A Short History of Long-Haired Music: Introduction

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There’s a wonderful scene in the classic mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, where mockumentarian, Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner), is interviewing Spinal Tap songwriter, Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), seated at a piano. Nigel is explaining his fascination with the key of D-minor as he delicately fingers the keyboard, producing a few bars from a new musical trilogy he’s been composing.

Marty: It’s very pretty.

Nigel: Yeah, just simple lines intertwining. You know, very much like I’m really influenced by Mozart and Bach. It’s sort of in-between those, really. It’s like a Mach piece.

Marty: What do you call it?

Nigel: Well, this piece is called “Lick My Love Pump.”

You don’t have to know a thing about the music of Mozart or Bach to get the joke, right? The humor is simply in the juxtaposition between the refined, classical composition and its raunchy, in-your-face title. But would it hurt to know a little bit about the music of Mozart or Bach? Would it detract from your hipness to comprehend the vast difference between their two styles? We are, after all, talking about a divergence in sound, fashion and attitude that surpasses comparisons between Ozzy Osborne and Burt Bacharach, or Mary J. Blige and Peter Frampton.

Bach, for starters, wrote almost all his music on an organ, while Mozart composed on the piano, an instrument that wasn’t invented until after Bach died. Then there’s the difference in hairstyle. While both wore long-haired wigs, Bach opted for the colonial look, while Mozart generally sported something much more Frank Zappa circa 1976.

Beethoven, who, contrary to the thinking of my good friend’s daughter, was not just an overgrown St. Bernard, but one of the greatest musicians of all time, studied with Mozart, briefly when he was a young, not-yet-deaf lad living in Vienna. He took one look at Mozart’s wig and decided that when he grew up, he’d just let his hair grow out, naturally. And so he did, starting a musical fashion trend that, as we well know, continues through today.

But let’s return to Spinal Tap for a moment.

In another classic scene, the band is onstage performing their hit song, “Heavy Duty”—a hard-rocking mockery of the heavy-metal sound popular in the mid-to-late 70s. Suddenly, in the middle of the song, they launch into Luigi Boccherini’s String Quintet in E major, written more than two hundred years ago. As the name implies, Luigi intended his piece to be played by five stringed instruments: two violins, two violas and a cello. It’s very dainty and elegant, appearing often on compilation CDs with titles such as Light Overplayed Classical Favorites or The Complete Bridezilla’s Guide Wedding Classics.

Here again the humor in the scene comes through juxtaposition: Spinal Tap cranking out Boccherini’s delicate tune with heavy metal power chords and searing lead guitar. But it’s only truly funny if you’re familiar with the original string quintet. And therein lies the point of these posts: to familiarize you with hundreds of years of rather amazing music and musicians you don’t know squat about, all while simultaneously critiquing their fantastic getups and hairdos.

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It’s true: Most folks, even highly educated folks who know a smattering about art, literature, and history pre-WWII, haven’t a clue about music history. They don’t know how music fit in and affected culture over the years.

But ask them if they’d like to and four out of five times the answer will always be a resounding, yes. (The fifth guy being the same dentist who refused to recommend Trident for his patients who chew gum.)

Years ago, when I was still a pimply nineteen-year-old student of music, I often found myself bored silly, rereading the same passages in my music history book over and over, trying desperately to comprehend, say, the significance of Beethoven’s hearing loss on his work, or, better yet, 16th Century recorder techniques. Not that 16h Century recorder techniques aren’t interesting, because they most certainly are (lying), but surely, I thought, there must be some way to educate people about them, while simultaneously entertaining them.

And therein lies the point of these posts for me: to unload everything I learned as a music major in college—including an inanely dull independent study on the operas of Richard Wagner, sparing you the trouble, to say nothing of the immense ennui, I had to endure. A $75,000 value, yours for free on this blog!

It’s been said that music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak. One look at the news these days is enough to know we’ve got plenty of savages running around in desperate need of soothing and plenty of rocks in need of softening. If Elton John, sorry, Sir Elton John can’t do it, perhaps Bach or Mozart can. But first things first: we need to get educated. We need to understand and appreciate Beethoven before we can hear his influence on every composer who came after him, including songwriters like John Lennon and Paul McCartney. We need to know who the original long-haired freaks were, before any soothing can take place. So let’s get on with the show already…

As the boys from Spinal Tap would say: Hello Cleveland!

[Be sure to tune in next Wednesday for Part 2]

October 6, 2010 - 6:10am
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