INTERVIEW: JOE CARDUCCI ON SST RECORDS, WRITING ‘ROCK AND THE POP NARCOTIC’, ‘STONE MALE’ AND MORE

After the release of Rock And The Pop Narcotic Joe Carducci became respected as an authoritative music researcher. Exploring the mechanisms and architecture of what is usually considered “rock-music”, Carducci provided detailed analysis of the history, formation, evolution and mechanics of rock and pop music.

With his most recent title, Stone Male: Requiem for the Living Picture, which came out in 2016, Carducci looks of the mechanics of creation of cinematic antagonists in various contexts, analyzing everything from Clint Eastwood’s Western classics to Soviet cinematic tradition. 

In this interview for Joyzine, we speak with Joe Carducci about his relations with SST Records artists and cultural differences, about independent music and scriptwriting, about Naomi Petersen and working on Stone Male.

Speaking about the chronology of punk you could focus on different periods. Whether it’s garage-rock in various forms in the late 60’s – early 70’s or, as some people might say, the periods of 1975-76, 1976-77-18 and so on. At the same time, at a certain moment, a crossover happened between British and American cultures. At that point, hardcore also started rising. One of the things I’ve noticed a number of times, is that British punk-rock became a minority after the post-punk explosion – even though, artists like GBH, Discharge and English Dogs continued playing, there were groups like Joy Division, The Cure, Magazine, or those who changed direction, exploring different musical tendencies – like Wire, while artists in the U.S. started playing harder and harder. How different was the representation of punk-rock in these two cultures, British and American, and what defined these edges of their representation?

In London, the NME ran with the post-punk idea that punk or the Sex Pistols had ended rock and roll. Sounds was the music weekly that kept to an idea that punk had added a second musical voice to the working-class young: as if they now could choose between punk or metal – Sham 69 or Status Quo, Discharge or Diamond Head. I started to read those London papers at the Hollywood Public Library in 1976 but when I was at Systematic from 1978 to 1981, I used them and Melody Maker to make up our orders lists for Rough Trade. I wished the US had music press like that.  Rolling Stone was still monthly back then and was trying to freeze out any information about punk or post-punk, etc. unless it could be understood as roots rock revival of some sort.  Unfortunately for the British bands their musicianship wasn’t very good anymore; they weren’t obsessed with the blues as kids anymore before playing their own music.  They were fascinated with thinner material like Bowie or T.Rex.  So, without good drummers or good rhythmic playing the music got conceptual.  As I put it in Rock and the Pop Narcotic, the British bands with ideas couldn’t play and the bands that could play didn’t have any modern ideas.  With computers and synths, you don’t need bands if they can’t play well.  But with electronic solos or duos you wind up with a textured zone-out music at best rather than a vital involving rock and roll.  In the U.S. what we looked for at SST were bands focused on playing and pushing themselves in practice and song-writing to get better in whatever style they might wind up with.  Every band on SST at first seemed to use hardcore execution to reach a point where they could relax into a musical voice that featured the elements of the styles and bands that inspired them maybe ten-to-twenty years earlier.  I think in the U.S. the last bands who grew up as kids listening to the great mix of early 70s top-40 and FM underground radio probably formed no later than 1982.  Any band formed after that seemed to be missing an extra dimension of musicality due to being exposed to a narrower variety of rock, pop, country, blues etc. In Europe, they had very constricted national radio monopolies so their music environment was already limited.

Prior to joining the SST collective you worked at Systematic Distribution. How did you see the role of an independent distributor in the formation of a local musical climate at that point?

Starting in Spring 1978 we made the Renaissance Records import record shop in Portland, Oregon into a national distributor based in Berkeley, California.  The earliest punk rock records (Television, Pere Ubu, etc.) had triggered a flood of mostly forgotten 7″ releases by bands that were mostly not good and stretching it to be considered modern in any punk or new wave sense.  This glut made the hip record shops a little gunshy about ordering from us in 1978-79.  Rough Trade wanted to have just one outlet in the US instead of shipping orders to a dozen or so shops so it helped Systematic that they just referred American shops to us, plus we started to stock all the best American independent releases and unlike other distributors we listened to the records and were honest about what they sounded like.  I thought we should move the company to Los Angeles because from my year there I knew that L.A. had some radio and good independent shops and interested chain shops too, plus Slash and Flipside magazines.  We ended up in Berkeley since that was where Rough Trade wanted to open up their label/distribution operations.  There were no pressing plants there so… big mistake.  Black Flag began touring up the west coast in 1979 and nationally in 1980 which really helped Systematic sell their records and soon most L.A. punk records were outselling imports.  It still wasn’t huge – I recall that forty years ago I ordered 400 copies of the Adolescents’ first album based on reading about them in Flipside. The owner of Systematic wondered if I was overdoing it but they sold fast and we had to order more as people got and heard the record.  We didn’t have big accounts in L.A. since there were distributors in the city who could handle the city easier than Systematic, so we mostly made the sales of L.A. punk rock to the rest of the country.  As a distributor we weren’t that well known although we sold thousands of Dead Kennedys 45s on our Optional Music label and had hundreds of mail order customers.  We put together an issue of my blog on Rough Trade UK, RT-US, Renaissance & Systematic.

