You don’t need to be an obstreperous record-store geek to figure out that the recent neo-garage trend has very little to do the original garage sound, which was more a product of technical limitations and winnowing cultural horizons than a conscious choice to adhere to a genre’s stylistic code. The bands labeled garage recently are likely to remind listeners much more of Led Zeppelin than something found on a Pebbles compilation.
But this is not so with Australian garage rockers Shutdown 66. On this reissue of their 1998 debut, Welcome to Dumpsville, they do their best to make like it’s 1966, replicating perfectly the sounds of those ‘60s bands like the Shadows of Knight and the Standells who did all they could to sound like the early Stones and Them. Making no reference to any developments in pop music since Eric Burdon broke up the original Animals and apparently employing no piece of musical technology that came out after Vox pioneered the wah-wah pedal, Shutdown 66 achieve as faithful a copy as could be imagined of the driving faux-R&B (think maracas, harmonica solos, hoarse shouting, and 1-4-5 chord progressions, or simply think the Pretty Things’ Get the Picture?) that defined raucous rebelliousness for youth until the Vietnam war escalated, LSD came along, and everything was suddenly changed.
And that change is still relevant to garage-rock idolaters of Shutdown 66’s degree, because it may still, even today, explain the nostalgic attraction of the style. As the last rebellious style before youth music was radicalized and politicized in the late ‘60s, garage rock represents an innocence, a freedom from the responsibility of having to have opinions about society at large or having to protest its injustice. In the early to mid-‘60s, garage rock was the anti-folk music; it was the genre committed to allowing kids to feel just rebellious enough so that they could remain in the cocoon of adolescence without feeling namby-pamby. While the genre’s preoccupations—dishonest women, rejection, squares who don’t understand the kids (all themes Shutdown 66 dutifully adopt in songs such as “Bad Bad Bad Bad Girl”, “Kellie’s Turn to Cry”, and “The World Ain’t You”)—seem merely to reflect a male teenager’s concerns, they may in fact help to define them, reinforcing the comfortable notion fostered most other places in commercial society that being cool and getting laid are the only important things in life and the only things you’ll ever need to worry about.
By aping this apolitical style, Shutdown 66 promote these same inconsequential priorities, but with a significant difference. The original garage bands, blinkered as they were, still represented an escape for youth into the future, projecting a time when teenagers would be free of the ‘50s morality imposed upon them by their parents and the prudish girls they wished would put out. And by worshipping black R&B music, the music of the disenfranchised poor, these bands arguably brought their audiences a quasi-progressive cultural outlook. But Shutdown 66 operates from the essentially conservative notion that everything was inherently better in the past while shying away from integrative trends in today’s pop—the band opts out of the current cultural conversation altogether and heads straight for the museum, inviting their fans to do the same. These fans, likely in their late 20s and 30s, likely exasperated and helpless in the face of mercurial pop culture changes that they don’t understand and that are designed to make them feel old, welcome the opportunity to stop trying to engage the existing culture and live in a more and more idealized past, when rock and roll was “pure” and the impulses to make it were “true”.
Shutdown 66 probably chose to play garage rock in the first place because it seemed both authentic and fun, it comes with readymade and time-tested attitudes and costumes, and it frees the band from having to wrestle with competing fads in contemporary music. And every song on the album is full of the vibrant energy that comes with complete conviction: the singer snarls and whines, the propulsive blues licks menace and simmer. But despite this sincere conviction, Welcome to Dumpsville is still a reactionary album, no different in spirit than Sha Na Na and Happy Days, two other nostalgic routines that tried to pretend the unrest of the late ‘60s never happened. Considering the current dismal state of American politics, one could understand why an American band would want to pretend they live in a different time; I just wonder if things are as bad in Australia.