Rock and the Pop Narcotic
an interview with Joe Carducci
Could Joe Carducci have done it again? In 1991, just months before Nevermind went on to tear up the charts and bring the rock back to our hearts, he first published Rock and the Pop Narcotic. In a fiery 500 odd pages, Carducci rallied against pop, new wave, digital percussion, Springsteen-fellating critics, and REM, while championing rock, Sabbath, Steppenwolf, testicle dragging as a means of creating heavy metal (Ted Nugent’s words, actually), and tight rhythm sections. For those of us who were reading (I was but a four year old boy), the success of Nirvana and the subsequent but brief rock-domination seemed to be the sonic consummation of the urgings in Carducci’s ambitiously livid book. It’s an incredibly impressive piece of work even without such prophecy, full of spot-on insights carved out by a sharp, uniquely conservative tone. Be warned: while the book will rapturously wed your heart back to rock and roll, you’ll need some explanations ready for your less enlightened friends when they start questioning the Grand Funk blasting out of your vehicle.
Last year, Joe had his book re-published. Did he hit the timing perfectly? It seems the hip elite have been deleting the critters off their iPods (Andrew Bird, Animal Collective, Wolf Parade, Deerhoof) to make room for heavy and furious rock. Will the rumblings of a few thousand angry stoners culminate into a force that will prove Joe Carducci right yet again? I surely couldn’t say, but a few months ago I took the opportunity to speak to Joe over the phone in order to further illuminate the depths of his exceptionally mammoth work:
When did you begin formulating the theories in your book? As a kid listening to Master of Reality, were there any nascent concepts about the lines between rock and pop, or did that tend to develop during your tenure at SST?
Well, you get perspective on yourself, eventually. But, I didn’t have older brothers or sisters. They were all younger. So, in grade school somebody would say“Hey, have you heard this?” and that would remind me to start listening to the radio again. In Chicago there were two top 40 stations, and the stuff that stood out was the garage band hits, like“Wooly Bully” and“Little Red Riding Hood"…
And“96 Tears” ...
Right. And the bands that were in school were covering“96 Tears” and“Gloria.” I heard music before the Beatles were on TV because I had an older cousin who stayed with us for a while. She was into the Everly Brothers. But you didn’t start thinking about what constitutes hard rock until, maybe, Davie Allan and the Arrows’ “Blue’s Theme” was a big hit. It was nothing but a fuzz guitar melody, and I made sure to buy that 45. I listened to that a lot. Then you were aware of distortion because there was no vocal on either side of that single. So you were really listening to that guitar voice. I think that was a big single, when you think in those terms. My favorite bands were Steppenwolf and Paul Revere and the Raiders before that.
I actually began picking up some Steppenwolf just because of your book.
Yeah. As they stopped having hits, the music actually got better. Greg Ginn, who started getting into music when he was 19, was heavily into Steppenwolf 7. I never read the John Kay (Steppenwolf’s front man) autobiography; it came out after I finished the book. He shows up in the Neil Young biography, Shakey.
I read that and I wasn’t even aware ...
He’s Canadian, and shows up for a day when Neil Young is staying with him. Kay was teaching him some blues and folk guitar. He was a blues guy and a folkie before he hooked up with the Steppenwolf guys. That was an unusual period because Steppenwolf was a band called Sparrow and I never heard their early stuff. In ’65 they were a kind of Canadian response to the British Invasion. That stuff’s probably pretty pop. I do have a CD of later Sparrow demos, live in the studio. It was a sort of second-go for the band, when John Kay joined them and they didn’t have this guy singing with an English accent. (laughs) They were first called Jack London and Sparrow, and Jack London was probably an imitation of Peter Noone or somebody like that.
What I'm getting at, is that in that period, pop and rock were really mixed up because anyone who was gonna record music had to actually have players in a room playing together, because of the technical limitations. Anything could get to be a convincing rock and roll arrangement. It makes sense to me that Rick Rubin would do something with Neil Diamond, just because all of his hits in the late 60s were very informed by the general rock and roll sort of taking the pop ball and running with it. And the pop people were adapting to it. Otherwise, those people left to their own devices probably would have been a lot worse.
Did you pay much attention to critics before you got involved with SST?
