A Scotsman in New York

David Byrnes‘ wonderful book “How Music Works

Although David Byrnes‘ book “How Music Works” was published eight years ago, I have only just discovered and read it. Luckily, this blog allows me to cover whatever topic I want and whenever I want to, so here we go! The 2012 treatise by Talking Heads mastermind David Byrne doesn’t go into what music does to an audience (as the German title “Wie Musik wirkt” spuriously suggests), but is a collection of musings on the nature of music, on the conditions in which it is produced, on the role of the artist’s personality in its creation and on the role of music in society.

This sounds very abstract at first and, I readily admit, also aroused reservations in me. But these reservations quickly dissipated when I read the book. Why? Because David Byrne writes in a very entertaining way and periodically inserts snide remarks; because his writing is precise and to the point; because he shares fascinating facts; and – above all – because he gives really illuminating insights into his work with the Talking Heads and other world-class artists. This is not an intellectual who is pontificating from his ivory tower, nor a narcissistic self-proclaimed genius, but a creative cosmopolitan blessed with lots of humor and subtle irony who, in a completely unpretentious way, is talking about his work, his history, and his fulfilling experiences with good music, be it rock, jazz, wave or Latin, classical or pop music, ritual, improvised or AI-generated music, individual songs or songs commissioned for musical productions. Of course you can read between the lines which types of music, artistic personalities and trends in the music business he likes and dislikes – but Byrne always proves himself a gentleman and treats the phenomena and people he writes about with open-mindedness and respect, and sometimes with a meaningful wink.

Fortunately, anyone expecting pretentious post-structuralist, Marxist or other observations colored by ideology will be just as disappointed in this book as an audience hoping for sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll stories, anecdotes from the American post-punk scene or embarrassing confessions from Byrnes’ private life. Byrne is far too sceptical of rockisms or tortured geniuses and has become much too much of a musical polymath during his creative journey to concern himself with this kind of tabloid stuff. He certainly had a lot of fun in the “rock circus”, as anyone who cares to can glean from the book; but above all he was (and still is) interested in discovering and exploring, in constantly experiencing new things, in implementing ideas and in having control over his own artistic activities.

Thus we learn how music worked in archaic communities and how it developed into a product over the centuries; how the places and contexts in which music is performed determine its nature; or how artists can only ever work with the tools and resources at their disposal – from their own talent, to the technologies available to them, to the people accompanying them on their journey. Of course, Byrne does not deny that individual skills and intuition play a role in making music – and yet he makes it vividly clear that it is not we who play the music, but that to a large extent it is the music that plays us. A pleasantly realistic rejection of the romantic idea of the broken, visionary genius who creates something unique from the depths of his or her soul. His descriptions of the industry are always gripping: From the sometimes crazy development of the first successful sound recordings to the emergence of a record and music industry, to the recent upheavals that have resulted from digitalization. And smack in the middle of all this chaos: David Byrne and the Talking Heads, David Byrne and Brian Eno, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, David Byrne and the world musicians across the globe.

One of the first chapters describes the work of the
Talking Heads, and just when you think you’ve learned everything about the
topic, the big picture emerges towards the end of the book, with detailed descriptions
on occurrences in and around the legendary New York club “CBGB’s”. “How to Make
a Scene” is the title of the beautiful chapter in which Byrne describes how a
flamboyant scene began to grow in a down-and-out club in a sketchy New York
neighborhood, which ultimately birthed Tom Verlaine and Television, Blondie,
the Patti Smith Group, The Ramones and, last but not least, the Talking Heads.
Unlike the city’s traditional music clubs, which sometimes hosted three
different mainstream acts in one evening and where the clubs charged an
entrance fee for each of these concerts (!), in the 1970s the creator of CBGB’s
agreed to charge a small entrance fee which the bands of the evening were paid,
and otherwise collected the proceeds from the drinks. This not only turned the
former biker club into a goldmine for its owner, but also into an unparalleled
artistic field of experimentation, into an informal meeting place where young
bands who were disappointed by the rock gigantomania à la Eagles and Fleetwood
Mac could showcase their own ideas of contemporary pop music. There was no real
backstage area, the equipment was set up and the instruments were tuned in
front of the audience, the stage tended to be located somewhere at the edge of
the venue, the guests drank at the long bar or played billiards, and all the
inwardly passionate combos were not necessarily in solidarity with each other. Ironically,
it was essential that nobody was forced to listen with rapt attention. The
praise of a billiard player who had been knocking a few balls across the table
all evening with his back to the band was sometimes the only and most
motivating feedback you got as an artist. Byrne amends these rather down-to-earth
descriptions with unglamorous photos and self-drawn maps of the club – giving the
reader a pretty vivid impression of this location and its specific scene, which
many an expectant sightseer and rock tourist turned their back on, horrified.

It was here at CBGB’s that Byrne, who lived with his
band mates in a flat share, after years of aimless busking and nerdy noise
production in his teenage bedroom, was able to test and develop his ideas of a
new pop music as a “work in progress”. Among the up-and-coming New York bands there
were the Pop Art bands, the Expressionists and the posing romantics – whereas the
Talking Heads belonged to the conceptual artists and minimalists: They gleefully
freed their music and stage shows of all rock, baroque and art bombast, dressed
like ordinary people, sang about fear, psychoses and dysfunctional
relationships and underpinned everything rhythmically with old funk and soul
grooves. Alienation effect galore, highly artificial but still incredibly
thrilling. Thus was born the kind of pale-faced gawky dance music which drove
rock traditionalists crazy, but electrified upcoming generations. Ever eager to
explore new horizons, the Talking Heads made rapid artistic progress, and
Byrne, who had travelled far and wide, always in search of new artistic
experiences, began to diversify his conceptual framework. He discovered
parallels between the posturing of great rock stars and the stylized forms of
presentation in traditional Japanese theater, explored the ritual character of
African music and repeatedly tweaked his stage concepts.
Someone told him that on stage, everything had to be a little bit bigger than
in real life – which is why he presented himself in an oversized suit and not
only came up with the groundbreaking album Remain In Light, but also
with celebrated tours with a polyrhythmically adept funk-rock troupe. He later
incorporated information into his shows about how these shows were “made” by
having the stage and lighting elements rolled onto the stage and installed
piece by piece – a wonderful message on the meta-level that in no way
diminished the magic of the live performance. This was followed by the
discovery of Latin American music with the corresponding song and tour
concepts, and so on and so forth.

