On my personal blog, I’ve been chronicling my attempts to work my way through 1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, and today was Punk. I fell into it via the Ramones yesterday and today I spent drilling deep into Gang of Four’s Entertainment and The Clash’s London Calling. Something the book’s author, Tom Moon, mentions in his notes on the Clash record is that the Clash was actually reverential toward rock’s earlier greats (just 25 years prior to their own work), and what I’m hearing is exactly that — allusional music that touches on ska, rockabilly, and similar work. I never owned any Clash, but I owned a couple Gang of Four records — I remember hearing “I Love A Man In A Uniform” on college radio, on an old receiver a friend gave me, with tubes that would overheat if you played it loud for long — and thinking “wow, how come I like this so much? wow!”
Listening to this now, I realize how much discipline these punks had. They’re tight; they’re schooled; they done their homework and they know what to do. (Did you know Gang of Four had covered “Sweet Jane,” the Velvet Underground howl? It makes the Cowboy Junkies look like they didn’t give a darn.) This is what my teachers meant when they said, you don’t go experimental until you know your basics. You don’t go out and do abstract work until you can do representational.
This is how I feel around these technologies that I’m writing about and watching, and to some degree, the strategies as well. I see companies launching, and I recognize the extraordinary power of their innovative ways of thinking — but until i see that they understand the history of technology, that they understand what came before them, I watch with an extremely skeptical eye. Take a company like Google. In Web search, in particular, the Google founders knew EXACTLY what had worked and what had failed. The storied clean interface that they adopted was founded in what had worked at Yahoo and at Alta Vista (although, to some degree, that initial crispness had been abandoned later). It’s that kind of deep recognition that history matters — right now I’m listening to “Anthrax,” the Gang of Four musical polemic. The lyrics could use a buffing even if one assumes an absurdist mentality (“love will get you like a case of anthrax, and that’s something I don’t want to catch”), but the guitar riff is rich, mean, bitter and feedbacky, a Hendrix solo extruded through time and slightly warped as a result.
A sense of history is no liability, in other words, no matter what the technological strategy.