In case you missed it, Catherine O'Sullivan posited in last week's issue that, though the death of rock 'n' roll has been rumored before, this time, it really may be dying. As evidence, she quotes lyrics from songs by Justin Timberlake, Avril Lavigne and My Chemical Romance. She tells the story of how Bob Dylan told John Lennon upon their first meeting that the Beatles' music is "nice, but it's not about anything," and how the Beatles took that message to heart, going "from 'Love Me Do' to 'Revolution' in about 5 seconds flat."
I'd submit that it's not fair to judge the current state of all rock music by parsing the lyrics of three mega-successful pop artists who never claimed to be Dylan. Fluffy pop songs have always ridden high on the charts alongside other, more "important" music.
In 1969, the same year that Dylan released Nashville Skyline and the Beatles released Abbey Road, the No. 1 song of the year didn't appear on either of those albums, wasn't performed at Woodstock and didn't relay any anti-Vietnam sentiment. The top song of 1969 was "Sugar, Sugar" by the Archies. As a huge fan of both Dylan and the Beatles, given a choice between dancing to "Lay, Lady, Lay," "Here Comes the Sun" or "Sugar, Sugar," I'd pick the Archies every time. Hell, it could be argued that rock 'n' roll was birthed with a nonsensical phrase: "a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop-bam-boom."
In the same column, O'Sullivan makes the case that everything is cyclic, that just when rock music seems to be getting stale, something comes along to rattle the status quo: "Disco, for example, tried to knock (rock 'n' roll) off in the '70s. But along came Springsteen, who resurrected it with a fury. The 1980s were pretty gruesome: Flock of Seagulls, Spandau Ballet and Tears for Fears, but then came Nirvana, and they blew that shit right out of the water."
I've made similar statements before, with a qualification: That theory applies to the cultural zeitgeist and not much more. If you're only paying attention to the pop charts, you might be convinced that the state of music really is dire, but anyone who scratches a bit beneath the surface will tell you that there always has been, and always will be, great music that never gets the exposure it deserves. There was a hell of a lot more going on in music in the '70s than disco and Springsteen (punk, anyone?); and the '80s may be the most maligned decade in rock. Even if you dispute my opinion that A Flock of Seagulls and Tears for Fears both actually do have merit, one would be hard-pressed to argue against the fact that some mighty great, important bands were spawned during that decade: R.E.M., the Replacements, Husker Du, the Minutemen, Mission of Burma and Sonic Youth, to name but a few.
My high school and college friends and I always wondered what it would take for some of these bands to have hit records. We found out in a small way when R.E.M.'s "The One I Love" became a hit, but the Big Cultural Moment came at the end of 1991, when Nirvana crashed the charts with Nevermind, which early the next year famously knocked Michael Jackson out of the No. 1 slot on the Billboard chart.
While O'Sullivan acknowledges Nirvana's rightful place in history, she acknowledges them not as one of the first bands of their ilk and era to crash the mainstream pop music charts, but as "the last honest rock 'n' roll band." While there may not be as many mega-huge bands as there once were, at a time when there are more bands than ever before--both good and bad, with merit and without--this is just simple ignorance. There are hundreds of "honest" rock 'n' roll bands putting out music every year; there always have been. Nirvana cemented their place in history not as "the last honest rock 'n' roll band," but as one of the first to subvert the power structure in rock music, making independent and independent-minded rock bands commercially viable in a world of huge major-label promotional budgets; they stripped the term "alternative music" of any meaning it may have once had.
If you need any proof that the moment Nirvana hit No. 1 continues to have relevance, take a look at the album charts from this year: Bands that would have been considered fringe acts in another era--Arcade Fire, The Shins, Modest Mouse, Wilco--all had albums debut in the Top 10 in the first half of the year. Outside of their music, if Nirvana left any legacy, it's a shifting of the landscape that gives other DIY bands a shot.
Last time I checked its pulse--and I do so with regularity--rock 'n' roll was doing just fine, thanks.
Now, the record industry's another story ...
This weekend, Che's plays host to a rare out-of-town band, and a fine one at that. Philadelphia's The Teeth recently released a new full-length album, You're My Lover Now, on Park the Van Records. Like their labelmates and fellow Philadelphians Dr. Dog, the band's merging of '60s influences such as the Beatles and the Kinks with a modern indie sensibility and a certain theatrical flair (à la David Bowie or Queen) has created a following that ranges from indie rockers to jam-band worshippers--a rare feat, indeed. Opening the show is the local band Lemon Drop Gang, who take their cues from the girl groups of the '60s.
Catch The Teeth and Lemon Drop Gang at Che's Lounge, 346 N. Fourth Ave., on Saturday, July 7. Things should get rolling around 9 p.m., and admission is, as always, free. For more information, call 623-2088.