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Great noises of rock 'n' roll

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I knew that the Replacements' Pleased to Meet Me was a great record when I heard Paul Westerberg go "Ooooo!" It happens in the song "Alex Chilton." It's a very good ooooo!--classically placed, coming right after a short vocal bridge that comes after a spectacular chorus that comes after the verse, each of which has piled tension and expectancy on top of the last. And then Westerberg says ooooo! in this straining and desperate and very physical way--as if he really can't keep it up much longer--and the tension is released by the punchy guitar break that follows.

Now these tricks are all fairly simple. Some might even say formulaic. But formulaic is only bad if the formula is a substitute for life. The ooooo! settles that. The ooooo! tells you instantly and beyond doubt that the Replacements are not playing the formula, they're living it.

This reaffirms the validity of my private test for great rock 'n' roll records. The test, which rarely fails, is based on how the noises sound. Not instrument noises. People noises. Grunts, sighs, moans, groans, yells, screams, shouts, commentary, commands, asides. When they sound right these extras can tip you off that you're in the middle of something real. There's no way to fake it. The best rock 'n' roll noises come from the heart of the vortex.

Put it this way: a lot of people try to rock; a great noise tells you that the person making it isn't trying anymore. For a moment--no matter who it is--this person has achieved what the greatest achieve. He's lost his inner observer, and his sense of effort. He's playing the music in the totally absorbed way that kids play a game--he's become it. It's speaking in tongues--a yawp from the kingdom.

That's not to say that great bands (or even great performances) always produce great noises. Hard as I try, I can't come up with a lot for the Beatles. Too Apollonian, I guess. But beyond doubt, where there are great noises, a great performance is going on.

Let's be historically minded and begin at the beginning--with the King. Elvis's trademark hiccup/quaver is probably descended from some primal alpha-male courtship signal, but by now (three decades after Presley's debut) it has become such a pop culture cartoon that it's hard to rescue its impact from the mire of camp. Heard in its pristine form, however, as at the beginning of "Baby, Let's Play House" (We-ell, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, bumma-bumma-bumma), it still signals the beginning of a wild ride.

The emphasis on cool vocal control that quickly became Elvis's hallmark militated against the chaos, panic, and desperation that produce the best noises. Still, Elvis could summon up effective punctuation--an admiring yeah! as the guitarist on "I Need Your Love Tonight" sounds like he's fallen over a garbage can; plays blues, boys in "My Baby Left Me," coolly slurred and assured. Even in the late 60s, when the old spark briefly flared again, he made an unlikely hook out of the hokey-but-cool shoop, shoops in "Wearin' That Loved on Look."

Then, of course, there was Little Richard's famously Pentecostal w-o-o-o-o! This obviously came from some of the more fervent gospel styles and, before that, from the high veld. But Reverend Penniman's rather surprised and fruity inflection gives it a whole new quality of perverted glee, a distillation of ripe anticipatory joy. Paul McCartney found a mystery and source of power in this noise, and he probably hears it still (though now in an accusatory mode) in the winds that circle his Lowland steading at night.

The Beatles, as I've said, did not specialize in this sort of thing, but when they came up with a noise, it was generally right on the mark. Though John Lennon has been enshrined as the wild rock 'n' roll soul of the band and Paul McCartney as the plastic popster, in fact Paul lets out with the spontaneous whoops more often. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Paul always seemed like a more physical creature than John. In "P.S., I Love You," Paul gracefully breaks a lyric line into four chunks with three exclamations--"As I write this letter . . . [tortured oh-oh-oh] send my love to you . . . [high, impassioned you know I want you to] remember that I'll always . . . [emotion resolved in a loving, three-syllable yea-ea-eah] be in love with you." Nice work, Paul. He also had a way with the old one-two-three-four countdown: see the teenbeat kickoff he gives to "I Saw Her Standing There," and later the martial hup, two, three, four that starts the reprise on Sgt. Pepper's.

As an ensemble the Beatles were masters of sugary, crooning oohs and sha-la-las, choral decorations they picked up from the black American girl groups they liked so much (a sound elaborated by a host of mod bands into a distinctly foppish, androgynous, and totally British style). The best of this is heard in the Beatles' version of "Baby, It's You," with Lennon's venomously clipped Cheat. Cheat. Cheat.

John's noises were usually pretty distinct, if not downright odd. Who can forget him inhaling a long breath up an apparently congested nose amid the languorous melancholy of "Girl"? Or the screaming agony that waits at the end of "Mother" and "Cold Turkey"?

