The meta-bands parade (18-13)


18. Gorillaz

From 1995 up to the end of the millennium the pop world became a rather boring affair. The feeling was that not only rock had run its course, but hip-hop and electronic dance have also lost direction. MTV, which for the last decade-and-a-half was the center of the world for youth culture, became bland and boring. This was also how Blur’s vocalist Damon Albarn and his illustrator friend Jamie Howlett felt. In 1998, when they couldn’t take it anymore, they decided to form a fictional band that would be a parody on the pop world of the time. Gorillaz were sketched by Howlett and contained four members: 2D the vocalist, Murdoc Niccals the bassist, Noodles the guitarist and Russell Hobbs the drummer. Albarn provided the music with a changing line of musicians, and it was basically a rock band with elements of electronica, dub, hip-hop, trip-hop and more, which gave it the required strangeness. An Internet homepage, groundbreaking for its time, was created and provided a fictive biography and a fictitious world, and the band was launched. It created quite a buzz at the time, but the music, to my ears, was rather insipid and just blended it with the dull sound of the era.

The main historical significance of Gorillaz was that this was the first notable band whose base was the cybernetic world, and in that it marked the shift in pop culture’s point of gravity, from music to the Internet. From the fifties onward, a kid who felt alienated from the world they grew into and wanted to scream their truth in its ears could do so through rock’n’roll and the styles it spawned. Through pop music the youth could also find those who felt like them, those who were moved by the same artists and musical styles that expressed their inner truth. In other words, the way kids expressed themselves and discovered their identities was through music. But when the Internet began infiltrating their lives in the nineties, communities developed in it that enabled everyone to express themselves and find kinship, and music lost its significance. Pop music had to adapt to this situation, and in the first decade of the new millennium it got used to simply being part of these communities. Rock no longer regards itself as the thing that will change the world, and understands that there is actually no longer a “world” but many worlds. This millennium’s rock bands are mainly busy making music that fuses styles from all of pop’s history, like the amalgamation that Gorillaz offered, and learned to turn the stew into something that is at least interesting to listen to. Gorillaz improved as well, and offer better music and animation.

Gorillaz, then, are a reflection of a momentous moment in pop, the moment when the vanguard moved from music to the Internet. They wanted to parody the old world, but today they look more like the heralds of a new one.

17. The Crescendolls

So rock realized it is time to move to the Internet, but rock isn’t really suitable for the Internet era. Rock is after all music for and by jocks, while the Internet belongs to the nerds. Nerd music is electronic music, the music that developed from the German motorik of the seventies, the synthpop of the new wave, the electro that came out of early eighties hip-hop, the house that was born out of disco in mid-eighties Chicago, and the techno created at the time in Detroit. This is music created mostly not by playing instruments but by programming machines, and its essence is the formation of novel sounds with a futuristic feel. This music broke big at the end of the eighties, and it is the most suitable for the Internet era. In the 21st century, it becomes more and more dominant.

Daft Punk came out of the French house scene of the late nineties, music that offered house with a tinge of French sophistication, and became a leading electro-house band. Then again, their name suggests that they may have been doing electronic music but they were also a statement on the rock world and derived their imagery from the golden decades of pop. They are indeed different from most other electronica artists in that they have an image beyond the music, not unlike the rock bands of the past. Kind of a fusion between Kraftwerk and the Residents, the duo always appeared hooded in spacesuits and produced funky and tantalizing sounds from their synthesizers. In 2003 they decided to make an hour-long animation film to accompany their music, and of course there was only one source they could turn to to provide the futuristic animation they required: Japanese anime. This was one of the Gorillaz’s “mistakes”: they were drawn by Jamie Howlett, known mainly for his Tank Girl comics, and their imagery was therefore taken from punk. But punk belongs to the pre-Internet world, whereas Japanese anime already dwells in it and is connected to it. Daft Punk did it right, and the result is Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem. The movie tells the story of a band of blue-skinned aliens who are abducted by a greedy music industry impresario and brought to Earth where they are put into a machine that brainwashes them, changes their looks and makes them forget their origin and think that they are human. Once he has them under his control the impresario turns them into a popular band called the Crescendolls and makes a fortune on the back of their talent, and the main plot revolves around an attempt by a hero from their own planet to rescue them and bring them back home.

