THE TOP OF POP (CONFERENCE THAT IS)

As a music scholar/writer, I attend a fair amount of conferences, many of which include interesting and provocative talks and papers on all things musical/cultural but hands-down, my favorite annual event is the Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. I just got back this weekend from it and even after eight years, it’s still a constant inspiration and source of much intellectual fodder.

It’s also a really, really good place to learn about music I haven’t heard before and in past years, I have the Pop Conference to thank for introducing me to songs like the Soul Majestics’ majestically soulful “I Done Told You Baby” which I heard during a Joshua Alston paper in 2007 and last year, it was Jeffrey Govan’s paper on the Skatalites that put me up on Tommy McCook’s “Sauvitt” (a 7″ I still need even a year after the fact).

This year’s conference “playlist” is even longer. Here’s the highlights:

1) Laura Nyro feat. LaBelle: Gonna Take a Miracle
From Gonna Take a Miracle (Warner Bros, 1971)

Nona Hendryx was the opening night keynote, interviewed by two dear friends of mine, Daphne Brooks and Sonnet Retman. Hendryx has had an incredible career in pop music, spanning back to the 1960s when she was a member of Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles, to their 1970s incarnation as Labelle and then onto a solo career since the late ’70s that has included collaborations with the Talking Heads, Dusty Springfield and Peter Gabriel. It was tough trying to pick one song from her massive discography to highlight but I really loved her story about working Laura Nyro on the Gonna Take a Miracle album for two reasons. First of all, I have been playing the hell out of this song lately (more specifically, Alton Ellis’ version) and second, Nona made a poignant comment about how, back then, a collaboration between Labelle and Nyro – unlikely as it may have seemed to folks -could be as easy as saying to one another, “hey, I like your music, you want to do something with me?” No managers, agents or attorneys to fuss about – artists could simply agree to work together (at least, this is the halcyon world that Hendryx painted).

Read Mark Anthony Neal’s excellent 2002 breakdown of this album.

2) Richard Berry and the Pharaohs: Louie Louie
From 7″ (Flip, 1957). Also on Have Louie Will Travel

Rutgers’ Christopher Doll gave a fascinating paper that uses musicology to argue that there’s such a thing as a “sexual chord progression.” If I’m not mistaken (and I didn’t take very good notes here), I think he’s talking about the E-A-D progression that you can hear in everything from Neil Diamond’s “Cherry Cherry” to “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” by the Rolling Stones to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. Given that I’m not musicologically trained I could be totally misrepresenting all of this so just take it with a grain of salt. In any case, his argument is not that the progression itself has some inherent sexual quality; rather it’s that it’s come to be associated with the idea of sexual frustration as evinced by its use in many different songs that have similar topical themes, perhaps most famously the Stones.

Doll (if I recall correctly) traces the crossover moment of this chord progression from blues to pop/rock in the form of “Louie Louie,” that ubiquitous party song most often associated with the Kingsmen but originating with songwriter Richard Berry and recorded by him with the Pharaohs. I had never heard Berry’s original and I totally dig it, especially in how one of the Pharaohs uses his baritone voice to mimic the bassline.[1]

3) Onra: I Wanna Go Back
From Chinoiseries (Favorite, 2008)

Van Truong gave an intriguing paper about the role of “migrant sad songs” in linking diasporic subjects with concepts of home, history and memory. She was primarily speaking about her own father and how his love for Vietnamese folk songs of the 1960s is one of the few ways through which he’ll speak of the past. As an end example, Truong offered up a few songs from Onra, a Vietnamese French producer (with a notably Dilla-esque sound) who traveled to Vietnam and returned home with both Vietnamese and Chinese records and use that as raw material for last year’s Chinoiseries CD. It’s not as aggressively stylized as, say, Flying Lotus, but Onra has a nice sense for mood and texture, especially on the soulful “I Wanna Go Back” (plus, peep that industrial vinyl grime creating static!)

4) Lonnie Mack: Why
From The Wham of that Memphis Man (Ace, 2006)

Greil Marcus plumbed the depths of Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency” by focusing on the imagined songs left out of that exhibit[2] and his #1 choice was Lonnie Mack’s “Why,” a surprisingly underrated deep soul ballad from the veteran Memphis blues man. The conventional wisdom around why Mack’s vocal contributions have gone less appreciated is that his Whiteness made him a difficult person to market to the R&B audience of the 1960s and “Why” actually languished for over five years after being initially recorded until the Fraternity label finally decided to put it out.

