After we arrived in New York in 1968, my first freelance gig was writing previews of upcoming art exhibitions for Arts Magazine.  For five bucks a review, I would trot around the area that is now Soho, climbing rickety, dangerous stairs to look for the next Jackson Pollock.  Lofts were illegal for living in those days so I learned a lot about fake walls and how to cleverly hide bedrooms and kitchens from prying building inspectors.   

I thought of those days this morning when I read the strange news of the lady who besmirched a bone-dry white Cy Twombly painting on exhibition in France by planting a lipstick-drenched kiss on it.  I remember meeting Twombly in his loft on the Bowery one fall day around 1970.  Twombly was not one of the illegal dwellers; he was well-known even then and living in Rome, as I recall.  I loved his work then; still do, and remember thinking to myself:  if only I had a couple of hundred bucks I bet he would sell me a little drawing.  But, alas, those were lean times and the opportunity passed. 

On the other hand, artists are incredibly generous people and I have many pieces that were given to me during this period, including works by Sol LeWitt, Jasper Johns and Arakawa.  I still regret the Twombly though.

But, I digress.  The topic of the day is music vandalism.  Any famous examples?  Any obscure examples?

23 Responses to “Bonfire of the Vandalists”
  1. Jeffrey Quick says:

    Regietheater opera productions qualify.

    Or, in a nice way, Soraji’s Pastiche on the Habanera from Carmen. Fill those ciggies with a different smokeable…

  2. Seth Gordon says:

    Yeah Seth what you’re missing is that it really is musical vandalism. It takes the mythology of black anger and makes it cute

    Well, I didn’t find it cute so much as insipid, trite, etc. I think I brought up recently in another forum the sad sight of seeing The Canadian Brass “rap” – back in, like… a long time ago. Pretty much had the identical reaction.

    I guess it only works if you’re not as jaded as I am. I dunno, I think the whole concept of “different context” = “funny” jumped the shark sometime around when the 10,000th drunk guy belted out “I Am Woman” on Karaoke night.

    (Sorry about that massive link up there… must have forgotten a “/a” somewheres. Oopsie.)

    I have read too many books. Time to stop, I think.

  3. Yeah Seth what you’re missing is that it really is musical vandalism. It takes the mythology of black anger and makes it cute – it vandalizes through a ridiculous process of white girl cutesifying redemption. And it was a joke upon a murder threat which I always think is brave – even if useless.

    I’m not surprised you don’t like it. Face it man, you’ve read too many books. 😉

  4. Seth Gordon says:

    I think all the above examples, with maybe one exception, are missing one or more of the fundamental aspects of vandalism – mostly the malicious (or sociopathic) intent.

    Obviously, we have to stretch the definition some even then: You can’t really “vandalize” music. Kenny G noodling over Louis, however horrible it may be to our ears, doesn’t destroy or damage the original recording. It isn’t as if you can’t get it without KG now. Not that Mr. G had any malice in his heart, anyway. And, god help them whoever they are, there are probably a lot of people who even liked the end result. Certainly the suits at his label did. I don’t think adding to or embellishing or arranging something can be considered vandalism – be it drum tracks or boring saxophone fills.

    For essentially the same reason I’d be reluctant to include any covers as well. Even covers done in jest / spoof / recontextualizing – whether it be Laibach’s Let It Be or Weird Al’s Smells Like Nirvana – it’s not vandalism so much as appropriation. The original is not harmed, except in people’s memories, at best. It’s the musical equivalent of coming across this and leaving a couple basketballs next to it. Ha-ha, funny, run along now kids…

    As to Stravinsky and Ligeti’s complaints against Disney and Kubrick – that’s not really vandalism. That’s just creating an association, something people do all the time on their own. If that’s the case, we’re all vandals. I will forever associate “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” – which was on the radio in the background – with losing my virginity. (Ironically, McFerrin’s sunny optimism proved little consolation when the song lasted about four times longer than I did…)

    The closest thing along those lines I can think of with true malicious intent – though still not vandalism in the purest sense – would have to be this ol’ chestnut.

