Friday, July 6, 2007

Music Review by Alison Ross

The Histrionics of Rock and Roll
by Alison Ross

Recently I indulged in two nostalgic jaunts to my teen years, back to the halcyon daze when pop music was helping color in the contours of my life.

On one of my journeys, I saw Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters perform "Dark Side of the Moon" live. On the other trip, I watched a theatrical performance, "The History of Rock and Roll," at Atlanta's fun and funky Dad's Garage Theater.

The Roger Waters concert was a mesmerizing event. Like many other white teens in the 70s and 80s, I had grown up listening to Pink Floyd. I finally caught the band live in the mid-90s, and of course it was a euphoric experience. The recent Roger Waters concert was almost as good, if not better, than Pink Floyd live, and I feel grateful to have witnessed the cosmic classic performed in its ethereal entirety.

The play, "The History of Rock and Roll" served as a tribute of sorts to the arena rock acts of the 70s and 80s, narrowing its focus to bands like Van Halen, AC/DC, Journey, Styx, and so on.

And of course, in the play there was some focus on Pink Floyd, although more attention was paid to the above-mentioned bands.

What I find interesting is that all of the well-known 70s and 80s rock acts - Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Van Halen, Motley Crue, Journey, Styx, etc. - are often lumped together in the “classic rock” category. Now, granted, there are sub-distinctions as well - Motley Crue was considered hair metal, Journey and Styx melodic rock, Van Halen and AC/DC hard rock, and so on. But the main thing they all have in common, besides the fact that they are played on classic rock radio, is that they were major concert magnets, easily drawing 20,000 or more to their shows.

And yet Zeppelin and Floyd really stood out from this pack because they had an arstier ethos - Pink Floyd honed their form of trippy prog-art-rock and Zeppelin took the blues sound to a more aggressive and paradoxically more sensual level. Floyd and Zep were far more authentic, in the end, and more talented musically, than any of those other bands mentioned. Don't get me wrong - those are classic bands in their own right, but they don't even come close to touching the incandescent innovation of either Zep or Floyd. And yet many classic rock fans seem oddly oblivious to this distinction.

Anyway, both of my nostalgia excursions allowed me to plumb my past enchantment with music, and compare my former musical tastes to my modern-day musical proclivities.

Admittedly, I still cherish certain albums by bands like Van Halen, AC/DC, and Journey, along with albums by Styx, Asia, and so on. But my tastes have expanded far beyond the arena rock titans. Indeed, even during the 80s I began embracing edgier acts, bands with post-punk overtones, like Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, and The Cure, industrial metal such as Ministry, and straight-up punk like Black Flag.

These days, I am also a big fan of the more nuanced and inventive college radio artists, and I’m thankfully able to discern the disparities in quality between, say, AC/DC and Pink Floyd, even though I still relish albums by both bands.

But one thing I have realized recently is that 30- and 40-something music lovers, even the most obstinate indie-music snobs, are pining for the days of arena rock.

Admit it: It's exhiliratingly fun to immerse yourself in the histrionic splendor of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” or the campy grandiloquence of the Styx LP, “Paradise Theatre.” It’s wildly invigorating to scream along to the hyperbolic, screeching tones of “For Those About to Rock,” and mimic the cheesey cannon blasts.

Granted, there are bad arena rock bands - Bon Jovi and REO Speedwagon vault to mind -and even bands like the formerly tight Motley Crue eventually devolved into self-parody. And hey, sure, most of the arena rock bands were already self-parodies in their own right, even though very early albums by Van Halen and AC/DC were about as solid as it gets rock-wise.

But self-parody is actually the peurile point of arena rock. Its very appeal lies in its ability to aggrandize the already pretentious. Hell, even Pink Floyd and Roger Waters unabashedly elevate the concert experience to bombastic levels.

And I suppose that’s why we pine for the days of arena rock: we are young at heart and bask in the maudlin to escape the mundane.

Granted, the arena rock bands have spawned really crappy copycats that will never reach the dizzying heights of a Journey or Van Halen. And, of course, the other side of the musical coin is the stubbornly lo-fi and quirky college radio staples like Deerhunter (reviewed in this issue), or indie-rock darlings like Bright Eyes, who are emotionally temperate and thrive on exploring sonic subtleties. But as captivating as some of these indie and college acts are, they don’t provide the titilating thrill of the unbridled vigor arena rock bands serve up in biggie-sized portions.

Of course, there are the innumerable in-between bands, such as the White Stripes or Arcade Fire, who sort of straddle the line between arena rock and college radio rock, and who were patently influenced by arena acts like Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen.

In my estimation, we need all aspects of the musical landscape: the bloated theatrics of arena rock and the delicate refinement and creative genre-melding of indie and college radio rock, plus all the gradations of grey that constitute the modern music scene.

Which is why I’m imploring the merry muses of arena rock to work their magic and bring back the melodramatic melodies and grandiose guitar solos, the pompous posturing and silly sartorial styles.

Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution - it’s damn tasty ear food. Bring it on!

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