I always had a FEELING about the Talking Heads and David Byrne, but after reading How Music Works, I really understand for the first time what was behind this music and the concerts – without it destroying the fascination it holds for me. The same applies to the details outlining the creation of some of the song lyrics, for example to Once In A Lifetime: Of course David Byrne doesn’t make the mistake of explaining his lyrics down to the smallest detail and committing himself to them. But he does reveal how these partly cryptic yet compelling lyrics were created and encourages us to take a closer look at them. Here, too, it becomes clear: Apart from lyrics which were commissioned for a musical and had to fulfil certain functions within an oeuvre, song lyrics also depended on the conditions in the rehearsal room or studio when they were being created, the conditions that had been defined beforehand or that simply somehow came about. Mr. Spock, who doesn’t really belong here, would say: Fascinating!

Are there less successful passages in this book? Not really. Although I must admit that there were two chapters which I just scanned and where I even skipped a few pages. The first, “Business and Finances”, covers contract forms and cost planning for tour and studio projects in an almost book-keepingly meticulous way. The other, “Harmonia Mundi”, revolves around the essence and origin of music and the sometimes bizarre philosophical concepts which the history of mankind has generated about it. This is where it almost gets esoteric. But I’m sure that especially aspiring musicians who are working towards their breakthrough will find valuable tips for targeted economic production in “Business and Finances” and will feel strongly motivated not to entrust their career to who knows what kind of managers and/or dubious record companies, but to take their future courageously into their own hands.

“Harmonia Mundi”, on the other hand, despite all the endless digressions, can be summed up as follows: Music is and will always be something mysterious, whose essence is unfathomable. Music somehow seems to be intrinsic to humans from the very beginning. Be that as it may: The most important thing is that music touches and moves us – nothing else matters.

Just as I was about to turn the page again, Byrne told me about the church father Augustine and his assumption that every human being would hear a divine cosmic chord at the moment of death while simultaneously having the ultimate secrets of the universe revealed to them. Deadpan comment by freethinker Byrne: “very exciting, although just a little late to be of much use.” Understandable, actually: What’s the point of knowing the secrets of the universe if I’m dead the next moment? The secrets that Augustine is said to have been privy to were then passed down through the centuries, the passage continues, but, as Renaissance philosophers conceded, were unfortunately lost at some point in time. Byrne concludes: “Oops.” It is wry comments like these that keep the reader engaged until the very end of the book. And they inspire the reader to dig out Byrnes’ later albums American Utopia or Here Lies Love again (with great singers like Roisin Murphy, Kate Pierson, Santigold and the underrated Nicole Atkins).

David Byrne, How Music Works”,
Edinburgh/London 2012.              


Is there such a thing as a sustainable song? Will the music industry ‘go green’ at some point in time? And what surprises do environmental song lists have in store?

My head is full of music. My head is an inchoate, swirling archive of songs. And my inner media player likes to pick out old tracks and send them mercilessly through my consciousness – not constantly, but frighteningly often. Without being asked to. Relentlessly. They can be favourites from my youth, current hits or long forgotten one-hit-wonders that I have come across again by chance. But sometimes they are horrible earworms that I just can’t get rid of. My inner media player rarely plays these songs linearly and completely, from beginning to end. Usually it is always the same part of a stanza, always the same intro, the same chorus or the same instrumental part, again and again, sometimes combined with other parts of the same song, sometimes with parts of completely different songs, which suddenly come into play because my consciousness associatively links similar harmonies and melody arcs. Thought mash-ups, so to speak. The songs that go through my head keep me company and push me through the day. Yes, they energize me. And as songs that can’t be heard, don’t leave a CO2 footprint in the world, but still generate this kind of energy, the songs in my head are sustainable in the best sense of the word.

I like the idea – it gives the term ‘evergreen’ a whole new meaning. And yet this thought is completely absurd. Because at some point in time the songs in my head were actually heard, and they might ring out again and again in the future. And, much more importantly: At some point in time these songs were also produced in a recording studio, for hours, days, sometimes weeks and months. In the process, oh dear, power was endlessly consumed, while armies of artists, sound engineers and record company people produced all kinds of trash, from dented beer cans and plastic dishes to the plastic packaging of the fast food delivery services. Chemically powerful pressing and burning plants ran hot in order to technically reproduce the musical works of art, paper and ink was used for record covers and booklets, millions upon millions of sheets of foil were used for vinyl releases and plastic CD covers. Not to mention the CO2 emissions which the continuous streaming of these songs caused and continues to cause every day. In fact, it took me awhile to understand why streaming music, movies and series can be so damaging to the environment. It is, of course, the enormous energy consumption that goes along with the distribution of artwork in digital form via gigantic servers.

Environmental awareness is increasing in the music industry

So should less music be produced and even less music be heard? Heavens no! We need music, we need every form of art, it is an important elixir of life and democracy. But the world of music with everything that goes with it – from the production, release, and distribution of songs to the organisation of concert events and our fan behaviour – could be much more sustainable. Promising approaches have, of course, long been apparent. For example, if you enter the keywords “sustainable recording studios” into Internet search engines, you will already find some music production facilities that have designed their studios with sustainable materials, use ‘green’ electricity, conduct their business in cooperation with sustainable banks or compensate unavoidable emissions by supporting climate projects. The superstars of Coldplay, for their part, announced at the end of last year that they would not be touring around the world for the time being – and that they won’t do so until they can make this kind of tour sustainable.

Good for Coldplay, but perhaps even now the band could have asked for advice from the Green Music Initiative. The Berlin-based organisation of artists, environmental associations, research institutes and business decision-makers publishes frightening figures on the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions and has been working for a decade to make the music business greener. The use of renewable energy sources, sustainable packaging, the avoidance of paper-intensive PR work, electronic ticketing, regional catering, waste reduction strategies, sustainable merchandising, and clever mobility concepts for bands’ travel and for fans’ travel to and from concerts are just a few of the many aspects that the Green Music Initiative touts through collaborations, projects and information campaigns to significantly reduce the music industry’s CO2 emissions. Some legendary festivals, from Roskilde to Wacken, are already orienting themselves towards sustainability criteria and are being supported by initiatives and agencies with the necessary know-how.

