I was watching the 49ers game last weekend, and, as a city does when they’ve got a nationally televised party to throw and they know they’re having fancy company over, they broke out the good musical china to perform the National Anthem. In this case it was back-pocket blow-dryer rockers Huey Lewis and the News. Being from Boston, I was a little surprised to realize that there’s an entire alternative universe out there called “San Francisco” where, it turns out, Huey Lewis and the News is actually their version of Aerosmith. Woh. I wonder what it would have been like to grow up in that utopia?
Naturally, it got me thinking about the respective musical histories of either city, as well as the other two cities left in the NFL playoff picture going into this weekend, Atlanta and Baltimore. I wondered, for example, who Atlantans trot out as their musical grandpas coming out of retirement to carve the metaphoric turkey once a year before shuffling them back off to the recliner. Sadly, in Boston, ours actually still play an active role; Aerosmith and Pepsi collaborated, or conspired, rather, to release the official anthem of the Patriots this season. This was in the year 2012, mind you.
And because this is about the NFL, where there can only be one winner, I figured we should take a look at which of the four cities has the proudest tradition of music, enlisting the aid of music writers from each, because that seems like the type of a thing a website would conceivably do now. And, for the record, most of these dudes admitted to not really caring about football, which, come on guys, perpetuating music nerd stereotypes like that isn’t healthy for anyone.
While the geographic embrace of the New England Patriots gives us a little bit of leeway in terms of bands to absorb into our Officially Sanctioned Provincial Pride Zone, we don’t really need it, because Boston is definitely the greatest musical city in the country. Listing all of the influential musicians from here wouldn’t make this a fair contest, but here’s a start.
As for Aerosmith: Fine, all jokes to the contrary, even the snootiest music critics like me have a soft spot in our hearts for the “bad boys of Boston,” as no one calls them. The same can be said for tote-bags and teardrops troubadour James Taylor. We’ll even still get excited (in the privacy of our own homes, mind you), about any news regarding the wider New Kids on the Block or New Edition clans. I guess people still talk about The J. Geils Band, but maybe that’s because Peter Wolf is always still lurking around everywhere, hat-wise.
“Boston had New Edition and New Kids on the Block, both of which essentially laid the blueprint for every major boy band between the Jackson 5 and One Direction,” adds my Boston colleague Jonathan Donaldson. “So ‘Take That’ Baltimore.”
“Also, the Patriots use technology to cheat (Spygate), and so did the group, Boston, whose guitarist Tom Scholz used weird Rockman machines to harmonize his guitars. Cheating is good. San Francisco had Journey who didn’t cheat, but should have.”
No guilty pleasure qualifiers are necessary for the likes of Donna Summer, Dinosaur Jr., the Cars, the Pixies, Aimee Mann, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Juliana Hatfield, Throwing Muses, Mission of Burma, the Lemonheads, Morphine, Buffalo Tom, and the Pixies again, because fuck you, that’s why. Fine, the Dropkick Murphys and Amanda Palmer do it for us too, if only because if there’s a better binary illustration of the two types of people we have here, shit-kicking blue collar bros, and fancy pants art students who think they’re better than you, I’ve never seen it. Oh, also Gangstarr, Converge, and the entire Boston hardcore scene. So confident am I in this mere fraction of our musical greats, that I don’t even really need to go into a whole thing explaining who they are to you because you already listen to them all.
On the newer front you can add twinkly synth-twinks Passion Pit to our hometown musical spank bank, alongside psych-noise-poppers Hooray For Earth and world-beating club duo Soul Clap. Burbling up on the local scene now are potential contenders Bearstronaut, Mean Creek, and Fat Creeps.
“San Francisco’s rock is a little like its football: our glory days of national dominance are far behind us, but our expectations remain too high and even our minor victories feel like defeats,” says Village Voice contributor and San Francisco native David Thorpe.
“In the ’60s, SF had the psychedelic scene on lock, but we’ve never quite captured the national zeitgeist since. We’ve had our occasional hit-making groups and innovative post-punk bands, none of which we can ever remember if pressed. We’ve even had an indie darling or two — the Brian Jonestown Massacre, BRMC and more recently Girls. But still, we’ve never managed to live down Third Eye Blind. And some people will try to tell you that Journey is our Aerosmith, but no: Huey Lewis is our Aerosmith, and our Aerosmith is better than your Aerosmith.”
