Category Archives: Popular music

MC5 and the American ruse

Rolling Stone magazine put the MC5 (short for Motor City Five) on their January 1969 cover before the world ever heard a note of their music. Considered the missing link between free jazz and punk, the MC5 were a raw and primal band, considered to be unstoppable when they were clicking. A generation of bands, including The Clash, Ramones, Sex Pistols, Motorhead, and Rage Against the Machine, would be inspired by their sonic and political blueprint. Led by guitarist Wayne Kramer, the MC5 reflected their times: exciting, sexy, violent, chaotic, and seemingly out of control–characteristics that ensured their time in the spotlight would be short-lived. Members of the band were galvanized by the racial and class politics of the 1967 Detroit riots, which left many of the local neighborhoods Kramer knew decimated. He and the MC5 toured the world, played with a number of music legends, and garnered a rabid following, their music acting as the blistering soundtrack to blue-collar youth movements springing up across the United States and elsewhere. Their vehement antiauthoritarian stance found especially fertile ground in the 1960s antiwar movement. The lyrics of their 1970 song The American ruse (from the album Back in the U.S.A.) perfectly captured the sentiment of the movement during that political moment.

“69 America in terminal stasis
The air’s so thick, it’s like drowning in molasses
I’m sick and tired of paying these dues
And I’m finally getting hip to the American ruse.”

Listen to American ruse below.

Kramer wanted to redefine what a rock ‘n’ roll group was capable of, and although there was power in that cause, it also was also a recipe for disaster, both personally and professionally. The band recorded three major label albums, but by 1972, it was all over. Kramer’s story is literally a revolutionary one, but it’s also one of deep personal struggle as an addict and an artist, as well as a survivor and rebel. From Kramer’s early days in Detroit to becoming a junkie on the streets of the East Village, from Key West to Nashville and Los Angeles, in and out of prison and on and off drugs, his life was that of a classic journeyman, only with a twist.

By 2009, Kramer had cleaned up and established Jail Guitar Doors U.S.A., a nonprofit organization that offers songwriting workshops in prisons and donates musical instruments to inmates. As Kramer described in a 2015 interview, “The guitar can be the key that unlocks the cell. It can be the key that unlocks the prison gate, and it could be the key that unlocks the rest of your life to give you an alternative way to deal with things.” Possibilities that Kramer understood well from personal experience.

Wayne Kramer passed away on 2 February 2024.

Read more in The hard stuff: Dope, crime, the MC5 & my life of impossibilities by Wayne Kramer (Da Capo Books, 2018). Find it in RILM Abstracts.

Below is a video of the MC5 performing live and outdoors at Wayne State University in Detroit, July 1970 (Kramer is on vocals and guitar for the first song Rambin’ Rose).

Leave a Comment

Filed under North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music

Radio Caroline and U.K. pirate radio

Pirate radio stations on offshore ships were only significant for less than a decade but had an enormous impact on broadcasting. In the United Kingdom independent radio had been heard since the 1930s on Radio Normandy and Radio Luxembourg. These stations were founded by Captain L. F. Plugge and had offices in London. The U.K.’s General Post Office (GPO), the state postal system and telecommunications carrier at the time, refused them telephone facilities to transmit concerts live, so they recorded concerts by touring seaside resorts and recording bands on 16-inch 78 rpm gramophone records that were then shipped to Brussels and taken by train to Luxembourg to be relayed.

Radio Luxembourg had the most powerful transmitter in Europe at the time. British firms were soon paying a total of £400,000 a year for advertising on programs and sponsoring them. One of the most popular was the Ovaltine Show featuring the Ovaltineys and the Ovaltineys’ Orchestra. These first commercial stations were largely lost in World War II when most of the transmitters were destroyed—although the Germans took over Radio Luxembourg to transmit propaganda. It survived after the war and took the new format of the Top 20 series from U.S. radio.