Green music production: For example Fré

Artists are also actively helping. In addition to Coldplay, there are other acts that are committed to going green and trying to base their music on the principles of sustainability. One of these is Fré, which is taking a unique approach: The Dutch-German art-pop-jazz quartet produced their 2017 debut album Nature’s Songs in the most environmentally friendly way possible at the Fattoria Music Studios in Osnabrück, Germany, and they made sure to use recycled materials for packaging. The album’s titles – Grains of Sand, Trees, Bees, The Moon, The Sea, Raindrops, or Ice – also revolve around the beauties and idiosyncrasies of nature. Unfortunately, the idea of developing a sustainable music product together with the “Green Office” of the Dutch Wageningen University as part of a master course was not implementable. But nevertheless, the four artists continued on their journey towards sustainability. “So for our new album, WE RISE When We Lift Each Other Up, we took it into our own hands and made a couple of decisions to improve our ecological footprint while still being able to take part in the music industry”, Frederike Berendsen says. Frederike is songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist of the band. What she means is “an artwork out of 100% recycled paper that includes a download code instead of a CD or vinyl. So it is also about the shift to digital, without completely throwing out the beauty and sentiment of physical artwork. We also decided to limit the number of physical albums and to sell them ourselves to avoid the plastic wrapping that is required by distributors and marketplaces like Amazon. The same goes for our merchandise items, which are made with high quality, biodegradable/recyclable materials, and fair-trade production. We also chose to produce merch items that reduce the use of disposables such as plastic bags and bottles (refillable stainless-steel thermos flasks and organic cotton tote bags). “All in all”, Frederike says, “it is our way of raising awareness and acting responsibly in the industry we work in.” All this commitment to sustainability should, however, not distract from the fact that Fré does actually make fantastic music.

Fré also made us aware of the exciting “Green Vinyl Records” project, an association of eight Dutch companies that are developing a process for producing vinyl-like records – except that the records are not made of vinyl, but from more environmentally-friendly materials and that the injection-based manufacturing process uses much less energy. Not only Fré finds the approach promising and wishes it every success in the future.

CO2 footprints on Earth, motivating footprints on the backsides of the fans

The fact that artists, event organisers, and even industry managers are thinking about their own actions is relatively new – a development that has only come about in recent years. But rock, pop, soul, and jazz songwriters in particular have been voicing their awareness of environmental issues for decades. And so thousands of songs have left not only a substantial CO2 footprint on our planet, but also powerfully motivating footprints on the backsides of the fans. Something along the lines of: Get off your backside, do something against pollution! Save the planet! Take a stand against oil drilling and the deforestation of the rainforest, against fracking, mining, the overexploitation of natural resources, against nuclear power and plastic waste, acid rain, the pollution of the ocean!

“Environmental songs”, “climate change songs”, “Earth Day songs” or “environmental playlist” – the keywords under which they can be found are numerous: best-of- and near-complete-lists of songs that deal with or purport to deal with environmental and sustainability issues. Sometimes these songs are not clear cut, mixing eco-topics with social criticism and a general tirade against capitalism and human greed. But often they formulate simple appeals like ‘Save the Planet’ (Edgar Winter’s White Trash, 1971) or focus on a specific environmental issue (Crosby and Nash, To the Last Whale, 1975).

Here are a few peculiarities that caught my
attention while browsing through the lists:

Early environmental songs in a pop context can be
found in the blues as early as 1927, for example with Bessie Smith (Backwater
) and Blind Lemon Jefferson (Rising High Water Blues). They
lament what happens when the Mississippi River overflows its banks after heavy
rains and makes many people, especially poor people, homeless. Southern blues
interpreters of the 1920s to 40s also sing about the boll weevil, a pest that
became a real plague and caused major economic crises.

There is a nice anecdote about Motown label boss Berry Gordy, who thought Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), a song by soul superstar Marvin Gaye from 1971, was not marketable. At that time, the meaning of the word ‘ecology’ had to be painstakingly explained to Gordy. Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) became one of Marvin Gaye’s greatest successes, despite all the prophecies of doom.

‘Repeat offenders’ when it comes to environmental song writing are Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, The Kinks, Adrian Belew, Bruce Cockburn, Midnight Oil, or Neil Young, to name only the most well-known.

Artists one wouldn’t expect “environmental songs” from are the surf icons The Beach Boys (Don’t Go Near the Water, 1971), heavy metal icon Ozzy Osbourne (Revelation/Mother Earth, 1980) or pop princess Miley Cyrus (Wake Up America, 2008).

One of the most bizarre environmental songs surely is The Return of the Giant Hogweed. The song by the British art-rock band Genesis, once again from 1971, tells the story of the giant hogweed, a plant species that a Victorian researcher is said to have brought back from Russia to England, where it overgrew everything and threatened the native flora and fauna. In the best tradition of Brit-Goth-oddballs, Genesis turn the “ecological damage caused by introduced species” narrative into a tale of revenge and horror which also gets out of hand musically.

Perhaps the largest subgenre of environmental songs, and almost a genre of its very own, the anti-nuclear songs extend from the effects of nuclear power all the way to the danger and consequences of a nuclear war. The grotesque piece Burli, published in 1987 by the Austrian satire band Erste Allgemeine Verunsicherung, revolves around a disabled boy whose deformities result from the proximity of his home to a nuclear power plant. In Red Skies Over Paradise, the British band Fischer Z describes the outbreak of a nuclear war in 1981. Two of many examples from the “No Nukes” universe.

One of my favourite environmental songs, I’m embarrassed to admit, is Karl der Käfer (Karl the Beetle), published in 1983 by Gänsehaut. The band originated from the Cologne German rock formation Satin Whale. Their protagonists, who looked like progressive headteachers, were music editors. So they actually knew how to write. And yet lines like these seem a bit awkward, especially with hindsight: “Karl hasn’t been here for a long time / There’s no place for animals anymore / Where Karl used to be at home / Beetles made of sheet metal and steel are now driving / Karl the beetle wasn’t asked / He was simply chased away.

One of the most visionary environmental songs is … Karl the Beetle by Gänsehaut! Of all the endangered species, the band focused their attention on the beetle in 1983. Today, almost 40 years later, everyone is talking about The Great Insect Dying.

One environmental song people debate about is Love
Song to the Earth
from 2015, released for the Paris Climate Change
Conference, which brings together superstars such as Paul McCartney, Sheryl
Crow, Bon Jovi, Natasha Bedingfield, Fergie, and Leona Lewis to sing about the
beauty of nature in a catchy power ballad. In the accompanying glossy video,
some of the stars pose in white clothing (white = peace?) on dream beaches and
in idyllic natural settings – the proceeds went to the UN Foundation and
Friends of the Earth. What some people celebrated as successfully addressing mainstream
audiences, others found very corny and hardly convincing. If you ask around
among your friends today, who still remembers the song, you’ll get more
furrowed brows and shoulder shrugs than nods and sparkling eyes.

Environmental songs that are easily misunderstood are Vamos a la playa (1983) by Righeira and The Future’s So Bright (1986) by Timbuk 3. Vamos a la playa isn’t actually celebrating a relaxed holiday mood, but is conjuring up a nuclear war scenario on the beach; and The Future’s So Bright isn’t really describing rosy prospects, but a nuclear-irradiated future in which you have to protect more than just your eyes (“The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades”).