As he points out, they’re kind of screwed out there via that whole Bay situation. Discounting Oakland and the East Bay from his calculations chops off about 5,000 amazing musical greats (rough count), and that’s before you even have to get to M.C. Hammer. Sadly, this is music football hybrid death match or whatever we’re calling it, so you gotta follow the imaginary rules.
Ian Port of the SF Weekly has a few more specific nominations for his fair city:
The Grateful Dead: It’s no exaggeration to say that the Dead became more than a rock band — they spawned an entire subculture, a social movement with its capital in S.F.’s Haight-Ashbury district. The Deadhead spirit still lives today, and not merely in branded wines, nostalgic video games, and the bootleg-trading circuit: Bands like Animal Collective are updating the group’s pastoral freakiness for the iPhone generation.
Jefferson Airplane: That whole psychedelic rock thing? That’s just in the air here. And while the Dead proved more popular, Jefferson Airplane rocked harder. If acid music has improved since “White Rabbit” — well actually, never mind; it hasn’t.
Sly Stone: Leave it to a Bay Area guy like Sly to turn soul music both psychedelic and political, and still keep it joyous in the process. You could try to imagine late 20th Century pop music without Stone’s influence, but missing Hendrix, Prince, Michael Jackson, and the roots of hip hop would kinda suck, right?
The Dead Kennedys: Lots of punks were angry, and lots of punks were clever. None were as angry, as clever, and as funny as the Dead Kennedys, who managed to write a seething anti-California song so good it ended up proving that California really is better than everywhere else.
Thee Oh Sees: San Fran’s psych-rock legacy lives on in Thee Oh Sees, who put on a live show so feral that witnessing it means you’ll want see them perform every single time you get a chance. Trust us, this whole city is so afflicted with love for Thee Oh Sees that they play one or two shows a month and still sell out each one.
DaVinci: Rap heads know DaVinci for his gravelly voice and chillingly true tales of violence, gentrification, and triumph in his native Fillmore neighborhood. Locals here know him as a nice dude with an intense work ethic. The rest of the world should get to know him real soon.
Ty Segall: The biggest guitar-based SF export of 2012, Segall is a sultan of sludge with a semi-secret talent for affecting songwriting. Having put out three excellent albums last year and graced the covers of SPIN and Pitchfork, he’s tipping the rest of the world off to the fact that San Francisco’s underground rockers are supremely talented, quietly smart, and extremely nice to grab a taco with.”
Henry Owings of Chunklet offered a quick breakdown of Atlanta, quality-wise:
Shit: Butch Walker, Marvelous 3, Indigo Girls, and Sugarland. “At least that one chick is from here. They might be from Nashville now.”
Okay: Outkast, Georgia Satellites, Drivin N Cryin.
New and Good: Mastodon Black Lips
Obvious (but not from Atlanta proper): The Allman Brothers, R.E.M., the B-52s
Chad Radford of Creative Loafing has a more in depth, and geographically exclusionary take.
“Remember when Jermaine Dupri and Ludacris cleaned up the dirty dirty via ‘Welcome to Atlanta” back in ’02?’ Nobody else does either. That’s because Goodie Mob & Big Boi of OutKast’s ‘Dirty South’ was so much … Dirtier.”
“Atlanta is a city of perpetual identity crisis: Millions of people live here, but very few of them are actually from here, and that’s how it’s always been. Before we were Atlanta, it was Terminus, a railroad transfer point from one train to the next — limbo. But those who remain here have developed strong bonds over everything from our coffee to our music to our precious sports teams. We’re not Decatur, that’s where the Shawn Mullins and Indigo Girls dominate history. And we’re certainly not Athens, who’s hallowed ground spawned the likes of everyone from R.E.M. to Of Montreal to the whole E6 universe, and the Drive-By Truckers, along with legions of other collegiate younglings.”
“So what does the A have to offer? A tangled urban maze where the city streets are as twisted and complex as our music scene: On any given day you’ll cross paths with Black Lips, Deerhunter, Royal Thunder, Mastodon, Janelle Monáe, DJ Lord of Public Enemy, Travis Porter, all on the same street, along side people who’ve performed on OutKast albums, sang back up for Cee-Lo, bought clothes from Trinidad Jame$, saw Big Boi at Lennox Mall, or passed Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka down by Georgia State, and they’re all mingling with the tenants of a thriving and multi-layered indie scene.”
