Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Slam

When Mumford & Sons had their breakthrough moment at last month’s Grammy Awards with a ferocious version of their second single “The Cave,” the Beast couldn’t help wondering what had brought old-timey British folk back to the American charts. (Does anyone remember the FIRST time?) Then, when the religion-tinged Arcade Fire took the stage (twice!) at the end of the show after stunning everyone with their Best Album win, we think we somewhat figured it out. It has something to do with The Slam.

"The Slam" is when one literally throws oneself into one’s music – while one is playing it live, mind you – in some sort of spastic head-banging neck-cartilage-ruining warrior dance. The Slam is a relatively recent development, but it has roots in American showmanship going all the way back to before the Civil War and  New Orleans’ Congo Square. What it entails is bringing a physicality to one’s music that acts as almost like a shamanistic hyponosis. Favorites? I got favorites: Howlin’ Wolf breaking the rules of the blues by crawling around on the stage floor like a panther while he growled and fumed; T-Bone Walker’s pre-Hendrix split-legged behind-the-back-guitar heroics; Muddy Waters going somewhat batshit during “Mojo Workin’ an the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival; Joe Tex and James Brown's muscular dance routines and ruthless microphone tricks; Uncle Dave Macon using his banjo as a miming device, either as a shotgun or pool cue; even a guy like 70-year-old Joe Hunter of Motown’s Funk Brothers, who executed an amazing (and unexpected) live split in the midst of his piano duties in the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown -- even though he looked like he kinda hurt himself.

The Modern Slam of course takes its cue from an amalgam of punk rock slamming and heavy metal headbanging. (Study Question: "What's the difference?") Iggy Pop pioneered the former with a limber-legged shimmy he claimed was influenced by Native American dances; Black Sabbath and AC/DC's Angus Young came in from the metal side with a neck-punishing head-snap that Motorhead and Metallica would later take to the bank. (In the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly, writer James Parker notes the influence of Sabbath on modern slamming before quoting Ian Christe's Sound of the Beast on the spectacle of early Sabbath "bobbing like hyperanimated marionettes in the hands of God.")

You want more fave slammers? No? Too bad: Flea from The Red Hot Chili Peppers; G.G. Allin; the nice young men of Korn and Slipknot; Henry Rollins; Trent Reznor's NIN Touring Band of 1994; The Beastie Boys; Living Color's Corey Glover; Tom Morello: Faith No More/Mr. Bungle frontman Mike Patton; Beck's Odelay touring band of 1996-97; Jack White; Angelo Moore from Fishbone; Billie Joe Armstrong.

All expected names to be sure. (You are welcome to add your favorite slammers in our ‘Comments’ section.) But what to make of this post-post-modern take on The Slam: Where avant-gardists like Kneebody or Nels Cline turn jazz into cathartic and kinetic experiences more akin to punk shows?; where Jeff Magnum's Neutral Milk Hotel freaks out their own audiences by toppling over their instruments like some guerilla Salvation Army band?; where Mumford & Sons can claim inheritance of a folk tradition of Bert Jansch and The Pogues while keyboardist Ben Lovett and banjoist "Country" Winston Marshall employ the Slam like it's a D.C. hardcore club circa 1985?

The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones captured the epic experience of The Arcade Fire slamming like their lives depend on it: "The first night, Will Butler, Win’s brother and the band’s keyboard player, rolled up a sleeve and began to whack his left arm with his right. Then he picked up a large snare drum and began to whale away at it, his back to the crowd. Without warning, he threw the drum high in the air, catching it so that it narrowly missed his brother’s head. After repeating the stunt three times, Will fell to his knees and settled for hitting the drum." And this apparently on one of their more mellow nights.

Less showmanship than shamanship, The Slam is a trope of absolute commitment. It is punk-rock energy now being harnessed (harvested?) for a variey of sounds, almost a cliché in how bands communicate their street cred: "Wow, this Irish fife and drum music is really annoying and—wait, are they slamming?! This is awesome!!!” Old candy in strange new packages.

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