In the 1920s America, Jazz Music Was Considered Harmful to Human Health, the Cause of “Neurasthenia,” “Perpetually Jerking Jaws” & More

These are some interesting stories about the Nazis and jazz, including one about a very bad jazz propaganda band created by Goebbels himself. But we need not mention these at all, or even leave the shores of jazz’s birthplace to find examples of extreme reactions to jazz by authoritarian figures who hated and feared it for exactly the same reasons as the Nazis. Chief among such American enemies of jazz was raging anti-Semite Henry Ford, who feared that jazz was, you guessed it, a Jewish plot to infect the country with racially inferior “musical slush."

Ford used white country music and square dancing in public schools as weapons of warfare against jazz in the 1920s, thereby displacing blackface minstrelsy as the dominant form of paranoid response to black music in middle America. Another crusader, Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics between 1930 and 1962, more or less invented the war on drugs with his reefer madness war on jazz. He said it sounded like “the jungles in the dead of night” and could “lure white women.” Anslinger relentlessly persecuted Billie Holiday and went after Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong.

It was within this early 20th century milieu that other institutional powers—some of the country’s most powerful—declared a war on jazz for supposed reasons of public health. (A movement, incidentally, given to an enthusiasm for eugenics and forced sterilization at the time.) Historian Russell L. Johnson has documented this campaign in the journal Health and History, and Jessie Wright-Mendoza describes many of his findings at JStor Daily.

Milwaukee’s public health commissioner claimed that the music damaged the nervous system, and a Ladies’ Home Journal article reported that it caused brain cells to atrophy. In Cincinnati, a maternity hospital successfully petitioned to have a nearby jazz club shut down, arguing that exposing newborns to the offending music would have the effect of “imperiling the happiness of future generations.”

Jazz was "unrhythmical," opponents argued, and so was disease. Q.E.D. In 1923, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a ruling that shut down a jazz club, citing in their opinion a belief the music “wears upon the nervous system and produces that feeling which we call ‘tired.’” Doctors warned that too much jazz could cause neurasthenia, a catch-all for anxiety, depression, headaches, fatigue, etc. But jazz could also cause patients to become “nervous and fidgety” with “perpetually jerking jaws.” Whatever it did, jazz was hazardous.

Oddly, just as in the Nazi’s fervent attempts to control jazz, as Czech writer Josef Skvorecky once described it, and as in Joseph Goebbels attempts to co-opt the music for white supremacy, the architects of America's jazz panic found the remedy for jazz in jazz. But segregated jazz. They turned “hot jazz” into “sweet jazz,” a style “interpreted by mainly white musicians to appeal to a wider commercial audience.”

It hardly needs to be said that anyone really afflicted with a passion for jazz ignored this prescription, as did every jazz musician worth listening to. Read more about Johnson’s history of the American fear of jazz at JStor Daily.

via Ted Gioia

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious Sings Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”: Is Nothing Sacred?

In the great garden of forking paths and alternative timelines there are two other versions of The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle that Julian Temple never directed. One would have been directed by Graham Chapman of Monty Python fame, but “he behaved gloriously badly to Malcolm (McLaren)” according to John Lydon many years later. The other was to be written by film critic Roger Ebert and directed by buxom beauty lover Russ Meyer (who Lydon called "shabby” and “a senile old git.”) But you do have to wonder what the hell either of those films might have been like.

Would either of them contained the above classic scene--probably the only scene worth the price of admission--where Sid Vicious both murders the classic “My Way” and several rich people in the front row.

Killing sacred cows has long been a part of the West’s sense of humor, long before punk. Spike Jones and his City Slickers regularly destroyed classic warhorses like The Blue Danube and The Nutcracker. The Bonzo Dog Band in the UK took on "The Sound of Music" and left no survivors. And the Residents lovingly destroyed pop music of the ‘60s on Third Reich ‘n’ Roll and their cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” When it comes to pop culture, nothing is sacred. Not even Frank Sinatra.

By the time Temple joined the McLaren’s film project, Lydon was not speaking to his manager. And when they got close to shooting the “My Way” sequence in Paris, Sid Vicious didn’t want to take part. Julien Temple remembered:

I would go to the studio every night and come back to report to Malcolm that the guy didn't want to do the song. Sid would spend all the time in the studio trying to learn the bass. We would have to come back and tell Malcolm we had wasted another night's money. Malcolm grew tired of it. He picked up the phone and started screaming at Sid about what a useless junkie he was and so on. Meanwhile, Sid had given the phone over to Nancy and while that was going on, suddenly the door of Malcolm's hotel room flew off its hinges. Sid crashed into the room wearing his swastika underpants and motorbike boots. He dragged Malcolm out of bed and started hitting him. Then Sid chased a naked Malcolm down the corridor intent on beating the shit out of him.

