I recently, found myself chancing upon some videos of early Little Richard performances, shared around in the wake of his death not too long ago, and it’s the kind of thing that, without warning, kick-starts a series of connections and far flung references spiralling out of what is, really, a remarkably powerful document. I say this because there’s perhaps an innate assumption that if we look this far into the past, all we’re going to find is a collection of dusty, faintly ridiculous wall hangings; the nasty suspicion is that all that we have left of these times is a comedy performance, that it is impossible to really understand what might have made something like rock’n’roll such a controversial cultural force at the time behind its time-locked fuzz.
On the contrary, some of this footage brought this to the fore in a flurry of sweat, jerky movements and riotous audience applause… while there’s no mistaking the fashion, surroundings, the music itself for anything beside a product of that moment, the tension remains. Little Richard’s notable effeminate appearance in many of these clips merges with his voice, a kind of twisted gospel-shout-yelp that seems to be trying to escape his body in some kind of psycho-sexual possession. It’s not difficult to see the root of the moral panic right here, the sight of a black performer who brooked no quarter, who threatened to break free of the sidelines and stage an invasion of the respectable domains of white culture. To be able to witness this today remains a remarkable glimpse, and begins to find echoes in all rhythmic interventions, the power contained in submitting oneself to the demands of a bodily sensation, that are replicated across temporal chasms today.
Of course, it wasn’t Little Richard who was eventually dubbed “the King”, and in the brief overview of rock’n’roll I remember seeing in multiple documentaries growing up he was glossed over before we got to the main act, Elvis Presley and, inevitably, the Beatles. This tendency extends to the mythology of the blues, Robert Johnson, the devil at the cross-roads, the old black man with his guitar pouring out his suffering on the porch somewhere in the Mississippi. There is always a sense, somehow, that these figures value lies not in their performances as much as who they influenced. They become nothing more than a blueprint from which the final product of Led Zeppelin was derived. What is again often glossed over here, is the tense relation between influenced and influencer, the sometimes exploitative channel between them. Led Zeppelin, for instance, were serial offenders when it comes to taking and performing songs recorded first by black singers and crediting them as their own. White rock music has an uncomfortable underbelly when it comes to its admiration for the blues, we might say something of a reactionary character.
To many, the blues becomes soul, and soul becomes music, and music becomes an inscrutable thing that cannot be understood or spoken about lest we are to break the mystery, and yet behind this veil of whispers and adoration lies a complex darkness, a wish to have ones cake and eat it, claim the soul for yourself and nibble it in the corner while others sit and watch. Somehow, this vibrating frequency that is known as rock was reduced to a root, some kind of distant past relegated to a hall of fame in which visitors can stroll around and catch a glimpse of a preserved eyeball or a mummified elder statesman gyrating in the back room somewhere, but here in the mechanical reproduction of one space in time are echoes of punk, of glam, of everybody from Prince to Tricky spiralling out of this single man in his oversized suit, or throwing his shirt into the heaving crowd, delighting in the result. The mystery is broken and reconstructed into a crackling pylon of glorious artifice in which the soul is jettisoned and worn as a mask, and then again turn around on itself and directed back at the interviewer.
There is no doubt in these moments as to who “the king” is, as the man himself reiterated in interviews with great force, he was the originator, the king, the redeemer. This kind of forceful, strutting proclamation later became stock in trade for the swaggering white rock star, if you didn’t claim you were bigger than Jesus who were you really, but here it suddenly seems daring again; Little Richard is reconstructing his own legend on screen, and succeeding. He is absolutely the afrofuturist par excellence, taking that seam of gospel and the blues and distorting it into unheard forms, placing the future into the hands of the man who would find other worlds out there in the fractured miasma.
Rock’n’roll, the and contracted into an ‘n’, the sound of it replicating a speech pattern, the lyrics descending, as Agnes Gayraud and Nick Cohn have expanded on, into Glossolalia; the voice merges into a noise-rhythm, and it is as if the participants are escaping themselves, constrained by their frail human forms and turning themselves into something else entirely. It is, in some respects, the power of a popular form coming into its own, the communion/ritual directed onto the stage, between the stage and the audience, between the audience and the musicians, between the musicians and the singer, between the entire constellation and the recording, between the recording and the living room where we sit, hunched over radios, laptops, or stereos.
When people speak of “rock” “blues” or “rhythm” its often set against a futurism or a modernism, it is the realm of pop tradition, the standard against which the now is set. In many respects however, that is not what emerges on closer inspection, whereupon the mind-body-rhythm machine is made apparent.. the winds of time might make our teeth chatter and our muscles ache, but the pop machine unfurls into some extra-terrestrial cephalopod, possessing us and sending us careening down hallways and avenues. The figure of Little Richard, self-proclaimed progenitor and king, was dethroned, replaced by a shuffling queue of white inheritors. His claim to the throne is one which reckons with its own overshadowing, and he strikes, despite the crowds, a lonely figure there, sexually ambiguous and yet charged so heavily. Little Richard was a progenitor, he one of many who took what was there and grappled with it, crucifying and worshipping it, whose religiosity channelled back into his own identification with a king or a god. Rock’n’roll here isn’t about soul, but movement, everywhere we find the movement of vibration, a whole lotta shakin’, indeed a lot of bluesmen made their living playing for the purpose of dance… soul dissipates into sound, sound into space, space into electricity.