Friday, 7 June 2013

Essay: Have You Heard of Eugene Chadbourne?

Illustration by Louis Labron-Johnson
"It’s curious that so few have come across avant-garde-country guitarist Dr Eugene Chadbourne, and that his name doesn’t come up a lot more often both today and in histories of independent pop music. Curious because Eugene Chadbourne was – or seems to have been – one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed stars of the independent scene during its nascent phase in the 1980s... Chadbourne was described as America’s “only anarcho-paramilitary-electro-folkie-troubadelic-matador”, his music as “gonzo audio journalism” that “pushes traditional music to its edge and makes it jump”. At the height of his fame between 1986 and 1988, you almost couldn’t pick up an underground pop magazine without reading a review, article or news item featuring him, and he never needed an introduction... 
"Chadbourne... was swiftly disappearing, crowded out by the consequences of all the new money and attention for the scene. Magazines were becoming glossier and glossier, the bands in them bigger and bigger, and even though lo-fi was very fashionable, the leading artists (Pavement, Beck, Guided By Voices etc) were predominantly released on widely distributed vinyl and CD rather than the mail order of the previous decade. Besides, their music was usually significantly less challenging and unconventional than Chadbourne’s and the avant-gardists within Cassette Culture. Most importantly though, Chadbourne’s whole aesthetic, to the extent that it ever was in fashion, was quickly falling out of it. Alternative rock in the 90s was cool, and Eugene Chadbourne was not cool...
"I’m not saying... that the zaniness was somehow regrettably “mistaken” at the time. My point is that it has been scrubbed from the indie aesthetic agenda so hard that it’s difficult to imagine it as a viable creative possibility today. As early as 1989, one music critic referred in a live review to “Chadbourne’s stale fruitcake routine”. The bands that came to define alternative rock were about as far from zany as they could get. Mainly reacting against the excesses of corporate hair rock, they also set themselves and their behaviour against the underground’s previous generations. Neither clowns nor hippies nor hardcore punks, their demeanour was frank, sincere, understated, streetwise, minimal, a cool passivity, whether it was Beat Happening, R.E.M., grunge, or the notoriously subdued shoegazers... 

1 comment:

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