The most direct lin to the “Fridays for Future” movement was made in 2019 by the indie rockers of The 1975: In the track by the same name (The 1975), they underlaid a stirring monologue by climate activist Greta Thunberg with hypnotic ambient sounds and promised to donate the proceeds from the song to the organisation Extinction Rebellion. It was quite counterproductive that their co-founder Roger Hallam had recently shocked the supporters of the movement that relies on civil disobedience by relativising the Holocaust and spouting other radical views.

Converting well-known songs into environmental songs can often backfire. The old partisan- and antifa tune Bella ciao has already had to endure some musical abuse, most recently its senseless reprocessing as a dancefloor favourite for urban partygoers. The climate protection version Do It Now – Sing for the Climate, which was realized in 2012 with people from 180 Belgian cities, gave the melody a little more gravitas, but came across as very heavy-handed and, in its collective sentimentalism, it bore the marks of mass manipulation. As the environmental song Etwas tun (Doing something), marketed primarily in the context of childcare facilities, Bella ciao leaves many a music fan at a loss: Is this really still pedagogically valuable education or is it already a coldly calculated, soulless business transaction?

At the end of last year, the rewriting of the classic German children’s song Meine Oma fährt im Hühnerstall Motorrad (My grandma rides a motorbike in the henhouse) within the framework of a production with the WDR children’s choir was a fatal error. Before you could say ‘Jack Robinson’, the team from the WDR (a public broadcasting institution) had turned the quirky grandmother of the original song, who boasts the funniest and smartest inventions but above all invites you to light-heartedly sing along, into an “environmental sow”. The whole thing was intended to be satirical – but whether it was aimed at an older generation that was supposedly resistant to advice, or even at the young “Fridays for Future” movement, which for its part had made unfortunate and disparaging remarks about this older generation, wasn’t entirely clear. The totally unsuccessful song project mobilised understandably offended senior citizens, but also angry right-wingers and propagandists against the WDR, which promptly distanced itself from the song and from its own staff, which in turn led to massive criticism from media experts. A communications meltdown of the first order.

In contrast, how cool and casual is the British primary school project during which, in the summer of 2019, a teacher from West Suffolk and his pupils re-wrote the lyrics to Gil Scott-Heron’s classic protest song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which revolves around the topic of sustainability. The original, a poem set to music from around 1970, calls on African Americans to rebel against a consumer- and media world dominated by white people. The school project applied the basic ideas to topics such as global warming, fast fashion companies, plastic waste, extinction of species, and disenchantment with politics – all in the context of social media. Even the famous filmmaker and naturalist Sir David Attenborough was impressed with the result, The Extinction Will Not Be Televised.

Environmental songs which – when you listen carefully – aren’t environmental songs at all, turn up even in the best-curated lists. Michael Jackson’s Earth Song stands out most prominently in this context: The lyrics revolve around a crying earth, but the reasons for this are battlefields and “killing fields”, “the blood we shed” and “children dead from war”. It is about “apathy drowning in the seas” and the Promised Land that you will not reach. That really sounds more like an anti-war song than an environmental song.

Doctor, My Eyes by Jackson Browne is also frequently mentioned, but here too one must look for a specific reference to climate protection issues. The lyrics of the song, which was released in 1972, deal very generally with a desperate person who confides in a doctor because he has seen too many bad things in his life. In short: a song about the feeling of being totally burnt out. No trace of environmental destruction.

Godzilla is the name of a 1977 hit by the US rockers Blue Öyster Cult. Sure, the lyrics say: “History shows again and again / How nature points up the folly of man”, but that’s due more to the Godzilla myth, which characterises the monster as an atomic mutation. Blue Öyster Cult essentially relish describing how the giant lizard rages in the streets of Tokyo and, in the best of moods, pay homage to a fantasy film icon. So with all due respect to their many great songs, it would be a bit much to assume that the musicians were highlighting their commitment to climate protection with this song.

Look at the person in the mirror!

Speaking of Michael Jackson and supposed environmental songs: Man in the Mirror, the 1988 hit of the “King of Pop”, sometimes also appears in “environmental playlists”. It’s not at all about climate protection, but specifically about humanitarian commitment – about working for the poor and the hungry of the world, the homeless in the streets of the big cities. The video expands the subject matter to include racism and dictatorship. Nevertheless, the song formulates a message that can easily be applied to the climate problem: “I’m gonna make a change … I’m starting with the man in the mirror.” In other words, commitment doesn’t mean pointing the finger at others or just getting politicians to act. No, commitment means starting with yourself on a small scale. In short: with the person you see in the mirror every day.

Die young, make money

The Grim Reaper is the perfect salesman – that became obvious not only with David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister or Glenn Frey, but might come true for Dr. John as well. It’s a strange dynamic that once inspired Bill Drummond, former KLF mastermind and manager of the Teardrop Explodes, to write a very sarcastic song.

You get a strange feeling when stars who provided the soundtrack to a substantial part of your life (either as idols or objects of contempt) suddenly die, usually too soon. Of course I know: The death of a VIP can’t compare to the death of a close relative or good friend. But even a star who has passed means that you lose something central to your daily life. The world will never be the same again, memories of your youth re-surface, long-forgotten hopes and desires, wonderful moments, perhaps some broken dreams. If nothing else, you become aware of your own mortality.

Collective grief, a uniting consolatory event
Even more disconcerting than the death of a VIP is the PR surrounding it. Especially impressive was what happened after Mr. Motörhead Lemmy Kilmister died at the end of December 2015. It was rather bizarre to see all the people who suddenly claimed to be hardcore fans and sang songs of praise about brute rock. Very nice and decent folks, whom you would rather think would be part of the Roxette universe, wrote weepy social media posts and demonstrated a toughness and wickedness they obviously had hidden for a long time. Conservative newspapers honoured Kilmister as a ”noble savage“. Even public service broadcasting celebrated the heavy metal pioneer and his sex-and-drugs-and-rock-and-roll-lifestyle almost as passionately as former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who had died a few weeks before. Everybody was on first name terms with ”Lemmy“ – as if this Lemmy had always been his or her best mate. Against the backdrop of horrible daily news from the fields of economics and politics, the collective grief for a deceased star, whom many people had rejected during his lifetime, seemed to become a uniting consolatory event.

The fuss about David Bowie was similarly strange. Of course his death was very bad news for pop music, i.e. for fans and fellow musicians around the world. But the way radio hosts uttered their distress for hours and hours (and then managed to play only the two more than obvious Bowie hits Space Oddity and Let’s Dance) was kind of embarrassing. Posing is an art David Bowie himself mastered much better. The almost biblical exaltation columnists around the world voiced was just as cringey, as were the relentless posts on social media. These took on a life of their own as sheer nerd competitions, according to the motto: Who can post an even more obscure Bowie song or an even more bizarre cover version?