On March 29, 1964, a new development hit the airwaves and captured the imagination and loyalty of the younger listeners. Radio Caroline first broadcast from a ship anchored off the Essex coast just outside British territorial waters. There had been other pirate offshore radio stations before that, broadcasting to Scandinavian and other northern European countries, but Radio Caroline was to become the most successful and long-lived. It was started by an Irish businessman called Ronan O’Rahilly, who had been trying to promote a young singer named Georgie Fame. He was turned down by the main record companies and decided to start his own company. He even took the records to Radio Luxembourg and was rejected by them as their airtime was mostly taken by the large record companies. In desperation, O’Rahilly decided to start his own radio station.

He bought an old passenger ferry and secretly refitted it in a southern Ireland port before mooring it off the coast of Harwich. The first disc played on Radio Caroline was The Beatles’ Can’t buy me love by DJ Simon Dee. Other pirate stations proliferated off the British coast in the coming years: Radio Atlanta, transmitted from the ship Mi Amigo, and later merged with Radio Caroline while the original Caroline ship went north to anchor off the Isle of Man to become Radio Caroline North.

Read the full entry on pirate radio in the Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century (2013). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Listen to the opening broadcast of Radio Caroline with Simon Dee on 29 March 1964.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Europe, Mass media, Popular music

Manu Dibango and “Soul makossa”

The Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango began his career by performing in the local church choir in his hometown of Douala. As a child, Dibango faced significant challenges growing up in a household where his father and mother belonged to rival ethnic groups in the region. His parents, however, did own a vast record collection, which deepened his interest in Cuban, U.S., and French music at a young age. After moving to France in 1949, Dibango learned to play the piano and later the saxophone. He developed a love for jazz while in France with the help of Francis Bebey and other musicians who inspired and taught him.

After moving to Brussels in 1956, Dibango joined Joseph Kabasele’s Congolese orchestra Le Grand Kallé et l’African Jazz, which was famous for its hit Indépendance chacha in 1960. Dibango traveled with Kabasele’s orchestra to perform in the city of Kinshasa in1961, where he decided to stay and open the famous Tam-Tam nightclub. In 1963, Dibango’s hit song Twist à Léo helped popularize the twist dance throughout the Congo, and his encounter with Congolese music inspired him to delve deeper into African music, especially makossa, the popular genre of his hometown Douala.

Dibango recorded the song Soul makossa in 1971 and positioned it as the b-side to the single Hymne de la Coupe d’Afrique des Nations, which was a tribute to the Cameroon football team. Local listeners were not initially impressed by Soul makossa, and even Dibango’s father scoffed at the stuttering vocal line in the song. A few copies of the single, however, found their way across the Atlantic Ocean and into the hands of radio DJs in New York City by 1972. The song became a hit on New York radio stations and in disco clubs. The few copies circulating in the city were immediately sold out, and the lack of distribution resulted in Soul makossa being recorded and released by several local New York City bands to meet the demand. Once distribution of the original single by Dibango resumed, Soul makossa immediately shot to the top of the charts.

Read the full entry on Manu Dibango in MGG Online. Below is a video of a performance of Soul makossa in 1983.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Africa, Performers, Popular music, World music

Batanghari sembilan in South Sumatra

Batanghari sembilan is a genre of popular guitar music performed in the province of South Sumatra, Indonesia. The sound of batanghari, for many locals, evokes a strong sense of cultural pride for their natural and agricultural surroundings, especially for the long winding rivers that flow across the elongated island’s mountainous landscape. Some have described the genre as melancholic or romantic for its minimalistic sound. In earlier times, the sound of batanghari sembilan was more dense as it was performed in small ensembles comprised of a gambus (a lute instrument similar to an oud), suling (an Indonesian bamboo flute), and small hanging gongs. Today, however, it is performed primarily on solo acoustic guitar.