This is the most familiar story of the rock age: a band that expresses something alien to the mainstream, something pure that was not processed by the system, is corrupted when it becomes part of the music industry which treats it merely as a product. One of the main questions that rock deliberated was how to remain pure and express something real in spite of the industry’s demands. Here the story is retold from a nerdy point of view: the Crescendolls may look like a rock band and play guitars, but the music we hear is electro-house, and the story is told using sci-fi imagery like blue-skinned aliens and identity-wiping machines. The Crescendolls are sort of what the Internet era sees when it looks at the history of rock and tries to learn from it how not to fall into the same traps, and this is what makes them a meta band.

One of the most celebrated rock masterpieces to tell this story is the album Wish You were Here, released by Pink Floyd in 1975, presenting an autobiographical account by the band of the way in which it was corrupted and lost its way the moment it became part of the system. Pink Floyd use synthesizers to produce industrial machine sounds that represent this system, this heartless apparatus they succumbed to, whereas the singing and guitars represent the human side trying to break away from the system and express itself in its purity. But the album is pessimistic, like all of their albums, and Pink Floyd never figured out the way to be free of the machine. The dichotomy that Pink Floyd and lots of their rock peers imagined between Man on one side and the industrial and capitalist system on the other is an illusion – actually, technology and economical systems are the products of the human spirit, are part of Man. The music of Daft Punk and many other electronic groups already express a consciousness that is aware of it and tries to find solutions based on this awareness. In the clip shown above we hear human singing converting seamlessly into synthesized sounds and then returning to the human voice, as if they were both on the same scale, not conflicting entities. This music displays an understanding that you cannot detach Man from the system he created, and he must find his truth inside it.

And this is one of the lessons of the rock age: despite all the corrupting power that the pop industry holds, only within it can one create great art. When a pop band is required to deal with the demands of the system and find the way to nevertheless remain authentic, it does what art is supposed to do: showing us how to live within society and still be happy. The Internet opened the way more than ever before for artists to find an audience without first going through the system, but artists who do so represent in their art only escape from the challenges of life, and that is art that has no power. If the art of the 21st century wants to achieve greatness and be as meaningful as it was in the rock age, it must remember this lesson.

16. Zlad!

Zlad! Is the brainchild of Australian comedian Santo Cilauro, who in 2003 created, along with some mates, a traveling guide to a fictional Eastern European country called Molvania. Molvania is a combination of all Eastern European negative stereotypes put together, and of course it had to make fun of their music too. Santo assumed the character of Zladko Vladcik, and “Zlad!” is either his stage persona or the name of the band that includes him and a female keytarist. In 2004 they released a video to a song that was touted as Molvania’s contender in the Eurovision. The terrible (and hilarious) song did not make it to the Eurovision, unfortunately, but on the Internet it went viral.

So the intent was to poke fun at eastern Europeans music and the Eurovision song contest, but actually the “meta” here turned out to be something else (and maybe that was the intent all along). This is one of the first videos to herald the birth of a new musical taste, the taste of Internet culture. This culture likes vids that make you wonder “what the hell is going on here?” (or, in the more common form, “WTF??”), and they have the tendency to go viral and achieve fame. The Internet loves randomness, meta-logic, something that is not supposed to work but works anyway. Whereas in the radio era the best way to express yourself and be heard was the pop hit, in the Internet era it is the viral video, and anyone who wants to express themselves musically and get the world to take notice has to create a video-clip that obeys the new rules and becomes viral. Through YouTube, anyone today can create a virtual persona and upload videos, and the models provided by 20th century pop are now an inspiration to millions of kids, many of which have become YouTube stars, who employ this accumulated knowledge. Many of them also create ironic personas, displaying a deep understanding of the meta aesthetics we describe here. The Internet is also home to the trolls, those who are out to provoke and elicit angry reactions, and in the first years of the Internet the trolls were just people who enjoyed being anti-social, but over the years the troll developed and changed. Latter-years trolls are often YouTube personas, and there are quite a few creative and sophisticated trolls who understand the random logic of the Internet and their actions comprise statement on the way it works. The “meta-troll”, or the “cannibal troll”, is someone who intentionally creates something bad that would bait other trolls to attack it, and thus generates a large amount of views that make his video go viral. The most successful meta-trolls are those that make intentionally bad music, and Zlad was one of the first to show the way. His claim to be from the future suddenly seems to have some credibility.

