1. The E! Network’s show Opening Act took a quick and dirty approach to the format popularized on Making The Band a decade ago – take a group of young talented unknowns, give them some development and see if a hit emerges. These amateurs only get one night and one episode to make their splash but it still gives a revealing look at the kind of the kind of people who will still try to make it big in the music biz today.
The first show I saw featured a young vocal group ala Boyz II Men, hard-working high schoolers who spent every spare moment of their trip to the big city practicing, staying up till the wee hours tightening their choreography, fine-tuning harmonies and dynamics, talking endlessly about what they’re going to DO once they get up there. They’re the easiest kind of group to root for, and to see them get up in front of 10,000 Nicki Minaj fans and kill it turns out to be downright heartwarming. Even if it’s not the greatest music, it’s pretty good TV.
In the next episode, producers sought a support act for LMFAO, and selected an appropriately “party music” themed opener, who spend their night in the big city before their TV debut getting shitface drunk and watching their rental van get towed away. Hung over and still sweaty at their big career-deciding tryout before a group of industry heavies the next morning, they are weighed in the balance and found wanting. Asking the heavies what their biggest problem is, the answer is “talent.” As in, you haven’t got any.
One of the members of this group, an attractive young woman named Bree, was called a “DJ” despite the fact that there were no turntables on stage, because she didn’t know how to operate them. Her entire function consisted of pressing the “on” button for the DAT machine, booty shaking and periodically shouting “Yeah! Yeah!” The producers for some reason arrange for her to get a master class from superstar DJ Samantha Ronson, who probably expected to discuss fader technique or the finer points of how to time a bass drop with someone who was trying to hone some type of skill. Instead, she found herself unable to connect on any level with her mentee, who seemed to have no discernible taste in music. Asked why she wants to be in a band, Bree answers “I want to be popular and party all the time and get attention.”
Ronson later remarked that she would have rather had a conversation with a ten year old child about how to make a grilled cheese sandwich, that at least some good might have come out of it in the form of a better sandwich for one person on earth.
You can probably guess what happens next. The down-in-the-mouth group rally their spirits, buy a pair of turntables at Guitar Center and get some DJ-101 lessons during their soundcheck, and just hours after being convinced they are talentless losers, take the stage in front of 10,000 fans and kill it. All it took to turn them around from clueless dorks to world-class party rockers was a stern talking-to in a British accent, and a few hours of applying themselves just that much.
Now, let’s admit that manufactured pop stars with more good looks than musical ability have been with us longer than the electric toaster. And let’s also admit that today’s kids are just as likely to express themselves using computers as musical instruments, so the requirement for “talent” to break into the music biz has changed. In other words, I don’t hate them because they don’t play instruments. (Even that’s perhaps a tad harsh, the drummer plays an instrument, I guess, but he’s not even in the mix. He’s the drummer like Bree is the DJ.)
But it seems like a new phenomenon to see the bar drop so low that, having long ago bypassed the need for musical talent, groups are now coming to the table where only ideas are necessary to participate, and they don’t even have any of those. Their entire show is on tape, the crappy songs are track-for-track re-writes of other crappy songs, the crappy singing auto-tuned to Glee-like perfection. All they need to do, according to the producers, is manipulate some records for sound effects, bounce up and down and communicate some expression of energy being expended, and they hadn’t even bothered to learn to do THAT prior to their big break.
“I don’t think that the top turn-on for people anymore is just in the lyric, or in the melody and the sound and what it stands for. I think the big turn-on is feeling excited about the person that’s singin’ that stuff and playing that way… when the person becomes a musician, the music isn’t human any more.”
That’s Iggy Pop talking to a representative from his record label in early 1977, as printed in Search & Destroy magazine. I stumbled onto that quote midway through writing this, and it made me think about how far we’ve come in thirty-five years, where no one has to argue FOR the minimization of musicianship anymore. That train of thought made sense in 1977 when big rock bands were supposed to be virtuosos but were mostly using their powers for evil, creating the most sanitized, bloodless dreck that possibly be imagined. A snotty 17-year old with a few Chuck Berry licks, or even just a Casio keyboard, along with a mug full of piss and vinegar could make a far more exciting record, as we were about to find out, lots of times, in the coming years.
