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Years after grunge rained on rock’s parade, Christopher Knowles says it’s finally time to bring back outrageous excess and put the escapism back into rock’n’roll.
Let’s face it: rock’n’roll is inherently ridiculous. Rock stars make a living wearing clothes that would get them laughed at on the street and striking poses that would get them beaten up at the pub. If you don’t believe me, watch a Rolling Stones live DVD with the sound off. Or, even better, any metal video from the 80s. Most of the greatest rock’n’rollers are total frauds; nice, middle-class boys pretending to be hoodlums (or revolutionaries, or sorcerers, or space aliens). Mick Jagger was studying economics before he decided to make a living imitating hard luck bluesmen. Jimmy Page was a clock-punching studio musician. Jim Morrison’s dad was an admiral in the US navy.
Pretence became part of the package when glam rolled around. Alice Cooper – a minister’s son from bible belt America – pretended to be the Devil’s daughter. Then blew his cover when he started playing golf with Bing Crosby.
David Bowie pretended to be a trisexual Nazi alien, but was actually a nice suburban lad with a wife and child. Freddie Mercury didn’t spring out of a manhole on Carnaby Street, replete in chiffon and taffeta, he’d had a traditional Parsi upbringing in India.
Punk rock wasn’t any more «authentic» than glam. The New York Dolls pretended to be transvestites, then turned around and pretended to be communists. Feminist icon Debbie Harry was previously a Playboy bunny. Joe Strummer’s father was not actually a bank robber, but a life-long paper shuffler at the Foreign Office.
All this hummed along quite nicely for decades. Kids paid their money to watch slightly older kids dress up like idiots, pose around on stage and repackage the same old chord progressions over and over again in cleverly marketed genres like acid, glam, metal, punk and new wave. It was big, dumb, loud and ridiculous – the way it should be. No one suspected that an army of party poopers were waiting in the wings to rain on rock’n’roll’s parade.
Despite what some people think, grunge didn’t emerge fully formed with the release of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit in 1991. It actually began in the early 80s when misanthropic hardcore bands like Flipper, Butthole Surfers and Black Flag began playing dumbed-down versions of their favourite Grand Funk Railroad and Black Oak Arkansas songs through cheap, crap equipment.
Pretending to be hard-bitten social realists, the grunge-sters embraced the worst aspects of Jerry Springer Americana – from trailer-trash fashion statements (ripped jeans, ill-fitting plaid shirts, unfortunate facial hair), to bad drugs and piss beer, to drag racing and trash cinema. It was all meant to be ironic, but soon gave over to po-faced nihilism. And none of the grunge-sters received the memo that said that no one listened to rock’n’roll’ for social realism in the first place. But the world at large was happily unmolested by grunge for most of the 80s, until Nirvana came around with a multi-million selling phenomenon called Nevermind and ruined everything.
Since no one in the business could figure out why kids liked Nevermind , the record companies went on a signing binge, blowing millions on legions of wouldbe Nirvanas. Soon the airwaves were clogged with earnest baritones moaning about how hopeless it all was. But after a diet of insta-grunge for a few years, America’s pampered teenagers decided this mix of trashy garage rock and goodbye-cruel-world nihilism was icky. Overnight, grunge died.
Once grunge’s plywood casket was buried, The Sex Pistols and the classic Kiss rose from the dead almost immediately, as if summoned by our mass unconscious to reignite our belief in rock’n’roll’s glamorously decadent past. It was as if we were begging daddy to put the Santa Claus costume back on so we could believe once again.
Since then we’ve had some truly exciting bands come along and relight the fire. But even the snazziest acts – all the ones who’ve come along in the past 10 years and tried to make us forget that we’d already peered behind the curtain – have had a vaguely disappointing character to them, like rain on your birthday.
Will rock’n’roll ever mean as much as it once did in the 60s and 70s? It’s hard to say. Grunge really fucked things up good. We probably can’t return to pretending that rock’n’roll can change the world. What we need is a period of total, outrageous artifice. We need bands that make Kiss look like Pearl Jam, and The Darkness sound like Staind. We need excess to the max: make-up, orchestras, dry ice, pyro, dynamite with a laser beam, you name it. Rock’n’roll needs to get really stupid again. But in a good way. The raison d’etre of rock’n’roll is to temporarily relieve the shattering dullness of modern suburban life. After 10,000 years of human striving, what do we have to show for the sacrifices and labours of our forebears? Microwave TV dinners? Starsky And Hutch reruns? You withstand acne, bullying and rejection in school and what do you get? If you’re lucky you get more of the same in some miserable corporate job – minus the acne. We don’t need Chad Kroeger telling us about his stupid problems.
In his suicide note, Kurt Cobain rued that he didn’t live for the adulation of the crowd the way Freddie Mercury did. Well, perhaps he would have done had Nirvana offered something other than adolescent ‘Dear Diary’ whining and untutored dissonance. Freddie revelled in the transformative possibilities of pure showbiz, which took him out of a dreary Indian public school and allowed him to stand in front of huge audiences. But Freddie knew that it’s all fake. And that’s what the audience need: a bit of escape from the boredom of the office or the classroom or the bedsit. If you’re going to be a whore, act the part. After all, the best-paid whores are the ones who can convince their clients that they enjoy their jobs.
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