Police on My Back

There’s a well known phenomenon in pop culture of glamorizing outlaws and criminals, idolizing people who, in reality, really ought to be locked up and never seen again. This is not that phenomenon. What the Clash are describing is the opposite of that. It’s the condition of living in a society where just the act of surviving puts you at odds with the law, making decent people live in fear while the unscrupulous prosper and thrive. Economic disparity and social inequality in the UK drove the punk movement in the late 70’s, and it resonated particularly strongly in totalitarian Eastern Europe, where just being alive meant police at your back. If that sense of rage and fear seemed to dissipate during an era of relative peace and prosperity, it’s seething right back into place in the unstable times of today. Too bad Joe Strummer didn’t live to see himself become the most relevant voice in rock music again, or thank god he didn’t.

Point Blank

This is what you get when you dig a little bit deeper into Bruce Springsteen. It seems that Springsteen only reluctantly writes the obligatory big loud hits, just to have something on the radio while he works on a very different kind of song. It’s the quiet desperation of the American working class that really interests him. That makes for a contradictory legacy, obviously. I’m curious to pick up a copy of Springsteen’s memoir; how does the superstar see his own path? What’s the trick to consistently selling yourself as a believable dude next door when you’re so far removed from your beginnings? It’s probably not that big of a stretch; all it takes is some observational skills and a sense of empathy to see that the world is full of people whose lives didn’t take the turn they wanted. For Bruce Springsteen, the contrast between his own success and the relative failure of the people he grew up with is a source of pain. He is not one of those stars who immediately uses the position of their stardom to isolate themselves from reality. Not being a drug user might have something to do with it, as well as a family history of mental illness, but he’s more clear eyed about the American condition than most of his peers, and he very emphatically isn’t enamored with the glamour he’s exposed to as a celebrity. It does seem that the reason Springsteen has been able to pull off his common man persona is that he genuinely doesn’t see himself as being all that far removed from his beginnings after all.

Party Out of Bounds

Would you mind that terribly much if The B-52’s crashed your kegger? They seem fun, though Fred Schneider seems like the kind of guy who would make you feel bad about your record/book collection. They also make a crashed party sound like fairly innocent fun, because pretending that everything’s the 50’s is their thing. Nothing bad could ever happen in the tacky glow of The B-52’s retro world. It’s all wigs and martinis and camp.

The Overload

“The Overload,” was Talking Heads’ attempt to emulate the sound of British post-punk band Joy Division. The song was made despite no band member having heard the music of Joy Division; rather, it was based on an idea of what the British quartet might sound like based on descriptions in the music press. The track features “tribal-cum-industrial” beats created primarily by Harrison and Byrne. (from Wikipedia) 

I think that just might be single best high-concept concept was ever conceptualized. Because this is pretty spot-on, and it’s clear that the Talking Heads had stumbled upon, at the very least, an excellent parlour game. In fact, I’m pretty sure that ‘an idea of what Joy Division might sound like based on descriptions in the press’ has become a legit genre. The world having come full circle, we now have an entire genre of ‘bands who’ve based their entire sound and image on written descriptions of 80’s new wave music’.

Over You

You can ugly cry about getting over your love, or you can be suave about it. Yesterday we heard Lucinda Williams delivering the kind of breakup song that implies months of whiskey hangovers, unwashed hair, and the ritualized burning of keepsakes. Roxy Music delivers the kind of breakup song that suggests putting on your best leisure suit, cruising to the singles’ bar and possibly a discreet mournful sniffle or two post-rebound sex. Different separations call for different coping mechanisms. All are valid! The long, sordid hangover is not always inevitable; sometimes you can just shake it all off and stroll away with nothing more than a lingering tingle of sadness. A little melancholia just makes you look more cool, right?