The reactions to the death of Eagles cofounder Glenn Frey were a bit more restrained. Nothing more than friendly words – although there was a time when the Eagles were considered the epitome of rock star decadence. It’s always the same: A star dies – and a pseudo-community comes together to celebrate itself.

I never cared much for Lemmy Kilmister and Motörhead. All the stories about vast amounts of alcohol and drugs or about the women Lemmy had “traded” with his own son didn’t do it for me. The same is true of Mr. Kilmister’s singing style, his songs, and of the extremely high volume at which he played them live. But I was impressed by one or two of the interviews he gave, e.g. to the German magazine ”GALORE“: To my surprise, Kilmister turned out to be incredibly astute and cynical, and he took a clear stand about current events. What the fans loved, of course, was this nonconformism, the aura of danger surrounding him, and his ”Kiss my ass!“ attitude. He represented a boldness that ordinary fans lacked. His open machismo, his irresponsibility, and a certain amount of self-destructive behaviour, that is: the personal tragedies behind the mask, were things these fans ignored. I was much more into Bowie, although in my opinion he had released too many mediocre albums with only a few highlights. No hard feelings, of course, for Bowie had recorded many epochal songs and exerted a huge influence on rock music during the first decades of his career.

Becoming Nr. 1 with impenetrable songs

Now I would never think of buying a rock star’s CD just because s/he died recently – let alone that star’s complete back catalogue. That’s why it never fails to astonish me that the Grim Reaper always turns out to be the perfect salesman. A case in point: Bowie’s rather impenetrable album Blackstar, which was released at almost the same time as his death, made it to Nr. 1 on the US album charts – the first Bowie album ever to do so. And after Lemmy Kilmister died, three of Motörhead’s albums even entered the German charts, while Ace of Spades, Motörhead’s signature song, entered the Top 100 of the German singles charts for the first time ever.

And there are more examples. In its Elvis Presley biography, the internet platform ‘laut.de’ sums it up: ”The king is dead – long live the king! That was the melancholy media cry on August 16, 1977. Elvis had already sold 600 million sound carriers with his voice till then. After his death, 200 million sound carriers were added to this within a short period of time, and in the year 2002 their number had reached 1.6 billion.“ About another king, the ”King of Pop“, Wikipedia writes: ”Due to his death, 29 million Michael Jackson albums were sold in less than six months.“ The same internet encyclopedia writes about Austria’s biggest popstar: „Only a few weeks after Falco’s death, his album Out of the Dark (Into the Light) was released and became a huge commercial success. The album entered the Austrian charts at Nr. 1 and remained in the charts for the following three months. In Germany, the album maintained its position in the Top 100 for almost a year. In Germany and Austria alone, the album sold two million copies, the single Out of the Dark sold more than 3.5 million copies”. But did the same apply to rock group Queen and their frontman Freddie Mercury? It sure did, according to the web platform ”SPIEGEL Online“: ”After Mercury’s death, the turnover from Queen CDs quadrupled. Bohemian Rhapsody again reached the Nr. 1 position in the charts. And even a remixed Mercury solo album, featuring old flops pimped with a disco beat, became a moneymaker.“ The Grim Reaper as the perfect salesman – this is also true in the field of independent and alternative rock: In the year 1980, after Joy Division singer Ian Curtis had committed suicide, their Single Love Will Tear Us Apart was rereleased and became a worldwide hit. It follows the same principle every time: Unknown acts become famous – famous acts become legends.

Where were all the posthumous fans when their stars were still alive?

Which leads us to the question: Where were all these fans when their stars were still alive and could have personally profited from their enormous affection? And I’m asking myself: What is it that makes deceased stars so irresistible? Is it their morbid charm? The alarming insight that even idols are only human beings and that we are still alive? Do we celebrate an early death as the inevitable dramatic climax of this almost mythical game of “sex and drugs and rock and roll“, as a supreme discipline, so to speak? Or is it the feeling of holding a great legacy in one’s hands? Do fans suddenly feel the breath of history when the works of a deceased artist begin to transition into their museal state?

”Bill Drummond said …“

Whatever the case may be: Artists themselves are more or less aware of the sales- and fame-propelling power the sudden death of a VIP can have. Among the rock masters who explicitly and creatively adressed this mechanism is Bill Drummond. He was at the center of that Liverpool scene which caused a sensation during the late 1970s and during the 1980s. Post Punk and New Wave were happening, and Echo & The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes were the biggest Liverpool bands. Members of both outfits had been playing together in other bands before. For example, Julian Cope, singer with Teardrop Explodes, and Ian McCulloch, his counterpart in Echo & The Bunnymen, had been members of The Crucial Three. The ”Bunnymen“ and the ”Teardrops“ were signed by Zoo, an indie label owned by David Balfe and, yes, Bill Drummond. Balfe and Drummond, in turn, knew each other from playing together in the relatively unsuccessful band Big In Japan and  contributed substantially to the fortunes of their Zoo label fosterlings: Balfe was an occasional member of Teardrop Explodes, and Drummond worked as a manager for Teardrop Explodes as well as for the Bunnymen. During the first years of both bands, so the story goes, all participants were said to have constantly quarreled about which band should get the most promotional power – they were all friends, of course, but they were also jealous of each other. Whereas Ian McCulloch and his bandmates are still active today, Teardrop Explodes broke up in 1983 – because of these oft-quoted ”differences of opinion and taste in music“. Bill Drummond would later team up with Jimmy Cauty to realise art and music projects like The Timelords, The Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu and, most notably, The KLF – a step that earned him world fame. David Balfe, lastly, founded record label Food which also released some KLF records, of course.

Avantgarde art and marketing strategies

Legend has it that, back when Drummond was managing Teardrop Explodes, he and singer Julian Cope were constantly quarreling. Some people claim it was a downright feud. That may very well be true, because Cope was an egomaniac and eccentric who experimented with drugs, whereas Drummond had a passion for avantgarde art and marketing strategies. Drummond proved how seriously he took his idiosyncratic ideas in e.g. 1992, when he awarded Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread the „Worst Artist of the Year“ award of his K Foundation, including prize money of 40,000 GBP. A year later he participated in the public burning of – believe it or not – one million GBP. Although Teardrop Explodes started out well, they never made it to stardom, and one can assume that Drummond blamed their failure on poor musical and marketing decisions.

No wonder that one of the songs Julian Cope released on his 1984 solo album Fried was called Bill Drummond Said. It’s a catchy song that featured cryptic lyrics. But even if you don’t get the whole picture, you can pick up on the fact that Julian Cope blames the Teardrops’ failure on manager Bill Drummond. And that’s not all: He even suggests that Drummond ruined the band on purpose. The song characterizes him as a stone-cold manager who positively destroyed the delicate structure of the band by pushing the artists too hard towards success and maximum turnover. But did Julian Cope’s song really offend Bill Drummond? Probably not, because it is neither particularly pithy nor aggressive. On the contrary, it fuels the Liverpool scene myth of the 1980s, celebrating its creative masterminds, its libertines and eccentrics, its ”larger than life“ characters.  