In the village of Batu Urip, batanghari sembilan accompanies the sekedah bumi, a ceremony performed to summon the spirits of the deceased as a form of memorialization, expression of gratitude, and to repel future misfortune. The version of batanghari sembilan performed here in sekedah bumi is unique in its incorporation of pantun, a Malay poetic form, in this case, used to express deep sadness and longing for ancestors or recent relatives who have passed away.  For instance, in the popular pantun phrase below, the third and fourth lines describe a sense of seduction that can be attributed to either an ancestor or perhaps a lover.

Betang hagu umban di tebang

Betang duku di buat hahang

Jengan ragu jengan bimbang

Linjang ku tuk ngas suhang

In this context, the performance of batanghari sembilan in sekedah bumi is not merely intended as entertainment but as ritual function, conveying the social values and history of South Sumatran cultures while strengthening local communities.

Learn more in “The function of pantun in the art performance of batang hari sembilan solo guitar during sedekah bumi ceremony held in Batu Urip hamlet, South Sumatera” by Imelda Tri Andari and Suharto (Harmonia 20.2, [December 2020], 195–204). Find this Indonesian journal in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

The video below features the guitarist Sahilin, one of South Sumatra’s most renowned contemporary batanghari sembilan performers. The second video features Suarasama, an Indonesian band that incorporates elements of the batanghari sembilan sound.

Pictured above are Randi Putra Ramadhan and Rosa Jannatri Harkha, two younger batanghari performers.

Comments Off on Batanghari sembilan in South Sumatra

Filed under Asia, Popular music, World music

Max Roach, jazz drummer and Civil Rights activist

Referred to as the “dean of modern jazz drumming,” Max Roach spent his formative years in Brooklyn and received a degree in composition from the Manhattan School. While still in his teens, Roach became one of the innovators of the bop drumming style at jazz fountainheads such as Minton’s Playhouse and Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem. Among his collaborators have been Coleman Hawkins (with whom he made his first recording in 1944), Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and many others. Known for his melodic, formally structured solos, and compositional experimentation, Roach moved from bop to cool and free jazz styles, and his creative talents were recognized with commissions and awards from various sources, including the MacArthur Foundation and Down Beat magazine.

Roach’s We insist! Freedom now suite, recorded in 1960, moves from depictions of slavery to Emancipation to the Civil Rights struggle and African independence. The work draws on both long-standing symbols of African American cultural identity and a more immediate historical context. It is a modernist work as well, as Roach and his musicians used African and African American legacies in new and novel ways. In a 1987 interview, Roach commented on whether by the time he recorded the Freedom now suite, he had become a Civil Rights activist:

“Well, I guess [Black jazz musicians] always have been [activists], you know? I go back to Bessie Smith with Black mountain blues and then to Duke Ellington’s Black, brown and beige. It’s always been there. Leadbelly always spoke about the issues and the times that existed. And many of the old Black folk singers from the South to street musicians dealt with it. I’ve always been an activist. At that time [in the 1960s], my children were young. But you’re always thinking about their future as well. And if they’re going to come up and be responsible human beings, they have to have education, and the things like everyone else has. And society has to accommodate that. So, I guess I’ve always been activist because of them.”

Listen to the entire We insist! Freedom now suite recording below.

Decades after its initial release, the Freedom now suite remains fresh and significant, foregrounding the ways that jazz has been in consistent dialogue with social and cultural movements, and has been at its most inspired when engaged in social commentary.

Celebrate the beginning of Black History Month by reading the entry on Max Roach in Percussionists: A biographical dictionary (2000, RILM Music Encyclopedias) and “Revisited! The Freedom now suite” by Ingrid Monson (JazzTimes XXXI/7 [September 2001], 54–59.

Below is a performance of We insist! by Abbey Lincoln and the Max Roach group in 1964.

