I fell in love with a sweet sensation,
I gave my heart to a simple chord.
I gave my soul to a new religion.
Whatever happened to you?
Whatever happened to our rock 'n' roll?
Whatever happened to my rock 'n' roll?
I have to say that for all the bitching I do about the people I work with, for all the ridiculousness and absurdity that comes with the territory, I have been able to make pretty good friends with a handful of folks, the least of which not being my former boss Mike. While we no longer work with together, he's only down the hall, and we still continually share our musical finds with one another. Mike, like myself, is a music junkie. Not an aficionado, not an enthusiast, a junkie. There is no 12-step program for us, and if this is a disease, please keep the remedy to yourself. We want no part, our ailment is glorious, and we hope it's contagious.
In any event, Mike is the main reason why I had to turn in Kilgore for his 60 gig cousin, as my beloved iPod was near his full capacity of 30 gigs. Mike's collection is far more extensive than mine, and his knowledge of the scene and music history unquestionably puts me to shame. I have no trouble admitting this fact; he is the Sempai, I am the Kohai.
I've learned a great deal from Sempai, but one thing that sticks out is how much contemporary rock n' roll, for the most part, sucks.
Note I said "rock n' roll." The blues on speed. 4/4 beats. Two guitars, bass, drums and vocals. I'm excluding progressive mind-benders like the Mars Volta and Coheed & Cambria. Melody-heavy alt-rockers like Comes With The Fall and Dredg should also be excused before passing judgment.
Dirty, sexy, crunchy style rock n' roll.
Somewhere in the 80's, rock took a real ugly turn down Hair Metal Blvd. All those bands that have wound up on numerous mail order "Monsters or Rock" compilations took the absolute worst of SDRNRU (Sex, Drugs & Rock N' Roll University) and put their own dipshit spin on it. As AquaNet and Covergirl stock skyrocketed, the genre known as rock was on life support at the hands of its own retarded offspring. This led to a string of one hit wonders, over-saturation on radio and MTV, and the upheaval of college radio and the indie scene. If nothing else, the one good thing that came of this sad point in time was the musical counterculture of the early 90's.
In fact, the only new band to emerge out of the 80's that actually "got it" was Guns N' Roses. No one can deny the raw bad-ass nature of Appetite For Destruction. Many took to calling them the next Rolling Stones, and few fans or critics were hard-pressed to disagree. Sadly, Axl's ego took center stage. It wasn't long before people were talking more about the no-showing madman behind the mic and less about the music.
Straightforward rock n' roll really hasn't been the same since.
Now I grant you, over the past few years, a handful of old school hopefuls have emerged and at the very least turned a couple heads. A few bands like Buckcherry have gone the full-blown trashy route in attempts to channel the spirit of their most beloved SDRNRU alumni. Others, such as the Strokes, have made an attempt to go about things in a more understated manner, musically speaking. Then there are those bands like Jet who draw heavily from their favorite forefathers and make sure their tunes are short, memorable and above all else, hook-heavy.
However, no one has seemed to leave a lasting taste in our mouth beyond the scope of a year or two at the most. Tried and true veterans like Aerosmith, AC/DC and the almighty Rolling Stones themselves have managed not only to maintain a significant level of public interest, but they've also been fairly consistent as far as releasing new material.
This might not be saying much, though. Their last releases, while enjoyable, did not stack up to their all-time classics. Then again, not much does, so it may be unjust to compare Honkin' On Bobo to Rocks, Stiff Upper Lip to Back In Black, or A Bigger Bang to Beggar's Banquet. Still, these purported torchbearers of ye olde rock have been relegated by mainstream radio to the same treatment as most other bands. You'll hear their new single for anywhere between five months and a year before you never hear it again. Soon it becomes just another memory, another half-assed notch in the gun belt terrestrial radio.
This may be the central problem. Rock is not supposed to be mainstream. Rock n' roll was founded on the precept that this was "the devil's music," and those damned long-haired hooligans would blast it until the wee hours of the morning, waking the neighbors. Once upon a time, Elvis Presley couldn't shake his hips on TV. Nowadays, that sorta stuff is so tame, it's laughable. Heck, even in the heyday of hair metal some twenty-odd years ago, 10 seconds of any given video was more risqué than Presley's memorable swagger.
