Outrunning the Hyenas: Thoughts on Garage Rock
[DISCLAIMER: Like the man said, Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and this idea that something ephemeral and ever-changing as music can be easily shuffled into a bunch of categories is bullshit, perpetrated by critics & reviewers who found it easier to write about records when they slapped a bunch of labels on everything. Still—you just can’t write or even talk without labels of some sort, so let’s please do the best we can to discuss this whole Garage thing. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, click on the Garage Rock tag and listen until your ears bleed.]
First things goddamn first, I suppose we’d better decide what we’re talking about when we talk about Garage Rock. First: Don’t call it retro. This isn’t a “revival.” If I had to define it at all, I’d call it an attempt to revitalize Rock & Roll by rethinking it. Just rip it up and start again, like that old Orange Juice record says. That reference may sound out of place—Orange Juice was, after all, a slick Post-Punk-turned-Pop act, just about the furthest thing from Garage Rock you can imagine—but so many new musical forms seem to begin this way, and that’s arguably how Rock (not to mention Roll) has thrived since Chuck Berry got thrown in prison: Every few years, a handful of bored and disgruntled kids strip away all the frivolous bullshit (campy theatrics, ideological baggage, excessive solos, slick production values, et cetera) and try something simpler. If this music sounds like a throwback, it’s because we’re closer to the throbbing and perverse (but still very much alive) heart of Rock & Roll. Some of my favorite bands make their home there. Others use it as a launch pad, to blast off in some entirely new direction.
I originally hoped to write something like my Mandatory Punk List, but as difficult as it was to attempt a definitive list of Punk albums, it’s at least theoretically possible; such a list would be impossible and perhaps utterly irrelevant to the sprawling, beautiful chaos of contemporary Garage music. Revolutionary as it may have been (and sometimes still tries to be), Punk has grown old and stiff, like a wild animal no longer fast enough to outrun the hyenas. By the time geeks like myself start writing up our Best Of lists, it means the vultures are circling overhead. But this thing we’re calling Garage Rock is still running too fast for the rest of the world to catch up, and that’s what I find so exciting.
(I wouldn’t dare say that “Punk is dead,” but it’s certainly not as lively as Garage Rock these days. When was the last time you picked up a new Punk record that didn’t sound like a dozen other records you heard already? In 2011 we got GG King’s Esoteric Lore and Brain F’s Sleep Rough, but that’s about it. Bands like Off! and Krum Bums put out some kickass records, but I didn’t hear anything I didn’t expect to hear. Meanwhile, in that same year, I picked up literally dozens of new Garage records that blew me away with their variety and innovation, so much so that I still feel awkward pinning that “Garage” label on bands as diverse as Useless Eaters and Ketamines. If you want to know what’s really happening with Rock & Roll these days, these are the bands you need to be listening to.)
Here’s how revolutions come and go in American Music: It starts when more and more artists find themselves dissatisfied with the shit they’ve been hearing and playing the last few years. (There’s something reactionary about the best revolutionaries.) Bands look back for influence and inspiration (Oblivians? The Sonics? God help us—The Mummies?), and sometimes enough musicians agree upon enough influences that they find themselves building on the same foundation (or at least next-door to one another). The music finds an audience and the artists find themselves competing for that audience, borrowing (or outright stealing) ideas from one another, adopting the same innovations just to keep pace (they call it a Movement for a reason, y’know). New bands arrive and ape the forerunners and perhaps even add a few ideas of their own, and the whole thing snowballs… But it’s around that time the whole thing comes into focus long enough for the record reviewers to rush in with their labels, and the Industry might or might not decide there’s money to be made by offering their own mass-produced imitation. That’s the broad strokes, the Evolution Of A Genre, how Iggy Pop leads to the Ramones and eventually to a pile of shitty Green Day CDs in the Wal-Mart bargain bin. It’s a beautiful thing when you hear something new on your turntable, but it’s also just a matter of time until the best bands either go home or start again on something different, and the bands that stay behind set to work exhausting all the possibilities within the now-rigid boundaries of the established Genre. The best new Punk records struggle to break free of the genre. But the best new Garage records demonstrate that there are no boundaries. Not yet, anyhow.
This whole Garage thing—Garage Pop and Garage Punk and Garage Post-Punk, etc.—it’s wide open. It’s not that these bands are breaking all the rules, it’s that there are no rules to break. It’s like those early days in the Bowery when acts like Patti Smith, the New York Dolls, and Television could make such wildly divergent music before Punk became a paint-by-numbers formula. Sure, these new Garage bands share a few commonalities: a marked preference for short songs, lots of volume, rough low-fi/no-fi productions, and a love of early Rock & Roll… but these are just the raw materials that can be used to build anything at all, as demonstrated in a long and wildly varied tradition that runs from “Rocket 88” through “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and beyond. Punks saw Iggy Pop as their Founding Father, but listening to my favorite Garage Rock records—some from the late 50’s, and some released just last week—I can’t help but see the Iguana Man as an interpreter of something that was building steam loooooong before any of us were born. It starts with the Blues and leads straight to Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees and Eddy Current Suppression Ring. And it might go anywhere.
On the one hand, Garage Rock sounds like an attempt to build close to the ground—like Billy Childish, devoting his entire career to perfecting the three-minute rock song. But even among the bands that never stray too far from the roots of rock, it’s interesting to note just which roots they cling to. Millions of Classic Rawk bands trace their lineage back to Elvis and The Beatles, but these new kids freakishly cite outsiders like Link Wray, Bo Diddley, Kim Fowley, Captain Beefheart, and Esquerita. They’re dreaming an alternate universe where Black Monk Time matters more than Sgt Pepper, and “Louie Louie” casts a longer shadow than “Like A Rolling Stone.” That’s why I’m so insistent that Garage Rock isn’t nearly so “retro” as critics would lead you to believe. It’s not a throwback to the past, but to the past as it might have been.
You can’t dismiss the Garage sound as merely primitive, three-chord Rock & Roll. Time and again these last few years I’ve picked up records by bands who seem to be taking off in their own direction. Depending on what mood you catch him in, you’ll find John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees (just to pick an example) making music that sounds like—what, exactly? Like an unholy alliance between White Light/White Heat and the Nuggets compilation? Meanwhile The Dirtbombs incorporate classic Soul and R&B, and Guitar Wolf sounds like the Ramones interpreting Metal Machine Music. Total Control learned more than a few lessons from Post-Punk bands like Wire. Many of these bands can muster an emotional intensity that makes me think of Hardcore and the Blues, while others cut straight to that nerve at the base of your spine that makes you want to pogo, bang your head, and break something really expensive. If my descriptions sound clumsy, it’s because I just can’t find the words to describe these records. (How would you describe The Men or Digital Leather?) And isn’t that the point? This music has outpaced our vocabulary.
The Big Commercial Tastelessness doesn’t seem to have caught on yet. The critics haven’t yet gone to work with their labels. The college kids in my town haven’t even heard of these bands yet. And there don’t yet seem to be any bitter Purists (the I-was-into-them-before-they-were-cool types) telling new bands what they can and can’t do. There may come a time, maybe just a few years from now, when some of these bands will appear in glossy feature articles and Best Of collections and lists of Seminal Influences for some new genre yet to be defined or even named—but for the time being, this Garage thing is moving waaaaay too fast for anyone to pin it down. And there’s no telling just yet where it’s headed.
Let’s enjoy this while it lasts. Keep on rockin’ in the Free World, folks—
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