The Aging Punk 015

Monday, 21 June 2010

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the groups listed here are bad bands. They're not. They're all great bands. They each have at least one classic album in their catalog. I'm just saying they're not as great as people have made them out to be.

Any band whose reputation as one of the greats rests on a single album is, by definition, overrated. It takes a full body of work to deserve that status. Yes, I know they put out two other studio albums, and two live ones (one posthumously), but it all comes down to Nevermind. The other albums are just more of the same.
Saying that is one thing, but here's the real problem: even Nevermind is just more of the same. I can think of no other classic album which is so repetitious, so one-note. Seriously, over their entire career, Nirvana showed about as much variety as The Ramones; they had one sound (and one emotion – angst) and even those songs which seemed to show some variety like “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Dumb” were really just more of the same. Granted, they did that sound (and that emotion) very well, but that's just not enough to be rated among the greatest.

Zeppelin certainly had a different problem from Nirvana. No one can say that there's no variety in their music; from hard rockers to heavy blues to beautiful acoustic tunes, Led Zeppelin could do it all but the problem with Zeppelin is that, despite their prodigious talents, they lack emotional connection. Three quarters of Zeppelin's songs express a single emotion and/or a single idea: “I want to get laid.” Despite the orgasm in “Whole Lotta Love,” the band isn't even singing about sex itself – not the actual act – they are singing about desiring sex; about lust. Even the songs which aren't directly about lust are so drenched in testosterone that listeners will get the same sense, but the problem goes beyond that single-minded devotion to horniness. Like I said, it's a question of connection. Maybe it's just me, but I can't think of a single Zeppelin song I can relate to, a single song which speaks to my concerns and interests in life. I mean, when they aren't singing about sex, they're singing about some mystical, medieval fantasy land that I've never seen, nor do I particularly care about.

Led Zeppelin remind me of that boyfriend your platonic women friends are always complaining about: he's just great in bed. He doesn't bring anything else to the relationship, but she keeps going back to him because he is so good in bed. Conversely, the reason that the fan-boys keep going back to Zeppelin is because they express that all-consuming lust so well but, eventually, you come to realize that there is more to life than lust, and you want a band that is capable of talking about something else.
It's easy to love The Grateful Dead in theory, but not so much in practice. The theory that every concert should be a unique experience and the band should be so in tune with each other that they can flow from one song into another into another and back to the first without missing a beat, without plotting it all out beforehand is fantastic. Yes, every band should play like that. But when the Dead put that into practice? BORING!

The Dead simply lack the edge necessary for great, interesting rock music – and don't tell me I just need to see them live to understand. I have seen them, numerous times (not Deadhead numerous, but there is only a small handful of bands I've seen more times). In fact, my very first rock concert was the Dead. I'll admit they have their moments (both live and on record) but, most of the time, while you're waiting for one of those magical moments to arrive, you're also falling asleep.
If the Dead are boring, these guys are a total snooze-fest. The band that practically invented mellow rock has a lot to answer for but, more often, they get put into the pantheon of the greats.

They did manage to put out one great album, Hotel California of course, but that was only because Joe Walsh added some real rock energy to the mix. Then they absorbed him, Borg-like, into the mellowness, and that was that.

Now people practically come with excitement whenever they do a reunion tour, and eagerly blow their wads (of cash, that is) over them. I just don't get it.
Guns N' Roses have the same problem as Nirvana: everything is based on a single album. Yes, I know, they put out more than one album, but I'll get to that in a moment. It's Appetite for Destruction, and only Appetite, which made their reputation.

Also, like Zeppelin (and Nirvana for that matter), this band had a single idea: for GNR, the theme was rock n' roll sleaze – and rode it into history. It is true that the band tried to prove they were capable of much more, but Use Your Illusion (Parts i & II) actually proved the opposite; that they had given us all they had already. I mean, those two albums had something like two and a half hours of music between them, and how many songs can you even name off of them? My guess is you can name four, and two of them are covers. Speaking of covers, “Live and Let Die????” Seriously? I get covering Paul McCartney to demonstrate your versatility, but why pick one of his worst songs and then do absolutely nothing to improve it? Even “Band on the Run” would have been a better choice (if a little obvious).

…And don't even get me started on the whole idea of maintaining your reputation by not putting out any more music.


The Joshua Tree. 
A decent album, yes, but not even close to the best U2 album, let alone one of the all time greats. I maintain that The Joshua Tree's popularity and reputation are due more to timing than quality. In 1987, U2 were primed to break out, and anything they released that year would have been huge, with the attendant glorification.

Both War and Achtung Baby are much better, much stronger albums. Even on a song-by-song basis, Joshua Tree doesn't stand up; I'll take “New Year's Day” or “Acrobat” or even “The Unforgettable Fire” over “With or Without You” or “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For” any day, and those are the hits off Joshua Tree. After they get done with them, the album descends into spacey, eminently forgettable atmospherics that, like smoke on a windy day, vanish as soon as they've gone by.

Joshua Tree gained its' reputation almost immediately, and has coasted on it ever since. It's time to give this album an honest re-evaluation.

