To many music fans, mainstream rock has become bloated.
For them, its crystalline production, arena-suited posturing and cross-genre collaborations have relegated qualities like gritty emotion, raw power and a sloppy swagger — the foundation upon which bands like the Who, the Stones, the MC5 and the Ramones build their monumental rock — to the back seat.
When the essence of the music gets lost in the shuffle for mainstream success, it usually signifies the end of a genre’s lifecycle and a shift toward the leaner and meaner. This cyclical process traces back to rock’s origins, when the prefab pop of the late ’50s and early ’60s gave rise to the experimental psychedelic era, when ’70s arena rock begot punk and when exorbitant hair metal fostered grunge as a response.
The shift toward a more bare-bones approach has already started in the formative underground, where bands like New York’s the Strokes and Detroit’s White Stripes have paved a path to mainstream-media attention for similarly stripped-down rockers the Vines, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Catheters, the Mooney Suzuki and the Hives, the last two of which will kick off a tour May 26 in San Diego.
The three-week trek is one of the most anticipated for the raw-rocking set since the Strokes embarked on their national jaunt last year, fostering observations that a neo-garage movement, for lack of a better term, is coming up for air. Veni Vidi Vicious, the second album by Swedish headliners the Hives, was given a major-label reissue by Sire Records, a Warner Bros. imprint, May 7, spurring playlist additions for the single “Hate to Say I Told You So,” which also appears on the “Spider-Man” soundtrack.
The Mooney Suzuki have had New York’s “next big thing” label attached to them since their second album, Electric Sweat, came out last month. Sydney, Australia, quartet the Vines will release their debut album, Highly Evolved, July 16 on Capitol Records after a hype-filled bidding war. And the YYY’s lead the pack of unsigned or indie bands attracting the attention of major labels.
Need more proof? E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt hosts a syndicated, two-hour Sunday night radio show based on his periodic New York concert series, Cavestomp!, where he spins music from such garage-rock pioneers as Them and the Electric Prunes and contemporary groups like Swingin’ Neckbreakers and the Greenhornes (see “Kurt Loder On ’Little Steven’s Underground Garage’ “ ). Since the show’s launch on April 7, affiliate stations carrying the show have grown from 27 to 41. (Archived shows are available in streaming media at www.hardrock.com.)
“I think some people are discovering that the rap-rock and the nü-metal aren’t any good,” Hives guitarist Nicholaus Arson mused on the upswing of stripped-down rock. “I’m not saying that I don’t like it. I sometimes like really bad music — you can learn from its mistakes. There’s just so much music, and there’s music that I like a lot more. To me, it just makes sense that people would like the same music as I do because the music that I listen to is very good.”
Like any organic movement, the burgeoning neo-garage scene is a result of like-minded musicians dissatisfied with contemporary commercial music and coming of age to do something about it. While their sound certainly has retro appeal, lifting riffs from dusty surf tunes, psychedelic freak-outs and below-radar punk bands, it’s not a pure reflection of collective influences like the Sonics, Seeds and 13th Floor Elevators. These revivalists aren’t content to simply turn the clocks back. With each backward glance is a unique vision that gives a distinct personality to the Hives’ volatile, AM-radio punk and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ramshackle, treble-heavy come-ons.
“It’s just a matter of playing stuff we like,” Mooney Suzuki guitarist Graham Tyler said, “whether it’s soul or straight-up rock and roll or garage stuff. With any kind of artistic medium, whether it’s painting or drawing or music, you’re going to run it through your own body and put your own stink on it, anyway. It will come out [with] your own style no matter what.”
While punk was a reaction to the puffed-up progressive rock of the mid-’70s, and grunge clashed with hair-metal’s debauched frivolity, neo-garage comes at a time when rock fans — finding mainstream music a blur of played-out angst and crossbred buffoonery — have all but given up hope on being excited by something new.
“Everything is a reaction to something else,” Arson said. “I liked Mudhoney (the nearest to garage of the Seattle scene), but the way we dress was sort of a reaction to grunge. We started wearing suits instead of flannel.
“First of all, it looks better,” he continued. “Second of all, … when we started out, we were a punk band. When you’re 14 and have a punk band, what you do is sort of fool around. When the [other] punks didn’t like us wearing suits, we wore suits even more. It was just a funny way of getting a reaction. It was punk.”
Looking sharp onstage is another throwback to which many bands — the Strokes and Mooney Suzuki included — adhere. Suits, even crumpled ones with skinny ties, stem from a time when it was expected that bands look their best when performing. While such mid-’60s groups as the Standells, the Remains, and the Chocolate Watch Band dressed snappy enough for Dick Clark’s TV show, their reckless, disaster-tempting music would have left his American Bandstand in ruins.
