Sunday, July 01, 2018

Eric Burdon's 1968 Rock Gospel Against Empire

During Donald Trump's ascent to the White House, his presence on television was as in-your-face and irritating as lake flies in spring (only people who live around Lake Winnebago, WI will have any idea what that means.). When I watched Trump on TV back then, what immediately came to mind were lines from "No Self Pity," one of my all time favorite songs by Eric Burdon and the Animals: 

And no matter how low you are
There is always somebody lower . . . 
And no matter how dumb you are
There is always somebody dumber . . .
That song is from the 1968 album "The Twain Shall Meet," a recording much overlooked for two major reasons. First, the album competed for attention with releases by the Beatles ("The White Album"), Jimi Hendrix ("Electric Ladyland"), The Rolling Stones ("Beggars Banquet"), Cream ("Wheels of Fire"), and others whose songs that year became staples on FM album oriented rock radio stations for many decades. 

Second and less obvious is that "The Twain Shall Meet" is one of many 1967 - 1970 recordings that over the years became marginalized as primarily "psychedelic," hippie-era opuses. In other words, for the corporate guardians who decide what we get to hear on radio--and who decide how rock and roll will be defined in "official" writing about the genre--an album like "The Twain Shall Meet" represents not much more than "Eric Burdon's drug phase" or a period piece that allows baby boomers to look back with gleeful nostalgia at the glory days of acid dreams and sexual freedom. 

Make no mistake: the LSD inspired, hippie movement fingerprints on "The Twain Shall Meet" are as obvious as the graffiti on New York City subway trains. You have to be willfully obtuse to miss it. But to state that fact does NOT mean that the values expressed on the record are naive, irrational, or not worth considering as an important early stride in the CONTINUING and VITAL effort to expose and transform the consumerist, military-industrial-complex culture excesses that have left too many spiritually empty and all too eager to sacrifice meaningful human engagement for the thrill of a digital technology induced dopamine rush. To challenge those excesses does not mean that you are or have to be a hippie. Likewise, for the challenge to those excesses to come from a 1960s era rock album ought not make the challenge any easier to ignore. More from "No Self Pity": 

Modern day structures are fantastic 
But have you seen a butterfly's wings? 
Man has created symphony 
But have you heard a blackbird sing? 
Man can make sweet red wine 
But have you tasted a mountain stream?
Hollywood has created movies 
But listen to the color of your dreams 

With record numbers of people addicted to their smart phones, why on earth would we want to keep those lyrics stuck in 1968? There's a temptation to say, "oh, those words were just the LSD talking," with the implication being that you somehow have to be stoned in order to have any kind of appreciation for sensory awareness, nature, and being present in the moment. Somehow to be "sober" means to suspend any hope that love, tolerance, peace, understanding, and other "hippie" values can have any real force in our lives. If being sober means having to reject real love, then it's no wonder so many would rather be stoned. 

The Twain Shall Meet: A Rock Gospel Against Empire

Eric Burdon and the Animals' "The Twain Shall Meet" really is not a great album in the way "great" albums are typically understood. It does not include an abundance of "catchy" songs, the production quality is sloppy in places, the playing of the instruments does not inspire awe (with the exception of Danny McCulloch's bass playing, which is outstanding throughout), the lyrics are sometimes more obscure than necessary, and it does not show up on lots of "best of" lists. The album did break into the Billboard top 100 for a few weeks in 1968, but that was largely on the strength of the songs "Monterey" (a timely celebration of the 1967 festival that introduced the world to Jimi Hendrix and other legends of the era) and "Sky Pilot" (a protest song that was appreciated by the growing anti-war movement of the time.).

To be frank, I didn't make much of this album myself when I first became aware of it around 1976 or so (I was too young to fully appreciate rock music in 1968). By 1976 the late 1960s era artists were fading, and a range of new genres were gaining currency (soul, punk, disco, new wave, early hip hop, etc.). More troubling, by 1976 FM radio was abandoning its original mission to serve as a space for the expression of counterculture values through music and discussion, so like millions of youth I really had no one to educate me about the meaning(s) of rock and roll. It wasn't until years later, when I discovered that the album title "The Twain Shall Meet" was a pun off of Rudyard Kipling's line "Never the Twain Shall Meet," that I took renewed interest in the record. 

