The meta-bands parade (24-19)


24. The Strangeloves

When the Beatles took the US by storm in 1964 other British bands immediately followed in their wake, and the American pop chart was conquered by what is known as “the British invasion”. The tunesmiths of the Brill Building suddenly found their livelihood in danger, as public taste changed and demanded that performers would write their own songs. Three New York songwriters – Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer – had the brilliant idea to deal with this new reality by pretending that they too came from oversees. They formed a band called the Strangeloves, and adopted the personas of three brothers – Miles, Giles and Niles Strangelove – who came from Australia. Their fictional biography stated that they came from a family of successful sheep breeders, and that they’ve learned the unique beat that typified their records from the local aborigines and from the Maasai tribe they met while traveling Africa. To complete the image, they wore strange wigs and spoke in a fake Australian accent. This was enough to create some hype, and now all that was left for them to do was to create records that would be good and weird enough to fit their image. And at that they had better success than most of their peers, because they had a better understanding of the nature of rock’n’roll.

To understand what made rock’n’roll so revolutionary one has to remember the environment it grew in. The 1950s where the time when the modern project reached its zenith and seemed set to accomplish its goal. The goal, as it was laid forth in the 18th century, was to create a new and enlightened Man, a Man that has learned to sublimate his animalistic sides and delay immediate gratifications for the benefit of society. The perfection of this project was supposed to bring world peace and the formation of an enlightened human society that would care for the welfare and happiness of all its subjects. The Western society of the fifties regarded itself as cruising on the road to achieve that goal, but the youth that grew into it did not feel that way. They could see that the adults’ pretensions of enlightenment contained a lot of hypocrisy, and since they did not experience the previous awful decades they could not appreciate the progress achieved. This was the first generation that felt financially secure and was therefore more focused on leisure than work, and this was also the first generation to live under the threat of nuclear annihilation and to not know if it would live to see tomorrow. All of this produced a consciousness that did not want to postpone immediate gratification for the sake of a better future, but wanted everything here and now. Rock’n’roll, with its wild abandon, gave them just what they wanted. The culture guardians reacted with panic and thought that not only the modern project but civilization as a whole was in danger because of this music that releases the animalistic urges, but they did not realize that rock’n’roll had something else: the contradiction it created with the prevailing modern logic resulted in a sensation of all the boundaries breaking down, and this sensation is accompanied by a wondrous and transcendent feeling of ecstasy. And this is the thing that pop culture will always try to relive: not the feeling of achieving instant gratification, but the amazing sensation of breaking the prevailing logic by a new ecstatic experience that is in tune with the spirit of the time. This sensation doesn’t last for long, since a new logic soon crystalizes on the basis of this new ecstatic experience, but then comes a new musical style that once again breaks the paradigm and provides a new ecstatic experience. In this way, pop regenerated again and again, and gradually dismantled the Modern logic to introduce a different logic.

In the sixties pop did not fully understand this process yet, but already sensed it. 1964 saw the release of Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove, which displayed Modern logic as a total sham and showed that under the civilized veneer Man remained an ape that is not capable of controlling the sophisticated technological systems he created and is leading himself to extinction. The Strangeloves took their name from the movie, but they had no pretense to be anything more than an ape. The single ‘I Want Candy’, which came out in 1965, was a perfect expression of a consciousness that is no longer willing to postpone any immediate gratifications. Previously we witnessed one attempt by Brill Building writers to adapt to the spirit of the time and make garage music, which produced the hit record ‘Sugar Sugar’. “You are my candy girl / And you got me wanting you,” sing the Archies, but they sing it in a sweet and unthreatening manner from which we can deduce that they are capable of controlling this urge. The Strangeloves, on the other hand, display no such mastery over their primal urges, “I want candy” they scream like a toddler wanting candy, transferring this infantile demand to the age of puberty and to a desire to a hot girl named candy. The “Maasai” drums complete the urge-releasing jungle atmosphere, and the result is one of the masterpieces of garage.

Their next single was more self-aware. ‘Night Time’ derides all the people who are working and saving their money for the future, whereas the hero also works but spends the money he earns on the wild night life with his hot girlfriend.

This typified the consciousness of early rock’n’roll: it was already aware that it was offering something better than the Modern formula, something based on fun in the spheres of leisure and play and not on working for the future, but couldn’t yet say exactly what it was. Therefore, the lyrics were characterized by intentional infantilism and barbarity, by demands for immediate satisfactions. In the second half of the sixties rock’n’roll began taking itself more seriously as the voice of the new generation and attempted to articulate deeper statements (it even started calling itself “rock”, to distinguish itself from teenybopper rock’n’roll), but in the process it began internalizing parts of the old adult logic and distanced itself from the initial ecstasy. The Strangeloves, meanwhile, broke up, but two of its members, Feldman and Goldstein, formed a new band called the Rock & Roll Dubble Bubble Trading Card Co. of Philadelphia 19141, and in 1969 they released a record that was a parody of bubblegum music.