It's hard to derive the origins of this juxtaposition from counterculture to the norm. I suppose a good chunk of it could be attributed to classic rock radio and its seemingly daily play list. I used to enjoy New Haven's 99.1 WPLR. Nowadays, I get nauseous just thinking about it. If I have to hear "All Right Now" by Free one more freakin' time, I'm liable to unload several rounds of buckshot into my car radio. Perhaps another part is the fact that so many of these grizzled vets just refuse to throw in the towel when their time has come. There are a few exceptions to the rule (see the artists just three paragraphs prior), but seriously now, there are some guys playing clubs who are overweight, bald and easily past their prime. A pal of mine and me saw Blue Öyster Cult several years ago at Toad's in New Haven (a couple years after the memorable "cowbell" skit on SNL), and to say that it was laughable would be the equivalent of saying current gas prices are "a little expensive." It's hard to take a genre seriously when it's clear that so many are yearning to cling to their former fame so feverishly. Beyond that, it's just flat out over-saturation… a turn of phrase that has come with the aging of those blasted Baby Boomers. Hair metal definitely had a major hand in underground credibility, and I'm sure MTV probably had a hand in there somewhere as well.
Point is that rock just doesn't feel… Well, that edgy anymore. It's become overblown and overexposed. Think of when Blair Witch hit and it was this huge indie success. Stupid as it was, the phenomenon became so popular that it spawned a sequel. A real crappy sequel. Now imagine if the filmmakers just kept churning out sequel after sequel. That's kinda what rock has become. And anyone who has had any affinity to anything ever considered "underground" knows what it feels like when the masses latch onto your beloved obscurity. You feel like it's not that cool anymore (for reference, see ECW. See also, Metallica).
There is, however, light at the end of the tunnel. A handful of bands have come to my attention that really keep the good flame alight and put a smile on my dirty dog face. There seems to be two schools of thought right now: those who stand as a new generation of straight ahead rock n' roll, and those who are unabashed about their status as "throwbacks." Both parties seem to be doing quite well. The former classification consists of bands like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (who are quoted at the opening salvo of this piece), the White Stripes, the Duke Spirit and Nine Black Alps. In the second lot, you've got the obvious culprits like the Darkness and Silvertide, but also lesser known contingents like Damone and Wolfmother. And I'm sure there are many more that have yet to be unearthed.
Now that's not to say that the aforementioned bands and whatever other newcomers may trot down the pike are going to overtake the current musical landscape and give birth to a rock n' roll renaissance. Quite the contrary, I think mainstream music is only going to stagnate further, and true music addicts are going to have to work harder for their new tunes. That's alright by me, I'm up for the challenge. It's fun, and you never know quite what you'll unearth along the way. And again, because of that aforementioned underground mindset, part of me really doesn't want things to change right now. There's enough slick production out there to ruin what could be scores of really great albums, and unfortunately most cats are so young and inexperienced (or just plain wowed with stardom) that they don't know enough to say "no" to someone trying to overtake their product. Having said that, I'll stay in the subterranean passageways of music for now. If nothing else, I'm just happy that solid rock does exist and hasn't become a Waterworld-inspired myth along the wavelengths of dry land.
And as I mentioned, I'm sure there's more to come, some of whom may even reach that delta into the mainstream, plunge in headfirst and come out on the other end with some integrity intact. I look forward to seeing it happen someday. So, for those young bucks out there interested in breaking ground, here are a few lessons you may want to take heed of. Granted, I'm no musician, but even so, I like to think that I've squandered enough money on CD's and enough of my spare time drifting along melodious currents to have something of a grasp on the situation here. Strap in.
- Take from your influences, don't copy them directly. It's one thing to try and get a taste for a band's flavor as opposed to outright ganking copyrights. Seriously, Buckcherry fell flat real quick because they're just a cluster of haphazard Aerosmith wannabes with no real balls to 'em. There's not a lot of originality to their music or to their lyrics, so without daring to be something different, they were destined to peel out, because simply, they're just a carbon copy.
- Know your blues. Blues is the basis for all music, especially rock n' roll. Blues begat country music, which then discovered drugs and gave birth to rock. Blues also made love to Latin music and birthed jazz. Did we mention that the blues' bastard lovechild, rock n' roll, also got aggressive and angry, transforming into metal? And yes. Blues developed a beat, and fathered funk, disco, R&B and hip hop. Blues is everything in music, especially rock. Know your pentatonic scales, and for the love of Christ, listen to Robert Johnson.
