metaphors of the urban-industrial backbeat

In 1979, the late great music critic Ellen Willis gave a brief yet compelling explanation for how rock and roll sounds like the city, writing about “rock-and-roll’s oldest metaphor for modern city life—anarchic energy contained by a tight repetitive structure.” Her formulation has two components. First, rock and roll functions as metaphor, not the lyrical or vocal narration of stories or emotions, as the music simulates by sonic suggestion the experience of urban life. Second, this metaphor operates through the tension of opposites: chaos and order, uncontainable noise and inescapable rhythm.

These opposing terms and their juxtaposition would seem to be necessarily indefinite and unfixed; what sounds like anarchy to one listen might seem predictable to another. I think the listener’s relativism can be understood through a historical perspective, as rock ‘n’ roll at any one point conveys novel sensations that, for subsequent generations, might recede into the background of “modern city life.” My point here invokes Adam Krims’ concept of the urban ethos, a framework for analyzing musical representations of social life:

[T]here is a range of possible, and more or less likely, representations of the city in the corpus of… commercial popular music, and… certain representations call for framing at certain times… It is the scope of that range of urban representations and their possible modalities, in any given time span, that I call the urban ethos. The urban ethos is thus not a particular representation but rather a distribution of possibilities, always having discernable limits as well as common practices. It is not a picture of how life is in any particular city. Instead, it distills publicly disseminated notions of how cities are generally, even though it may be disproportionately shaped by the fate of particular cities…



Willis’s formulation appears from her entry on the Velvet Underground in Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, a 1979 volume edited by Greil Marcus’s 1979 edited volume. I read this piece in the fantastic new anthology, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). It’s worth requoting the passage in its original context, in which Willis makes her case for the Velvets’ essential contribution.

The Velvets straddled the categories [of art rock and rock-and-roll art]. They were nothing if not eclectic: their music and sensibility suggested influences as diverse as Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol, Peter Townshend and John Cage; they experimented with demended feedback and isolated, pure notes and noise for noise’s sake; they were partial to sweet, almost folk-like melodies; they played the electric viola on “Desolation Row.” But they were basically rock-and-roll artists, buidling their songs on a beat that was sometimes implied rather than heard, on simple, tough, pithy lyrics about their hard-edged urban demimonde, on rock-and-roll’s oldest metaphor for modern city life—anarchic energy contained by a tight, repetitive structure. Some of the Velvets’ best songs—”Heroin,” especially—redefined how rock-and-roll was supposed to sound. Others—”I’m Waiting for the Man,” “White Light/White Heat,” “Beginning to See the Light,” Rock & Roll”—used basic rock-and-roll patterns to redefine how the music was supposed to feel (pp. 55-6).

Many others have of course heard the urban in the Velvets’ sound, no doubt without having read Willis’s piece. The group’s first two records, 1967’s Velvet Underground and Nico and 1968’s White Light/White Heat, provide especially fertile material for this kind of analysis. Invariably, the sound and feel of subway trains are mentioned:

Notice how the song’s rhythm mimics the subway train this neophyte would surely have taken up to Harlem to score drugs. “I’m waiting for my man / twenty-six dollars in my hand / up to Lexington, 125 / feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive.”
—Nicholas Taylor, “Guest Playlist,” 2011

There were songs where Lou’s guitar would conjure the screeching sound of the N.Y. subway and the sensory overload of the modern city experienced by the amphetamine eyes of its residents as their minds split open.
—William Crain, “The Modern Lovers: Despite All The Amputations,” 2002

Even more noticeable when he switched to electric viola, Cale’s sound evoked the terror of Reed’s compositions, with the bowed strings screeching like a runaway subway car.
—CD Universe review, undated

As I listen to track after track, I can feel a tinge of the city’s seedy side: the risqué narrative in “Venus in Furs,” the sound of air blasting through subway vents in “Black Angel’s Death Song,” and the nervous intense jonesing in “Run, Run, Run.”
—Lindsay Sanchez, “You’ve Never Heard ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’?”, 2011



Maybe it’s best not to focus too narrowly on the urban landscape of NYC circa 1967. Placed in its broader historical context, we’re talking about what sociologist Chris Rojek has called the “urban-industrial backbeat” against which modern pop music emerged over the 20th century. In regards to the industrial element of this backbeat, a frequently referenced touchpoint is the Stooges, particularly the early material they developed in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Like most “godfathers of punk,” Iggy Stooge (later Pop) was a wired fuck-up liable to bring his whole crew down in the broken glass with him. But his cohorts, especially guitarist Ron Asheton, framed Iggy’s self-destruction in such pointedly blasted, assembly-line riffage that the whole thing ended up as classic Detroit folk art: auto-plant noise and Motown shimmy, meth jitters and wah-wah groove—the blueprint for everything fast, sexy, and grungy to come.
—”The Stooges,” Spin Magazine, February 2002 

In early interviews, Iggy used to claim the Stooge’s uniquely brutal, industrial sound was inspired by the noise of Detroit’s mighty car plants.