The record mentions the “serious” rock of the time but rejects it as unsatisfactory, and declares its love to bubblegum pop that preserves the spirit of early rock’n’roll. There was something prophetic about this record, but its music, and bubblegum pop as a whole, did not really preserve early rock’n’roll’s spirit. Only in the seventies would there come artists who understood that you can articulate deep statements that are based on rock’n’roll ecstasy, and would purify rock’n’roll from the archaic modern logic.

23. Max Frost & the Troopers

At the end of the sixties, rock began to absorb elements of the old Modern logic, and one of these elements was the belief that one must postpone instant gratifications and work on creating a perfect world. Rock’n’roll, which brought the youth more joy than anything else the world had to offer and made it a lot happier (or so they thought) than previous generations was perceived as a new truth, and this generation despised the grownups who were incapable of understanding rock’n’roll’s inner truth. But if at first this truth was based on the notion that joy is to be achieved in the present and not in the future, then at the end of the sixties part of rock began to assume a revolutionary identity that aspired to impose this truth on the world and bring about a better future. And as it happens with every revolutionary stance that wants to impose its truth on the world, it very quickly became violent. 1968 was a rough and violent year, and rock music played a part in this development.

Hollywood’s first reaction was the movie Wild in the Streets, a low-budget, trashy flick which reduces things to absurdity but does a pretty good job in capturing the spirit of the time. The hero is a young and hunky rock star named Max Frost who leads a rock band that includes his foxy girlfriend Sally Le Roy on keyboards, a bass player called the Hook who plays well despite having a hook for a hand, and a black drummer called Stanley X (played by none other than Richard Pryor). When a politician asks for their support in a campaign to lower the voting age and give more power to the young generation, Frost suddenly discovers the massive political power he has as a rock star with influence on the youth (which during this period, the “baby boomer” period, became a majority in society). In no time he becomes the leader of a political movement that intends to place everyone over the age of thirty in concentration camps and leave the world to the youth. The film displays quite well all that was preposterous in the revolutionary thought of the sixties, and revolutionary thought in general.

The band is not mentioned by name in the movie, but when the soundtrack was released it was posthumously named Max Frost & the Troopers. The songs were written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill, one the Brill Building’s most prolific songwriting teams, and they do a fine job. Of course it doesn’t have the power of true revolutionary bands like the Doors or MC5, but it is a pretty good parody of sixties revolutionary rock, and the soundtrack played a big part gaining the movie cult status.

22. Venus in Furs

Glam came along in the early seventies and put rock back on track. In opposition to rock’s drift towards more “serious” directions (i.e. directions that adopted archaic values), glam went back to basic ecstatic rock’n’roll and did it in defiance of “serious” rock and its values. The more simple side of glam contained bands that played joyful music that was kind of a combination of metal with bubblegum pop, but it also had a sophisticated side that mocked the values of modernism and espoused the values of pop instead. The pivotal figure of this side of glam was David Bowie, who merged rock with theatre and presented through his art a parade of characters that try to fix their world and make it perfect but always fail. Those were ironic characters, characters that were meant to reflect Modern logic and display what is wrong with it. To present this irony Bowie drew a lot from gay culture and its ironic camp style, and influenced all of glam whose artists assumed theatrical and androgynous personas. In that, glam helped open the way for homosexuals and other sexual deviants to publicly display their differences and made society more open, but this wasn’t the essential thing about it. For Bowie camp was only an artistic mean, and eventually he dropped it and moved on to characters that had different influences. Other glam artists, who were mostly straight, also moved on. There were those who got the point and followed Bowie into the new worlds he explored, but there were also those who felt betrayed.

One of the latter was the gay movie director Todd Haynes, who in 1998 created the movie Velvet Goldmine (names after a Bowie record) which sets out to find, Citizen Kane style, why Bowie and glam betrayed him so. The movie shows that Haynes simply did not understand the essence of glam. He thought that glam was the embodiment of Oscar Wilde’s spirit in rock’n’roll, a campy style that looked at the straight world with sardonic irony from a gay point of view. What he didn’t get was that glam’s irony was a different kind of irony, an irony that looked at the Modern world sardonically from a pop point of view. Through his scorn of the Modern attempt at creating a perfect world based on eternal truths, Bowie liberated us from the perception that this is the goal of our existence, towards a different perception that perceives every truth as temporary and always tries to live according to the truth of the moment. Therefore, to remain true to himself he had to move on when glam finished its course – it was not self-betrayal as Haynes claims in the movie, but the exact opposite.