- Know your punk. Punk is another offshoot of a blues offshoot… more accurately, it was a response to an offshoot, taking aim at overblown rock n' roll and telling it to kindly p!ss off. The one element of rock that punk took with it was simplicity. The best songs, and in many cases the most memorable songs, tend to be of a simpler nature. No need for elaborate solos or orchestration. A few chords, some catchy riffs, and a good dose of rebelliousness. A lot of the bands I mentioned above carry traits of both the blues and punk in equal doses, and they seem to blend it all well.
- Leave the mistakes in. Don't be a damn perfectionist. Perfection is boring, don't go into something all crazy strong-style thinking you've gotta be dead-on. Rock isn't supposed to be this pristine little evocative snapshot of artistry. It's supposed to be down and dirty, loud and bawdy. So quit with the overdubs and massive production already. So you hit a raw note. Leave it in. Get visceral for fuck's sake. Let it all flow out and have fun with it. Even Eddie Van Halen laments about how "Eruption" could've been better, and every time he hears it, he always thinks about that one mistake. And how many people love it for what it is? Besides, you may just stumble onto something really slick, and then you have every right to trademark it vis a vis your stupidity.
- If you're gonna be a throwback, be unabashed, but not retarded. I think it's safe to say that groups such as the Darkness and Wolfmother have proven that it's OK to be somewhat kitschy with the music while having a sense of humor about yourself. To paraphrase This Is Spinal Tap, it's really such a fine line between stupid and clever. It's OK to have fun with it, but the second you try to put on the façade of being a "serious artist," the game is up. I just remember that VH1 special about Velvet Revolver from when it was just the guys from GN'R doing auditions, and the band was known simply as "the Project." One guy brought in a demo of a song that he called "Stripper Girl." Now if you really think for one split second that anyone is gonna take a song seriously with that title, the Behind The Music gods have clearly passed you up hoping you'll go to rehab before your first gold record.
- If you're gonna do a cover on a record, make it obscure. I can think of very few covers that surpass the original. Part of the problem is that so many bands seem intent on taking on well-established staples of radio or popular music. You can't reinvent the wheel kids, so leave that part to Mr. Goodyear. Thing is, covers are kind of essential in a way. Lots of the best bands ever to play made legit hits out of cover songs. The Stones, Zeppelin, Cream, Aerosmith, the Doors, cripes man, even the damned Beatles made big time hits out of little known tunes. Most people to this day haven't the slightest idea that "All Along The Watchtower" is a Bob Dylan original, not a Jimi Hendrix creation. Chew on that for a while. If Hendrix had tried "Like A Rolling Stone," I'm willing to bet that while it would be fiery as Hendrix could be, it still would pale in comparison to its basis. Even though they fall under the umbrella of nü metal, we can still see the logic with Korn and how everyone up and groaned when they did "Another Brick In The Wall."
- Don't believe your own press. Please. That ruins the experience for everyone. Egos ultimately don't do much good in the world of rock n' roll, so as much as you can, try to stay humble. I know it's gotta be tough with people offering you all sorts of free stuff, booze, broads, narcotics, firstborn children, stock options, the Brooklyn Bridge, etc. But once you adopt the attitude of "I'm better than you," you're automatically putting yourself at a plateau above that of a fan. In essence, a fan is a music lover. All musicians should be music lovers. If you put yourself on any level higher than that, I guarantee you'll lose touch with everyone. The fans, your bandmates, and likely yourself as well. It's bad for business, no two ways about it. Then people give you the reputation of being "difficult" and refuse to work with you… Yngwie Malmsteen, Ritchie Blackmore, Eddie Van Halen, Dave Mustaine, and of course, the granddaddy of 'em all, Monsieur W. Axl Rose. All are incredibly talented individuals who systematically bought into their own hype and meticulously obliterated their bands starting at the foundation. Reputations in all circles were tarnished, possible beyond repair. Just stick to what you love doing and you'll be good.
And that's really what it's all about when you look at the big picture. Like any genre, the face has changed dramatically throughout the years, but at the end of the day, it's still good ol' rock n' roll, and it's still lurking out there. Hail, hail, we salute you.
Goodnight, and have a pleasant tomorrow.