With the Stones we're dealing with masters. Noises were of the essence of their slinky, bluesy, overtly sexual rock 'n' roll. The Stones have always been expert at making intricate and precisely planned art sound like the witches' sabbat. Crucial to that illusion are the cries of the revelers in their ecstasies. On their most artfully debased album, Between the Buttons, Keith and Brian chant hey, hey (in the background of "All Sold Out") in a frail, wizened way that evokes juju conjure-men crossed with gouty baronets. The better known woo-woos of "Sympathy for the Devil" evoke a similar ambience--supplied, according to one legend, by Anita Pallenberg and a coven of occultist pals.

The end of the 60s and the first half of the 70s saw the heyday of a number of great American cult bands who would all be founding influences on the punks and, later, on the whole American underground scene. Bands like the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, the MC5, and the New York Dolls were all great noise conceptualists, instrumentally and vocally.

Lou Reed and the Velvets, tense and cold, were at their best in terse commands and asides--like when Lou orders the band to walk it home as the bass snakes them out of "Waiting for the Man"; or simply says, with deadly, offhand authority, higher at the end of "White Light/White Heat," kicking the band into a new level of obnoxious freakout.

The other three protopunk bands were more orgiastic in their uproar than the Velvets, and their grunts and groans reflected it. Rob Tyner of the MC5 was a fine singer who sang with his whole body, like a great soul singer. But his greatest noise on record may be the fake machine gun sounds with which he signals the beginning of "Rama Lama Fa Fa Fa." If not that, it's certainly the let-slip-the-dogs-of-war way he yells OK, kids, it's rockin' time! in "Tonight." My favorite MC5 moment comes in "Sister Anne," just before the volley of chrome-sheeted projectiles they call a lead break. Guitarist Fred Smith heralds the impact with a y-u-u-e-a-h! in this great, bullshit, "my guitar is my manhood" voice; it's always made me picture a cowboy shooting out of a rodeo gate astride a rocket, kind of like the guy at the end of Dr. Strangelove.

David Johansen of the Dolls was good at the elegant grunt--his Oh . . . awright in "Private World" and his languorous Oh! as Johnny Thunders madly riffs the band into the windup of "Jet Boy" sound like sensual submissions to the brute power of the music.

As for Iggy & the Stooges--well, we'll have something to say about Iggy later.

The punks were pretty aphysical, but that explosion of British biliousness gave us some great moments. Like when Johnny Rotten, spittle flying, screams 's the only way to be! in "Anarchy in the U.K." (What's the only way to be? Guitarist Steve Cook's dancing avalanche gives the answer, and if you need to ask more, you'll never know.) The Clash, who came across pretty stiff on their first record, loosened up considerably on Give 'em Enough Rope. Enough, in fact, to whip up a great extended noise coda at the end of "Safe European Home," after the fake fade-out, where it sounds like the whole band are leaping about yelling whatever comes into their heads in time to the rhythmic barf noises Mick Jones wrings from the neck of his guitar.

Who are the great noisemakers of our modern era? Some would undoubtedly nominate the Boss, but for me there's always been something a little piggy about those upper-register blasts through his nose; and his basso cries from the abyss are disqualified on grounds of excessive theatricality and self-consciousness. (Though the phrases I'm a cool rockin' daddy in the U.S.A. . . . I'm a long-gone daddy from the U.S.A.--almost thrown away at the end of "Born in the U.S.A."--are genuine rock 'n' roll poetry. These archaic catchphrases, cloaked in 50s glamour, instantly set Springsteen's Vietnam vet in the context of rock 'n' roll myth. The effect is ironic, pathetic, and heroic at once. Suddenly the song is bigger, with a timeless and epic dimension it would not have had otherwise.)

What I said about Springsteen goes double for Bono, of U2, who is rapidly developing one of the most annoyingly overweening vocal styles in modern pop.

Great as R.E.M. is, singer Michael Stipe is a little too weird-boy spaced, too art-school, to be a natural noisemaker. The aforementioned Paul Westerberg of the Replacements is emerging as a noise giant of his generation. The Replacements' dominance of the current noise marketplace is confirmed by their new album, Pleased to Meet Me--a catalog of great sounds. You only have to listen to the way he says back in here (or something like that), to leash in the band after the break in "I.O.U.," to hear the natural authority the guy's developed.

So much for the historical approach. Rock 'n' roll noises are perhaps better considered categorically.

THE LONG SCREAM

This may be the least convincing rock 'n' roll noise, usually favored by those whose inability to work up a real frenzy throws them back on melodrama. It's most often found in highly formalized genres like heavy metal. (Its cousin, the yell, tends to be a lot more interesting.) Still, there are a few distinct moments in this category. Think of Robert Plant's scream in "Communications Breakdown," interesting largely because it seems to end in the command to suck it. Then of course there's the famous Roger Daltrey scream in "Won't Get Fooled Again," which, though you may not care if you hear it again in the next 15 years, is indisputably long. More interesting, though just as formalized, are John Lennon's "primal screams" in "Mother." These are effective--as excruciating as John intended them to be--though their retrospective impact has been undermined a little by the National Lampoon parody that had John yelling, in a fit of pique, genius is pain! instead of Mommy, come home.

