Heirs to the Throne
“Elisha also took up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him … when the sons of the prophets who were from Jericho saw him, they said, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.’” (II Kings 2:13-15)
Now more than ever, it’s hip for musicians to be “under the influence.” Tribute albums abound, and you can’t go to a show without hearing an in-the-know cover version of Velvet Underground’s “European Son,” Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom,” Big Star’s “You Can’t Have Me,” or whatever the en vogue influence happens to be.
However, claiming to be influenced by an artist and making music in that artist’s spirit are two completely different entities. U2 claims to be influenced by B.B. King, and maybe they are in some emotional, idealistic way. But U2’s music bears little resemblance to King’s and hiring one’s washed-up hero to play lead guitar on a couple tracks doesn’t make it so. Beyond technicality and musical genres, music itself is a vibe. It has a spiritual aspect that runs deeper than mere influence. As George Clinton (or Bootsy Collins or one of those cats) used to say, “You can’t fake the funk.”
Beyond the veneer of mere influence is a musical anointing, a mantle—an inheritance. In the Bible, a fiery chariot takes Elijah the prophet to heaven, and Elisha, his apprentice, picks up Elijah’s cloak and then does all the miracles Elijah did and more. Elisha didn’t just emulate the form and methods of Elijah; he had received the Elijah anointing, the Elijah inheritance, the Elijah vibe.
Many artists claim an influence, but far fewer have received a true inheritance. For example, Lenny Kravitz’s “I Build This Garden for Us” achieves moments of Stevie Wonder mojo, but those moments pass, and Kravitz winds up making a cameo appearance in a Ben Stiller comedy. To put it another way, I enjoy the occasional Bad Brains track as well as the next groover, but Funkadelic they ain’t.
Not all classic rock bands have an anointing to impart. The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Herman’s Hermits and the Monkees (excluding Head) come to mind as bands who left little in the way of legacies. Other classic rock bands have such a broad, genre-establishing anointing, that no single band can be said to have inherited it. Think of the Troggs, Iron Butterfly and even Lynyrd Skynyrd. To say the Ramones inherited the throne of the Troggs is like saying Thor inherited the throne of thunder itself. There is a difference between a unique musical mantle and a raw force of nature.
Inheriting a musical throne means more than imitating the sound of an earlier band—if it were that easy, thousands of Led Zeppelin crowns would be in current circulation. Similarly, inheriting a musical throne takes more than replacing an earlier popular band in a given demographic market. If that were the case, U2 would be sitting on The Beatles’ throne with Radiohead in their lap.
Actively seeking musical thrones rarely results in their acquisition. For example, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion desperately covets the MC5 throne, but like Tantalus’ fabled fruit, it shall ever elude their grasp. More often than not, musical thrones are inherited accidentally—and sometimes to the total indifference of their inheritor. For example, amidst the Beastie Boys’ quest for hip-hop legitimacy, they stumbled upon Captain Beefheart’s throne. Who knew?
Some musicians carve out a throne and reign until they die. Neil Young is firmly seated on the Neil Young throne and shows no signs of abdicating. Steely Dan abdicated their throne 20 years ago, but nobody in pop music knew quite what to do with it, so Steely Dan came back and reassumed it without missing a beat.
But regal perpetuity is by no means guaranteed simply because the original artist is still breathing—numerous actively touring musicians no longer inhabit the very thrones they created. To name names: The Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, Sting, Eric Clapton, Bruce Cockburn, Bob Dylan and every member of King Crimson down to the last ephemeral percussionist. The artists formerly known as Led Zeppelin could hire Neil Peart himself to sit in on drums at their next reunion concert, but Rock & Roll has left the building.
Musical thrones are being inherited all the time—even at the more obscure, indie level. Roky Erickson’s throne was inherited by Daniel Johnston who passed it on to the Danielson Famile. Starflyer 59 got Tad’s throne, DJ Spooky skanked Cool Herc’s coveted throne, and Flying Saucer Attack accidentally wound up on the throne of Tangerine Dream. But all this is academic.
Some thrones are currently vacant and up for grabs. Didn’t Marilyn Manson assume Alice Cooper’s throne? Hardly. The Minutemen’s D. Boon inherited Credence Clearwater Revival’s throne, and it has remained vacant since his death (despite the reformation of fIREHOSE and John Fogerty’s entire solo career).