    I think the only thing that could really be called musical vandalism would be something we’ve all probably heard at one time or another – an intentionally disruptive sound during a concert. A “Boo!” before a piece has ended, meandering complaints just loud enough for everyone nearby to hear from someone in the audience who’s not enjoying themself and wants to bring down everyone else’s experience as well. Or the musician in the orchestra who doesn’t like playing modern music so s/he intentionally plays wrong notes to see if the composer notices… Or The drunk idiot sitting two rows down from me who kept shouting the name of his favorite song at the top of his lungs during a Radiohead concert, even after it was pointed out to him that even were the setlist not written beforehand, the likelihood of Radiohead indulging him was slim, seeing as they were on stage all the way the long way across the room, and that room was MSG.


    Re: Nina “no relation” Gordon. Heard that Straight Outta Compton cover some time ago. If anything, over-heard it. It was getting pretty ubiquitous at parties for awhile last year. And the person who put it on was invariably a white dude. Thus far, I have yet to meet one black person who appreciated the supposed humor of it. No one’s been offended, but no one was amused either.

    I didn’t, I admit, find it a fabulous decontextualizing joke either. Moreso an embarrassing attempt at cutesiness. Decon-everything had been done to death long before Nina Gordon came along, she needed to bring something a little stronger than a “I’ll sing a rap song with repeated use of ‘Nigga’ and it’ll be funny because I’m a white girl and I’ll play it all soft and folky instead of hard and aggressive ha ha ha ha ha wouldn’t that be funny!” – Eh, in a word, no.

    Sorry, Sarah Silverman she’s not. Nothing about the “joke” is funny, poignant, clever, or even cute. It may de- but it doesn’t re-contextualize the song, changing the meaning, as would the aforementioned Laibach – or, probably most famously, Soft Cell’s cover of Tainted Love. It isn’t pointing out some unintentionally amusing aspect that remained heretofore unnoticed until you heard a suburban white girl sing it. It doesn’t do anything. It’s just high concept without any conception, an idea trying to coast on itself.

    Maybe there’s something I’m not getting.

  5. Robert Jordahl says:

    I personally have no problem with transcriptions. Looking back in
    music history, there are countless composers that transcribed
    their music and pieces by others.

  6. Dan says:

    Can’t remember her name but some folk-singing lady does a remake of NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton”. Crosses far over the kitsch border and wanders innocently into Emabarrasingville. Check it out on YouTube but you MUST hear the original first. Hard-core violent sounding stuff. Easy-E and Ice Cube.
    Call me a tradionalist but a lilly-white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman singing about putting a “cap” in someone’s ass and cops beating her down because she’s brown is a tad inauthentic

  7. Sparky P. says:

    Oh, yes, another item comes mind: the second pressing of the Mothers of Invention’s “We’re Only In It For the Money”, where instead of masking or bleeping over the more “objectional” parts, they were simply snipped out and the holes joined together. And there were many of them (“…I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me…” (Who Needs the Peace Corps), “…and I stlll mama with her apron and her pad, feeding all the boys at Ed’s cafe…” (Let’s Make Water Turn Black)). Fortunately, the later pressings restored the original.

    Next piece of evidence: Pat Boone, especially in the 1950’s. His versions of “Tutti Frutti” and “Isn’t that a Shame”, yes, were pretty lame (the upside to this, if there is any at all, did expose the original artists to the public, even if the teenagers’ parents weren’t wise to those purchases (or so the legend goes)).

  8. I realize I’m constantly bringing them up, but they deserve it: Laibach’s covers of songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Andrew Lloyd Weber, etc., are definitely vandalism, but vandalism in the best sense of the word.

    And I was essentially accused of vandalizing Dvorak’s “From The New World” in the comments of my YouTube posting of my mashup of it with “My Humps.” But I’m okay with that.

  9. I had a recording of Berio’s “Sinfonia” way before I heard Mahler’s Second Symphony, so everytime I hear the Mahler, all I think is “Ward Swingle- 2nd Tenor,” or “can’t make the old young again, can’t lower the price of bread,” or “Berio’s Eindrucke made tulips grow in my garden,” and of course “…and thank you Mr. Boulez.” I’m sure there are a number of nice older folks on the east side of town who thinks a terrible crime has occured here.

