Sunday, June 14, 2009
The Modern World
The Modern Lovers and the MC5 are typically grouped together, with a number of other bands, under the general heading of "proto-punk." It is rare for someone today to encounter them as anything else; they are primarily of historical interest, a milestone on the way to the Clash. Proto-punk is a queer genre that way: none of its "members" could ever have thought of themselves as representing it--unlike just about any other style, from cool jazz to grunge. This is not to say that proto-punk is unpopular; certainly the Modern Lovers are a staple of any rock music collection, and almost everyone at least knows who the MC5 were. But it is a measure of the success of punk as a meta-genre that it has managed to enfold the era immediately preceding it as well as, to some extent, every period afterwards.
This is, I think, problematic on at least one level. The one and only Modern Lovers album (released 1976, recorded 1972) and the MC5's second album (1970) share a feature that remains unexplained by their designation: they are fundamentally backward-looking, not forward-looking. Kraftwerk and their Krautrock cousins can be accurately described as ancestors of modern electronica, since their music represented a conscious and deliberate break with tradition. The same cannot be said of either proto-punk band. It is not simply that they were more evolutionary than revolutionary; it is that the decade that lives most vividly in these albums is the 1950s, not the 1980s.
The Modern Lovers belies its name: it is not so much about being modern as the fear of being modern. Greil Marcus noticed that the 1-2-3-4-5-6 count-off at the beginning of "Roadrunner" was a sign of hesitation, and hesitation defines the album. Jonathan Richman still loves the 50s, still loves the old world; his crush in "Hospital" lives in modern apartments, he even got scared once or twice. His values belong to the '50s: he is repulsed by both Hippie Johnny and the "cocaine-sniffing triumphs" he's expected to desire. Even "Modern World" feels as if he's closing his eyes, holding his breath, and jumping uncertainly into the strange and new.
Back in the USA is violently opposed to the sentimentalized '50s that are so dear to Richman. The MC5 do not reject the '50s so much as expose them for what they really were. Bracketed by raw and energetic covers of '50s hits ("Tutti Frutti" and "Back in the USA"), the album's original songs draw out the suppressed sexuality, anger, and revolt behind the coy façade. Though Richman sees the decade as a stable, unchanging source of reassurance, for the MC5 it harbors unresolved conflicts and critical potential that is only waiting to be exposed.
These two varieties of retrospection could be mapped onto our political styles of reading history--the conservative one of the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival and the radical one of Howard Zinn. But they are more fundamental than that. Nietzsche would have called Back in the USA a prime example of the spirit of revenge--never quite willing to leave past wrongs behind--and he would probably have been no easier on Richman. In the end, despite their fixation on the past, these glancing engagements with the meaning of the '50s shaped rock music's approach to the modern. Punk, in some sense, was just proto-punk without the history.