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Punk Archaeology: Trench Sounds

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

The long awaited final Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project podcast has arrived.  Titled “Trench Sounds”, it is a 10 minute extract of over 3 hours of taping in Dallas DeForest’s trench at Pyla-Koutsopetria.  (For more typical discussions of this trench you can down load these two podcasts: Koutsopetria East Week 1 and Koutsopetria East Week 2).  The goal was to capture the sounds of a trench in all of their mundane glory.

The inspiration was Punk Archaeology.  Kostis has posted on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and its seminal influence on the New York “No Wave” movement.  This album, which is almost impossible to listen to, is composed almost entirely of various ephemeral sounds of the musical production process particularly looped tracks of guitar feedback much of which was created intentionally by placing guitars facing their amplifiers.  This dissonant noise was then remixed and edited to produce tracks including an unusual locked groove track at the end of side “D” (of a two record set) which would play the final 1.8 seconds continuously (an effect lost on 21st century listeners who are more likely to spend the 4$ to download the album in MP3 than the $20+ to purchase the album on vinyl!).

Our final “Voices of Archaeology” track is hardly as intentionally dissonant as Metal Machine Music (nor will it likely be as iconic).  It does, however, capture and attempt to present some of the ephemeral sounds of archaeology — the gentle thumping of the pick, the scraping of the dust pan, the cascades of dirt into buckets, the interrupted and fractured conversations.  It attempts to capture sonically, what we as archaeologist are attempting to capture physically: the various bits of pieces of the past.  At one point on the track, Paul Ferderer asks whether a tiny fragment of ceramic material is a piece of tile or a piece of pottery.  The tiny fragment was at once almost completely inconsequential (and the question of whether the fragment was pottery or tile was even less consequential as all ceramic material was analyzed by our ceramicist) and at the same time the bit of ceramics is representative of the archaeological process.  The artifact must be contextualized in some way to generate meaning.  It goes without saying (almost) that fragments of the past have no inherent meaning.  They are displaced objects that the archaeologist envelop in contexts ranging from the place of origin, the original “primary” use, and, of course, the chronology of the other objects at the site.  The tension between the decontextualized object at the moment of discovery (the most tenuous and fleeting contextualizing moment) and various “big picture” narrative and analyses that ultimately come to make a specific site meaningful finds its place in the immediacy of punk rock as experience. 

I recently listened again to the MC5’s first album Kick Out the Jams, a live album, and admired their effort to capture the live sound and mark the band as a live phenomenon while evoking punk rock’s debts to the blues (a genre of music almost always recorded live) and the ephemeral connections manifest in garage bands across the country.  The contextualizing narrative of modern American music has, of course, placed the MC5 in a proper analytical and interpretive category (often placing them alongside Iggy Pop’s Stooges whose first album came out the same year and captured a very different kind of sound through the exacting production of John Cale) and striped the first album of much of its shock value (although it still can capture some of the excitement typical of live performances).

Our short track of trench sounds hopes to capture the same thing — at once it is inconsequential (and frankly hard to listen to!) alone just like Paul’s fragment of pottery — but at the same time, it captures a moment that begs a larger, more dynamic context.  The moment of discovery is the point of departure for archaeological analysis.  Trench Sounds pushes the incidental noise of archaeological research into the center,  like the feedback pushed to the center of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.  By recontextualizing the sonic elements of archaeological fieldwork I hope to have shed light on the analytical process itself which brings otherwise discarded and inconsequential artifacts to the center while pushing the archaeological experience to the edges… 

Enjoy: Trench Sounds


Toward a Definition of Punk Archaeology

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

I was asked recently what exactly Punk Archaeology is… and aside from pointing to our blog of that name, I struggled to come up with a clever answer or really any answer.  The best that I could offer was that Punk Archaeology was an empty vessel, a conceptual universe opening to being filled by the careening intersection of punk rock music and archaeology (in almost all of its forms and meanings).  So far the vessel is filled with bits of methodology, some history, some archaeology (in a Foucaldian sense) and even some proper archaeological investigations.  This description, however, does not necessarily explain what Punk Archaeology is.