Some thrones will probably never be filled. John Coltrane’s throne? Bronze it and put it in Plexiglas. When Doc Watson dies, his throne will remain vacant. And who would presume to sneak into the dark woods, climb the barren hill and usurp the black throne of Johnny Cash?
But I digress. What follows is a list of four potent, highly coveted pop rock thrones that have only recently been reassumed. Presumptive bands have clamored over these thrones for decades, and hasty rock critics, mistaking the phenomenon of influence for the spiritual authority of inheritance, have thoughtlessly dispensed them. Fortunately, we now know better. The truth shall out, and here it is.
1. Beck succeeds T. Rex
My wife grew up listening to Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story and the soundtrack to Flashdance, so marrying me and my music library has been something of an adjustment for her. She is game though, and often tries to guess which band is currently playing. One day when T. Rex’s The Slider was on, she asked if it was Beck. Suddenly, I heard what she did. My wife doesn’t know Beck or T. Rex from Adam—she just knows the music itself. And when you remove the pasty, shoddy, skinny, hair-in-my-eyes persona from Beck; and the pasty, glittery, skinny, Art-Garfunkel-mutant-spawn-hair-persona from T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, the similarity becomes more apparent. (Incidentally, the name of the transferred kingdom in question is painted in irridescent pinks and purples on the ornate back of the candied throne itself: “ye olde POP ROCK.”)
Yes, decades after glam rock culture, T. Rex’s music sounds less like glitter and more like pop rock, with an emphasis on “pop.” Had Bolan been a pianist, he might have gone the route of Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.” But Bolan was bound to craft infectious pop tunes one way or another. Lucky for us, his primary musical paintbrush was a fuzzed-out guitar and a basic acoustic drummer. Similarly, the initial instruments at Beck’s disposal were an acoustic slide guitar and a beat box. Both Beck and Bolan started producing what they wanted to hear using the instruments they had at hand. Neither sought a “standard” rock lineup, and consequently, their music sounds nothing like standard rock.
Later, both bands added orchestration to their respectively quirky foundations, but not out of formulaic obligation to some predefined musical genre. The double backwards guitar solo at the end of T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” organically arose out of an otherwise minimalist acoustic arrangement. The beefy Fender Rhodes track on Beck’s “Debra” likewise came from an intrinsic desire to mock early Prince ballads.
Cursorily reading T. Rex’s and Beck’s lyrics might lead one to dismiss both artists as shallow and derivative. But that’s like critiquing Coca-Cola for being caloric and fizzy. T. Rex’s lyrics are textbook examples of self-aware stupidity, so overboard ridiculous that they achieve a kind of imbecilic sublimity: “You slide so good, with bones so fair / You’ve got the universe reclining in your hair.” Anyone capable of coining the mystical pop mantra “hubcap diamond star halo” is not to be dismissed lightly.
Lyrically, Beck is in the same moronically brilliant ballpark—and even further out in left field: “I’ll give you fruit that don’t exist / I’ll leave graffiti where you’ve never been kissed / I’ll do your laundry; massage your soul / I’ll turn you over to the highway patrol.” As the members of Spinal Tap intuitively observe, “There’s a fine line between stupid and clever.” When Bolan and Beck aren’t using that fine line to dry their laundry, it doubles as a badminton net.
Rhythmically, both artists groove in an unapologetically white-bread mode. Compare T. Rex’s “Planet Queen” with Beck’s “Where It’s At.” Both exude a kind of plodding, honky funk—Beck and Bolan speed toward the very heart of Funkytown, but in a 1985 AMC Pacer. I can imagine Miles Davis listening to T. Rex’s Electric Warrior, shaking his head, and whispering, “No man. No. That ain’t it.” I can imagine Chuck D listening to Beck’s Midnite Vultures with a similar miffed reaction. But as recovering addicts say of their program, “It works if you work it.” And Bolan and Beck do indeed work it. “Karaoke weekend at the suicide shack / Community service and I’m still the mack.” “Lithon the Black, the Rider of Stars / Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Eater of Cars.” I rest my case.
