This one is haunted. Lurking in the grooves is the lost and long-forgotten rattlesnake buzz, the rhythm of dry seeds shaken in a gourd, the sound of black-dirt hoodoo. Though mostly overproduced funk and soul, the tracks here still throb with the echoes of Bo Diddley’s wild-man guitar - and the ghost of Jerome Green.
Bo Diddley first went into the studio in 1955. Eighteen years later he was still at it, grinding out product when the money was right. In ‘71, Howling Wolf had gone to London and made a record with half the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, and other flickering luminaries. It sold well, so Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry had followed. This album is the fourth in the series, getting white boys to sit at the feet of great black men. Updated, shinier and slicker than his earlier tracks, this is still one-chord primal juju groove. Not really a collection of songs (that word never was right for Bo’s work - implying composition, beginnings, middles and ends), this is better described as nine slices of greasy fried musical fatback.
The greatest maracas-player in the history of American pop music, Jerome Green, died as Bo was flying to London for the sessions. So only the ghost of his sound made it onto the tapes. Though he hadn’t played with Bo for almost a decade, he’s still here, shaking and sputtering like an Afro-Carib tribal medicine man.
“Greatest maracas-player”? Does that seem absurd? Everything about Bo Diddley’s career is absurd, including playing a shag-carpet covered guitar. But that doesn’t take away one iota of greatness. The maracas are hardly a real instrument, more often something to give the chick singer that she can’t mess up too badly. Right? Wrong. Bo Diddley put a loud squalling guitar into the hands of his sexy female partners - first Lady Bo, then The Duchess - and he kept the maracas in the hands of a man, a real man. Their sound usually gets pushed to the back of the mix. On Bo Diddley’s early tracks, they’re up front, as important to the groove as the drums and Bo’s trademarked guitar beat (bam bam bam - pause - bam-bam!). The essence of cool, Jerome Green’s slinky hipster shake is there on ”I’m a Man,” “Diddley Daddy,” “Pretty Thing,” “Diddy Wah Diddy,” “I’m Bad,” and most crucial, on “Who Do You Love?” the strongest hunk of dirty folk magic ever to make the charts.
Not so much a song as a spell, this one makes no rational sense. Bo brags that he’s got a “tombstone hand and a graveyard mind.” He tells us he has a “brand new house on the roadside, made out of rattlesnake hide” and up on top is a chimney “made from a human skull.” He’s just 22 and he “don’t mind dying.” Then he demands of his girl “who do you love?” Or perhaps it’s not a question but a statement of his methods: “Hoodoo you, love.”
Two decades later, Chess Records paid his way to London, gathered up some faceless studio musicians and got the tape rolling. By far the standout cut is “Do the Robot” - a one-chord wah-wah workout. This isn’t the silly-ass 80s robot dance he’s conjuring up. It’s no herky-jerky spaz Star Wars robot, but something a lot closer to the original, like Maria from Metropolis, the sexiest, slinkiest most hyper-cool robot ever captured on film. This is the primitivo Bo Diddley robot - with a titanium bone through his nose and an outer space John the conkaroo making the mojo. Traditional deep south goofer dust was dirt collected in a graveyard under a full moon. But in ‘73, we needed a new kind of hoodoo, so the Apollo priests had brought back lunar goofer dust, powdered moon rock collected under a glowing full Earth. And Bo’s robot knows exactly what to do with it. “Makes no difference if you’re at home,” he growls over the churning funk, “you can do the robot all alone.” Doing this robot is a private rite, with the TV gleaming instead of black magic candles and the sound of this record blasting instead of Mississippi delta drums.
Jerome Green died, almost forgotten, in ‘73. But when we put on the headphones, he’s still here with us, like a rattlesnake buzzing inside our skulls. Bo kept at it for a few more years, the old man who passed on his loudmouth gut-bucket noise, the precursor of the harder, wilder troglodyte beat of American garage bands and then punk rock. But without the maracas, it just wasn’t the same.
Of all the albums that entered our world in the year of ‘73, this is by far the most popular. Of all the discs in the entire history of recorded music, only one has sold more copies worldwide. There should be obvious reasons for such amazing success. But explanations - obvious or oblique - break down in this case.
Charisma? Hardly. Pink Floyd in ‘73 was the paragon of cold-blooded corporate rock - faceless, arrogant and isolated from the world. Devoid of stage presence or interesting life stories, the band consisted of four ordinary-looking men with boring names and no discernible talents that would set them apart from 10,000 other musicians. Virtuosic playing? Originality? Sex appeal? The visceral throb that gets people up and moving their bodies? Pink Floyd had none of these. Early on, when Syd Barrett was their front man, they were charmingly acid-addled, whimseyed and weird. Their “Interstellar Overdrive” sent their fans out through the gleaming stars. After Syd was gone, the band kept some of its cosmic sublime, but headed into more doom-laden terrain, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” being a perfect soundtrack for glorious teenage solar suicide. By ‘73, with Dark Side of the Moon and the hugely profitable tours around it, Pink Floyd had lumbered to the top of the dinosaur food chain, the reigning tyrant lizards of arena-rock. With upwards of 40 million units sold, with literally billions of plays, this music - like no other - flooded the earth with its message, the gospel of self-annihilation that the moon’s hidden side represents.