But now that professional music making has fallen SO far from the hands of people who know or care a lick about music at all… to go back to that Iggy quote, what sort of feeling is it possible to feel when we watch these people? A: That they wish to be popular, party all the time and get attention.
I can’t think of a more perfect example of the kind of music the sinister forces that desire to control our world would WANT you to listen to.
2. For a couple of months after Hologram Tupac became the breakout star of Coachella, it seemed like everybody had their hand in the fancy-cartoon-projection pie. An Elvis hologram tour was actually announced, as were plans for virtual images of Freddie Mercury (about which Brian May literally said ”People will wonder, was that really Freddie?”), Michael Jackson and others. Then in September, Digital Domain, the company that had actually produced Hologram Tupac and made the deal on the Elvis tour, went bankrupt despite a $35 million injection, providing the year’s most satisfying laugh-out-loud punch line and hopefully prolonging the existence of the human soul for a few more years.
3. FYF Fest brought a fantastic array of bands to LA over a two-day blitz (see our coverage of Day One and Day Two.) It was to my great disappointment that I missed out on many of the lower-tier groups that sounded really promising during my journey through the lineup’s collection of Youtube videos, and most of the sets I did catch were from long-time favorites like Vaselines, Hot Snakes, Fucked Up, Black Mountain and Refused (who absolutely destroyed, possibly top show of the year, and one of the best punk gigs of all time). It was a great experience nonetheless, but next year I’m going to try and show up for gates opening and not miss the opportunity to hear more of Sean Carlson’s hand-picked underground favorites.
4. I’m gonna have to start going to more metal shows – gigs from Napalm Death/ Municipal Waste and COC/ High On Fire/ Black Breath/ Sunn O)) were among the highlights of the year. One thing that never ceases to be a pleasure at metal shows: the audience. Even in jaded LA, it’s still possible to be part of a crowd that is INTO IT from front row to last.
5. Among the contingent of Old Guys Trying To Keep A’Rockin, my personal Big Four all did pretty well this year. Neil Young & Crazy Horse returned from an eight-year absence with a ramshackle album of mutated Americana covers followed by the triple-LP set Psychedelic Pill, an album with no less than THREE side-long tracks. They hit the Hollywood Bowl in between those two releases and played a searing two-hour set as spirited and exploratory as any I’ve seen them give in twenty years. Prince only had one minor release, the overseas single “Rock & Roll Love Affair“, a moderately exciting stomper in the “Peach” vein with a bit of Creedence flavor. But performed at a tiny show at the Sayers Club, the song became a showcase for Prince’s many instrumentalists, including an 11-piece horn section that had spilled into the audience. The jam-heavy 90-minute set included a wicked version of “Dance Electric” with Andre Cymone, a reunion fans have been awaiting for decades. Brian Wilson did the Beach Boys reunion thing that many fans predicted would be bad for his health, but turned out to be fruitful enough that everyone but Mike Love wanted it to keep going after its scheduled end. And the Who are back on the road with Quadrophenia again, with uniformly positive reports from back east. The half hour they did at the 12-12-12 Sandy Telethon confirmed those sightings, showing Pete Townshend playing with imagination and power, and Roger Daltrey’s vocals sounding strong and clear, even when occasionally requiring adjustment to a lower key. While the likes of Keith Moon and John Entwistle will never be seen again, and it’s impossible not to say there’s a noticeable difference, the band’s current edition with Pino Palladino on bass, Zak Starkey on drums and Simon Townshend on guitar and vocals does seem to be gaining momentum in its tenth year (if it makes it another four years four years, this lineup will have outlived the original.). They’re getting looser in the right spots, confident in their own capability without needing to re-enact particular album parts. Needless to say, we’re looking forward to their arrival in January to the Honda Center and Staples Center, as well as a gig from Simon Townshend coming up in early March at the Hotel Café.
