Thursday, June 13, 2013

The bands you're forbidden to hate

Everyone loves the Beatles. Everyone acknowledges the genius of Jimi Hendrix. Everyone knows the importance of Elvis Presley. 

Except they don't. 

There's always someone who'll tell you that some grubby New Wave band from Macclesfield, or an Algerian funk group, or perhaps a couple of Germans from Düsseldorf are more important than any of them.

But there are a handful of bands that no one is allowed to criticise. You will never see anything bad written about them in print. Since there's no such thing as perfection in art, this is enough to prove they are over-rated - just don't say so, because these bands are more infallible than the Catholic church, with just as many people who have their entire world view invested in their unquestionable greatness. 

I'm being deliberately contrarian here, concentrating on the negative (I even like some of them). But why not? You've had adulation for these bands shoved down your throat for decades. It's time someone put the case for the prosecution.

The Ramones
Ramones, by Morrissey, 1976
I saw the Ramones at the Reading Festival in 1988. They were fine, but I found myself asking why on earth they were there, or anywhere for that matter. The Ramones are the epitome of punk attitude, but by 1988 they'd been doing their "1-2-3" shtick to trouser-wetting adulation from the NME for a dozen years. That means they were more of a dinosaur band than Yes were when Never Mind The Bollocks was released. They'd become their own tribute band.

It says a lot about the state of music in the mid-70s that the Ramones made such an impact. Just listen to Sheena Is A Punk Rocker or Rock'n'Roll High School: this is American bubblegum pop from the pre-Beatles era, by a band that had modelled their look on James Dean, a teen icon who died in 1955, three months before Heartbreak Hotel was released. Their other big hits were Do You Wanna Dance? (a hit for Cliff Richard in 1962) and Baby I Love You (The Ronettes, 1963).

That this was considered The Way Forward in 1976 says a lot about the loss of self-confidence in music at the time: the only way forward was back. Other singles included Substitute (a cover of a 1966 song by The Who) and Needles And Pins, which couldn't match the success of the version released a year earlier by Smokie - a band that epitomised everything that was vile about mid-70s pop. The cognoscenti of 1977 to 2013 (and counting) could think think of nothing better than to idolise a band that had ignored every development of the most productive decade (1963-72) that popular music had ever known and would ever know.

For the Ramones to mean anything, they had to appear in a howl of aggression and disappear before anyone noticed. They didn't do that. They had nothing new to say after 1977, but they went on, and on, and on, until they became predictable, establishment rock. Was that really what it was all about?

Say what you like about Yes and King Crimson; at least they were testing new boundaries. Even if you think they failed, at least they were trying. The Ramones were a rejection of every boundary that that had been crossed since the Beatles. They are lionised today, forty years after they were the 'new look' that even then was twenty years old. The future was twenty years old in 1976. Today it's nearly sixty years out of date.

At Reading '88, The Ramones were sharing the bill with Starship: the rancid remains of Jefferson Starship, which itself was the rotting remnants of Jefferson Airplane. Seven years earlier, Jefferson Starship had sung, "People say ... 'why don't you sound like you used to / in '65, '69, '75?' / Fuck you, we do what we want." The Ramones were content to sound like they used to in '75, and nobody was going to criticise them for it. They still don't.

You could join the Conservative Party or the GOP. But if you want to be super-conservative - a real reactionary - put on a Ramones t-shirt.

Bob Marley
UB40 didn't need to sanitise reggae to make it radio-friendly. Bob Marley had already done it for them. By the time Marley broke into the mainstream, he was already going soft. Compare anything on Burnin' with No Woman, No Cry. By the time anyone had heard of him, all that was left was some plinky-plinky pop pap. Later he became to Rastafarianism what Cliff Richard was to the Church of England. Rock promoting religion? Bring on Taliban Radio!

The Clash
That's progress: Paul Simonon repeats Pete Townshend's
1966 guitar trick on an album cover that harks back to
Elvis. Sounds gave the album 2 stars

The ultimate over-rated band. Nobody dares say anything bad about the Clash. But they were only a decent punk band who struggled to live up to the expectations of the music press, who saw in them a band who thoroughly espoused the political ideals of journalists who wanted punk to be a left-wing movement but found it sailing a little too close to the wind of football hooliganism and far-right politics. 

The two clung to each other with increasing desperation, with journalists even forgiving the cod-Caribbean accents when Strummer and the boys tried to become a reggae band because it was the only politically pure genre around. It was as borderline racist as the Kinks' Apeman.

I've got the two-disc 'Best Of' compilation and there are half a dozen killer tracks on it. Six good songs is better than most punk bands could manage (go on, name your top three Buzzcocks songs), but the rest is all fairly ordinary. A 40-minute vinyl Best Of The Clash would be a terrific album. Two CDs is seriously scraping the barrel. The Clash were a good punk band who quickly forgot what they were good at.

Never mind the soubriquet of 'the only band that matters' (a slogan concocted in the marketing department of their record company by Captain Beefheart's bassist), they weren't even the best band of their own time, let alone of all time. The Clash were a triumph of marketing over content.

Led Zeppelin
Britain produced three great, world-conquering heavy rock bands in the late 60s: Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Purple were without doubt the most musically diverse, while Sabbath created a gothic vibe and inspired so many bands that they must be one of the most influential bands ever. Lester Bangs called them the first Roman Catholic rock band.

So why do Zeppelin get all the adulation now? Even Deep Purple acknowledged that Zep pioneered the heavy rock sound: white boys playing the blues with heavy drums and the bass turned way up, but forty years later who cares who was first? No one listens to Bill Haley these days, and anyway Cream had already done it. 

True, they had a terrific singer and a fine guitarist, but Jimmy Page wasn't any better than Tony Iommi (Sabbath) or Ritchie Blackmore (Purple), and he was far more prone to pretentious noodling than either of them, which was one reason why the post-punk consensus derided Zeppelin more then the other two. Led Zeppelin provided something for those who missed Cream. If Cream hadn't split up, who would have needed Led Zeppelin? And forty years on, why should anyone care?

Sabbath's gothic influence on later metal makes it understandable why they have heroic status today, even if it took Ozzy appearing on a reality TV show to push them back into the mainstream. Purple were far too interesting and inventive - the crunching riff of Smoke On The Water apart - to be accepted for 21st Century adulation. Led Zeppelin were the epitome of cock-rock: pompous and shallow, with a singer whose main attribute was that he looked and sounded like Roger Daltrey, but without any complex lyrics that would threaten audiences with the peril of thinking.

Despite some great songs, they didn't progress much beyond playing turbo-charged blues and folk, with many of the tunes stolen from earlier artists. Howlin' Wolf had to sue to get royalties for Killing Floor, which Zep renamed the Lemon Song because they'd added a line nicked from Robert Johnson, who by then was too dead to sue. The lovely opening passage of Stairway To Heaven isn't original either, as any fan of Spirit (who Zep supported on their first American tour) will tell you. 

Even by the time of their last good album, Physical Graffiti, they still felt the need to add their own writing credits to In My Time Of Dying, a song that was on Bob Dylan's debut album and was at least thirty years old even then. Maybe living as tax exiles wasn't as lucrative as they'd hoped.

The Kinks
I'm sorry, beyond the horribly racist Apeman mentioned above, I can't think of a bad word to say about the Kinks. Give me time though.

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