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What is Avant-Pop?

Avant-pop does not shy away from the immediacy of the mainstream hit, and insists on hooks at their most puerile and perverse. AP does not feel the need to deform catchiness into a grimace (as an earlier twentieth-century avant-garde would have), but rather re-sequences the Legos of song structure, so that (a) none of the charm of the tune is lost, but (b) this very accessibility leads one to bump into weirder elements welded into the design. Accordingly, AP does not translate into mere complexity (though it can be complex), and its most memorable effects are often the results of blunt simplicity Also: AP need not be confined to music—Raymond Chandler, William S. Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick are totally AP, as are Jean-Pierre Melville, Star Wars, and David Lynch. The gastronomic equivalent of the AP is a whole pack of SweeTarts washed down with an ice-cold Canada Dry seltzer water.

A compressed genealogy: We might say that mid-sixties Dylan is AP, less for the Rimbaudisms and more for the asymmetrical approach to city blues and Memphis rockabilly, and for sticking such an odd voice so high up in the mix. This is also—despite the clichés about electric viola, tribal floor-toms, and the LES junk myth—what makes the Velvets AP: Lou and Nico’s alarming voices. (And so, accordingly, the Velvets are a post-Dylan phenomenon.) Sgt. Pepper is also, of course, full-blown AP, with its plasticine vaudeville big-top trip. Bowie is then, we could say, able to fuse these two strands of the sixties—the streety and the twee—and at the same time inaugurate their sleek, bankable professionalization.

Anyway, here are roughly fifty examples of AP, in alphabetical order by album title so as both to avoid a rating system, and to put the emphasis on the individual record, rather than on an artist’s entire catalogue. Also included in each entry is a representative track (RT), to locate the core of AP-density within each entry. The time-span covered here—1966 to 1994—might seem absurd, considering that Eric Satie, Maurice Ravel, Scott Joplin, George and Ira Gershwin, Woody Guthrie, Brecht/Weill, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Strayhorn, Art Tatum, Carl Stalling, Thelonius Monk, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, and Conlon Nancarrow (not to mention recent mind-blowing interventions by, say, Deerhoof) each forged distinctly cool ways of submitting the popular song to innovative rewiring. This is then, let us say, a post–Summer of Love compendium. Enjoy!

Absolutely Free, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (Verve, 1967): Not too many other L.A. bands were quoting from Le Sacre du printemps. RT: “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It”

At Yankee Stadium, NRBQ (Mercury, 1978): Bar-band with taste, especially when Terry Adams starts getting angular at the Wurlitzer. RT: “Green Lights”

Bee Thousand, Guided By Voices (Matador, 1994): Homemade cut-up prog-pop from the Star-Spangled Elf himself. RT: “Her Psychology Today”

The Big Heat, Stan Ridgeway (IRS, 1981): Fusing noir vibe with the carny persona he perfected in Wall of Voodoo. RT: “Drive, She Said”

Born Again, Randy Newman (Warner Bros., 1977): His weirdest and coolest. RT: “Mr. Sheep”

A Can of Bees, the Soft Boys (Ryko, 1979): Before Robyn Hitchcock became an Egyptian, he was making this swirling, spidery prog-wave. RT: “Leppo and the Jooves”

The Cars, the Cars (Elektra, 1978): Now-classic sound was an experiment in putting early Roxy Music through Roy Thomas Baker’s stack-o-vocals. RT: “Bye Bye Love”

Chairs Missing, Wire (Harvest, 1978): After the brutal Pink Flag came this dark, theatrical set. RT: “Outdoor Miner”

Close to the Edge, Yes (Atlantic, 1972): The boys’ club of prog set loose upon a chromium dragonfly. RT: “Siberian Khatru”

The Dreaming, Kate Bush (EMI, 1982): A total auteur and a new-wave prodigy. RT: “There Goes a Tenner”

Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, Laura Nyro (Columbia, 1968): If most songs have an ABABCABC structure, hers go ABCDEFGHIJKLMN. Bold arrangements, dripping with soul. RT: “Timer”

Fear, John Cale (Island, 1974): His post-Velvets stuff blows Lou’s away. Dignified and majestic. RT: “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend”

Frank Black, Frank Black (4AD, 1993): An early Mac record, treating rock band to gonzo editing. Features late Beefheart alumnus Eric Drew Feldman. RT: “Parry the Wind (High Low)”

Ghost in the Machine, the Police (A&M, 1981): Tight concept-pop in killer tech-noir sleeve. RT: “Omegaman”

The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell (Asylum, 1975): After the transitional Court and Spark, she made this divine thing. Compressed vignettes set to dreamy, elliptical tunes. RT: “Edith and the Kingpin”

