“Most people have not understood when we explained that no one has ever played music like us before,” wrote Peter Stampfel in the liner notes to the first Holy Modal Rounders LP (1964). The Rounders were playing a lot of old-timey-sounding material in the style of the rural 1920s, and Stampfel’s point was that, even if he was hearing the young old-timey fiddlers of the ’20s as goofballs, experimentalists, and visionaries like himself, he and his mid-’60s ilk had a different vision, and a larger world in which to experiment, a different neighborhood to break out of. So the music was something different.
Lots of bands nowadays are doing similar reach-backs—some to the garage-rock past, or to glam or punk or postpunk or artpunk or new wave. (To name just a few worth hearing that aren’t dealt with here: Tie Reds, A-Frames, Black Lips, Kills, Electric Six, Les Baton Rouge, Spits, Stuck Ups, Exploding Hearts, Midnight Thunder Express, Briefs, Semiautomatic, Mensen, Red Planet, Chargers Street Gang, Epoxies, Paybacks, Hot Hot Heat, Cobra Verde, Cookies Downtown.) As for what the music is, we don’t know yet. Our now is different from the various back-thens.
Back in the ’60s, a year or so after that first Holy Modal Rounders record, and just down the road apiece, kids in the wake of the Stones, Yardbirds, and Dylan were creating their own adventure. To put it crudely, these kids, who only after the fact would be called “garage rockers” or “punk rockers,” belonged to a transitional social group that just doesn’t exist anymore: hoods partly breaking out of their hoodiness into potentially thinking of themselves as artists and aligning themselves with renegade drama-club and student-council kids who themselves were breaking out of their own club into potential delinquency. But the breakout wasn’t a complete breakout—which meant, actually, that things were wide open, that the no-longer-quite-hoods could bring the rest of the hoods with them (or could fall back in); ditto for the drama-club artsies. However, once the freaks established themselves circa ’68 as the officially out-there group, the other groups retreated, and the cool kids of ’66 ended up all over the ’70s map.
But before the freaks coalesced and FM progressive rock solidified as a format, the hoody garage punks and the artsy-fartsy proto-progressives were the same people, and it wasn’t even clear from the radio that post-Brill-biz popsters like Neil Diamond and Mann & Weill weren’t in with them. Another way of putting this (or maybe it’s a different point) is that there were no actual garage-punk bands: There were bands that would do songs in the styles of the time, some of which (we decided later) were garage-punk songs. “Wild Thing” and “Love Is All Around” were by the same band, and “Hey Joe” and “Get Together” by the same songwriter, but only “Wild Thing” and “Hey Joe” were punk in retrospect. The garage-band kids were snobs who worshiped the Stones and Yardbirds and sneered at the Beatles (except for the ones who didn’t). It was only in late-’60s retrospect that music based on the Yardbirds and early Stones was considered not sufficiently progressive, hence too Top 40ish, and then it was only in an even later retrospect by snobby anti-snobs that the garage bands were rehabilitated as nonsnobs and anti-progressive primitives.
I surmise, though, that fans of the new garage rock and neopunk are (1) a small number for whom “punk rock” is still it and everything else a retreat (though most of these would be sticking with hardcore and not going to garage punk), (2) a small number who just love the old sounds and wish Now sounded like Then, and (3) the vast amorphous rest of us who’ve been socialized into music fanaticism and get our info from the alt press and who therefore may possibly like emo and Timbaland and the two-step other garage as well. But so far, I don’t get a sense that we’re either riding a wave or creating a new one.
Toronto’s Deadly Snakes start their new garage-rock album Ode to Joy in a raving rush, like the Yardbirds snatching Dylan’s body and using it for their own purposes. What the Snakes get from Dylan is the belief that you can give any song form the Little Richard damn-the-toreadors full-bull-ahead treatment, from gospel shout to ’50s teen ballad. They also go for Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” strategy of whapping the words down hard on the beat; the only drawback (other than the obvious one that their musical stampede uses twice the energy to produce less of the actual propulsion of a 50 Cent or a Justin Timberlake, though the D. Snake movement is still impressive enough in comparison to previous garage-rock revivalists and even in comparison to Dylan) is that beyond the basic tongue-whapping they’re missing Dylan’s emotional anguish and fire. So it’s a strong wind, not a hot one. Still, the pure physicality of the breeze is a blast.
Sacramento’s FM Knives go deliberately for an Undertones-Buzzcocks 1979 pop-punk sound, with frantically deadpan Pete Shelleyish vocals (an aural analogue to Buster Keaton). And—by Yimminy!—like the Buzzcocks they have good melodies. They’ve got a song about the man from O.S.I., though I have no clue what O.S.I. is. Perhaps they don’t either but just think it’ll sound cool to say that the guy is from an official-seeming agency, and then—his being an agent—they can give him attributes. The main attribute seems to be alienation. This tuneful music is fronted by a singer with the wicked detachment of a Ray Davies or a Pete Shelley, someone who conveys a joy that he himself turns his back on (and thus partakes of the joy of turning his back on joy). The lyrics could use more of Shelley’s romance-going-wrong specificity, and FM Knives have yet to master the Ray Davies ’60s trick of sitting down and over a couple of years writing 50 or so of the most beautiful melodies ever, but that the Knives rate mention in the same sentence as Davies and Shelley is tribute enough. Their new Estrogen EP is even better than their album Useless & Modern, and the best song on it, “Cassavetes vs. the Moneygoround,” is the one that breaks free of the Buzzcocks-Kinks template, that settles down into slow-driving rock.