  10. I’ve always thought those Creed Taylor ‘remixes’ of Wes Montgomery were akin to vandalism. Wes was playing with a great rhythm section: Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmie Cobb, basically the Miles early 60s band. They were wonderful – lots of interaction, subtlety, and soul.
    Creed Taylor wants to make Wes into an ‘easy listening’ star, so he records the band, mixes down everyone except Wes, and overdubs sappy string arrangements (that’s a technical term, BTW). It’s awful! When I was young, that’s what I thought Wes was like, until I heard the UN-mixed version, and it’s smoking!

  11. Sparky P. says:

    The Beatles’ “She Loves You”. As a performance it is, of course, a fantastic tune. As a recording, however, it is an atrocious mess, especially when heard digitally remastered. The splices therein are glaring, especially in the third verse (You know it’s up to you, I think it’s only fair/[MASSIVE EDIT] Pride can hurt you, too, etc.). Sadly, though, the master tapes were destroyed, and maybe, just maybe, the wonders of modern digital remastering will someday make a it more cohesive recording. A close second as to Beatles recordings (mind you, there are quite a few, but this also sticks out) is “Daytripper”, where, for no apparent reason, the sound level drops out for but a second after the line, “Tried to please her”. (My wife pointed those out to me and I can never hear them the same way again; I retaliated by pointing out The Supremes’ “Reflections” (also some obvious splicing toward the end) and the oeuvre of the Beach Boys (especially in the earlier records, lots and lots of clearly audible studio chit-chat (i.e. the beginning of “California Girls” and the middle-eight of “Wendy”).)

  12. zeno says:

    no one has mentioned the recent Mozart g minor symphony opening set to drum tracks … And didn’t Stravinsky and Ligeti feel that Disney and Kubrick had vandalized their musical intellectual property? (For many years I couldn’t hear passages of the Rite of Spring without visualizing mini-volcanos and the molten formation of the earth’s crust.)

  13. I had a performance once that I felt was music vandalism.

  14. I’m kinda partial to Christian Marclay’s Graffiti Composition.

  15. Steven says:

    I think the national anthem represents a kind of musical vandalism of the lives of those that hear it, etching itself on the brain (where’s that opening F, everyone?) until you spackle and paint over it with something else. But the reverse, the idea that the national anthem could be vandalized, seems a little absurd. It’s difficult to vandalize garbage; the worst you can do it spread it around.

  16. David Rakowski says:

    According to the 2006 biography of Stravinsky by Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky’s arrest for harmonizing the national anthem is fiction. According to Walsh, what happened is that after 2 performances of the piece in Boston, a police officer showed up in Stravinsky’s dressing room before the 3rd performance and told him there was a Massachusetts law prohibiting performances of the national anthem in “embellished” form. So it was omitted from that night’s concert. There was no arrest. Turns out the law referenced by the cop actually forbade playing the anthem as “dance music, as an exit march, or as part of a medley of any kind”.

    If I remember my reading of the book right, the “Boston Police” photo usually used to illustrate Stravinsky’s arrest was taken in order for him to renew his visa (the incident is from 1942; the Boston Police photo is dated 1940).

    All that said, yeah, the harmonization is a little funky but not extraordinary. Not even in the league of Kenny G riffing over a Louis Armstrong recording.

  17. Ouch! I love those Bach transcriptions. They’re like Bruckner, but Bruckner that isn’t boring. 😉 And I love Bruckner!

  18. James Ross says:

    Then, of course, there’s Kenny G overdubbing his soprano sax onto Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” I won’t link to a sample.

  19. Adam Baratz says:

    There’s that funny story about Stravinsky getting arrested for his reharmonization of the national anthem:

  20. James Ross says:

    The addition of massive amounts of phasing and other psychedelic effects to Captain Beefheart’s “Strictly Personal.” Allegedly done by producer Bob Krasnow without CB’s knowledge. Still a pretty great record, though.

  21. This may a bit harsh, but I have always thought that the orchestral transcriptions of Bach by Stowkowski amounted to, at the very least, a defacement. You load down Bach’s music with a bunch of extra parts and players and it all turns to mud. If Bach had a 19th century orchestra available, he would have written something suitable. But he did not, and it is best left that way in my opinion.