2. Olivia Tremor Control succeeds Pink Floyd
Just so you know where I stand, I’m one of the faithful who believe that the Pink Floyd anointing left Pink Floyd at Syd Barrett’s departure—which means Pink Floyd only had the Pink Floyd anointing for one album. (And if you disagree, you are not alone in your error, and I hope you enjoy the laser lightshow). After Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the Floyd anointing remained on Barrett until he stopped releasing music and lost the anointing along with his mind (two full albums, one Peel Session and a few outtakes later).
Since then, Pink Floyd’s throne has remained conspicuously vacant, although not forgoing its share of pretenders over the years. Shockabilly did a promising cover of “Lucifer Sam” in 1984, but they proved too self-aware to properly assume the throne. The Flaming Lips, though sometimes touted as Pink Floyd heirs, are more of a garage rock band with a trippy aura than a psychedelic band proper.
What makes Syd Barrett’s work so enchanting and unique is its “outsider” quality. Although Pink Floyd was smack in the middle of London’s swinging music scene, Barrett’s songs have a removed, meandering, vaudevillian quality to them—almost ornate and Victorian, albeit with that mod electro-planetary Soft Machine production. Barrett sounds like some displaced Alice in Wonderland wandering the set of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, ever noodling, ever rambling and painfully earnest.
Since this quixotic naiveté is a key component of the Pink Floyd mantle, it follows that anybody actively seeking said mantle isn’t going to find it. As fate would have it, the Floyd mantle landed on a group of rural Louisiana home-recording enthusiasts who were trying desperately to sound like the Beach Boys. The Olivia Tremor Control relocated to Athens, Ga., but even this did not affect their misguided pursuit of harmonic excellence. (Here’s some free advice—if you really want to sound like the Beach Boys, ditch the lo-fi eight-track recording equipment, learn to sing better and hire a real producer.) Fortunately, the Olivia Tremor Control continue to obsessively pursue tight, orchestrated excellence in an inherently loose and crappy studio environment.
The results land strangely near Barrett’s old stomping grounds. On the climactic CD Black Foliage, the Olivia Tremor Control take a foundational bass line and speed it up, slow it down and otherwise use it as the basis for a large chunk of the project’s songs. The effect is realistically surreal: Certain songs sound unaccountably familiar. Dali got it wrong. Surrealism isn’t about melting clocks and barren Andalusian landscapes. It’s about something that seems almost completely normal that is actually almost completely not.
The Olivia Tremor Control legitimately assume the Pink Floyd throne largely due to their compulsive attention to lost detail. They kill themselves orchestrating and arranging all this multi-instrumental brilliance—and then most of it gets lost in the lo-fi swirl of their homemade production. Strangely, the residual intent of the band’s compulsive arrangements still come through. How such structured orchestration arises from the flatlands of eight-track production, I don’t know, but after infinite listenings, the Olivia Tremor Control loom in my mind as large as Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, Frank Zappa or any other canonized musician you care to name.
Had Barrett stayed with Pink Floyd instead of flipping out, Dusk at Cubist Castle and Dark Foliage are the CDs Pink Floyd might have cut. Olivia Tremor Control’s own session with British DJ John Peel actually exceeds Barrett’s in bizarreness. Barrett sings, “This is a story ’bout a girl that I knew / She didn’t like my songs and that made me feel blue / She said: ‘A big band is far better than you.’” After 25 years, Pink Floyd’s vacant throne finally returns to a big band.
3. The White Stripes succeed The Stooges
“The White Stripes can do no wrong” seems to be the critical rule of thumb these days. And who am I to disagree? When all the critics start unanimously praising some avant-garde conceptual artist, chances are he’s already on his way out. Not so with a pop band. Why? Because-—lest we groovers forget—“pop” stands for “popular.” Just because many popular bands suck doesn’t mean that a truly great pop band deserves obscurity. Whoever said that “to be great is to be misunderstood” probably wasn’t all that great.
Frontman Iggy Pop never took The Stooges throne with him into his solo career because The Stooges’ greatness primarily resided in Ron Asheton’s “eureka” combination of brilliantly cruddy guitar tone and insipid, primordial guitar playing. You’d like to think such a classic throne was built by more than this single factor, but it wasn’t. That guitar contained enough raw rock power to carry everything else and then some.
Furthermore, John Cale’s production of the first Stooges album deserves a medal, because he chose to leave that guitar out front and center, warts and all. Cale didn’t try to embellish it or mask it or apologize for it. If anything, he went out of his way to feature it.
