“Spin” Tries To Expand On MGMT

Once again, we present Rock-Critically Correct, a feature in which the most recent issues of Rolling Stone, Blender, Vibe, and Spin are given a once-over by a writer who’s contributed to many of those magazines, as well as a few others! In this installment, he looks at the new issue of Spin:

When making a point regarding the blogospheric prominence of a band of recent vintage, it is customary to cite the number of “hits” said band has on Technorati or Google.

Having done so w/r/t the band MGMT in the previous paragraph, Your Correspondent will note that, while accompanying his gal on a shopping jaunt this past weekend, he heard a few of the band’s songs played in a Manhattan Marc Jacobs store and five minutes later in a Juicy Couture shop across the street. Throughout the late summer and early fall, YC heard tunes from Oracular Spectacular in virtually every boutique in Manhattan where he read the paper while his beloved tried on shoes.

Based on such anecdotal data, it would seem that Spin‘s braintrust chose the cover subjects for the mag’s November issue judiciously. MGMT’s music is described therein as “psych-pop” or “psychedelic,” which is balderdash: YC more or less hears wistful, percolating tunes largely made with vintage synthesizers, a genre that has been semi-popular with Spin’s readership ever since the release of Air’s Moon Safari and as such has no connection to “psychedelic” music whatsoever.

But it could just as easily be that many readers have heard and enjoy MGMT’s songs, but have no sense of who the act is and wouldn’t particularly care to learn. What then, Spin powers-that-be?

For the very, very little it’s worth, YC likes Oracular Spectacular better than he likes the current music of the last six months’ worth of Spin cover subjects. He also knew absolutely nothing about MGMT previously, and from the evidence of “Head Games,” by Spin contributor Victoria DeSilverio (with whom YC worked for a very short time at Blender), them boys ain’t that interesting. Met at Wesleyan; started duo as lark; never expected to be taken seriously; were taken seriously by two NYU students and a Columbia A&R rep; championed by lots of young folks; have pretty hair; travel the world; get lots of pussy (presumably).

Elsewhere, assistant editor David Marchese receives the dubious honor of attempting a civil conversation with notoriously rude rock and roll legend Lou Reed, who’s promoting a new live recording of his initially misunderstood 1973 album Berlin. YC, who counts the early ‘80s Reed/Fernando Saunders/Robert Quine/Fred Maher quartet as one of his favorite bands of all time, will scream if he reads Reed intoning “I wanted to do what Hubert Selby did, but with guitars,” and then proceeding to belittle an interviewer for asking questions that displease him one more time. Y’all should read it just to witness how utterly contemptuous he is towards Marchese’s reasonable queries, and how candidly Spin presents the conversation.

What was most interesting in the issue to YC was “A Tale of Day-Glo Body Suits, Dogs Chewing Gum, and Surf Music on Dust: Black Rock (An Oral History),” in which frequent Spin contributor David Browne presents an oral history of the Black Rock Coalition, a New York-based confederation premised on promoting African-American rock and roll musicians that included Living Colour and 24/7 Spyz, as well as fellow travelers like Fishbone.

Once signed, these acts were not only pitched to “the one black kid at the Van Halen/Circle Jerks show,” but to white kids who could not understand Public Enemy and were eager to support black artists who, y’know, play “real music, like Hendrix, maaann.”

YC should say that he and his teenage knucklehead pals were knocked off their asses by Bad Brains’ I Against I in 1986, that he bought Vivid the day it was released in 1988 and was one of 25 people to see the band open for the very shitty English band The Godfathers in Louisville that year, and that he saw 24/7 Spyz five times in the early ‘90s. But in hindsight, it seems like Living Colour made one world-class hard-rock single, but otherwise produced very ponderous, overstuffed, didactic, and ill-conceived music. Yet any white kid with an interest in rock music was almost obliged to support the band, lest he or she embody the narrow-minded dirtbag hard rock fans were believed to be.

Browne’s piece is nonetheless enlightening. To wit:

• Spyz guitarist Jimi Hazel and Fishbone singer Angelo Moore express frustration not only with major labels leery of investing on black rock bands, but with the expectations of black audiences at the time. Moore: “When black people hear music that’s past a certain tempo, they have to think too much to dance to it, so they don’t try.” Not only does the mind boggle at the prospect of a white musician trying to make this point, but these words are illustrative of how often many musicians are alienated from their immediate peer group.

• Spyz bassist Rick Skatore: “if you played instruments, they’d say ‘Are you into Prince?’ I would say, ‘That’s not the kind of stuff I’m feeling.’” How odd that in the ‘80s, Prince could be looked at as a pop artist, and not universally acknowledged as both the most Ellingtonian figure of the last 30 years and a consummate rock and roller.

• BRC executive director Earl Douglas: “When we tried to book bands at black clubs uptown, there was flat-out resistance…the biggest battle was that our audience didn’t drink… someone said ‘you don’t understand—the bar is where the club owners make their money.’ I thought, ‘We need some alcoholics in this organization.” YB is reminded of a Bowery Ballroom bartender who once told him that one of the Johns of They Might Be Giants walked up to him after a show, handed him $50, and said, “Sorry our fans are so fuckin’ lame.”

• Douglas again: “Alternative music came in, and suddenly Living Colour was thrown into that old guard. The mainstream thought of them as an ‘80s metal band…” Perhaps the band shouldn’t have tried to be a high-minded glam metal band populated by slumming fusion cats, and focused more on the Homestead/SST/AmRep paradigm guitarist Vernon Reid certainly was aware of.

• Browne also makes the point that the BRC paved the way for younger bands with African-American members like TV on the Radio and Dragons of Zynth to be a justly unremarkable part of modern popular music.

It also bears reminding that the most influential African-American rock and roll band of the last 30 years had no formal connection to the BRC, although the group is mentioned briefly in Browne’s piece. That would be the greatest hardcore punk band in the history of the world and one of the best American bands ever, full stop. This group did not try to make a point about how black rock bands should get their due. It was all show and no tell for Bad Brains.