TunesDay: obscurity and influence
Who are the most influential bands and artists in the history of rock? Well, start with The Beatles and Elvis, I guess, and for good reason. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Stones, of course, The Who and David Bowie. The big names. All of them signed their names on our culture with a fat permanent marker, and in doing so insured that just about all future artists would have to navigate their legacies in one way or another.
The funny thing, though, is just how influential some far, far lesser known artists became. Many people have heard of Velvet Underground, although comparatively few have actually listened to them, but if you factor VU’s overwhelming influence out of our collective cultural history would we have had Bauhaus, Echo & the Bunnymen, Lenny Kravitz, Sonic Youth, Jesus & Mary Chain (and subsequently Black Rebel Motorcycle Club), Galaxie 500 (and the army of bands that followed their lead) and REM?
How about Big Star? I’d wager that not many contemporary listeners have even heard the name, but their influence on a generation of guitar pop musicians is just about impossible to calculate. Put it this way – if you hopped in a time machine, went back to Memphis in the early ’50s and erased Alex Chilton from the ranks of the living, when you got back to 2008 almost nothing would sound the way it did before you left.
Influence is a funny thing. Huge artists can leave almost no footprint for future acts to follow and relatively obscure bands can change the audial landscape forever. Which leads me to another band that a lot of people these days don’t know: Joy Division. Sure, everybody’s heard New Order, which in 1987 released Substance, arguably the greatest dance album ever. But before New Order was Joy Division, which featured the guys in New Order plus their creative leader, Ian Curtis. JD was interested in expanding the sound of punk, and it embraced a range of dark, melancholy tones that served to comment on the bleakness of European industrial life in the ’70s.
In May of 1980 Curtis committed suicide. There’s no way of knowing how big Joy Division might have been commercially, and until the last couple of years I couldn’t have imagined how great their artistic influence would be. But all of a sudden, over 25 years later, there’s been an explosion of new acts that are clearly beholden to Curtis’ brooding legacy of despair. Interpol and The Killers are easily the best of the lot (The Killers cover “Shadowplay” live and on their recent B-Sides collection), and if they were the only examples we could dismiss the Joy Division Effect easily enough. But the truth is that we’re seeing a significant movement within “indie” rock that simply wouldn’t exist without the influence of band that barely lived long enough to get off the ground and that died before Reagan was elected.
So today, in our inaugural TunesDay, we pay tribute to all those bands out there – the JDs, the VUs, and the Big Stars – whose vision exerted an impact on the world of music that far exceeded their individual commercial successes. Here’s Joy Division with their video for “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
Here Interpol performs “Slow Hands.”
The Killers’ reverence for JD is evident in this homage.
She Wants Revenge is a lot of fun, but at times they’re almost a tribute band.
Then there’s Editors, whose An End Has A Start was one of my Gold Award CDs for last year.
And The Mary Onettes…
And finally, “1981” by The Flaws.
We’ll conclude with a Rock 101 exam question: Enduring artistic influence is better than commerical success or critical acclaim. Discuss.