are about breaking their rules. But then again there's Elvis Presley, who modeled his look after Captain Marvel Jr. right down to the thunderbolt. There's also Bowie, who created glam by accident. The original idea he had was to dress up as superheroes, only it came out a bit differently. To put it mildly.