Okay, there you have it. Feel free to comment in any way but, please, if you're going to argue with my conclusions, actually lay out an argument. Don't just write, “Dude, you're a moron, Led Zeppelin are the greatest!” Tell me why they're the greatest, tell me why I'm wrong. Defend your band, make your case for why they deserve their rep. Tear my arguments apart. But don't just tell me I”m wrong and leave it at that.


The Aging Punk.015

Monday, 24 August 2009

More than any other art form, rock music needs its fans. Its power, its very raison d'etre, is dependent on fans. Poets can scribble away in their attics, painters can stand in a field alone and paint. Even movies and television, seemingly social art forms, put a screen between the art and the audience. But a rock musician without an audience might as well not exist.

On a basic level, fans created rock'n'roll—or at least midwifed it into existence. They heard the new sounds in the early '50s and responded, making it the most popular music of the era. Had it been up to the music business (or the parents), rock'n'roll might never have existed.

But it goes deeper than that. There is an unprecedented level of interaction between rock musicians and their fans. This interaction gives rock music its energy, its direction, even its meaning. It operates on many levels, from the communal experience of the rock concert, to fan clubs, to the level of identification which occurs between fans and their rock heroes.

I can think of no other art form which celebrates its fans so directly. Look at all the rock songs about rock fans, from Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen," through Lou Reed's "Rock'n'Roll" to The Ramones' "Sheena is a Punk Rocker." Sure, there are lots of books about reading, but most of them are "How-To's", and even those that celebrate the joys of reading are written in the first person, ie: "I enjoy reading, and here's why," not, "Here's a portrait of a typical reading fan." There are plenty of movies about the magic of movies, but they are almost all about making movies, not watching them (with the exception of Woody Allen's ouevre).

Of course, there are also plenty of songs which—rather than celebrate the fan—disparage them, from The Who's "Sally Simpson" to the Beatles's "Glass Onion," to damn near the entirety of Pink Floyd's The Wall, but this just further proves my point. These songs are also about the importance of the fan.

The nexus of this interaction is, of course the rock concert. That is where the fans and the musicians interact most directly. Of course, musicians of all genres give concerts, but few of them rise to the level of communal participation of a rock show. From the early Allen Freed shows through the Fillmore and Woodstock, CBGBs and Lollapalooza, rock concerts have been communal events; at times the community actually takes precedent over the music (this is true, more or less, of all the examples I just gave). In any event, a rock concert joins the artist and the fans in a rite of Dionysian proportions (at least, when done right).

What I mean here is that the concert gives the audience a chance to, however briefly, step outside of themselves, lose themselves in the music. Of course, one can do this at home (some fine herb and a good set of headphones, and away you go), but at a concert you can lose yourself collectively. A mosh pit is a clear example of this, but it also includes the trips festivals of the '60s, and all those screaming teenyboppers at Beatles show. And even those are just familiar manifestations of a private, yet communal event. That may seem like a contradiction, but it happens more often than one might think, and it is the essence of Dionysian ritual—collective transcendence through external factors, whether drink or, in this case, music.

Then consider a phenomenon like Deadheads. Deadheads are probably the most extreme level of connection between fans and artists anywhere. (A similar phenomenon, in a different art form, does occur with Rocky Horror Picture Show. However, the behavior is so limited to that single movie that it stands out as an exception to how people normally appreciate movies. And I could argue that, since Rocky Horror has a rock soundtrack, it just supports my argument.) Deadheads define themselves, and direct their lives, based on a single band. But they really are different from other rock fans only in degree. Although they may not take it as far, many rock fans find direction and meaning in their favorite band.

This type of identification and interaction is what I mean when I say the fans are crucial to rock music. I can think of no other art form where the audience's interpretation of the art is considered as important.

To a certain extent, any appreciation of art is a selfish act, in that our appreciation is tied to our personal reaction to the art. For a variety of reasons, this is especially true of rock music. Partly, this is because rock is (or at least was for much of its history) young people's music. It didn't just appeal to young people, it claimed to speak for them. And the audience accepted this as true. Young people didn't just look for entertainment in rock music, they looked for themselves. The important question was not, "What does this song mean?" but "What does this song mean to ME?"

This level of identification explains a lot of rock's influence over the past fifty years. There has been a symbiotic relationship between rock music and the youth of this country. Rock musicians attempt to capture the thoughts of the youth, who then accept those lyrics as their own thoughts, and so on. Until rock music is the collective consciousness of youth. Again, I can think of no other art form where the level of interaction is as deep, or as important.

Now, it may well be the case that this was true in the fifties and sixties, and even as late as Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1993, but not anymore. And I don't just mean that hip-hop has replaced rock music as the message board of youth. I mean that message boards (as in YouTube and Facebook) have replaced music as the message board of youth. Why wait for some musician to capture how you feel, when you can broadcast it directly to the world yourself?

While, on one hand, that is a more direct and honest way of expression, the curmudgeon in me misses the communal spirit of the old way. To me, ten million people blogging about peace and love just doesn't have the impact of John Lennon singing "Imagine."

But then, I'm just an Aging Punk, and everything was better when I was young.

G. Murray Thomas writes and performs poetry because he can't sing. He can be found at

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