Wondering how on earth the Beatles proceeded from penning “Love Me Do” to crafting “Strawberry Fields Forever” within the space of 5 years, Graham Young (Curator of Geology and Paleontology at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature) turns to the Cambrian Explosion for elucidation. Noting that life became more diverse and complex between the Cambrian and Ordovician periods, Young likens the “baroque forms” of those fossil species with the “rococo splendours” of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He goes on to align the Beatles’ demise and eventual break-up with the seeming tendency of complex systems toward disastrous collapse. Young admits that the analogy is “somewhat facile” and “tell us nothing about underlying causes.” Facile or no, the analogy is witty, and spares us any fruitless talk about memes and cultural viruses. It’s also free of lamentations over our current inability to wrap our minds scientifically around the procedures of culture.
On this last point, I am thinking of Paul Ehrlich who once complained that “although we have a very nice picture of how evolution occurred genetically,” we don’t have as of yet “a Darwin for cultural evolution.” We know a lot about culture, but “we don’t really understand the mechanisms, we don’t really know how to change it.” Darwinians can tackle a problem of antibiotic-resistance; facing a cultural problem, however, they’re at a loss. This distresses Ehrlich because in his view “the biggest problem” we’re facing today is one of cultural evolution. A “behavioral problem” confronts us, “where we don’t know how actually to go about changing it.” Of course, Ehrlich – a professional worrywart – has been wanting to change us for quite some time. He’s one of those intellectual bullies who, as the great forklift philosopher, Eric Hoffer, diagnosed, “cannot operate at room temperature.” They must always elevate “practical tasks into holy causes and Promethean undertakings.” And their crusades are too often dead wrong (e.g., the Population Dud).
I have one objection to Young’s analogy, whimsical as it is: he uses it to badmouth AC/DC. He indicts the band for a Neanderthal resistance to complexity. Never mind that the singing Neanderthals (as Steven J. Mithen has called them) were likely capable of notable musicality and semantic complexity. Young goes so far as to compare AC/DC’s insatiably toe-tapping tunes to algal mats.
I happen to prefer AC/DC to the Beatles. Setting aside my affronted tastes (as frozen in the Pleistocene as they might be), I believe I’m just in faulting Young for overlooking a rudimentary evolutionary fact: organisms evolve to suit their environment. After all, we don’t malign bacteria for being single-celled. While comparing AC/DC to bacteria may seem an additional insult, bacteria are remarkably successful critters that have thrived for an extremely long time. Only a fool underestimates bacteria, and I would say the same thing about anyone who dismisses AC/DC. Single-brain-celled or no, AC/DC’s music continues to thrive, and has remained a living thing for a longer time than the Beatles’ music did. According to all-knowing Wikipedia, in 2008, AC/DC surpassed The Beatles as the No.1 selling catalogue artist in the US. Given the rapidity and ruthlessness of cultural competition, that demonstrates a stalwart mode of fitness.
Furthermore, by implicitly pitting the Baroque and Rococo against the algal and Neanderthal, Young creeps toward biological heresy: evolution as progressive development, from primitive to advanced, from caveman to Couperin. Or at least his attitude smacks of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, which dubiously traces a teleological line of technical achievement from Cimabue to Michelangelo. A lot us titter at Michelangelo’s distortions with good reason. Some of us prefer Raphael. Hell, some of us are content with Cimabue. I’m put in mind of Picasso (like Michelangelo a hater of the human body, only sadistic about it where Michelangelo was helplessly disconcerted) who upon beholding the famous cave paintings discovered by Maria de Sautuola in the 1870’s, proclaimed, “After Altamira, all is decadence.”
When it comes to pop music developments, one trajectory fascinates me especially: the emergence of singular pop recordings from unlikely sources. Who would have thought, for example, that the band that indulged itself with Tales of Topographic Oceans would later proffer 90125? Who would have expected “Selling England by the Pound” and “That’s All” to derive from the same band? Such moves from progressive rock to remarkable pop find sober longwinded complexity getting stripped away to make way for sleek simpler songcraft. You see something similar with Roxy Music, whose initial art school flamboyance gave way to the slick and sensuous Avalon. Then there’s the clunky party quirk of the B-52’s eventually yielding the exquisite pop of Cosmic Thing. And what about Siouxsie and the Banshees? The band dazzled us with “Kiss them for Me,” yet never lost their capacity to savage our ears in the manner of “Join Hands” and “Voodoo Dolly.” Like the B-52’s, Siouxsie and the Banshees, amidst commercial success, stayed true to their roots.
This leads to a final point: when the Replacements and Husker Du released their first major label recordings, they too stayed true to their roots. Too bad Tim and Candy Apple Grey were largely neglected by rock fans. These two bands were not evolutionary successes. In this we can take comfort in AC/DC: fame didn’t change them. Better still, it didn’t defang them.
Ehrlich, Paul. The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment. June 27, 2008. http://fora.tv/2008/06/27/Paul_Ehrlich_The_Dominant_Animal.
Hoffer, Eric. First Things, Last Things. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
Young, Graham. The Beatles and the Cambrian Explosion. January 18, 2010. http://ancientshore.com/2010/01/18/the-beatles-and-the-cambrian-explosion.