So the movie fails philosophically, but visually it is a ravishing celebration of glam. Haynes took all that was good in glam and poured it into the main figures, and the movie is a feast for the eyes. The beautiful Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays the hero Brian Slade, kind of a hybrid of David Bowie and Jobriath, and his band Venus in Furs (named after a Velvet Underground record) performs some glam classics (albeit none of Bowie’s, who thought the movie distorts the essence of glam and vetoed the use of his songs) and also songs written especially for the movie by glam-influenced musicians. The true members of band (that is, those who recorded the songs in the studio, not the actors in the movie) are famous rockers like Thom Yorke from Radiohead, Bernard Butler from Suede and Andy Mackay from Roxy Music, but the main thing about it is the visual side.

The movie has another fictitious group called Wylde Ratttz, which comes from America and represents the two American bands that influenced glam: the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. Here, too, those who are actually playing are famous musicians – Ron Asheton from the Stooges, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth and others – but once again, the main thing is the visual side, in which Ewan McGregor delivers a fairly good imitation of Iggy Pop.

Bottom line, this movie is Haynes’ statement on how glam “should have” been. Venus in Furs is the ultimate glam band if glam was really the embodiment of Oscar Wilde in rock. Through this band, Haynes employs glam to articulate a campy statement on the world, and that’s what makes it a meta band.

21. Bad News

At the end of the seventies, following pop culture’s attacks, the Modern consciousness that aspired to create a perfect human society crumbled. Unfortunately, most people have not yet internalized the logic of pop and the alternative it offered, and were left with nothing to guide them. And so, the breakdown of the old mentality caused the social bonds to disintegrate, and what followed was a decade that was characterized by selfishness and cynicism. Rock music had no answer to this crisis, since its logic came from a rebellion against the old world, and once the old world collapsed rock too had lost its meaning. Rock ceased regenerating from that point on, and all it could do was play around with its existing elements or intensify them. One of the expressions of that was metal, which at the beginning of the eighties became a dominant rock style. Metal carried on the legacy of garage in refusing to adhere to “musical quality” criteria, instead opting for primitive music that focused mainly on mindless fun. But the “mindlessness” of rock up to that point had a deep facet as well: it came from the understanding that the old thought structures were intellectually bankrupt and we must rethink things, and beyond garage’s destruction of thought there was also an attempt to look for new values. In early eighties metal mindlessness became its own end, turning the rock world into a rather silly affair.

Satire experienced a similar crisis. After many decades in which satire busied itself mainly in mocking Man’s pretensions of creating a perfect world, it now had to find new targets to aim its arrows at. Monty Python, Britain’s and the West’s leading comedy ensemble in the seventies, lost direction at the beginning of the new decade due to this twist. Its best British stand-in was the Comic Strip, a comedy team numbering seven members (Rick Mayall, Dawn French, Alexei Sayle, Adrian Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders, Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson) whose satire lashed out in all directions and looked for new ways to have a laugh. Back then it was called “alternative comedy”, today it looks like the beginning of the comedy that typifies our time. Among other things, the Comic Strip’s satire was aimed at the world of pop, and in 1983 they presented Bad News, a magnificently dumb metal band. Edmondson was Vim Fuego the vocalist and lead guitarist, Planer was Den Dennis the rhythm guitarist, Mayall was Colin Grigson the bassist and Richardson played Spider Webb the drummer, while French and Saunders portrayed stereotypical female types of the metal world. Fuego had artistic aspirations and constantly tried to take the band beyond the superficial conventions of the style, which always led to arguments and fights because the other band members were loyal metal fanatics. Beyond featuring in episodes of the Comic Strip’s TV show, Bad News actually functioned as a real life metal band in the years 1983-88, including tours and recordings (done with the help of Brian May, guitarist of legendary glam band Queen). In its comedic-musical performances, Bad News made fun of everything that was stupid and vacuous in the eighties rock world. Unfortunately, there was another band at the time that did it better than them, and so they are largely forgotten. Shame, they were funny.