Not really. I bought an issue of Circus once because there was a decent article about King Crimson, and you couldn’t find stuff about any of those kinds of bands very often. Mostly, what little money I had, I would buy singles. I would never buy a magazine. When I'm in high school, ’69 to ’73, you're buying albums - Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, and Black Sabbath. The way things were, you didn’t need to read about those bands. If the press had done its job, you would have known, not about those bands, so much. But bands like High Tide, Hawkwind… much more obscure bands that did get releases in the US, but just didn’t get on FM radio.
That’s why it’s nice to read your book. Otherwise, I would never have heard of these bands.
It’s really two books. I thought, once I made my points, I better retell the history of the music so that it’s demonstrated what I mean by that.
Yeah. Even though some of the underground bands of the 60s and 70s are spoken of today, it ends up being some of the farther-out German ones, whereas Hawkwind and Blue Cheer get left out.
Blue Cheer actually had a top 40 hit with“Summertime Blues,” but it was kind of a fluke. They weren’t even on a big label. But that was the thing. The youth culture, the hippies, and California had this real energy, and the industry was stepping back and saying“try this,” because they didn’t understand it. And that’s how you want the industry. Like Nirvana, or even The Beatles and Elvis, are just these things that fool everyone and become major hits, and that’s where people decide,“Maybe we don’t know what the limits are for this music.” The tragedy of the 80s, or even beginning with the Ramones, is that those bands didn’t even get a shot. In terms of the rock press, it’s almost diabolically counter-productive for Rolling Stone to have chosen in 1978 to move to New York. By the time they settle in, the New York scene is dead. They’ve already run through Television, Patti Smith, and Ramones. They're all out of town touring. The no wave bands have come and gone. So there’s nothing in New York in ’78. And San Francisco is just starting. There’s the Residents, Chrome, The Offs, Crime — that started in ’77 and ’78.
San Francisco probably shouldn’t have been the place Rolling Stone happened. It meant that the San Francisco bands in the 60s have a little more prominence than they deserve. I think The Doors are better than anything that came out of San Francisco, I mean, there was good stuff up there, but it was amplified because Rolling Stone was there. If they had stayed there, they would have had to deal with The Dead Kennedys and Flipper, because those bands were huge in San Francisco and they would have had to do something. And by extension, they would have paid attention to X and Black Flag before they did. That’s what I mean, it was a perfect avoidance. Wait till it’s over in New York and then get out of the West Coast before it happens there.
It wasn’t until ’85 that they really wrote a feature article about anybody, and it was called“Punk Lives,” by Michael Goldberg, writing about Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, The Minutemen, Flipper, and maybe the Replacements. SST dominated, but it wasn’t completely SST.
Speaking of SST, what was your position at the label?
I was at a distributor in Berkeley, called Systematic, and I was buying records from SST, and I knew when they (SST) went on the road they needed help, so I went down there to run the office. We didn’t talk about money at first, although I brought something down as a loan to get the first Minutemen and Saccharine Trust albums out and get things going. In the beginning, that included the mail order and different things. It was really a parody of a record label. It really wasn’t big business. Black Flag itself was a bigger business because they had a huge mailing list from people writing after seeing their ads, or the single, or going on tour and collecting notes. And they did a newsletter every time there was any kind of news, maybe a couple times a year. We did that kind of stuff. When there was Black Flag business to do, that’s what people did. When we put out the first Minutemen record, or the Meat Puppets and Hüsker Dü, we had a fairly large promo list for labels doing that at that time. It grew to be 1,000 by ’85. But, at that point it was a matter of a couple hundred records, and we didn’t really run more than 1,000 records at a time in the beginning.
I understand you took part in choosing bands to be signed, and according to Our Band Could Be Your Life, you rejected Sonic Youth on the grounds that record collectors should not be in bands. What defines a record collector, and how does this cripple their ability to make legit rock?
