I Miss Real Alternative Rock
by Rev. Walter Beck
The Rev’s singing the blues tonight, folks because I honestly miss true alternative rock, experimental music bending the rules of established rock n roll and trying something new, not this endless stream of third-rate Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins rip-offs lamenting over made-up girlfriends. That’s not “alternative rock”, oh sure the radio may call it “alternative”, but that sort of music stopped being new and alternative shortly after Kurt was murdered.
See I was lucky; I got an older brother and he introduced me to bands that truly were alternative, bands like Green Jell-O/Jelly, GWAR, Nine Inch Nails, etc. Bands that were bizarre, strange and bending the rules of what rock n roll was supposed to be, how it was supposed to sound and even how it was supposed to look.
If you remember my previous column, I said “Rock N Roll is Freedom” and that’s a statement that can be taken many different ways, but in this case, take it to mean that rock n roll needs to bent, reshaped and even smashed sometimes in order for it to continue as a living, breathing form of music. So if you’re stuck in this third-rate “alternative” world, never fear, the Rev is here! Here’s a quick guide to some of the strangest acts rock n roll has given us:
The Velvet Underground: Amongst the first true innovators of the American underground, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale and Maureen Tucker pushed the boundaries in sound, going from beautiful melodies with “Sunday Morning” and “Pale Blue Eyes” through distortion-soaked treks like “White Light/White Heat” and tracks that defied explanation like “European Son” and “Sister Ray”. It wasn’t just sound either, they also pushed the limits with their subject matter, routinely addressing such subjects as drug addiction (“Heroin”, “White Light/White Heat”) and bizarre sexuality (“Venus in Furs”, “Lady Godiva’s Operation”).
Alice Cooper: I know that just about everyone knows rock n roll’s original freak through his smash hits like “Eighteen”, “School’s Out” and “Billion Dollar Babies”, but how many out there have explored the more obscure edges of his catalogue? In the early ‘80’s, Alice made a string of albums, Flush the Fashion, Special Forces, Zipper Catches Skin and DaDa that were so far away from the sound he was known for that nearly cost him his career. Alice would later return to his more traditional hard rock sound, but this string of albums that explore new sounds and new lyrical subjects remain a hidden treasure that’s more than worthy to dig up.
The Jesus & Mary Chain: The Reid brothers and their counterparts combined a love of noise, broken romance and amphetamines and turned it into some of the most intense sounds ever put to tape. Their distortion-soaked, melancholy walls of sound remain some of the best examples of experimental rock n roll. Listen to their debut Psychocandy; it’s an excellent record and one of the landmark recordings of the 80’s “shoegaze” sound.
Tom Waits: In the mid ‘70’s, Waits made a name for himself through a series of jazz and blues influenced boozy records, but in 1983 he broke new ground with his record Swordfishtrombones (probably one of the strangest records I’ve ever listened to) using odd-time signatures and bizarre rhythms and a mix of non-traditional instruments. Waits continues to this day in his experimentation and his most recent offering, the three disc set of oddities Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, is a testament to the awesome power of music in the hands of twisted genius.
Throbbing Gristle: The last band on the list, England’s Throbbing Gristle truly broke new ground by ushering in the industrial music sound with their 1977 debut The Second Annual Report of Throbbing Gristle. For any listener, Throbbing Gristle’s music can be a challenge to listen to because it’s not easily classifiable as music with a series of broken synthesizer sounds, tape loops and distorted spoken vocals. But their music was truly revolutionary, paving the way for more “mainstream” industrial acts like Nine Inch Nails, Ministry and Skinny Puppy.
So all these bands are in the past, where are the innovators of today? Well you certainly won’t hear them on the radio, but they’re out there. There’s a band called Psychedelic Horseshit that takes the basic shoegazing sounds of The Jesus & Mary Chain and making them even heavier and grittier. And there’s The People’s Noise Project from Germany, a one-man noise machine that defies all attempts for classification; it’s a mix of over-distorted guitars, drum machines and bizarre vocals. But they are an excellent band; their debut album Love Songs for Romantic Moments was on my list for Best Records of 2009.
Go forth and smash down the barriers and blaze new trails with sounds no one’s ever heard before and stay committed to creating and discovering true alternative rock.