This project will be dedicated to bands that don’t always get the respect they deserve, bands that were often misunderstood. Performing for us will be the best bands of the type that I call “meta-bands” – that is, bands that are not only creating music, but their very identity is a creation in itself, a creation that constitutes a comment on the world around them. Sometimes it is an artistic comment, sometimes comical, sometimes social, but always it is a band that contains a kind of duplicity: it has the pretense of a real band, and also acts as a mirror-image to other bands and points to something essential about them. These bands are a significant and integral part of what makes pop culture what it is – the richest, most diverse, most sophisticated culture in human history – and they deserve a place of their own. Thanks in part to the legacy of these bands the history of pop at times resembles a labyrinth of mirrors that you can easily get lost in, but we shall draw a map that will help us find our way, and we shall do it by traveling to the other side of the mirrors and exploring the worlds they encompass. And we shall do it with a parade, in which we shall chart the most important meta-bands of them all.
Here are the top 30, for me:
30. The Diamonds
In the middle of the 1950s, during the height of McCarthyism, American consciousness was rudely awakened to a new threat: it became apparent that the youth, or “teenagers” as they were now being called, have developed a liking to black pop music, to styles created by African-Americans. In a society that believed it is marching towards the creation of an enlightened world in which Man will finally leave the jungle behind and become a refined being, this was a horrifying development: blacks were perceived as representing a more primitive humanity, one that is mostly still in the jungle, and their rhythmic music was regarded as liberating all the animalistic drives that Man must learn to control. In other words, all the progress of Western civilization was seen as jeopardized by this new development. But the teenagers of the fifties, the first generation of teens that perceived themselves as an independent age group with its own culture, heard other things in this music. The enthusiasm, ecstasy and sexiness of black music affected them deeply, and sounded much more real and exciting than anything the conformist, “dignified” and “progressive” white culture had to offer. This was something completely primal, a new musical logic that you could not explain but only feel, and it conquered their hearts. A new fad emerged, of white young artists who recorded cover versions of the black songs in a mellower way that was easier for white ears to digest, and they found great success. The years 1954-55 where the time that this fad reached its peak, but it also drove white teens to seek the original black versions and internalize their musical values. By 1956, the original records began to outdo their white covers in the charts, and a new era was born. This new style, in which whites emulated black pop and performed it in their own way, was called “rock’n’roll”.
One of the styles of black pop (or “rhythm ‘n blues”, as it is called) that were popular at the time was that of the vocal groups, four or five singers that sang in harmony with minimal instrumental accompaniment. This style was born in the black churches and in the first half of the twentieth century was characterized by all singers singing together in enchanting harmony. But during the fifties, as black teenagers also started demanding music that will be aimed at them, the style began to change: ecstatic rhythms pounded their way in, the lyrics began to incorporate onomatopoeic gibberish, the individual voices started to distinguish themselves from the whole and sing one against the other in wild polyphony, and the records began to resemble a chirpy group of birds raising a ruckus on some tree. Here’s one example (not necessarily one of the best), the record ‘Little Darlin” by the Gladiolas, that was released at the beginning of 1957.
As mentioned, at this time there were many white artists who recorded cover versions of the black songs, and the Diamonds were one of these bands. But the Diamonds didn’t really do it out of love for the style. A group of middle-class college graduates, they regarded it as inferior music and their versions were meant to mock the originals. When they covered ‘Little Darlin”, about a month after the release of the Gladiolas’ version (this is how it was in the fifties: white artists immediately plagiarized black records and often did not even bother to give credit), they brought their full scorn to it and accentuated all the ridiculous aspects of the song, singing over-dramatically and with screechy voices. And the result?
Without intending to, the Diamonds turned this rather anemic ditty into a demented romp, and therefore more ecstatic and more in tune with the aesthetic of rock’n’roll. They did not understand the new musical logic, and it was this ignorance that turned a record that was supposed to be a parody of the style into one of its masterpieces. Today, the parody aspect is forgotten – we hear the record as a rock’n’roll classic and remember the Diamonds fondly.
The vocal groups were not the only rhythm ‘n blues style that was adopted by whites at that time, and the style that affected them even more was a style that was based on drums and electric guitar and a soloist ferociously screaming his guts out. Over the years, as the primordial rock’n’roll soup began to solidify into distinguishable forms, it was the latter style that kept the name “rock’n’roll”, while the polyphonic vocal style, from the beginning of the sixties onwards, was retroactively renamed “doo-wop”. Doo-wop is no longer popular today, but everyone remembers ‘Little Darlin”.
