Frankly, I’m sick of the Black Keys.
Really, I hear them everywhere, anymore: currently, I can count on two hands commercials in which a Black Keys song is played, gratuitously and shamelessly. They’re hipster cred cubed, the zeitgeist apparently calling for some retro blues-drenched rock to sell tires or bargain crap at Target.
OK, those last statements should not be in any way construed as an indictment against a band trying to grab all the exposure and gravy on the crazy train. Never one who held to the “If you’re working for the man, you’re selling out” ethos, especially since I’ve worked for the man on numerous occasions, I actually kind of dig the fact that Madison Avenue smarties have glommed onto Indie music to sell a tub full of soap. Honda is currently using Sleigh Bells’ “Riot Rhythm” (and thank God car companies are moving away from their ubiquitous use of techno) to pimp one of their new beaters, while an OnStar commercial features Modest Mouse’s “Float On” in something that, while saccharine and cloying, nonetheless has a cool song to make their palaver palatable.
Indeed, Middle Child made me download The Cloud Room’s “Hey Now Now” (from a Pringle’s commercial), something I was more than happy to do, since it had a real Brian Eno-ish “Here Come the Warm Jets” or Bowie circa “Aladdin Sane” feel to it.
Obviously, having a song on a commercial doesn’t make a band lame, in my eyes.
Unfortunately, commercial overkill has poisoned the pot and the Black Keys are being overplayed well beyond eye-rolling and stomach-turning reactions, to the point where I’m about to start taking hostages at gun point: “One more Keys tune and the dude with the Lisa Loeb glasses and flavor saver gets one square in his mop!”
Look. I really, really like the Black Keys. In fact, “Brothers” (their excellent album released this year) may still make it into my “Best of 2010” list in spite of the gag reflex I’m experiencing every time one of their tunes pollutes my tube.
That said, it’s nothing at all against the Black Keys, they consistently rock like few bands do or ever did. Believe me, “Brothers” was in heavy rotation on my pod last spring when the album first came out. If you’d asked me last May if I’d ever get sick of the Black Keys, I would have sucked up too much of your time explaining that they had pushed Garage music to new levels of excellence.
Despite Black Keys sensory overload, I still maintain that they make music that, while harkening back to an era when music meant more than just an opportunity to sling trinkets, stands as powerful and fun and vital as anything recorded, then or now.
Well, let me walk that back a bit and give credit where credit is damned well due.
At the beginning of this decade, when this whole “Garage Band” sound took hold – the White Stripes had it dialed in first (especially with their oh-so-Buzzcocks-sounding “Fell In Love With a Girl” hit) — there was no undue enthusiasm about “authenticity” and the long-overdue return to the roots of Punk — Rock music was getting back to more DIY sensibility, stripped down and reminding everyone of 1977.
The Vines, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Hives (one of the best 30 minute shows I ever saw), and yes, the Black Keys (amongst so many other “The” bands) had a sound and energy that felt like New York or London in the mid-’70s but it soon came to light that the influence reached back much farther than the Clash or the Sex Pistols. The nomenclature “Neo Punk” was dismissed as soon as it was evident that those bands were reaching back into catalogs that the ’70s punk bands had scraped up and tossed into their own sound– the Garage bands of the Æ60s.
I could (and I shall) write reams about the sublime “Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era,” an incredible collection of one-hit wonders from the 60s (expanded by Rhino records — the best of labels — to a four-disk set to include more obscure songs) that directly influenced ’70s punk. Compiled and annotated by Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith’s lead guitar player and husband), the original two-disk set is substantial enough (if you can find it); the Rhino expansion is a voluptuary’s paradise, all old vinyl, plastic dildos and Betty Page celluloid. There’s no reason not to own these disks, whether Kaye’s original vision or his later Rhino collaboration. It’s a far-reaching chronicle of music at the edge of Edge City, tunes teetering at the lip of a cliff when there was nothing to lose, an exhilarating example of what music was like when it wasn’t snorted through a rolled up Benjamin but pounded down like a cold one or ripped out on a face grinning with a head full of sunshine.
Nonetheless, almost every band on Kaye’s collection (save for the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie” or Sam the Sham’s “Wooly Bully”) owes a respectful nod to the Yardbirds and, through direct lineage, any of the countless bands since then claiming some kind of Garage band cred.
Well before Rock and Roll became “Rock” (and arty and bloated with pretense), the Yardbirds were kicking the Blues into overdrive, squealing tires and making it as loud and fast as they could. Of all the British Invasion bands, the Yardbirds were the hardest rocking, the neck-snappingly fastest and, by all accounts, the least successful (as far as charts and money were concerned). And yet, if you listen to “Five Live,” it sounds as raucous and aggressive as any CBGBs show on a Saturday night. To this day, many of the Yardbirds’ sides sound as radio-ready as anything on XMU.
