New York City, New York
December 16 2015 and we were boarding a plane bound for John F. Kennedy International Airport. Anticipatory excitement buzzed between me, my sister (Aniela) and three of my closest friends (Brent, Andy and Faye) as four weeks awaited in the new world.
Despite the way our western life tends to be dominated by all things American, I was surprisingly ignorant of what lay in store. Most surprising was my near total lack of knowledge of the musical landscape I was about to set foot in – I may have had mad love for individual artists of blues, folk, hip hop or country, but I knew almost nothing about where this music came from and how it came to be.
It’s fair to say that those four weeks changed this state of affairs. The trip began with a cab from JFK to Queens, where we would be staying with mutual friend and New Yorker Ethel Bessem – someone I would later come to treat as something of a US100 mentor, such is her incredible depth of knowledge and passion for the subjects I was exploring. But at this point this was not so much billed as an exercise in musical exploration, and as it happens New York City was one stop on the itinerary in which no particular effort was made to absorb musical culture – aside from a curious afternoon alternating gos on the jukebox with the locals of a Staten Island bar (big up Steiny’s)
Consequently my New York US100 entries, unlike many in other localities, do not correlate to any activity we undertook on our trip and are instead merely informed by connecting the city to my own personal tastes. Pleasingly this does at least manage to cover four out of the five boroughs – sorry Staten Island (big up Paul) – however it’s no resource if you’re seeking a full story of New York’s musical past and present. Tin Pan Alley, the punk movement, and disco only earn passing references, for example.
But I never said this was a complete history. Yet in New York’s case these 11 tracks at least provide a snapshot into how music can highlight the way a city’s cultural and socioeconomic landscape evolves over an 80 year period. The story of Track 5, Cab Calloway’s Man From Harlem, is largely that of racial segregation during the Prohibition Era, and when we get to the birth of hip hop as told for Run-D.M.C.’s Track 8 we witness how racial divides – on economic, geographic and cultural lines – were still very much apparent some 40 years later.
Hip hop emerged from the rubble of the Bronx, in a 70s and 80s period of New York City history blighted by urban decay and neglectful mismanagement from both federal and civic authorities. Even its most iconic landmarks suffered – Simon & Garfunkel’s 1982 concert, as touched upon in Track 4’s write up, was not just in Central Park, it was for Central Park, a fundraiser to plug an enormous funding shortfall for its upkeep. It is therefore striking to turn the clock forward to the modern era, where bands such as The Strokes (Track 10) and Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Track 11) benefit from a remarkable NYC transformation that has made the streets safer but the cost of living much much more expensive.
In this regard Sharon Jones’s Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects (Track 7), the most recent track of all those covered, hints at the curse of inequality that continues to blight both New York City and the United States overall. All this serves to show that New York has capacity for musical innovation whatever the situation on the ground; and my hunch is that Gogol Bordello, our Track 9 artists, would thrive whatever the weather.
Other tracks are taken from a 1960s period in which New York served as a national magnet for enterprising genius. Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound (Track 6) and Bob Dylan’s electrification of folk (Track 3) were game changers, with the latter perhaps never coming to be without Woody Guthrie, our Track 2 artist.
As for Track 1 – well that’s just a personal favourite. It was with excitement when, upon conception of this whole rather ludicrous project, I realised I could open it up with California Dreamin’, despite the fact that the title doesn’t sound very New Yorky at all. With this comes a bit of a loose end – stick with me to track 100 and I promise to tie it all up.