[Note: by the criteria laid out in Songbook #12, this is not a Rock song, but a rock n’ roll one.]
Songbook #37 considered the New-Wave-cloaked revival of earlier rock and roll styles burbling amid the early 80s pop charts, but now it’s time to go down to the underground as X-Ray Specs would say, into the 60s garage and 50s roots-music scenes of the 1980s, where the Retro stance really began. Because I was an eager (college-age) participant in these scenes—the garage scene particularly—our visit to 80s Retro-dom will necessarily involve a good deal of personal reminiscence. The larger argument to be developed in coming posts is this: 1) rock and roll revivals = basically good; 2) the present recycling of rock styles (and rock friendly pop elements) from the 1966-1994 window = basically mediocre, rather revealing, but not the calamity some of our leading pop critics suggest it is; and 3), these two kinds of “retromania” are more distinct than they are linked.
In the top ten of my teenage regrets:
3. There were some cool people in my high-school that I only got to know later who actually saw the Gravedigger V play in someone’s backyard around 1983. Had I only been friends with them then and gone!
7. Maybe a year earlier there was a Crawdaddys show with the Bangs (they later became the Bangles), and the Paladins as the openers!!! Yes, my parents would never have let me, and I was too smitten then with Rush and such anyhow, but, somehow, according to fantasy-regret logic, I still should have been there!
For some odd reason the international rock and roll retro movement of the 1980s was nowhere so potent as in my San Diego hometown. It was a very underground thing, though, and so you probably haven’t even heard of the bands who in my honest opinion were the best, not simply of this movement, but of the entire 1980s pop scene: The Tell-Tale Hearts and the Paladins. Both hailed from the San Diego area, and both were uncompromisingly revivalist, as were the other bands I’ve been mentioning (well, the Bangles were LA and went mainstream around ‘86). The Tell-Tale Hearts played mid-60s British R+B and “60s punk,” along the lines of the Yardbirds, The Pretty Things, The Seeds, and the Pebbles compilations, whereas the Paladins skirted the divide between rockabilly and blues, sounding in their blues moments like a tighter Stevie Ray Vaughn or a Magic Sam. The Paladins kept on, criss-crossed the nation and the globe to win a sterling reputation in blues-fan circles, and they seem to temporarily get together every couple years to tour, whereas the Hearts only had about a four year run of retro-obscuro local glory.
Let’s just pause here and take a look, and more importantly, a listen. Here’s the Paladins, and here’s The Tell-Tale Hearts. Yes, note the immaculately time-warped fashions, the vintage instruments, but more importantly, turn the volume WAY up and feel the magic of real rock and roll, happening when and where you’d least expect it. Oh, I was there all right, and the videos can only begin to convey how great these bands sounded live; they usually got everyone moving—surrounded by such music, it would feel like some kind of crime against nature not to.
They belonged to different retro scenes, with different sets of hard-core fans who dressed and danced in the respective 50s and 60s styles, but there was fan overlap as well. And the best records of both bands, the Paladin’s eponymous debut, and the Tell-Tale Hearts E.P., The “Now” Sounds of the Tell-Tale Hearts were both produced by Mark Neill, using old two-track recording equipment. Neill is now gaining fame as a producer among knowing musicians such as the Black Keys (he produced Brothersat Muscle Shoals) for what he began back in ’85 and ’86 in San Diego—read this sidebar for his Georgia-rooted story for the details, but most of all dig – that – fantastic - sound! Thank you tons Mark Neill!
We also must note that both the 50s-rootsy scene and the 60s one in San Diego can be traced back, to a large extent to the impact of The Crawdaddys. They were one of the first of the bands anywhere that simply acted as if the late 60s and 70s had never happened! Punk showed its hatred of those times and sounds by attacking them frontally, but the Crawdaddys found an arguably better way: utterly ignoring them. Their 1979 debut album sounded as if it had been made in 1965: they achieved this by using vintage instruments, low-fi recording (as the liner notes said: For best results play on cheap equipment), and most of all, by a total immersion in mid-60s British R+B and other early blues and rock and roll. This purism attracted the notice of a young Pretty Things fanatic Mike Stax in England, who moved all the way to San Diego just so he could fill a bass-guitar vacancy in the band. The Crawdaddys’ final line-up broke-up in 1983 or ‘84, but Stax used his copy-shop day job to facilitate his becoming editor of the fanzine Ugly Things, a brilliant homemade celebration of raw mid-60s sounds, which lives on internet-wise, and, he and four other 60s punk/R+B nuts started the Tell-Tale Hearts. Also coming out of the fragments of the Crawdaddys, were the Nashville Ramblers and the Beat Farmers. TTH singer Ray Brandes recounts the early Crawdaddys’ story here, with a great thread to boot.
