In the modern parlance of sociology, the preceding two centuries have been divided into three periods to account for the radical shifts in art and philosophy: romanticism, modernism or postmodernism. Considering the contradictory variables of each term – modernism representing expressive idiosyncrasy in the arts, yet square practicality in architecture; postmodernism presenting cross-cultural dichotomy and self-effacing irony in entertainment, yet instilling radical indoctrination through obfuscation in the realm of academia – it’s wisest to draw upon the aesthetic axioms of a given category when applying the chosen term to music. Furthermore, given how perceptions of the abstract notions of aesthetics are arrived at through a combination of singular and dialectic observations, the appropriation of one term to a range of examples will be most readily clear when placed in contrast to other pairings of terms and examples. Therefore, I set about demonstrating how the aesthetic tenets of romanticism, modernism and postmodernism have each found their way into the once-artless form of music which started life as rock n’ roll.
To summarize the definitions employed for the parallels drawn below: romanticism is the emotionally encompassing heroic view of man, expressed through music rich in dynamism and virtuosity; modernism is the elevation of man from the confines of nature, actualized in music through advances in technology; and postmodernism is the upending of human intuition, applied here through deconstruction of the fundaments of musicality.
Musical Romanticism: The Genesis of Progressive Rock
Upper class English children of the post-war 20th century baby boom are among the last huge populace to have been touched by the final vestiges of romanticism in music, art, and literature. Educated as many of them were in the timeframe penultimate to academia’s restructuring around the radical principles of the New Left, these charmed products of the late 1940s and 1950s experienced a youth enriched with classic literature and classical music, in addition to their intake of contemporary pop culture via radio, magazines and the newly established medium of television. Therefore, when Elvis Presley came along and galvanized their working and middle class counterparts into emulating the new idiom of rock, it wasn’t as though the children of high culture were averse to these changes, it’s just that they were reared for a more formal way of living. Rock music itself needed to mature and expand from its seedy taproots in order to engender the participation of England’s classically trained youth.
Soon enough, by the late 1960s, this class gulf amongst boomers was eroding as rock swiftly progressed from the artless aftertastes of rockabilly and Merseybeat, and into the newfangled maximalism unveiled on the Beatles’ groundbreaking 1967 masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This conceptually grand album – which fused numerous idioms with expansive arrangements; all within varying compositional formats under lavishly advanced production techniques – opened up a myriad of futures, most notably in their duplex of rock and classical music, assembled into the climactic opus “A Day in the Life.” The striking symphonic notes which end this piece were the beginning of a ten year fusion between rock and classical which, when given to the breadth of moods and emotions inherent with such a proposition, approximated the most transcendent force of Romanticism that contemporary culture has thus far experienced.
The first rock band to pick up on this new romantic gauntlet was the Moody Blues, whose extravagant Days of Future Passed LP of 1967 saw them paired with the London Symphony Orchestra, crafting such lavish balladry as “Tuesday Afternoon” and the enduringly popular “Nights In White Satin”. The latter includes a stanza within the embedded “Late Lament” soliloquy which perfectly expresses the romantic notions of love and valor, in the crosscurrents of light and dark, tranquility and terror:
Cold hearted orb that rules the night
Removes the colors from our sight
Red is grey and yellow white
But we decide which is right
And which is an illusion
Over the next three years, a slew of similar pairings between band and orchestra would be released by notable contemporaries of the Moody Blues, including Procol Harum’s Shine on Brightly (1968), the Nice’s Five Bridges Suite (1969) and Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra and Gemini Suite (both 1970). The Moody Blues, meanwhile, continued their classical/rock hybrids over subsequent albums with the more manageable company of a mellotron, a keyboard with symphonic appropriation settings which ultimately became the standard instrument amongst numerous bands within this newly enriched vein of music, henceforth known as ‘progressive rock’.
The October 1969 premier of England’s formidable King Crimson ushered in the bold new era of progressive rock proper. Woven throughout the five grandiose epics which comprise their debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, are numerous juxtapositions: electric and acoustic instrumentation, which lent time-spanning depth to the sound; virtuosic musicianship, which conveyed romantic heroism to the audience; phantasmagorical lyrics expressing intuitive flights of fancy; and dynamic shifts between soft and stormy passages, reflecting the enormous breadth of emotions encapsulated therein – all fundaments of the mature progressive rock style. This newly defined genre quickly expanded globally, most notably purveyed by such enduring English bands as Yes, Genesis, Renaissance, Gentle Giant, Van Der Graaf Generator and Emerson Lake & Palmer, each of whom produced a series of artistic milestones of enormous popularity. The English scene arguably reached its pinnacle during 1972 and 1973, when Yes unveiled their ultimate masterpiece in the sidelong, sonata form epic of their title-sake Close To the Edge LP (1972), and Genesis achieved the utmost in conceptual brilliance with their twenty-three minute leitmotif suite “Suppers Ready” (1972) before peaking full-length with their crowning Selling England By the Pound LP (1973). Additionally, folk rockers Jethro Tull scored a definitive coup with their appropriation of the Yes/Genesis style on the album-length ‘song’ which accounts for their transatlantic chart-topping Thick as a Brick LP (1972).
