The last 70’s was a magical time for debut albums: 1976’s “The Ramones”, 77’s “Nevermind the Bollocks,” 77’s “The Clash” as well as “Talking Heads ’77.” All these bands had something to say about old guard music and that message was: fuck off, we gun do our thing now.
Perhaps my favorite debut and band from that period is “Marquee Moon” by Television. Anybody that’s heard the album can understand why: creative, sprawling guitar interplay; a non-faked sense of epicness; concise, catchy songwriting; drive, power and intensity; wild dynamics; beautifully crafted, intricate guitar solos; truly poetic (yet biting) lyrics. All of this combined with a garage rock punch that made Television stand toe-to-toe with “The Ramones” in intensity but with better chops and more diversity.
Such an album would be hard to follow in any circumstance: as a result, 78’s “Adventure” by Television is often ignored, overlooked and disparaged. “How could Television top ‘Marquee Moon’?” is a question that has haunted the band, main songwriter, singer and co-lead guitarist Tom Verlaine and their fans as soon as the album came out.
Naturally, they couldn’t and the band was smart enough to realize that fact. Instead of trying to top it, they simply made another Television album: a collection of well written, catchy songs with intricate, unique guitar interplay and great lyrics.
The big difference between this album and “Marquee Moon” really lay in one single word: softer. The band has toned down their energy and rawness considerably on this album. The rawness of the Andy Johns production has been replaced with a “cleaner” production with more “sheen” (if that makes sense) to it that definitely puts it a notch lower in the eyes of many fans.
There is also a distinct lack of “epicness” on the album that seemed to be the stock in trade of “Marquee Moon”; no longer are there 10 minute songs that seem to contain the drama of 10 songs. Instead, songs are written around self contained song structures, easier to understand melodies and simpler ideas.
So, the band has softened up, simplified and lost much of the “raw” and “epic” feel of their first album. Clearly, “Adventure” is crap right? Not even close. Tom Verlaine and Television were too smart and too good to release a bad album. Instead, this is an album of “smaller” pleasures and “simpler” ideas.
Let me put it this way: I feel its only a disappointment compared to “Marquee Moon.” If this was their debut album, it would be hailed as a masterpiece of songwriting and guitar interplay that strikes a solid balance between punk aggression and folk simplicity.
Yes, a song like “Fox Hole” would have hit much harder with “Marquee Moon” production but isn’t that song something as it is? The intricate two guitar riff and great “pinch harmonic” at the end of the riff that helps give it a unique sound; the simple but catchy riff and chorus of “Fox hole! Fox hole!”; the solid (but not exceptional) anti-war lyrics and the occasionally dissonant guitar playing of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd.
Lloyd really doesn’t get enough credit for Television’s success: his rawer, edgier, less schooled style of guitar soloing is a great contrast to Verlaine’s smoother, more technically adept style. Some of the best leads on the album are Lloyd’s and help add an edge to the album.
Plus, things don’t really get much better than “Glory.” What a great way to open the album: a somewhat simple but catchy riff opens things up, Verlaine pops up with a complex but catchy verse melody that leads flawlessly into a catchy and uplifting chorus and a lyrical message of celebrating the greatness of life.
And how could an album be bad with songs as effortlessly complex and moving as “Careful’? The way if shifts between simple verse riffs (with great country rock-ish leads popping up here and there) into a simple but catchy chorus and a great bridge section with solid piano, organ and even hand
claps makes the mind boggle at how easy it all goes down without drawing attention to itself.
Not everything is perfect, of course: Television had a hard time with “dirges” (“Torn Curtain” from “Marquee Moon” being perhaps the slowest and weakest song on the album) and “The Fire” is perhaps the weakest tune on the album. Its slow, slow and has a nearly funeral-esque atmosphere that doesn’t really work with Television or the album in general. And it’s six minutes seem infinitely longer than “Marquee Moon”’s 10.
Plus, the opening riff to “Ain’t That Nothin’” sounds way too close to the riff of “Marquee Moon” for its own good. Yes, it’s different and the song itself sounds nothing like that classic song but I always get uncomfortable when the song starts as I keep expecting a different song to pop out of the ether.
However, not even “Marquee Moon” was perfect so we shouldn’t hold these problems too heavily against the album: even “The Fire” has interesting melodies and guitar ideas but simply drags for far too long.
