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Thursday, March 10, 2005
Will The Wolf Survive?
We're going to stick with the 80's a little longer.
Yesterday, Freeway Jam took a look at everything that was wrong with the rock scene in the early 1980's. Rock music at that time was on life-support systems; the prognosis was up in the air, but looking less promising month by month.
In reality, there was already a recovery taking place below the mainstream; changes not only in the music, but in who produced and distributed the music were underway. While 1981-1983 may forever stand as the least creative era in rock history, at least since 1960-1962, glimmers of hope, like shoots of green appearing after a spring thaw, began to appear at the end of 1983, and throughout 1984.
You won't find evidence of this if you look at back issues of Rolling Stone from 1984; instead you'll see a lot of news on Bruce Springsteen in 1984.
It's interesting, though, that Springsteen had the biggest rock album of 1984 with Born In The USA. Because, in some ways, Springsteen represents the ultimate standard bearer for post-60's mainstream "Roots Rock" hero; his music, a working-class mix of 1950's rock 'n' roll, Phil Spector-esque wall of sound production, 60's folk sensibilty, and 70's rock stagecraft, replete with horn sections, backup chicks, garagey sounding guitars, good-time raucousness, and homely vocals is as American as a Chevy pickup.
As is the first real rock movement of the 1980's, and the first that received any notice by the still-young but beginning to grow MTV.
"Roots Rock" is a broad term that encompasses a lot of subgenres. In the nutshell, it is what the name would imply. It was a return to rock 'n' roll's roots: the merging of blues and country, a revival of folk, an adaptation and celebration of American rock local traditions, from swamp-rock to rockabilly to Southern rock to other heartland styles.
In some respects it was a reaction against the aggressive and nihilistic tendencies of punk, the bombast of metal and prog, and the synthetic nature of new wave. It appeared across the country as a new generation came of age and the independant record industry grew sturdy enough to meaningfully distribute their work. Many of these bands did get limited MTV exposure; not heavy rotation, but occasional glimpses that whet the appetites of lonely, frustrated rock fans sitting through the videos.
It wasn't a mass movement; it was fragmented and localized. Roots Rock could describe the country-rock stylings of Lone Justice, the garage rock of the Long Ryders, the 50's flavored rock 'n' roll of the Blasters, or the cowpunk of the Beat Farmers. What it all had in common was a simplicity of approach; guitars, bass, drums, singer. Maybe keyboards, usually not. Perhaps a sax.
The closest approximation to a universal forebear might be Creedence Clearwater Revival. Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, and NRBQ are among the godfathers of the concept. Roots rock became a staple of the newly influential college stations of the 80's; it became the cool antidote to MTV. It survives to this day; as long as rural America continues to produce young people, they'll continue to learn guitar. As a movement, the 90's roots rockers never came close in the influence the 1980's wave had, although many of the later bands are quite good.
Roots rock is most important to the rock saga for rescuing rock music itself as an art form, right when things were looking bleakest. It saved me from my depression; my own discovery of R.E.M. in 1983 led me down avenues that hadn't existed for me before; I found music for my own generation, organic and good music, and I reached adulthood a happy man.
Tonight's playlist: all songs tagged "roots-rock" in my library. Anything I have tagged as a subgenre, such as "paisley underground" "cowpunk" "jangle pop" "psychobilly" or "cowpunk" I've left out. While this limits our pool of titles to a fairly small 166, and leaves out some favorite or important bands, like R.E.M., Rain Parade, Reverand Horton Heat, and some others, it also keeps the playlist on a sharper focus; useful as an overview. I'm saving the subgenres for future Freeway Jam installments. These "roots rock" titles were randomized by Media Center.
So: the first 10 titles randomly selected in the above manner are profiled, Jam Tags, 1-5 stars, follow:
1. The Long Ryders: Lookin' For Lewis and Clark *****
Instantly winning and catchy, garagey, genre-defining rocker, with aggressive guitars and drums, strong, articulate alienation lyrics full of good lines and offbeat references and even some vague politics. Lord, did this gladden my heart in 1985, when I first heard it; at last, somebody was making music that spoke to my heart. The Long Ryders often played the same venues as the psychedelic paisley underground bands (Steve Wynn of Dream Syndicate was a member briefly), but they were a more country/folk/rock outfit, one of America's neglected treasures.