Musical Modernism: From Experiments to Synthpop
If social modernism was ushered in by the technological outgrowth of the late-Victorian era – in which living was eased by the invention of appliances, mobility was bettered through the onslaught of automobiles, and art was liberated from the confines of realism – then modernism in rock was spawned by the ascendance of electronic music during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Just as modern art, freed by photography’s usurpation of realism, had revolutionized the essence of creativity – from the misty strokes of impressionism, to the staccato shapes of cubism, and to the anarchic splashes of expressionism – electronic instruments relieved musicians of numerous confines: the rules of melody and harmony; the limitations of acoustic sonority; and the imperative of technical proficiency. The early electronic music of the 1960s, as purveyed by such library recording technicians as Milton Babbit, Charles Wuorinen and Morton Subotnick, consisted roughly of bleeps and blips devoid of any key center or strophic shape. Granted, synthesized music had a long ways to go in terms of acceptance from the general music world, and these early recordings were primarily made to demonstrate the capacity of this new technology. Converting some skeptical ears, however, were two pioneering albums which sought to demonstrate the musical, as opposed to mechanical, potential of this new instrumental arsenal: Switched-On Bach by Walter Carlos (1968) and A Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley (1969).
The years 1970-1972 witnessed the gestation of a more artistic-minded electronic music, primarily stemming from Germany, whose modern rock populace was swiftly coming into its own. The chief exponents of this new style – of whom Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk, Cluster and Klaus Schulze remain the most notable – specialized in lengthy, instrumental excursions geared for tranquility, in which the listener would immerse in this aurally colorized environment: a ritual later assumed by the ambient and new age genres. On the early recordings by these artists, such as Tangerine Dream’s Electronic Meditation and Kraftwerk’s eponymous debut album (both 1970), the effects are fractious and jarring: a musical expressionism. On the prime releases of this genre – Tangerine Dream’s Zeit (1972), Phaedra (1974) and Rubicon (1975); Schulz’ Cyborg (1973), Timewind (1975) and Mirage (1977); the Kraftwerk pieces “Kling Klang” (1972), “Pineapple Symphony” (1973) and their Autobahn LP (1974) – the crystalline clarity and tonal richness is at once dark, warm and luminous: a musical impressionism.
By the mid-1970s, this genre had expanded globally, with electronic musicians emerging from Japan (Tomita), Italy (Electrikus), Spain (Neuronium), Australia (Cybotron), Canada (Mort Garson) and the United States (Synergy), in addition to the British wizards Tim Blake and David Bedford, and the French masters Jean Michel Jarre, Richard Pinhas and Zanov, all of whom took this music to heightened levels of excellence and innovation. 1976 was probably the high-water mark for electronic music, for that year witnessed the astounding transatlantic impact of Jean Michel Jarre’s hypnotic Oxygen LP, in addition to a Hollywood portrayal of the subculture, albeit ominously, in the dramatic Margaux Hemingway vehicle Lipstick, replete with French composer Michel Polnareff’s score set to the laser-light performances of the demented antagonist.
The final transportation of electronics into modern pop music came with the emergence of the synthpop style in England, which supplanted the sonic warmth of the continental sound for colder tones and sheer production values. Beginning as a subterranean side-effect of the punk explosion, the initial movement comprised just a handful of acts: Ultravox, the Normal, the Human League and Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army. Early examples of this style – best represented by the early Ultravox recordings “My Sex” and “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (both 1977) – combined a strophic, vocal song format with the luminous sonorities of the German school, in addition to the lucid piano layers of the ubiquitous Brian Eno. That famed alumnus of Roxy Music would serve as a conduit through which mainstream audiences warmed to this new music, for in addition to his innovative solo excursions, Eno helmed the synth-laden balance of David Bowie’s ultra-modernist Berlin trilogy.