“And if y’all forgot about Dre, that’s because he’s too busy making razor blade commercials to make another OutKast record. Yeah, we’ve had our share of embarrassments: Collective Soul, the Constellations, and even Canadian transplant Justin Bieber has an ATL address. And then there’s Michael Vick. I don’t know if any of these qualify as our Huey Lewis and the News or Aerosmith, or not. Maybe E-Dubb’s “Atlanta Falcons Theme” counts, but I doubt if anyone will remember it this time next year. Like our precious Falcons, ATLiens take the good with the bad.”
“There are some really weird bands from Baltimore that many never associate with the city,” says Maryland-born music writer Drew Lazor, making his case for Charm City. Hey, does The Wire count as a band, because if it does then they win this contest hands down, right?
Dru Hill, for example, “and by association Sisqo,” he points out, somewhat enthusiastically (?). “I’m sure you could have some fun with that.”
“In the category of old-school, Baltimore has a bunch of doo-wop type male R&B groups. They’re all named after birds. the Orioles, the Cardinals, the Swallows, etc.”
“Baltimore club music should probably be represented somehow. Scottie B, DJ Class, DJ Sega. And Dan Deacon. He really represents the off-kilter art school kid facet.” As for newer indie darlings, Rye Rye and Beach House do the trick perfectly, although even their influence may not extend as far and wide as the proudest sons of the greater Baltimore area, All Time Low. “If you want to work in infuriating pop punk that your younger sister swears by into the writeup somehow, they’re from Towson just outside Baltimore,” Lazor says.
I do, actually. This might be my favorite song of the entire collected history mentioned above. I’m from Boston, one other thing we’re famous for besides our music around here is making really questionable decisions.
Josh Sisk, a freelancer for a bunch of papers, including the Baltimore Sun, breaks down the best of the city.
“I don’t know much about sports,” he says. “In fact, after being asked to write this, I had to resort to Google to discover which other teams are in the playoffs. But I can say with confidence that Baltimore has the best music scene overall (though Atlanta might have the rap game sewn up).”
“Beach House are one of the more well-known groups outside of the city, they have successfully added layers of complexity (and lots of audience members) to their sound with each album. For my money, though, their eponymous debut and especially it’s follow up, Devotion, rank up there with the best albums ever released in Baltimore and beyond.
Although Celebration had a long stint on the label 4AD, this mainstay Baltimore band is criminally under-appreciated outside the city limits. Do yourself a favor and check out their albums The Modern Tribe and Hello Paradise (their first collaboration with Baltimore’s Friends Records, also an pivotal part of the music scene).
Everyone knows about Dan Deacon’s catchy yet intellectual music and his crowd participatory focused live performances. If you’ve ever met him, you know he is a gifted raconteur and the friendliest possible person you can imagine. But for those who live here, he also contributes to the culture of the city via organizing film screenings, writing plays, staging music festivals, and more.
Also, did you know Frank Zappa was a Baltimorean? Yep, we even have a statue of him. He’s part of the illustrious avant-garde musical history of the city, which is also the birthplace of Philip Glass and David Byrne. I’ll go ahead and use this space to mention Tupac as well – that’s right, Makaveli himself went to high school right here in Baltimore City.”
Future Islands are one of the most interesting current bands in the city, they write great songs and play with passion and verve, but most importantly they manage to do that while sounding like no other band I’ve ever heard. The first time I saw them play I was struck by their originality, and they just keep building on that with increasingly accomplished songwriting and performance.
Baltimore has it’s own vibrant genre of dance music, known here simply as Club or Club Music, but elsewhere as Baltimore Club. It blew up internationally a few years ago, and has since simmered back down somewhat, yet Club is still present on the streets and on the dancefloors of this city, and you can still see one of originators of the style, Scottie B, on the decks every week.
And Wye Oak are one of the hardest working bands in any city. Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack’s most well-known project (whose band name comes from Maryland’s state tree), crafts well-honed, engaging indie rock and tirelessly brings it to the people. The prolific Wasner also contributes via her many other interesting projects, including Dungeonesse and Flock of Dimes and her many collaborations.”
SO WHO WINS?
Which city do you think reps the hardest. And will any of this have any effect on something that actually matters (football)? The answer to that is, of course, no, because nothing matters. Especially if my beloved Patriots don’t beat the insufferable Ravens this weekend. Come on dude, Frank Zappa and Club music? GTFO of here with that business. Aerosmith may be awful, but they’re our awful around here, and isn’t that what repping your city is all about? You love it not only in spite of, but specifically because of all of its flaws.