That was just something I said as a joke. That isn’t really a true story. They got on SST when enough people at SST were interested enough to do it. Henry was into them, and Pettibon was into them before Greg or I was into them. Ray Farrell liked them. I didn’t like their early records. I heard Pettibon playing them, and I said“That’s what they sound like?” I knew there was some kind of buzz on them, but we didn’t listen to demos that people would send in the mail. We had our hands full; we had open offers to Flipper and Bad Brains. A few other bands…Red Kross. Eventually the Bad Brains did stuff with us, but I was gone by then. We really did have our hands full. We had the first Meat Puppets album, which took us a year to have the money to release it, and it took us a year to have the money to mix the St. Vitus album. We weren’t looking for bands until just as I was leaving. Some time, probably in early ’85, I told Greg our cash flow was good and there was no longer a reason not to do something. So I was just telling him if he had a band he wanted to do a record by, we could do it. So it was still a year or so, it was early ’86 when they talked to Sonic Youth about doing it.
And the thing about record collectors is, I knew that Greg Ginn owned no records. Chuck had a bunch of beat-up albums, and they were all stuff he bought when he had no money. So they were stuff bought at the Goodwill or at a used record bin. You know, really bad…maybe not bad, they were good, actually. They were considered basement hard rock from the ’70s. Mostly that kind of stuff.
So do you feel musicianship is more of an intrinsic thing, rather than absorbing what you hear?
Well, I knew musicians like Joe Baiza of Saccharine Trust and Greg Ginn of Black Flag as not having a record collection to speak of. Joe Baiza had about a dozen records. He had a couple Hendrix records, and I don’t even know what else. Probably a Dylan record. Almost nothing. And partly it’s because a musician’s personality is the opposite of anal. A record collector is a different kind of a person. But I was just mouthing off. I didn’t know Thurston Moore…
And not so much in the defense of Sonic Youth, but this is a question several friends and I had, having started a band and having an appetite for music, at least. I don’t know what differentiates the record collector from someone who has a batch of stuff they listen to.
Well, a lot of musicians listen to a lot of stuff, but they just don’t spend their time and money lugging around a record collection. The way we lived, I had these records ... I had very few records until I was in the record business. And then I had a fair amount, and they were in boxes and they were all in SST. They were actually in the storage room, and then we moved SST into the storage room. (laughs) So they had to all be stacked. And, you know, people stole some of my records. It’s the nature of communal living. Luckily, I had mostly stuff they didn’t care about. There are all kinds of people through the place, and there are your records in a box.
A lot of your appreciation for rock seems to stem from a reliable rhythm section. As I was saying before, I’ve found myself enjoying Grand Funk and Bloodrock just because they groove really tight, rather than… some of the Grand Funk vocals can be laughable. But when they just sit down and start doing their breakdowns, it’s pretty compelling. But, one band I'm not so sold on is Dokken. Why should I listen to Dokken rather than REM?
I just bought a used copy of Under Lock and Key. I was just listening to it in the car today. And they recorded at the same studio that we did in Redondo Beach. It’s a lot better than it has a right to be, and it’s hard to explain it because that kind of commercial hard rock was really simplistic rhythmically, and then they also used this frosting on the drum sound, the snare sound is horrible from that 80s period. But Dokken was a great songwriter, and Lynch, the guitar player, was probably the only guy who does those sorts of tricks, which really are musical. I don’t know the technical terms for those kinds of things. And REM was just mushy sounding to me. Bob Mould was the first guy to mention them to me seriously. We made fun of them without ever having heard them. Although, I shouldn’t say that, because the guys in Black Flag probably heard them in the rock clubs, you know, touring around the country, and they would make jokes about them. I didn’t know anything about them except I'd see the print ads in the music magazines. I don’t think they were important at all.
I guess you could argue their importance. I just feel Reckoning actually has something going on rhythmically ...
Well, you just get irked about how easy it is for certain bands. And then people were relating to him, this is not necessarily their fault, but the press was relating to him like he was a deep character. Then you find out, they were hiding the vocals because he was singing nonsense. He’s not a deep character (laughs).
That’s actually why I've enjoyed it, because they have to work in this format where the vocals aren’t so prominent at times. In any case, can the reader assume that Joe Carducci is more likely to be air drumming rather than singing along to his favorite tunes? You know, given your rhythmic obsession?
Than singing along? That’s probably true. (laughs)
Do you air bass?
No. I guess I would tap my pencil more than anything. Only maybe for a moment in'78 did I think about actually getting a guitar.
Did that ever come to fruition?