Why Julian Cope had to die

You can draw the same conclusion from Julian Cope Is Dead, a song that was released two years later, in 1986, by – guess who – Bill Drummond. The charismatic heavy hitter had been working as an A&R manager for the record company WEA for some time. Now he returned as an artist with his solo album The Man. Julian Cope Is Dead is everything but a deadly serious retaliation song about the former Teardrop Explodes singer. Music and vocal style echo the good old folksong genre, and born Scotsman Bill Drummond sings with a strong Scottish accent. It comes across like a rude drinking song from ancient times, author unknown. Everything we hear sounds just like a fairytale, whispering: No need to worry, it’s only folklore.

The lyrics also don’t sound very trustworthy: ”Julian Cope is dead, / I shot him in the head“, Drummond cheerfully sings, ”if he moves some more, / I’ll kill him for sure. / Now, Julian Cope is dead”. In contrast to Bill Drummond Said,the narrator’s perspective in this song is clear. InJulian Cope Is Dead, only one single person is singing, who turns out to be Julian Cope’s former manager, Bill Drummond. “I shot Julian Cope”, the manager claims, but the singer doesn’t seem to be dead because he can still move. However, and that’s what counts: The public thinks that Julian Cope is no longer alive. In the further course of the song we learn what happened in detail and what the manager has in mind. In short: The Teardrop Explodes was a a superb band, no question, and had some very good songs in their repertoire, but they never managed to leave their mark on rock history. They were just a footnote. Which is why the manager – for the band’s sake as well – came up with a smart plan: Let’s fake the frontman’s death and make the band bigger than the Beatles, let’s create a cult around the Teardrops, which will help to massively increase their record sales: ”Jules C. just follow me, / have your interests at heart. / Now take this knife, / And write to your wife. / Tell her it had to be. / Now Julian said no, / He didn’t want to go …“

An excellent idea: Kill the frontman, then you’re ”bigger than the Beatles“

But the singer, who according to this plan would have had to lie to his wife, didn’t want to join in. So the manager reached for a gun and wounded Julian Cope to keep him from sabotaging the plan: ”Now, Julian Cope is dead, / I shot him in the head, / He didn’t understand / The glory of the plan, / Now, Julian Cope is dead.“ Towards the end of the song the speaker imagines his future success and how he shows off to the neighbours: ”We’ll have platinum records, not gold / To hang on our walls at home. / When the neighbours come round, / I’ll always break down, / repeating the stories of old.“ We can assume that the singer is being hidden somewhere, because the song addresses him again during the finale. That’s when Drummond ridicules Cope’s posing as a martyr, but he also makes fun of the media who are constantly looking for savior figures: ”But who is this man / With holes in his hands, / A halo round his head. / That Arab smock, / And golden locks, / It can’t be, it could be, it is!“ The fact that the initials J. C. apply to Julian Cope as well as to Jesus Christ, plays into Drummond’s hands: ”J. C., please, you’ve got to see, / I was doing what a manager ought. / The records weren’t selling, / And Balfie was drooping, / And Gary had a mortgage to pay.“ The bottom line is that the manager just did his job.

From mate to saint

Aside from the suggestion that Julian Cope just lacked the necessary savvy for generating commercial success, Drummond uses his song as a vehicle to explain a ridiculous marketing strategy. At the center lies the insight outlined at the beginning of this article: The death of a rock star sets an unbelievable process in motion: Record, CD, and DVD sales skyrocket. In an interview Drummond himself reminds the readers of Ian Curtis, whose suicide turned indie heroes Joy Division into global superstars – and helped launch New Order, the subsequent project formed by his ex bandmates. In November 1998 Drummond talked to the internet platform ‘intro.de’ about his song Julian Cope Is Dead and said: “Do you remember Ian Curtis? Joy Division was friends with us, and when Ian died, the media stylised him into something like a Messiah. Of course I knew that death can turn pop musicians into something special, but to watch someone I knew quite well being transformed into a saint was a very intense experience. I then suggested to Mac (= Ian McCulloch) to fake his death. I told him to stay away from the public for two months to see what happened. But he didn’t want to lie to his family. So in the song I replaced Mac with Julian Cope.“

We can’t be sure if this story about Bill Drummond and Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch really happened – but it’s a very nice story for sure, contributing perfectly to the myth around the Liverpool scene of the early eighties. Drummond achieves the same thing with his song Julian Cope Is Dead: It turns the (not authenticated) conflict between the Teardrop Explodes singer and his manager into a legendary anecdote. As a sideline, Drummond puts forward an ironic commentary about the mechanisms at work in the rock business. And who knows what will happen when Drummond himself bites the dust some day.

Sweet Streams Are Made of This

A record deal, huge sound carrier earnings, and finally superstardom? These times are over. Nowadays hopeful musicians won’t rely on a music industry shaken by digital change. They prefer to find their own way through the internet, as ”unsigned artists“, caught between aggregators and e-shops, webradios and streaming services. It is a bumpy road. And a fascinating one. ’Cause just in this merciless Brave New Music World of all things a global community of artists is fostering a prominent eighties trend: synthpop & synthwave. In the thick of it: The German project Buzzing Sound Candy. Insights into 21st century music production – and an exciting virtual microcosm.

Unsigned artists“ are artists without a ”record deal“. Artists not tied to any sound carrier label, having no contract with anyone. It is a state, which applies for the majority of hobby and professional musicians. Whereas „unsigned artists“ in the 20th century had to lead a rather ’unheard’ existence, the digital age offers them limitless possibilities. Nowadays self-made songs and tracks can be released without a record label and completely single-handedly – via internet and its manifold platforms. That is, no question, a useful thing: ’cause music consumers of today tend to buy digital sound packages rather than conventional sound carriers like CDs. Or – and that is the main trend – they abstain from ”ownership“ of a song completely, which means, they are just streaming their favourite music for a small monthly fee.

Which leads us to the dark sides  of these limitless possibilities. In the year 2019, especially ”unsigned artists“ are caught within a global virtual competition of countless other artists. They invest loads of love, time and money into their own music and into their public relations work, but their chances of earning noteworthy sums of money with what they are doing are worse than ever. To present themselves with a band profile somewhere might be relatively easy. But in order to reach a higher degree of popularity, they have to overcome several obstacles – aggregators and streaming services, for example, or the struggle for entering important playlists and winning the favour of influential webradio DJs.

