Sunday, February 17, 2008

"Machine Gun"

There's a long and in most cases honourable tradition in popular music of artists exercising their rights as human beings to comment on the world around them and, where appropriate, to protest at what they perceive to be wrong.
Every so often someone writes a learned article on the dearth of protest songs today, and casts back nostalgically to the 1960s for examples of a time when popular music wholeheartedly embraced its role in contemporary society and threw up a legion of committed, intelligent songwriters.
Since that period we've not exactly been over-endowed with protest writers, and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" andd Peter Gabriel's "Biko" stand out a mile among fairly innocuous tunes like "Sun City" and "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
What's even more interesting is that musicians - real, honest-to-God players of instruments - don't seem to have bestowed protest songs with their very best work. I mean, while we can all agree with the sentiments expressed, most of these tunes are not what you'd call classic.
Take "Do They Know It's Christmas?" We remember it for what, exactly? Mostly the images associated with the song, and the fact that the song itself, and the Live Aid concert, were major events. Midge Ure's melody is fairly pedestrian and the lyrics...well, don't get me started.
As I said, there are songs and artists out there which "did the job" far, far better than anything we've seen in the last 30 years: Country Joe McDonald's "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixing-to-Die Rag", Edwin Starr's "War", Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son", Arlo Guthrie's hysterically funny "Alice's Restaurant Massacree", and Neil Young's savage "Ohio" are just a few.
But this one stands head, shoulders and body above the rest. Not because it's lyrically very clever or says something new, but because this song, more than any one other song, represents the revolution that Jimi Hendrix wrought on the electric guitar as an instrument. If all you ever wanted to hear was how a musical instrument and the sounds it makes can call up the images of something, then this is your song.
Here, Hendrix hoists the guitar out of the rhythm-and-blues trenches and lets rip, almost literally. He drags feedback, white noise and soaring, screeching horror from a simple piece of wood and wire and lets them play about our heads.
The song bleeds as if its life was seeping out through hastily-applied bandages, breaking out into occasional screams of pain. The chaos of hurt, the trembling unstoppable trainwreck of war is brought to life through ten fingers, some wires and transistors and one unholy battle of a song.
I'm sure I've bored on this topic before, but nobody, NOBODY had ever made music like this, or has since. Nobody has been able to lasso the unpredictable whiplash of feedback or white noise and make it do their will like Hendrix did. And to tame it, organise it into such a hard, powerful statement like this.....
Billy Cox and Buddy Miles provide a steady background of bass and wailing harmonies, while Hendrix's vision of hell shape-shifts and crawls around your head like a particularly vivid nightmare. Towards the end, Billy and Buddy harmonize behind Hendrix's singing, uttering a ghostly, other-worldly howl that matches the mood to perfection.
The lyrics aren't anything special, but they don't need to be. The music's doing all the talking here, and it's saying a ton.
Check out the film of this performance below. Hendrix built his early reputation as a showman, a show-off, playing the guitar with his teeth or behind his head but here, it's all about the music, the sounds. He stands still for much of the song, moving only to adjust the effects pedals or crank up the speakers. It's as if he doesn't want to be noticed, but prefers to let the music have its say.
THAT'S a protest song, dammit.


Uncle E said...

Great site, man. Just came across it via Holly's.
Make's my little site seem kinda goofy...

Music Web Navigator said...

All about Jimi Hendrix