This week, Noise Narcs answers the age-old question: What five bands would you travel back in time to see in their prime? To see other responses, jump in the hot tub.
I have to admit that I’ve not been keen on making this retro-fit bucket list and have been dragging my feet a little, largely because I am not obsessed with live performances, for the very reasons that have likely influenced all of our lists: shows these days are largely stripped down, more about selling merch, and involve bands getting on stage and sounding exactly like themselves. I keep trying, but it’s a rare case when a show in Madison or Milwaukee that should be uproarious (Of Montreal, for instance) is outfitted with a crowd that’s not totally footloose.
There are times when sitting in a seat and passively listening is good, like when I’m in the dentist’s office and rocked out on nitrous oxide. Or when the music calls for it, as was the case when I saw Sigur Ros, whose purpose seems to be to call for the type of reminiscence that only happens when you’re glued to one spot. Otherwise, you might fall down.
But there’s also something to venue fit. A number of years ago, we lost our indie darling venue, the Catacombs coffee house, when the church that housed it decided that the young kids who ran it were not “evangelical” enough. Turns out that “evangelical” meant “We want to rent this space to Subway and make $$$.” We lost the $3 daily organic, local lunches the coffee house provided and also the space where I first saw Stars, Smog, and Ida. The only other performer who of late got outfitted with just the right spot was Joanna Newsom, who played in our student union’s Great Hall, a remarkable room, one that provided the quiet echo her music demands.
So when I think about what shows I’d like to have seen, I’m not thinking about technical skill; I’m thinking about the energy of a particular moment in time, a time when people were hearing something new or thinking they were, experiencing the transformative power of a crowd, or witnessing an artist on the verge of popular or underground stardom. And I’m thinking about the sensory aspect of place. Or so I am telling myself in order to make this list cohere.
1. Elvis. Despite people’s claims that Elvis simply rearticulated the musical forms and body movements he learned from the blues musicians whom he learned his trade from, Elvis still popularized rock-n-roll and transformed the musical landscape of his time. If you ask your parents or grandparents what it was like seeing Elvis in the 50s, they’ll likely tell you how shocking it was to see a man move his hips the way he did and sound like he did. Katherine Hepburn once said, “I don’t know what starpower is, but whatever it is, baby I’ve got it.” And she is so right that it’s hard to fault her hubris. When you are faced with a performer with starpower, charisma that is beyond anything knowable or traceable, it is something else. I felt this when seeing Phoenix’s Thomas Mars perform live the year of the band’s debut album’s release. I must admit that every time I see Elvis’ face, I turn into a melty teenager. He had the looks, but he had that indefinable something else. And that’s why I understand both the police force presence in the below vid, but also the sentiments of the woman who storms the stage, which he seems to find amusing.
2. Björk, circa early 1990s. Björk is one of our genius vocalists and performers, a person who bends her chords in unimaginable ways. I knew a girl whose father took her on a trip to Iceland and then, mid-plane, surprised her with Björk concert tickets. I wanted to trade parents. I accidentally saw Björk perform with the Sugarcubes in the late 80s, when my cousin and I stayed out later than we were supposed to at New York’s Jones Beach (at least that’s where my memory is telling me this took place) and happened upon their concert. And believably, Björk was just as audible from the parking lot. Still, the Sugarcubes do not equal Björk, and Björk’s recent albums do not equal what her debut, Post, and Homogenic were.
3. The Velvet Underground. Some songs (Louis Armstrong’s “Summertime,” for instance, which I’ve posted about before on Noise Narcs) and bands remind you of how much timing means in music. When I think about what makes the Velvet Underground so compelling, it’s their understanding that the spaces between the notes, the white space, matters. I imagine that attending any of their shows gave attendees the feeling that they were witnessing something spectacular, something otherworldly (Chris T. recently coined this feeling “auralienation” in his comment on one of my recent blog posts, and I think it fits and might start wielding it around Noise Narcs). Sure, the drawling notes fit the drugs they were all taking. But the Velvet Underground’s music translates effortlessly into our decade, and bands such as Stereolab wouldn’t be what they are without them.
4. I’m torn, because I really want to put Fleetwood Mac on this list, circa the year of Rumors’ release, 1977, especially after I read these words beneath a YouTube video of them performing “Go Your Own Way”: “Making of a Masterpiece: stunning original song, with a sublime and complex musical arrangement, 5 top musicians at the peak of their powers, primed with drugs,booze, lust and jealousy, poignant subtext of love, rejection and present pain, dirty analogue sound, like from a smokey subterranean music dive, makes studio track sound tame and clinical – this is wild, crazy, passionate REAL MUSIC !!”
But instead, I’m going with Jimi Hendrix’ Woodstock performance. I spent the first two minutes of watching this video wondering whether Hendrix had fallen asleep while playing and if his cigarette was going to fall out of his mouth.
5. Fugazi. I could have seen them when I was a teenager, but I didn’t grow into this band until about seven years ago. I got addicted to The Argument first and then worked my way backwards. I’m sorry I didn’t see this politically motivated, energetic band live back when they were inspiring people out of indie malaise.
6. And lastly, one of the most influential bands of my teenagehood and not that arguably the best rock band ever, Led Zeppelin.
Honorable Mentions (thanks for the idea, Trent): The Police (removed them for the Velvet Underground, despite really wanting to post Sting’s bigheaded claim that the reason he ceased wanting to play with Stuart Copeland was that Copeland “couldn’t keep time”), Brian Eno 1974 (Taking Tiger Mountain), Peggy Lee, Peter Gabriel 1978, The Pretenders, the Cars, Tina Turner, The Jam.