Sometimes you just have to toss out the conventional wisdom.
The conventional wisdom, for instance, has hailed the Strokes as the best new hope for New York punk, a throwback band of hard rhythms and edgy lyrics, guitars, bass, drum and attitude.
The conventional wisdom revels in the neo-blues/punk of the White Stripes, in Jack White’s mix of raging Delta blues, early rock and distortion, heralding it as the next great step forward for rock and roll.
And according to the conventional wisdom, Band X (take your pick: The Ataris, Fountains of Wayne, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, etc.) is (pick your hyped up adjective and handy bit of hyperbole).
It’s not that the conventional wisdom is wrong. It isn’t — all of these bands play great rock and roll in the tradition of an earlier rock aesthetic and deserve whatever praise and accolades they’ve gotten (especially the White Stripes, which combine a rare level of wit and intelligence with White’s savage guitar chops). My issue with the conventional wisdom is that it too often solidifies into a hardened definition, allowing us to substitute a false set of expectations and judgments for real critical thought, closing us down to our own responses and shutting us off to those sounds we might otherwise be smitten by, if only we hadn’t subscribed the conventional wisdom.
So yes, the Strokes definitely rock, but they remain at base a derivative and somewhat shallow purveyor or a packaged style of rock and roll cool, great imitators or mimics but not the groundbreaking act that they often are described as. That’s OK. Grand claims do little more, anyway, than set good bands up for a fall — so, inevitably, the Strokes will be seen as the great poseurs they are and the critics will move on to some new band, some new sound, some new way of reconnecting with their past.
I raise this not to dismiss or denigrate the Strokes, whose latest effort is a solid rock and roll album, but to question the notion of conventional wisdom more generally and to place the current comeback release from the Romantics — who had three hits, including the dance-rock fave “What I Like about You”, back in the halcyon days of punk and new wave — in context. The conventional wisdom long ago dismissed the Detroit-based rockers as lightweights, a period piece from back in the day when neckties narrowed and hair grew spiky.
Again, the conventional wisdom is not necessarily wrong here, only incomplete and a bit unfair, consolidating the band’s actual track record into a neat little narrative in which the Romantics and bands like the Knack (true lightweights) occupy the same critical space. The problem with this abbreviated narrative is that there always was more to the Romantics than the catchy “What I Like about You”, their spiked hair, cheeky smiles and natty attire. On their first three major label efforts, the Romantics crafted a raw, energetic brew, a mix of early Kinks, other early British Invasion groups and 1960s American garage punk. The music, at its best, was fast and loud, the lyrics were the simple, standard rock-song fare (girls, girls and girls) and the pretensions were minimal. Their self-titled debut, which featured “What I Like about You”, has been described as exact a re-creation of the first Kinks album as one might find, while the follow-ups — National Breakout and Strictly Personal — followed the same basic formula, though with less success. Each album was a little less energetic, a little less interesting, with the band finally releasing the tepid, but huge-selling singles “Talking in Your Sleep” and “One in a Million” from 1984’s In Heat and then sliding into obscurity — due at least in part to a seven-year-long legal battle with their management team.
Now, fast-forward 18 years. The Romantics have reformed and released a new disc — 61/49 — that harkens back to their earliest efforts. Named for the famed crossroads at which Robert Johnson supposedly made his pact with the devil, 61/49 is a raw, amphetamine-driven guitar record, spiced up by the harmonica playing of Wally Palmar.
The first three tracks — “Devil in Me”, “61/49”, and “Midnight to Six Man” (a classic originally recorded by the Pretty Things) — show the band at its best, with former Blondie drummer Clem Burke’s frenetic pounding underscoring the jagged and distorted guitars. Palmar’s vocal — a garage growl with a limited range — is not exactly buried in the mix, but not pushed to the forefront.
There are significant echoes in the songs: The chord progression in “Devil in Me” bears a strong similarity to the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, with a little Stooges and some Swinging Blue Jeans mixed in; “61/49” is built on a Bo Diddley-style beat, while “Midnight to Six Man” can sound a little like the Standells meet the Smithereens, suffused with a healthy dose of the ’60s Brit-rock of the Pretty Things; and “I Need You” is a near perfect rip-off of the Kinks’ original, a catchy little rocker that should probably be the follow-up single to the big, brawny “Out of My Mind (Into My Head)”.
The disc is at its best when the tempo is hot — slower songs like the mid-tempo rocker, “New Kinda Pain” and the pseudo-psychedelic “Paint the Sky” just do not work that well, primarily because the lyrics rarely rise above rock and roll cliché. “When Will It End”, for instance, is a rather pale attempt at social commentary, though it has a pretty strong rock groove built on Burke’s frenzied drumming (reminiscent of his best work with Blondie), which keeps the listener from having to focus on its banalities.
Ultimately, this is a good guitar/bass/drum record that will fly below the radar and probably disappear without getting the listening it deserves. And yet, in many ways, 61/49 can be seen as a less-hyped version of the Strokes’ Is This It or Room on Fire — perhaps not consistently as strong a record, but no less rocking. The difference is that The Strokes, to a great degree, are the product of media hype and promotion, the next big thing, the darlings of the conventional wisdom, while the Romantics are nothing more than a rock and roll band supposedly past its prime.
Certainly, the Romantics were not — and will never be — a critically important band. But they are a rock-and-roll band meant to be played loud in the tradition of their Detroit forebears, the Stooges and the MC5 — just like the Strokes, the White Stripes and the Ataris. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that.