Paul AdamsWhat is "Underground Music?"
by Paul Adams

I'm a sucker for the lost soul,for the guy NOT getting what he truly deserves. I'm a sucker for the guy who shines like a light and the world just doesn't get it. I'm reminded of all those beautiful "blues artists" who never saw a dime from their work. I'm turned off to the masses responding to Brittany and Snoop who's music treads no creative ground. Is there anything more revolting to the "under ground" artist or musician, than seeing masses of fist raising audience members "baaaa ing" like sheep as they follow the top 40 mass hysteria? It makes me think of all those old films of "Adolph" on the history channel.

OK, I guess I'm for the underdog. I guess I'm an elitist. I also don't like mean people. I guess I qualify for the moniker of A FOLLOWER OF THE UNDERGROUND.

Oh well. BUT, there is one thing I just don't get. Why is it that so many in the "underground" don't include music that pushes the parameters of rhythm, meter, key change, and modulation? I mean they love the poet who's verse flows like a river. I do too. But, is it me, or does it seem that "underground" music is music that is just angry, crazy, loud, and caustic? DON'T GET ME WRONG. I love music that does all that at times. It's a genuine form of expression. But it seems that much of what the underground groups are really playing is the same 3 chord structure you'd find with Brittany. I wonder why bands that are absolutely miraculous with their instrumental technique are not sought after? What about the musician that SINGS as well as SCREAMS, OR DOES BOTH AT THE SAME TIME (Jimi Hendrix, Gato Barbierri, Charlie Parker, Bela Fleck, Alan Holdsworth...)?

What about the band who's rhythms bend your head and make you respond with self questioning? A band that drifts from 4/4 into 9/8 with the smoothness of a clean caress from a beautiful lover? What about the musicians that morph into Basa Nova, Bluegrass, classical, and Klezmer,before taking you back to their solid roots of rockin' blues?

Oh My God! I might be old!!

Maybe it's just me, but I don't see folks really looking for artists that push the instrumental horizon, or the musical envelope. I find it an irony that at a time when our composing tools are so sophisticated, most of the music we hear is a straight 4/4 that never changes? There are times when this is great!! I love rock and roll. I love folk music, I dug early Public Enemy. It seemed honest and angry. Not mean or sexist.

There's one piece of reality that perhaps I must face. Maybe I'm an an old fart? God help me!! There is a "sameness" to much music today. All I hear is 4/4. I long for a key change, a change in meter. I long to hear an Afghanistan Daduk, or an Egyptian Oud, with the push of rhythm. I long to hear passages that speak with the softness of an angel, and then bark with the force of Ulysses. I long to hear shifts in expression. When I listen to a poet or a great actor, I want to hear how he tempers his voice relative to the dialog that is written. Smooth soft passages blending into thunderous orations of passion. If I'm coming off like I am invalidating this other "underground" music, forgive me. I honestly don't mean to do that. I just can't figure out why "the underground" doesn't include this other music with what we normally hear?

Digital Computer Folk Music?

Other musician friends of mine sometimes say that this underground music is so popular because it is so easy to create. You don't have to train for years, in order to play your instrument. I don't believe that . It's too simplistic an answer. AND, as I said, we shouldn't devalue this music. It's simplicity of creation and the ease in which it communicates to others, makes it an incredible new form of folk music. Music for the masses that is passed on through oral ( And - digital) tradition. THIS is a valid form of creation and expression.

But, I don't want to see "cutting edge" music, considered "cutting edge" simply because it pisses someone off. I don't want it proving it's artistic validity simply because the record industry places an offensive warning sticker on it. If it just does that, we devalue the definition of "cutting edge". We make pushing the parameter too easy.

I really think it is based on the fact that more "complicated music" lies too far down the field of esoterica. Folks don't know about it. OR, haven't gained an appreciation for what goes in to it. The work, passion, complexity, and dedication isn't taught in schools. AND - here is an irony - the music that is sold as "cutting edge" such as Rap, is the most powerful music from a financial standpoint. You can think of it as being (And it is being sold as) on the edge and hip, but it has turned into the status quo. These guys are the richest in the industry. They have the power. It sells. And because radio focuses on it, there isn't room for anything else. AND well, it's just too easy to have thong wearing gals stick their butt out to attract attention from the masses. I want the MUSIC to attract attention. The men who own the huge record labels do NOT want to take a chance on music that will NOT produce revenue. They want a sure thing!! A thong wearing babe. So, quite simply, folks are not exposed to this other music.