“Adventure” is a fine album with great songs, great playing, great ideas and great lyrics that is worth a place in any Television (or punk) fan’s collection. However, I do feel that the opening riff repetition in “Ain’t That Nothin’” does speak of a certain limit in Television’s sound: a third album after this may not have been a good idea. It was perhaps a good thing the band broke up at this point before they made a bad album.
And yes, I know of the self titled album but that was a long time later and was basically a Verlaine solo album. I haven’t heard it though so I won’t judge it.
Although I was told to never write a disclaimer in writing school I feel it is necessary in this case: the following post should be considered in good fun. It is not a serious attempt to deconstruct alternative music, no matter how pretentiously it reads.
It should instead be looked at as an intellectual exercise done while bored substitute teaching. Take it with a grain of salt: it took me two hours to write and wasn’t really researched and was instead written off the top of my head. It is consciously inspired by David Byrne’s classic paper “I Hate World Music” from 1999.
I Hate Alternative by Dr. Louis Fairbanks, III
I hate the word alternative as it applies to music. This is an interesting proposition for a fan and musician such as myself to make, as much of my record collection (and indeed, much of my own music) could be easily classified under this banner. However, I can still say without a doubt that I do indeed hate alternative music. There are at least two reasons for this hatred which can be traced back to semantics and historical revisionism.
Whoa let’s step back for a moment. Perhaps I should introduce myself: my name is Louis Fairbanks the Third, respected musicologist who holds a doctorate in critiqueality. Rather, I hold a doctorate much in the way of Dr. Dre or Dr. Who: not so much a doctor by training but more by, say, bold claims of awesomeness. Dr. Dre is a bad ass m-fer who has changed the musical world in ways that are still being felt decades later. Dr. Who is a Time Lord. I think that alone has earned him (at least) an honorary doctorate, if not a teaching post in some lower rung university such as Yale.
I digress. Which is normally fine by me, but my digression has nearly taken over the sense of the article and pulled it into areas it need not go. Who cares who I am or how bad I claim I am? You should by the end of the article. Especially as I am going to delineate why alternative music has lost its importance and become nothing more than a popcorn fart in the air of popular culture.
Essentially, there are two reasons I’ve come to despise alternative. One: the term creates a false dichotomy which unfairly maligns both itself and the style of music to which it is an “alternative.” Second: the word itself and even the type of music it is supposed to represent has altered over the last thirty years and become nearly meaningless and inseparable from the mainstream. If alternative is to have a purpose, it is to serve as a, ahem, “alternative” to mainstream taste for those who do not enjoy mainstream music. At its best, it served this purpose. However, the term has become meaningless and must be replaced.
Part One: The History of Alternative
Alternative music can be traced back to the very beginning of recorded musical history. While music fans in the 30’s and 40’s bopped to big band music and early jazz, hardcore blues albums could have been considered an “alternative” to mainstream taste. These gritty axemen and axewomen gave people with an interest in more “down to earth” music a chance to vent their frustrations. This is also true of early country and western music, such as early “Carter Family” recordings.
However, I can’t really claim to be an expert in this type of music. So I won’t. Counter cultural ROCK music became a big deal in the 60’s, with the rise of avant-guard experiments such as early psychedelic music from bands as diverse as “the 13th Floor Elevators” “Strawberry Alarm Clock” and even “The Amboy Dukes”, an early vehicle for the guitar talents of one douche bag Ted Nugent.
Electronic effects also became a big deal, as did weird eastern influenced sitar madness. Proto-punk rampagers such as “The Stooges,” “The MC5” and “The Velvet Underground” set the stage for the late 70’s punk revolutions. In fact, some of the most important and influential rock music ever recorded came between the years of 1966 and 1969.
Then came the early 70’s. These counter cultural advances were co-opted by a mainstream that thought they could tap into this source of music and make big bucks. Groundbreaking bands such as “Yes” and “Genesis” became big names with their wildly experimental music but eventually became laughing stocks due to their overweening ambitions and difficult to process playing styles. This formerly “alternative” style had become popular, co-opted and annoying. It had become the mainstream and an “alternative” to this style needed to exist.
Honestly, it is not the music of these progressive rock bands that offends so much as it is the corporate take over of these styles and their overwhelming success. More honest bands such as “King Crimson” operated according to their own impulses and broke up at the height of the success of progressive rock. The music had gone from being groundbreaking and interesting to bland repetitions of past successes sponsored by Pepsi (not literally, but metaphorically).
