And the view above ground is nearly as bad as it could be. I won't suggest that the current climate of mainstream modern rock radio is as bad as it was between the years 1986-1989, but it's not far off at this point. There are glimmers and sparks of good music here and there, but are they rays of hope or dying embers? Evidence points to the latter as most of the decent songs played on my hometown station, 99.3 The Fox, are by aging and waning artists whose peak periods mostly came just before or after I was in high school (that was a long time ago folks!). Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Queens of the Stone Age & Nine Inch Nails among the most notable. A small handful of others play heavy, fuzzy rock & roll and are mostly influenced by the Black Keys: Monster Truck, The Sheepdogs and one or two others whom I can't even name due to lack of identification over the airwaves.
At a glance, this seems like a good pool to draw from. But the reality is these bands are played intermittently between blocks of five or ten pop songs that simply can not be considered rock n roll. There's one song out right now (okay I'll google it): "Afraid" by some shitty band called The Neighbourhood. The lyrics read
"You’re too mean, I don’t like you, fuck you anywayYou make me wanna scream at the top of my lungsIt hurts but I won’t fight youYou suck anywayYou make me wanna die".I'm sorry but that's just not rock n roll. "You make me want to die" is just not a rock n roll response to a given negative situation. "You make me want to ... Pick up a sledgehammer" or "You make me want to ... step on the old distortion pedal and play at 11" would be appropriate. But to roll over and die? That's not rock n roll. This and a whole legion of others are clearly pop songs and they dominate rock radio not by brute force and command of presence, but by a naggy insistence brought on by a nauseous amount of repeat plays, which has been brought to you by the letter B for blood money.
Okay, that's a bit strong but the current state of modern rock radio recalls clearly in my mind the days when Robert Palmer, Tears For Fears & The Call ruled the airwaves. Luckily, I had young uncles. I wasn't naieve enough to think that this was the best of what guitar oriented music had to offer. It wasn't often that I got to hear a Judas Priest or Metallica record but that I knew they were around cleared the cobwebs of my mind from ... The Simple Minds. Even in those days though there were glimmers of hope. Faith No More & Living Colour had some good songs on the radio in the latter stages of the decade. But really, when "Cult of Personality" is the best of what the mainstream has to offer rock n roll, it's time to clear the leaves from the creative gutter.
Enter those bands listed above, who mixed Punk Rock with Black Sabbath, Neil Young with Metallica and who otherwise turned rock music on its head. Sadly, the mainstream legacy they left in their wake is all but irrelevant (Stone Temple Pilots has a new single out with the singer from Linkin Park, want to hear it?), and these bands are left to work their own depleted soil to this day. But these bands did not spring fully formed out of a vacuum. The (under)groundwork had been laid by such forgotten 1980's heroes as The Meat Puppets, Husker Du, Mudhoney, The Melvins, Black Flag, Fugazi, The Screaming Trees and any number of all-time greats who never truly got their due.
Which brings us elliptically to the present day, because there is a stirring beneath the surface. I can see it, hear it, feel it, taste it and touch it. You can too, reader. That's why we're here. Just when what is offered on mainstream radio seems as bad as it could possibly get, the discerning head for the cellar and latch 'er up. Below ground, heavy guitar based music has rarely been tougher, bolder, more heartfelt or generally better.
It begs the question: can lightning strike twice? The answer is yes, but in which spot? Above ground the pundits and punters alike have 'known about' stoner rock for a long time now and for a long time it was considered "the next big thing". Well, a decade and a half later everybody's still wondering when exactly that "next" time will be. And what roll doth the internet play? What roll the blogs to play in this drama of the ears? We (the bloggers) are pretty much powerless, voiceless and toothless because we don't have the money to promote the bands that deserve and even need to be heard. We do what we can and it always feels to me that when I've introduced somebody, just one person to a band, that I've done enough. I've done my job. That's what it's all about. But there's always a lingering sense that I'm preaching to the already converted. You never know, there's always somebody new stumbling accidentally through the cellar doors where bands like Witchcraft, Devil to Pay, The Heavy Eyes, From Beyond, Snake Thursday, Red Desert, At Devil Dirt or any number of Small Stone Records bands (just off the top of my head of "radio worthy" bands) capture them until the hostage becomes a Patty Hearst type figure and supports the cause wholeheartedly. That's my story anyway.
But, we're not talking about one or two people who tumble down an open cellar door. We're talking about the big time, big exposure and big airplay. Why? I can hear a couple of you murmuring angrily out there about not wanting to lose 'your' band to the mainstream and how it would never be the same again if your cherished underground band breaks through. How they won't be 'yours' anymore. Well you, my friend, are a snob, and worse, you would deny a favored musician a degree of financial independence that would ensure him or her that much needed commodity that is always in short supply but more precious than air: time.
