By Alan Weeks, howiGit Contributing Music Writer, Boston, MA
While I skimmed through the channels not so patiently waiting for the premiere of Anthony Bourdaine’s 100th episode of the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations,” I stopped at the Palladia Channel. Palladia is a shoot off of MTV, made to appear as a channel that caters to a more musically inclined crowd, and not one that is preoccupied in the many interesting life issues that face Terrell Owens on a weekly basis. On this particular night, the show highlighted was England’s Isle of Wight Festival, and the band performing was the ever more popular Kings of Leon. The “Kings” of Leon are a mediocre band from Tennessee, whose band members draw inspiration from Eddie Vedder — enough said? Did I offend all of you Pearl Jam lovers who still claim that Pearl Jam’s music is original, non-formulaic, and honest? Pearl Jam’s music has about as much integrity as Eddie Vedder’s claims of sobriety. I saw him perform, much to my chagrin, at Bonnaroo in 2008. I am not a fan of this band, but because I was attending a festival, and because I like to be proven wrong, but mostly because of my inebriated state, I decided to show up for their set. This was a mistake. Not only was their performance less than lackluster, bust just as I was getting ready for Eddie to belt into their so called “masterpiece” “Betterman,” Eddie decides to talk about how sober he is — when he is clearly blind drunk, slurring his words, and wishing that it was still 1992. He goes into a rant about the Bush Administration, and foreign oil, at which point it is clear that he is wasted, and can barely stand. Finally he shut up, the set ended, the pain between my temples gave way, and I was left thinking only one thing: If this band is the inspiration for our up and coming artists of tomorrow, is Rock and Roll Dying? Which lead me to my next realization: This was all Green Day’s fault.
Green Day, once the voice of a misunderstood and lethargic generation, has become nothing more than a blend of Blink-182 chord progressions and Michael Moore like anti-establishment teen angst, with all members now entering their late 30’s. These guys are actually considered rock icons — significant contributing voices in the music community, and not for Dookie, but for American Idiot. They symbolize everything that is cheap and disingenuous in rock and roll. It is almost as though Billy Joe Armstrong received a memo from Robert Smith in 2006, giving him fashion advice and telling him that he could learn a lot from the band Panic at the Disco. What happened to these guys? “Welcome to Paradise,” “Basket Case,” even tracks off of Nimrod were genuinely good, if not at least catchy and fast (thank you Ramone family). I am not entirely sure whether the band sees the irony in calling their latest album “21st Century Breakdown.” It’s like they know they haven’t produced anything resembling art in the last ten years.
Now that I have meandered, and expressed my anger for Billy Joe Armstrong’s eye makeup, which I am sure he stole from Marilyn Manson’s closet, I can get back the “Kings.” The band has grabbed the attention of 17 year old girls and men with questionable music taste the world over with their “hits” “Sex is on Fire” (what does that even mean?) and “Use Somebody.” Although these songs are semi-catchy, they are by no means an expression of extreme musical talent warranting the high praise that they have been getting from the rest of the music community. But is this the Royal House of Leon’s fault? I’m not entirely sure. If what they have to look up to, as musical mentors, are Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell, I can’t say that I wouldn’t suck either.
The greats that everyone considers great — The Band, Dylan, Hendrix, The Who, Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and the Beatles had rich musical roots to draw on from the decades before them. Jazz and blues greats like Louis Armstrong and Big Bill Broonzy were real pioneers and visionaries, genuine and thoughtful artists that made music because they were musically talented. The Stones were a blues band before being labeled the “Greatest Rock and Roll Band of All Time.” The Beatles sound more like 1950’s Rock and Roll than what we associate their music with, until the mid 1960’s. They could draw on the influence of real talent, not just what pop culture had deemed hip and accessible to teenagers. The very festival that The Kings of Leon were playing once hosted a list of headliners that included Jefferson Airplane, Miles Davis, and Jimi Hendrix. To even have them considered contemporaries is disheartening. The fact that today’s listeners hold the love, respect and esteem for these musicians that generations before had for The Doors would make Jim Morrison spin in his alcohol filled grave.
The musicians aren’t even selling their music, they are selling their image as Rock and Roll stars. Music is becoming a thing that doesn’t even involve music. What is Anthony Followill (front man of the “Kings”) supposed to think when Green Day starts showing up in all black with painted fingernails, and black studded belts, like they were the headliners at hardcore night at CBGB’s. Anthony remembers the little hell raisers wearing plaid and complaining about not having enough weed and hating their parents, not hating politicians and making emo chicks weep. He sees the people that he looked up to, and tried to emulate, prostituting themselves out to remain “cool.”
You cannot remain cool forever unless you have something that is special, timeless, sacred, and genuine, which apparently these Cali boys do not possess, because they have become far too concerned with trying to look like Liza Minelli, and not so much with their sound. Look, I am not ignorant enough to think that artists can’t, and many times need to change to adapt to the culture around them, as even the greats have done. Eric Clapton in 1990 sounds very different at the Royal Albert Hall then he did when he played there with Ginger and Jack in the 1960’s. But Clapton sounds different because HE changed, got sober, lost a son, and Layla, not because he thought that he would be able to sell more albums or become more marketable to a younger demographic. And guess what, he changed, and his music still remains great — “From the Cradle” is powerful, honest, and straight up Clapton.
Rock’s ancestors are getting old, and soon will be no more. A musical family tree that started with Elmore James, gave birth to Jimi Hendrix, which created inspiration for Stevie Ray Vaughn which produced a very capable John Mayer, will likely be a thing of the past. Musical dynasties cannot sustain themselves when the list goes as follows: Pearl Jam to Limp Bizkit , to Dashboard Confessional, to Panic at the Disco, and ending with Hellogoodbye (who may, or may not know that their name stems from a Beatles song).
My point is this — I am a lover of music, especially of Rock and Roll, and I don’t see any bands that I would consider Rock and Roll bands riding mainstream media bliss, or even enjoying their due respect. Acts like Umphrey’s McGee, who tour 200 days of the year, or Joe Bonnamasa, a blues virtuoso, although mildly popular, have not been given their due from the rest of the music community. Rock and Roll has become less earnest, more about a seven word band name and Chad Kroeger’s locks, than about the gritty, wild, and intoxicated madness of bleeding fingers after mind-blowing guitar shred that could be akin to a religious experience.
If there is to be any hope, there must be a concerted effort on the parts of our younger generation of listeners to reach back to these greats, and follow their family tree, to see what they have been missing. They will also realize that the bullshit that New Found Glory is selling them is simply a less thoughtful, less talented, and more commercialized version of the Velvet Underground. To Green Day, stay true to your roots — do you honestly think everybody just forgot what you guys used to look and sound like prior to the year 2000? To Pearl Jam and Eddie, go make another Target commercial. To Panic at the Disco, you would have a better chance at musical integrity if you actually made disco music. Is Rock and Roll dying? Yes, but Keith Richards has been dying since Exile on Maine Street, so there is still hope.