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Rock, Counterculture and the Avant-Garde, 1966-1970

How the Beatles, Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground Defined an Era


Doyle Greene


Jefferson (North Carolina): McFarland & Company, 2016

Paperback. viii+223 p. ISBN 978-1476662145. $35


Reviewed by Claude Chastagner

Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier)




In his theoretically and historically well-defined book, Doyle Greene aims at elucidating an oft-asked question: what is the nature of the connections linking popular culture, avant-garde music and the counterculture within the artistic form called “rock music” in the specific context of the late sixties? To answer, the book focuses, one after the other, on three famous bands and artists, The Beatles, Frank Zappa, and The Velvet Underground. It analyses more specifically their music and lyrics, but also cover art, on- and off-stage performances, and texts in other media, notably film and television, within a clearly sociological and historical frame that does not shun aesthetical considerations. The book includes a discography, a bibliography, an index, and is accompanied by lengthy erudite notes. The fairly restricted focus on three bands / artists only (though a few others, such as Nico or Captain Beefheart, are referred to when relevant) is justified by a reference to Mies [unfortunately spelt Miles] van der Rohe’s famous motto, “less is more”.

The book opens on two concepts central to the author’s argument: the avant-garde, which he defines in music as being organized around dissonance and outside the constraints of tonality and meter, though resorting to conventional instrumentations; and experimental music, organized around noise. Greene is careful to point that this distinction is as much historical as aesthetic, and that there is considerable interaction between the two, justifying his use of the conflated expression “avant-garde / experimental music” throughout the book, since the rock bands / artists studied resort, to various degrees, to dissonance as much as noise. Doyle Greene suggests another way to understand the difference-closeness between the two approaches: that the music of the three bands generates both commercial (i.e., mass, or popular) and cultural (i.e., theoretical) value.

Part One is devoted to the Beatles, and is organized around five chapters, each devoted to specific albums or musical products and the key concepts they can be linked to: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the negotiation between mass music and theoretical music; alternative means of performance and promotion through television and particularly the 1967 TV movie Magical Mystery Tour; Apple Corps as an alternate system of cultural production and consumption, focusing on The Beatle’s (“The White Album”) use of the folk and blues genres; Lennon’s rarely studied avant-garde / experimental production with Yoko Ono, Unfinished Music No.1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No.2: Life with the Lions, and Wedding Album; the break-up of the Beatles and the related Abbey Road and Let It Be albums.

The same pattern is applied to the other two sections. Part Two examines The Mothers Of Invention, focusing first on Frank Zappa’s early career, before moving to Freak Out!, Absolutely Free, and We’re Only in It for the Money, all of these within the framework of a reflection on the role of parody and humor, the aesthetic of collage, the determining impact of sexual repression, and more conceptually, the “Project / object” method implemented by Zappa to give an overall coherence to his production, inasmuch as it entails “a ‘self-referential’ cannibalizing and recycling of pre-existing material” (14). The last three chapters, devoted to The Velvet Underground discuss their conscious assemblage of heterogeneous musical genres and artistic objectives, from the experimental to the overtly commercial, via the psychedelic, minimalism, etc., in the aim of establishing, nonetheless, a cohesive band sound. Each of these last chapters focuses on specific albums, The Velvet Underground and Nico, White Light / White Heat, The Velvet Underground, and Loaded.

Greene’s effort produces a fair number of interesting perspectives. One has to praise first of all his concern for music, beyond the usual lyrical or sociological aspects. By means of learned, though accessible analyses of the compositions of the songs, he offers the reader musical support to his claims. The second remarkable feature of the book is the extent to which Greene tries to establish internal, organic connections between the different artists studied, around the issues at stake. Thus, the contradictions between the stated intentions and the musical production of each band is contrasted by similar failings or on the contrary successes with other artists.

However, the issues explored by Greene, at least most of them, do not appear as strikingly original. There is a sense of déjà vu, déjà lu in his study of the contrasts between the different versions (album, single, and film) of “Revolution”, or of how the Beatles’ later years “generated in the subsequent myths –rightly or wrongly- constructed around […] Lennon the revolutionary rock avant-gardist and McCartney the apolitical pop commercialist” [11]. Even the general argument of the book, the clarification of the much-rehearsed chasm between the commercial, the avant-garde, and the countercultural facets of rock music, or as Greene puts it more theoretically, “the adequacy of modernism and post-modernism as categories to assess avant-rock as convergences of mass music and theoretical music” [16] can appear as belabored, perhaps even irrelevant. Do we still want, or need to ponder whether in the context of rock music, radical content demands radical form? Perhaps we do, but the study should have extended beyond a superficial coverage of these topics. Indeed, a much too important part of the book is taken up by lengthy descriptions of the artists’ music, and the historical and technical conditions in which it was produced, without offering either new information, or meaningful insight. In that respect the better parts of the book are those devoted to Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Nico, but the chapters focusing on The Beatles particularly, or on The Velvet Underground lack depth and originality. Furthermore, too often Greene resorts to essentialist analyses, and wraps up the study of a given song by the comment that it “signifies” this or that, assertions difficult to maintain in the light of the plurality of approaches and meanings. 

Worse, though Greene writes in an elegant, spirited, and jargon-free English, incompetent copy-editing leaves the reader with over fifty spelling and grammatical mistakes and inexact quotes, most of them undoubtedly typos, whose impact on the credibility of the opus is not negligible: “complimented” for “complemented”, “Schulman” for “Schumann”, “show-horned” for “shoehorned”, “to scapegoat of”, “distain” for “disdain”, “singles” for “signals”, “avant-grade”, “indented” for intended”, “Continientalism”, “I Hear Here Call My Name”, “Gryögy” for “György”, “tenant” for “tenet”, etc. Greene also resorts systematically, sometimes as often as three or four times a page, to as far as constructions with the meaning of “as for”, or “regarding, followed by a noun clause and not a verb, constructions which, if acceptable in speech, are often disapproved of in written language, particularly which such a high frequency and in an academic context.

All in all, if the book is fairly frustrating because of these numerous mistakes and because of the rather shallow exploration of the themes tackled by the author, it offers neophytes an elegant, and convincing way to discover some of the musics of the era and the compelling issues they raise.

Oh, one last thing, “La Marseilles” [37] is not the title of the French national anthem…


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