Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Movie Music

In the second scene of the Peter Fonda-Dennis Hopper film Easy Rider there is a cameo part for Phil Spector. The scene takes place at a small airport and involves a silent transaction in which Spector buys an enormous quantity of dope from our two cycling heroes--some white powder that can be sniffed, probably cocaine. Spector, looking freaky as ever in a huge Rolls--one reviewer commented that he looked very gangsterish--ducks every time a plane takes off. Then he tests the merchandise and seems to relax. Apparently, his ears have taken over: the roar of the engines, which has always been present, suddenly seems oppressively loud, filling the theatre and, incredibly, even the screen, dominating the visuals in a Phil Spector apotheosis, an almost literal wall of sound. Spector looks safe as milk. Cut to Fonda and Hopper on their motorcycles, winding away from the scene of their financial triumph as a familiar guitar line comes over the soundtrack. Soon, John Kay of Steppenwolf is singing "The Pusher."

Fonda and Hopper are rock fans and they are friendly with rock musicians. But neither could be described as a music head--Hopper, who took most of the responsibility for the music, doesn't even collect records--and that is interesting, because Easy Rider is the only film I know that not only uses rock well--though that is rare enough--but also does justice to its spirit. Clearly, the spirit of rock--and now I am talking about the American variant; that the English usually refer to it as "pop" is significant in this context--is not so much the culmination of a form as of a subculture. It would be difficult if not impossible to understand this subculture without intelligent reference to the music. In fact, Easy Rider is a double rarity--not only does it use rock successfully, it also treats the youth-dropout thing successfully. You can't have one without the other.

So few movies use rock correctly because the people that make movies, who are even more avaricious and ignorant than the people who sell records, lust after the extra profits of a soundtrack album, which means commissioning one composer, or group, to do a mostly instrumental score. Rock composers don't work well on order and aren't good at background music--when they try (John Sebastian on You're a Big Boy Now or Harry Nillson on Skidoo!) their results are even more insipid than those of the pros. (Booker T. Jones was able to write a superb score for Uptight! because the M.G.s are not a vocal group--though Booker's vocal debut in the film was suspicious--and because his experience in the Stax studios prepared him for such an effort.) The results have been somewhat better in theme songs (Roger McGuinn's "Child of the Universe," Paul Simon's "Mrs. Robinson") but even in that area the same strictures apply; songs-to-order are a drag. Thus far, I know of only two cases in which a rock composer has hired out to do an even passable score. Both were English and both , properly, used at least half a dozen songs and a minimum of la-dee-daa: Mike Hugg (of Manfred Mann) on Up the Junction, and Spencer Davis and Stevie Winwood on Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. The music for Wild in the Streets, by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, both music industry pros rather than inspired amateurs, was also pretty good, but the performances (remember Max Frost?) were lousy. (It was better than Privilege, though.)

Movies can use rock in other ways, of course. There have been a number of good music movies--the Beatle flicks and Monterey Pop (which has a much superior rock and roll predecessor, The TAMI Show, released in 1965 and starring--get ready--the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Chuck Berry, James Brown, and the Rolling Stones; it was shot black-and-white on videotape and has either disappeared or disintegrated; if the former, someone should find it and exhibit it. Some underground film-makers have used rock well without paying for it (no profits, no lawsuit): the Everly Brothers can be heard in the background of Andy Warhol's Poor Little Rich Girl, and Warren Sonbert has juxtaposed the na´ve formalism of the various girl groups to his own young-jaded formlessness. Antonioni in Blow-Up and Lester in Petulia have misused rock to epitomize some vague aspect of our Decaying Culture, but at least they had the taste to choose good rock (the Yardbirds, Big Brother, the Grateful Dead). But in Peter Bogdanovich's Targets, a scrupulously realistic movie which involves considerable driving around the freeways in a Mustang with the radio blaring, the radio station apparently programs directly off an 87-cent dance party record picked up at Rexall.

The reason Bogdanovich couldn't have real music is that his budget is small and re-use rates tend to be prohibitive. Yet I wonder. Bogdanovich is a hip young guy, not some disciplined brassiere manufacturer, and his movie was honest and interesting. I feel certain he could have screened the movie for enough groups to find a few who were willing to give him a break. On a higher level--he used songs by Steppenwolf, the Band, the Byrds, Jimi Hendrix, and the Electric Flag, and he needed specific songs, not just snatches of background music--that was Hopper's method, and only the Band soaked him a little (in their warm Woodstock way, of course). He took the trouble because he knew it was worth the trouble. (He didn't take the trouble with billboards, which also can't be reproduced without permission, and the film is doubtless worse for it; I am a billboard freak as well as a music freak). He resisted pressure to commission a soundtrack because he understood the profound emotional value of known songs. He knew he could not make his movie honestly without real music.

In many respects, Easy Rider is similar to Nothing But a Man which contracted its music from Motown. Both films are low-budget treatments of oppressed subcultures that rely on music for cohesion and spiritual succor. In both films, the music references are somewhat literary; in Nothing But a Man there is a mock fistfight during Mary Wells' "You Beat Me to the Punch," and in Easy Rider "Born to Be Wild" plays as the heroes hit the road. That's okay even if it is romantic and unsophisticated. The music is romantic and unsophisticated, too, finally, and it would take a convolutionist who would make Warren Sonbert look like Sam Goldwyn to deal with the Byrds in as carefully distanced a way as Sonbert has dealt with the Supremes.

It's also okay because the message of the movie--like the message of the music--is itself romantic and unsophisticated. American rock has always had a love-hate thing with technology (its message is so often pastoral, but its medium is intractably electric) and with America itself (the message once again negative and the form positive). Easy Rider, with its central image of two longhairs on gleaming chrome motorcycles, one decorated with stars and stripes, following the road through an otherwise unspoiled American West of buttes and deserts and benevolent patches of green, embodies the same dichotomy with reference to the same subculture. It has the same youth romanticism, too, glorifying the outcasts and detesting and fearing the straights. You could even say that its dark side was anticipated spiritually by all those teen death songs that don't seem quite so funny after all. Think about it: isn't Tom Hayden the leader of the pack?

Village Voice, July 24, 1969

Postscript Notes:

Reposted by Village Voice July 18, 2019, as Rock & Roll: The Music of 'Easy Rider'.