aNewDomain — Bands used to peak out early.
Prior to drugs, complacency, exhaustion, fights over girlfriends or money took their toll, the good ones would only be able to crank out three or four great albums. Then they’d either break up or just soldier on in mediocrity.
Diehard loyalists made do with new albums and then CDs that sounded enough like the glory days to keep them satisfied and turning up at concert halls. This kept grizzled old rockers on time with the rent — but rarely if ever were they able to keep achieving the magic spark of the early years.
Take the late David Bowie. He was good for seven or eight iconic albums, but since the early 1980s we lost all hope of another soaring achievement at the level of, say, Aladdin Sane. In truth, it never really came.
And then there’s the once great Elvis Costello. He turned out one amazing disc after another between 1977 and 1988, but by the mid-1990s it had become clear that, despite his admirable willingness to stretch outside of his comfort zone with collaborations with artists working in other genres, the new stuff was pretty much only going to appeal to Declan’s hard-core fans.
It’s obvious how and why this happens. I mean, look. You spend the first 20 or 30 years of your life speculating experiences for songs that go into your first few records.
Then you become a professional musician. And pretty much the only thing that can go into your new stuff is what you did last year, while you were touring and negotiating with your surly record company.
And unless your wife or mistress (or both) dump you, your muse just doesn’t have that much to work with.
These days, though, I’ve been noticing something extremely encouraging. It actually seems that the old, slow-fade-to-black dynamic is going away.
Maybe musicians are responding to the fiscal pressures of digitalization, which has made it more difficult for creative types to monetize their work. Or maybe it’s just a recent thing. But there are lots of old bands who seem to be releasing some great music of late. I took a look at some of the music I’ve bought over the last 12 months, and I noticed that I actually got a lot of stuff from old bands that I love — and in many ways, some of it is as good or better than anything they’d previously released.
Now, this isn’t like a Bob Dylan thing. His every musical fart is always greeted by corporate music media as though it didn’t really suck. And please. That guy was old when I was a kid, and he’s been boring for years. We’re talking about bands who have been around a long time and actually really keep getting better. Like they practice. Or something.
Bear in mind, many of these reboots result from the kind of personnel changes that typically destroy bands. I mean, imagine if the post-Jim Morrison Doors LPs were as good or better than even the original Doors, as opposed to the notorious disasters they actually were. Imagine if it didn’t matter that guitarist Mick Jones of the Clash – who wrote most of the songs – was missing from “Cut the Crap.”
Is such a thing even possible?
Well, maybe so. Or maybe the veteran performers whose new stuff is so good benefited from never playing huge arenas or never being able to afford distractingly large mounds of cocaine. Clean living and/or poverty have some real rewards for artists. Here’s the proof …
The Buzzcocks: “The Way”
Consider legendary British punk rockers, The Buzzcocks, and its most recent album.
Not so excitingly named “The Way,” it continues a remarkable forward movement for a group that burst on the scene with androgynous lyrics about the politics of romance and relationships going back 40 years ago.
Like many bands from this punk generation, The Buzzcocks broke up in the 1980s and reformed in the 1990s. And this band returned full force. It kept its signature buzzsaw guitars and still maintains its core concerns, all while evolving its signature sound and songwriting chops.
Highlights of the reunion period include “Modern” (1999), the self-titled non-debut “Buzzcocks” (2003) and 2014’s “The Way,” which switches back and forth between songs written and sung by Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle. “Virtually Real,” about social media, would come off as contrived and insipid in the hands of lesser social satirists.
In the hands of The Buzzcocks, it’s a real gem.
Hard-hitting English electronica band Client has reveled in mystery since its founding in 2002. The group’s two original members were identified only as Client A and Client B, and their images never appeared on their CD artwork.
Blending retro 1980s synthesizers and frosty lyrics influenced by the late singer Nico and the early 1980s French Cold Wave movement led by KaS Product, Client was a reliable favorite – until Sarah Blackwood, the lead singer of Dubstar formerly known as Client B, left the band.
This is one of those situations that usually spells music death. Yet the 2014 CD “Authority” not only maintained enough of the original musical and conceptual aesthetic to satisfy existing fans but moves things forward with more forthright political commentary on the nature of oppression in the 21st century, all to an inevitable dance-beat set behind a new singer whose voice is different enough from Blackwood’s to carve out her own territory while moving the band forward.
Don’t get me wrong: I still love the old albums. But the new one is just as good. Really.
The dB’s: “Falling Off The Sky”
For my money the seminal American power pop band, The dB’s, never recaptured the highs of their somewhat neglected 1984 masterpiece “Like This.”
Yet here we are, three decades later, after a series of on-again off-again albums, including the insanely flat 1994 “Paris Avenue,” with their next album, “Falling Off the Sky.” Okay, so this one came out in 2012, but I didn’t notice and neither did many other people so I’m talking about it now.
Critics like to say this a lot, but this really is a true return to form, plus it moves the band forward in a way that doesn’t spell “old.”
The Adverts: “I Delete”
Of the many unjustly overlooked musical artists out there, there has never been a bigger gap between soaring talent and popular obscurity than that of singer-songwriter TV Smith, formerly the lead singer of the Adverts. The Adverts were contemporaries of the Buzzcocks in the late 1970s in the UK.
Smith writes heart-wrenching, droll elegies, from those crushed by the steamroller of heartless capitalism (e.g., “It’s Expensive Being Poor“) to delightfully melodic postpunk.
Year after year, he puts out one CD after another, each better than the one before, which is itself amazing.
Most recent was last year’s “I Delete,” which blends elements of classic late 1970s British punk, 1980s hair metal, 1990s grunge, early 21st century postproduction gimmickry and pretty much everything else that has ever mattered to me.
Lots of amazing songs here, but “It Don’t Work,” about the feelings and failings of technology on both a personal and political level stands out. It’s unbelievable to me that this is a guy who made it big with a 1970s novelty song, “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes.”
Frank and Walters: “Mean Time”
Finally, another revelation, which thanks to the Internet I just found out about even though the thing came out in 2012, is that Frank and Walters, an alternative rock band from Ireland famous for their jangly guitars and beautiful, winsome lyrics about the nature of desire, who formed in 1990, got back together and issued a new CD, “Greenwich Mean Time.” Here the triumph isn’t so much that they moved forward. They didn’t.
“Mean Time” sounds like they never went away. It’s a seamless transition from 2006 to 2012, which is kind of amazing when you think about it.
Sometimes, when you love a band, more of the same is good enough. And sometimes, rarely, it might even be better.
Keep rocking. Or whatever.
For aNewDomain, I’m Ted Rall.
A version of this story originally ran on our sister site, BreakingModern.
Elvis Costello in 1978: image by Jean-Luc Ourlin (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jlacpo/4646227/) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons, All Rights Reserved.
Cover image of The Buzzcocks: TeamRock.com, All Rights Reserved.