2. Gun Club: For The Love of Ivy *****
Dark, insane psychobilly from the Gun Club. The musical referent here is rockabilly, but rather than a 2-minute quicky, we get this band's specialty: 5 minutes plus of jagged, punky rockabilly groove with Jeffrey Lee Pierce's insane, psychotic lyrics and wails on top. The 1981 album from which this is taken, Fire of Love is one of the best of the first wave 80's roots rock albums; crazed, frightening, dark, and hard rocking, it set out with an attitude and kicked ass. Pierce and the band recorded timultuously through the 90's until Pierce's death in 1996.
3. The Blasters: Long White Cadillac ****
Brothers Dave and Phil Alvin led the Blasters, another rockabilly styled rock 'n' roll band. Unlike their contemporaries, the Gun Club, the Blasters were much more conventional; rockabilly, not psychobilly. Still, they were no strict formalists; their rhythm section kept up a good, brash, punky tempo; and they toured with X, sharing their punk oriented audience. But their influences came honestly; they learned their craft hanging out with musicians like T-Bone Burnett and Dave Allen. The lyrics allude to Hank Williams' death while sleeping in his Caddy.
4. Chris Isaak: Let Me Down Easy **
Late era Isaak (2002); not nearly as compelling as his early, reverb-laden lonesome highway sound of the 80's. He originally was the embodiment of an updated Sun Records sound, and was the only artist working that side of the street for over a decade, making excellent records along the way. By this point, he had a short-lived TV show, and his music here is overproduced and commercial, sounding almost like late period Bangles, after their charm had been overproduced away. Even his weepy Roy Orbison voice is almost rendered anonymous. Can't recommend.
5. Steve Earle: Guitar Town *****
Somewhere between Bruce Springsteen and Dwight Yoakum lies Steve Earle, although his fans would say he outclasses both. Among rock fans, he might be a tougher sell, since earle has always been country. Still, he's more roots-rock than pure country, and has always taken on a rock-style swagger and bravado in his music, and he has his rock fans, too. The title cut from his debut, this life-on-the-road tune has some pretty wry lyrics, and some infectious guitar playing from Earle. Hesitant rock fans could start here, and then try his biggest hit "Copperhead Road"
6. John Mellencamp: Dance Naked ****
Written off by rock fans in the early 80's as a pop-rock hack when he was still named "Johnny Cougar" (a name he always hated), given a second chance after "Pink Houses" but always given respect grudgingly, most often described as a second-rate Springsteen, Mellencamp's critics have never really figured him out. He's actually been a roots rocker all along, and while he never had the voice or chops or playing acumen to place him on the top tier, he's been plugging away for nearly a quarter century, coming up with tunes not unlike this one, a hit, which has all the requisite qualities of good roots-rock: simple, direct arrangement, get-to-the-point lyrics that wax romantic, and a tunefulness that never comes across as obvious or purely received.
7. Los Lobos: Evangeline ****
East L.A.'s Los Lobos bring a Mexican flavor to 50's style rock 'n' roll, but that description sells this eclectic band short. They love fat sounding saxes and dancehall style rockers, but also branched out into other territory, like alt-rock, progressive rock, jam band rock, and pop in later years. Still, at their heart, they're a hard working roadhouse band with simple, tight arrangements, of which this is one of the best numbers from their breakthrough sophomore effort, How Will The Wolf Survive?, an important album during the thaw of 1984.
8. Lone Justice: Sweet Sweet Baby (I'm Fallin') *****
Maria McKee has one of the finest country/blues voices in rock, and the band was good. Unfortunately, they never quite caught on. Part of it was due to an enormous amount of hype Geffen Records dished on them, which created unrealistic expectations. Part of it was poor touring choices, which had them opening stadium shows for the decidedly non-country, non-roots rock U2 before they had really developed enough of a stage presence to win over restless audiences. All that said, this is a truly great track from their flawed debut; propulsive country-rock-pop with dynamic vocals and solid playing.
9. Beat Farmers: Girl I Almost Married ***
Cult band led by former record store owner Dick Montana. This is one of their later cuts, a tuneful sounding roots rocker with nice organ flourishes in the background. This suffers from a bland, unsympathetic production overall, but it has its hooks. Montana died from a heart attack in 1995.
10. Texas Tornados: Little Bit Is Better Than Nada ***
90's Tex/Mex roots rock supergroup. Features Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Augie Meyers, and Flaco Jiminez on accordian. This is a tuneful, funny, party-ready tune that reminds me somewhat of "Margaritaville". They toured and recorded during the early 90's, attracting a mostly Latino audience, until Sahm and Meyers left to reform the Sir Douglas Quintet. They reconvened in 1996 for this album, which sold poorly, but they continued to work together through 1998. Sahm died in 1999. Los Lobos fans and Sir Douglas Quintet fans should check them out.