Wednesday, July 14, 2004

(Not) Pop Music

Pop music is a lot like beer. Actually it’s not; I just happen to be drinking a beer while I write this and listen to The Stone Roses.

Watching Ian Brown (The Roses’ lead singer) storm off the stage after attempting to start four different songs at what was to become The Warehouse in Toronto, epitomizes what his band was all about. A stunning start, and complete failure to recapture what they initially achieved. Unlike My Bloody Valentine after Loveless or Slowdive after Pygmalion, The Stone Roses didn’t know when to stop. They died in a flurry of tabloid headlines and embarrassing live performances, eclipsed only by increasingly ridiculous promises of greatness by Ian Brown.

This is alternative music. Punk, new wave, madchester, rave culture, house, grunge, drum and bass, electro, indie rock. With each wave of The Next Big Thing comes a deluge of crap dragged along by the undertow. Then, when it all comes crashing down on itself, even those who started the movement - who ran on the edge - are lost in the resulting mess. There are exceptions, of course -- like there are people who survive airplane crashes. I think David Bowie could survive being run over by a bus.

A few years ago I found a 10” single by a guy who called himself Sonovac. It was a remix (re-interpretation, really) of Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark, and it was brilliant. They thrashed through murky, electronic noise into a chorus which retained the one thing necessary from the original to remind you what you’re listening to – the dark melody. It’s cold, it’s lonely, and it works. So it was with some interest that I listened to what Output Recording’s Dead Combo were doing. The label hype said something about punk, and electronic, and raw, and edge. And what – a cover of David Bowie? Sonovac had some balls covering Springsteen (and yes, a sense of humor or at least an ironic nod) but David fucking Bowie? I assumed Dead Combo, were going to be something of a revelation – and yes, they were the reason I sat down to write this in the first place.

Output Recordings has been responsible for some interesting music – proponents of the rock and roll electro explosion. They’ve had some misses, but up until the release of Circlesquare’s (great) full-length, they were one of those consistently worthwhile labels. Looking through the catalogue, it seems that after Circlequare, there was a turning point. If one examined what was going on in the rest of the increasingly crowded corner of the music scene, which Output inhabits, you’d find that downward trend to be almost universal. Andy Weatherall had caught on, and in his typical one-step-behind form (true to everything he has done since remixing The Happy Mondays) he hopped the bandwagon with Two Lone Swordsmen and capitalized on major label funding to seemingly step out of nowhere and produce, “a rock record using digital production techniques.” Well, too bad for James Murphy, eh? Too bad for Chicken Lips and The Things, and the rest of the innovators -- lost in the crash of the wave. It’s horribly ironic that Bizarre Inc. (Chicken Lips incarnation in the early 90s) were also ripped off by Weatherall. Too bad for everyone, since Two Lone Swordsmen gave us something with the longevity of a Fatboy Slim album.

Dead Combo’s horrible remix of Let’s Dance is a testament to what happened. It feels and sounds like a desperation move. Similar to all of those Rapture remixes Output has been pushing; even Black Strobe can’t do anything to save the label. Not even the universally acclaimed Headman can pull it together. All of these new singles sound like they were mandated to shift units in a rush to cash in on what is a an UN-genre that will never explode in the way big beat or breakbeat did.

Perhaps some of these musicians will do what The Stone Roses did, and drive the wreck into the ground. In the meantime we can only hope the rest have already been working on something new.