Then Jack White comes along and does Cale one better. Taking a hint from The Cramps and Flat Duo Jets, The White Stripes lose the bass guitar altogether. And Jack makes an even worse soloist than Asheton. Most crappy guitar soloists, naked with just a basic drum accompaniment, would either not solo at all, or would mask their solo with a bunch of feedback, fake their way through it with a series of “aw shucks” cliché riffs and scamper back to the warm comfort of their three power chords. But not Jack White. He can’t wait to embarrass himself by overtly stumbling through one inept, thin, chordless solo after another. Jack White rocks.
Because rock guitar isn’t about musicianship (despite what Jimmy Page and Angus Young would have us believe). Rock is about tone and vibe and—most of all— rock is about … ROCK. Jack and Meg White rock because they rock. They’re not intentionally trying to rock, or trying to imitate someone else who once rocked. I don’t think they’re even trying to play rock music or earn a place in Detroit Rock history. They simply dig playing music and it rocks.
Granted, Jack White has a guitar tone that even Dinosaur Jr. wants, and he didn’t come by it accidentally. He’s got the requisite Lesley cabinet and the various Danelectros and Moserites, and you can probably read all about them in Guitar Player magazine by now. But anybody could rock if it came down to mere equipment. Lots of ladies sport the latest fashions, but not all of them make it look good. Jack White makes it look good. Verily, he makes it look freaking monster.
Sure I like the tunes, fun outfits, stage energy, roots-rock awareness, garage-rock sensibility, blues recontextualizations, and even the surprisingly heavy lyrics. But the bottom line is that nobody has balls-out rocked since The Stooges made Fun House, and now The White Stripes have. The Stooges’ throne remains in Detroit.
4. Elliott Smith succeeds Nick Drake
“On a cold December evening / I was walking through the Christmas tide / When a stranger came up and asked me / If I’d heard John Lennon had died / And the two of us went to this bar / And we stayed to close the place / And every song we played / Was for the Late Great Johnny Ace”—Paul Simon
I’m really, really sad that Elliott Smith is dead. Unaccountably sad, and the sorrow doesn’t seem to be going away. While I’m sad for him personally, it’s only in an abstract way, because I never knew him personally; I just knew his music. But I’m also sad for myself, because a living body of work that has been in intimate, ongoing dialogue with my life is now dead—a static archive to be expanded nevermore. It feels kind of like taking Arthur Murray dance lessons for years, looking forward weekly to dancing with your same regular partner—her familiar movements, her awareness of yours, the sweetness of falling into that comfortable groove that only steady repetition can bring—and then one day you walk out on the dance floor to find your partner frozen, as beautiful and lifelike as ever, but static, inanimate, strange and distant.
The week before Smith died, I had just archived my entire Elliott Smith collection (Heatmiser singles and all) into an iTunes playlist. 103 songs. “Where is Elliott right now?” I wondered. Probably in the studio, working on the follow-up to Figure 8. If commercial success hadn’t spoiled him yet, it never would. His next release was going to be his best ever; I could hardly wait. We were both 34 that week. I still am.
I discovered Nick Drake’s music long after Drake was dead. Rich, personal music—music that made its way into my heart, not to be shaken loose or undone. Both Drake and Smith made intimate, immediate, startling, self-contained, fragile, shining sad music. Both artists killed themselves young. So now, for me, their legacy is inextricably linked. Not a bad musical throne for Elliott Smith to inherit, but I’d still rather have more of his music.
Pop music may not have the enduring legacy of classical music, or choral music, or even bluegrass music. Some would demean pop music as an ephemeral bubblegum byproduct of contemporary culture. But even bubblegum cards get collected (I’ll trade you three Stravinskys for one Fugazi). For those with ears to hear, pop music thrones, kingdoms, mantles are passed on, and anointings do indeed exist. And who’s to say their perpetuation and documentation is any less important than the newly remastered Debussy box set? (That was a rhetorical question. You needn’t name names.) Elliott Smith gets the last word:
“I got static in my head / The reflected sound of everything / Tried to go to where it led / But it didn’t lead to anything / The noise is coming out / And if it’s not out now / I know it’s just about / To drown tomorrow out”