You moved to L.A. in the late 70’s thinking about a career of a screenwriter. Right now, you’re working on a few screenplays, including one focused on Naomi Petersen’s life. Within Enter Naomi: SST, L.A. and All That, you’ve already documented that period if your life. How does it feel to get back to writing scripts? And what we should expect from what you’re working on now?

I started writing screenplays late in high school but I wasn’t a good writer yet so I paused it and just went with the record business for a few years, continued seeing movies and reading.  Once SST was getting successful and I had my own apartment by 1984 I started writing screenplays again.  I was a little better.  I was trying to write basic action films but have them be better written than most of them are.  So now that I’m good I have a lot of westerns and cop scripts mostly.  The Naomi script is different.  Normally it’s fun to start with a few characters and a setting and find out what develops and how resonant the resolution can be whether it’s closer to Tragedy or Hollywood happy ending.  But the script Naomi’s Darkroom uses what day-journals, diaries and annotated calendars that Naomi kept  and which survived her hectic life so I was trapped in the plot she understood as her fate.  The story follows her so she goes from quitting high school to working for SST in L.A. to moving to the east coast and working for Ras Records and the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.  It’s a long script about a short life.

Video still of Naomi Petersen at Minor Threat, April 2 1983, Rollerworks, Chatsworth, Cal. – from Flipside video.

When did you first feel the passion for the writing itself? As a process of reflection and self-expression.

I hated schoolwork and would try to pay attention in class so I didn’t have to do much studying at home.  But I managed to write some interesting assignments in 8th grade and high school here and there where despite my lack of interest I came up with an idea and put it on paper coherently.  As a kid I had been most interested in old comedians from the twenties and thirties, stand-up comics from television, British comedians, Mad magazine, and classic horror movies but in junior year of high school I figured out that it was movies I was interested in and that writing a script was going to be the most interesting thing to do for me. Screenwriting is a longshot at best so I often take a break after writing two or three scripts to come up with a book, or do some essays for The New Vulgate blog.

After leaving SST, you focused on research work, starting with notes you took from DIY publication Slash Magazine. At that time, with Rock and the Pop Narcotic, you explored the basic mechanisms of the music business and the impact of different cultural and socio-cultural factors on the whole picture. Was it important for you to analyze these factors through this kind of prism of DIY?

I wanted to document how a generation of musicians and music obsessives managed to invent and build a parallel record business for contemporary rock music.  We had to build a new media of fanzines and take over college radio stations to support contemporary bands and the new labels, and the clubs that took chances and booked the shows.  I also wanted to impune the parties who forced us all to do that – the culture criminals who closed the open market in the music culture of records and radio of the early 1970s:  Lee Abrams – who formatted FM underground radio into programming only platinum-selling superstars, Jan Wenner – who used Rolling Stone magazine to support Abrams’ business model, and the consolidating major labels that gave up and stopped trying to buck Abrams and Wenner.  There were some advantages for music and bands and writers once the parallel record industry was built but many bands, whose life-spans are short, did not get their chance at getting heard by an audience they deserved.  So, I still have hard feelings even if Wenner’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has now had a Husker Du exhibit.

While working at SST, you had various roles – from different management-related tasks to production credits on different releases. But how did you define your role, your primary tasks, working in that company and interacting with all these artists?

At first, I was just the guy who would stay behind when Black Flag went on tour with Spot and Mugger.  I had my Systematic experience which included releasing records on our labels, Optional Music, and Thermidor.  But Greg and Chuck had done more mainstream promotion within the Los Angeles market of record store chains and independent shops, tying into commercial radio stations with heavy flyering and postering all over Southern California for big concerts that could draw thousands.  That was new to me and it just impressed me that though Systematic hadn’t been able to sell lots of records into L.A., it was the most advanced market for new music in the country.  We took what we learned from Black Flag’s activities and applied what seemed warranted when we worked on the other SST bands’ records.  Some bands could tour more than others.  And it was easier if they were based in L.A. but the Meat Puppets were nearby in Phoenix, Ariz. and often played L.A. and Husker Du was in good phone contact with us and came out often to record so those relationships worked out even though it was easier to know what was happening with the L.A. bands, the Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, Saint Vitus, the Descendents, the Stains, Overkill, etc.  The best thing was to be able to see these bands play weekly or monthly, though it did make it a bit tough to be excited about bands from around the country or from the U.K. who were stuck in their styles or not putting in the effort and imagination our bands were.