As an intertextual ode to modernism, the lyrics of early synthpop often dealt with appliances, machines and transportation vehicles, perhaps most brilliantly in the words of Be Bop Deluxe frontman Bill Nelson. Abandoning the Queen-meets-Mahavishnu pomp of their prior output for the nascent synthpop style, Be Bop Deluxe’s triumphant swan song Drastic Plastic (1978) found Nelson veering from his usual Cocteau inflections to deliver such paeans to modernism as “Electrical Language”, “Surreal Estate” and “Superenigmatix (Lethal Appliances for the Home with Everything)”. Most evocative of the modernist creeds on art and architecture, however, were the couplets presented in another track, “Possession”, which was graced with such lines as:
There’s such a beautiful mess up in my room
My thoughts are tangled in the legs of chairs
I’d like to think that it’s my token of genius
But then again, perhaps I just don’t care
I’m going crazy with the speed of living
I’m leaving parts of me all over the place
I think I’ve found a piece that looks like my heart
But then again, maybe it’s just my face
Cameras and thieves, they always take my picture
A tape recorder stole my voice today
I think machines and clocks have secrets motives
But then again, maybe they’re made that way
Lyrics such as these present a sensory overload of the modernist condition: the architectural concept of ‘machines for living’; the Dadaist re-contextualization of everyday items; and the dispersal of the ‘definite article’ (site and sound) through the means of duplication (photography and recording). Nelson would further explore these themes with his makeshift unit Red Noise on their sole album Sound-On-Sound (1979) before embarking on a solo career in which his artful credentials would engender his employ to revivals of surrealist classics like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and La Belle et la Bête.
Meanwhile, the synthpop sound was making commercial inroads, first with Gary Numan’s two UK chart-toppers of 1979, “Are Friends Electric?” and “Cars” – the latter a surprising Billboard entry some months later – and finally with the comeuppance of Ultravox, who’s phenomenal Vienna LP was the fashion/music emblem of 1980. Buoyed by the introduction of low-cost, light-weight, easily programmable synthesizers onto the market, slews of new synthpop bands emerged overnight, swiftly claiming a lion’s share of the UK pop charts throughout most of the 1980s, among which Visage, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Soft Cell, Duran Duran and Depeche Mode proved the most durable. When the newly expanded Human League scored a transatlantic chart-topper with “Don’t You Want Me” in 1982, the writing was on the wall for those entrenched in the staid ideals of guitar rock. The world of pop had truly arrived at the era of modernism.
Musical Postmodernism: Post-Punk and Beyond
Just as the world of rock was rising to a global celebration of romantic maximalism through the Beatles and the thousands who would follow, a little noticed schism was taking place. In the subterranean confines of New York City, there emerged a band within the milieu of Andy Warhol’s Factory who crossed the fading three-chord garage rock mode with elements of drone culled from 20th Century classical composers, forging a line of postmodern minimalism in rock. Though exerting little influence in its own lofty time, the Velvet Underground would ultimately serve as the archetype for a slowly incubating alternate view, in which music was prided on exhibiting skeletal, abrasive and dissonant qualities. By 1975, Patti Smith had risen from the nascent Bowery scene, bellowing existential poetry over raw, rudimental backdrops. Taking things even further were James Chance & the Contortions and their various like-minds stemming from New York’s No Wave movement, in which shrill, bleating blasts of jazz/punk were spliced with quasi-funk interjections. Ultimately, this minimalist stream reached its postmodern extreme in the post-punk movement that emerged from England at the tail end of the 1970s.
Punk in the UK had been a slate-cleansing deal for those involved, and thus the roads leading elsewhere were split between intuitive and contrarian principles. Going by intuition, many acts (Squeeze, the Police, Elvis Costello) strove to reconstruct pop from the ashes of punk, a stream which ultimately became new wave. Defying intuition, others (Wire, Scritti Politti, Public Image Limited) sought to further mine the sonic netherworld grazed upon by punk; plying the distortions for more cerebral shocks and jolts. The latter approach, which soon congealed into post-punk, was most militantly propagated by the clutch of bands that sprung from Leeds University between 1978 and 1981, including Gang of Four, the Mekons, the Raincoats, Delta 5 and the Au Pairs.
The most strident of these acts was Gang of Four, who paired oblique, declamatory phrasing with scratchy shards of atonal riffing, where staccato upstrokes dashed against locomotive beats and piercing, trebly bass lines. The effect of their sound was like a simulacrum of punk and funk motifs, collaged and Xeroxed into monochrome fuzz and then further emblazoned with ransom cut-out lettering. The lyrics splashed across their brazen debut album Entertainment! (1979) were soaked in the mental melee just bubbling throughout academia, from the Foucaultian notions of biopower evinced on “At Home He’s a Tourist”, to the anti-lust conceits afflicting countless college leftists, as bemoaned on their cult hit “Damaged Goods”.