29. The Oneders
By the mid-nineties, all the magic and mystery of rock’n’roll were gone. After four amazing decades in which rock’n’roll changed Western and global consciousness forever, it already came to completely understand its inner logic. by the end of the decade it already began summarizing itself, and one of the movies that did that was That Thing You Do, written and directed by Tom Hanks. The movie, released in 1996, focuses on one of the most enchanting phenomena of pop and the rock’n’roll era: the ability of a group of youngsters, devoid of any means or musical education, to get together in a band and produce one magical moment that turns into a classic record. The history of pop is full of what is called “one hit wonders” – artists that shine for one brief moment with a hit and then disappear. Hanks’ movie tells the story of a fictional band on that sort, and the name he gave it – the Oneders – is a clever pun that makes its one-hit-wonderness the essence of its being, as if it was representing all the one hit wonders in history. The film itself is a charming youth flick with a plot that takes place in the mid-sixties, and the title song, written for the movie, is a cutesy tune that awakens nostalgia for that decade. That’s its weakness, too: it doesn’t have that feeling of novelty that these records had. Nineties consciousness, which already internalized rock’n’roll logic, could not be excited by such music like sixties consciousness was. That is why the record cannot be regarded as a true classic, but it was good enough to become a hit. It also adds credibility to the movie – you can believe that it would have become a hit back then as well.
Most bands we’ll survey here operated in the period between these years, between the mid-fifties and mid-nineties, between the Diamonds and the Oneders. Those were the years when pop culture reached the apex of its significance, the years when it developed its self-consciousness. The bands we will mention played an important role in this process.
28. The Primitives
Up until the 1960s, American pop industry operated according to tried and tested guidelines that were set in late 19th century. Everyone had their own role: the songwriters wrote the lyrics, the composers wrote the music, and the singers and instrumentalists performed. Most of these creators were concentrated in a place called Tin Pan Alley, a district in New York (that changed places several times) that was the center of the music industry and its name became synonymous with American pop music. Rock’n’roll changed this picture: the bands would write their own material, and the songs emerged through the process of playing together. Thus, the focus when writing the song was on the experience of performing it, in contrast with Tin Pan Alley songs that followed archaic principles like melody, harmony, keys so forth. At first, rock’n’roll was regarded with contempt by the industry and the records created by these bands weren’t seen as much, but when the Beatles conquered the US in 1964, displaying songwriting abilities that rivaled the best Tin Pan Alley had to offer, it became apparent that a new era had arrived.
The industry’s first reaction, even before Beatlemania, was to adapt itself to the rock’n’roll era. In the beginning of the sixties young creators converged in the Brill Building, at the heart of Tin Pan Alley, and began creating sophisticated and highly successful pop records with lyrics made for teenagers. Naturally, there were those who envied that success and tries to imitate it, and some record companies (like Motown) even managed to make it, but most labels suffered from lack of means and from employing tunesmiths who were not as sophisticated – or, sometimes, too sophisticated – as those of the Brill Building. One of these labels, also situated in New York, was named Pickwick Records, and it employed a young lyricist who was making his livelihood as a pop songwriter while studying poetry in college and aspiring to be a poet. No wonder he treated his profession ironically, not to mention that he was also a highly cynical individual. His name was Lou Reed.
In those years, following the twist craze that overtook the world in 1960, rock’n’roll perceived itself mainly as dance music and the aspiration was to create the next dance craze. Many records started out by announcing the birth of a new dance and then dictated the steps and moves. Reed, in typical sarcasm, wrote a song that ridiculed the phenomenon and declared the birth of a dance called the ostrich, in which the dancers must stoop and put their head on the ground and then step on it. The parodic record, aptly named ‘The Ostrich’, came out in 1964 under the fictive name “The Primitives”, to create the impression that it was created by a band. It achieved relative success (for Pickwick), so the executives decided to retroactively form a band that will go out and perform it. The first step was to recruit musicians, so they threw a party and invited musicians to attend.
Meanwhile, in another part of Manhattan, there was a group of musicians who took themselves much more seriously. La Monte Young worked in the classical tradition, but tried to attack it with all sorts of avant-Garde ideas. His ensemble included some young musicians who identified with his artistic view, and two of them, John Cale and Tony Conrad, decided one evening to take a break and go out on the town to look for some action. They entered the first party they found and were immediately approached by a man who introduced himself as an executive at Pickwick Records, who was impressed by their bohemian look and asked them if they were musicians. They answered affirmatively, and when he told them about the new rock’n’roll band he was forming they decided to play a little prank pretend to be rock’n’rollers. He took them to meet Reed, and Lou explained to them that in this song they are supposed to play guitars in which all the strings are tuned to the same note. For Reed this was just part of the inanity of the whole project, but Cale and Conrad were flabbergasted: this was exactly the sort of idea they would try with Young! This is how it was in the sixties: all those ideas that people who worked in the classical field regarded as groundbreaking were ideas that the rock’n’roll kids already attempted instinctively. Cale and Conrad decided to join Reed and make some rock’n’roll, and the Primitives were launched.