So, here goes a first effort toward a definition of Punk Archaeology:

1) Punk Archaeology is a reflective mode of organizing archaeological experiences.  Punk Archaeology began as conversations between Kostis Kourelis and other archaeologists who admitted to listening to punk rock music or appreciating the punk aesthetic while studying archaeology.  The result was a collaboration between me and Kostis as we made an effort to probe the intersection between these two choices.  Why would we be drawn to punk rock — or any particular music — and how does this musical choice explain or organize or condition our approaches to archaeological research.  Both of us came around to the question of whether there is a totalizing discourse in our intellectual lives.  Is there some strand that makes sense of our varied interests?

2) Punk Archaeology follows certain elements of the punk aesthetic through the discipline of archaeology.  It celebrates, in particular, the things that can be grouped under the blanket heading of DIY practices: various low-fi podcasts, infield improvised devices, and serendipitous inventions that allow archaeologists to document space, place, and the past.

3) Punk Archaeology reveals a deep commitment to place.  Punk with its tied to garage band sound has always manifest itself spatially. The tensions between urban and suburban (e.g. Little London Boys), east and west coast, and the persistent association of certain sounds and styles with cities or even places (some of which are intended to disorient: Max’s Kansas City).  As archaeology is, in so many ways, a “science” of place, its affinity to a musical genre that self-consciously laced the experience of music with the experience of place would seem appropriate.

4) Punk Archaeology embraces destruction as a creative process.  Archaeologists destroy the very object that they seek to study.  Digging through strata removes artifacts from their physical context and places them in the disciplinary context of the archaeologist notebook, database, plan, map, article, or monographg.  Destruction as a creative process echoes in some ways the process of punk which sought to deconstruct musically the foundation of Anglo-American pop music and build in its place a subversive recontextualized narrative of safe and comfortable bourgeois life.  I am not sure that archaeology is always subversive and I don’t even know whether punk rock forms the best parallel for the recontextualizing process of excavation, but there is a certain symmetry between the two.

5) Punk Archaeology is spontaneous.  The one thing that the Punk Archaeology blog is seeking to capture is the spontaneity of the connection between punk and archaeology.  The performance of punk archaeology through the medium of blogging allows for our definition to remain flexible and fluid.  We can reshape our argument and our juxtapositions and even challenge and contradict ourselves.  In short, we can create distortion, noise, and a kind off creative chaos.  That might, like Punk, have value. 

Or not. 

We’ll see.

The Magnetic Age

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

David Thomas, the singer of the legendary Cleveland punk band Pere Ubu has written one of the finest essays on rock music. Thomas takes two ballads, “The Wreck of Old 97” and “Dead Man’s Curve,” and constructs a narrative explaining the fundamentals of American music. It all has to do with the Magnetic Age that started in 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the microphone and culminated with Elvis Presley (“the Homer of the Inarticulate Age”). “The Wreck of Old 97” is a ballad inspired by the 1903 train wreck in Virginia (photo above). The earliest version of the song was recorded in 1924 and it has since been sang by everyone, including Woody Guthrie, Johny Cash and Hank Williams. “Dead Man’s Curve” is a ballad written in 1964 by the rock duo Jan and Dean, who preceded the Beach Boys in creating surf music. The ballad describes another wreck, half a century later, taking place with a car. The technical heroism of the two songs corresponds to the technical craft (magnetic electronics) of recorded music, “a dialogue inside the blurred zone between soundscape and landscape.” Thomas asserts that the Magnetic Age is another way of saying the American Age and it unites seemingly unrelated individuals like Edison and Elvis or Eisenhower and Kerouac.