“Absolutely,” he says, “I didn’t realize it then how unusual that was then to live in an environment where really cars were the only things goin’ on. When I was little we went on a field trip to River Rouge which was an industrial park of immense size. If I went there now it would probably look nightmarish but to me then it was great. You heard how they pressed the metal, saw the catwalks, and all this was very impressive.”

—Richard Fleury, undated

As is well known, the Stooges’ 1969 eponymous debut album was produced by John Cale not long after he was kicked out of the Velvets. The clip below (from 2002’s “Lust for Life” documentary, a.k.a. “Jesus? This is Iggy?”) indicates the Stooges had formulated their sound before Iggy Pop ever “made my first trip to New York, or to any big city.” So, to continue with Rojek’s notion of the urban-industrial backbeat perhaps the Stooges’ first record comprises an ideal type for an early industrial backbeat, distinguished from its urban element.



I wonder how useful it is to limit the metaphoric medium to rock ‘n’ roll, since urban-industrial connotations of the kind Willis had in mind arguably can be across across the pop-music spectrum. How could “anarchic energy contained by a tight repetitive structure” not have been an apt or at least adequate description of early rhythm ‘n’ blues? Imagine what unsuspecting and unprepared ears, white or black, would have made of Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle & Roll”? How else to describe the culturally unprecedented sounds emanating from into radio stations like Cleveland’s WJW 1210 AM, home of Allan “Moondog” Freed, or Memphis’s WDIA, “73 on your dial,” America’s first radio station with an all-black format?

Another potentially relevant musical signifer is Detroit’s Motown sound. Consider for instance Martha and the Vandellas’ 1965 single, “Nowhere to Run.” In homage to Detroit’s auto plants (the same inspiration for the Stooges), producer Lamont Dozier fortified drummer Benny Benjamin’s beat with the sounds of car chains. The urban metaphor for “Nowhere to Run,” ostensibly a song about love gone wrong, was hammered home by a promotional video filmed in the Ford River River Rouge Plant that was broadcast on the CBS music show “It’s What’s Happening Baby,” hosted by popular NYC disc jockey Murray “the K” Kaufman.

In Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Harvard University Press, 1999), Suzanne E. Smith offers an acute interpretation of the Vandellas’ video in its historical and geographical contexts:

The use of car parts to create the song’s apprehensive tone complimented the “Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide” lyrics, which recount the loer’s inability to free herself from a tortured romance. The staging of the television shoot on the factory shop floor accentuated the eerie quality of the song as Martha and the Vandellas tried to navigate their way through the mechanics of an unfamiliar assembly line. The performance concludes with “Murray the K” driving a fully assembled Mustang out of the auto plant while Martha and the Vandellas stay behind with the autoworkers and wave good-bye.

In this television appearance one of Motown’s musical products disrupted the Ford assembly line in order to promote Motown’s sound, Ford’s Mustang, and the summer employment campaign of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity. The moment exemplified James Bogg’s assertion that automation and modern technologies carried “the contradictions of capitalism to their furthest extreme.” “Nowhere to Run” became more than a song about a tormented love affair when Martha and performed it in the Ford River Rouge Plant, a performance televised to a national audience of teenage consumers. The audience of autoworkers at the filming of the song often had “nowhere to run” from the tedium of assembly-line work and nowhere to go if automation displaced them from their jobs. The U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity broadcast the show to encourage teenagers to look for part-time summer work but did not offer any long-term solutions to the employment crises that automation and deindustrialization had produced in cities like Detroit. For the Ford Motor Company, the “Nowhere to Run” segment offered free publicity for its new and popular Mustang. For Martha and the Vandellas, their appearance on the television special represented what had become a critical stage on Motown’s own assembly line, which strengthened the record company’s position in the larger record industry (pp. 129-30).



As Out of the Vinyl Deeps makes clear, Ellen Willis’ critical paradigm was indelibly associated with countercultural movements of the 1960s and 70s. Her musical reference points were the Stones, Joplin, Dylan and the Velvets, whose artistic agendas drew pointedly (if not always sympathetically) upon the generational and gender revolts of the day; tellingly, when these revolts dried up by the late 1970s, Willis turned away from music criticism.

Such bygone origins do little to diminish the analytical productivity of Willis’s formulation of “rock-and-roll’s oldest metaphor for modern city life—anarchic energy contained by a tight repetitive structure.” So vague yet so provocative—unhinged from her 60s rock references, it invites listeners to critically perceive the urban through a variety of musical sounds and genres. Obviously hip hop, industrial music, electronic dance music etc. provide ample fodder for such analysis.

Instead, I conclude with another recording much closer to the years Willis wrote music criticism. To my thinking, Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” evokes the city of post-industrial decline. Here, ‘anarchy’ reflects not the (white) heat of population/infrastructural pressure and subcultural clash, but rather an immoral policy of urban disinvestment and workforce redundancy. In this city void of material function and social solidarity, the music’s ‘tight repetitive structure’ traps the listener into an isolating echo chamber of the mind.