‘The Ostrich’ got a few performances, and there were some who got the joke and enjoyed it, but then the Primitives disbanded. Not entirely, though: an alliance was formed between Reed and Cale, and they began to develop a style that musically married rock’n’roll with avant-Garde notions and lyrically combined poetry and pop songwriting. The result would be the Velvet Underground, one of the most influential groups in the history of pop, if not the most influential of them all. And something of the Primitives did remain: on the cover of the Velvets’ first album, Reed gets credit for playing “ostrich guitar” – yes, the silly guitar with its strings all tuned to the same note makes an appearance on that celebrated album as well.
27. The Archies
After the Beatles conquered the States, no youngster who dreamt of being a musician wanted to go the old Tin Pan Alley way anymore. Hereon, the desired road to fame was forming your own band and creating your own music. The result was the formation of thousands of bands made of kids who had very little talent and capabilities, but passion and enthusiasm were abundant. They created songs based on three simple chords, wrote mainly about the frustrations of teenage life, and sang in ways that did not accentuate the beauty of the voice but rather distorted it in various ways: nasally, gravelly, shriekingly, and other ways that made them sound agitated, frustrated or defiant. This music started to be called garage rock (because it was allegedly created in the garage of your home and not in the studio) and did not have much of a prayer in the charts (the most you could hope for was to be a one hit wonder), but many liked this style because it represented rock’n’roll in its purest form, distilled from all the archaic formal elements of Tin Pan Alley. In most cases where the creators of Tin Pan Alley tried to imitate this style they failed completely, as is evidenced in the case of the Archies.
The Archies emerged out of the Archie Comics, a comic book series that’s been around since the 1940s and its heroes are the teenagers Archie Andrews, his gang, and the two hot babes Betty and Veronica who are fighting for his love. Unlike most comic books that contained super heroes, talking animals and other supernatural stuff, Archie Comics tried to be realistic and portray the world of youth. In 1968 it was also turned into a successful TV show, and being sixties teenagers the heroes of the show naturally formed their own garage band. The songs for the show were provided by Brill Building writers, and they tried to create simple and primitive pop like the garage bands, but their pop lacked the snarling attitude that makes a true garage record. The best example is ‘Sugar Sugar’, their biggest hit. Simple and catchy, with a title that repeats the same word twice (a staple of garage since the Kingsmen’ ‘Louie Louie’, the granddaddy of all garage records), it was supposed to sound like something created in a garage but actually sounded completely like slick pop created in the studio. The failed attempt by Tin Pan Alley to imitate garage music gave birth to what was known as “bubblegum music” – simple and catchy pop for teenagers. Bubblegum music did not earn a respectable place in the annals of pop, but it produced a fair number of sweet records, and ‘Sugar Sugar’ is the sweetest of them all.
Among the characters that appeared on the show (and in the above clip) was the teenage witch Sabrina, who later got her own show. That show had a rock band too: the Groovy Goolies, a group consisting of pop culture’s three most famous monsters Frankenstein, Dracula and the Werewolf. Since then there have been several animation shows for kids that contained fictive bands with songs written by professional songwriters, but none of these bands left its mark on the pop world. True rock’n’roll cannot be made to order – it must happen spontaneously.
26. Lambda Lambda Lambda and Omega Mu
American youth culture always distinguished between two types of kids: the jock, the athletic boy who spends most of his time outdoors, and the nerd, the wimpy dorky boy who stays at home and reads books. The jocks were always considered cooler, those who get fame as athletes, those who can dance well and do daredevil stuff that excites the chicks. The nerds were always derided and mocked and were known as those who will never get the girl. Rock, music of hassle and sweat, was always a jock thing and perpetuated this worldview. But the nerds developed their own pop culture, with sci-fi and fantasy books, with comics and with technological gizmos like the personal computer and the electronic musical instruments, and by the end of the seventies they were ready to fight back. The new wave of rock which began in 1977 included nerdy styles like synthpop that did not require of you to dance and go wild but rather to stand motionless on stage, produce exotic sounds out of synthesizers and sing songs full of sci-fi imagery. But synthpop was mainly a British and European thing, while in America things remained the as they were. And then came Revenge of the Nerds.