The Gravedigger V, who recaptured the sound and teenage vibe of “60s punk” better than any of the 20 or so other bands trying to do this worldwide, probably can be traced influence or personnel-wise back to the Crawdaddys too, but I don’t know the details. A very humorous and fun band, the ideal Halloween party entertainment. 3/5 of the Gravedigger V went on to become The Morlocks, a heavier, darker, and ever-more Iggy/Stooges-influenced band, but for many garage-band fans the best realization of what we might call the Primitivist Aesthetic. I’ll say more about them and that aesthetic in a later post, but here’s a potentially living-room-wrecking taste of their debut E.P. Emerge.
So all these bands were from San Diego. In terms of both the 50s-revival and 60s-revival, things were of course happening elsewhere, usually with much more attention. In LA, you had 50s-wise the Blasters and Los Lobos, and the significant fact that the famous punk band X was getting noticeably rootsier with every release. 60s-wise, in Rochester, there were the Chesterfield Kings, in Boston the Lyres, and over in England the Milkshakes; NYC boasted a number of bands of lesser caliber, such as the Fuzztones and the Vipers; LA did likewise, and, together with the bay area also boasted a number of “Paisley Underground” bands reviving the psychedelic pop/rock sounds of ‘66-‘68, the best of which were–Zombies fans take note—The Three ‘O Clock. But I think all discerning listeners would agree that the Paladins, the Tell-Tale Hearts, and the Gravedigger V/Morlocks were the cream of 80s retro rock and roll, although some (not I) would award the palm to the NYC-then-LA band the Cramps, pioneers of the approach going back to the CBGB’s scene. And again, I would pit the timeless excellence of the Hearts and Paladins against any 1980s bands, whether retro or not.
It’s not that at the time, it seemed like San Diego was the happening place—most local young people never heard of these bands, and the press made it seem like the important roots and garage stuff was happening in LA and NYC; no, it’s more that the recordings by these particular bands hold up so much better, and that in terms of live-performance, you just never seemed to see better shows.
So that’s the information. And now, for the theory. Miriam Linna, one the writers and editors of the greatest rock and roll fanzine ever, Kicks , whose rare copies (I own four!) form a veritable Pentateuch of Retro, once wrote in one of her reviews of rock and roll books, that theories suck! For her, rock intellectualizing was one of the things that ruined rock and roll, and she wanted writers to restrain themselves, to give solidly factual accounts of the early bands, the more detailed the better. And the Songbook agrees that nine times out of ten, rock theorists have been lame, even as it hopes itself to prove an exception to the rule.
A main argument of mine in this and the upcoming posts, is that it is a mistake to not distinguish the rock and roll revivals (rockabilly, ska, 60s/garage, jump/swing) of the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s (but to various degrees ongoing) from the larger Recycling Pattern, particularly manifested in both the more rock-tuned forms of disco and in rock itself, the pattern that pop theorists such as Simon Reynolds and Kurt Anderson have drawn attention to, and which I talked about in Songbook #36, on Crystal Castles. While it is undeniably true that the retro scenes of the 80s set certain patterns that inform the larger retromania that Reynolds and Anderson moan about, the problem is that like so many critics they are unwilling to admit the fact that Rock, whatever its virtues, remains ever-guilty of the indelible crime of killing Rock and Roll, and that the entire spirit of the rock and roll revivals was an outraged rejection of that, a spirit totally absent from the present recycling boom. The Day the Music Died was not when Buddy Holly’s plane went down in 1958, but right at the apex of 1966-1967 transformative glory. And no, Rock’s bubbly kissin’ cousin Disco, even when hip-hopped up and DJ-ed out, ultimately could not make up for the loss. And no, Rock’s disturbed little brother Punk proved to be little more than a road back to hard rock: witness GBH, the Pixies, Nirvana, etc. Of course, I speak too pessimistically, because the long popularity of oldies radio, and yes, the continuing attraction to revivalism, bear witness to the fact that while gravely wounded, rock and roll does (and will) live on. And, I speak too portentously, because the Afro-American tradition of dance-oriented music that arguably culminates in rhythm and blues, aka rock and roll, is but one such sort of music that has occurred in history of the world, however dear it is to us. Its health or lack of it may say much about the present state of America or the modern world, but it could never and cannot “save us.” It generally has meant too much to us.
However, in the late 70s and early 80s, a generation trained by boomer elders to believe that little was more important than the “rock and roll story,” couldn’t take such a philosophic view—and so not a few of us took a listen to what was currently on offer, and taking advantage of greater opportunities, via reissues and oldies radio, to hear what had been on offer only twenty years earlier, basically said you’ve got to be kidding me. We turned rock’s self-important (and self-deceptive) history-of-rock-roll narrative on itself, and cried traitors!!!