Comments Off on Max Roach, jazz drummer and Civil Rights activist

Filed under Black studies, From the archives, Jazz and blues, North America, Politics, Popular music

Turkmen genocide and the Geök Tépé muqam

The 1881 genocidal massacre of Turkmen people by imperial Russian troops in the village of Geök Tépé forever altered the musical culture of the Muslim nomadic tribes of Central Asia. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Tsarist Russia’s thirst for conquering new territories fueled a desire to access commercial routes and the warm water ports of the Indian Ocean. Occupying the Turkmen lands was as a primary goal as the Turkmen nomadic lifestyle in the area presented a threat to the stability of the southern part of the Russian empire. Russians decided to attack the Tekke Turkmens who lived in Akhal to subjugate them. The vast conquest was accompanied by the mass killing of people to gain access to their lands and resources while expanding the Russian empire. In the battle fought at Geök Tépé, approximately 15,000 Turkmens, mostly innocent civilians, were killed while the Russian army suffered only around 400 casualties.

In the absence of written history, Turkmen collective memory predominantly relied on songs and melodies. For the Turkmen, the most important events, including the massacre, were remembered in music passed down from generation to generation, thereby building a collective cultural identity. The melancholic instrumental and vocal muqam performed by traditional musicians have for generations expressed collective grief. Turkmen muqams include three main categories: music inspired by real events in society, heroic and lyrical muqams, and descriptive muqams. In the music inspired by real events in Turkmen society, bagşys performed the role of historians or narrators of the Turkmen history and communicated historical facts through their music. These muqams are often found in times of war conflict, or injustice. The Geök Tépé muqam is likely the most famous of them all.

Learn more in “Geok Tepe muğam: A musical narrative of Turkmen massacre in 1881” by Arman Goharinasab and Azadeh Latifkar, an essay included in the volume Music and genocide (Peter Lang, 2015).  Find it in RILM Abstracts of Music Literature.

Below is a video featuring a contemporary muqam performance by Zuleyha Kakayewa and Hatyja Owezowa on television show in Turkmenistan.

Comments Off on Turkmen genocide and the Geök Tépé muqam

Filed under Asia, Politics, Popular music, World music

All hail the queens: Women in rap (1984-97)

Roxanne Shante on the mic.

Women have been part of hip hop expression from its early days, primarily as part of MC crews such as the Funky Four Plus One and Sugar Hill’s female group, Sequence. For most of hip hop’s recorded history, however, women MCs were mostly seen as novelty acts, with a few exceptions. In the mid-1980s, some female artists were popularized momentarily through answer songs, which ridiculed popular songs by male acts. These answer songs included Roxanne Shante’s Roxanne’s revenge (responding to UTFO’s 1984 song Roxanne, Roxanne) and Pebblee Poo’s Fly guy (responding to the Boogie Boys’ 1985 song A fly girl).

MC Lyte strikes a pose.
The early rap group, Sequence.

Some of the most enduring female hip hop acts released premiere albums in 1986. Salt-N-Pepa was the most commercially successful hip hop group with its first album, Hot, cool and vicious. Queen Latifah emphasized strong social messages and women’s empowerment on her first album, All hail the queen. MC Lyte recorded her first album, Lyte as a feather, at this time. Many women artists who appeared or recorded during the early 1990s adopted the extant masculine-oriented hip hop images prevalent in hardcore rap music. MC Lyte, for example, recorded a hardcore album in 1993 entitled Ain’t no other–the album’s first hit single, Ruffneck, was MC Lyte’s first gold-selling single. After the decline of gangsta rap music in the mid- to late 1990s, women remained on the periphery of mainstream hip hop, apart from the occasional pop hit, such as the platinum-selling Atlanta-based artist Da Brat’s Funkdafied (1994).

Cover art for Lil’ Kim’s Hardcore and Foxy Brown’s Ill na na.
“Supa dupa fly” Missy Elliot.

By the late 1990s, artists such as Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown publicly celebrated or exploited female sexuality through explicit lyrics and widespread publicity campaigns that presented these scantily clad artists as sex symbols. For the most part, however, women artists failed to receive respect within the hip hop community as competent MCs and recording artists, although achieving mainstream success. Many of the writers and producers for the female groups were men, particularly through the late 1990s. The year 1998, however, was pivotal for women in hip hop, especially as rapper-producer-songwriter Missy Elliot began gaining notoriety with her debut album, Supa dupa fly (1997).