20. Wyld Stallyns

During the sixties and seventies, rock was the forefront of Western spirit, and attracted the most intelligent, creative and revolutionary forces among the young who wanted to create new values and worldviews through it. In the eighties it lost this status, and became no more than just another musical style. The intelligentsia moved on to newer styles, leaving rock to those who just wanted to have some mindless fun. There was still a lot of brains in rock (mainly in what was known as “alternative rock”), but styles like metal (discounting the underground scene of alternative metal bands that broke through only towards the end of the decade) gave it a rather daft image. The movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures came out in 1989 and was a reflection of this stupidity, but turned it on its head.  The film focuses on the trials of the two teenage kids Bill and Ted, who practice in their parents’ garage and dream of making it big with their band Wyld Stallyns. They seem like a couple of numbskulls who can’t play for shit and would never amount to anything, but then we move forward 700 years into the future and find that the Wyld Stallyns had achieved fame – and not only that, the values that the band promoted in its songs (silly rock’n’roll slogans like “party on”) have become a basis for the future human society, a perfect society that has transcended all wars and problems. This society regards Bill and Ted as its prophets, and when it detects a danger to the future of the band it sends its own delegate back in time to ensure that history gets back on track. The movie then becomes a delightful screwball comedy in which Bill and Ted travel to the future and the past in a time machine that looks like a phone booth, Dr. Who style, and teach famous historical figures to party on in the spirit of rock’n’roll. The movie is yet another manifestation of the spirit of garage rock: we may seem dumb to you with our primitive music and weird slang, but actually we are smarter than you and represent the better future.

But only seemingly, because it is actually a double-edged irony. The thing that the movie is really mocking is exactly this belief that rock held, which here is taken to extreme and revealed in all its absurdity. Many eighties rockers still believed that they represent the better future and kept on mouthing the old clichés, but these clichés have become hollow. The movie is a parody that makes fun of these clichés, and the next decade will see quite a few movies that will combine rock clichés with sixties-seventies cinema clichés and will express the realization that the era in which they were relevant is long gone. Bill and Ted were the inspiration for the comic duos of the nineties – Wayne and Garth, Beavis and Butthead, Jay and Silent Bob – who all behaved like dummies, but their dumbness is an ironic dumbness that makes a statement on the aimless culture surrounding them. The best rock bands of the decade, like Nirvana, reflected this loss of direction in their songs and lamented it. Rock ceased being a compass, and pop culture was busy looking for something else to show it the way.

The Wyld Stallyns, then, took Bad News’ satire and cranked it up to eleven, laying the final coup de grace on rock’s pretensions. The movie was a surprising hit and spawned an animation TV show and also a 1991 sequel, in which we finally get to see the Wyld Stallyns in concert. The song is a 1973 glam anthem by Argent, remade for the movie by glam legends Kiss.

19. The Pop Group

There are bands which I deliberated whether they have a place on this parade. For instance the Mothers of Invention, Frank Zappa’s outfit, a band that ridiculed the pretensions of all styles and cultures while making a musical salad of all of them. But the Mothers of Invention perceived themselves as a real band, and the irony was in their music and not their image, so they do not belong here. Or Roxy Music, a glam band that comported itself like a project of high art, fashion and culture, but actually exposed their emptiness. Or the Slits, an all-girl punk group whose members acted like young male rockers and thus made fun of the masculine rock world. Not to mention the Dead Kennedys, a punk outfit whose lyrics’ macabre irony was even more poignant than its provocative name. But glam and punk are two styles in which the irony is inherent, in which the image of the band is supposed to be accompanied by a wink, so I left all of them out except the ones I consider the most important (and which we shall get to). The same thing goes for post-punk.

Glam and punk were ironic in their image, but musically they were just rock’n’roll. Their derision was aimed at everything else, at all the values of the old world that seemed hypocritical and deceitful to them, but rock’n’roll still presented truth to them. They were also those that determined that pop values are superior to modern values, and promoted the former. After punk, however, came the realization that rock’n’roll had run its course, and pop values have now become part of the system to such an extent that they too became hypocritical. Post-punk began criticizing and deconstructing rock’n’roll and pop, musically as well as ideologically. There are several post-punk groups that can fit here, but the Pop Group, just by virtue of its name, it the most suitable.

I guess it’s time I explained what I mean by the word “Pop”. For that, we need to return to its source. In the middle of the 19th century there was a split in Western music, as part of the musical world started to perceive itself as “serious” music and referred to music it regarded as “unserious” as “popular music”. The perception was that only “serious music” contains spiritual depth and expresses truth, while popular music is a commodity meant only for entertainment. When we are required to determine if a certain musical piece is “serious” or “popular” we find out that it is impossible, since it is actually a subjective definition and what is mere entertainment for one can be a deep truth for another, but the “serious music” people are convinced that their definition is valid and despise “popular music”. Creators of “serious music” are anxious not to be seen as someone who has “sold out”, and so they limit themselves and take care not to allow anything that is seen as belonging to the world of popular music into their own creations. This elitist perception survived to this very day: every new style is at first seen as belonging to the world of popular music, but in time it begins to develop “serious music” pretensions and distances itself from the charts and the entertainment world. Jazz, for instance, has by now completely detached itself from this world.