Creative ping-pong

”I’m fed up with nervous A&R guys and dubious distribution partners, they are constantly trying to interfere with your work and coming up with unacceptable conditions. I prefer to keep doing my own thing.“ Says Rossi, composer, lyricist and sound wizard of Buzzing Sound Candy. The German project’s strategy and way of working seem to be a blue print for the ”unsigned artists“ of today. Rossi lives in Frankfurt/Main, where he started as bass player in punk bands, until he discovered synthesizers and began to produce house and electro music. Over the last few years he also released some interesting tracks as DER AXIOMATOR. On virtual musicians’ platforms and through other contacts he finds vocalists. Sometoimes they meet and produce together in the real (i. e. analogue) world – sometimes their collaboration happens mainly via internet, where they send their audio files back and forth. It’s a creative ping-pong. Very often Rossi delivers preproduced tracks, sometimes with melody and lyrics, sometimes the guest singers write their own lyrics or add a self-composed melody. Following this method, a track gets reworked and extended over and over – until its final version.

Selecting artists by AI?

Quickly the project has established a website, which was probably the easiest task of the creative journey. There B.S.C. introduce themselves, put up audio files for sale, fix the prices and are in control of everything. The artwork is homemade as well, and for running the webpage Rossi has to pay a manageable monthly fee. Just running a webpage, however, won’t take you very far. Your aim is to be present in all virtual music stores and in all streaming services – iTunes, Amazon Music, Spotify & Co. And how do you achieve this aim? With the help of a so-called aggregator. Aggregators, which often are subsidiaries of huge enterprises, even from the music industry, are something like the interface between artists on the one side, and music stores and streaming services on the other side. They see make sure that artists and their music are available everywhere – a service they want to get paid for, of course. But that’s not all: They also check out the music, and sometimes they even impose censorship. ”The harmless B.S.C.-Christmas dance song EMPATHY!, which pleaded for a meatless, vegetarian X-mas, was rejected again and again by a German aggregator,“ Rossi recalls, ”a scandal actually!“ And: ”Who knows if not some algorithms were already responsible for that, looking for key words like ’slaughter’ or ’blood’ and selecting ’politically correct’ music. I really assume that in the near future Artificial Intelligence will influence even the music business, more than we ever could have imagined.“ Anyway: B.S.C. didn’t make compromises and went on to another service. Now they are using an American aggregator, which hasn’t caused any problems so far.

Always online

Is a good aggregator enough to make Buzzing Sound Candy successful? Not at all. The ideal case would be to enter the huge Apple and Spotify playlists with their millions of followers. ”To be included there leads to thousands of additional listeners within a second, which means your music will be streamed much more often,“ Rossi says. ”And every stream brings you at least a little sum of money.“ However: ”Unsigned artists usually don’t have any chance to be included in those lists. In order to enter the popular playlists of so-called ’music influencers’ you have to pay a lot of money, which has led to the establishment of a huge untrustworthy market. Everyone knows that.“ Pay for a Play – this strategy is out of the question for B.S.C. Therefore they are tirelessly promoting their music via social media like Twitter and Instagram, hoping to get played regularly by the worldwide internet radio stations, especially in the shows of renowned DJs. Such internet radio stations are thick on the ground, and even here every musical genre has established its top stations and DJ stars. The Mixcloud.complatform offers a first impression, it is the self-claimed ”global community for audio culture“. Mixcloud invites you to discover more than 15 million radio shows, DJ mixes and podcasts.

The PR and marketing efforts to get web radio stations around the world to feature Buzzing Sound Candy in their programs are enormous. Elaborate promo packages have to be sent to the radio stations and DJs, and then the task is to dig deeper. ”You have to be virtually always online on Twitter and Instagram,“ Rossi explains. Being featured in such radio shows ”doesn’t bring you money in the first place, but nice advertising effects.“ And it can move listeners to support B.S.C. by purchasing songs. The same applies to the remixes produced by popular DJs for the project. These DJs – who also need to be convinced, of course – have a large fanbase, and so their remixes get a lot of attention.

Are friends electric?

So, by and by we’re getting the whole picture. Buzzing Sound Candy are running their own website www.buzzingsoundcandy.com. An American aggregator called DistroKid sees to it that their songs are available in the global internet music stores and streaming services. The music of Buzzing Sound Candy pays homage to a wonderful eighties genre which survived in the worldwide web and today forms a vital microcosm there. We’re talking about synthpop – or synthwave, it depends. With verve, musicians all over the world are celebrating an era when pop discovered the synthesizer and managed to breath soul into drum machines; when hair was backcombed and faces were painted, when clothes were styled in New Romantic fashion; when Kraftwerk shyly adored a model, Depeche Mode just couldn’t get enough and The Human League listened to the voice of Buddha, while Visage were fading to grey and Gary Numan wondered if friends were electric.

”In other European countries synthpop and synthwave have got a large fanbase,“ Rossi says, ”in Germany, however, the genre is somewhat underrepresented.“ B.S.C. are holding up the flag in their home country. The band name Buzzing Sound Candy is a kind of motto, in the best sense of the word. Their songs rely on catchy tunes and combine the classic electronic soundscapes of the eighties with modern house and dance beats. They come across with idiosyncratic lyrics and a touch of melancholia, if not morbidity: striking synth-dance-tracks featuring genre topics like dark passions (Tasted Heaven), retro-feeling (Back in Time), euphoria (You Take Me High) or machines (Rise of the Drum Machines).

Heart and soul, skills and a digital strategy

Rossi is very creative and prolific, and he stands to his principles. He disapproves of prefabricated company sounds and quick notebook production. He’s a virtuoso autodidact, considering music as an artistic challenge and a solid, inventive craft. No wonder that his studio is filled with a fine arsenal of analogue and digital synthesizers and drum machines. In order to be able to make the B.S.C. songs fit for broadcasting he taught himself the skills of an audio engineer. Every song has to go through a professional mastering studio before it is released, Buzzing Sound Candy place importance on industry standard. ”Our enthusiasm leads us to spend a lot of money“, Rossi explains with a touch of sarcasm. ”It is money we surely won’t see again.“ Everyone knows that even successful stars are struggling against poor earnings: Believe it or not, artists receive less than 1 cent per stream. In order to generate noteworthy sales you have to be a megastar.