Thomas is not simply retelling a generic version of America’s love for speed, cars and trains but constructs a paradigm through which to interpret rock music. In the spirit of art critic Clement Greenberg, Thomas brings attention to the materiality of the medium. Dan Graham (see Rock My Religion posting) placed punk’s origins in the religious experiments of Protestant America. Thomas places punk’s origins of the magnetic medium–the microphone, the vinyl record, the hi-fi system, the speakers, and the space inside our ears. I’ve been thinking a lot about the texture of dissonance and distortion that characterizes the project of punk archaeology. I have been listening to a lot of Sonic Youth lately–especially their brilliant new album, Eternal– and I’ve been reading David Brownes’ Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (2008). I’ve also just received a library copy of another interesting new book, David Sheppard’s On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno (2009). Eno is truly the glue between the Magnetic Age and punk. In 1977, Eno collaborated with David Bowie in the album Heroes, the final record of the Berlin trilogy. It includes the song “Sons of the Silent Age.” I wonder if the Magnetic Age and the Silent Age are not but synonyms of the same mechanical predicament.

David Thomas’ essay is called “Destiny in My Right Hand,” and it appeared in The Rose & the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad, ed. Sean Wilentz and Greil Marcus (2005), pp. 161-174. The book contains 23 essays interpreting some of the most fundamental American ballads. The authors range from R. Crumb to Luc Sante and Sarah Vowell. While reading this book, it’s mandatory to listen to a parallel CD with the songs under discussion. I’ve been reading The Rose & the Briar on-and-off since 2005 and just hit David Thomas’s essay.

Sonic Youth and Pere Ubu are the inheritors of the Magnetic Age. David Thomas does not talk about punk in his essay, although he credits Dead Man’s Curve with a dose of “punk snottiness.” On the dissonate end of the Magnetic Age, see my earlier posting on Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. I have just listened to Thurston Moore’s solo project Trees Outside the Academy (2007). The CD inner sleeve contains many pictures from Moore’s youth. Among them, you see a teenage Moore strapped with headphones listening to Metal Machine Music (left). Now, in the 21st century, we should have witnessed the full demise of the Magnetic Age by the Digital Age. Nevertheless, old rockers like Sonic Youth, and even younger ones like Jack White (note his new band, Dead Weathers) remain purists in the Greenbergean sense. Craftsmanship of the Magnetic Age (i.e. the 8-track recorder) seems to have endured in the Digital Age, which might after all be a mere Post-Magnetic Age that claims an ironic self-referential stance to its predecessor.

Rock My Religion

Saturday, July 18th, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

One of Punk Archaeology seminal documents is “Rock My Religion,” the 1984 video by Dan Graham. Although better known as a conceptual artist, Graham was ingrained in New York’s punk and post-punk music scene. “Rock My Religion” makes a historical argument, attributing the origins of punk to the radical religious experiences of early Puritans like the shaking of the Shakers. Many have followed Graham’s line of thinking. Generally speaking, punk as a movement has rejected the hippie ideal of communal idealism. Bypassing the 60s, however, some punks have aligned themselves with older vernacular forms like folk music. The LA punk legends X, for example, also had a parallel folk project, the Knitters. Billy Bragg is another example. Cowpunk, country punk, or folk punk are recent labels for an older tradition.

“Rock My Religion” is screened at.the retrospective exhibition Dan Graham: Beyond, originating at MoCA in Los Angeles and currently at the Whitney Museum in New York (June 25-October 11, 2009). The show will travel to Minneapolis, at the Walker Art Center (October 31, 2009-January 31, 2010). Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth) and the Feelies (recently reunited) performed special tributes during the exhibition (see video here). If you cannot make it to New York or Minneapolis, “Rock My Religion” can be previewed here. For the exhibit’s catalog, see Bennett Simpson and Chrissie Isles eds. Dan Graham: Beyond (MIT, 2009). Graham’s essays have been published in Rock My Religion: Writings and Project 1965-1990 (MIT 1994). One of my favorite Graham projects, “Homes for America” for Arts Magazine (1966-67) is a provocative series of photographs documenting the vernacular landscape of New Jersey. Suburban American architecture and punk rock provide inspiration for Graham’s work that has never been successfully branded under a particular art movemnt. Graham is also known for a series of glass and mirror pavilions that link him more directly with the work of Robert Smithson and minimalism.