While much of their music mainly fell on deaf ears at the time, renewed interest came in 1972, when rock writer Lenny Kaye, who would later play guitar for the Patti Smith Group, compiled a comprehensive cross-section of garage for the double album Nuggets. The legendary collection, which later spawned two Rhino box sets and dozens of similar compilations, became a prime example that those bands, deemed “punk rock” years before the Ramones ever left their Queens, New York, neighborhood, didn’t need to play as proficiently or sound as refined as what AM radio offered. What mattered was not giving a damn and rocking out anyway.
“[It was] a time when nobody seemed too sure of what was happening but never let that get in the way of enjoying it to the fullest,” Kaye wrote in the album’s liner notes. “Most of these groups were young, decidedly unprofessional, seemingly more at home practicing for a teen dance than going out on national tour. The name that has been unofficially coined for them — “punk rock” — seems particularly fitting in this case, for if nothing else they exemplified the berserk pleasure that comes with being on-stage outrageous, the relentless middle-finger drive and determination offered only by rock and roll at its finest.”
“Initially the term ’garage’ was used to describe the American teenagers that were so enthralled with the British Invasion bands that they tried to copy but they didn’t do it that well,” Mooney Suzuki singer Sammy James Jr. said.
“But they did it very honestly and with a lot of spirit,” his bandmate Tyler added.
“The spirit and the energy is what gave it its …”
“Charm and appeal.”
Following the late ’70s/early ’80s heyday of punk, which adopted a similar, uneducated approach as garage, Crypt, Estrus and other indie labels harbored a punked-up garage scene a decade later by releasing early singles by bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, New Bomb Turks and Thee Headcoats, all of whom most of today’s garage rockers cite as influences.
While mainstream rock was dominated by self-obsessed mope music and pissed-off grunge, the swell stayed mainly underground, though Spencer’s woozy punk blues allowed for some modest mainstream appeal among hipsters in the late ’90s. Now, however, these former castaway groups are being heralded as the real revivalists by their successors.
A key component that garage bands both old and new possess is a raw, huffing-and-puffing vitality, which makes for club shows that pack the wallop and spectacle of a pyrotechnic arena-rock blowout. It’s nearly impossible to listen to a song by any band of this ilk without envisioning a performance as a complement, a testament to the music’s irresistible energy.
“We wrote the music around what we could make most explosive live,” Mooney’s James said.
“Touring live is the Mooney Suzuki,” Tyler added. “You can’t have one without the other.”
And it’s at these live gigs where industry buzz on upstart bands almost equals the level of the music’s agitated volume. Downtown dives are now playing host to more suits than an uptown dry cleaner, an obvious sign that labels, both major and larger indies, are jostling for position on the cutting edge.
On the heels of the Hives’ reissue and the Vines’ signing, Chicago’s Touch and Go Records will give a five-song EP the Yeah Yeah Yeahs released on a Brooklyn-based indie in 2001 the reissue treatment in July, as major-label A&R execs court the band for their debut full-length. Recent New York showcases by Tampa, Florida’s the Washdown, and Philadelphia’s Burning Brides and the Capitol Years had industry ears perked; as does the buzz surrounding New York’s Girl Harbor, Sweden’s Division of Laura Lee, and Detroit’s the Von Bondies and Dirtbombs.
“I would say that a few years ago [signing with a major] would seem like an impossibility,” said James, whose New York City quintet’s Electric Sweat was released on hometown indie Gammon Records. “But today it seems that it may not be such an impossibility and we’re always looking for the next exciting thing to try. I just don’t feel as closed to it now.”
Hives/Mooney Suzuki tour dates, according to the Hives’ publicist:
- 5/26 – San Diego, CA @ The Scene
- 5/27 – West Hollywood, CA @ Roxy Theatre
- 5/28 – West Hollywood, CA @ Roxy Theatre
- 5/29 – San Francisco, CA @ Slim’s
- 5/30 – Portland, OR @ Crystal Ballroom
- 5/31 – Seattle, WA @ Showbox
- 6/1 – Vancouver, BC @ Commodore Ballroom
- 6/4 – Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue
- 6/5 – Chicago, IL @ Metro/Smart Bar
- 6/6 – Detroit, MI @ Magic Stick
- 6/7 – Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom & Tavern
- 6/8 – Toronto, ON @ Kool Haus (formerly Warehouse)
- 6/9 – Montreal, QC @ Club Soda
- 6/11 – Cambridge, MA @ Middle East Club
- 6/12 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
- 6/13 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
- 6/14 – Philadelphia, PA @ Transit
- 6/15 – Washington, DC @ Black Cat
—Joe D’Angelo, with additional reporting by Iann Robinson