The Reigning Sound
When I first started going to shows in the late ‘80s (at Trenton’s late and lamented City Gardens), I didn’t expect the bands I was seeing to have much of an image. In fact, if they had, this would have made their music seem suspect, as if it weren’t good enough to fly on its own. I expected any stylistic nuances to be embodied in the music itself as opposed to the band’s sartorial preferences. I took comfort in the idea that the great bands of the era—the Pixies, for instance, or the Replacements—had no image, and innocently enough I never gave pause to consider that the non-image was actually an image of its own.
And the garage bands of the period certainly had no special look to speak of: they typically looked like a bunch of guys who had just climbed off their barstools a few minutes before to play a couple of songs. Being anonymous seemed to be part of the unspoken garage ethos. Since garage bands had always been comprised of unknown teenagers whose spirit and passion appeared purer because they had no chance of being larger than the music they played—of becoming personally famous in any way—those seeking to pay homage to the genre didn’t try to usurp it and instead let the primal appeal of a few chords, a stomping beat, and lyrics about rejection and revenge work their magic. No one knew what bands like the Original Sins looked like, and no one really cared.
Of course, this notion was always sheer nostalgia, but for a while, when there was an underground rock scene in American towns, it could be sustained. Underground rock, diverse as it was, seemed united in its rejection of poseur-dom, which was epitomized by hair-metal and pseudo-punk and any other sort of crappy music that required a wardrobe. But things changed in the ‘90s, as indie music became alternative, and stylistic accoutrements like tattoos and piercings and the grunge look were attached to it. The death of local music scenes (thanks to the Clear Channeling of venues, the Internet, and insufficient isolation in most places) and the recent mainstreaming of garage as peppy, beer-commercial-ready party music may finally kill it for good, but the Reigning Sound still seem to subscribe to that code, even as it becomes more anachronistic. Perhaps this is because frontman Greg Cartwright’s roots go back to 1990, having previously been the creative force behind the Oblivians and the Compulsive Gamblers. He seems to have been around long enough to know that the no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll he wants to play is more important than he’ll ever be, and he and his band seem content to stay out of their own way and let Cartwright’s uniformly excellent songs and well-chosen and well-executed covers speak for themselves. Not that they’re boring to watch: Cartwright works up a most impressive palsy when he plays; it’s as though he’s always got a strobe light on him. And their raucous energy combined with the visible intensity of the band’s concentration seems to capture something essential about garage music—it’s never sloppy because the band’s not trying hard; it teeters on the edge of chaos because the musicians seem somehow too in love with the music to practice it dispassionately, to nail it down and ossify it.
Nevertheless, Cartwright is a nimble, efficient guitar player (he was crafty enough to play half a set with only three strings with no appreciable loss of momentum a few nights before) and he is fluent enough in the idiom of classic ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll song structures to solo effortlessly and concisely out of any chord pattern while knowing what kind of change to throw in to make for a moving bridge. Consequently, there’s enough tunefulness to his songs, which his guitar solos recapitulate, to leave an indelible melody impressed upon you, even when every song is at amphetamine tempo and in the same key. They even take the trouble to write actual four-bar codas, à la the Beatles circa A Hard Day’s Night. And while Cartwright is a first-rate shouter, making every interjected “yeah” and “ow” sting like it should, there’s also enough palpable passion in his voice to make you feel that real emotion is at stake.
You certainly don’t get that feeling from Sahara Hotnights, an all-female band from Sweden, who play genial guitar pop and who should in no way be considered “garage” despite their affiliation with the Hives (who probably shouldn’t be called “garage” either). When they hit the stage and hit their first crunching power chord or lock in to their first shoutalong chorus, you might think they want to come off like the Runaways, but there’s no bad-girl, jail-bait attitude to their stage presence. And with no real trace of blues, country, or soul roots to their sound, their musical debt is not to the ‘60s or ‘70s but to the ‘80s, and to bands like the Outfield or the Plimsouls. The most distinctive features of Hotnights songs are the three or four note riffs that lead singer Maria Andersson plays on a clean-channel Stratocaster, a crisp, unmistakable sound that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever heard a Rick Springfield hit. But more than anything else, Sahara Hotnights sound uncannily like Pat Benetar, except without the cloying hooks that made her huge. Sahara Hotnights are like a band that would be playing at the big dance in an ‘80s teen movie: they play convincingly enough to be believable, but not so interestingly that they’ll distract you from the drama of Molly Ringwald’s big night. With no lyrical substance and a dearth of memorable melodies, their songs are impossible to remember even moments after they finish.
The same can be said of the Hives’ songs, which, judged on musical terms alone, couldn’t possibly be more redundant (every song sounds like Blur’s “Song 2”). But the Hives aren’t really about music in and of itself, but about exuberant energy, strutting attitude, and infectious ecstasy over the display of bottomless (and perhaps groundless) self-confidence. With their matching white-and-black suits, their smoke machines, their goofy Jaggerisms and rock posturing, the Hives bury that image-free approach to performance I grew up with, making it seem almost shockingly banal and sententious. Watching the Hives on stage for five minutes made me wonder how I ever tolerated those bands that seemed to be embarrassed to be up there, that seemed to actively discourage you from paying attention to them. Why not see a show when you come to a show, by a bunch of performers who’ll do anything, with no sense of shame, to make you want to keep watching?
The Hives’ music is an aural equivalent to their snappy look; each song is a tightly packed spitball of two-chord fury meant to make you look to see where it came from. The relentless, marching 4/4 beat rivets you in place, making you stomp along unthinkingly, kind of an adrenalized, petulant Bay City Rollers. They get a great distinctive guitar sound, too, by eschewing pedal distortion for vintage HiWatt amps cranked to overdrive—this, if anything, probably earns them the “garage” tag (even though no one rocking a garage could afford such gear) and elicits the comparisons to the early Kinks. Lead singer Pelle Almqvist—a cocky Peter Noone clone who spent whatever time he wasn’t jumping into the masses in front of the stage climbing the PA speakers—never tires of upbraiding the audience for not clapping enough and not worshipping him enough; he derives an almost sadistic glee from barking orders at the crowd, which slavishly obeyed with equal ardor. Guitarist Nicholaus Arson is a rubbery Mr. Bean type who showcased some wonderfully silly hip-swaying moves worthy of Freddie and the Dreamers and kept blowing on his fingers between songs as if to cool them off from all the hot licks he was supposedly playing.
Such unrepentant corniness makes a Hives show an irresistible good time, as close to a must-see as there is going right now. They evoke a different kind of nostalgia than the garage-bands of old, not for the unknown teens who banged out the semi-articulate anthems of frustration and rage from suburban VFW halls, but for the enthusiastic professional showmen who made up groups like Paul Revere and the Raiders and the New Colony Six, the sort of bands who would pop up on Hullabaloo in their matching costumes with zero pretensions about making any kind of statement or having any kind of message, having instead only an irrepressible eagerness to make you smile, stomp your foot for ninety seconds, and, above all, not change the channel. So what if these bands spawned Sha Na Na.