For reviews of the Graham exhbition at the Whitney, see Roberta Smith, “Bouncing Around a Visual Echo Chamber,” NYT (July 3, 2009), pp. C19, 21, and Randy Kennedy, “A Round Peg,” NYT (June 28, 2009) pp. AR 1, 24. Kennedy begins with a question that best typifies the difficulty of categorizing Graham: “Here’s a good art-world quiz question, one that could stump many an astute insider: What do Sol LeWitt, Sonic Youth, Dean Martin, Mel Brooks, Mel Haggard, Hudson River School painting and midcentury New Jersey tract housing have in common? The answer, Dan Graham.”

Bowie’s Philadelphia Sound

Thursday, June 25th, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

Much of 1980s New Wave (ABC, Duran Duran, Thompson Twins, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, etc.) has an orchestral soulful sound. These “New Romantics” reclaimed the grandeur of Swing from the syncopation of Disco. The city of Philadelphia played a minor role in New Wave with figures like Hall and Oates (who met at Temple) and the Hooters (who met at Penn). A local music scene thrived in the late 80s and 90s, although many bands, like the Johnsons, Scram and the Dead Milkmen, received limited national attention.

Philadelphia is responsible for the origins of New Wave’s grand sound by means of an earlier and lesser known avenue, David Bowie’s 1975 album Young Americans. On August 11, 1974, Bowie spent a week in Philadelphia, recording Young Americans at the Sigma Sound Studios on 212 N. 12th Street. It is here that Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff created what is known as Philadelphia soul or the Philadelphia sound (Bowie called it “plastic soul”). Gamble and Huff had started the Philadelphia International Records label only three years before Bowie’s visit. Y0ung Americans was an important point of departure from Bowie’s earlier rock persona in Ziggy Stardust (1972), or Diamond Dogs (1974). In Philadelphia, therefore, David Bowie pursued one of his many incarnations as a spiritually black artist. And it is here that he met Puerto Rican guitarist Carlos Alomar, who became an integral member of Bowie’s band. Young Americans also features back up vocals by Luther Vandross and includes the song Fame, co-written with John Lennon, which became Bowie’s first American hit.

I doubt that 1980s New Wave (or New Pop) was directly inspired by Philadelphia International Records. Its point of departure is David Bowie’s 1975 album, which had already reconfigured the elements of the Philadelphia sound. A year after the release of Young Americans, David Bowie turned a new chapter in his musical career by moving to Berlin with Iggy Pop. The short relationship with Philadelphia was hence quickly overshadowed by a three-year residence in Berlin. The Berlin trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger) incorporated Brian Eno’s electronic experimentation into the Philadelphia foundations.

Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and an excellent 4-CD box set was released on the occasion, Love Train: the Sound of Philadelphia (Sony Legacy). Terry Gross interviewed Gamble and Huff in “Riding Philly’s ‘Love Train’ with Gamble and Huff” (NPR, Nov. 26, 2008, replayed May 22, 2009). On May 19, 2009, Gamble and Huff received BMI’s Icon Award.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: A new book explores Bowie’s creative three-years in Berlin, see Thomas Jerome Seabrook, Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town (London, 2008). For the Philadelphia episode, see also Christopher Sandford, Bowie: Loving the Alien (New York, 1996), p. 128. The story of the Philadelphia sound is chronicled in, John A. Jackson, A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul (New York, 2004).

