The Rolling Stones meant nothing to me for so very long. As mentioned before here and no doubt again in the future the Year Zero schtick of Punk really struck me. It is both to blame and to thank for so much.
My friend Anne was the first to move me to The Stones, nudging me via a track or two on some mix tapes when the ‘80s became the ‘90s. Years later it was William and his obsessions that led me to investigate more fully and I am so glad I did, for many of those Stones records from the 1960s are impressive indeed. I admit too that I loved the stories of the early Stones meeting on railways in Sidcup like something straight out of a Shena Mackay short story, or Patrice Chaplin’s ‘Albany Park’. Facts, fictions, new realities.
The Rolling Stones of the 1970s resisted me for slightly longer and there is still something in their Rock excesses of the time that turns my stomach. Simultaneously something in it too appeals, however, and that is I think to do with the appeal of the unattainable. Or the way in which those early ‘70s Stones records both reflected and informed the way in which Pop culture was seeping into a UK class system that was dissolving, creating a strange new aristocracy of dissolution. Artists from the mid to late ‘60s might have defined the Baroque Pop sound, but it was surely the likes of The Stones in the early 1970s that cemented the Baroque as a stylistic element, fusing it with a sprawling suburban blues that took the rags of psychedelia to ever seedier, blighted landscapes before eventually fizzling out into the void where Celebrity supplanted content. The cover shot in many ways reflects this: Jagger slipping into a future of excess, shrouded in a fog of smoke and everything indelibly stained a nicotine yellow. So very early 1970s.
‘Goats Head Soup’ is largely thought to be the last great Stones’ LP and there may be some truth in that. Personally I think it is only a good Stones album, but that is better than many other groups could manage, and anyway, shouldn't The Stones be better remembered as a brilliant singles band? Sometimes I think that the only Stones album anyone really needs is 'The Singles Collection'. ‘Angie’ is not on that collection, but is certainly in my digital playlist of Stones singles and as much as anything ‘Angie’ reminds us that The Stones could do ballads every bit as finely as they could do explosive and expansive. Has Wes Anderson used ‘Angie’ in the soundtrack to any of his movies? If not, he must be saving it for something special.
A significant part of the appeal of The Rolling Stones was always a visual one. Have you seen Gerald Markowitz’ photos of ‘The Stones ’65-’67’? Or Brent Rej’s collection of shots ‘In The Beginning’? Stunning. There are multiple reference to The Stones in other artworks and artists too. Most obviously perhaps with photographer Robert Frank and his ‘Cocksucker Blues’ film of 1972, but also there is Richard Hamilton’s ‘Swingeing London’ of course, plus Peter Doig’s ‘Buffalo Station’, Johannes Kahrs’ ‘La Revolution Permanente’ and Franz Gertsch’s ‘Luciano’s House’ to name but a few.
The only time I saw Franz Gertsch’s painting 'At Luciano’s House’ was as part of the ‘Painting of Modern Life' exhibition at The Hayward gallery in London back in 2007 and I admit it very much took me by surprise for figurative painting is not normally my thing. Now I do not know very much about Franz Gertsch beyond what we can all discover on the Internet and I have not seen any of his paintings in the flesh other than this one, but In truth I am not sure I need to, for what has always appealed about this image are the cultural references rather than the quality of the painting itself. The whole notion of hyper-realist painting has never meant anything to me. This image might as well be a photograph (though it would need to be a large print, as the almost life-size scale of the paining is certainly important). Such painterly skill impresses only fifteen year olds after all and is the painterly equivalent of a virtuoso guitar solo. And yet… there is a grubbiness about 'Luciano’s House' that subverts that virtuosity; the hyper-real is hyper-soiled rather than shiny. Everything is faux-bourgeois, is cheap mass produced Pop culture putting on airs and graces that it doesn’t ultimately believe in. Dressing up for a future it knows already is doomed to be an ultimately miserable tragi-comedy of diminishing returns. 'Luciano’s House' knows that the present moment is ultimately all that matters, and in this moment we see Glam androgyny in all its cheap, grubby, theatrical splendour. Nothing to do with nostalgia and everything to do with knowing artifice, surface, illusion and bohemian escapism.
