Friday, October 7, 2011

October 7: DNA, "Blonde Red Head"

Artist: DNA
Song: "Blonde Red Head"
Album: A Taste Of DNA
Year: 1981

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All across the long history of recorded music, there have been styles that were completely misunderstood in their time, and in later years, seen as pioneering, or often "genius."  Then of course, there was the rather short-lived, and largely overlooked "no wave" movement that existed briefly in the late 1970's in New York City.  To this day, it remains one of the most misread and marginalized genres in all of music history, as within the sounds of the style, one can find many of the building blocks for the bands that followed.  Though (at best) only one or two "no wave" bands ever received any widespread acclaim, there is no question that one of the finest purveyors of the sound was the group DNA, and there has simply never been another band that sounded even remotely similar.  By the time DNA put together their own studio recording, they had already experienced a number of lineup changes, along with being featured on the legendary No New York compilation, which was curated by none other than Brian Eno.  However, following their appearance on this album, the band weathered their most significant membership change, and the sound they played after this point was a far cry from their previous incarnation.  However, it was this "new" sound that can be argued as their finest, and there are few better representations of the "no wave" sound, or the brilliance that was DNA than their 1981 song, "Blonde Red Head."

The main reason for the shift in the sound and attitude of DNA was the exit of keyboardist Robin Crutchfield, and the arrival of his replacement, former Pere Ubu bassist, Tim Wright.  The fact that Wright had played in a more conventional manner was a stark contrast from the rest of the band, and this is what caused the dramatic change in their sonic approach.  However, while DNA certainly showed a large change in how they sounded, the spirit behind the music is much the same, and "Blonde Red Head" is absolute perfection.  The impact of the song revolves around the interplay between Wright's bass and the guitar of Arto Lindsay, and there is simply no comparison for this interaction.  In many ways, the pairing is much like that of a jazz duo, as the two seem to be playing in their own realm the entire time, with their sounds seeming to meld together in an extremely non-traditional manner.  Wright's bass brings with it an almost unsettling sense of urgency, perhaps even menace and doom, and this looming feeling that it conveys throughout the track is one of the most engaging elements of the song.  Lindsay's guitar squeals and screeches in a somewhat maddening manner, showing no care for "where" he is in the mix, and yet this somehow manages to work, creating one of the most gripping and breathtaking sonic structures ever recorded.  The speedy, consistent beat of drummer Ikue Mori works as a suitable finishing touch, but there is no question that the focus is on the two guitarists.

Along with his superb and unquestionably innovative performance on guitar, Arto Lindsay also handles the similarly rambunctious vocals for "Blonde Red Head," and they match the energy and approach of the music perfectly.  Lindsay is basically ranting for the brief vocal section, and yet it is the amount of personality and meaning that he conveys in this short period that further define what it meant to be part of the "no wave" movement.  Taking much of the punk rock approach and shouting the lyrics, one can hear a sense of control in each syllable, and there is a clear intent to which part of the word he emphasizes, giving the vocals a more musical, almost instrumental feel.  This is certainly one of the more overlooked and unexpected elements of the song, but it also highlights the poetic nature of the words that Lindsay delivers.  This idea of lyrical poetry is further enforced by the words themselves, as they are quite akin to haiku in structure, and this is fitting as the "no wave" sound was very closely associated with the "performance art" community of New York City's East Village.  Yet it is the attitude that comes forth on every word from Lindsay that almost begs to be read into, and there are few songs in history that leave a listener wanting more content than what can be experienced on "Blonde Red Head."

While in its time, "Blonde Red Head" went largely unnoticed due to it being so far removed from anything else being performed at the time, as the years have passed, the impact that it had on the world of music cannot be denied.  There are clear traces of the sound of DNA all across the hardcore, punk, and post-punk bands that followed, and this song was also the source of the name of the rock band, Blonde Redhead.  It is the way that the instruments seem to crash together that makes the song so stunning, and yet there is also a clear balance and focus that seems to work in contrast to the sounds at play.  While the guitar parts may seem to be completely random, there is no question that they have been purposefully placed and toned, and this is where the link to jazz can be clearly heard.  The fact that both Lindsay and Wright are able to work around the same central theme in different ways, yet have a blended sound that is truly brilliant, shows just how talented they were, and their clear knowledge of music history played a vital role in this sound being achieved.  Yet as the decades have passed, many wish to completely "write-off" the entire "no wave" movement as little more than unstructured noise, simply because it takes a bit more time and concentration to understand the sheer genius at play on such songs.  Though there are many great examples of the wild mastery that "is" the "no wave" sound, few have aged better than DNA's phenomenal 1981 song, "Blonde Red Head."

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