Out of Control

Watching videos of Bruce Springsteen in action the other day made me ponder the phenomenon of stadium rock. Props to Bruce and all, but nobody personifies the idea of a stadium band more than U2. Stadium rock is nothing more than music performed in a football stadium or other sports arena. It’s not exactly a genre; hypothetically, anybody could play stadium shows provided they have enough fans. But really, it’s a very specific kind of band that does well in stadiums. It takes a big sound, a big image and a bigger ego. The transposition of the musical concert from the intimacy of the theatre stage to the expanse of the football field is relatively recent, and it’s very much a rock and roll phenomenon. It’s not necessarily about booking the largest possible amount of space; Carnegie Hall is pretty dang big. It’s the idea that the energy of a rock concert is so explosive and primal it cannot be contained within anything as refined as a theatre, it has to happen in a space usually reserved for displays of ritualized violence.

When The Beatles pioneered playing in stadiums in the 60’s it was because the energy of their audiences was, literally, too explosive and primal to be contained. The Beatles hated playing stadium size shows and felt that their performance suffered. They were a club band and thrived on intimacy. Other bands who came up in small clubs were more happy to embrace stadiums. The Rolling Stones, most notably, evolved from an intimate club band into a stadium band, and have adjusted their sound and image accordingly. Throughout the 70’s more and more bands made that adjustment, until nearly everyone with any degree of a following was playing sports arenas.

A football stadium is not a venue for nuance. It calls for broad gestures, and playing to the cheap seats. In a stadium, the performance has to be calibrated so that it can be enjoyed by people seated so far away they can barely see the band, and the musicians have to adjust to the fact that no matter how well they play or how great their equipment is, the acoustics will be lousy. Not everyone can make that adjustment. Not everyone had to, though.

Because in the 80’s there came a new generation of musicians, who grew up with stadium shows. Bands like U2 here, who just came out of the gate ready to play stadiums. Watch that performance there below. It’s a song from their debut album, released in 1980. These guys may have started their career playing in clubs, but they were already writing for stadiums. They didn’t have to recalibrate anything, their music and image were designed to be huge in every way. From their anthemic choruses, to their aggressive guitar sound, to their slogan-ready political ideas, to their big dumb hair, everything about U2 is made to be seen from the nosebleed seats of the Superdome. They’re like some fantastical super-predator, genetically engineered to outrun, out-sing and out-sell the competition. Except that, after flourishing in the verdant jungles of the 80’s and 90’s, they and their kind are becoming endangered. The stadium phenomenon has been fading in the last decade; with ticket prices becoming extortionate, fewer fans are willing to drop several hundred dollars for a not-optimal concert experience, and not that many rock bands actually have enough fans to fill a stadium anymore. U2, Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones will go on playing stadiums until they all drop dead, because it’s the only thing they know how to do anymore. But nobody is making music with the aim of playing to a crowd of 20,000 anymore.

Out in the Street

Do you often fantasize about the purity of the workingman? He may not be as noble as all that, but he works hard for his money, and damn, his arms sure do look good from all that heavy lifting. Maybe you truly believe in the basic decency of the hard working proletariat, maybe you just want to bang guys with good muscles. But admit it, you’re susceptible to that idealized image of the All-American working stiff. If so, you may be a Bruce Springsteen fan. Nobody does sweaty blue collar kitsch like Springsteen. He didn’t invent the idea of the working class hero, but for his generation, he owns the image. Of course, Springsteen exited the working class decades ago, but that doesn’t stop him delivering those common guy anthems with the stamina of a man half his age (and as I understand it, Springsteen struggles with the discrepancy between his image and his actual lifestyle a lot more than his adoring fans do.) If it was already simplistic and hokey in 1980, well, it was simplistic and hokey before Springsteen came along, and it works because people like it. The working class does exist, those Average Joes who just wanna work hard and have a beer afterwards exist, pretty girls who never leave their small town lives exist, failed high school athletes exist, all of those corny Springsteen characters exist, and most of them are decent people, and they like to see themselves represented. And nobody represents them with more sympathy than Bruce Springsteen. And goddamn it, he’s so fucking good at it, he’s so damn good he appeals to people for whom the whole beer’n’blue jeans aesthetic is as exotic and foreign as outer space. I can’t relate to that shit for the life of me, but I want to hear Bruce Springsteen sing about it.