Classical Gas

These rock-and-roll animals are as underground as it gets

The rock world needs new heroes. Elvis is dead (really, he really really is). Bruce is old and paternal (and dads, heroes though they may be, are not rock heroes). Kurt and Axl and Perry just don't cut it as role models, icons, or even plain old-fashioned rock stars.

Where to turn? Luddy "The Def Cat" Beethoven, Wolfgang "The Kid" Mozart, or maybe Johnny "Rock" Bach. This is the dope bomb, chummy, the real damn deal.

Two people who have already realized this are Rob Enslin and Ken Wells, Atlanta-based music entrepreneurs. They are, in the small picture, redefining the term "oldies." In a larger sense they're earnestly attempting a feat no less daunting than turning on an entire generation to a new type of music. (New at least to the demographic segment they've chosen to target.) "It's all aimed at promoting this music to 18-to-24 year olds," Enslin says of the undertaking. "Classical music is cool."

The project began this past December when Enslin and Wells were at an Atlanta restaurant munching chicken wings and sipping suds with their bosses at Intersound, an established record label specializing in classical music. "We were talking about creative ways of making classical cool," Enslin explains. "Ken came up with 'Counter Culture.' That name itself opens you to so many creative ways of marketing classical music. We thought, Why not combine MTV packaging with popular classical music?"

No reason. In fact, that's a great idea, responded their boss, Intersound president Don Johnson. "He gave us total creative license," Enslin says. "Nothing barred. 'Do what you want'."

Enslin -- who works in the A&R department at Intersound, has performed and written about classical music, and manages Wells's rock band (the Press) -- compiled six CDs worth of accessible/commercial tracks (including megahits such as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Pete Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture) from the vaults of Intersound. Wells, a graphic designer, set about illustrating CD sleeves and T-shirts.

Using black, white, and red in bold lettering, Wells created a theme nothing short of in-your-face. "We got into this big discussion about why people think classical music is stuffy and for old people," Wells recalls. "What it boiled down to is that the packaging wasn't really fun. Young people want to buy MTV stuff. I took a Bauhaus style and concentrated on the tricky puns we came up with. The idea was to be very hip and today, but not too silly."

WHAT DOES A DEAF GUY HEAR? screams the T-shirt and matching cover art for the first of the six CDs. Before getting offended, consider the artist in question is Ludwig van Beethoven, who was, in fact, a deaf guy. And def. Beethoven kicks more ass than Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Take, for example, his Violin Concerto, which features a breakdown bridge jam that'll rock you to tears and cheers -- at the same time. Enslin suggests that the music he has packaged is "safe as coffee," but the fact is this is more potent than pure Peruvian flake.

Beethoven -- who would eventually influence everything from the New Romantic movement represented by Adam Ant to the Beatles at their best to the meanderings of Pink Floyd -- was a stone freak, too weird even for rock and roll. "People think of Beethoven as fitting in with the sort of people who go to symphony concerts," Wells notes. "But he was a grumpy dude and a wild man." When Luddy's in the house, you best bacdafucup. His Fifth Symphony was to classical what "Satisfaction" was to rock. Moonlight Sonata is so beautiful you want to frame it. And the rest of his work here leaves nothing to be desired.

It's important to note that plenty of Beethoven covers -- as well as all the music in the series -- has been released and re-released over and over by any number of labels, including the famed Hooked on Classics series of the early Eighties. But the sound of the Counter Culture set murders all that's gone before. Thanks to his resources at Intersound, Enslin was able to cull performances by killer orchestras, including the Philharmonic of London and the Berlin Symphony.

But perhaps what really makes the music here fill a room and rock the house is the engineering and production values. "The interpretations are pretty mainstream and accessible," Enslin admits. "They're the interpretations we've grown up with -- nothing too far out in left field. That's why it strikes a chord, so to speak. And these are the leading orchestras from Berlin, London, Vienna. Then it was re-recorded in digital surround sound. That's a technology Intersound pioneered about three years ago." The result is as awesome as the Grand Canyon, as frightening in its power as a bad acid trip.

Classical is not meant to be deconstructed by critics or to be babbled about by pseudo-intellectuals. It's dramatically personal, perfect for dark solitude, where it's just you and the drugs and the headphones.

These words might not convince you, which perhaps explains the approach taken by Enslin and Wells. A compilation featuring Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Wagner, Brahms, and others contains a warning on the back: "This music contains offensive material." On another CD Mozart's Fortieth Symphony is notated as "girls' locker room music." Another CD, devoted entirely to Mozart jams, is titled Not Bad for a Kid. The extensive liner notes throughout combine this iconoclastic, too-cool-for-school lingo with serious info you normally don't come across outside of the dusty shelves in the back of the library.

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