Learn more in The Garland encyclopedia of world music. The United States and Canada (2013). Find it in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Below are some videos from this early period of hip featuring women rappers. First up is the music video for Queen Latifah’s Ladies first, followed by Roxanne Shante performing Roxanne’s revenge (on VHS tape from around 1984!), and a 1985 recording of Pebblee Poo’s Fly guy.

Comments Off on All hail the queens: Women in rap (1984-97)

Filed under North America, Performers, Popular music, Women's studies

Earl Scruggs, bluegrass banjo innovator

Earl Scruggs, born in North Carolina on January 6, 1924, taught himself the five-string banjo at the age of four and developed his trademark three-finger picking style before he reached his teens. At age 15, Scruggs was playing with a band that performed on a local radio station in Knoxville, Tennessee, and by 1944, he had joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, where he met his future partner, guitarist Lester Flatt. Scruggs played with Monroe’s band until January 1948.

Although the genre was yet to be named, the addition of Scruggs to Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys provided the crowning moment in the definition of bluegrass. Scruggs astounded everyone with an extraordinary banjo style that allowed him to roll out a rapid barrage of notes that nevertheless sounded out the melody as clearly as the fiddle. What is now known as “Scruggs style” banjo playing became the critical component of Bill Monroe’s distinctive sound that would eventually be called bluegrass. In a 2012 interview, Scruggs described his love of the banjo saying, “It produces the sound that my ear’s looking for. Maybe I’ve just gotten used to it, but I like the sound that I get out of [the] banjo. I feel at home with it when I take it out of the case and start–you know, when you start with another instrument, they all have their feel, and playing the same instrument, you know what it’s going to feel like when you take it out of the case and start to perform.”

Read on in Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century (2013, RILM Music Encyclopedias) and Homegrown music: Discovering bluegrass by Stephanie P. Ledgin (Westport: Praeger, 2004).

Earl Scruggs’ birthday is January 6! Below he performs Foggy mountain breakdown with some friends.

Comments Off on Earl Scruggs, bluegrass banjo innovator

Filed under Instruments, Performers, Popular music

Joni Mitchell and 1960’s women’s sexual freedom

Born in Fort MacLeod, Alberta in Canada, a young Joni Mitchell (born Joan Anderson) moved to North Battleford, Saskatchewan with her parents shortly after World War II. Inspired by an older friend, she begged her parents at age 7 to allow her to take piano lessons which lasted for a year and a half. After moving to Saskatoon, Mitchell contracted polio, which she recovered from with the care of her family and her interest in music. As she recalled in a Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe in 1979, “I guess I really started singing when I had polio. Neil [Young] and I both got polio in the same Canadian epidemic. I was nine, and they put me in a polio ward over Christmas. They said I might not walk again, and that I would not be able to go home for Christmas. I wouldn’t go for it. So I started to sing Christmas carols and I used to sing them real loud. When the nurse came into the room I would sing louder. The boy in the bed next to me, you know, used to complain. And I discovered I was a ham. That was the first time I started to sing for people.”

In her teens, Mitchell scraped together enough money to buy a ukelele and performed regularly at parties and coffeehouses in Saskatoon. Following high school, in 1964, Mitchell attended the Alberta College of Art in Calgary, but only for a year. Instead, she preferred performing at a local Calgary coffeehouse called The Depression—she moved to Toronto soon after in search of success as a folk singer. In 1966, she managed to secure a spot on the bill of the Newport Folk Festival. It was at this time that her marriage to fellow folk singer Chuck Mitchell ended, and with nothing to tie her down, Mitchell moved to New York City to be closer to venues on the U.S. eastern seaboard. With the recording of The urge for going by Tom Rush and other cover versions by a variety of artists, she was able to get bookings west to Chicago and south to Florida. New York was still elusive but with the help of manager Elliot Roberts she landed gigs in town. While performing in Coconut Grove, Florida she met David Crosby of The Byrds who was impressed enough with her talent to convince Reprise Records to record and release the Joni Mitchell album in 1968.

