Dec 192008

Recently we pondered the musical foundation of Classic Pink Floyd. I learned some useful information, such as the influence of Miles DavisKind of Blue on Rick Wright‘s keyboard stylings and the fact that “Run Like Hell” was a pisstake on disco. All that I learned helped strengthen my confidence in my recent realization that Classic Pink Floyd, beginning at the time the band found its true voice on Dark Side of the Moon, had more in common with The Who and U2 than I’d ever considered, something I will hereby term Popeye Rock.

“I am what I am.”

I believe the case can be made that most rock bands that connect with the public to some degree develop their sound from an established musical foundation, or traditions. In some cases the influences run deep and are easy to spot. In other cases, as is especially true in the playlists and sales charts of any given genre, the traditions may run as deep as last week’s playlists and charts. In short, rock ‘n roll musicians usually structure their individual talents around an identifiable sound. The craftwork rock musicians typically put into their music involves applying the “fabric” of their instruments to an existing “frame”: stylistic conventions dictating beat, melody, verse-chorus-middle eighth structure, etc. The Beatles are credited with blowing open the vault of rock’s available frames, but it was always the frame that dictated the course of the music.

This was the uninterrupted history of early rock ‘n roll until The Who came along. They may have introduced the Popeye Rock approach that, while still not the norm, has become a viable path toward making rock ‘n roll, especially following the massive popularity and influence of both Pink Floyd and U2.

Early on The Who made much of their “Maximum Rock ‘n Roll” and R&B roots, but for the most part, they were a lousy R&B band, even among pasty-faced British Invasion bands. Put their R&B covers against those by The Rolling Stones, The Small, The Animals, and even The Beatles and The Zombies and The Who struggle against the conventions. “I am what I am,” windmills Pete. “I am what I am,” bashes Keith. “I am what I am,” rumbles The Ox. The musical personalities of the musicians in The Who were too strong and too idiosyncratic to serve as the fabric for the frame of any of their influences, be they R&B; surf music; or the first couple of Kinks singles, which Pete has long admitted to copping for “Can’t Explain.”

In short time the musical personalities of the members of The Who would become the frame itself for its music. Once the band got cooking on its unique, action-packed style, it would be a bit of a shock, by the late ’60s and early ’70s, to hear Pete rip off Chuck Berry licks (eg, “Long Live Rock”), Keith play anything resembling a standard kick/snare pattern for the course of a song (eg, “A Legal Matter”), or John stay “in the pocket” on bass. To some extent, The Who that found its voice in the mid- to late-60s played identifiable types of songs—a “rocker” or a “psych” song or a “ballad”—but 99% of the time the songs only sounded like the result of the band members’ odd mix of playing styles in support of Pete’s spiritually charged, conceptual lyrics. The band, once established in its style, didn’t write and play songs in the style of anything past or present – no French-influenced ballads like “Michelle,” no blues or early rock workouts (excepting “Young Man Blues” and the aforementioned “Long Live Rock”), no “Music Hall” numbers featuring harpsichord, no gimmicky “Eastern” psychedelia except for “I Can See for Miles,” which had the good taste not to resort to the use of sitar and tabla… Once Pete and Keith got those forearms chugging, John took the lead on bass, and Roger shouted out Pete’s lyrics, The Who took rock to the level of sound sculpture, a songs composed of a solid hunk of almost nothing but The Who, rather than rock and pop music’s usual practice of sonic upholstery.

As someone who merely likes jazz from the ’60s, in particular, but does not make claims to “understand” it, I suspect this development may be similar to what Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, et al were bringing to their own genre. Someone with more overall knowledge of “the arts” may be able to make the case that this was part of a greater revolution that stretched across other forms of music, graphic arts, film, and literature. I’d buy it. However, this is not to suggest that The Who was “influenced” by Coltrane or Jean-Luc Godard, no matter how much a young, stoned Pete might have dug their works. Inspired I’d buy, but Popeye Rock claims that the main influence on the musical foundation of its artists is the artists themselves, the way their limbs and nerve endings react with their instruments.

Following their Syd Barrett years, during which Pink Floyd’s music was centered around the highly idiosyncratic framework of Syd’s songwriting, the remaining band was left in the wilderness. Waters, Wright, and newcomer Gilmour did not display much facility for writing concise, recognizable songs the way Barrett could, even if his songs required the listener going through the looking glass to recognize. For a short stretch they turned out some Syd-like, Syd-lite numbers, like “Remember a Day,” but soon enough they departed on maybe an established rock band’s first-ever “jazz odyssey,” with the rambling Atom Heart Mother and Ummagumma albums. By Meddle, I believe, the band began to find a way to compose and record songs that were based primarily on a combination of their idiosyncratic style and the full integration of technology into their music. As someone pointed out in that “musical foundation” thread, the effects (eg, echo, delay, overdrive) that Gilmour and others used weren’t just add-ons to their sound but an essential component to their compositions. Songs like “Have a Cigar” or the later “Run Like Hell” wouldn’t have been able to exist without the rhythms generated by the band’s use of electronic effects. In terms of the development of individualistic Popeye Rock, Pink Floyd might have pushed it one notch further, into RoboRock, a merging of man and machine, but that’s for future investigation.

