TRENDSPOTTING: Bands, beards, and the return of classic rock
by Richard Trapunski
April 26, 2012
“Rock & roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world… So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit – therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world. Fuck that!”
So went the emphatic words of Pat Carney, drummer for the Black Keys, printed in Rolling Stone back in January. If you’ve read any other interviews with the band, you probably know that Carney is not averse to making such sweeping, declarative statements, but coming from the once-hallowed perch of rock and roll traditionalism that is the cover of the Rolling Stone, it’s hard not to read it as a manifesto. Near the end of their rise towards arena rock stardom, the Black Keys chose Nickelback as the obstacle on their way to the top. Their goal: to be the biggest rock band in the world.
It’s not hard to see why Carney chose Nickelback as his symbol of the mainstream establishment. Turn on any “modern rock” radio station, and chances are you’ll hear a song by Nickelback or a band of their ilk – the crunchy power chords and in-your-face choruses of ‘90s rock boiled down to their most commercial essentials, reproduced and overproduced as watered-down post-grunge. Either that, or an original song from the grunge era.
Recently, however, a new strain of popular rock has begun to creep its way onto the airwaves, and it’s not far removed from the sound or ideals of the Black Keys. Analogue gear, rootsy hooks, weed-laced harmonies, beards and bell bottoms – these are the markers of many new bands making waves on the radio. Rather than the ‘90s, many bands are looking towards the late ‘60s and early ‘70s for inspiration, clogging modern rock radio signals with AOR hooks more often found just a few call numbers up on classic rock stations.
Modern bands have been drudging up elements of classic rock ever since it was established as a genre, but a cross-section of contemporary rock – not “indie,” “post” or “dance”, but plain unadorned rock and roll – looks torn from the Summer of Love archives. Hairy, axe-wielding bands like The Sheepdogs, Yukon Blonde, Zeus and, most recently, Alabama Shakes, are getting hyped to high heavens both critically and commercially, often accompanied by sentiments like ‘giving music a much-needed dose of soul’ or ‘bringing rock back to a simpler time.’
“We want to bring some real rock back to the radio,” Sheepdogs lead singer Ewan Currie told the National Post , who tailed the band Almost Famous-style during a busy SXSW. A (perhaps deliberate) echo of Carney’s Rolling Stone screed, Currie’s tossed-off words speak volumes about the current crop of neo-classic rock bands and the modern music landscape as a whole. Until recently, no self-considered “real” rock band would aspire to radio play or chart success, let alone the status as the biggest rock band in the world. Indie rock originally formed as a reaction against such commercial goals, and for much of the last few decades those bands, satisfied with a dedicated cult fanbase and a critically adored catalogue, were the only bands considered “real.”
But as the internet rose in prominence, record sales tanked, print publications lost their distinction and the monoculture splintered, indie rock became the mainstream (or at least one of many simultaneous concurrent, equal streams) and blogs and mp3’s functioned a lot like the radio. If young listeners wanted to hear the hot new band, they’d go online (while the last generation raised on radio could easily jam out on the ‘90s hits of their youth on the radio).
The Sheepdogs avoided that route to prominence, instead winning their major label record deal along with their career-making cover feature from a well-publicized Rolling Stone contest. Their win came as a result of fan voting, but the publication couldn’t have picked a more perfectly-suited band. By “breaking” a long-toiling road band from Saskatchewan the magazine returned to its rock-star-maker roots, and winning the contest provided a handy “road-warriors-finally-make-good” underdog narrative for the band. (No coincidence that their next record will be co-produced by Pat Carney and Austin Scaggs, the Rolling Stone writer who wrote the feature).
It’s not uncommon for acts to shoot to overnight prominence on the back of some blog-fuelled hype. Fuelling the neo-classic rock mythology is the sense that they didn’t really “earn” it, whereas they, like their classic rock forebears, struggled their way to the top by way of dive bar gigs, workhorse ethic and hundreds of thousands of miles (or kilometres) logged in shitty tour vans. Hence why the Black Keys chose a replica of their original touring vehicle for the cover of their latest album, El Camino. And hence why many of their peer bands come from non-major markets (like their Akron, Ohio): the Sheepdogs from Saskatoon, Yukon Blonde from British Columbia and Alabama Shakes from Athens, Alabama.
The assumption is that in a teched-up culture of blog hype and David Guetta-aping mega club pop, “realness” or “authenticity” equates to beards, beer, amps and Guess Who hooks. But building your image on outdated Boomer ideals, however, is just as “inauthentic” as Lana Del Ray’s “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” image; it’s just part of a longer lineage of mythology propagated by a generation proficient at self-mythology. It’s fake nostalgia for an era that neither the musicians nor their target demos weren’t alive to experience, and it’s propagated by the passage of time.
Conveniently, it also gives such acts an excuse to aim high. Until sometime in the mid-‘70s, appearing at number one on the Billboard charts, getting radio airplay or appearing on the cover of a major magazine wasn’t considered “selling out” and it didn’t carry the same risk of backlash that it does now; it was the reward for hard work, and it came accompanied by groupies, adulation and piles of money. And that’s a little bit more lucrative than a “Best New Music” designation, a daytime slot at Coachella, or an inclusion in the Hype Machine zeitgeist.