24 December 2014

"Alt Canon" Interlude

Who remembers this Bostonian lot? Anyone?

Can't say I paid 'em much attention at the time, and the only reason I’m prompted to remember them now (seasonal serendipity aside) is in the context of some bantering assessmental blahblah Simon & I have been having. Simon recently returned to the topic of what he’s previously dubbed the Era of Bad British Music, circa the mid-1980s. Simon remarks that he might follow it up by switching shores and reflecting on the “college rock” phenom in the U.S. during the years in question.

Which is why I thought of the above, because they were very much of that era. If memory serves, the debut LP made them critics’ darlings -- enthusiasm issuing forth from major and minor publications alike, from Rolling Stone to Forced Exposure, making them candidates for the Most Promising New Indie Act of the Year. But the tide turned sharply, and their follow-up album was unanimously panned by the same publications, and the critics’ affections gravitated to (say) Galaxie 500, instead. The band would, I believe, soldier on for a few more years before morphing into '90s loungecore outfit Combustible Edison.

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I remember the college rock years well, because -- well -- I was in college at the time. Around the time that college radio airwaves were awash with an uncountable legion of “jangly” REM imitators. It was getting more and more difficult to not hate REM, or at least not resent them for their degree of disproportionate influence.

Thing was, when I was in high school, I’d liked their first two LPs just fine. The slightly murky atmospherics of Mitch Easter’s production, Michael Stipe being uncommitted to signing in any consistent style or voice, and the vaguely folk-rock tinged Rickenbacker sound -- the cumulative effect of which cast a spell over a lot of people at the time. That would all end soon enough, with the band gravitating to a more standardized sound, one hinging on more traditional rock chops. But when they’d first emerged, the group had a sound that took everyone by surprise, and which sounded very alien (if not somewhat inscrutable) in the musical landscape of 1983-4. That inscrutability was commonly explained away by Something Or Other Having To Do With The Deep South.

Around the same time, a similar locale-specific exoticizing came into play in discussions of the Meat Puppets’ second LP, which also unanimously charmed and baffled the music press. I recall numerous critics puzzling over them, trying to figure out how to account for the band’s sound, which (yet again) seemed to arrive from No Discernible Origin. The most common conclusions usually had to do with.the mind-baking effects of the harsh Arizona sun, or the mind-baking effects of lots of hard drugs, if not a combination of the two. Turns out it was mostly due to Curt Kirkwood being the biggest closeted Grateful Dead devotee to stumble down the path since Tom Verlaine. Which at the time was about the absolute worst, most aesthetically incorrect influence that one could ever claim. But funny how long it took for many listeners to make the connection.

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Simon comments to me that the Era of Bad British Music "objective proof to me that there can be periods of cultural decline, it goes against the poptimist thing of how every year is a a good year, always bounty overflowing." I'd agree. The first couple of years after the Great Disco Backlash of '79 saw a sharp change in record signings and radio charts, with the airwaves growing -- albeit briefly -- rather eclectic. But a dearth settled in soon enough, and blandness reclaimed its hegemony; which in turn opened the road for the MTV-enabled "Second British Invasion" of 1982-1985.* And once that had run its course, American pop sensibilities turned inward once again.

But it perhaps should be pointed out that Eighties' "college rock" was largely the result of the relatively new college radio format, which in the early 1980s was undergoing a major shift. In the previous decade, many college stations that had a rock format with "progressive" or AOR (Album-Oriented Rock) programming; meaning lesser-name acts on major labels. You can see this in evidence in the record libraries of these stations, where you still find remnants of the station's prior self -- there in the strata, like prehistoric sediment, you're likely to see plenty of LPs by the likes of Grand Funk Railroad, Hot Tuna, Foghat, Head East, Black Oak Arkansas, et al that the format chiefs and DJs never got around to completely purging. It was only in the years following the arrival of punk and "new wave" that the format began to swing in the indie/"alt" direction. (At which point, you can read the review stickers on the sleeves of various LPs of that vintage and follow the scrawled, sharp exchanges between then-DJs about which artists are "real" or "fake" punk/new wave.)

*  Most people forget just how dismal much of MTV's rotation was during its first year or so it was on the air.

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