rockford illinois entertainment guide
Date: 01/23/2003
Are There Garages in Sweden?
by Nate Johnson
Thanks to bands like the White Stripes, the Strokes, the Vines and the Hives, rock & roll's ugly drunken uncle, garage rock, has found its way onto the airwaves and into the gossip columns from coast to coast. But did garage rock REALLY need reviving, or was it getting along well enough on its own without these meddling kids? For God's sake, it's gotten so out of hand that Courtney Love says that her next album will veer into "garage rock, because that's where it's at."

The lineage of this latest wave of bands to get lumped under the garage rock label is a curious one, as the people who have done the dirty work have been generally ignored in the whole hullabaloo. While critics allude to the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground and the MC5, the true grandfathers of garage rock were the kids in the garages - thus the label - with their Sears Silvertone guitars, forming a band just long enough to play covers of the Sonics and the Kingsmen at the school sock hop. Over the years, hundreds of other bands from the Cynics to the Chrome Cranks to the Subsonics have approximated a much closer sound and feel to the original garage rockers than the current litter of trendies. So why the hype?

Of the four big names in the current wave of garage rockers, the White Stripes and the Hives come closest to the true garage sound and feel. The overall catalog of the Hives borrows liberally from the trademarks of garage rock - distorted vocals, buzzing guitars, and the sound of an entire band being packed, instruments and all, into a telephone booth. It's the song "Fell in Love With a Girl", by the White Stripes, though, that really gets it - if they're shooting for the garage sound that Courtney wants. "In less than two minutes, [it] distills 35 years of garage rock and leaves you wanting more," said Ben Greenman of the New Yorker. And he's right. Redundant, catchy riffs, distortion a'plenty, crashing drums and volume to spare make this song one of the real treats that's made it into the mainstream.

The Strokes and the Vines, on the other hand, fall into a different sphere. The Strokes are New York, and that's not just speaking geographically. Their sound would not have been out of place at CBGBs or the Mudd Club circa 1977, and that's a very good thing. Drawing comparisons to bands like Television and the Velvet Underground, the Strokes made their name with blistering live sets and perfect cheekbones. The son of modeling czar John Casablancas, Strokes frontman Julian Casablancas is in the right business. Charisma, looks and great pipes give a face to some of the best rock songs of the last 10 years. The Vines just owe the other three bands a lot of royalties for being lumped in with them. A generic guitar rock noise and lots of preening and moaning got them a brief ride to the top that'll undoubtedly end up in the bargain bins within three years. The Vines also try the old trick of jumping from one genre to another on their album "Highly Evolved" in an attempt to appear diverse instead of just unable to define a clear sound for the band.

What these two bands share, though, that distances them from the true garage rock genre is the aesthetic. The gloss, the sheen, the overproduction of both bands completely goes against the true garage rock sound. The charm of a lot of the earliest garage rock is that anyone could do it - and did! A lot of the one-off 45s recorded by seminal bands, such as the Chocolate Watch Band, the Seeds and ? and the Mysterians were recorded within days of the "musicians" picking up their instruments for the first time. These modern-day bands, though, have blue-ribbon pedigree, featuring child prodigies and boasting bi-coastal representation.

That's not to say that practitioners of a sound closer to the original garage rock aren't plying their trade today. Thanks to labels specializing in the sound, such as New York's Norton Records or Pittsburgh's Get Hip, garage rock truly is alive and well. There isn't enough bandwidth to list the bands who are doing the garage rock genre proud. Bands from the Woggles to the Oblivions to the Quadrajets have made a name for themselves with a fresh, powerful and energetic sound while flying under the mainstream radar.

Want to talk about garage rock revivals? How about Lenny Kaye releasing the Nuggets compilation series, opening the doors for dozens of labels to put together compilation of one-hit garage wonders? How about Steven Van Zandt (you may know him as Silvio Dante on the Sopranos) putting on a syndicated weekly radio program ("Little Steven's Underground Garage") featuring garage rockers old and new? How about the folks organizing festivals like Sleazefest and Garagestomp, putting on weekends of live music celebrating the garage scene?

If there's an actual "trend" in the garage rock sound surfacing, it's the proliferation of the fairer sex in the arena. Long absent except in the lyrics, women are proving to be equal to (and then some) to the biggest hitters in the garage scene. The Gossip, the Gore Gore Girls, Thee Headcoatees, the, and the Sahara Hotnights, among dozens of others, make just as loud a noise as the boys without having to resort to silicone and cheesecake like their mainstream sistren. For the most part, the ladies of garage rock have worked their craft to the point where the critics have no choice but to ignore the obvious novelty factor of the girl bands and focus on their musicianship.

Garage rock is becoming more diverse geographically, too. While on the domestic front, Detroit seems to have taken over as the garage rock capital from Seattle in the early days, England, Sweden and Japan are doing more than their fair share to keep imports in line with exports. Although the Hives have garnered most of the attention, two far better Swedish offerings are the Hellacopters and the International Noise Conspiracy. Billy Childish and his gang of English trashists have carved out a fine place for themselves in the U.K., while the Japanese have continued its tradition of recycling past generations of American "culture", giving us Guitar Wolf, Teengenerate and the's.

So can this "revival" continue? Can garage rock find a successful niche in today's music scene, or will it be another passing fancy of the fickle public? The key isn't the figureheads - success for the Strokes et al won't trickle down to the Swinging Neckbreakers and the Mooney Suzuki, it'll just pad their wallets. This is a battle that'll be won on the front lines - in places like the Star Bar in Atlanta or Cleveland's Beachland Tavern, by foot soldiers like national acts such as Jack O'Fire and the Mono Men, not to mention all of the various bands with local followings who will likely never be nationally known. Garage rock, by nature, isn't meant to be on the cover of People or performing at the American Music Awards. Heck, the Sonics tried the leap to mass appeal and fell flatly on their faces, killing what was the best run of garage genius that the 60s had seen. Garage rock is supposed to be, well, in the garage.

In looking back at 2002, Time Magazine called garage rock "the biggest faux trend (of the year)", holding up the emergence of the Strokes, White Stripes, Hives and Vines as "a welcome trend had they actually emerged". In reality, Time missed the true falsehood - that none of these bands represented any sort of a "garage rock emergence." Good bands, like the Strokes, 'Stripes and Hives can stand on their own without unnecessary labeling; by the same token, garage rock can keep churning along on its own level without a bunch of moppy-haired figureheads. After all, mainstream success only gets you so far - just ask Hootie and the Blowfish about that.
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