THE HICCUP

The origins of this exotic noise are obscure. We've already referred to Elvis's early use of it, and it became a rockabilly convention. It may have some relation to the adenoidal style of early honky-tonk singers like Hank Williams, though Elvis seems to have been the first to conceive of it as a tool of sexual intimidation (an idea taken to a sinister extreme by Gene Vincent in "Be-Bop-a-LuLa"). Honors here must go to Buddy Holly, who actually sounds like he might have a speech impediment at the beginning of "Rave On," when he makes the word "well" sound like we-aheh-aheh-a-hell.

GLOSSOLALIA

Occasionally a singer is so taken up by the spirit that he goes beyond the verbal. Sometimes this can sound like the creation of a new language--like in the Velvet Underground's "Black Angel's Death Song" where ta ta ko, tee chee chee is about the most coherent thing Lou Reed says. It can take the form of noises as well as nonsense words. Mike Scott of the Waterboys has a sort of arid Holy Roller hoot (a little embarrassing in the way it seems to just erupt from him) that adds great credibility to the out-there spirituality of his music.

Then there's Iggy, whose "No Fun" features an incredible noise jam, two minutes-plus of near-parodic variations on the theme of getting down and raving up. Iggy runs down his list of interjections: Yeah, my man!; wanna tell 'em how I feel!; I said-a Sally come on!; wam-da-bam-da-bam; all this and more, plus a whole lot of over-the-top whooping. This is the kind of thing that started the whole Ig myth.

Most convincing of all in this category (indeed a little scary) is Van Morrison. In "Listen to the Lion" he brings all his implicit, unsettling strangeness literally roaring to the surface as he growls, chokes, shudders, and generally unhinges himself for the last half of the song's seven-plus minutes.

THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE

Ambiguity is, of course, a key component of rock 'n' roll lyrics (often their saving grace). Uncertainty about what the singer has just said--indeed, uncertainty as to whether the singer has in fact said anything at all--can create some highly charged moments. For instance:

Wilbert Harrison, setting up the break in "Kansas City," says something that I've always heard as "Aw, but you know . . . mustahd!"

Now, I don't think he can really be talking about mustard, and it certainly doesn't fit the context of the song at all. Still, it pleases me to think he is, and to imagine why.

Robert Plant again: In Led Zeppelin's "Bring It On Home" he says something very peculiar to mark the hinge between his Amos 'n' Andy country blues parody and Jimmy Page's rave-up. He says (this is my best approximation) "Watch out, watch out--mazzerummable!"

Mazzerummable. Maybe old black men in the 1940s south never actually said mazzerummable. But Plant makes it sound as if they at least might have.

There's an extension of this category that could be called not only incomprehensible but inhuman. I'm thinking of the point toward the end of T. Rex's "Bang a Gong (Get It On)" where all instrumentation has dropped away save for those sinisterly swaggering chords and all of a sudden there's this . . . sound. Like an electronically simulated porpoise. Or tiny rutting elves. Or an insect cry of sexual triumph, amplified beyond decency.

A PUNCH IN THE STOMACH, OR THE INADVERTENT EXCLAMATION

This is my favorite category. This is the sound of a singer who seems genuinely shocked at the ferociousness of his band, or it's his cry of ecstatic surrender to the chaos into which the performance is apparently rushing. It's a physical reaction of singer to music, and can only be done convincingly when a band is really "pushing the edge of the envelope," as the astronauts would say. Some examples:

"Omaha" by Moby Grape is a great song. The reason why it's great is that it sounds hair-raisingly reckless--a vinyl entrapment of that devil-urge that leads you to lean over the cliff edge or keep the pedal pressed to the floor for just a few seconds too long. At the end, when it's finally gone too far and screams protestingly around that one turn too many, Bob Mosley gives a yell of pure panic-stricken joy, the cry of a frat-man who's just bashed out the last remaining interior wall at the TKE House and finds the whole building collapsing on top of him. A supreme moment.

What sound does a man make who trips on a catwalk over a vat of boiling sugar in a candy factory? The answer can be heard in Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London." It sounds sort of like da!--startled and visceral, "what the fuck?!?!" compressed into a monosyllable. In an instant it's too late, the bubbling guitars have him in their sticky snares, and there's nothing he can do but howl.

A hot California combo that features a noise genius out front is Game Theory. Scott Miller's elegantly fey vocals comment tartly on the fierce convulsings of his little band. Check his cool Hey now! when the runaway roller-coaster keyboard break runs him down in "Waltz the Halls Always." It sounds magisterial, unleashing vast energy with lordly indolence; also breathless and surprised as a child playing in the surf.

