Music is, like most anything humans do, an intensely tribal affair. We like to think that the music to which we listen defines us as people; it binds us to the others in our tribe, who also connect with the stories the songs tell in their lyrics, melodies or rhythms. “Our” music also serves to distinguish us from the other tribes, who sing different songs around their fire; or so we like to imagine.
However, music is only rarely a single unique thing; or if it is, that thing can be likened to water. It’s something that I think we all need, and it flows in whatever ways that it must flow. There are countless tributaries feeding that river; the river branches and ranges far afield, only to later re-merge stronger; streams loop back to a point upriver, before heading off in a new direction (OK, it’s not exactly like water). Two creeks may take entirely different paths, and end at the same pool.
In music discussions, it is sometimes criticized as lazy and reductive to say an artist sounds like (prior artist X + prior artist Y). But this shorthand does crudely reflect the way in which musical artists (any artists, really) occupy a nexus on multiple axes, with throughlines of influence and idea spiderwebbing out in various directions to and through ancestors, kin, and descendants both musical and spiritual.
So certain musicians and artists and styles that we commonly perceive as being entirely unique, are in reality often intertwined with others in ways both obvious and not. But our need to define ourselves or our tribe as unique can cause us to perceive as “unlike” that which should be seen as “like” (in both senses of those words).
Which brings me to my latest Rock’n’Roll Heresy. (These are observations that may be good to start arguments between music fans, who can be that most tribalist of the tribes.)
Television are considered by some to be exemplars of downtown New York 1970s “cool”. They shared stages with the NYC punk scene’s best and brightest bands (Blondie, Talking Heads, Ramones, etc.) though they have little in common with any of them musically, nor became as well-known.
In a scene that celebrated willful primitivism, Television was blessed with two exceedingly-talented guitarists in Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, who often eschewed standard blues-derived chords and progressions in favor of epic intertwining crystalline lattices. Their seemingly-psychic tandem style often has both guitars playing controlled interlocking figures, then leaving one guitar to anchor the structure while the second sparks and spirals off into filigreed infinity, only to rejoin the first later – which might then itself take off for galaxies unknown. In some ways, it’s closer to jazz than rock (though it does still, in fact, rock). And there’s no doubt that it’s “cool”.
Dire Straits is best known for their hit 1985 single “Money For Nothing”, taken from one of the most immense-selling-yet-uncool-to-admit-owning albums ever released, Brothers In Arms. But Brothers was their second-to-last studio album; they made 4 prior. Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler is an exceedingly-talented guitarist who (“Money” aside) often favors clear, elaborate traceries with jazz shadings. And today, Dire Straits is generally not considered “cool”.
I recently picked up Dire Straits and Making Movies for cheap, after enjoying a Dire Straits track on a friend’s Pandora station; also, some folks around here were recently talking about their earlier work (and, “Sultans of Swing” is just a damn fine radio song that I will always sing along to), and I was struck by the musical similarities to Television.
Television – Call Mr. Lee:
Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing:
I don’t find the vocals, structure, tones or playing to be all that different, though Knopfler is handling most of the fancier guitar duties himself, and is maybe just slightly more overtly blues-derived in structure.
The most obvious common ancestor of the two bands is, of course, Bob Dylan, particularly in the vocal phrasing (though Television most likely got this DNA in part through their NYC forbears in the Velvet Underground – early Lou Reed vocals sound very, very Dylan-influenced):
Television – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door:
Knopfler – Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door:
Now, I’d wager that many people that like Television, won’t give Dire Straits the time of day; and many people who like Dire Straits, won’t care for Television. And each band has their hurdles for the casual consumer (Verlaine’s voice is maybe marginally more of an acquired taste than Knopfler’s; and Knopfler has THAT HEADBAND).
But I like to imagine these guitarists sitting down somewhere in a pub together for a pint with no prejudice. If you count yourself a fan of either artist, I’d encourage you to give the other a try. You might find something you like.
What musical heresies do you hold? What (songs, artists, genres) do other people see as completely different, that you can see really aren’t?