I believe the term "rock dinosaur" was first uttered the mid 1970s. Rock 'n' Roll was a young man's game -- music for and by teenagers. Rock acts came and went quickly. The idea of a rock star in his 30s must have seemed absurd in 1965, when Roger Daltrey claimed that he hoped to die before he got old. Ten years later, The Who, The Rolling Stones & Led Zeppelin, were all in their 30s, and critics began pointing out the inherent ridiculousness of rocks stars rapidly approaching middle age, still singing those same songs of teenage rebellion.
In 2013, we have it much worse; those same men are now entering their 8th decade of existence. The generation of younger, hipper artists who displaced them in the pop charts in the 1970s and 1980s are themselves now in their 50s. Hell... Kurt Cobain, were he alive, would be 46 now. We now have multiple generations of musical artists simultaneously riding endless waves of nostalgia-fueled comebacks. Look! Kiss is touring again! Adam Ant has a new album! My Bloody Valentine finally finished that record! Some of these guys are already on their third, fourth, or fifth "comeback." The problem, of course, is that these combebacks are pretty stunted. No one goes to a Kiss concert to hear new Kiss songs; they go to see makeup, platform shoes and stage pyrotechnics, and to be able to say afterwards, "I saw Kiss!" The music itself might be incidental to their experience. What they really want is to relive their youth or to simply see an iconic musician in person.
The question is, what should we expect from these artists? When it comes to Kiss, we know what to expect -- they will give the audience exactly what they want. This is because Kiss has only one goal: to take the audience's money. But for musicians with more artistic integrity than Kiss (that is, musicians with at least some artistic integrity) they might feel compelled to not endlessly repeat the past over and over again. Here's he problem: this is exactly what the audience does not want. Does this make the audience wrong? Not necessarily. The sad truth is most 50 year old former rock stars used up their extra special musical mojo years ago. We all know this to be true. No matter how many critics call the new Sabbath album a "return to form," it will never, never replace Paranoid in our hearts. Old dried up dudes rarely churn out music with the same freshness they had when they were young.
|What's weird is Ozzy gradually transformed into the woman on the cover.|
Despite several stylistic changes throughout the years, Ant will mostly be remembered for his work in 1980-1981, as part of a weird micro-genre of New Wave music distinguished by the so-called "Burundi Beat." A brief history lesson on this bit of cultural appropriation -- The whole thing started with a 1960s recording of African drumming called "Musique du Burundi."
The simple (by African standards), hard driving percussion drew the attention of US and European musicians, who found ways to it work into their own music. A fellow named Mike Steiphenson threw some keyboards on top of the recording and released it as a single called "Burundi Black." In 1975 Joni Mitchell used it in "Jungle Line" on her album The Hissing of Summer Lawns.
Former New York Dolls/Sex Pistols manager Malcom McLaren was fond of strange cultural mashups, and it seems he hit upon the idea of having new wave acts incorporate rhythms from the Burundi record. McLaren was brought in to revamp the image of Adam and the Ants, who at that point were a leather-clad quasi-punk band that specialized in S&M themes. Thus, by 1980 we had Adam and the Ants, as well as spin-off band Bow Wow Wow*, putting down "tribal" drumbeats in their songs. "Antmusic" was one such hit.
The Ants found massive commercial success in the UK, and cultish success in the US. Even I, a dumb kid in the early 80s who had no fucking idea who Joy Division or Human League or The Sex Pistols were, had somehow heard of Adam Ant. Years later, once I actually heard his music, its appeal was immediate: pounding drumbeats from dual drummers, clean guitar sounds, and yelping, often nonsensical vocals with distinctive harmonies.
"But Dr. Sparkle, on Twitter you said this was going to a review of the Adam Ant show you just saw!" I know you impatient bastards, I'm getting to that now. When my wife announced she had bought us Adam Ant tickets, I had no idea what to expect. When you get to see an artist who was popular 30 years ago, you never quite know what you'llget, especially if they've been retired from music for the last 15 years. Hell, I wasn't even sure what sort of crowd Adam Ant would draw. It turns out he pulls in a crowd of old fat yuppies, with an assortment of younger folks mixed in. I've been to numerous shows at this particular venue, and this was one of the smaller crowds I've seen there -- probably somewhere between 1/2-2/3 capacity. There is an upstairs bar area thas was closed off completely that night. The show started incredibly early. The doors were set to open at 7:30, which typically means the opener will begin playing around 8:30. In fact, we arrived around 8:15, and Adam Ant was on stage a few minutes before 8:30. We were walking back to our car by 10:30.