A Major Paradigm Shift?

There may be another strange phenomenon at work here. Being a cool hipster on the edge, used to be relegated to the very few who were usually ostracized by the community. The record exec's came to realize that everyone wants to be cool. So, lets make cool, arty, and hip, more accessible. And there we have it. A paradigm shift. A new set of definitions about being cool. So - and here's the irony here - lets let everyone feel like they're an individual and think for themselves, by encouraging them follow those we designate as hip (This isn't just the record exec's, it's also the Radio guys, Television programmers, Publicists, ad executives, hucksters, and promo guys). BOOM. A new formula that works - and here is the real kicker, the real proof of art for arts sake - IT SELLS!

I once saw a popular "artist" on the grammies who claimed that they just reflect society, they don't create society. He said that people think for themselves. Here is where I disagree. If this were true, we wouldn't need ad agents and publicists. The general public doesn't always think for itself. Hell, look at this most recent election ARGH!! It usually happens that what is real, is usually what is created and molded. The ad man is the GOD MAN.

Where is radio? What is radio?

Radio lost faith over twenty years ago. Certain labels such as Arista and Virgin took a chance at sponsoring "arty" bands that offered more than a 3 minute song cycle. BUT, it was difficult to sell (I know this somewhat first hand because I have friends that were in bands on these labels). Ten years ago I was being interviewed by a radio DJ about one of my albums, when a very well known record and radio producer entered the room. I was asking the DJ if she remembered this particular "arty" English band, and the guy interrupts and say's, "hey, I produced their last and worst record!" This fella was the "go to" guy when Disney and MTV were getting started in the music business. He loved the "arty underground" bands. BUT, he was also a business man. He was one of the major exponents that turned radio back around to the 2 and 1/2 minute song that is the safe bet. He knew what he loved, but he also knew what would be more of a "sure thing." I don't agree with him. I believe that music that challenges the brain and thinking process, can do a lot better commercially if given the chance. I really believe it could hold a segment of the audience and of the money pie. But, this music was thrown out. As many radio professionals told me, "we are not here to educate."

I remember when Pat Metheny came to my town twenty years ago. His album American Garage had just come out and the critics were stunned. A friend of mine, a DJ from the local "cutting edge" radio station interviewed him, and celebrated his concert with all kinds of give away's, and back stage passes. One thing was missing however. This station did not play a single cut of Metheny's album before or after the concert.

So, I guess my concern is that this "underground" doesn't expose composers and musicians that really take musical risk. They don't write about bands that push the envelope using the time honored tools of composition such as Meter, Rhythm, Dynamics, Melody, Cacophony, and expression. Throughout history, scientists, mathematicians, and artists, have expanded boundaries. This expansion then integrates its way into the norm, thus birthing the genesis of evolution.

We shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water. What is generally perceived as "underground music," is valid and deserves its place. But, lets not forget that the envelope and cutting edge can be more. There are folks out there integrating musical idioms, styles, and genres, into completely new forms of expression, and unique paths to tread. There are composers using rhythm and meter to take us on musical journeys that can be "awe inspiring." There are horizons out there. But, the journey isn't always for the faint of heart. Listening to Brave New Combo's Polka version of I Can See For Miles, or digging the harmonic boundary leaps of John Coltrane's Saxophone can set one up to be branded a real oddball. Listening to Sandy Bull's 5 string banjo version version of Karl Orff's Carmina Burana, or anything by Bela Fleck, may definitely get a few gawks from those walking by. "What the hell is that??" Of coarse imagine the stares one would get sitting in the park listening to one of John Cages Symphonies for the inner city.

Oooooo, Flip city, that guy is weird man. AND he refuses to ride on a double deck bus because there's no driver at the top.

Bands I like that may be considered - well - underground?


Paul Adams is the founder of Lakefront Productions. He is a distinguished musician, composer, and poet/writer. He has been a maker of stringed instruments for many great musicians (Daryl Hall, members of Stevie Wonder etc.) Paul Adams has a website where he has his albums, photos of the musical instruments he builds, and writing here. His newest and fondest project is THE NEURONS






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