So naturally the punk explosion occurred in the late 70’s as an alternative to this type of music. Later on, punk was co-opted and turned into “New Wave” which in and of itself was co-opted and turned mainstream with synth pop and other once edgy bands such as the “Talking Heads” turning very popular. The music was still fine but the success turned it from “edgy” “hip” and “alternative” to what was perceived at the time as being rather bland mainstream music and a complete sell out.
Alternative music then switched over to noise rock bands like “Sonic Youth,” underground noise pop bands like “the Pixies” and folk rock (for lack of a better word) such as “R.E.M.” Underground rock sought to synthesize punk and hardcore with more tuneful melodies, such as in the case of “Husker Du” and “the Minutemen.” These bands successfully became a tuneful, meaningful alternative to the co-opted mainstream punk and new wave styles.
And then “Nirvana” and “grunge” happened. Of course, grunge was a style that existed prior to “Nirvana.” Bands such as the awful “Green River” and the awesome “Mudhoney” were mixing punk, hardcore and classic rock into a weird stew long before “Nirvana.” Early sludge-work “Melvins” can even be considered a blueprint for much of the world of grunge.
In fact, many people argue that “Nirvana” is barely even a grunge band but instead is a pop punk band. This is hard to argue but is irrelevant: “Nirvana” was now grunge and bands such as “Pearl Jam” “Alice in Chains” “Stone Temple Pilots” and countless others jumped on the grunge bandwagon. At this point, the history of alternative becomes even more difficult to track than it was before.
My history of alternative music is rather incomplete, filled with glaring holes, historical inaccuracies and my own opinion. This is indicative of the herculean task involved in tracking down all the changes in alternative music. In fact, it helps illustrate my first point quite well: creation of a false dichotomy.
Part Two: False Dichotomy
The reason that “alternative” music has constantly shifted since the beginning of recorded musical history (and perhaps even before we recorded music) is due to the fact that it has no inherent musical values in and of itself. It simply exists as an “alternative” to the mainstream musical experience, regardless of the quality of the alternative or even the mainstream music. It is the yin to the yang, the white to the black, the good to the evil.
Or vice versa: in fact, most definitely vice versa. Alternative music often deftly positions itself as the “edgier” more wild form of music when compared to the mainstream musical experience. Which is perhaps true and in fact is vitally important to understanding the term “alternative.”
Many people may take exception to the fact that I am lumping what could be called “underground” or “indie” music in with the term “alternative.” They have a very specific understanding of what the MUSIC of alternative sounds like, which is exactly the problem. I don’t wish to confuse terms, but for the sake of simpler understanding, assume that I am lumping all underground music in term with “alternative.” They are, to a certain point, essentially the same term for generations.
The false dichotomy set up by the term “alternative” creates a world of “good” music where “good” music is defined by terms such as “cool” “hip” “edgy” “groundbreaking” and many others. The mainstream is then denigrated as banal, boring and stooping to the lowest common denominator to sell records. Essentially, “alternative” is put on a pedestal as being “better” than the mainstream music.
There is some truth to this statement, if one is concerned about progress in music, artistic ability, meaningful lyrics and serious musical content. However, these terms are completely subjective, which renders them meaningless. What is meaningful to one person may be meaningless to another person. Just because several thousand people claim that“in the time of the chimpanzee I was a monkey” has deep meaning does not make it any more true than denying depth to “I prefer a bad excuse…no news!”
The proper way to define alternative music should be music that plays to a specific audience in a way that pleases their expectations. Bands such as “They Might Be Giants” have a sound that pleases several thousand, perhaps millions of people. However, they have never been a truly major success due to their (purposeful) quirks. Alternative bands seek to create a new sound that does not appeal to all audiences and all tastes.
This is noble, especially if the band does strike a chord and inspire millions of audience members. However, an alternative musical group seeks not to join the mainstream and sell billions of albums but to stand outside the “norm” and inspire those who are not inspired by the mainstream. At least, this should be the cause of alternative bands. After all, if they are not offering something that differs from the mainstream, what is their purpose? Why are they labeled alternative music and not mainstream?
Let’s save that question for later. Instead, lets focus on the purpose of the mainstream. The purpose of the mainstream is simple: to provide musical entertainment and satisfaction to as many people as possible. As a result, the mainstream often focuses on music that is simplified, streamlined, catchy and written under certain unifying standards. This is vitally important to the mainstream: they must try to avoid alienating people.