Prior to the day of the show, I had no idea what to expect. Ant did a smaller US tour last year, but this time he had just released a new album and had a pretty extensive tour itinerary. If someone's playing Sacramento, then you know they're playing every podunk town in the country. There was even an appearance on Jimmy Fallon, meaning Ant was getting mainstream media exposure in the US for the first time in... well, decades. Prior to the show I was hoping he might assemble a band with some roots in his musical history. Guitarist Marco Pirroni was as an important part of those 80s albums as Adam himself was, and as far as I know, they're on good terms and still work together. Other former Ants also went on to have interesting musical careers. But it turned out that Ant was touring with a young band of unknown musicians (though apparently the guitarist once passed through Fields of Nephelim!) who did not have any connection to his musical past.
Now... tons of old bands do the "one or two original guys plus all-new members" thing. There are a couple ways this scenario plays out. The results can sometimes be awful. An example: in the late 90s I saw a revamped version of Modern English play a local bar. The band comprised the guy who was the singer/songwriter/main creative force plus some younger musicians he rounded up to form his backing band. The show was dull as could be, with the crowd chatting throughout the songs from the new album and then finally springing to life and dancing along to "Melt With You." Modern English's new songs had nothing in common with the sound of their older material, and this particular band didn't have much going for it musically, coasting entirely on the success of a hit recorded by an almost entirely different band. And while rock dinosaurs can often be ridiculous, musicians who tour together for years and years can create an amazing musical bond. Think of Grateful Dead, arguably the most successful American rock band ever, in terms of their live shows. Their success was based on their tightly knit performances, with the members sharing a sense of musical intuition that bordered on psychic communication. This is something you just don't see in a thrown-together band like the 90s verson of Modern English.
The second way the one-old-member plus all-new-band scenario works is as follows: the one original member fills out the rest of the positions with highly skilled professional musicians. Permit me another personal example. Dave Wakeling was one of two vocalists in an 80s ska band called The (English) Beat, and later, in General Public. He eventually moved the California and has since toured up and down the state playing shows under the names Dave Wakeling, General Public and The English Beat. Regardless of the name, it is always the same band and virtually the same setlist. When my wife said she wanted to see him some years ago, I was pretty skeptical, assuming they would be another Modern English. But within minutes of them starting their set, I was won over. While the group was not really "The English Beat," it was Dave Wakeling and his musical buddies from LA, the performance was about everything you could hope for. The band played like seasoned pros; the drummer was one of those guys who looked like some veteran studio drummer. He wore sunglasses and headphones while playing. The band was tight, yet swinging. They could lay down a serious rocksteady groove. Everything about the performance was fun, charming, and musically solid. Afterwards I was amazed at just how good those guys were. (I couldn't find a recent live clip of them with high quality sound, but here's a clip that gives you sort of an idea.)
"Wait a second, Dr. Sparkle," you say. "You still haven't said anything about the Adam Ant show." OK, I'm getting there. I just wanted to set the stage for what the expectations might be for seeing a performance by a living relic like Adam Ant.
Here's my opinion on the show: it was not the worst show I've ever seen. I can't be too hard on Mr. Ant. The man is approaching 60, has battled mental illness, and had been retired from music since the mid-90s. He is now older, fatter, and probably bald as a cue ball (he seems to be doing the Brett Michaels thing of never talking off his headwear.) His current look is that of a Johnny Depp cosplayer. I told my wife I'd be be happy as long as there were two drummers. There were two drummers, yet, I can't say I came away pleased from the show.
Here's a clip of the start of the show. Despite being recorded on a cell phone, the sound is actually a bit clearer than what it sounded like in person. The vocals and drums were muffled; the bass rumble and guitar drowned out everything else except a bit of the cymbals. The guitarist was using quite a bit of distortion, and the result was just an undifferentiated blob of sound. Now, listen to the vid below for just a sec. The sound on the recording is pretty screwed up, as the uploader admits. But the sound mix actually resembles what I heard, standing in the back 1/3 of the room.