Metal Machine Music

Monday, April 27th, 2009 by Kostis Kourelis

In 1975, Lou Reed released one of the most radical albums in rock history. Metal Machine Music consists of looping guitar feedback, orchestrated dissonance, 65 minutes of noise. Released a year after the pop-oriented Sally Can’t Dance, the album has puzzled historians. Was it a joke? was it a redemptive avant-garde gesture? did it fulfill an earlier record contract? However skeptical some critics may have been, this monumental double album had a huge influence. Not only did it invent New York’s Post-Punk “No Wave” movement but also a new rock genre known today as industrial music. It also aligned Punk with contemporary classical music, the rarefied mechanical universe of Ioannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. In an interview with Lester Bangs, Reed points out that he originally sought to release the album in RCA’s classical division.

In 2007, the German ensemble Zeitkratzer performed the piece with Lou Reed and released it on CD. See Pitchfork interview (Sept.17, 2007). Last Thursday, Reed performed Metal Machine Music once again at the Blender Theater in New York, with Sarth Calhoun and Ulrich Krieger (who first transcribed the work for Zeitkrzatzer). See review in New York Times (Apr. 25, 2009, p. C1)

It’s amazing to think that 34 years have passed since the album’s original release. Excluding Sonic Youth’s success, the dissonant New York scene of No Wave is completely unknown to the general public. The situation might be changing, however, through a bibliographic explosion. In 2008, Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth) and Byron Coley have published a documentary visual history, No Wave: Post-Punk Underground. New York. 1976-1980 (New York). Two other books were released in 2007,: Mark Masters, No Wave (London); Paula Court and Stuart Baker, New York Noise (London). A biography of Sonic Youth has also just been published: David Browne, Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (New York, 2008). In so many words, the New York punk scene has found some solid scholarly footing in the last couple of years.

There have also been some serious attempts to document the visual tradition of punk rock. While attending the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meetings in Chicago (January 2008), I got a chance to see, Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll since 1967, an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art that tried to present rock’s visual tradition after 1967. I must admit that the exhibit was disappointing (for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here) but at least it made me contemplate the difficulties of trying to display the connection between art and music. At least, it inspired me to design a class on Punk Aesthetics (which I doubt anyone would ever let me teach). For those that missed the show, the catalog is just as good, see Dominic Molon and Diedrich Diederichsen (Chicago, 2007).

Although not explicitly connected to Punk, a relevant show just opened in New York, believe it or not, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Pictures Generation 1974-1984 reflects on artists like Cindy Sherman that flourished at the hey day of Punk. Some of the artists were also part of the music scene. Robert Longo is a good example. He designed The Replacements’ album cover Tim (1985) and shot music videos for New Order and R.E.M. Robert Longo’s Men in Cities painting series (1979) stands out as the greatest visual statement of Post-Punk aesthetics with which I grew up (left). The Met show includes another work by Longo, a three-dimensional leaping man, American Soldier (1977). Holland Cotter uses Longo’s leaping metaphor in his review, “At the Met Baby Boomers Leap on Stage” (New York Times, Apr. 23, 2009). It’s unusual that this shows takes place at the Met, “a fusty backwater for contemporary art and an object of scorn in the art world” (Cotter). But the change is very much welcome. The Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Guggenheim have become so annoying with their “contemporaneity” and steep admissions. The Met for me has become a default in the good old world of public service.

The Pictures Generation show at the Met runs parallel to a new “Generational” series at the New Museum. The Generational: Younger than Jesus surveys a new crop of artists born after 1976 (hence younger than Jesus when he was crucified). The title is so annoying. For Harold Cotter’s review of this show, see “Young Artists Caught in the Act” (New York Times, Apr. 9, 2009). The Generational series at the New Museum are trying to out-do the Whitney Biennial.

