Thursday, February 24, 2005

I recently recovered a strange artifact of my childhood -- a limited edition reprint of a book called I Know What I Like by music journalist and photographer Armando Gallo. The book chronicles the history of the progressive rock band Genesis through the late 1970s, documenting the band's unusual theatrics, costumes, and on-stage storytelling, much of which was spearheaded by lead singer Peter Gabriel. A friend in high school had a copy of the book that we pored over in 1981 or so. None of us had ever seen anything like it. The band's mythological/mystical reference frame and carefully constructed art rock ambiance had no parallel. During early concerts, Gabriel changed costumes for each song, transforming himself from a fox to an alien to a flower to a dissipated old man, acting out the stories conveyed by the music and lyrics. Sadly, by the mid to late-1980s, the remaining members of Genesis had devolved into bubblegum pop sellouts and any trace of the grandeur of their initial efforts was totally gone. Prog rock had turned into a bloated carcass, puffed up on its own decomposition gases and ready to pop (with a protracted sighing, not a bang). But I think its dying juices were feeding the hardy weeds of punk rock.

Punk rock and its offshoots (especially goth) were the first to pick up the discarded aesthetic mantle of their experimental music predecessors, specifically the incorporation of an integral visual lexicon, fashion and mythos into their comparatively stripped down music. Where I watched prog rock devolve with disgust, I was delighted by the evolution of punk rock. Bands like The Damned, who started out as untrained musicians with nothing but attitude and a fire in the belly, gradually undertook more sophisticated efforts with each release, eventually recasting early psych rock tunes like "Alone Again Or" by Love and building into a baroque climax with richly textured LPs such as "Phantasmagoria." Sonic Youth and early Mercury Rev found their own aural nirvana in carefully crafted storms of noise and feedback. The "less is more" set exemplified by everybody from the Buzzcocks to Bad Religion kept it clean and simple, but honed their craft like a Stickley chair maker.

In a strange sort of mirror image, paging through I Know What I Like, I was struck by how much the pictures of Peter Gabriel's "ageless egyptian prince" costume and makeup would have been perfectly at home with Bauhaus or the Sisters of Mercy, and how his character Rael, from the double concept album "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" had such a distinct NYC punk look - a sort of latin-tinged Lou Reed.

But what's next? MTV's generic version of alternative music is eating its own entrails, endlessly recycling gothic and industrial fashion modes, trying to build concept records/rock operas (such as Green Day's "American Idiot") within a reference frame that is rapidly losing its relevance and impact, and struggling against a stultifying corporate death grip. The real experimental music is hidden in the weeds again, found only on college radio such as WNYU's New Afternoon Show and by word of mouth. What will be the shape of the next musical genre with a unique and original multi-media ambiance? Until we find out, it's fun to revisit the Old Masters through a book, even if you probably couldn't pay me to listen to an early Genesis record again. If you're interested, you can purchase a copy of I Know What I Like by e-mailing Armando at