Grunge's Long Shadow
In praise of "in-between" periods in pop history.
Post-psychedelic. The reigning view of psychedelia, at least in America, is as a slightly embarrassing fad that was served notice early in 1968, when Bob Dylan released the recorded-in-two-days simplicity of John Wesley Harding. Dylan acolytes swiftly followed suit, from the Band, with their equally steeped in rootsy Americana Music From Big Pink, to the Byrds with their country-rock album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The sharp critical view to take on Sgt. Pepper's has long been that it's a pretentious mess compared with its predecessor Revolver; sharper still is the claim that Rubber Soul is better than the already-getting-quite-psychedelic Revolver. The stance is strengthened by the Beatles' own rapid retreat circa 1968 from studio-as-instrument frippery with the Chuck Berry-styled "Back in the USSR," the 12-bar bluesy "Revolution," and the gritty "Get Back." Likewise, the Rolling Stones followed Their Satanic Majesties Request, their debacle attempt to match Sgt. Pepper's, with the stripped-bare virility of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Street Fighting Man," while the Doors recovered their mojos with the hard, bluesy Morrison Hotel. In the final year of the decade that had once hurtled full-tilt into the future and out into the cosmos, Creedence Clearwater Revival's faux-Southern rock 'n' roll dominated American airwaves, while the United Kingdom was overrun with blues bores.
But just as disco never died in a lot of hearts, there were plenty of people active at the end of the '60s and into the early '70s who kept faith with the visions of 1967. They kept on making music that, while not always blatantly trippy, nonetheless took its bearing from landmark psychedelic records like Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and A Saucerful of Secrets, the Incredible String Band's The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Traffic's Dear Mr. Fantasy, Donovan's A Gift From a Flower to a Garden, Soft Machine's self-titled debut. I'm not just talking about the obviously out-there kosmische rock and space rock of the era (Tangerine Dream, Can, Faust, Hawkwind, Gong) but some of the maverick singer-songwriters of the early '70s: the late John Martyn with his rippling after-trails of echoplex guitar, Robert Wyatt's astral scat song and tape-as-canvas daubing, Tim Buckley's zero-gravity vocal acrobatics on Starsailor. Ex-Soft Machine singer Kevin Ayers' solo career flitted between Donovan-like ditties full of quaint English charm to transcendental tapestries of guitar-flicker such as his Nico-paean "Decadence." Even certain artists we normally file under "glam" were indelibly marked by psychedelia: Roxy Music's personnel included Brian Eno, a Syd Barrett admirer and believer in using the recording studio to create sonic phantasms, and the obviously Hendrix-damaged Phil Manzanera.
Like the after-disco and after-punk phases, this is a rich, diffuse era that suffers for the lack of a name. It's not exactly "progressive," although at various points it overlaps the terrain we generally think of as "prog rock," while at its other boundaries it intersects with "folk" and "singer-songwriter." What unifies it more than style or sound is a shared infrastructure (the artists were mostly clustered around certain key labels—Harvest, Island, Charisma, Virgin, UA, Elektra), along with a common set of preoccupations, values, and approaches: the classic 1967-style fascination for the bucolic and the childlike, a spirit of gentle and genteel experimentalism, a whimsical sense of humor tinged with melancholy. At the time, people often talked of "the underground"—a nebulous concept at best, based around sensibility more than anything, but again speaking to these artists having a common departure point circa 1967. This underground blurred into the mainstream: Most of the groups were on "head"-oriented boutique imprints of major labels (Harvest, for instance, being a sub-label of EMI) or on large independent labels like Island that, while aesthetically autonomous and highly adventurous, relied on major-label distribution. Moreover, some key figures from this quasi-underground—Kevin Ayers' former sideman Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd—would eventually release some of the biggest-selling albums of the era while never totally losing their links to their old comrades.
Post-punk, post-disco, post-psychedelic: Ungainly as they are, these terms seem necessary to me, providing a handle on elusive but fertile regions of music history. Fuzzy at both temporal ends (they slow-fade into indistinctness while never totally going away), they're hard to perceive as distinct eras in their own right. Their richness challenges history's fixation on the "event," the "turning point," the "revolutionary moment." And their diversity challenges the historian: How to locate and convey the "feel" of an era, the communality of consciousness shared by all those belated souls who lived and created under the sign of the "post-"?
P.S. There are some other "post-" genres out there, but to my mind, they describe something quite different from the above. Take post-rock, a term that mysteriously emerged in the early '90s to describe experimental guitar bands that increasingly abandoned guitars altogether. (Oh, OK, it was me who came up with that one.) But post-rock doesn't have the same temporal aspect that post-disco or post-punk have; it's not about the ripples set in motion by a galvanizing "event." Rather, it evokes a sense of "going beyond" the strictures of a genre of music without completely abandoning its legacy of attitudes and assumptions. For similar reasons, the term post-metal seems increasingly useful to describe the vast and variegated swath of genres (the thousand flavors of doom/black/death/grind/drone/sludge/etc., ad infinitum) that emerged from the early '90s onward. Sometimes beat-free and ambient, increasingly the work of home-studio loners rather than performing bands, post-metal of the kind released by labels like Hydra Head often seems to have barely any connection to metal as understood by, say, VH1 Classic doc-makers. The continuity is less sonic but attitudinal: the penchant for morbidity and darkness taken to a sometimes hokey degree; the somber clothing and the long hair; the harrowed, indecipherably growled vocals; the bombastically verbose lyrics/song titles/band names. It's that aesthetic rather than a way of riffing or a palette of guitar sounds that ties post-metal back to Judas Priest and Black Sabbath.
Simon Reynolds is the author of Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past.