No, I had an amp, but I never got a guitar. (laughs) In New York, it kind of occurred that music ... it was perceived or people were convinced, suddenly, that it was really the mode or the genre to grab onto. So if they’d gone to New York to be a painter or to be composer or to be a design consultant in ’75, they suddenly just got excited about rock and roll because of what Patti Smith was doing, and what Television was doing, and finally, what The Ramones were doing. And Suicide was another of those early, early things. And so you had very creative, smart people, but not necessarily trained musicians, applying themselves to music, and you got amazing stuff out of that. And that lasted until suddenly it’s not the sharpest knives in the drawer that want to be musicians. They're just people who want to get famous, or have a party, or get drunk. It’s just a different group of people making music. And they don’t take it as seriously. You know, I don’t hate everything Weezer’s done, but they go back to school. They have a platinum album, and then go back to school. And then get back together. They're either not that ambitious, or they're not that committed, or they're not that smart.
I was never a big fan of political stuff in music, per se. But I have to admit that since Elvis until ... Dinosaur Jr, or somebody in the late 80s, there was this general political component to rock and roll. That is was something more than folk music and something more than pop music. And that it was a little dangerous and that it was going somewhere and it was challenging someone. And now you watch Fuse and you see all this emo, punk, and heavy metal and wonder who these people are. They all feel put upon, and they all have a persecution complex, from either girls, or school, or somebody. But it’s not jacked into a larger thing than their social situation. The 60s revolution didn’t really happen and wasn’t a real thing, but still, that fantasy did juice the music for about four decades.
Have you noticed that heavy music is coming back into vogue? Recently, Stylus did some atrocity of a piece called“Into the Void: A Beginner’s Guide to Metal.” Despite how bad it was, it seems that the bands on Southern Lord and its variants are getting more press in the e-zine world. How do you feel about Electric Wizard, Om, Boris, Sunn 0))), and those type of bands?
I have a Boris record. I've read about the others you mentioned. I think there are a couple scenes or genres, and they just have a little bit more staying power. Those bands, if they’re heavy and psychedelic ... that’s two more things than Hawthorne Heights is. And there’s more color, and there’s more of a musically shaped energy. So it doesn’t surprise me that the heavy stuff is branching into abstraction with Sunn 0))) and is still song based when you're talking about The Hidden Hand. Because it’s like a universe of sound, and you can use it in a lot of different ways, and it’s interesting. I was talking to someone today about Arthur magazine. They not only cover the new folk stuff, like Drag City artists, but they put Sunn 0))) on the cover. Wino (ex-Obsessed and St. Vitus) was on the cover of another issue. They cover the heavy stuff because there’s action there. Interesting stuff is going on.
What about Sabbath Bloody Sabbath were you averse to?
When you listen to Black Sabbath records like I did, you really pick them apart. I think the first four records are where they’re really writing great songs, but they're not all equal. The first album is live, in either four track or eight track. It’s a very simple recording. So the tracks on the tape are wide and they're saturated because of what they were doing with their sound. So that’s almost the perfect sounding record, that first Sabbath album. And then they get into 16 track and over-dubbing. The next three records sound great, but they don’t sound perfect. They’re a little cloudy. The guitar sound is not as clear. You can’t quite hear into the distortion. It’s sort of a surface distortion. But they're just writing amazing songs all the way through Vol. 4, and then they add synthesizers for Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and Sabotage after that. They’re just getting a little rattier, and after the fact, you read about them and they tell you about all the cocaine they were doing. Cocaine was the drug of choice in the radio industry in the 80s. The major record label industry, disco, and all these people were fried on cocaine. And that is not a psychedelic drug, you know, it doesn’t ... I've never done these drugs, I wouldn’t recommend it. I think part of the reason radio turned into this sort of ... the radio sensibility for sound became extremely cold and icy. Everything was solid-state, there were no more tubes, and they started using digital compression and limiters on stuff. And I think cocaine was the perfect drug for that kind of freezing-over of the radio sound. And the industry, of course, went right with it, except for us. We'd walk into a studio, and if you didn’t have Spot (SST producer) taking care of business, the house engineer was gonna ruin your record. Because he wanted to show what he could do to make you sound like Journey. They'd freak out if you told them“I don’t want to wear headphones in the room. I just want to play. You record it.” (laughs) That was along time ago. It’s all freakin’ different now.