L.A. Times clipping from Nov. 11, 1984 – photo by Ken Lubas.

All the records Saint Vitus released on SST were produced by either yourself and Spot or various engineers joining you – like with Born Too Late. How would you describe your creative relationship with SST artists and how different was your role working with them?

The bands determined that. Some bands wanted to do more stuff for themselves.  They all did their own flyers, some published their own music or set up their own recording.  Initially Spot lived at the Media Art recording studio so he was involved in all the early records there or at other studios.  As Spot began to record other bands, we tried to release those records too but we had some hard years.  Even so we managed to get the first album by The Dicks and the second Subhumans album released.  Black Flag and SST had such good standing that we could have moved quicker to expand if we’d had the money; that’s a regret I have about those years.

Many of the underground bands of the 80’s were inspired by either the psychedelic era of guitar music (Screaming Trees) or by guitarists like Blood Ulmer\John McLaughlin\Fred Frit or pioneering heavy-metal artists – Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer, etc. At the same time, artists like Dr.Know (of Bad Brains) and Gregg Ginn brought guitar-music to the next level. What defined the changes of accents and further development of guitar music in the 80’s?

I think is that musicians are better if they walk through a lively and wide musical culture full of different styles in their early years, even before they think about playing an instrument.  This is why I think it is a serious crime against the culture to participate in shutting down that lively musical culture.  It happened by 1974 and manifested itself quickly in the appearance of punk rock, and later in the relative poverty of musical culture after the early eighties.

In both Rock And Pop Narcotic and Stone Male: Requiem for the Living Picture you’ve analyzed, in detail, the mechanisms of functioning. With these different angles it always gets to a point where, no matter what, pop-culture glorifies certain archetypes. But at the same time there are outsiders who don’t associate themselves with pop-culture and, sometimes, get a certain degree of recognition. Do you think the alternative side of a cultural movement always gets formed as a reaction or that the aesthetic side also plays an important role?  Since we have artists like Zappa, Throbbing Gristle, Sunn O))), Merzbow.

You do see the professionals in both the music business and the movie business try to impose their formulas, paradigms, and alleged expertise in the creation of music and movies.  It took fifteen years after the first Ramones album in 1976 for a punk style to score on radio and record sales with Nirvana’s second album in 1991.  Industry expertise was busy defending proven platinum styles until they were all mined out.  But all along most of the signings and launches of those experts failed, while songs and artists who in retrospect were worthy of getting those promotional pushes to radio are now selling and in demand for soundtrack uses; the Ramones themselves can be heard, posthumously, over the P.A. systems at major league baseball games.  As far as the more experimental music artists go, they often are most ambitious early in their careers and move organically towards a classicism that can put them into a pop framework, Zappa like many others did some fusionesque albums and even Throbbing Gristle moved in musical and even pop directions.  At SST we let bands do their music and then approached the promotion of that music based on what they’d come up with – some radio or press wanted pop, some wanted rock, some wanted experimental stuff.

Within Stone Male you described in detail all of the factors that formed cinematographic tendencies, focusing on biographical factors and how criticism affected actors’ presentation. As you observed all of these things, their rise and development, what helped you to understand the whole picture behind these archetypes and analyze them from critical perspective?

I guess the films I was interested changed over time and then I had to ask myself what I was responding to along the way.  I was first fascinated by the silent era and so I began writing gags when stuck in high school and then screenplays, just trying to teach myself how to write for the visual medium.  Later, I got serious about what it was I was most interested in in terms of genre and style.  At that point I got less interested in certain art-film styles and focused on certain Hollywood traditions of the action film, at least for my own writing.  As the author of Stone Male I wasn’t thinking like an academic, I was building on my own aesthetic interest as a screenwriter who was tracing what I think of as the most interesting achievements in film art.

At the same time, speaking about cinematography in the USSR\Russia, we can say that in the country limited by ideology almost every movie was positively accepted. Do you think the factual absence of criticism played an important role here?

