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I Love Bombastic Rock Bands — Who’s With Me?

on January 10, 2013, 1:00am

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You know, if someone wrote an essay insisting Thin Lizzy provided the backbone for his teen experience in the mid 1970s, every rock critic in America would nod their head in agreement. A serious discussion on the metaphorical significance of Jailbreak would be totally acceptable. I just happen to think the same dialogue can be had about Slippery When Wet.

-Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City

In the summer of 2002, Ryan Schreiber of Pitchfork published his now famous (or famously flawed) review of Andrew W.K.’s I Get Wet. He gave the album a laughable 0.6, and wrote, “This here is about as empty as rock music gets.” Finally, the ultimate voice in taste and opinion on modern music had echoed my thoughts, and validated my opinion. My favorite part of the review was his closing paragraph:

It’s fun’ is about the only legitimate excuse a guy could come up with [to support Andrew W.K.]– and that’s the one thing I’ll give it to warrant the .6 in the rating– but this world of music which history has graced us with is loaded with fun music…So then, what is the excuse for a typically elitist music nerd to bow to Andrew W.K.’s blistering tard-rock? That’s right, folks: there isn’t one.

At the time, my fellow Andrew W.K.-hating friends and I loved the part where he says he only gave it a rating at all because it was “fun”. Fun doesn’t mean shit in rock music! Fun is a byproduct of smart, heart-wrenching lyrics and odd musical modes and tonalities; it is not the main ingredient.

A few years after that, my stance on Andrew W.K., and rock in general, started to shift. Maybe it was from me growing increasingly tired of the growing pretension of people who always said “fun” with air quotes and a wink (like Schreiber does above). Maybe it was from playing in a cover band in college that specialized in “party songs” that helped me appreciate giving an audience a good time. Or maybe it was this video my friends from Webster University made one winter.

Whatever it was, I realized that navel gazing and poetic tropes no longer fueled me. I wanted optimism in rock ‘n’ roll. I couldn’t hear more songs about losing a girl, or being psychologically despondent. I wanted fun again. Adrien Begrand from Pop Matters wrote in his I Get Wet review: “The problem these days is that with the unending stream of rock bands who are either overly morose, overly angry, overly political, or overly pretentious, one other fundamental element has been missing from mainstream rock: dumb old fun.”

I couldn’t agree more. What happened to the fun? Begrand later says, “At its best, W.K.’s music is a refreshing blast of skanky air on the current stale music scene…” Yes! Absolutely…but…the problem is he finishes the sentence with, “…at its worst, it’s disappointingly monotonous, unoriginal, and very, very dumb.”

I became interested in writing about music when I was 17, but I didn’t officially start until later (sometime after this change in mindset). Could I reconcile this newfound love of bombastic rock with the dour sheen of the music critics that I looked up to? Do those things have to be mutually exclusive? Would I have to file away this love into the dreaded and weak-spirited folder of “guilty pleasures”?

Answers: Yes. No. Absolutely not.

Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City also explains why critics laud Eric Clapton over Eddie Van Halen. He writes:

Listening to Clapton is like getting a sensual massage from a woman you’ve loved for the past 10 years; listening to Van Halen is like having the best sex of your life with three foxy nursing students you met at a Tastee Freeze. This is why rock historians and intellectuals feel comfortable lionizing Eric Clapton, even though every credible guy in the world will play Van Halen tapes when his wife isn’t around.

It’s hard to find a mainstream critic these days who unabashedly celebrates big rock albums and/or rock stage shows. More often than not, the critics who do praise rock acts like The Darkness, Andrew W.K., or Foxy Shazam, tend to do so with a sense of irony, or a wink and a nudge. Begrand says in his review of The Darkness’ Permission to Land: “They look ridiculous and they sound ridiculous, yet they know they’re ridiculous, and they shamelessly revel in their ridiculousness.” He says they are here as a savior to those looking to keep reveling in ’80s bombast, but yet they’re ridiculous.