Rules are there to be broken however, and so the first sculpture to appear in this series of stories is by Donald Judd. Fittingly, I think, Judd’s sculptures are so deceptively simple that at times they feel more like paintings or photographs, although Judd himself would have been at pains to point out that it was none of these things. Indeed Judd himself would have said this Untitled piece from 1971 was ‘simply’ “three dimensional work”, which is ironic because although the space element (the third dimension) of the work is important, to me at least it serves only as an additional pleasure. It’s a delightful freebie thrown in with the deal. This inevitably says more about me that it does about the work.
So what are the more essential elements of this piece? For me it is largely the seductive, immersive delight of colour and light. Moving towards, away and around the work you cannot help but be drawn by the glowing red interior. Even when one is stood still the colour appears to pulsate gently with an energy that is mesmerising. It’s almost as though the heart of the universe is floating gently inside this spectral copper box. It is the opposite of Kubrick’s monolith. The Who would never dare to piss against it.
Admittedly, it is less effective up close. Peer inside and, like peering behind the curtain in Oz, the secret is out: It is just a red painted base and shiny copper walls. Perhaps the universe really is this simple. Yet as you walk away the magic appears to reignite, leaving you forever doubting yourself and your eyes. Science can probably explain it all, but it will never really be enough. A need for a spiritual answer will always sneak back like an itch you can’t reach.
Getting back to the subject of space though, I do like what Judd said about space being “made, not found or packaged”. That certainly resonates with me and makes sense of the fact that I am immeasurably more drawn to designed forms such as buildings and engineering structures than to what one might call ‘traditional sculpture’. Judd’s work certainly carries a flavour of an engineered work in the choice of materials, construction and scale, yet it categorically denies the received values of ‘function’ that go hand-in-hand with engineering. The function of these pieces is altogether more other-worldly than the banal questions of solving technical problems or making our lives ‘easier’. If anything it makes them harder by confronting us with much more difficult questions: What is red? What is blue? How do these objects make me feel? What do I mean by ‘beautiful’?
I think the photographer William Eggleston asked the question “what is red?” with one of his most famous images. You probably know the picture best from the cover of Big Star’s ‘Radio City’ set, and certainly it was Big Star who introduced me to Eggleston. For that alone I would be eternally grateful, yet their records continue to thrill me every bit as much as do Bill’s pictures.
As with the Velvet Underground it may appear strange to younger generations that it was once difficult to hear records by Big Star. With feature length documentaries now available to watch it may seem strange to know that Big Star were once very much an all but forgotten secret.
I suspect that for many of my own generation the initial contact with Big Star was via This Mortal Coil and the covers of ‘Kangaroo’ and ‘Holocaust’ on the ‘It’ll End In Tears’ collection. I know some people were sniffy about This Mortal Coil but in truth I treasured the way in which those records cracked open doors I was not even aware existed. The door marked ‘Alex Chilton’ and ‘Big Star’ was one.
Who else was responsible for alerting us to Big Star? Well, Teenage Fanclub of course in the early ‘90s. You cannot underestimate the value of Norman Blake going on about them whenever he had a chance. David Belcher in the Glasgow Herald was a fan too, as I recall. T-shirts. Names dropped. You joined the dots and made your own pictures. Your pictures were sometimes more exciting than the reality which, when you uncovered it, was occasionally a disappointment. But Big Star? Nothing you imagined could even get near to the astonishing, overwhelming delight of hearing them that first time.
We still get that thrill from a myriad of different things, and if there is one regret about writing this series it is in the sense of always looking back. The past is passed, yes, but it still contains the endless thrill of the new. And I admit a jealousy for those who have yet to hear this, that, the other for the first time. Imagine you had never heard Big Star. Imagine the shiver on your spine.
There is too much to explore to spend much time constantly revisiting our pasts so I no longer listen to Big Star as often as I once did, but when the glistening shards of guitar that open ‘The Ballad of El Goodo’ creep over the airwaves I do I still get that shiver. It does still sound remarkable.
In so many ways it is the blueprint for much of what I adore in a record. It is assuredly a jumping off point for much of the Power Pop sounds that I’ve adored over the years from Raspberries to Red Rockers, from Dwight Twilley to The Dbs. The blend of rock’n’roll rawness with sugar sweet melody and harmony. A calm, even joyous sense of self-determination; a simultaneously languid (man, you can hear the dripping heat of a Memphis summer) yet resolute and righteous stance of independence. Balanced just so. Just so exquisite.