Archive for January, 2009

Punk, Nostalgia, and the Archaeology of Musical Utopia

Friday, January 23rd, 2009 by Bill Caraher

Last week, Kostis Kourelis initiated a collaborative project designed to explore the concept, experience, and potential of punk archaeology.  As we had bantered about this very topic over the space of our two blogs, he invited me to contribute.  The format is completely experimental and part of a greater goal to find those points of contact between intellectual life and scholarly life.

My first contribution to this project is completely in the spirit of punk rock.  It’s raw, garage-band quality thought and seeks to question the relationship between nostalgia, archaeology, and the punk aesthetic:

One thing the Kostis’ post on the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” reminded me of was the nostalgic tone to so much popular music.  This is not exclusive to the 1960s British invasion bands, nor to punk rockers, of course, but it does intersect with a key characteristic of an archaeological preoccupation with the past.  Archaeologists are in some ways nostalgic (in the same way that they are often secretly utopian in aspiration).  We hope that excavating the past we can reveal the deeper significance or truth in some fragment of the contemporary world.  The fragments of the past become recontextualized in within our contemporary sensibilities — reassembled and redeployed to capture a kind seemingly authentic past full of utopian innocence and beauty.

The rediscovery of the American blues, whether by the 1960s British pop music scene or the later 1960s American folk rock scene seems to capture a similar craving for authenticity, a desire both to appropriate a past reality and recreate it in the present as a utopian critique of the plastic, mass-produced, insincere present.  The mid-1960s blues revival craved this authenticity, and in this was both genuine and, to a certain extent, naive.  (And in some way, this is what made the intersection between these two groups so potent.  Here I’d refer a reader to Sonny Boy Williamson’s date with the Animals or, more haunting still, Alan Wilson’s (of Canned Heat) work with Son House in the mid 1960s).  It’s possible at times to detect (over the ironic, post-everything din) the quest for a kind of primordial authenticity still echoes in the blues inspire guitar rock of the White Stripes (see their version of “Death Letter “from De Stijl) or the Black Keys.

Punk rock’s engagement with the archaeological stratigraphy of music reveals a more post-modern disposition.  While on the one hand, the punk movement continued to champion a kind of a kind of musical authenticity.  The low-fi, garage band postures and sound spoke to a more basic and visceral kind of musical experience.  “Always leave them wanting less.”  On the other hand, when punk musicians dug through the stratigraphy of past music and excavated classic pop songs from just a generation earlier, they regarded them with a new spirit of ironic detachment.  These songs no longer deserved the kind of authentic (re)productions embraced by the blues revival but a new reading that revealed by the potent gaze of the punk rocker.  The very name of the iconic early punk band, The Velvet Underground, invokes the seedy underbelly of the domesticated suburban life in the same spirit that the Germs raucous versions of Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round” or Johnny Thunders version of The Commodores (and perhaps as significantly the Dave Clark Five) “Do you love me?”

I am not positive how this relates to archaeology, but in the spirit of garage band ramblings, I offer this:  The most recent trends in archaeology have pulled back from romantic dalliances with the idealized symbols of pure “Classical” past (think: alabaster temples and philosopher-filled stoas) and dedicated themselves to uncovering and subverting such idealized symbols through the study of the more mundane objects and spaces.  Over the last several decades serious research has recovered the significance of domestic structures, rural installations, and coarse and utilitarian pottery.  By appropriating the mantle and methods of Classical archaeology and its associations with utopian visions of the past, a new Mediterranean archaeology recontextualizes the research of a generations of scholars romanced by the illusory notions of authenticity offered by monumental, urban, elite architecture, sculpture, and ceramics.  The Punk Archaeologist shifts the attention from such elaborate acts of nostalgic commemoration toward a sustained and subversive effort to appropriate the notion of the Classical in the spirit of social and political critique.  The goal is less to preserve the Classical world, than to use it as weapon against itself.

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House of the Rising Sun

Thursday, January 1st, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

The House of the Rising Sun is one of the best known rock songs, a landmark across many genres: American blues and folk, the British Invasion, garage rock and even punk. Its origins are complicated and contested; people still argue whether it was Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, or The Animals who ushered the song into the popular mainstream. It probably dates to 18th-century American folk tradition but entered ethnographic fact on September 15, 1937, when folklorist Alan Lomax taped a 16-year-old miner’s daughter, Georgia Turner, performing the song in Middlesborough, Kentucky. Since then, many have rendered their own versions, from Roy Acuff (1937), Woody Guthrie (1941), Lead Belly (1948), Glenn Yarbrough (1957), to Bob Dylan (1961). The song, however, did not become a classic until 1964, when the The Animals from Newcastle, Britain made it into a number one hit.