The object of this blog posting was to offer a general overview of recent phenomena in the historization of Punk. The bibliography is growing. Biographies, photographic archives, new performances, and museum exhibits entrench Punk deeper into the halls of academic legitimacy. Still, however, there is little on Punk Archaeology. If the reader had the slightest doubt that Punk has accumulated an institutional patina, consider the following. On November 24, 2008, Christie’s held its first Punk Rock Fine Art auction. You can see all the 236 lots (and respective prices) on Christie’s website here.

Finally, congratulations to Holland Cotter, who has won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. His reviews in the New York Times have been a guiding light.

For links and images, see copy of this posting at

Punk and Place

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

With Lux Interior’s death last week, I offered a short post on The Cramps’ concert at the California State Mental Hospital on our Punk Archaeology blog.  It got me thinking about the close relationship between punk music and place.  I haven’t thought systematically about it, but in fragments, as I tried to link it to the importance of place within archaeology.

Punk as much as any other music played with place.  In their efforts to defy social conventions and question the accepted practices of the music industry and bourgeois society, punk rockers challenged expectations with their concerts.  The engaged in theatrical, chaotic performances openly rejecting the polished and choreographed sets associated with pop music.  By rejecting the systematic in their performances, they embraced the spontaneous and contingent.

This is not to say, however, that their shows were accidental or random.  There was an aura of intentionality.  The Cramps’ show at a mental hospital was full of meaningful references ranging from the tradition of performing to shut in of various kinds to (as Kostis noted in his comment) Antonin Artaud’s Theater of the Absurd and Marquis de Sade’s famous efforts to direct plays while imprisoned at the hospital at Charenton (one could also note M. Foucault’s Madness and Civilization). The former evoked B.B. King’s great live album at the Cook Country Jail and Johnny Cash’s concerts at Folsom Prison and San Quentin (as well as a series of other well-known performances to inmates).  While these performances have been seen as acts of compassion by Cash and King, they also make explicit the link between the dire nature of their music and the dire state of the inmates.  In fact, the power of these shows derives, in part, from the authenticity of the performances.  The inmates as audience have actually shared the tortured stories of the performers.  It speaks of an intimacy that is absent from shows where the audience, the musician, and the music dwell separately from one another. 

A concert at a mental hospital depends upon the understood link between the audience and the music established by folks like King and Cash, but turns it on its head.  The Cramps, with their theatrical stage shows, absurdist lyrics, and chaotic, raucous sound, depend upon the place to define their music.  They play the music of the insane.

“And we drove 3,000 miles to play for you people… And somebody told me that you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that. You seem to be alright to me.”

The playfulness with place has deep roots in the punk movement.  The moniker “garage rock” locates the entire genre of music in the informal and marginal space of the garage. The garage is also a symbol of suburbia and the dislocation of domestic space from the place of work and the urban center .  When punk bands played CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City (the name itself is another play on place) in New York, the garage band sound made explicit their critique of bourgeois values; when the suburbia came to the city, they presented not the well-ordered, picket-fence houses, but a sonic dystopia.

As I posted earlier, punk rock played with time by evoking, manipulating, and mocking nostalgic themes in American music.  The Cramps dedicated their album A Date with Elvis to the late 50s/early 60s rocker Ricky Nelson.  They also drew heavily from the informal “low-fi” sound ironically insisting on a kind of musical authenticity to underpin their blatantly silly lyrics and ridiculous stage shows. Their songs show strong influences of both rockabilly and surf rock.  The Cramps’ sound formed the foundation for later bands like The White Stripes or The Black Keys or Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion who ironically and playfully employed the authenticity of low-fi sound to highly textured, remixed, and produced albums.  

Time and space remain central archaeological concerns.  Punk rock willingness to play with nostalgia and authenticity and use place as a form of social and musical critique provides foundations for a far more radical appreciation of archaeological contexts than traditional chronological or functional analyses allow.

Punk in Context

Friday, February 6th, 2009 by Bill Caraher

R.I.P Lux Interior.  The Cramps concert at the California State Mental Hospital is a landmark in Punk Archaeology.

Here’s a link that works still.

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.

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.