Now, that might have been a more interesting scene than the theater massacre, but who knows? McLaren wanted everything in the film to be bigger than life and to his credit, this pummeling of a cover--which had a second life as the ending song to Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas--is still a proper two-finger salute. But in a twist, it would be Sid Vicious and the flame of British punk that would be quickly snuffed out upon its release. Vicious died February 2, 1979.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

A Short History of Punk: From Late 50s Rockabilly and Garage Rock to The Ramones & Sex Pistols

Seems there was a time when the dominant story of punk was the story of British punk. If you knew nothing else, you knew the name Sid Vicious, and that seemed to sum it up. Maybe it was only in the mid-nineties, around the time Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain released Please Kill Me: the Uncensored Oral History of Punk that more people began to popularly understand the lineage of late sixties garage rock, the Velvet Underground, Detroit’s Iggy and the Stooges, and the early CBGB scene in the mid-seventies crowned by the sound of The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, and Talking Heads.

Now even that story can seem oversimplified, sketched out in brief on the way to discussing the literary triumph of Patti Smith, cultural interventions of David Byrne, career highlights of punk power couple Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, or the many, always fascinating doings of Iggy Pop.

The Ramones roared back into fashion twenty years ago, and the demise of CBGB in 2007 brought on waves of marketing nostalgia of almost Disney-like proportions. Most everyone who pays attention to pop culture now knows that late-seventies punk wasn’t a movement that arrived out of nowhere, bent on destroying the past, but a continuity and evolution of earlier forms.

But the Trash Theory video at the top reaches back even earlier than garage bands like the Monks and the Sonics—typically cited as some of the earliest common ancestors of punk and rock and roll. Punk was “rock and roll bored down to its bare bones,” says the narrator, and begins with a rockabilly artist who called himself The Phantom and tried to outdo Elvis in 1958 with the raucous single “Love Me.” The Phantom himself may not have embraced the label at all, but like Link Wray, he was still something of a proto-punk. Wray’s raunchy, gritty instrumental “Rumble,” also released in 1958, inspired huge numbers of guitarists and aspiring musicians, including young Iggy Pop, who cities it as a primary reason he joined a band.

From there, we’re on to “elemental” tracks like The Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird,” The Sonic’s “Psycho,” The Monk’s “I Hate You,” and Love’s “7 and 7,” all clear progenitors of the sound. And the Mysterians, of garage classic “96 Tears,” were the first band to be described as punk by the mainstream press. The Kinks and The Who set templates in Britain while the Velvets perfected sleazy, experimental noise back in New York. The MC5 in Detroit helped bring us The Stooges. The Modern Lovers’ 1972 “Roadrunner” launched hundreds of bands.

The video is a convincing short history showing how punk arose naturally from trends in the late 50s and 60s that clearly pointed the way. Like every such history, especially one undertaken in the span of fifteen minutes, it leaves out some pretty heavyweight figures who should have a central place in the narrative. Irritated YouTube commenters have pointed out lapses like The New York Dolls (see them further up in 1973), without whom there would have been no Sex Pistols. (Proto-punk Detroit band Death does get a mention, though their influence is negligible since they went mostly unheard until 2009.)

Also needing inclusion as early punk pioneers are Television (check them out in ’78) and Richard Hell and the Voidoids (above in 1980’s Blank Generation). And these are just a few missing New York bands. Any devotee of this musical history will come up with a dozen or so more from both sides of the Atlantic who deserve mention in the early history of punk. And that’s why, I guess, that popular history keeps getting told and retold. As soon as it starts to get stale, it seems, there's always more to add.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Origins of the “Amen Break,” The Most Sampled Piece of Recorded Music Ever

You may not find the reference easily in a Google search. But hang around electronic musicians, DJs, or producers long enough, and you’ll probably hear someone talk about an “Amen song.” They don't mean gospel, not directly, but the famed “Amen break,” a six-second drum loop sampled from a 1969 soul instrumental recording of the gospel song “Amen, Brother” from the B-Side of a Grammy-winning record by Washington, DC-based group The Winstons. Played by drummer G.C. Coleman, who died in 1996, it has likely become “the most sampled piece of recorded music ever,” as the Great Big Story video above points out.

We’ve previously featured the more extensive documentary history of the Amen break below by writer Nate Harrison. The Great Big Story video is not that, but rather a short, 4-minute tour through the sample’s origins by way of Bronx DJ Lou Flores, “Breakbeat Lou,” who included “Amen, Brother” on a compilation of songs made specifically for DJs.

If you’ve never understood what’s so captivating about this beat, listen to Flores describe its sonic qualities. It's "probably one of the most organic, larger-than-life, big presence style of drums… there’s so many depths to this particular track,” he says, listing the specific effect of each piece of the drum kit.

There really is “nothing else like it." And, paradoxically, it exists everywhere, slowed down as the backbeat of early hip-hop, sped up to inhuman speeds in drum ‘n’ bass; appearing in some form or another in the repertoire of almost every contemporary artist, producer, and drummer. The Amen break has popped up in over 3,000 songs, from David Bowie to Slipknot to Skrillex to Public Enemy to N.W.A. to… well, it may be easier to name popular musicians of the last thirty years who haven’t been at least Amen-adjacent at some point in their lives. Like certain standards in jazz or movements from classical hits, everyone knows it, even if they don’t know they know it.