Depending on who you talk to, Rudyard Kipling the poet and novelist (1865 - 1936) was either an overt racist apologist for European/American imperialism or, as the late Christopher Hitchens argued, a man of "permanent contradictions" whose work paradoxically supported colonialism at the same time presenting an "exaltation of the common man." 
Is Eric Burdon and the Animals' "The Twain Shall Meet" a response to Kipling? Listen to the album and judge for yourself.
Regardless of who is the "real" Kipling, there is no doubt that he was the unofficial poet of the British Empire whose works were widely seen as a celebration of the Western attempt to "civilize" the East. Eric Burdon appears to have been taken with Kipling's poem "The Ballad of East and West" (1889), which includes the line "Oh East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." (This would not be the only time Burdon would pun off of Kipling. With his band War in 1970 he released "The Black Man's Burdon," a twist on Kipling's jingoistic and pro-imperialist "White Man's Burden" [1899]). 

My reading of "The Twain Shall Meet" is that, in the anti-establishment style of peace-loving hippies, it is a challenge to all the vestiges of empire: white supremacy, hyper nationalism, mindless patriotism, war, and the destruction of nature. It is significant that Eric Burdon himself hails from Newcastle upon Tyne, the northeast England working class industrial center that survived German air raids in World War II. Newcastle's "Geordies," like the working poor in the United States and indeed all over the globe, were/are ultimately the main domestic victims of the greed of the empire builders. Yet instead of giving us a kind of Bruce Springsteen/John Mellencamp "celebration" of the working class--a celebration that situates working class consciousness as a fixed and permanent part of the human condition--Burdon's "The Twain Shall Meet" seeks to transcend all class consciousness. If Kipling was a poet for empire builders, Burdon circa 1968 was a poet for the empire wreckers. The best way to wreck the empire, the album says to me, is to emancipate your mind from its allegiance to empire values. (In that sense the album is very Bob Marley-esque).

"The Twain Shall Meet" could have been called "The Gospel of Eric Burdon and the Animals." The opening track, "Monterey," starts off with Burdon whispering "In the Beginning" as if we are about to be introduced to a new creation myth. And in a sense we ARE introduced to a new creation myth: "Monterey" celebrates the famous "summer of love" music festival as a multicultural mix of peace-loving youth creating such an overwhelming space for love that "even the cops grooved with us." Monterey in a real sense gave birth to the counterculture. 

On the orignal vinyl album all the songs ran into each other, which enhanced the sense that all the tunes were part of one bigger story. Bassist Danny McCulloch penned and sang two songs on side one ("Just the Thought" and "Orange and Red Beams"). Both have a kind of acid trip vibe to them, though "Just the Thought" comes off like a warning to all who would strive for the empire's definition of success: 

As I play I see me winning
And I gain what's called self-pride
And I turn around with a smiling sigh
See a flower that has died
I feel a change, another change
Another game, I will have learnt

If there is a masterpiece on "The Twain Shall Meet," it would have to be "Sky Pilot," the epic anti-war tune. A "sky pilot" is a military chaplain. In the song the sky pilot is a "good holy man" who glibly sends young soldiers off to war. Burdon's sky pilot is the Rudyard Kipling figure whose job it is to indoctrinate the servants of empire: 

The fate of your country is in your young hands
May God give you strength
Do your job real well
If it all was worth it
Only time it will tell
For me, Burdon's "Sky Pilot" was a stand-in for Kipling, and the song a not-so-subtle "Fuck You" to all those who enable war. Since 2001 in the United States we've had ample numbers of sky pilots gleefully sending men and women off to ill-defined battles. No surprise "Sky Pilot" has pretty much disappeared from FM radio over the last decade. 
The last song on "The Twain Shall Meet" is "All is One." Bruce Eder in an AllMusic review says the song "is probably unique in the history of pop music as a psychedelic piece, mixing bagpipes, sitar, oboes, horns, flutes, and a fairly idiotic lyric, all within the framework of a piece that picks up its tempo like the dance music from Zorba the Greek while mimicking the Spencer Davis Group's 'Gimme Some Lovin.'" 
I'm not sure why "We are one/your neighbor is your brother" would be deemed idiotic. In fact the widespread outrage to the Trump Administration's cruel and family unfriendly immigration crackdown is in a sense deeply rooted in the humane premise that we ARE all one regardless of borders. But Eder is certainly correct that the piece is unique even by the high creative standards of sixties progressive rock. 

Eric Burdon's entire career in music has been about lifting people up, which is why I reject attempts to marginalize "The Twain Shall Meet" as merely being part of a hippy "phase." As Burdon himself says on his website

The music I love was created by the sons and daughters of slaves. My life's work has always been about honoring those people who suffered and thus, created a language of peace and salvation through music. Everything we believed in during the 60s, everything people fought and died for, is being jeopardized today.

Eric Burdon's rock gospel against empire is as vital today as it was in 1968. Probably even more vital given the overt and disturbing trends toward fascism across the globe.