Eventually, the sound man adjusted a few knobs and things cleared up a bit. But still, the balance of the instruments was awful, and everything sounded sort of smeared together. I've heard people complain about the sound of this particular venue. I recall someone seeing Buckethead there years ago, and griping how bad the sound was. I've certainly heard some pretty awful acoustics there, and maybe The Ace of Spades is a difficult room for sound men to work with. But a competent crew can get the room to sound great. You'll recall I saw Richard Thompson there a while back, and at that show the place sounded like fucking La Scala. Even loud artists such as Sonic Youth and Peaches managed to get great sound out of The Ace of Spades. So the bad sound was more of a problem with the sound crew, rather than the venue.
Aside from technical issues, much of the crappy sound was due to the band's musical decisions. The guitarist played though loads of effects, distortion, etc, trying to create a more "contemporary" heavy sound. Together the guitar and bass produced a huge wave of monolithic noise, which drowned out the percussion. Ant himself had a massive amount of echo on his vocals, making them hard to understand. There is nothing wrong with an artist changing their musical style over time to avoid stagnation. This particular style, however, made the band sound like generic late 80s buttrock at times. This stripped out most of the charm of songs such as "Desperate but Not Serious." The spare, sinister guitar line from the original has been replaced with non-stop busywork from the guitar player. Perhaps they should have brought along a keyboardist to do some of the melodic heavy lifting.
The band performed a typical mixture of old hits, new songs, and "deep" catalog titles. A few lesser known songs were dragged out, including a sing-along version of "Whip in My Valise," as well as "Cleopatra," and they even covered T-Rex's "Get it On." For a few songs, such as "Stand and Deliver", the guitarist used a cleaner, more melodic, 80s guitar sound. Towards the end of the set, the band actually managed to coalesce into a tighter musical unit, though the sound mix remained pretty terrible. For the live version of the above mentioned "Ant Music," much of the drum work couldn't be heard well, which is crazy because the drum work is practically the whole point of the goddamned song!
This was certainly not the worst show I've ever seen. But it was one of the worst musical performances I've seen from an act charging $30/ticket. The band plodded along; Ant jumped around, did pirouettes, told silly stories between songs. Overall, the performance lacked conviction. Ant told a story that evening in which he claimed that during his retirement, he didn't miss making music. If true, that would explain the perfunctory nature of the show.
As I said earlier, some musical acts can keep going forever without losing their fire. Richard Thompson is one of those. Seeing him live, it doesn't matter whether he plays new songs from an album you've never heard, because he can fucking sell the song. He can play those songs with such conviction that you will think, "I've never heard this before, but this song is goddamned amazing**." He relies on the strength of his songwriting and musicianship, rather than on nostalgia.
If you'll permit me one last personal example before I end this overly long post, I'll mention seeing Cheap Trick in the late 90s. This was during a low point in their career, and they were playing a relatively small bar. Still, the place was packed, and the crowd was entering a state that might be called "frenzied." I don't even know if they performed any new songs. The show might have been fueled by pure nostalgia. All the hits were performed. Bun E. Carlos drummed wearing white gloves. The five-necked guitar was brought out. The guitar shaped like Rick Nielsen was brought out. (Yes, Rick Nielsen has a guitar shaped like Rick Nielsen.)
|Why is the bass player holding the guitar?|
*To go into a bit more detail, at some point, McLaren decided it was Adam who was holding the band back. He convinced the band to dump Adam, and paired them an 14 year old singer, thus forming Bow Wow Wow. Incidentally, McLaren discovered another singer, a flight attendant later known as Boy George, and tried to work him into Bow Wow Wow. George left, hooked up with a former Ants drummer and formed Culture Club. Meanwhile, Adam Ant had hired a new band and then went on to commercial success.
** You might not know this, but the Grateful Dead operated in a similar fashion. Many of their biggest live numbers weren't released on actual Grateful Dead studio albums. None of the the songs on the1969 Live/Dead album, for example, had been on either of the two albums they had released at that point.