Aiming for a different brand of outré were the Raincoats, an all-female unit who built their sound around persistent violin strokes, mixed loudly over taut, tuneless guitars and a clumsy rhythm section; the charm of this music mustered through the sheer exuberance and novelty of it all. Radically indoctrinated, they entertained the Kristevaian concept of ‘multiple selfhood’ then-simmering within the humanities. Their eponymous debut album from 1979 includes a cover of the Kinks pioneering ode to transvestitism, “Lola”, which furthers the inherent gender confusion of the song through distaff interpretation. In an ironic aside, the audibly unprepared drummer on this album, post-punk journeywoman Palmolive, soon left the band over a most roundabout change of conscience. Having previously absconded rambunctious punk-pioneers the Slits due to objections over a muddy nude cover shot for that band’s long-awaited debut album Cut (1979), she skipped to the Raincoats, only to object to the latter unit’s pansexualism. Later, in the 1990s, having long-rejected the prototypes for both the misandrist and libertine schools of feminism, she resurfaced in suburban New England, now a Born-Again Christian and soccer mom. Some concepts are just too extreme for sustenance.
To the more harmoniously attuned listener, the solutions offered by Wire and Scritti Politti made for better propositions into uncharted territories. In the alternately polished/demolished structures which account for the songs on Wire’s Chairs Missing LP (1978), the effect is of a newfangled manicured noise. Yet for all their cacophony, Wire never strayed too far from the strophic form, keeping with postmodernisms intent to funnel radicalism through accessible means, pushing the envelope whilst recapitulating shared culture. This juxtaposition of outré and ordinary was taken to comic extremes by post-punk also-rans the Swell Maps, who paired the electro shards and controlled feedback of Wire with a brash three-chord primacy akin to the Ramones.
In the taut strumming which courses over the loose, reggae-tinged beats on Scritti Politti’s “Skank Bloc Bologna” EP (1978), the effects are impenetrably oblique, with the strophic vocals of Green Gartside providing the only stream of stability. The most unique aspect of Scritti Politti’s early work was the assemblage of matted sonorities into abstract filigree, a refreshing contrast to the shrill shards of disharmony so common amongst their contemporaries – from the ‘anti-rock’ Public Image Limited to the industrial Throbbing Gristle. Brimming as they were, the original Scritti Politti would only release three short-players before Green reshuffled the lineup following a 1980 cardiovascular convalesce, from which he emerged with a newfound love for soul music.
Green’s penchant for deconstruction was not lost, however, for the diverse collection which comprised Scritti Politti’s masterful Songs to Remember LP (1982) heard Green cooing intermittingly over dense, reflexive compositions which often made repetitive use of a single movement, disregarding the A-B-C structure of popular song. His lyrics here addressed the postmodern condition in varying ways, from the interrupted metaphors of vicarious gratification exposed in the disco-ish “Sex”, to the selflessness observed in the broken, stammering reggae of “Gettin’ Havin’ and Holdin’”, to the cognitive quandaries addressed in “Jacques Derrida”, a namesake ode to the noted poststructuralist, of whom Green had been an early devotee. Green himself explained how that last track was an expression of “how powerful and contradictory the politics of desire are” (Borghino). Embracing this paradox, Green sustained his obliqueness over more steadily sequenced beats for the crystalline sheen of Scritti Politti’s sophomoric full-length Cupid and Psyche ’85, in which the ever-shifting ensemble scored a postmodern coup by placing four singles into the British Top 20 during 1984 and 1985, culminating with the transatlantic smash “Perfect Way”.
That last achievement begs the question: have postmodernist variations of rock gained the degrees of popular acceptance long-awarded to their romanticist and modernist counterparts? When one listens to any number of MIDI-bombarded radio hits from the mid-1980s, which commonly featured treated samples looped around mechanized dance beats, the effect is of an avant-garde synthesis so sublime that it doesn’t seem striking at all. Numerous records produced by Bill Laswell during that timeframe, such as “Just Another Night” by Mick Jagger, sounded perfectly natural with their machine-drum tremors and vertical sound-drops: arrangements that would have never stood within the diatonic flatlands of the Rolling Stones. Commercial ascendance of this synthetic shapes and shards approach – the uniform backdrop to rap and dance music, which wiped most strophic pop from the charts during the late 1980s – may seem like the downfall of musical artistry in the minds of many. But considering how Wire had worked variables of such strategies to more primitive settings back in a time when the rusty Eagles and schmaltzy Bee Gees ruled the airwaves, this final destination of the digital age – so devoid of musicality that it would even appall the Wire of yore – rings with extreme irony: the essence of postmodernism itself.