December 3, 2019

Snakefinger: Disco-blues-rock Expressionism

While most avant-garde cultural production is too cerebral and conceptual to make good art -- which is fundamentally corporeal and immediately arresting of the senses -- there are exceptions, both individuals and sub-groups within the broader movement.

Beginning with the counter-culture of the late 1960s and early '70s, several musicians founded a new avant-garde for the rock era, first Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, later joined by the Residents. None of this music could be played in a dance club, whether rural or cosmopolitan, and get the bodies of the crowd moving along in fascination. And it's hard to find fans of it who didn't attend Ivy League or elite lib arts colleges.

Music and dance are as interconnected as the senses of smell and taste. Songs that don't provoke a body-movement response are like some strange food that only pleased the nose, without making the mouth water or getting the taste buds excited, and that you not only did not eat -- but that was explicitly intended not to be eaten. What the hell kind of "meal" is that, then?

The dance scene, as the '70s wore on, was dominated by disco. Some groups were eager to mix disco with earlier counter-cultural approaches, such as Talking Heads, but these were mainline rock groups first, with avant-garde pretensions coming second.

What about the members of the avant-garde itself -- was no one willing to incorporate mainstream disco danceability into their counter-cultural project? In fact, there was a fellow traveler of the Residents -- an actual, skilled musician -- who distinguished himself by making body-moving music whose roots were in the counter-culture: Snakefinger.

Distorted, moody blues rock from the glam phenomenon, surreal and fantastical lyrics from the psychedelic heyday, shamanic guitar solos of the then-current rock gods era -- these could all appeal to introverts, druggies, lib arts students, and guys. What set Snakefinger's music apart from the Beefheart / Zappa approach was the danceable grooves that opened up the avant-garde's appeal to extroverts, normies, girls, and people who don't need drugs but music-and-dance in order to achieve altered states.

Not that his music ever hit it bigtime, but if you were to play anyone connected to the Seventies avant-garde to a normal person, he would enjoy the greatest resonance, hands down. Indeed, sub-cultural types look at him as at best an also-ran in the weirdness contest, and at worst a traitor -- someone who deliberately tried to court the normies with danciness. Someone who didn't want to keep the avant-garde weird enough. See this overview of his music, for example.

True rule-benders enjoy the carnivalesque appeal of dance, though, bringing together people from all sorts of backgrounds, as long as they're willing to temporarily submit their individual autonomy to the superorganism of the club-crowd, moving along to the same melody with the same rhythm. Keeping a movement insular, on the other hand, reflects a puritanical undercurrent.

But far from cheapening the counter-cultural attitude to appeal to mainstream audiences, Snakefinger's music spoke to their feelings of dread, anxiety, and alienation. It was a dizzy, evocative portrayal of the topsy-turvy times -- not a celebration or encouragement of deviance and disorder per se, unlike the anarchic attitudes that pervade the avant-garde.

In this way, his music had a heavy Expressionist character to it, and in fact there was a neo-Expressionist revival surging in the visual art world at the same time (late '70s, early '80s). Several older posts detailed the rise of such art movements across two waves of rising-crime times, roughly the '60s - '80s and the 1900s - '20s. See especially this post for its quoting of contemporary sources that reflected how novel and exciting it was to see Expressionism make a comeback after all the boring cerebral stuff from the falling-crime Midcentury art scenes. (See also here, here on Art Deco, and here on Fauvism).

You might raise Kraftwerk as another exception to the trend of '70s avant-gardists avoiding dance music like the plague. That's fair enough, but they're really more Art Deco than Expressionist or Fauvist -- not as wild, primitive, fever-stricken, and desperately yearning for an end to their alienation. And by the time they were making danceable music, they were no longer members of the experimental or avant-garde scene, and had broken into mainstream distribution channels.

That makes Snakefinger sui generis, although there is an interesting crossover between the two, as he covered "The Model", which sounds like the soundtrack to a Kirchner street scene, and thus better than the original in rendering the ideas.

Below are links for listening to his first two albums, which embody the unique mixture detailed above, along with three embedded videos per album to showcase the variety of his output. After these two albums, he returned to a more purely experimental sound, then incorporating jazz, without leavening it with the disco-friendly grooves of his "hits," as it were.

* * * * *

Chewing Hides the Sound (1979)

Playlist and single video

"The Model"

"Here Come the Bums"

"I Love Mary"

* * * * *

Greener Postures (1980)

Playlist and single video

"The Man in the Dark Sedan"

"I Come from an Island"

"Living in Vain"

* * * * *

Before he returned to the purely avant-garde, Snakefinger released a new song for a compilation of his early music, which retains the funky, groovy, blues-y beat of that style:

"I Love You Too Much To Respect You" from Against the Grain (1983)

1 comment:

  1. Would the difference between cerebral vs. corporeal music, correlate with the cycle between wallflower vs. attention-getting(every 15 years)?


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