With the Beatles already enmeshed in their climb to becoming the Kings of Pop and the Rolling Stones following Andrew Loog Oldham’s Pan piper dance, it was the Yardbirds who stomped with fury and dedication, taking the aggression and angst of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters and then twisting the dial to ten.
It didn’t hurt that the band featured three of best Rock and Roll guitarists of all time: Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck (Numbers four, nine and fourteen, respectively, in Rolling Stone’s “100 Best Guitarist of All time” issue).
Early Yardbirds are Blues infused with a Nitro burst, and you can visualize a young Eric Clapton, anxious to exhibit his prowess, show his muscle. I don’t know if his playing was speed fueled (it sure sounded like it) but he definitely didn’t get the name “Slowhand” from that moment in his career.
Clapton only stuck around for one album, leaving to join John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers after determining the Yardbirds to be too “pop oriented” (ironic, considering Cream and everything that followed). As a parting gesture, Clapton suggested Jimmy Page as a sufficient replacement.
Clapton’s work with Mayall is legendary and the first album is titanic, a classic. However, he underestimated the power of the Yardbirds and their influence. More than that, as he displayed sheer joy in his playing of Punk-sized versions of “Who Do You Love,” “No More Monkey Business,” and “Here Tis’,” he betrayed an essential disingenuity in his aversion to playing pop .
Of course, the comparison is silly: nothing in the Clapton canon is even slightly overshadowed by the Yardbirds. The same is certainly the same for Page and Beck but that was never the point. And while there’s no doubt that those guitarists went onto bigger and better things, the influence of the Yardbirds lingered, lying in wait, creating a bastard miscreant that continues to wail to this day.
While “Five Live,” with its machine gun Blues and one hit “For Your Love” (the song over which Clapton left in protest) cemented the Yardbirds into repertoires of countless Garage bands, it was the Beck/Page era that ultimately laid the groundwork for Proto-Punk.
Listen to the Seeds or the Standells to hear the Clapton-esque Yardbirds; the 13th Floor Elevators, Strawberry Alarm Clock, or even the Turtles, for shades of the Beck/Page era Yardbirds.
Then, look past that, into a future that Clapton, Beck and Page could have never conceived of, maybe even hold in disdain. “Train Kept A-Rollin’” became a heavy metal staple during the ’70s; much of their music was covered in the ’80s and ’90s by Punk, New Wave and Indie bands (The Pixies, Dead Milkmen, Bowie, etc.).
More than that, bands they had influenced, the ’60s Garage bands, had taken what they had done and kicked it down the alley a little bit further.
And so on. Such that one can’t help but hear “Hot House of Omagararshid” in Animal Collective, “Over, Under, Sideways, Down,” in Radiohead or “Got Love If You Want It” in, yes, The Black Keys.
In fact, watch Beck and Page playing together in Antonioni’s “Blow Up” (one of the few times they both played lead) and see not just a great performance by a band about to leave its skid marks on the ribbon of time but also a room full of hipsters bouncing throughout the bar, looking as though they were cast from the class of 2012 (and all of them thinking, no doubt, “This song would rock a tire commercial!”).
I predict that Madison Avenue will soon lose its obsession with the Black Keys and I can go back to enjoying them without feeling like I just dropped a wad of cash on a drunken night in Elko.
However, when I can once again put on the Black Keys without griping about their music being overplayed and stale, it won’t be without remembering the huge debt they, and so many other bands, owe to the filthy, fierce, whiplash version of the Blues played by the Yardbirds.
I put a quick twist on that piece as I needed to acknowledge the passing of Solomon Burke last weekend at age 70.
Not a big surprise — he was a very big man with big appetites (he had over 20 children) — but he also had a big influence.
Once, I was asked, “Who was a better soul/R&B singer — Otis Redding or Solomon Burke?”
Although I had to give the edge to Otis, it was not without some time to really consider the question — and I’m still not convinced my answer was the right one.
Not only was Burke’s influence expansive (Mick Jagger’s vocals on many of the early Stones’ sides was dead-on mimicry of Burke’s inflections) but his music continues to stand as some of the best Soul and R&B of the ’70s.
As I type this, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” is blasting from my pod, bringing fond memories of the Blues Brothers version during the great show scene in that movie. And I have never met a woman who has not swooningly described their memory of Patrick Swayze singing Burke’s “Cry to Me” to Jennifer Grey in “Dirty Dancing.”
Burke’s career spanned decades — his last album “Hold On Tight” is due for release later this month — and although he never knelt at the altar of Mammon (good preacher that he was), producing the same high quality of Soul, Blues, R&B and Rock and Roll he was known for, it’s his work for Atlantic Records during the 1960s for which he will be eternally remembered.
Anyone unfortunate enough to admit that they don’t know Burke’s work should immediately order the Rhino Records reissue of Atlantic’s “The Very Best of Solomon Burke” to receive instantaneous redemption.
Good-bye, big guy. We’re all a little poorer now that you’re gone.