I don't know what's going to happen. If I had to guess, I'd say that things will probably continue much as they are now, until they get even worse that is. I'm not sure when or even if the breaking point will come when enough (probably high school age or younger) rockers will say enough is enough and they NEED to hear the heavy, NOW. This moment cannot come soon enough, but when it does, I suspect it won't be what we're hoping for.
In the brandy sipping circles of rock n roll intellectualism, it is considered that the genre goes through (roughly) 13 year cycles beginning in 1951 with the release of Ike Turner's barnstorming "Rocket 88" single which led to the first cycle spanning the years 1951-63 inclusive and is best represented by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Cliff Richard in the UK. Then the British Invasion happened, The Beatles changed the sound of music forever and led rock n roll down the garden path of psychedelia which stateside morphed into a near nightmare at the hands of The Doors among others. This wave eventually lost steam however as the free love generation went the way of disease-addled sleaze of stadium rock and overblown progressive navel-gazing. Then the next cycle started. Punk rock dropped an atom bomb on the whole-LP-side long suites and elaborate stage set-ups (costumes and props) of prog with its short blasts of three chord fury. But, as seems to always be the case, the punk ethic mutated in the hands of mainstream acceptance into new wave and a more in-your-face brand of pop star such as Madonna. Enter Nirvana and the fourth cycle of rock n roll. Grunge did away with the synthesizers and canned drum machine and got back to angry levels of distortion and the angst of Generation X that had very little to do with interesting or unique hair styles. Take it from one who was there, with all that hairspray gone, it was a breath of fresh air. It didn't last however as grunge paved the way for Nu Metal and I'll be damned if it wasn't time for the next cycle before you knew it. Only, this one didn't come. Not really.
I always considered the fifth cycle of rock music to have begun with the release of The Strokes 'Is This It' album back in 2001. 'Garage rock' as it was dubbed by the media then grabbed the rock n roll listener by the throats with The White Stripes, The Hives and Jet, among others following in the New York rockers' wake in quick succession. The ride didn't last long. It seemed people were developing shorter and shorter attention spans. Hell, even the bands themselves seemed to be as well. It didn't take long, not long at all before bands like the Kings of Leon doffed their exciting, heavy and southern rock approach for a castrated, testosterone depleted and decidedly non-dangerous brand of dentist office soundtrack 'rock'. And we remain in this phase today to a greater or lesser extent.
Anyway, it's about time for another cycle. Strictly speaking the sixth cycle won't happen until 2016, but if the fifth cycle started when I believe it did, that accelerates the timeline slightly. We're about due. When I listen to what's on commercial radio I'd say we're about due. And of course, I'm rooting for the stoners! As a lifelong "heavy guitar-oriented" music fan, I can't tell you how excited I was to discover the stoned and doomed underground early last year. I hadn't listened to anything recorded after the early 1970's for a good five years before embarking on my voyage of discovery. I can't tell you how excited I was, but I try to every single time I post something here. But are the stoners the inheritors of the earth? My gut and my pessimism say no. What the hell does it matter that a band like Vista Chino already has over 150,000 likes on facebook when I'm not hearing them and the successive wave of bands behind them on the radio? That's nearly three times as many as The Sheepdogs and Monster Truck combined and I hear them on the radio all the time (although not often enough because those two, unlike most bands on the radio these days are actually good).
So what will it take for the stoners to break through? Money.
I don't have it and you don't have it, but somehow it still speaks volumes all around us. Somebody turn down the damn radio will you?
I suspect that if and when Stoner Rock finally does hog the spotlight it won't be what you or I was hoping for. Mostly likely it will be pre-fabricated bands that nobody has ever heard of, new bands that come from out of nowhere, cobbled together and put together by labels to produce a manufactured sound. The labels will pass around Truckfighters albums at meetings, dissecting them and analyzing them at length, trying thickly to understand what it is that makes them probably the best band in the world and how they can tap into that fuzz tone like vampires. Most likely it would have to be that way because the bands that we cherish down here in the dirt will not be willing to play along with the pre-scripted outrages and marketing blitzes that go along with the whole game. "Mr. Dango found OD'd in Hotel Room, Revived Moments Later" will scream the headline. The byline will read "I was hangin' with Jimi, why'd you wake me up?" One. Big. Predictable. Nightmare.
But you know what? The stuff I'm hearing on the radio nowadays sucks and somebody needs to do something about it. Don't you think?