15. The Monkees

What was the first “boy band”? One can claim it was the Beatles. When Brian Epstein discovered the fab four from Liverpool and became their personal manager, he first of all sought to create an appealing image for them, with the suits and the mop-top haircuts, and later to amplify the unique personality of each of the members. But the Beatles were already an authentic rock’n’roll band before Epstein found them, with years of playing in crowded cellars in Liverpool and Hamburg under their belt. If we’re looking for the first band that was preconceived as a concept, we need look no further than the Monkees.

The Monkees were the brainchild of two young Hollywood producers, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who decided to create the American answer to the Beatles. They pitched to NBC network the idea of a TV series about a rock group of four members with unique personalities, just like the Beatles, that will generate hysteria among the teenyboppers. Hundreds of young musicians were auditions for the parts to find those who fit the personalities, four cute guys who could act and sing were chosen, and in September 1966 the show debuted. The four pals Mickey, Mike, Pater and Davy provided a mixture of slapstick, surrealism and rock’n’roll, and the anticipated hysteria among American girls did not fail to arrive.

It’s nothing new the Hollywood, the fabrication of images. Up until the 1950s, movie stars were characterized by an image they would play in every movie, and the public relations apparatus built around them was designed to amplify this image in the public’s eye. The thing that was new in Schneider and Rafelson’s idea was the realization that we are in an era of bands, so they created an image for an entire band and for each of its members. To equip the band with music they turned to the Brill Building tunesmiths, then still connected to the pulse of pop culture, and the latter did not disappoint and furnished the band with a line of hits.

At its core, the Monkees project displays denigration of pop music. The band’s concept shows that its creators thought that the whole point in pop is to provide teenyboppers with some objects of desire, four cute boys they can fantasize about and express their awakening sexual feelings. All the boy bands created since are based on this concept. But whoever thinks that this is the essence of pop is gravely mistaken – this is just the lowest common denominator. Because every generation of teens has new sensitivities, and the pop world allows these sensitivities to develop and become new ideas and new cultures. Part of the music does indeed remain on the level of satisfying the base urges, but another part goes in creative and sublime directions. While Schneider and Rafelson were busy trying to cook up the American answer to the Beatles, the Beatles themselves moved on, and a month before the Monkees went on air they released their album Revolver, which took them far away from basic rock’n’roll and screaming girls towards deep and elaborate music created in the studio. Rock’s spirit moved on with them, and the Monkees found themselves trailing behind. The band members, who as we recall were no more than paid actors selected for the parts and not a real band, rebelled: they felt that the music they were making was meaningless and infantile, and wanted to do something more meaningful that will keep them in line with the other rock bands. Rafelson and Schneider also felt that they wanted to do something more “real”, and in 1968 the Monkees released the psychedelic movie Head, based on a surrealistic script written by Jack Nicholson, one of the representatives of the fledgling counter-culture. Schneider and Rafelsom carried on from there and used the money they made off the Monkees project to produce and direct subversive movies that expressed counter-culture values, and along with a generation of young actors that included Nicholson along with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and others they made Easy Rider and other important films. The Monkees, in the meantime, achieved their freedom and became a bona-fide rock band, but they were hounded by their past and were never taken seriously. They would always be considered as no more than a boy band.

And yet, the Monkees did contribute something of importance to the pop world. The opening theme for the show, ‘Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees’, is the first time that a rock’n’roll band sang about itself, the first time a band showed awareness to itself as part of the world it sings about. Fifties and sixties bands perceived the music as their art, and did not think of the band as an art piece in itself. The next decades will see bands that will regard themselves as part of their art, that will build their image according to a certain concept, that will regard the world as a stage and their existence in it as a perpetual theatrical act. A lot of the bands mentioned here learned in some way or another from the Monkees, the first band to be conceived as an idea.