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Eric Nally of Foxy Shazam

The Onion’s AV Club said in the first line of their I Get Wet review: “If I Get Wet makes Andrew Wilkes-Krier a star (and it should), it could mark one of the greatest seismic shifts in popular music since Nirvana’s Nevermind hosed rivers of hairspray and makeup off the pop-cultural landscape in 1991 and ’92,” but the publication failed to put the album on any of its Best Of lists that year. Begrand, and many others, treat these bands like inside jokes, as if it’s the only way they can fully appreciate these bands (especially The Darkness and/or Foxy Shazam). If they can’t sit back and laugh at/with bands like this, then said act must be completely full of shit, and they’ll move on (a la Andrew W.K.).

So what is the disconnect between reviews and full-out appreciation? If these bands are so awe-inspiring on record and in concert, then why do critics date and move in with Arcade Fire, but fuck The Darkness and Foxy Shazam on the side? Also, tangentially, why are things like Daft Punk’s live concert pyramid and Katy Perry’s lights and costumes celebrated, but theatrics and costumes of Foxy Shazam and  The Darkness Justin Hawkins deemed kitschy and campy?

It’s all about having fun, and enjoying life. “Don’t Stop Livin’ in the Red” has the same message as fun.’s “We Are Young”, but Andrew W.K. doesn’t have boyish good looks and sweats a lot, so you can’t put that on the Grammy’s or on a commercial. “I Like It” by Foxy Shazam is a lot like “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry, but Katy Perry doesn’t eat lit cigarettes whole on stage, and I’d bet most of the younger generation would rather think about Perry kissing a girl than Nally doing a double-take on a black booty.

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Justin Hawkins of The Darkness

It comes down to demographics. Bombastic rock is the pop music of the “forgotten music fan.”  It’s for the ‘80s rockers, or the late 20s to mid-40 year old male crowd who were raised on it, and are looking for pyro and guitars. They want a new Van Halen or Mötley Crüe, but without excess. They’re optimistic, realistic headbangers who still want to piss off squares, but will help you clean up after the party. This breed of bands fit that need, but they aren’t pretty bands so Katy Perry’s fans can’t be targeted with an Esquire lay-out, the bands aren’t moody, so Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters aren’t coming around. They don’t play music that goes especially great with a million-dollar light show and ecstasy, so the EDM kids aren’t camping out. Those kids would have a meltdown at an Andrew W.K. show.

Ty Christian, lead singer of the Madison, WI metal band Lords of the Trident, who follows closer to The Darkness or European metal band Lordi in live show standards, also feels the disconnect. He told me, “The show aspect [of rock] got lost somewhere along the way in the last 20 years because somehow that meant [the bands] weren’t serious about the music.”

A Lords of the Trident show is a challenging feat of performance. The band usually comes on stage to a loud announcement over the speakers proclaiming them as “the most metal band on Earth!”. They then make a triumphant entrance becloaked in leather armor and costumes befitting of each member’s character. Throughout the show, Christian (or Fang von Wrathenstein as he’s called) jumps into the audience to fight them with swords, sets a modified Guitar Hero guitar on fire which he plays during solos, and shoots off an air cannon shaped like a trident into the crowd. There’s a reason why they’ve been voted the Best Live Act in Madison three years running. It’s full-scale entertainment.

There are some people who would argue, “Oh, so they do a bunch of stage garbage to cover up their crappy music, huh?” And that’s where those people would be wrong. Everyone in the band is an expert at their instruments, and can stand up with some of the best metal musicians in the game and hold their own, if not surpass them. Listen to the dueling guitars and Christian’s metal voice on tracks like “Chains of Fire” or “Skyforce”, and see why they aren’t just a sideshow.

So why aren’t they more popular, or well-known outside of metal circles and Madison? I asked Christian what the reaction is and how they deal with the kitsch factor that gets laid on them:

Some people get it and like it. Some people get it and hate it. Some don’t get it and hate, and some are just plain confused…We embrace the kitsch. If people want to make the show about the show and not the music, then we still gain them as a fan. Whereas, if people want to make it about the music and not the show, we can play to that too. If critics are making a big deal out of [the antics and music] and not enjoying it because it’s ‘not authentic’, then I don’t want them as fans.”

A key part of what Christian said — “not authentic” — is what bothers me the most about critical acceptance of most so-called “party rock” bands. What makes a band like new critical darlings Japandroids or Cloud Nothings, who were both on top year-end lists everywhere (including ours), more “authentic” than Foxy Shazam, who released an equally hard-hitting record this year in Welcome to the Church of Rock ‘n Roll? It’s because those bands sing serious songs while wearing jeans and Converse, while another wears spandex and top hats whilst singing lines like “That’s the biggest black ass I’ve ever seen / and I like it.” Where does the disconnect happen between music writers praising Queen, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, or Thin Lizzy, and then footnoting bands like The Darkness or Andrew WK?