Naturally, a certain alienation exists amongst people who don’t like the sound of the music or find it too banal and simple for their taste. However, you can’t please everybody so this is the reason an “alternative” category exists. It exists for those music fans that want something that goes beyond what they consider the limitations of the mainstream music media.
However, it takes a lot of skill to come up with music that satisfies millions, if not billions of people. The melody may be simple but it does have to stand out in a crowded field of sound alike artists. A good mainstream artist, one worth considering does stand out from their peers through use of interesting melodies, ear catching lyrics and often times danceable beats.
Dancing isn’t, of course, the only use for mainstream music as much of it is designed to make the listener reflect and to touch their emotions. It is often artistically unsuccessful because of a banality of melody or statement but it still affects millions of people anyways. Consider: a song that is, perhaps artistically limited and poor when compared to a better alternative song, touches a nerve with millions of people in a way the more artistically successful but “alternative” or “underground” song simply cannot.
This is the advantage mainstream music has over the underground: wider exposure and wider expectations. A mainstream album by a successful artist must sell millions of copies to be considered good. A good alternative artist may sell thousands or even hundreds of albums and feel successful. One approach is not inherently better than the other, objectively. Instead, they serve two different purposes that contrast and compliment each other. This dichotomy has, over time, rendered the term meaningless.
Part Three: Alternative is Meaningless
Up until the early 90’s, alternative was a meaningful category for music. However, with the break out success of the grunge bands such as “Nirvana” and “Pearl Jam” it rapidly began to mean less and less. These formerly “alternative” bands suddenly became chart topping entries. They had invaded the mainstream and it was seen as a sign of huge success at the time. And it was, in many ways, a return to the musical values that alternative minded music fans held dear.
Of course, this quickly changed when other, less artistically minded bands began appropriating the musical forms, tones and styles of alternative bands. Instead of using it as a form of self expression that delineated them from the mainstream, they integrated other mainstream ideals into their songs. Slowly, but surely, these “alternative” grunge bands had their sound appropriated by the mainstream. This is nothing unusual.
However, what was unusual was that the TERM alternative was actually appropriated by the mainstream. This happened to disco: at one point, it was an underground musical form that became popular. It also happened to punk and metal music as well. These terms represented different genres of music that had become popular and well integrated into the mainstream. This is not a problem to me.
Alternative was NOT a genre of music: it was music that stood opposed to the mainstream. It was supposed to be the opposite of mainstream. However, hard rock bands that were influenced by grunge, but which held none of the serious tones and ambitions, were labeled “alternative.” This was a major misunderstanding of the definition of “alternative” music.
By 2012, the term “alternative” has come to represent bands that are little more than hard rock bands that operate entirely within the mainstream. They have huge radio hits, big music videos and embrace all elements of mainstream acceptance. Again, I cannot hold these successes against them but find labeling it as “alternative” to be a serious mistake.
Terms, words and symbols such as these are often co-opted to mean different things throughout history. For example, the Nazi Cross was simply a sign of unity before being used by the Nazi party. Of course, it now represents fascism and horrible racism. This symbol cannot be reclaimed: it will forever be linked to the horrendous crimes of the Nazi party.
Of course, the appropriation of “alternative” is nowhere near as serious as the appropriation of the Nazi Cross. But it has rendered the term “alternative” to be meaningless in the modern age. It no longer represents music that can be defined as “that which goes against the mainstream.” It has become the mainstream.
Conclusion: What of Other Terms?
Naturally, one can still refer to this type of music as “underground” but this is an unwieldy term that doesn’t quite fit the needs of the term. “Underground” indicates music that is barely known and hardly acknowledged by the mainstream. Instead of selling hundreds of albums, they may sell a dozen.
This obscurity is not a problem. “Underground” music and music fans find that the quality of music is inversely proportional to its popularity i.e. it gets worse the more popular it gets. “Alternative” music had some symptoms of this disease but didn’t worship at the altar of obscurity so promiscuously.
Another term that has been thrown around is “indie” which is closely tied to “alternative” in its own way. However, it is not the same thing and comes with its own problems I honestly don’t feel like getting into at the moment. If you’ve read this far, I’m sure the idea of even one more page of this nonsense is horrifying. Maybe for another day.
Five out of Ten
1. Side One 2. Side Two
Note: Sorry I don’t go into individual track names here. On the CD, they are all stuck together as if they are one song per side. I know that’s not the case, but it’s annoying to transcribe song lists to the blog. So I’m taking a stand for laziness. So there.
