Once upon a time, you had to know how to play your instrument to be in a band. You either sang on key or sang in a style that made up for your lack of talent. Your drummer and your bass player had to keep time. And if the singer or the keyboardist was subpar, then the guitar player had better step up his game. These were player bands. Not only was the message or the stage show important, but you had to be able, as a unit, to play well.
These bands, to whom their sound was more important than anything else, were what Todd Rundgren once termed as player bands. It’s what the Rolling Stones and The Beatles had in common. The Stones relied on that sound that only Mick’s voice and Keith’s guitar could create. The Beatles had no central figure. John and Paul might have been first among equals, but the few recordings they did post-Pete Best without Ringo behind the kit really show that it was a group effort.
There are still a few player bands around. Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters, even Coldplay, fit the bill. But the charts are now dominated by pre-packaged, auto-tuned acts that don’t even write their own music. Many that do are so dependent on technology that their live shows are nothing to write home about.
Some might say the decline began in the 1970’s with arena rock. But then listen to a Journey concert, whether it be the classic Steve Perry line-up, the current line-up, or, dog, the days when Randy Jackson played bass for them. They’re a live band, dude, and what you hear in the studio is what you get on stage. And they have to be good to get the studio sound onto stage with them. The decline did, indeed, begin in the 1970’s, but not with arena rock. (No, the arena suckage actually began about 10 years later with rampant lip-syncing.)
It actually began with punk. Now, punk’s appeal is its ragged, screw-you sound. No one will ever compare a Ramones album to Abbey Road. And both The Beatles and the Ramones would be insulted if you did. But in Britain, where punk was much more political than its American counterpart, there was a school of thought that, if you learned to play your instrument, you were not properly focused. How do you think Sid Vicious got a job as a bass player?
This, of course, is understandable. America’s economy looked like the 1990’s compared to 1970’s Britain. England had become one giant rust belt, with the Tories shaking things up in a way the working class did not like. A lot of loud, atonal, screaming rock music was the perfect way to flip Maggie Thatcher the bird. The youth of Britain were pissed (in both the British and American sense of the word, but mainly the American). Politics over skill is perfectly understandable.
Unfortunately, this had the side effect of making it perfectly okay to be a talentless hack, particularly when technology made the cheap synthesizer – and thus the synthesizer duo – a pathway to stardom. Seriously, do you think Soft Cell (of “Tainted Love” fame) would have been able to gain any notice beyond playing for beer money prior to 1979?
In the meantime, the worst of the punks learned three chords. The best ones developed their skills and broadened their musical tastes. Now you do have to know at least three chords to play punk rock. Indeed, most player bands these days fall into the punk category, or grunge, punk’s bastard offspring.
But punk bands don’t tear up the charts – even the alternative charts – like they once did.
It’s too bad. While I expect at least two members of a band to be able to play their instruments, I know we’re doomed to airwaves and downloads full of technology-bloated, auto-tuned, bland noise.
Forget bringing the sexy back. Bring back rock’s balls.