Which leads us to the question: Why for God’s sake are musicians taking the trouble? The answer is simple: They love their music. They are working with heart and soul, they just can’t help it. They are part of an exciting scene, meeting exciting fellow musicians and producers. And maybe, secretly, they are hoping to be successful with their music in the end, against all odds. B.S.C. seem to have found a reasonable approach: With farsightedness they send their digital promo kits to relevant multipliers in the worldwide web. Their songs are great and convincing, which is the reason why they get played by internet radio stations and in mix shows around the world, on Artefaktorradio (Mexico), Radiocoolio (Canada), Radio Dark Tunnel (Germany) or in the ”Electric Family Tree Radio Show“ (UK), to name just a few. ”Electric Family Tree“ showrunner is no less a figure than Rusty Egan, once mastermind of the synthpop heroes Visage (We Fade to Grey) and nowadays an influential DJ in the synthpop scene. His unique style of presenting the show and the amazing transitions between the tracks he plays are worth listening to. On Bombshellradio (Canada) B.S.C. once even hosted a radioshow themselves – which was another smart move to gain more attention. Needless to say that they managed to have their songs remixed by influential DJs as well, for example by Mark Kendrick aka Fused. He reworket Back In Time, which led lots of Fused followers to focus their attention on this interesting synthpop duo from Germany. In autumn B.S.C. plan to release an album, accompanied by a limited vinyl edition. Vinyl? „Of course,“ Rossi says. ”Vinyl has become hip again and goes perfectly with the retro feeling of our music.“ Moreover, vinyl releases and live shows plus merchandising offer further possibilities to make at least a little bit money.

Artists are being left out in the cold

”The fact that even celebrated musicians don’t get paid adequately is and remains the biggest problem of today’s unsigned artists,“ Rossi sums up. ”In exchange for a small monthly subscription fee users get offered the complete spectrum of recent music by streaming services. That turns complex songs produced with heart and soul into cheap mass-produced goods, into worthless acoustic accessories. It’s the internet giants that take most of the money, and they’re generating additional earnings by commercials they place between the tracks for users who only use the free version, not the subscription version. The artists, however, are being left out in the cold.“

That’s the reason why journalists like Kabir Sehgal demand: ”Spotify and Apple Music should become record labels so musicians can make a fair living.” Sehgal’s suggestion: Streaming services are making deals with artists and pay them money in advance, so that they are able to keep on working and to produce new music, which in turn generates new customers and additional streams. ”It’s a nice utopian dream, which won’t come true,“ Rossi doubtfully says. Nevertheless he looks forward to the stir that the recent B.S.C. song You Take Me High featuring guest vocalist Fériel might create. The German synthpop project has tasted success already – and maybe they will reach cloud nine with their music someday.

Band info and sound clips: www.buzzingsoundcandy.com

The Controversial Instant Sweeping Blow

It happened half a century ago … In 1970 The Guess Who released an unintentionally provocative song: American Woman.

In the late 1960s an unscheduled improvisation suddenly develops into a worldwide hit. During a concert of the rock band “The Guess Who” in their native Canada, guitar player Randy Bachman needs to deal with a broken string. A small mishap, but not unusual for a rock concert. The experienced musician, who five years later would join Bachman Turner Overdrive and celebrate another worldwide hit, You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, puts on a new string and starts tuning his instrument. He absentmindedly improvises a guitar riff, and suddenly the fans are electrified. A few moments ago they were talking and busy with other things, now they’re staring at the stage and banging their heads. Bachman’s bandmates react. Drummer Garry Peterson is the first one to join in, followed by bass player Jim Kale and, finally, singer Burton Cummings. With a striking grating voice Cummings begins to improvise over the steamhammer riff, singing what comes to his mind: ”American woman, stay away from me / American woman, mama let me be / Don’t come hangin’ around my door / I don’t wanna see your face no more …“ Amazing what is going through a celebrated rock star’s head … Several minutes later the impromptu song comes to an end, followed by thundering applause. And the band knows: We have to remember this – come what may. But how?

Fortunately the musicians have discovered a fan who captured the piece on tape. Is he one of these goddamn bootleggers who make lots of money with their illegal recordings? Never mind! They approach the young man, gain possession of the tape and are thus able to reconstruct the framework of the song. After some compositional finetuning and reworking of the lyrics they can finish the piece. Released in 1970 unter the title American Woman, the song hits Nr. 1 on the US charts as well as the Top 20 and even the Top 10 in several other countries around the world.

At first glance the simple lyrics just seem to reject some nameless American woman. The speaker of the song seems to be fed up with her: ”I got more important things to do / Than spend my time growin’ old with you“. Is it a song about the end of a love affair, a breakup song? Only to a limited extent. In the further course of the song the lyrical images become more general, now they seem to address American women as such: ”Coloured lights can hypnotize / Sparkle someone else’s eyes.“ And then the lyrics introduce some new aspects. When Burton Cummings sings: ”I don’t need your war machines / I don’t need your ghetto scenes,“ he doesn’t address American women any longer – he’s addressing the US as a whole. And he provides the lyrics with the touch of a protest song. A statement against the Vietnam War and against social injustice in America.

However, these protest song elements are less marked. The lines about war machines and ghetto scenes don’t manage to outshine the whole song. The words, which were made up during an improvisation and then associatively completed, combine several levels of meaning. These levels do not necessarily fit together. And that leaves room for interpretation. The internet platform ”Songfacts.com“ quotes statements by members of The Guess Who, which give at least some clues. The band claimed to have been shocked by the social problems they became aware of while touring the US. They also explained ”that girls in the States seemed to get older quicker than our girls and that made them, well, dangerous“. They’d rather prefer ”their“ Canadian girls, Cummings & Co said. An outlandish attitude from a present-day perspective, eh? In the end they reported that, near the Canadian border, US American authorities had tried to conscript them and send them to Vietnam – maybe because The Guess Who had many male American fans who had moved to Canada in order to evade such a conscription. 

Controversies often arise from misunderstandings, ambivalences, and felt or real provocations. American Woman in particular offers several starting points. People who listened only superficially and focused on the striking beat of the song assumed that it paid homage to America or to American women. Other people accused the song of misogyny and chauvinism. Members of the protest movement celebrated the lines about ”war machines“ and ”ghetto scenes“, whereas upright patriots were thoroughly upset. Somehow the band managed to scare many layers of society, but in the end they escaped unscathed. I guess it was because of the music. Ironically, in July of 1970 The Guess Who were invited to play at the White House for then US president Richard Nixon. Nixon’s daughter Tricia was said to be a huge fan, which was totally understandable, since the band’s softer songs in particular were in a class of their own. First Lady Pat Nixon, however, understood the political implications of American Woman. And so the band deleted the song from the set list of their White House concert. Not exactly an act of courage …

In March 2019 my new book Provokation! Songs, die für Zündstoff sorg(t)en was published. It presents about 70 hit songs from the last 100 years which caused a stir in their time, and some of which are being discussed even today – from Rock Around the Clock to Relax, from Anarchy in the U.K. to Punk Prayer, from the ”British Invasion“ to ”shock rock“. The last chapter of the book explains some basic lyrical techniques and answers 26 FAQs around the topic of controversial songs. Due to issues of space, this piece about The Guess Who didn’t make it into the printed version of the book.