By 1981, Husker Du had been together for two years. They had honed their hardcore playing chops to a completely unbelievable level. The band was a legend of the punk and hardcore scene of Minneapolis as well as around the country. However, they had yet to record or release any music. This problem was rectified in 1982 with the release of their debut album, “Land Speed Record.” It is legendary for speeding through a record breaking 17 songs in 26 seconds. It showcases the band playing a blur of hardcore punk that is truly faster than any of their contemporaries. It was released by Mike Watt on his “New Alliance” label and re-released on CD by legendary independent label SST.
Whoa whoa whoa! Didn’t I just spend two, rather lengthy articles extolling the virtues of this band? Haven’t I claimed that they have earned their “legendary” status and that their influence can be felt up and down the radio dial? I stand by that statement. I also stand by the statement that “Land Speed Record”…well, sucks is a harsh word. It is easily their least essential, least interesting and least successful album.
Let’s start with the most obvious problem with the album, the one that even defenders of the album will have a hard time denying: it sounds awful. I’m not a major “sound” quality guy. As long as I can hear the music and it sounds all right, I’m happy. I know there is allegedly a difference between analogue and digital recordings and that vinyl records are supposed to sound better than CD’s. I’m not gonna lie to you kids: I really only notice the smallest difference. .In fact, I mostly buy CD’s due to their convenience. I mean, I can listen to them in a car. Try listening to a record in a car: it could be done with a lot of extension cord and patience but it hardly seems worth the effort.
Whoa sorry about that digression. The basic point I’m trying to make here, sound quality is not the main criteria for which I judge an album. However, the sound quality of “Land Speed Record” is actually the main problem with the album. It was recorded live to two track in August of 1981. And it sounds worse than most bootlegs: in fact, it’s actually worse than the infamously awful, bootleg sound of the King Crimson album “Earthbound.” Everything sounds like a wild blur of noise, with an occasional scream or cymbal crash echoing in the ear drums and causing severe migraines.
However, another major problem with the album is the material. This album presents Husker Du as the world’s fastest hardcore band: it does not present them as the world’s greatest hardcore songwriters. Each song speeds by as fury of guitar noise, bass thumps and incomprehensible screaming. I understand that’s kind of the point of hardcore, but it’s maddening here because the band doesn’t even attempt to write melodies. Humming one of these songs is more difficult than telling them apart. There are no pauses in between the songs at all, rendering them as one giant, epic hardcore song of unbelievable lengths.
Reader’s may be confused at this point to see that I have rated this album a five out of ten. I just spend the last however many words bashing the life out of the album. I still don’t even own this album despite it being readily available at the local independent record shop, “Vertigo.” But yet I rate it five stars. I guarantee you this isn’t due to me being a complete wimp when it comes to reviewing: I promise many hilarious one star reviews in the near future.
No, this album earns its five stars for one simple reason: it’s exciting. This album captures the excitement and rush of Husker Du at their finest and most primitive. Yes, it would be nice to hear some hummable melodies or distinctive arrangements. Hell, it’d be nice to hear Grant Hart’s drums. But the blur of energy that comes from this album simply cannot be found anywhere else in the Du’s catalog. Or, for that matter, on any other album I’ve ever heard.
Listener’s cannot simply listen to one song off of this album: it has to be experienced in one large rush of sound. SST seemed to realize this as, rather oddly, there are only two tracks on the CD edition: side one of the original record and side two. After all, I can’t even imagine the type of weirdo that would want to hear the 57 second blur of “The Big Sky” out of the context of the album. No, one must commit themselves to the album completely, just as they must do in the hardcore mosh pits of the world.
And this makes the album incredibly unique in the world of rock. It is the only album I’ve heard that so fully replicates the wild rush of being in a hardcore mosh pit as a band plays as fast as possible. Your blood starts pumping immediately when the album starts and, if you’re the type (I’m not but I can pretend to be) you suddenly find yourself thrashing about wildly and letting off some of that childish angst. Not recommended as casual listening but as a nice little piece of occasional catharsis.
Tune in next time as I review an album that has actual music on it: their studio debut album “Everything Falls Apart.” That review will discuss the album itself (a ridiculous 12 songs in 19 minutes, even shorter than “Land Speed Record”) as well as the bonus tracks Rhino added to their CD reissue, “Everything Falls Apart (and More).”