Not having seen Goldin’s exhibit, I can’t say if this song does or does not belong within it but I can certainly understand the appeal of a song whose desperation resonates in crack in Mack’s voice when he screams “whhhyyyyyyy” on the three choruses, especially the final one where, if I recall properly, Marcus suggests Mack “lets the flood gates open” and you can hear the raw emotion pour fourth with terrifying power.

5) Rhythm Controll/Chuck Roberts: My House
From 12″ (Catch-a-Beat, 1987)

Some of you might remember Seattle’s Michaelangelo Matos from the “Apache” post he graciously reposted for Soul Sides in 2005. That was originally an EMP paper and this year, Matos tackled the returning use of the “dance music’s national anthem“, i.e. the “My House” acapella (by Chuck Roberts and Rhythm Controll) from a then, small house 12″ released in 1987. Apart from his history of the acapella and its continued use throughout dance music, Matos also argues that it is damn near impossible to “train wreck” this in a mix, in other words – you can throw this acapella over practically ANY instrumental and it will still sound good. He even played a few examples to prove his point.

This perked my curiosity enough to try it at home and you know what? He is completely correct. This acapella can “work” with many beats you might try to throw under it. Seriously, try it (play the acapella in a web browser and then load up another song on your computer’s mp3 program (iTunes for example) and see how they synch up). Quite impressive!

Update: Matos has made his talk available, complete with video examples.

6) Janis Joplin: Maybe
From I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (Columbia, 1969)

I have to confess, being a relatively rock-ignorant kind of guy, I’ve never gotten very deep into Joplin’s catalog except to know that she certainly had a thing for covering R&B songs. Maybe it’s for facile political reasons, but I suppose I’ve always leaned more towards listening to her source material than Joplin herself but Lauren Onkey’s paper on Joplin made me reconsider my prejudices and I was especially struck at her example of Joplin performing “Maybe,” a song originally recorded by R&B girl group, The Chantels. Onkey (whose paper on Black British musicians in Liverpool preceding the British invasion was one of my favorites of 2008’s conference) isn’t trying to rescue/recuperate Joplin; rather, she’s coming from the other direction, arguing that most analyses of Joplin have tended to elide how heavily her performance and musical tastes were taken from Black R&B artists, such as Otis Redding, and especially female artists such as the Chantels, Erma Franklin, and many in Jerry Ragavoy’s R&B stable. Joplin’s performance of “Maybe” is good vocally – she definitely reforms the song in her style and image – but you should also see how she did it live:

There’s just something a little forced and awkward about her movements here, with her violent jerks when she wants to emphasize the rhythm peaks in the song.

7) Asha Puthli: I Dig Love
From Asha Puthli (CBS UK, 1973)

To me, the hands-down highlight of the conference was watching Asha Puthli bring down the house (repeatedly) during a lunchtime talk she gave to Jason King. I wrote about Puthli before, way back when, and I’ve been derelict in not following up sooner given how interesting and eclectic a career she’s had. (I’m working on catching back up, very soon).

I decided to pull one of her cuts out of the archives, “I Dig Love,” a cover of the George Harrison song but probably flipped in ways that Harrison likely wouldn’t have imagined. During the lunch talk, Puthli explained that the bubbling noise was her gurgling champagne. Awesomely flossy.

Surprisingly, Asha’s LPs have never had a US release before (they’re now available digitally however, which is good). Hopefully, that will be a situation that rectifies itself soon.

8) Before Carl Wilson was introduced for his paper this year, a joke was made about how he’s so big, even James Franco is showing him love. The truth is though, Wilson’s book on taste and criticism (ostensibly based around writing about Celine Dion) is quite extraordinary. I just started it recently and it’s exceptional, heady thinking about how we form our opinions, especially via music. Perhaps it’s apropos from an author on a book about Celine Dion to do a paper on Auto-Tune and in the course of describing the history of Auto-tune as a form of technology-assisted voice manipulation, Wilson played this incredible (though also quite creepy) 1939 performance by Alvino Rey performing “St. Louis Blues.”

For a less disturbing variation using a similar talk box technology as Rey, there’s also Pete Drake’s “Forever” from the early ’60s which is a haunting composition all its own (even without a steel guitar puppet).

[1] Without trying to confuse the hell out of people here – the intro to “Louie Louie” uses a very common and familiar chord progression of its own, especially within Latin music: a I, IV, V. However, this is NOT the progression that Doll is associating in his argument; he’s referring to the more subtle chord progression on the bassline AFTER the intro that you hear on the Kingsmen version of the song. At least, I think that’s what he was referring to.

[2] Marcus was specifically talking about the slideshow + soundtrack version of “The Ballad,” and not the photo book, which he considered less powerful in the absence of the music that accompanied the slideshow.

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