What’s refreshing about the brief explainer is that, rather than try to cover this kind of musicological territory in a few minutes, it focuses on the break’s first popularizer, Flores, who was drawn out of his retirement from music because of the viral phenomenon of the Amen break. He's an affable guide to the most famous sample in history, happy that his corner of the Bronx contributed so much to the culture by helping turn sampled music into an original and inventive art form. Learn much more about the history of the Amen break in the documentary above and at our previous post here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Vintage Grand Piano Gets Reengineered to Play 20 Different Instruments with a Push of Its Keys

The Ukrainian Band "Brunettes Shoot Blondes" took a broken, vintage grand piano and reengineered it, turning it into "a hybrid, containing 20 instruments." Now, when you press the keys, the "piano hammers beat a marimba, tambourine, cymbals or even castanets. There are also special mechanical devices that allow for the playing of cello, violins and organ." Watch it in action above...

via Colossal/Laughing Squid

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The Mastermind of Devo, Mark Mothersbaugh, Presents His Personal Synthesizer Collection

Mark Mothersbaugh’s studio is located in a cylindrical structure painted bright green - it looks more like a festive auto part than an office building. It's a fitting place for the iconoclast musician. For those of you who didn’t spend your childhoods obsessively watching the early years of MTV, Mark Mothersbaugh was the mastermind behind the band Devo. They skewered American conformity by dressing alike in shiny uniforms and their music was nervy, twitchy and weird. They taught a nation that if you must whip it, you should whip it good.

In the years since, Mothersbaugh has segued into a successful career as a Hollywood composer, spinning scores for 21 Jump Street and The Royal Tenenbaums among others.

In the video above, you can see Mothersbaugh hang out in his studio filled with synthesizers of various makes and vintages, including Bob Moog’s own personal Memorymoog. Watching Mothersbaugh pull out and play with each one is a bit like watching a precocious child talk about his toys. He just has an infectious energy that is a lot of fun to watch.

Probably the best part in the video is when he shows off a device that can play sounds backward. It turns out that if you say, “We smell sausage” backwards it sounds an awful lot like “Jesus loves you.” Who knew?

Below you can see Mothersbaugh in action with Devo, performing live in Japan during the band's heyday in 1979.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in February 2015.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

Watch a Towering Orchestral Tribute to Kate Bush: A 40th Anniversary Celebration of Her First Single, “Wuthering Heights”

Some Americans like their pop musicians to be more accessible, less theatrical, and eccentric—and generally more desperate for the approval of their audience. Kate Bush, thankfully, has never seemed bothered by this need. She could leave the spotlight when she needed to, or leave the music business altogether for a time, and yet remain a creative force to be reckoned with for four decades now. Her legacy has permeated contemporary music since she appeared in 1978, then retired from the stage the following year after her first tour to focus solely on writing, recording, and making short musical films.

Her debut, The Kick Inside, proved that an original new songwriter worth watching had arrived, and she delivered on the promise in ten studio albums and a career she seemed to sum up in the title of “This Woman’s Work,” from 1989’s The Sensual World. It is work she has always done in her own delightfully odd, passionate, eccentrically British, theatrical, and deftly literary way, all qualities that have made her a massive star in the UK and a hero to artists like Tori Amos, Annie Lennox, Grimes, Florence and the Machine, and too many more to name.

Bush's unusual traits also make her a perfect artist to pay tribute to in an orchestral setting, as Sweden’s Gothenburg Symphony has done in the 2018 concert also titled “This Woman’s Work” and featuring the very-Bush-worthy vocal talents of guest singers Jennie Abrahamson and Malin Dahlström. It’s “a towering tribute,” the Symphony writes, “with hit songs and pure poetry in special arrangements by Martin Schaub.” And it arrived to mark a special moment indeed: the 40th anniversary of the release of Bush’s brilliantly strange debut single “Wuthering Heights.” See the full performance at the top of the post and excerpted songs throughout, including Abrahamson's cover of "This Woman's Work," above.

Appearing in the ghostly guise and ethereally high-pitched voice of Cathy Earnshaw, doomed heroine of Emily Brontë’s novel, Bush captivated millions in two videos that are now absolute classics. She drew on the mime theatrics of her teacher Lindsay Kemp, who previously mentored David Bowie, and gave us the indelible image of a woman possessed by weird imagination, uncanny musical talent, and some frightening dance moves. The images and sounds she created in just those 3 and a half minutes are iconic. Or, putting it a little differently in a short BBC documentary, John Lydon says, “Kate Bush and her grand piano… that’s like John Wayne and his saddle… her shrieks and warbles are beauty beyond belief.”

If you came to Bush later in her career, say during 1985’s huge Hounds of Love, and somehow missed her unbelievable first fine art-rock performances on film, watch both the white and red dress versions first, then watch the Gothenburg Symphony’s glowing, career-spanning tribute to a woman who “laid the groundwork for [a] generation of performers,” as Marc Hirsh writes at NPR. Even though he is an American who does not care for Kate Bush, Hirsh can't seem to help enumerating the very reasons she is so special to so many, and he features a number of her videos that demonstrate why she's an artist her fans love “from the very core of their being.”

via Metafilter

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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