Here’s Billy Miller from Kicksmagazine, around 1984:
We don’t deal in ROCK MUSIC here at KICKS. If you’re a fan of David Bowie or Devo, take this magazine back to the store. You’ve obviously bought the wrong thing. To me, rock music means asshole Roger Daltrey swingin’ a microphone around his head while leagues of stoned-out squares gaze in wide-eyed ecstasy waiting for MTV or Lisa Robinson to tell ‘em where they oughta take their zombie butts to next. …Now this ain’t “oldies mentality” talkin’ either… To me, Benny Joy is more vital than anything I see on these heavy video shows and so what if the guy didn’t get his due 25 years ago. Give it to him now, God damn it! He delivered the goods! He rocked, he rolled: which more than I can say for a lotta stuff that’s been termed “classic” lately. Nothing by the Police is as good as Charlie Feathers’ “Jungle Fever,” and the Human League sure ain’t the Rivieras, and the Clash will never come up with anything as political “Summertime Blues.”
And here’s the aforementioned Mike Stax, from Ugly Things around the same time:
…the reissue scene is growing so rapidly it’s impossible to keep up with it all… It’s long overdue, but at last more and more people are beginning to become aware of the vast number of fabulous lost and obscure recordings, and the lure of the untamed sounds as an alternative to the lame shit being pumped out by today’s famous fools. Finally, I’d like to raise an important point. Some people are picking up on the “sixties revival” (sic) and missing the point altogether. For example, I heard a conservation outside a club recently, some guy asked this girl if she liked any fifties stuff, she replied that, “Oh, the fifties were OK I guess, but they just weren’t as WILD as the sixties.” WHAT!?!?! I immediately cut into her—What about Little Richard? What about Elvis? What about Bo Diddley? That’s some of the wildest stuff EVER!!! I mean, UGLY THINGS covers almost exclusively the sixties scene, but it’s vital to recognize that there was great savage sounds happening since the first time cavemen hit rocks together, right up until everyone took too many drugs and blew it in the late sixties. If you don’t acknowledge true facts like that, you just don’t know where it’s at. Bah! Anyway, enough of this.
Now, this stance is skewed and deliberately limited, as I’ll explain later, but I’m still basically with Miller and Stax on 90% of the true facts in question.
To close this post, let’s look and listen one more time to the great Gravedigger V. The four pillars of rock and roll retro-dom are all there, and with a few changes, we could apply each of them to the rockabilly, ska, and swing scenes. First, the band is steeped in reissues of music that did not make it to the charts the first time around, and thus when you hear them play a cover song, such as “Night of the Phantom,” it sounds oldies-ish, but it is not a song you’ve heard before. The band’s name and the Monster Mash artwork of the cover convey precisely, yet humorously, what they’re up to—mining and revivifying the past for the sake of a better Shindig today. Second, most of the instruments they are using are vintage—they’ve gone and found those cast-off Voxx guitars and Farfisa organs, usually considered inferior instruments even at the time, that 60s teenagers used to create their forgotten “Louie Louie” and “96 Tears” moments. Third, the members of this band, and their hard-core fans, dressed in a 65’-66’ style, achieved by numerous trips to the thrift stores, and probably did so seven days a week. It was an identity, in the spirit of the enterprise, and those clothes somehow fit the music better. This is the aspect of retro that was most easily exploited and mocked, however; you can hear such mockery in the “Oh, oh, I look like Buddy Holly, and you a Mary Tyler Moore” lyric by the 90s grungers Weezer. It undeniably can take on a costume-party aspect, even while a purist attitude towards the music really is often paralleled by a taste for the older fashions. Fourth, all of this is done to cultivate rock and roll fun and studiously avoids seriousness–it’s songs about girls, monster-movies, break-ups, etc., often conveyed with Ramones-style humor—and there is no effort to speak to What Matters in the Modern Situation other than to convey a basic contempt for the present. The meaning of “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” is thus obvious enough—the present is so sucky that one is forced, for the good of the future, to go back. Especially if one wants to dance.
Simon Reynolds, at the beginning of his Retromania book, says that he feels “deep down, retro is lame and shameful,” even while he’s careful to qualify this by saying how he appreciates much of it, yada yada. I understand a bit of his feeling, and certainly won’t deny that there have been many embarrassing bands more about the camp fashion than about the musical purism, but the apparently deep shame he’s feeling…I just don’t get it. Do country and western fans feel mortified by the fact that the formal boundaries of the genre have been largely set since the early 60s? It’s at times limiting, but at others, the conventions strengthen one’s music. I mean, if it’s time to celebrate life a bit, and say, the ska-become-soul Spanish band the Pepper Pots are playing, are you really going to sit the dancing out because it isn’t “new?” Because it’s “retro?” Are you really going to insist on something edgy/arty like Crystal Castles? Even though it also, in its way, is pretty retro? This imperative to move ever-forward into new artistic forms is a 20th-century head-disease; for pop music especially, it was never entirely true and is now proven to be simply not sustainable. It’s way past time to get over it.
But, theory, schmeary, the main thing is that I’m sure glad bands like the fun-lovin’ Gravedigger V didn’t grant an inch to “contemporary” sounds, and that the Paladins and Tell-Tale Hearts focused like lasers on their respective veins of musical excellence. Those of us who were there , Mr. Reynolds, know that it was anything but “lame.”