I’m in the car with Baby A driving to Mexico, bored and hot, blasting Dirty Tricks. We were playing the regular road trip games musicians move onto once they’ve exhausted playing DJ with the iPod: Top Three Records You Would Save in a Fire, Top Three Songs of All Time, Top Three Albums to Fuck to, etc.
“Okay, next question,” he said. “Which three bands, who are all excellent bands, inspired the worst music?”
“What do you mean?”
“OK, like Pantera are great, but they inspired a bunch of shit bands. Real shit.”
Throughout our drive through Mexico, I never had my answer. I thought about it, though. It wasn’t easy. I mean, whom do we blame for all the horrible pop-punk mall-rock garbage? Who is responsible for Dave Matthews, but does not totally suck themselves? Which bands are iconic enough, great enough and unique enough that when their minions tried to imitate even just pieces of their unrivaled sound, it not only spawned a few records that sucked, but an entire genre of suckage? What does it even mean to be a reference point in musical history, especially when that reference point is still living, breathing, performing? And doesn’t every reference point band have a reference point? We all have heard music before.
After leaving Mexico and coming home to Los Angeles, I finally have my Top Three. You’ll probably disagree with me, so I encourage you to challenge me, or tell me your Top Three.
I have this old punk friend who plays psych-rock now, but he tells me that the Descendents/SoCal-era of punk is “The Purple Period of Punk” (his words), when no longer did punks have to only sing about politics and hating authority to be taken seriously by their leather-clad friends. The Descendents pioneered this era when Milo Aukerman could sing about shit we actually cared about and didn’t have to pretend we cared about, like sex, food, drugs, parents and being a deep, deep loser. Milo Goes to College (1982) is the pop-punk album, before pop-punk became what it is now: kind of annoying. (I know some of you out there love pop-punk and that’s fine, but this is my list and I do not love pop-punk, though I can appreciate some hits. But I’m not a total asshole, so make your own list.)
It’s the Descendents’ fault that Blink-182 and NOFX happened, and maybe you don’t think those bands suck, but they definitely influenced a generation of Hot Topic pop-punk, which sucks undeniably. It’s the Descendents’ fault that emo happened, because without the totally fuck-you-I’m-going-to-talk-about-real-youth-shit-like-being-bummed-on-chicks-and-make-it-cool attitude of Aukerman, no one would have had the stones to be emo. Aukerman was so emo. Bleeding-heart pop-punk emo. And you know what? It worked. However, when Sum 41, Billy Talent, A Simple Plan, Yellowcard, Bowling for Soup, Gob, Good Charlotte, A Day to Remember, New Found Glory and so on and so on and so on do it, it’s not even close. Maybe these megastar bands have some radio hits that resonate with some people, but never will there ever be an album like Milo Goes to College again because they did it first and they did it right, from “Myage” all the way through to “Jean Is Dead.”
When I listen to “Guiding Light” by Television, it affects me so hard. It’s embarrassing. Tom Verlaine’s voice: nasal, submissive, yet vivid. The guitars climb through one another like the lines in a kaleidoscope and the bass playing is pontifical, yet totally boyish and serene.
The great thing about Television is that they didn’t know how to play, at least at first. This is why Television was so seminal. They didn’t come from understanding or technicality when it came to their instruments. They did not know anything. It was all feeling. However, lyrically, they were pompous little “New York poets,” who took all the boyish ego they had and channeled it into elegant sentences, then summoned it to the stage. Television is inimitable. However, the infamous dreamy, noodling guitar style of Verlaine is responsible for the bane that is subpar, shoegaze indie rock. I don’t need to name names here. You know who you are.
Verlaine, it’s all your fault.
Google “Which bands were influenced by Nirvana” and you get a Top 60 list on some website (which looks more like an advertisement crusted between the pages of Cosmo) citing Linkin Park, Puddle of Mudd, Smash Mouth, Matchbox Twenty and many others. Nirvana pretty much influenced every musician who had ears in the ’90s and gave two shits about rock. Even Dizzee Rascal and Kid Rock cite Kurt Cobain as a main influence on their music. Nirvana was, is and always will be. It’s icon stuff. It’s big icon stuff, because Nirvana not only wrote completely accessible, moody, lyrically challenging rock songs, but Cobain became the figurehead of a media-invented genre of alternative music.
However, though Nirvana did influence many excellent bands and musicians (who may not even sound like the grunge band), they also inspired a group of pseudo-alternative cock-jock-rock bands that overtook the radio airwaves in the early ’00s: Puddle of Mudd, Hoobastank, Nickelback. You know the music I’m talking about. Men with Big Muffs and Marshall stacks who tried to copy Cobain’s cigarette-soaked growls but ended up sounding like a rapist humping his prey. Spine-shatteringly awful. These bands had no pain, just paychecks and leather pants and gel-curled hair. They didn’t write intelligent, elegiac yet entirely relatable and abstract lyrics like Cobain, but ripped off his simplicity (that loud-quiet-loud simplicity Cobain took from Black Francis) and butchered it down to crank-it-up-in-your-truck-fuck-rock. They sucked all the feminine energy and poetry out and replaced it with unprovoked bragging, hyper-inflated pseudo-masculinity and “perfect rhymes.” Fuck me gently with a chainsaw and let me die. No thanks.
(Oh, and for the record, no one is allowed to cover Nirvana songs, like, ever. The only band who ever nailed it was Cibo Matto when they did “About a Girl.”)
My point here isn’t to knock down these copycat bands and be a total bitch, but the difference between making music and making music people will cite forever is huge. You can’t dissect what makes something classic and then reproduce it; you either have it in you or you don’t. Thinking about it too much fucks with your head, because everyone has a different catalogue of references to pull from. I may think that Ghetto Ghouls sound like the Dicks, and they could tell me I’m dead wrong. I hate it when people compare my band to Pretty Girls Make Graves, but I don’t tell them to go fuck themselves, because I understand that perhaps we are not pulling from the same catalogue. There’s just so much music.
The thing is, being derivative isn’t always so bad. Many people would tell me that Oasis suck. Liam Gallagher ripped off John Lennon and Noel ripped off everyone. (He admits it, and he also admits he is “average at best” when it comes to guitar.) But I love Oasis. I think they were the perfect rock stars: catchy anthem hits, familiar riffs and tons of offstage drama. Still, there’s a difference between Oasis and Television. Everyone knows this. It’s just a feeling. As a musician, I often worry about letting my influences rule me, but I think I have a slew of pretty OK ones, so it’s not that bad.