6. Old Punkers Getting Back Together had a pretty good year too, with worthwhile shows from fIREHOSE, X, COC’s Animosity lineup (also namechecked in the metal section above, the benefit of “crossover” appeal), Bad Brains, the Middle Class, the Alley Cats, the Last, Meat Puppets (sporting a new four-piece lineup that smokes more pot during their set than some bands go through in a week), Adolescents, White Flag, Lawndale, Blood on the Saddle, Stains and Trotsky Icepick. And the Dwarves might be better in their current lineup than they ever were before. But as mentioned above, top honors for the year go to Refused, who reunited right with a flame-spiting live show that did justice to their legacy.
7. On the topic of Old Guys Not Having It Anymore… I can’t say I thought much of the Stones at that same benefit gig where the Who sounded so full of life. Two songs, and one of them is “You Got Me Rockin”? And then they forget the changes to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” like they don’t do that one EVERY night? Footage of the band in London with Mick Taylor was occasionally enjoyable, and there was no denying the sentimental import of the moment, but much of the actual music sounded lousy. They may “need to warm up” as everyone keeps saying but fuck, man, I don’t want to pay $750 for a ticket for a rehearsal. I’ll wait to catch this tour on HBO. Paul McCartney + Former Members Of Nirvana sounded pretty good in the moment I heard it – not at the 12-12-12 show, which ran late & thus didn’t record completely on my DVR, but at SNL days later, after the hype had already begun to fade – but I haven’t really had the urge to go back and listen to it again. It’s kind of like the album Memory Almost Full, in that regard, attractive-sounding but inessential music. At least Paul still looks and sounds pretty good, mostly, and probably still justifies his ticket price whether or not there’s any new material worth pondering.
8. Less- Reported Reunion Of The Year: Biblical Proof of UFOs’ Interstellar Messages lineup with guitarist and singer Joey Shipman, playing a gig for the first time in seven years. This was my favorite band in the early 2000s, and the chance to see them rip through most of my favorite songs one more time was an honest to God tear-jerker. A super bonus to the night was the opportunity to see Cleveland native Aaron “Buzz” Boron, DuValby Brothers founder and the guy that brought the UFO boys together back in Ohio, playing a set of his own tunes with Shipman on guitar, his wife Jen Shipman on bass, and UFO drummer Michael Peffer under an undetermined band name – one option that I remember was the OhiBros – that acted as an instant history lesson into the Cle scene that birthed these guys before they arrived on our shores in 1999, a piece of music history worth knowing.
9. It was a tremendous pleasure to sit around and talk shop with some of the musicians I most admire – John French, Steve Berlin, Mark Hosler of Negativland – in addition to two questions and a friendly handshake with KISS, an experience I won’t soon forget.
10. It’s been a wonderful privilege to work with Bob Cantu and the Redwood Bar to present our monthly free, all-ages shows on the last Sunday of every month, and I’m fantastically grateful to all the groups that have donated their services to these gigs. We’ve been into the idea of free art for the community for a long time and plan to keep bringing them. Despite taking November and December off for the holidays, we’ll be back in January with Mike Watt & The Missingmen, Blower (from Joshua Tree, featuring Doug “Didjit” Evans), and more. As for 2012, our eternal gratitude to the Alley Cats, Trotsky Icepick, Warm Climate, Lawndale, Dos, Mecolodiacs, Fatso Jetson, Rat Soup, Swords Of Fatima, Third Grade Teacher, Bikos, Awkward, Boom!, The Leaking Pigs, Carnage Asada, Dead Issue, Sassafras, The Exxtras, Youthbitch, Biblical Proof of UFOs, Fast Sails and Charlie Don’t Surf as well as the other members of the Amadans and Backbiter.
We’ll see you at the gigs!