Or is it? What would Popeye Rockers U2, a band that made a feature film and double-album to demonstrate its inability to upholster established rock frameworks, be anything without the use of delay pedals? I’m not belittling the band. Like Pink Floyd, I think they’ve made brilliant use of their raw (and technological) materials to sculpt a sound that fully supports Bono’s spiritual, highly conceptual lyrics. You’ll note that all three of the Popeye Rock titans I’ve discussed here are centered around the lyrics of a “visionary” band leader. I think this separates Popeye Rock practitioners from bands that are merely obsessed with sound and the band members’ idiosyncratic playing styles, such as King Crimson and various Krautrock bands. They’re related, they are what they are, but I wouldn’t call them Popeye Rockers. There are also plenty of bands since the late-’60s that have Popeye leanings but still maintain their upholstering practice. The Velvet Underground was one such band.

I look forward to your thoughts on this subject, what other bands may demonstrate dedication to the Popeye Principle, and whether there is a need for a separate RTH Glossary entry for RoboRock.


  4 Responses to “Popeye Rock”

  1. hrrundivbakshi

    Mod: while I appreciate your admirable effort to put legs under the “Popeye Rock” term, for me, it just doesn’t hold enough water. Surely every band plays “Popeye Rock” to some degree or another, depending on the strength of musical personality of its members. I mean, isn’t it what we normally call “original” rock? I admit there are bands with higher degrees of originality than others, but to create a whole new sub-genre for this? Not for me.

    Now, “roborock” — THERE’s a term I can get behind. Off the top of my head, some famous robo-rockers:

    Bernie Worrell
    Bootsy Collins
    Andy Summers
    “Eliminator”-era Billy Gibbons
    Adrian Belew

    … etc.

    Your pal,


    p.s.: “Young Man Blues,” a blues workout?! Not only is it *not* a blues song (am I right that it’s basically one chord from one end to the other?)… well, it just isn’t. I realize this furthers your points about the Who’s inability to play anything other than Who-style music. I stand by my disdain for your “Popeye Rock” term — though I lift my brandy snifter, pinky extended, in your direction.

  2. Mr. Moderator

    I appreciate your confronting this difficult issue head on, Hrrundi. Surely all bands play what they are to some degree, but I’m standing by my belief that there are a few bands, such as the ones I’ve put forth, that came to play almost nothing but what they are. Time will tell if this point of view holds weight or not.

    By the way, yes, you’re right that even “Young Man Blues” is barely a blues workout, but someone would have called me on it if I didn’t acknowledge it.

    Your RoboRock suggestions are excellent. Perhaps Popeye Rock will only be remembered as a means to a greater end.

  3. I buy a lot of your premise, Mr Mod, except the RTH revisionist history that The Who were not good at R&B covers.

    I think that’s wrong. I think they do a great job with “I Don’t Mind” and the cover-original “Out in the Street”. “Shout and Shimmy” is good too. I’m not a big fan of the original or the cover of “Please X3.

    I think The Who was a *much* better band to dance to than anyone except maybe the Beatles. If you were a mod-DJ, it was easy to mix in The Who with whatever northern soul they were spinning.

  4. “. . .the first couple of Kinks singles, which Pete has long admitted to copping for ‘Can’t Explain.'”

    According to Neill and Kent’s ANYWAY ANYHOW ANYWHERE, Townshend styled it that way in preparation for an audition before Kinks’ producer, Shel Talmy. It worked for all concerned, as their first single as The Who was also their first top ten. As you suggest, it was a distinct departure from their previous r&b-based setlists and the advent of the Popeyed Who sound we know and love. It took a spell for their previous following to adjust to the new sound, but as it grew, song-by-song, well, you know the rest of the story.

    Interestingly, present in Pye Studios the day they laid it down in early November 1964 was twenty-year-old session guitarist Jimmy Page, ready to perform solo duties. Pete is quoted as saying that the lead on “I Can’t Explain “was so simple, even I could play it,” and so he did. Page did play lead on the B-side (A-side in USA!), “Bald Headed Woman” because Page wouldn’t let Townshend use his fuzzbox.

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