Chicago’s Thunderunderus, who is following in the close footsteps of the iconic ‘70s bands mentioned above, wear jeans, beards, Nike high-tops, Stratocasters, and Jaguars, but still deliver dueling guitar harmonics, foot-stomping hard rock, and damn catchy Southern party rock (you know, like Kings of Leon used to export). They’re more along the lines of W.K. and Foxy Shazam: a straight-forward rock barrage. Last month, I asked lead singer/guitarist Jimmy Kennedy and lead guitarist Chris Delaney about the “bands then vs. bands now” disconnect, as well as a recent, somewhat scathing TimeOut Chicago listing for their headlining concert that said, “If the name Thunderunderus doesn’t set off your bullshit alarm, then their music will.”

Kennedy said, “When you cut to the core of it, our music is honest. We’re playing stuff we want to hear. I am a fan of the heydays of rock, the ‘70s. I always feel like I was born in the wrong time period. If I could have seen Zeppelin, Sabbath, AC/DC, Queen, KISS, Thin Lizzy back when they were making this amazing music and putting on these grand concerts, my life would never be the same. And that’s what I strive for with Thunderuderus. To recreate the true rock n roll experience.”

Delaney echoed the sentiment; “If people want to say we are any less cool or legitimate because of what the music is, then that’s their opinion. But we don’t need to defend ourselves to them.”

In a recent interview, Dan Hawkins of The Darkness put it in a similar way: “People who get a bit up their ass about nostalgia acts and people who think these bands are there just to take people’s money should ask how the audience that actually goes to see these people play feel about it…So, get off your fucking high horse and go see the band you want to see and stop fucking whining about it.”

I suppose there’s still no accounting for taste.

As Christian said, somewhere in the past 20 years people lost interest in pyrotechnics and guitar solos, and began to view them as inauthentic. Grunge took over hair metal, and a new norm of rock show took hold. Maybe the popularity of Andrew W.K., Foxy Shazam, The Darkness, or Lordi shows the pendulum might be swinging back the other way. Will we get to a point where these bands will be celebrated not for their “ridiculousness”, but for the fresh breath they put into a navel gazing rock scene? Can an honest conversation about how I Get Wet ushered in a new life-celebrating rock into the dour rock world in the summer of 2002 be had? As Klosterman writes: “Whenever social pundits try to explain why glam metal died, they usually insist that ‘it wasn’t real’ or ‘It didn’t say anything.’ Well, it was certainly real to me and all my friends. And more importantly, it did say something. It said something about us.”

This music says we were born to rock, and you squares are just going to have to deal with it.

Nick Freed is a staff writer for Consequence of Sound.

Thunderunderus and Lords of the Trident both play in Chicago on February 8th at LiveWire in Logan Square.

Photography by Jeremy D. Larson

7 comments
milne
January 17, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Great article. Not a CoS regular but will be now.

Walled-in Aviary
January 10, 2013 at 4:27 pm

I freaking love bombast! I love fun! I also love catharsis, sadness, and anger. That’s why I can like bands like Radiohead, Nirvana, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but also love Andrew WK, LMFAO, and Skrillex. Yeah, I can admit it, I freaking love LMFAO! The amount of pure fun they can pack in to a song is enormous! I don’t understand how people can listen to sad, introspective music all the time, it’s exhausting, and, more importantly, just boring. I love having fun, so I listen to fun music. End of Story

Michael Roffman
January 10, 2013 at 4:30 pm

I love this guy!

Reverend Justito
January 10, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Thank you for this article. I get shit on all the time by some of my peers because I love The Darkness and Foxy Shazam. You fucking nailed it with this article. You have summed up my feelings on why I love it and why those who hate simply don’t get it. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.