In opposition to this stance, there arose in the 20th century a different stance, which reached its peak in the seventies. This stance holds that the attitude of “serious music” stifles and kills music, whereas popular music (or “pop”, as it is called by its fans) is the most supreme art form of them all. In distancing themselves from the world of entertainment, the creators of “serious” music are distancing themselves of the most basic musical form: the three minute song, a short and ecstatic piece that instills joy in the listeners, that makes them want to get up and dance or go out and change their world. Pop, on the other hand, regards this form as the basis of all music, and any musical style that no longer produces such pieces as a dead style. It’s not that “heavier” forms have no merit, but in order to be really good they must draw their spirit from the experience expressed in the short forms. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven wrote music for short songs and dances, and then took the ecstatic spirit of this music into heavier forms like masses, symphonies and concertos, where they could develop things out of it. But in the course of the 19th century, classical music composers started to drift further and further away from songs and dances and regard them as forms that a “serious” musician must shun, and as a result they lost connection with the human spirit and classical music lost its vitality and in the 20th century became a dead horse. “Serious music” stays away from dance halls, comedy and pornography, and music that is unwilling to deal with sexuality, laughter, dance and all the other things that are considered “entertainment” is music that limits itself to a very narrow range of human experience and thus renders itself a depleted and valueless form of art. Moreover, this detachment also causes music to lose its ability to affect reality. In Beethoven’s time his music was part of everyday life and his compositions were played in festivals and entertainment events, attacking people wherever they went and generating transformations in their souls. But after him classical music began to gradually shut itself in concert halls, a place people go to only to hear classical music, and so it is heard only by those who are used to it and does no longer generate any changed in the world. Similar processes happened in jazz, which disconnected in the seventies and stopped churning out hits that would attack people while they listen to the radio.

Rock, collectively, decided not to let it happen to it. There were of course many rock bands that did more somber material, but they were respected only if they maintained connection with the more entertaining side of the music. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention made music that crushed and subverted all pop conventions but still drew its power from rock’n’roll, and were therefore revered by rock fans. But when the seventies brought the rise of what was called “progressive rock”, rock that derived its values from classical music and presented slow and lengthy pieces with inner changes, it caused rock to detach and lose its spirit and brought the reaction of punk (beginning at the end of 1976) which lashed out against progressive rock and demanded a return to short and wild records. This is actually the moment in which the logic of Pop ripened and realized that it is superior to the logic of “serious music”. On the other hand, punk hated the pop industry and tried to escape it by being an “anti-musical” style that treaded on everything that was always considered beautiful and aesthetic in music, keeping only the rowdy and thrashing ecstasy of rock’n’roll. Alas, it turns out that every kind of music becomes beautiful once you get used to it, and by returning to three minute records punk made it possible for the industry to absorb and incorporate it. What was called “new wave” was simply a label that the music industry put on punk and the styles that came in its wake, which it marketed as the next phase of rock’n’roll. Post-punk (whose first sprouts could be spotted at the end of 1977) rose against this reality, and its groups looked like punk bands but broke rock’n’roll’s musical conventions to distinguish themselves from the more commercial pop bands. They attacked punk for its commercialization, while still drawing from its aggressive energy.

The Pop Group came from Bristol, England, and was one of the leading post-punk bands. Their music treated punk as if it was a modelling balloon, bending and twisting it in all sorts of ways with the incorporation of styles like jazz, ska, funk and dub. But its ironic name reminded everyone that this is still pop, and actually what pop is supposed to be.

As mentioned, rock tried its hardest not to lose contact and always remain a pop style. But that turned out to be impossible. Every musical style, sooner or later, loses its vitality and its ability to carry the spirit of the time, and rock too eventually drifted into its own world. Post-punk, that sounded so subversive and transformative in its time, sounds today like regular music you hear in rock records and performances.

It’s not that this music is without merit. There are still good pieces being created in the fields of rock, jazz and classical, creations that enrich and develop the worlds formed around these styles. The problem begins when the fans of these styles perceive them as “serious music” that is superior to the newer styles. For such people, music is no longer a way to overcome present challenges and instead becomes mere escapism, a way to avoid current reality. These people are seen by Pop consciousness as stuck in the past, disconnected from the truth of today’s reality, and therefore worthy of scorn. Much of the scorn of the bands we discuss here is directed at those people.



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