Golgotha is not just a place in the little Holy Land of the Middle East. The real Golgotha - “the place of the skull” - is in outer space, a quarter million miles away, orbiting around the earth. The moon is our primal, eternal skull-icon. And all of our skulls are tiny versions of the great skull in the sky. What do we see in the moon’s leering face? Eye holes, gaping toothless mouth, nostril slits, the empty stare of the Great Death’s-Head. Calvary is not just a place of ancient torture and obscure sacrifice. Calvary - “the place of the skull” - is out there, night after night. The moon is the universal face of death and also the earth’s primary mirror - shining back the light of the sun, the source of all life. So when this Face of Death stares raptly into itself, of course there is an invisible side of the reflection: the dark side, untouchable, unknowable, real and yet absolutely unseen.
As music, Dark Side of the Moon is a grand mediocrity. With its bloated blues imitations, fake soulful moaning, banal synthesizer squiggles, its utter absence of original melodies, lyrics, or musical hooks, this album should have disappeared into the great cut-out bin of LP oblivion. Instead, it sold in vast numbers and kept selling, spending a total of fifteen years in the charts. Ultimately, it colonized more brains than all of the albums released in ‘73 combined.
The secret of this record’s success is in fact no secret at all. It’s all right there in the title and the last line of the song “Brain Damage.” To the sullen, smug teenagers of the world (young and old) Roger Waters sings “I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.” His lyrics mention racing “to an early grave,” exploding heads and brutal psycho-surgery. There may be many far better examples of I-want-to-die music. Originality, however, doesn’t sell. Complexity and intelligence don’t make for commercial world domination. The very banality of Dark Side of the Moon works in its favor. If a band is going to create a mass market hymn to self-obliteration, then subtlety is not going to be one of their tools. If Pink Floyd set out to make enormous profits, then playing directly to their audience’s inner deadness was exactly the right technique. Making self-pity into grandeur, numbness into stoned mysticism, stupidity into exaltation, Dark Side of the Moon is the perfect product. Heartless, pompous, blotting out everything like brain-death or an eclipse, whining and empty, this is the sound of cretinous nihilism, the wretched little self screaming “me! me! me!” in a vacuum.
On their previous - unnamed and unnamable - album, Led Zeppelin used four symbols to represent the four members of the band. The symbols all give the impression of secret truth hidden in plain sight. The first, Jimmy Page’s, sign is sometimes read as the magical nonsense word “Zoso.” For many fans this is the name of the fourth album. But the actual glyph itself is far more complex than a childish four letter word. It’s composed of four fused elements: a sleek and slithery Z with a curving tail, an elongated S that might also be a lost musical clef, two O’s with dots in the middle connected by a slender bar, and at the bottom a calligraphic scribble-slash that might be a pot-pipe or perhaps Aladdin’s lamp. All together, they form a sigil of power and bafflement. Nonsense perhaps, a magickal hippie doodle, or an arcana-scrawled doorway waiting to be opened.
Scholars, fan-boys, paranoid religiasts and esoteronauts have assigned a wide array of meanings to the glyph. Does it make reference to some Crowleyite spell? Is it an oblique Nietzschean strategy, the name “Zoroaster” compressed? Or split into the near-palindromes “Zoso” and “Rater”? Does this refer to Zoser, the Egyptian pyramid, or to herpes zoster, the viral pestilence? Benighted christians have seen “666” (the Mark of the Beast) in the emblem. We see the astrological sign for Saturn, the ringed planet, and the alchemical symbol for lead.
This emblem, well beyond the other three, had a life of its own, appearing on Jimmy Page’s amp, his shimmering cape, his silky wizard pants. But none of the symbols were to be seen on the fifth album. In effect, they had done their job - transforming themselves, from symbol to actual ritual. Houses of the Holy, Led Zeppelin’s next album, contains that ancient rite.
The cover shows the Giant’s Causeway: 37,000 hexagonal basalt columns on the north coast of Ireland. Some are complete, others broken. Some have sharp edges, like huge rusted nuts made to screw onto bolts. Others are like six-sided, lichen-crusted prehistorical wheels tipped on their sides. All of them fit together not as a puzzle but a temple built before mankind had ever come to that place. Dawn, or some baleful astral being, glows at the peak of the stones - sickly orange, crimson, seething yellow.
Opening the gatefold cover reveals a scene of pagan ritual. Is it sacrifice or exaltation? Eleven naked elf-children crawling over the stones, ascending - pale and ghostly - to meet their sunrise god. White-blond hair, powder-white skin. Not pasty subterranean pallor but soft forms dusty with sky-pollen.
They’re faceless, seen from behind. Six years old, maybe eight. Natural forms, not pure but prepubescent, like something Lewis Carroll would hallucinate on laudanum. Some claim they are all the same child, the body reproduced eleven times. But clearly some are boys and some are girls. Others say they are brother and sister, like a childish Siegmund and Sieglinde in The Valkyrie.
One lies on her belly like a mermaid. One squats. Another holds her hands above her head, in awe, expectation, opening herself to the solar crest-glow, making the same Y-shaped salute to the sun that the wandervogel and yogis used to greet and worship their god.
Inside the fold-out cover, a more overtly sacrificial image is revealed. It’s now sunset and a naked man holds a naked child above his head - clearly an offering - before the fungous nightmare ruins of Dunluce Castle. Rotted stumps of stone, a ravine crossed by a decrepit bridge, two towers, all decayed, all bathed in the same arcane radiation: oozy pink and orangey-green. Rich blue in the upper sky. It could be the surface of another planet, earth a million years in the future or the past.
It’s dusk now. The pale children are gone except the chosen one, the sacrificial offering. From the top of the citadel a faint white light gleams. And a milky beam extends downward to consume the naked priest and his offering.