14. The Village People

One glaring thing about this parade is that it is made almost entirely of white male bands. It is no wonder that this is the case: these bands are a statement on the way humanity thinks of itself, and up until recently, when you’d discuss humanity, or “Man”, it was the white man you would talk about. Therefore, the mirror image also had to be that of the white man, shown in some ironic way. When black or female bands wanted to attack the way Western society perceived itself they did not have to get cute but could do it directly and in their own name, and present their alternative. Homosexuals, on the other hand, are a more complicated issue.

Homosexuality was illegal in the West until the middle of the 20th century, and gays had to hide their sexual identity – “remain in the closet”. They looked like “straight” people, but developed secret codes that enabled them to recognize each other. Out of this underground culture came what is known as “Camp”, which is a distinctive taste and attitude towards the world. The essence of camp is an ironic attitude towards the straight world: the homosexual imitates the behavior of heterosexual men or women, but takes it to extremes. Thus, the gay person is belonging to the straight world without being outcast while at the same time extracting themselves from it (they “camp outside” it, and that could be the meaning of the term ‘Camp’ when it started to be used at the end of the 19th century). Camp evolved and expanded throughout the 20th century, and sent its tentacles deep into pop culture and the fashion world. A campy person is someone who lives life ironically, a person whose identity is a statement on the society they’re surrounded by. Camp is always meta.

In the sixties homosexuality became legal in the US, and in the West in general. But the LGBT community was still largely underground, because socially they were still hated and persecuted. One place in which the LGBT community found sanctuary was the discotheques of Manhattan, where they could dance and hang out with each other in clubs or nights that were distinguished for them. And there, in the gay clubs of Manhattan, arose a new musical culture, a new musical logic. The Disc Jockeys in the discotheques began playing the records not separately and per request as they did before, but as part of one extended piece according to their own vision. These DJs developed techniques that enabled them to switch seamlessly from record to record, or play two records simultaneously, and so they used existing records to create one long piece that lasted for hours and took the dancers on a magical trip. The DJs played mainly funky rhythms over which they put more melodic styles like psychedelia and soul, with sixties love messages. This musical culture was called “disco”, and in the second half of the seventies it crossed over and conquered the charts with dance records that combined mellowed funky rhythms, technological manipulations and melodic soulful singing. These mainstream records were largely cleaned up of any gay themes, but the style still had a sufficient amount of camp.

And there were also gay musicians who found in disco a venue to express themselves. Among them was the composer Jacques Morali, who along with (straight) lyricist-singer Victor Willis wrote some songs with a gay subtext. After the songs were recorded and found initial success, Morali immediately auditioned some singer-dancers to form a band that will perform them live, and the concept of the Village People (that is, people who come from New York’s Greenwich Village, considered an LGBT stronghold) was born. The band assumed comic-book figures of male archetypes – there was the policeman (Willis, who was also the main vocalist), the soldier/sailor, the cowboy, the Indian, the biker and the construction man – as a campy statement on American machoism. The first single was ‘I am What I am’, an anthem of self-pride, but it didn’t go very far. The second single, however, crystalized the band’s identity, furnished it with its first hit, and became its anthem.

Those were the Village People: a group of mustachoid machos singing hymns of masculinity. They also had records that dealt directly with life in the community and hope to be free of persecution, but their biggest hits where those were they masqueraded as straight men and made fun of them. The third single takes place inside the walls of the YMCA, that male-only Christian club. Needless to say, what the singer has in mind when he hangs out with all the boys is not very Christian…

…Whereas ‘In the Navy’ is a celebration of the navy, and the “masculine” life you find there…

The Village People were hugely popular (mainly because most listeners didn’t get the joke), and today they are pop icons and the band most identified with disco. The band members were replaced several times – they are not recognized on their own count, but as their characters. The people who portrayed the characters weren’t necessarily gay, but the overall concept remained true to camp aesthetics. They did not invent camp “machoism” – it was always part of camp – but they were the ones who inserted it into the consciousness of the masses: today, everyone can recognize their campiness. And the effect was far reaching: while in the past gays were regarded as sissies and straight men displayed their machoism to distinguish themselves from them, today anyone who is “too manly” will be perceived as gay, as someone who accentuates his masculinity as a campy statement. And so, ironically, the Village People contributed to the sublimation of human society.

13. Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem

When the worlds of “serious” and “popular” music drifted apart during the 19th century, “serious” music began to retreat into opera and concert halls, while popular music was mainly part of what was called Variety shows: entertainment events in which the stage would be successively taken by different kind of entertainers, such as singers, dancers, instrumentalists, comedians, magicians, acrobats, jugglers, puppeteers, ventriloquists and so forth. In Britain it was shown mainly in halls and was called Music Hall, in the United States it was mainly wandering acts that were called Vaudeville. In time, all these various entertainment fields grew and developed and became worlds of their own, and it was hard to combine them all together, but there were still variety shows up to the middle of the 20th century. In the first days of television, in the fifties and sixties, variety shows could still be found on it (like for instance the Ed Sullivan Show), but after that the pop world became so huge that it could no longer be contained in such a format. Nevertheless, in the second half of the seventies there came another variety show that took over the world: The Muppets, that wonderful puppet theatre created by Jim Henson and friends, was a TV show that was at once a parody on variety shows and also the best variety show ever. At a time when pop was at its apex, the Muppets made fun of everything that happened in it from the days of Music Hall and up until the time of cinema, TV and rock’n’roll. Every week the show hosted one of the giants of entertainment, from the elders of the clan that started out in vaudeville to the latest stars of stage, radio and screen, and every episode was a string of brilliant gags that parodied every aspect of the entertainment world and displayed endless creativity and anarchic humor. The Muppets were and still are loved by people of all ages and walks of life, from young to old, from the squarest to the most rebellious, and the classic series from the seventies still slays with its humor.

Naturally, their satire had to also reflect the rock world of the time, and for that Henson and his fellow puppeteers created Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, a band that brought together several rock archetypes. Dr. Teeth, the leader, was a freaky and flamboyant keyboardist, the last in a line of smiling pianist dandies which begins in the Romantic age with Franz Liszt through jazz pianists like Fats Waller and up to rock personas like Dr. John. Floyd Pepper, the bass player, was the grooviest Hippie ever, a super-stoner with acerbic humor and a smoky bluesy voice. Janice, the hot guitarist chick, rivaled him in grooviness, and the saxophonist Zoot was a weirdo by any measure. But most famous of them all was of course the drummer Animal, whose character was the quintessence of everything a rock drummer should be without any supplements: a crazy bobbing head of hair with four limbs banging in all directions. This band played with some of the jazz and rock greats and was worthy of each and every one of them. Here they are with jazz singer Cleo Laine.

At this time pop already achieved full confidence and realized that what it has to offer is worth a lot more than what “serious” art was trying to peddle, and that the “serious” music people are nothing but pathetic dried-up fossils who are stuck in the past. The representative of the “serious” and elitist art aficionados on the show was Sam the Eagle, who was on a mission to make the Muppets a “cultural” show in the spirit of people like Hayden and Mozart, or what he thought was their spirit. What people like Sam don’t realize is that in the 18th century the highest aspiration was to cultivate Man and make him more refined, and thus art was sublimated, but in our time the Western Man is cultivated enough and what we are looking for now are new roads to ecstasy. Beyond that, the “serious” approach actually eroded the music it so glorifies, and made us forget that in the 18th century it wasn’t taken that seriously but contained lots of anarchy, sexiness, laughter and silliness. Whenever the Muppets performed a “classical” piece they found a way to demolish it in a funny way, and in that they actually restored the vitality that was extracted out of it by the stuffed “high art” people. Here’s what happened when the Electric Mayhem were asked to perform a minuet from that century…

Beyond the comedy, Electric Mayhem was a terrific rock band. The studio musicians were pros, the puppeteers imitated the movements of real musicians in an amazingly realistic way, those who dubbed the voices of Floyd, Janice and the Doctor were excellent singers, and the anarchic spirit of the Muppets was exactly the spirit needed to create genuine rock’n’roll. Here they take a piece of Billy Joel classic and do it even better than Joel.

And we can’t leave without a little more Animal, whose presence alone should be enough to earn Electric Mayhem a place in the Rock’n’roll Hall of Fame…



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