Friday, June 30, 2017

Hippies vs. Punks: Hugh Masekela's The Promise of a Future (1968)

To review: It was four or five years ago I saw some video of the Old Grey Whistle Test television program. The show ran from the early 1970s until the late 1980s.

The transition from the bands of the Hippie era to the arrival of the Punks was jarring. The music went from being good to sounding horrible. The situation did not improve with the advent of Post-Punk and New Wave.

Around the same time that I watched the old Whistle Test episodes, I saw the Martin Scorsese documentary on George Harrison. I was struck by the large crowds for the disastrous Dark Horse tour November-December 1974. An army of Krishna Consciousness fans cheering for a boozed and coked-up Harrison.

The question that I was confronted with is -- How do we go from Krishna Consciousness to The Damned and Sex Pistols in a few short years? How does that happen?

I don't think it is merely a coincidence (or, as an old girlfriend gratingly used to say, "a co-inky-dink") that the same time period -- the middle-to-late 1970s -- is synonymous with rise of neoliberalism. Union density has peaked; financialization of Wall Street has begun; Thatcher, Reagan and TINA ("There Is No Alternative" to capitalism) are about to launch the inequality rocketship.

Originally, I had intended for these posts to stay focused on just the transitional years, 1974-1979. Then I realized that it was necessary, in order to understand who the Hippie was, to go back to the 1960s.

To provide an exploratory framework I decided at first to focus on some key festivals. For the Hippie era, the two that I spent the most time on and am still working through are 1) San Jose's Aquarian Family Festival of May 1969, and 2) Cincinnati Summer Pop Festival of June 1970. I concentrated on bands from the undercard like The Chocolate Watchband, Joy of Cooking, Damnation of Adam's Blessing, Bloodrock, et al. I did the same thing for the Punks, examining the 100 Club Punk Festival of September 1976 and the night Punk died, the January 14, 1978 Sex Pistols show at Bill Graham's Winterland.

The mother and father of all multi-day rock'n'roll festivals during the Age of Aquarius are Monterey Pop and Woodstock. Separated by two years, two months and the expanse of the continental United States, these concerts are weightier than all others because of the feature films associated with them: D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop (1968)  and Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock (1970).

The movies were released only one-year-and-three-months apart; most of the artists who performed at Monterey Pop perform at Woodstock.

It's been a while since I've seen either, but if you were to view them one after the other I think you would agree that the norm had become distinctly freakier by August 1969.

Which brings up an interesting issue about the incubation period of social movements. The summer of 1967 is known as the "Summer of Love." (Otis Redding asked from the stage at Monterey Pop, "This is the Love Crowd, right?") But Monterey Pop didn't make its big splash on movie screens nationwide until after Christmas 1968, by which time, for instance, Janis Joplin, one of the big stars of the film, had already dumped her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the country had somersaulted from Eros to Thanatos with the assassinations of MLK and RFK and the police riot at the Chicago Democratic National Convention.

But thanks to the relative slowness of  media in the 1960s (communication was much more localized than it is today), the massification of bohemia was able to cohere in wave after wave, year upon year, building an organic mass base that necessitated an equally massive counterrevolution.

It is the rancid carapace of that counterrevolution that rules the globe today. It should have been cracked and discarded decades ago, really at the end of the 1980s (that's what Grunge was about), and certainly by Y2K. By the time we get to Obama 2008, that was the popular electoral mandate for scrapping the counterrevolutionary neoliberal paradigm.

You'll notice though that at each turn of wheel the counterrevolutionaries have manged to maintain control. They have done so by resorting to increasingly intense system shocks, principally war (it's no coincidence that there are more displaced people than at any time since World War Two), and invasive information technology.

What I'm saying is that the Hippies couldn't happen today because technology wouldn't allow it. Technology is too instantaneous and people are too plugged in for any social movement not to be immediately co-opted.

Richard Hell said something to the effect that "Blank Generation," his Punk manifesto, was written about the collapse of the 1960s and the Vietnam War simultaneous with the explosion in media, leaving him feeling overwhelmed, numbed, blunted.

It has become much, much worse. Worse than we imagined possible. I'd say it's worse than Orwell or Huxley. I think Cormac McCarthy gets the vibe right, but our actual dystopia is noisier, a screeching tiny ever-present squall.

This month is the fiftieth anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival. (For a good, brief Monterey Pop retrospective, as framed by the experience of Sacramento-native and future power hitter for the Los Angeles Dodgers 18-year-old Dusty Baker, read Kevin Greene's "The Greatest Music Festival in History." It captures the wide-open Hippie Weltanschauung.)

Whenever I see the Pennebaker film I'm always struck by the appearance of South Arican trumpeter Hugh Masekela and his band (see second YouTube video above). That appearance seems so ahead of its time -- 15 years before WOMAD, and 25 years before Wo' Pop is broadly accepted in the United States.

So this past weekend I decided to get a copy of The Promise of a Future (1968). Masekela performed songs from the album at Monterey Pop, including his Billboard 100 #1 "Grazing in the Grass" (see YouTube at top of the post)

Ask yourself, "When was the last time an instrumental was #1?" It is a good question -- "Harlem Shake" in 2013, a testament to the power of the internet and YouTube. Before that you would have to travel all the way back to the mid-'80s and Jan Hammer's "Miami Vice Theme."

The 1970s were the golden age of the instrumental #1, thanks to the popularity of Disco (makes me think more kindly of the genre). Then, before Edgar Winter Group's "Frankenstein" and Henry Mancini's "Love Theme to Romeo and Juliet" (which is basically Muzak), comes Masekela's "Grazing in the Grass" for two weeks in the summer of '68.

"Grazing in the Grass" reminds me of a Ramsey Lewis tune. My favorite from The Promise of a Future is the lead track, a two-minute rendition of the Ashford & Simpson classic, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

The last three songs on the album are all Masekela originals. "Vuca" follows "Grazing in the Grass":

Listening to The Promise of a Future it is impossible not to feel wistful about the loss of the dreams of 1960s. The culture was much stronger. Egalitarian collective action seemed possible.

What happens to all the futures that never arrive?

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