Detroit’s Clone Defects play howling blues-based rock, not unlike the Deadly Snakes, but pushed over some sort of edge, if a fundamental inability to sing in key can be considered over-the-edge these days. The singing is awful, and I haven’t yet decided how much is good-awful and how much godawful. The inner photo in their Shapes of Venus is of a creature with a squashed-in alien bug face; the body is half primate and half cockroach, adorned in fur that seems to be a hairy bug composite—though I suppose the phrase “hairy bug” is itself a composite of bug and hair, since bugs tend to be hairless when not part of CD packaging.
The title Shapes of Venus implies that the Defects, having visited many planets, have learned that beauty comes in all shapes, even ugly ones. The drummer is a Keith Moon type who in the space of a measure kicks all the cans in the neighborhood, and the band appears to charge out of control while actually driving right where they want, so they’ve got a cheap staticky sound—guitars running into dissonances and dissonances running back into consonances, charging over all possible cliffs, in full motion, yet landing upright. The best track has scraggly blues licks played against a red, dark, and sweet organ drone, bottles breaking in the background, nice overtones from a Roger McGuinn-like guitar in splatter mode. Another track starts with Ventures guitar clarity but gives it sloppy edges, the slop edging more and more into the center as the song progresses (or devolves). I don’t know if a more technically competent singer would weaken the music or make it more commanding, give it a more consistent wallop—assuming that one wants to be walloped, and I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t enjoying this band. I love the gusts of energy from these guys and from the Deadly Snakes—something’s really happening—but still, the ideology feels wrong, the bands exuding this old huff and puff that symbolizes being zonked and going all out, whereas a Justin or a Britney can glide by in even more motion without raising a sweat.
You see, it’s still indie-alternative to me. That is, “garage rock” now is a subcategory of indie-alternative (even the few bands who jump major label, though if there are a lot of Top 40 hits this might change). Current “garage rock” could be a breakout for a 12-year-old who’d previously only done the Britney-50 Cent thing, but the breakout is to something that’s already there, that’s long been nurtured by old bar-band bohemians, record-store geeks, and postcollegiate intellectuals. Not that the music or the social group is necessarily static, but neither is it tight-pantsed kids in 1966 believing that the time is theirs and stepping into the unknown with it, or Bangs-Laughner-Thomas intellectuals returning like the repressed in 1974 to tell you that you’re gonna cry, and this time it’s for real, the Truth, so drown in it suckers.
That said, “garage rock” and “punk” may nonetheless be creating a new identity within indie-alternative. Back in the early ’80s, after hardcore had appropriated the term “punk” for itself (differentiating itself from all the postpunk art faggots and metal punks and new-wave poofs), and after the punk-based glam metallers and Metallica metallers and haircut romancers were relegated to popularity and stardom, everything else, from shoegazers to noise bands, was “postpunk,” a term that gave way to “alternative” and “indie.” But now that “punk rock” is not just hardcore anymore, it’s re-embracing the general sweep of the old punk and old new wave, from the Heartbreakers to Lene Lovich to the Bangles to the Raincoats. In fact, the concept “neo new wave” might be more to the point: Punk was better than new wave in 1978, but now that punk is rigid and revered you’re better off going back to the silly new wave for all the glitter and trash that punk originally tried to reinsert into rock. But coming out of the backstretch, the term “garage rock” is winning the nomenclature race, and therefore has the most interesting future, given that, after the commercial success of the White Stripes and the Hives, “garage rock” is the moniker that could lead to radio and video play. Lots of music that doesn’t particularly reference 1965-1967 is going to align itself with the label. I’m already seeing this in press kits. In fact, the White Stripes themselves don’t particularly reference 1965-1967.
Neither do New York’s the Fever. They just want to help you strut. In “Ponyboy,” track one of their Pink on Pink EP, the Voidoids go surfing. The singer is a coifed-up Richard Hell, swinging his voice from wave to wave in obvious delight, while the guitar player gambols in the foam. Dick Dale lines twist into dissonance. In track two, “Ladyfingers,” the organ pretends it’s a robot gone blip-happy, and the guitar imitates swishy new-wave synthesizers. The singer ponders what voice to wear next. This one looks good in a skinny tie, he decides in track three, “Bridge & Tunnel.” In track four, “Pink Paganz,” the organ splits the difference between barrelhouse and horror movie, and the vocalist transmutes into an old geezer recalling the bawdyhouse refrains of his youth. The group keeps a strong beat throughout the CD, so they seem playful rather than eclectic. A party band on a tear.
I can envision bands like Sweden’s Caesars both hitting the Top 40 (though the fact that they’re on Astralwerks means that I’m probably as out of touch as ever) and defining the genre for a lot of people. And other than their being Swedish and playing an organ, and a Beatlesque chord here and there, they’re not particularly garage rock as I’d have used the term a couple of years ago. The harmonies on 39 Minutes of Bliss (in an Otherwise Meaningless World) are more ’90s than ’60s, more Gin Blossoms than Beatles. “I wanna sniff glue/’Cause I can’t get over you” would get across to the teen rock fan because it’s easy to understand and it’s funny and is obvious role playing, as if the band were saying “This is a role we like to play but to which we don’t have to commit” while at the same time committing themselves to being the sort of band that would sing such words. I can imagine listeners (even me, perhaps) identifying these poses as connecting to both our actual lives and the fun we ourselves would take in such posturing. In other words, this is good to sing along with. The lyrics might stick in our throat, however, since their deliberate mockery and shallowness doesn’t mitigate their basic ugliness. An intelligent person might take “No matter what I might say, you don’t mean a thing to me” as indicating just the opposite (if you make a point of your indifference, then obviously you’re lying), but nonetheless, the overall tone is of people hurting other people, to incredibly catchy tunes and a voice that’s pretending to be silly. Despite the sound, maybe these guys are the only true garage punks of the bunch (“punk” as in weak person who hurts others in order to feel tough). Leaves an icky aftertaste, though one that you should try for yourself.
The Fever play Mercury Lounge July 17.