Nick Freed
January 10, 2013 at 1:24 pm

All good points Patrick. I agree that it’s about demographics as I said in the article. However, I would add that Japandroids kind of add a late 80s early 90s rock sound that is also borrowed, but just from a more in between era that parents and kids don’t have connotations with either, so it’s kind of the same thing. Yeah they are “partying” but it’s in a more through the tops of the eyes, through-the-bangs kind of way. I’m not saying bands like Japandroids are bad, but just that these other bands are just as talented as they are. I know that they won’t get the same recognition as Katy Perry or Japandroids, and that’s the point of the article. I feel they should. It is somewhat related to why comedies don’t get nominated for awards even if they are as good as other nominees. There is a level of unacceptance of talent involved just because of what the genre is, and I think that’s pretty unfair to just toss aside because of that.

Also it’s hard to make the “they were imitating previously popular bands” argument because virtually every band does that. It’s kind of a cyclical thing, but these bands ARE talented regardless of who they are copying from. You could argue that every guitarist copies from Jimmy Page or Brian May, but does that make them less legit as guitarists?

Dinky Thomas
January 11, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Saw Shazam and The Darkness in NYC last year. Saw the Darkness a few years earlier in Montreal. I love everything from rap to metal to classical. It all comes down to if something has “It” or it doesnt. The best compliment I can give any band is I will go see them again and buy there next record. And Foxy Shazam and the Darkness (Let it be known the Darkness is my favorite of the past 10 years) I will be buying the next album and going to the next show!

Patrick Lyons
January 10, 2013 at 1:02 pm

Hair Metal and the like was, in its peak, a cheap, MTV-fueled flash in the pan. Bands like Zeppelin, The Who and Queen might have began the whole fascination with pushing rock to bigger, more theatrical places, but they were exceptions (absurdly talented ones at that) to the rule in the early 70s. It wasn’t until this trend was capitalized upon by record companies looking to sell the next “Jimmy Page” they found playing in some backwater bar (who was actually the much-less-impressive Eddie Van Halen or Angus Young) that you could begin to add the term “dumb” to the list of descriptors of bombastic rock.

Substituting “professional” songwriting and catchy riffs for the musical and thematic experimentation and virtuosity that was present in the forbearers’ sounds, a mass-produced, plastic replica of their music was soon taking the world by storm. To reference Delaney’s statement, the music wasn’t the reason these imitators “were any less cool or legitimate” than say, punk or prog rock, it was the fact that they were imitating previously existing bands, rather than innovating and honing their own style. In the same way that MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice sold millions of records to suburban kids by projecting a pre-packaged, slightly more culturally digestible version of “fun” rappers like Run DMC, Rakim and BDP, Motley Crue and Van Halen appeared much more profit-driven (and thus “inauthentic” in the eyes of some) than Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and David Bowie.

That’s not to say that rock was dead as soon as John Bonham croaked. The years after 1982 spawned many a great, critically revered rock act, most notably Nirvana. While not exuding fun in a “Rock and Roll all Night” type fashion, it’s hard to watch the crowd in any Nirvana concert video and not think “damn, that looks like fun.” Though the method of conveyance had changed, the end result of guitar-driven music you could jump around, yell and drink to was still very real and very fresh.

There is no “problem” with bands like The Darkness and Andrew W.K., but they’ll never achieve Katy Perry levels of stardom because they reek of trends that were popular when most young consumers’ parents were the ones buying music. The only reason that past-worshipping acts like Mumford and Sons get any play is because the trends they are attempting to ape (bluegrass, Industrial Revolution-era fashion) are too distant for kids to have any negative (read: parental) connotations associated with them. While actually about as fresh as moldy cottage cheese, Mumford has skillfully located a niche that allows listeners to imagine themselves as artfully antiquated and culturally pioneering at the same time.

If these bands really want to hav fun, they should do so by not infringing upon the legacies of their influences. In rock music, there’s plenty of ways to say “yeah, we’re partyin'” that don’t involve power chords or pyrotechnics. Japandroids have done it in a more youthful, DIY-seeming way that ends up seeming far more “authentic” than, for instance, Cloud Nothings’ shameless Cobain-aping via Steve Albini and some seemingly out-of-the-blue depression. The problem here is not with the emotion behind the music, but with the freshness of the ingredients contained within. If you’re going to do exactly what popular musicians were doing 40 years ago, I hope you like dingy bar venues and have some friends who work in the recording industry, because otherwise you’re going to find that 2013’s a really tough place to be AC/DC Jr.