SEX

Sex seems to be at the root of a lot of these noises, but sometimes it's more overt than others.

Tops in class, of course, is Chrissie Hynde. How to define her appeal? Razor-edged sinuosity? Venomous languor? Maybe it's just her bangs. Whatever it is, it's nowhere better expressed than in the amazing hu-u-u-h-u-h-u-h-n-n-! that triggers the speedfreak cataclysm of "The Wait." For this and so many other moments, God bless you, Chrissie. And just answer me one question, after all these years--in "Up the Neck," where did you put your tongue?

Holly Beth Vincent. On her amazing, heinously ignored 1982 album Holly and the Italians, the best cut is a song called "We Danced." On that song, Holly fashioned a striking but very simple chorus to connect verse to verse. She just says we danced rather quietly, over and over. But listen closely to how she says it. And then listen again. And again . . .

If there's a dirtier-sounding record than "Some Kinda Love" by the Velvet Underground, I want to know about it. The lyrics are kind of corny/decadent--like we're supposed to get real worked up about red pajamas? But the slinky, quietly peristaltic way it's played and especially sung (by Lou Reed) makes it as good an evocation as you'll find of the urge to try something really nasty. Lou's La te ta ta ta says it all. Later he was to say it in even fewer syllables: the huh! in "Walk on the Wild Side" is an essay in polymorphous perversity.

Katrina & the Waves is a magnificent pop-rock band, and Katrina Leskanavich's breathy/brassy sexiness sure doesn't hurt 'em. I've always found something powerfully stirring in the way she keeps saying aw, shake it up . . . in "Red Wine and Whiskey," turning a good song into a minor obsession.

And just to bring us up to date, I've got to mention Stevie Nicks huffing her way to satisfaction in "Big Love" from the new Fleetwood Mac album. Now guys, admit it--you've always wanted to hear Stevie doing this. But do you still respect her when it's over?

BAD NOISES

There are some, though not many. This is because true rock 'n' roll noises, as I've explained, generally seem to well up out of especially hot performances. But every once in a while some clown will try to throw in a little spontaneous emotion to liven up a pedestrian track. The result is usually a noise to remember. I don't want to force too many on you, but I must mention Toto. Their singer favors the highly formalized, neo-operatic falsetto perfected by Chicago bands like Chicago, Styx, and R.E.O. As their big hit "Rosanna" fades, he lets out a sound that is likely to stand as the capstone of that unfortunate genre. It's a frantic, rising-falling oo-oo-hooo-ooo-oo!--the kind of sound you might make when you lie back in the grass at a picnic and find your head resting on a dead squirrel.

There are so many other great ones. I hate to stop without giving a quick nod to a few:

Animal Sounds: Warren Zevon, "Werewolves of London" (wolves); New York Dolls, "Personality Crisis" (wolves); Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, "Little Red Riding Hood" (take a guess); Beatles, "Hey, Bulldog" (dogs); Roy Orbison, "Oh, Pretty Woman!" (oh, a wicked animal).

Commands: Mick Jagger, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" (Watch it!); Mick Jagger, "Midnight Rambler" (Jazz!); Mick Jagger, "Sympathy for the Devil" (Mmmean it--get down!); Lou Reed, "Waiting for the Man" (Oh . . . work it now); Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart, "I Wonder What She's Doing Tonight" (OK, Bobby, let's give it to 'em); Neil Diamond, "Thank the Lord for the Nighttime" (now . . . ).

Laughter: The Syndicate of Sound, "Hey, Little Girl"; The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the U.K."; The Doors, "Wild Child"; The Velvet Underground, "Beginning to See the Light."

The start-the-band-up-again groan: Steve Earle, "Goodbye (Is All We've Got Left to Say)"; Jim Carroll, "Wicked Gravity."

1, 2, 3, 4! etc . . . The Modern Lovers, "Roadrunner"; The Ramones (take your pick); Bruce Springsteen, "Born to Run"; The Rascals, "Good Lovin'"; The Flying Burrito Brothers, "Dark End of the Street"; Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, "Wooly Bully."

Of course, as soon as this sees print I'll think of a hundred other and better examples than the ones I've written about. And so will you. Because a great noise can make you remember a song; a great noise is a great experience in itself. It's the marrow of rock 'n' roll in one blazing moment--crazy or stupid, spontaneous or carefully conceived. Noises erupt their rude way into a song the way rock 'n' roll--real rock 'n' roll--erupts into your life. A revolt from the right brain, a slap of spray from the sea that rolls unsettlingly under day-to-day life.

Though I suspect Wilbert Harrison would just call it mustahd!

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve, Kirk West--Photo Reserve.

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