Once upon a time, I worked in one of those “High Fidelity”-ish record shops. In fact, I worked in three of them over the course of about 12 years. If you ever bought something from me or my co-workers, you can be assured that we said horrible things about your choices the second you walked out the door. (Except for that one guy named Sean who had impeccable taste in everything and who later became a heroin addict and then stopped buying records, overdosed and disappeared into a Christian rehab. We thought he was awesome.)
But when you work in a place like that for long enough, you realize something very important about popular music. And here it is: everything sucks. Even your favorite band. But especially everyone else’s favorite band. Especially everyone else’s favorite band that people can’t stop contorting themselves into pretzelly shapes over, inventing new ways to kiss their collective, pampered buttocks. Especially-especially bands that end up wildly successful and revered and eventually tenuously re-united for a greatest-hits comeback tour or a museum induction ceremony.
It’s unavoidable. If your music is not instantly dismissible, if it endures, it’s going to be the subject of someone’s over-adoring gaze. Maybe way too many someones. Best-of lists and Halls of Fame and hagiographic films about “the soul of the music.” You’re lucky if you can avoid it. But most popular bands don’t. And that praise-bloat kills.
I’m specifically thinking of The Police, whose main contribution to culture has been the inclusion of their stalker-themed love song “Every Breath You Take” in very confused wedding receptions. Any band whose influence dots can be connected two decades later to Blake Lewis has a lot to answer for.
Back in 1980, a friend bought me a copy of “Boy” without either of us having heard the band before. She said, “I know you like stupid new wave crap like this. Here. Happy Birthday.” When I played the record, she said, “They sound like cats mating.” But I liked that. I liked it a lot. And then, about 20 minutes later, came the sunglasses. And the cowboy hats. And arenas and sainthood. Not that I begrudge Bono one second of humanitarian rock-star penance. You have to do some kind of community service to get that record industry b.o. off of you. In fact, I wish he’d quit music and focus on that entirely. But those damn sunglasses still scorch my soul. Also “Vertigo.” And Creed? All this band’s fault.
Around the time of the emergence of “speed-metal,” these guys were one of many bands doing exactly the same thing. But they had the breaks and the right publicity team and the right Misfits T-shirts and the grandiose visions of MC Hammer-ish gold-plated bathtub fixtures to keep them reaching for the stars. That their own we’re-in-couples-counseling documentary helped inspire a parody cartoon show (“Metalocalypse,” the best thing on TV) should help keep them off this list. But it doesn’t. Listen to Abruptum instead.
[“Smells Like Teen Spirit”] + [tragedy] x [Courtney Love] ÷ [lawsuits] = Kurt Cobain floating on a cloud in a Doc Martens advertisement. I enjoy fantasizing that if he were still alive he’d be like Joaquin Phoenix at the end of “Walk the Line,” holding a bucket of chicken and enjoying his backyard, oblivious to the fact that he helped pave the way for bands like Puddle of Mudd. It beats thinking he’d end up in and out of rehabs, brushing shoulders with Britney Spears.
The most opportunistic of the late ’60s counter-culturalists, they created a toxic and inexplicably popular body of work revered by date-rapist frat boys for decades to come. And it’s the company you keep that ultimately defines you. Unlike just about every other band on this list, I’ve actively disliked them since I can remember, and if I could blame them for the death of Cass Elliott I would. Also? Directly responsible for Third Eye Blind, Matchbox 20 and all other neo-swaggering-front-man pop-chart wankers. Exempt from this discussion: the kookoo-bananas Oliver Stone movie about them. That was amazing.
Joe Strummer, may he rest in peace, is not responsible for the way this band has been lionized. In fact, I’d say that out of all of the bands here, it’s not so much their music that irritates as it is the chorus of hosannas that, 30 years later, still follows them around like a car alarm that won’t shut off. I happen to live near a musician in a bar band. They practice in their apartment. I’ve heard “Should I Stay or Should I Go” a lot. Enough times so that I think I should get some royalties out of the deal. So actually I take that back. It is the music.
A moral and aesthetic struggle. Does he get a pass like Prince or The Rolling Stones for creating brilliant music in the beginning and then sliding into sameness and reliance on back-catalog sales? And here’s why I think he’s doesn’t: because no one runs around telling you how atom-smashing the new Prince or Rolling Stones records are. But Dylan, every single time he burps onto a compact disc, the fogeys are like, “This is the work of an elder statesman! He’s the ‘Lion In Winter’!” And if it weren’t for him I would have never had to listen to Ani DeFranco.
Their musical output was great. You can’t really dispute that. I mean, you could but you’d be kind of wrong (John Waters and his labeling them as “honkies who ruined rock and roll” notwithstanding). And they did inspire an only-makes-sense-to-space-aliens movie version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” that featured Carol Channing dancing to a disco version of the title song. So that’s cool. In fact, if Yoko Ono didn’t exist, you’d have had to invent her to give you something to irrationally dislike them for. But did they appear on a tortilla or a grilled cheese sandwich? Have wars been fought in their name? No, these things haven’t happened. So stop making movies where Sean Penn plays a guy with Down’s Syndrome who only knows about real-life and how to parent Dakota Fanning because of their songs.
My personal all-time favorite band. And just about every rock critic thinks they’re incredible. So there’s got to be something wrong with them. I just can’t see it because I’m blinded by love. A guy I know who hates them says they sound like the musical huffing of paint thinner. He’s probably right.
Dave White is the author of “Exile in Guyville.” Don’t bother arguing music with him at www.imdavewhite.com.