Mitchell’s early records mapped the sexual terrain of the mid-1960s–the period during which premarital sex lost its taboo status and became a normative part of maturation and development–from a woman’s perspective. Mitchell’s songs employed a strong storytelling component, putting into popular circulation narratives of sexual freedom that engaged with emerging social practices in a manner consistent with countercultural values while helping to legitimize the new choices available to young women of the 1960s.

Learn more in “Feeling free and female sexuality: The aesthetics of Joni Mitchell” by Marilyn Adler Papayanis (Popular music and society XXXIII/5 [December 2010], 641–656) and in an entry on Joni Mitchell in The Canadian pop music encyclopedia (2020) in RILM Music Encyclopedias.

Below is Joni Mitchell’s 1969 performance of Chelsea Morning, a song addressing the moral codes governing so-called appropriate sexual conduct for women.

Comments Off on Joni Mitchell and 1960’s women’s sexual freedom

Filed under North America, Performers, Politics, Popular music, Women's studies

Lionel Hampton brings the beat

Lionel Hampton is known to be responsible for popularizing the vibraphone in the jazz genre. Hampton grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and moved to the Chicago area in 1916, where learned snare drum from a nun at the Holy Rosary Academy in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He first performed as a member of the Chicago Defender Newsboys Band and later studied xylophone with Jimmy Bertrand and drums with Clifford Jones.

After making his debut on drums in 1923 with Louis Armstrong’s backup band (Les Hite) in Culver City, California, Hampton moved to Los Angeles in 1927 and worked with the Spikes Brothers, Paul Howard’s Quality Serenaders, and the Louis Armstrong/Les Hite Band (1930-34), making what is regarded as the first recorded vibraphone solo, on Memories of you, with Armstrong in 1930. Legend has it that Armstrong saw a set of vibes in a room and asked Hampton if he knew how to play them; Hampton immediately responded by playing Armstrong’s entire trumpet solo from Big butter and egg man as an audition!

Jazz critics and fans who admired other aspects of Hampton’s musicianship also criticized him for his raw blues riffing, hard backbeat, screaming and honking saxophones, and stunts like marching into the audience with his horn players while getting the audience to clap along. As Hampton explained in a 1987 interview, “I learned all that in the Sanctified Church: the beat, the handclapping, marching down the aisles and into the audience. When I was six or seven and temporarily living with my grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama, she’d take me to the Holiness Church services, not just on Sundays but all the time. They’d have a whole band in the church–guitars, trombones, saxophones, drums–and they’d be rocking. I’d be sitting by the sister who was playing the big bass drum, and when she’d get happy and start dancing in the aisle, I’d grab that bass drum and start in on that beat. After that, I always had that beat in me.”

Hampton formed his first big band in 1940, toured throughout the world in the 1950s, and introduced new talent to U.S. audiences including Betty Carter, Dinah Washington, and Joe Williams. It is also believed that he was the first to incorporate the electric organ and electric bass in a jazz group. Due to financial issues, he dissolved the big band in the 1960s and established a touring sextet in 1965. His long career also included several film appearances, including  A song is born (1948), The Benny Goodman story (1955), and Rooftops of New York (1960).

Read on in an entry on Lionel Hampton in Percussionists: A biographical dictionary (2000, RILM Music Encyclopedias) and  “Lionel Hampton, who put swing in the vibraphone, is dead at 94” by Peter Watrous (The New York times CLI/52,228 [1 September 2002]).

Listen to Hampton on vibraphone on a recording of Buzzin’ around with the bee below.

Comments Off on Lionel Hampton brings the beat

Filed under From the archives, Jazz and blues, Performers, Popular music