I Against I, Bad Brains (SST, 1986): Art-core with strange tunes and wicked chops. RT: “I Against I”

Imperial Bedroom, Elvis Costello and the Attractions (Columbia, 1982): Pretty fucking precocious twenty-six-year old! RT: “Pidgin English”

Jerky Versions of the Dream, Howard Devoto (Virgin, 1983): After co-founding the Buzzcocks and then bagging his amazing second project (Magazine), Devoto made this brittle, delicate record. RT: “Cold Imagination”

John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan (Columbia, 1968): While swinging London was wigging on LSD and baroque fractals, Bob was doing these sparse, biblical parables. RT: “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”

Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band (Bizarre/Straight, 1970): Better than Trout Mask. Hear Zoot Horn Rollo’s guitar parts doubled in Art Tripp’s mallets. RT: “I Love You, You Big Dummy”

Kimono My House, Sparks (Island, 1974): Glam camp cut to new-wave specs. But there was no new wave when this came out! RT: “Amateur Hour”

Lodger, David Bowie (RCA, 1979): The wildest of the Eno trilogy, and maybe Bowie’s most fascinating record. RT: “African Night Flight”

The Madcap Laughs, Syd Barrett (Capitol, 1970): Still (barely) holding it together on these floaty, quasi-vaudville tunes. RT: “Octopus”

More Songs about Buildings and Food, Talking Heads (Sire, 1978): Another of Eno’s winning interventions and the Heads at their wiry peak. RT: “Warning Sign”

A Night at the Opera, Queen (Elektra, 1975): The multiple stereophonic Freddies on “Bohemian Rhapsody” are alone worth it. RT: “Bohemian Rhapsody”

The Nightfly, Donald Fagen (Warner Bros., 1982): Near-future cerebra-pop; production fastidious to the point of mania. RT: “New Frontier”

Odessey and Oracle, the Zombies (Date, 1968): Colin Blunstone’s inimitable tenor floats through gardens of psych. RT: “Brief Candles”

Out of the Blue, ELO (Jet, 1977): The Beatles on roller skates in a space ship. RT: “Mr. Blue Sky”

Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys (Capitol, 1966): Brian orchestrates. RT: “Let’s Go Away for Awhile”

Plastic Ono Band, John Lennon (Capitol, 1970): Sturdy roster set in Spector-in-reverse sound. RT: “I Found Out”

Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, Devo (Warner Brothers, 1978): Came up with a whole new language. RT: “Uncontrollable Urge”

Ram, Paul McCartney (Capitol, 1971): Flawless DIY pop experiment. RT: “Ram On”

Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees (RSO, 1977): Came up with another whole new language. RT: “Night Fever”

Sheet Music, 10cc (EMI, 1974): Gilbert and Sullivan on crack, and this one’s their most cracked. RT: “Somewhere in Hollywood”

Sign ‘O’ the Times, Prince (Warner Brothers, 1987): To be included with other double sets that actually cohere (the White Album, The Basement Tapes, Something/Anything). Proves there is no limit to what he can do. RT: “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker”

Song Cycle, Van Dyke Parks (Warner Brothers, 1968): An American treasure. Warner Brothers’ all-time lowest-selling record. RT: “The All Golden”

Songs in the Key of Life, Stevie Wonder (Motown, 1976): Heavy moog jams plus transcendental Clavinet and heavenly feel. RT: “Sir Duke”

Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy), Brian Eno (EG, 1974): Loosely conceptualized song-cycle about the global opium trade. RT: “Third Uncle”

There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Sly and the Family Stone (Epic, 1971): Frigid yet weirdly intimate. RT: “Runnin’ Away”

These Foolish Things, Bryan Ferry (Virgin, 1973): Yeah, I know, they’re not his songs. But as exercises in rendition, they’re pure AP. RT: “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

Tin Drum, Japan (Virgin, 1981): Mannered cubist pop which they were able flawlessly to reproduce live. RT: “The Art of Parties”

Tusk, Fleetwood Mac (Reprise, 1979): Program the CD so that you get a thirty-minute Lindsey Buckingham solo album. RT: “Not That Funny”

25 O’Clock/Psonic Psunspot, the Dukes of Stratosphear (Virgin, 1987): Spot-on mock-ups of sixties-isms by XTC’s alter-ego, with John Leckie at the board. RT: “The Mole from the Ministry”

A Wizard, a True Star, Todd Rundgren (Bearsville, 1973): The whole of side one was recorded in a single mescaline trip, and Todd played everything. RT: “Zen Archer”


Paul Grimstad

Paul Grimstad's songs and original scores are featured most recently in the films, Happy Christmas (2014), The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (2014), and Stinking Heaven


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2007

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