Listen to this track by experimental rock noise makers from New York City Sonic Youth. It’s “Teen Age Riot”, a breakthrough song from an equally breakthrough record in 1988’s Daydream Nation. This was the release that put the band on the map after having formed a full seven years before.
The band that included singer and guitarist Thurston Moore, bassist and singer Kim Gordon, guitarist Lee Renaldo, and drummer Steve Shelley built their sound on their experiments with distortion, re-thinking the traditional structures of rock music and distilling them into their component parts. Then, they added their own elements to those structures true to the American underground DIY approach that was growing steadily by the early eighties. They added in spoken word elements, and tying it all together with a ferocious guitar sound that opened up the possibilities for rock guitar into the 1990s.
But, in the meantime, they had their own reputations to build with alternative radio, pulling from influences that ranged from The Beatles, to Neil Young, to The Minutemen. As experimental as they continued to be by 1988, they also understood that traditional rock structures in a song were traditional for a reason; they resonate with listeners. But, this song goes beyond an embrace of standard structure still.
Listen to this track by Dusseldorf duo and krautrock architects with an ironic consumerist moniker, Neu! It’s “Hallogallo” the lead track off of their eponymous 1972 debut record.
The band was made up of guitarist Michael Rother, and drummer/multi-instrumentalist Klaus Dinger. Both were involved in early iterations of fellow innovators Kraftwerk, and deal in many of the same musical approaches to a generous use of space and economic instrumentation. Speaking of space, this tune in particular seems to evoke a vast aural landscape of motorways and fast car travel. A sense of childlike wonder is contrasted to the idea of a dehumanized world of metal and glass that is an important undercurrent and vital tension in the music.
The incredible thing about this song in general is that this tension is evoked by the sparsest means, most notably a simple and unrelenting drum beat that is so undeniable it even has it’s own name: motorik. Read more
Listen to this track by Velvet Underground disciples and post-punk pin-up nerds from New Jersey, the Feelies. It’s ‘Crazy Rhythms’, the title track from their 1980 debut album of the same name. Much like Television a few years before them, the Feelies put out a debut album featuring a sound that straddled both the emerging camps of punk rock, and in classic pop guitar, influencing a generation of bands who came after them.
The Feelies emerged out of the New York punk scene in the mid-70s, haling from Jersey, and quickly garnering a following and critical praise from the Village Voice who championed them. The band managed to pull together 60s influences like the Velvets, but also the Beatles (the band cover ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey’ on this very album), writing songs that take their time, not rushing toward big musical ‘events’. Yet, at the same time, the hooks are there, keeping your attention as much as any traditional pop song.
What strikes me most about this track is that it is both languid and nervy at the same time. This band’s sound springs from the Velvets, particularly with lead singer Glenn Mercer’s clear Lou Reed-isms and the band’s propensity to stretch out on single chords. There’s also a sense of scale here, even if the structure of the song is built on some pretty basic elements. I think this may be the reason that the song works so well, and holds attention through out the instrumental passages, and maybe particularly in those passages.
The interlocking, jangly guitars and the build up of a drone aren’t new ideas in rock music. But, the Feelies presented them in an 80s context, paving the way for admirers from REM to Stereolab to popularize them for a new generation of indie bands.
For more information about the Feelies, check out the Feelies MySpace page.