As far as the drug trip thing, Robert Christgau made a list of things that you hated when he was reviewing your book. He listed“hard drugs” but added“pot clears the mind and coffee is a sacrament,” which I didn’t extract from reading your book at all.
He might have been pulling that from Black Flag. They had a thing about coffee and pot. I guess there are songs where they refer to pot smoking, but it was more like the photos and interviews and stuff. I don’t know. By then, he’s reviewing that, that’s ’91, whatever was going on then. He assumed I smoked pot or I wouldn’t have been into Robin Trower. He was just guessing, it’s a good guess, because ... everyone underestimates what a buzzkill I am. (laughs) I'm interested in psychedelic music, but it’s like the musicians are the professionals, let them do the drugs. I was always looking towards writing, and it didn’t make sense to me that drugs were gonna help me get to where I wanted to get as a writer, so I just never did it.
At the moment, what rock trends do you find most promising?
Probably what you mentioned, the heavy rock scene. It’s not all good, but there’s an awful lot of stuff that’s good in it. The last big band, big, major platinum band that I thought was pretty important was probably Alice in Chains. Partly because they had that psychedelic heavy feel to them. They weren’t that productive, I guess. Their label recycled, repackaged a lot of their stuff, so I don’t have every album. Partly, you don’t need all of them because it’s been repackaged so many times. I just buy that stuff used, pretty much. They were very good. I like these two girls called Mr. Airplane Man. They're from the Boston area, somewhere, although I think they were on Sympathy for the Record Industry. They're not as tightly wound as the White Stripes, more simple garage-style blues. Real good singing, no bass player. Just the two of them. I was listening to them a lot last year. There’s a lot of stuff to like, but ...
Nothing in the way of a movement, really.
Right. There’s nothing like that. Up until the mid 80s, I guess, it seemed like there were so many generically interesting people in music, that even if you'd say that the Effigies were hardcore, or Bad Brains, or Black Flag, or Minor Threat, or the Dicks, or the Minutemen. Those bands were nothing like each other. There came to be a scene where every band was like every other band. It seems today that the musicians… that they even enjoy that. It seems that’s their ambition, to replicate what they've heard on the radio, and if they can reproduce those effects, they just love it. I don’t know how you network your way in there. Of these bands now, I can stand Linkin Park, but there’s just not a whole lot going on.
What are you currently working on?
The Naomi (Petersen) piece, the (late) photographer, I’m turning that into a book. It’s about twice as long as what’s on the website (early draft online), and I still have a couple more people to talk to, so I’m hoping to turn that over to the design guy in a month and a half. And then get it to the printer. That book interrupted my work on the collection, which is stuff I’ve written over the years, so that was basically something I was editing when I found out she had died. I didn’t find out at the time. Mostly what I’ve been trying to do is just to write screenplays. That’s what I moved to LA to do in ’76. (laughs) Still making my way, slowly ...
One of the movies you wrote the screenplay for is out, right?
Yeah, there’s one called Bullet on a Wire, which is on DVD. And that’s a 16mm production. And maybe I’ve got a 35mm production coming in a year or so. That’s basically what I've been working on. I found it difficult to write the rock book. Non-fiction generally is very difficult for me. I have a mind to write fiction, and the only form I've worked on is screenplay. It’s worth it to do a book, because the book stays around and people talk about books. I would never bother writing for a magazine really, although I have all the stuff to collect, so over the years I did do enough magazine writing to have a book title out of it.
I was wondering the way Rock and the Pop Narcotic worked, with the sheer exhaustiveness of it, it doesn’t seem like it was an easy task at all. What was your approach in trying to do something like that?
I guess it was just everything that struck me about everything I knew about music in light of what I’d learned in the business. Of course I wrote the first edition in the late 80s, after I left SST. Even though the majors were starting to sign bands, nobody was getting on the radio or on MTV when I wrote that book. As soon as the book came out, a few months later, Nirvana had their big breakthrough and then suddenly there was a bunch of stuff in the mix on MTV and on radio. But really, when“Teen Spirit” was first played on the radio, they were just throwing it into hard rock formats. It didn’t fit. It didn’t fit with the stuff, but they had to play because their listeners were demanding it. So, like I said, the industry was on its heels for about four years there, and the old model was collapsing then. It was harder for Warrant or Ratt, you know, all those metal bands to survive, once that punk-realism became the fashion.