The song refers to a New Orleans house of prostitution with a contested archaeological history. Some claim that 826-830 Louis Street is the original location of the house, originating from the name Marianne LeSoliel Levant, the brothel’s Madam from 1862 to 1874. There is no proof of this lineage. An 1838 newspaper mentions a Rising Sun coffee house on Decatur Street, and a Rising Sun hotel stood on Conti Street before it burned down in 1822. The latter site was the subject of a 2004 excavation by Shannon Lee Dawdy, now assistant professor of archaeology at the University of Chicago. Dawdy could not conclusively prove whether this was the famous House of the Rising Sun. For Dawdy’s fascinating work after Katrina, see John Schwarts, “Shannon Lee Dawdy: Archaeologist in New Orleans Finds a Way to Help the Living,” New York Times (Jan. 3, 2006).

More interesting than the song’s real archaeology is its idealized archaeological projection. The Animals performed their number one hit in the 1965 music film Pop Gear, surrounded by a fantasized archaeological cage, stripped down in groovy mid-modern minimalism. The clip (seen here) is absolutely stunning. The artistic level of its production is so superior that it makes one wonder what happened to the integration between popular music and the visual arts.

The set design is based on an Ionic colonnade built by purely white thin boards through which The Animals circumnavigate. A yellow wall (matching the band’s shirts, beneath their 4-button suits) forms the background and receives both the white thin columns and their intense gray shadows. I’ve tried to capture the dynamism of this imagined House of the Rising Sun in a sketch at the beginning, but much of the energy of the video comes from the movement of the mobile musicians (Burdon, Valentine, Chandler) around the stationary musicians (Gallagher, Steel), the close ups on Burdon, and the movement of the camera behind the colonnade providing a peculiar (both thin and thick) sense of depth. The set reconfigures the porch of southern domestic architecture, its classical vocabulary, as well as its papery thinness. The composition, however, is entirely modernist with Cubist composition, Constructivist combinations and an Expressionist sense of light.

The L-shaped elements may also remind us of the hang-man games we played as children and, thus, suggest connotations of lynching. Without a doubt, The Animals were aware of Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit. A fascinating song in its own right,Strange Fruit was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish school teacher from the Bronx. Meeropol cited Lawrence Beitler’s graphic 1933 photograph (click here) as inspiration for the lyrics, which he published in a school-teacher union magazine in 1936. Holiday performed the song at the first integrated night club in Greenwich Village in 1939. But this is only a slight, if not sublimated reading.

Overall, The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun is pure form. Like the British Invasion in general, the clean-cut gentlemen from Newcastle distilled the southern blues, and repackaged them with a sleek force that could bring down the walls. Cleaned up, the House of the Rising Sun stops being an item of ethnographic “authenticity” and becomes pure libidinal force. Much more than the legendary Beatles, Eric Burdon and The Animals offer the building blocks of a raw subversiveness that leads straight to The Clash. One can clearly see that the architectural style of Deconstructivism begins in 1965. Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, Daniel Liebeskind and other paper-thin superstars suddenly seem derivative. Are The Animals so important? I hope to study more Pop Gear clips and see how other peer groups contributed to punk archaeology. This includes performances by Herman’s Hermits, The Four Pennies, Matt Monroe, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas and other slightly forgotten pioneers of what we now group under the category of garage rock.

I must thank my 10-year-old nephew Sean Gray for introducing me to Pop Gearinadvertently. Grandparents Terry and Brenda Gray got Sean a guitar for his birthday in July. During the last few months, Sean has become a studious guitar player, giving his first public recital in Albuquerque, of the House of the Rising Sun. He emailed The Animals video to his uncle and aunt, in case they had never heard of the song before. Since I also got a guitar last Christmas (thanks to Terry and Brenda), I have taken up the challenge of the Rising Sun. Sean is much better than me, but Popi is enjoying the finger picking across the classic Am, C, D, F and E7th chords.