Nothing New Under the Big Black Sun
or, Attack of the Midget Submarines
"There are people who still believe in the spirit of punk and live that lifestyle, but it's only a re-creation. There was a different social and political climate then, and if you're playing punk music now, you're playing something that somebody else invented. I don't know if that constitutes the same kind of spirit. I'm not being cynical, but I can't think of anything really new in music. I'd hate to be 15 right now."
-- Exene Cervenka in Spin '25 Years of Punk'
'Boys, my father will forestall me in everything. There will be nothing great or spectacular for you and me to show the world.'
-- attributed to the young Alexander the Great by Plutarch, Life of Alexander
Since I don't have cable, I find it difficult to keep track of much of contemporary pop culture. So I couldn't help but feel undeservedly lucky this summer, when I found myself with MTV Europe on the TV in my hotel room in Israel (just five miles from the Gaza Strip). Having thus been out of touch, imagine my surprise when I came across a video for a song called 'That Great Love Sound'. The song may have been unfamiliar, but the style was instantly recognizable: could this be an outtake from Psychocandy (albeit minus some of the white noise, presumably cleaned up for mass consumption), which had suddenly become -- Heaven forbid -- 'hip'? No, for there on the screen was, very clearly, a woman who was a member of the band. Had the Jesus & Mary Chain re-formed as a male-female duo? No, this was a new band from Denmark called the Raveonettes, whose 'mastermind' is a certain Sune Rose Wagner. Was this man somehow channeling the ghosts of the Reid Brothers? (No, wait, that doesn't sound right . . .) For there he was, replicating the Reids' entire early style, even down to the vocal mannerisms in pronouncing the words 'down' and 'sound'. And I saw all of this, no less, on the arbiter of 'cool' in contemporary music. I was, to say the least, completely perplexed.
Imagine further my astonishment, then, when I heard another song from these Raveonettes, 'Attack of the Ghost Riders'. Sure, many have commented on their 'homage' to NY art-punks Suicide and specifically their track 'Ghost Rider'. But I have yet to come across anyone (well, anyone other than Nikki Sudden) who has commented on the much more blatant fact: this song is RIPPED OFF WHOLESALE from 'Midget Submarines' by Swell Maps. The appropriation of not only the guitar riff, but essentially the entire backing track, down to the exact same tempo, is unmistakable; it is so thorough as to scream out for recognition.
Given that the 'new rock revolution' is now upon us, these events have led me of late to consider the familiar question, 'Is there anything new in music?' Does popular music today consist merely of rehashing of 20- or 30-year-old musical trends (these in turn rehashing something much older)? A recent discussion with a friend in particular led me to think about the current state of punk: sadly 'punk', in the narrow sense, has long ceased being a vital music. For an odd analogy (to say the least) consider epic poetry, whether modern Serbo-croatian, medieval French, or ancient Greek: oral, epic poetry is usually considered to have an original, creative stage when songs are composed and techniques are refined, followed by a reproductive period which sees few if any new compositions; the old songs, with relatively minor changes, continue to be sung, and the entire genre becomes stagnant. In a sense this can be seen to be true of any 20th century popular music as well, such as ragtime, Dixieland, 'swing', ska . . . or punk. What is thought of as 'punk' today is largely a caricature, consisting of various bands (the Queers, the Riverdales, or your SoCal band of choice) making a career out of sounding like the Ramones. Certainly the impact of The Ramones lies not (or not simply) in its inherent musical merits, but these merits within the musical context of the mid-70s. Today, with scores of bands slavishly copying this style, it has become merely trite and - even worse - tame. But what was truly significant about early punk, its revolutionary nature and great variety, has been largely forgotten. Already in the late 70s a rigidifying of the punk style began, with the Ramones' once-innovative style becoming the stereotypical sound of the genre. Now we have for the most part joke bands performing novelty songs, or faintly humorous covers of obnoxious pop 'chestnuts'.
A glance at the current indiepop scene hardly seems more promising. The prevailing climate is clearly a keen interest in the 60s and/or the reinterpretation of 60s pop made in the 80s. Take a band such as the Aislers Set: their sound is completely flooded with references to these two decades. On top of this, their songs are replete with 'quotes' from other bands - the TVPs, the Smiths, the Shop Assistants, the Supremes, the Shangri-Las . . . even Danny and the Juniors. This interest in the 60s becomes a true obsession with bands such as the Clientele or the Relict - or, if not simply with the 60s, then with Felt as well. And it's hard to imagine the Lucksmiths existing without their partial 80s namesakes from Manchester.
All of this might lead me to pronounce that there is nothing new in music, even that there is nothing new that CAN be achieved, that every possibility has already been realized. But I must stop short of this. For this precise thought has been voiced continually over the course of recorded time - as in the following:
This quote does not come from John Doe, but rather from the writer of Ecclesiastes, roughly 2400 years ago. Now, if it has been true all this time - in music, in art, in literature - then what were Michelangelo and Bach and Shakespeare but mere hacks recycling well-worn material? Why didn't Jelly Roll Morton (before he - as he himself confessed - invented jazz in 1902) make an alternate career choice, considering any attempt on his part to be innovative was doomed to failure even before it began? The answer is, plainly, that the assertion that everything had already been achieved was not true 2400 years ago, and is no more true now.
In this light, my original judgement of the contemporary music scene needs reassessment. However stagnant punk may be, it is most certainly far from all that the music scene today encompasses. And the indiepop scene is considerably more varied. The Aislers Set may be firmly rooted in the lineage of pop, but ultimately their sound is a distinct and original one (except perhaps on 'The Way to Market Station'). Similarly, the Clientele may instantly call the 60s to mind, but I would never mistake them for a 60s band; on hearing new material of theirs I find it impossible to think that it could have been recorded four decades ago, or indeed at any time other than the past few years. As for the Lucksmiths, on listening to Naturaliste or A Little Distraction I hear little evidence of their merely reproducing anyone's sound (except of course their own).
Of course, there could easily be worse things than replicating the Jesus and Mary Chain and Swell Maps. One could be replicating the Rolling Stones, or Oasis, or Led Zeppelin (hello White Stripes), or - gulp - Pink Floyd. And certainly the current music scene abounds with examples of 'borrowings', of musical quotations from influences. But this is a time-honored tradition, as for example Beethoven would routinely quote Mozart or Haydn, using melodies from their works as springboards for his own compositions (or as an artist like Caravaggio would 'quote' Michelangelo: look at the gesture of Jesus in The Calling of St. Matthew, and you might recognize it as Adam's gesture on the Sistine Ceiling.). Music - or any other creative endeavor - is fundamentally tied to the work of previous artists, as well as to the musical climate in which it was created. But originality is always possible. It is merely dependent upon whether one has enough creativity or intelligence. And here is where the likes of the Raveonettes fall painfully short.
© 2003 Michael D. Press