The movie came out in 1984, right at the time when rock began to be irksome. At the height of the Reagan era that was typified by individualism, greed and aggressiveness, the wealthy and success-driven rock superstars did not present an alternative but rather an affirmation of the ruling order. The movie was a youth comedy in the tradition that began with Animal House in 1978: focusing of a rebellious college fraternity that fights against the prevailing order in the college and against another fraternity of obnoxious privileged kids who suck up to the system and wish to preserve it. In Animal House, the nerds just found their place with other rejects in the anarchistic Delta house. In Revenge of the Nerds the spotlight is on the dividing line between jocks and nerds and the nerds are rejected by all fraternities, which compels them to unite and form their own frat house. Together, the nerds find the things in which they are superior to others and fight back to regain their honor, and the climax of the movie shows them teaming up with the nerdy girl sorority Omega Mu to own the jocks. Among the myriad of ways they do so there is also a musical triumph, with a song that combines synthpop, hip-hop and glam rock, three styles that were challenging eighties mainstream rock. It was also kind of a send up to the contemporary pop scene from a nerdy point of view, and therefore it can be considered meta and gets the boys of Lambda Lambda Lambda and the girls of Omega Mu a place of honor in our parade.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find a good quality video of this movie clip on YouTube, which is a shame because it’s actually not a bad record. Here’s the audio:
Revenge of the Nerds is practically the first moment in American pop when the nerds looked like they could also be cool. This is one of the reasons for the surprising success of the movie: it spoke to many who identified with its heroes. Besides, it is a sufficiently funny comedy, and there was something prophetic about it: at the beginning of the nineties, the nerds will take over pop culture, with the Internet, video games, iPhone, electronic music, and cinema rooted in the world of comic books and sci-fi, and will become the trendsetters for what is cool. This cult film became a symbol for this revolution. And it is still worth watching.
25. Sigue Sigue Sputnik
Sigue Sigue Sputnik took the world by storm (well, not exactly the world, and not exactly by storm) in 1986, at the height of pop’s most embarrassing period. They represented all that was terrible about that period, but they did it so well that it is impossible not to perceive what they were doing as (at least partially) ironic. The band was formed by Tony James after he left Generation X and in a way was its successor, as Generation X was an especially self-aware band: while other punk bands regarded themselves as a rebellion against the history of rock, Generation X was always aware that it was a direct follow-up to early sixties rock’n’roll. Even the name of the band was taken from a book that was published in 1964 and presented a sociological study of sixties youth, which it named “generation x” because it claimed that the rock’n’roll generation had a consciousness that is an unknown variable to previous generations. And it was right, as rock’n’roll did indeed create a new consciousness, a new logic that the rock’n’roll kids themselves did not fully grasp at first, and its first two decades constitute an attempt to decipher this logic. The punk explosion of 1977 constitutes the moment when rock’n’roll’s inner logic was externalized and fully understood at last, the moment when it was no longer an “x”, but because of that it was also the moment when it stopped being fascinating and thrilling, and eighties rock was largely just empty magnifications of formal elements. James took Generation X’s self-awareness into Sigue Sigue Sputnik, creating a band that was a bent mirror-image of these formal elements, which by 1986 became utterly preposterous. Visually the band members looked like the incarnation of a fashion critic’s worst nightmares, image-wise they displayed all the decadent and tacky mannerisms associated with rockers, artistically they put all the emphasis on creating hype and none on the music, and lyrically they described themselves as paragons of a dystopian future where rock’n’roll turned the world into a violent and tasteless circus. For a moment, the Sigue Sigue Sputnik circus was the most brazen thing around.
The band was almost universally detested: nobody likes to see themselves bent in a mirror. Looking back, though, we see that in some ways they were ahead of their time: the use of samples from movies, the obsession with Japanese pop culture, the drawing from comic books, video games and sci-fi. Today, their pretension of being from the future looks kinda justified.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s moment didn’t last long. In a way, they represent the moment in which rock’n’roll ceased to be the central experience of pop culture. In 1991, author Douglas Coupland published his book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Generation, in which he used the name of the famous punk band to label a new generation of youth. Following the book, “generation X” was used in the nineties as a label for a generation of educated youngsters who felt hollowness in their existence and sensed that the world has nothing to offer them – rock music, which was the youth’s church in the past few decades, lost its ability to provide meaning to their existence. A lot was written during that decade about this “crisis”, but actually, this “generation X” existed mainly in the media and in sociological essays, not in reality. Nineties youth simply moved away from rock to other regions of pop culture, including regions that were hinted at by Sigue Sigue Sputnik, and in them it found opportunities for new beginnings.