In the Soviet period that there was no free criticism after 1927 was important because it meant that any criticism was official, part of the enforced positivity of any work of art that had been approved by the censors and then produced.  Any sudden negative review was ordered up as well.  Perhaps the author of a work attacked was just collateral damage to a Kremlin attack on one of the film schools or studios. I’m not sure how things are now in Russia for the arts but they can’t be anything like they once were.  I had to read a lot of books about Soviet cinema and literature to find out how and what happened – how the open futurist experiments of early Soviet art were shut down and replaced by socialist realism.

Stone Male cover art, collage by James Fotopoulos

What are the factors that usually influence this evolution from tendency to tradition?

I decided that I should follow the entire arc of Russian cinema to provide contrast with Hollywood’s true people’s cinema – a rarified artform for everyone.  Before the Russian Revolution the movies made were culturally Russian; after the revolution Soviet cinema was, as I write about Dovzhenko’s use of Ukrainian folk culture against itself, at war with the Russian-ness of its audience. A musician friend in Moscow mentioned I should see the 1997 film Brat or Brother, which is a great little genre picture that indicated a people’s genre film is possible.  That is no small thing.  Unfortunately, I had already sent the book out for printing when I saw Brat so I wasn’t able to include it.

In Narcotic you suggested that by the mid-late 80’s, when college-rock started rising, it completely separated from its musical roots – which punk basically was. A lot of these bands didn’t have such experience as punk-rock artists of the late 70’s-early 80’s. But they did follow the stylistic trends punk-rockers established. What, in your opinion provided this separation?

If you can’t just walk through a rich musical environment than you naturally listen to just what you like and seek out.  And people, especially young people, don’t listen widely.  So, boomers were in the end lucky, even if frustrated in the moment, to have to sit through all that music for grownups on the AM radio and variety TV shows to hear what they wanted.  I recall as a child sitting through the Count Basie Orchestra, Maria Callas, or Bing Crosby to get to hear or see something I wanted to hear like The Animals or The Standells, etc. On Sunday mornings TV was pretty bad for kids in the early sixties so we’d put on the black gospel program, ‘Jubilee Showcase’, because ‘Flash Gordon’ was on right after it.  I’m glad I couldn’t just skip forward through those acts!

In the book, you classify the rock-music format with quite clear definition, putting your stress on the fact that performance always (or, at least quite often) involves a conflict – something that reduces in electronic music, where one-two people replace musicians with drum-machines and samplers. At the same time, there’s a reverse side of it with artists like Ministry or and some industrial bands performing with two or three drummers, dozens of guitarists, a couple of bass-players, basically developing the tendencies that started rising in the 70’s with artists like Hawkwind. Does it have to do with hyperbolization of these tendencies you spoke previously, or is it their development?

It’s one thing for mass instruments to create a drone like Glen Branca, but duplicating instruments in a band’s lineup tends to cloud up an instrument’s voice. Bands do that to create cover to hide in.  Maybe they aren’t capable of playing expressively so texture and mass is used.  Musicians are nervous on stage.  In the studio if you solo one instrument that also makes that player nervous!  They like some cover.  Hawkwind needed its great rhythm section of Lemmy on bass and Simon King on drums to do their best work; with them holding down the song’s arrangement and rhythm, Brock, Turner and any others could pick their moments instead of having to carry things. 

I knew Al Jourgensen and we (Thermidor) signed ONO, the Chicago experimental band because he gave me their demo, but I never liked his music after his first band, Special Affect.  Even when he covered “Supernaut”, possibly Black Sabbath’s greatest tune, they just pave over the rhythm with a machine beat so it has none of the original’s truly diabolical power.

Since the beginning of your career you’ve published most of your books by yourself (within the exception of Rock And Pop Narcotic, reissued by Henry Rollins’ publishing company) – how does it feel to have control of the whole process? 

You try to get better each time as far as the editing and planning out the look of the book.  But with no publisher/editor you have to look at the writing as if it’s new to you while you edit it over and over.  Stone Male is the best I’ve managed to do this and it took the longest and I had learned from the earlier books and the work I did on the New Vulgate blog (some of which is re-edited for the anthology, Life Against Dementia).  The good thing about self-publishing is you can do things the way you want.  A publisher or editor would’ve told me to make the chapters of Stone Male on Futurism and Soviet Cinema a separate book, but working alone I am able to put that into the book on Hollywood and The Western to provide a comparison that puts the information and analysis into a real-world context across genre, auteur, and national cinema ideas.  It’s a better book than a major publisher would’ve allowed.

You can order any of Joe Carducci’s books here: http://nightheronbooks.com/redoubt-press.html

Interview by Dan Volohov

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