By Rob Barbour
The first time a rock band ever disappointed me was on Thursday 21st August, 1997.
MVC on Bracknell High Street (don’t look for it; it’s not there anymore) had opened early – one whole hour, if I recall correctly – and I’d set an alarm to ensure I was one of the first through the doors, at 8AM, to purchase my copy of Be Here Now.
Inasmuch as it still bears any cultural relevance, Oasis’ third full-length is now more punchline than album. Recorded by a band in the grip of the artistically-stifling trifecta of a failing sibling relationship, monumental cocaine addiction and three years of being told by the UK music press that they were incapable of doing any wrong, it’s a textbook example of what happens when a young, successful band decide not to listen to anyone but themselves.
I can still recall not the joy of taking the new CD out of its jewel case for the first time, of pressing ‘play’ and prising the booklet out of the cover so I could pore over the liner notes; I pretended I could understand the ‘art’ of the album’s ridiculous front cover, and let the music fill my bedroom. 7-minute long songs with no discernible direction. Liam Gallagher’s trademark sneer, once so enticing but now bordering on self-parody. Guitar piled on guitar guitar piled on … wait a minute.
Even my dad, with whom I shared a love of mid-90s British rock including Oasis and Manic Street Preachers, found the album unlistenable. I was delighted – I’d finally found an album my parents hated! It wasn’t quite sitting in my bedroom playing Judas Priest backwards, listening for messages from Satan, but us well-behaved Berkshire boys take our rebellion where we find it. Parents. Of course they wouldn’t understand.
The realisation hit me several weeks, and countless listens, later: This album’s fucking awful, isn’t it? Ergo – and this seemed as obvious to me at the time as the fact that I’d always have hair, and never have to worry about getting a proper job — this band are fucking terrible, and I’m done with them. To this day, I’ve never actually listened to their fourth album, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, in its entirety. To listen – so the logic went – would be to put myself at risk of being wrong. So, fuck that.
Prior to the advent of Spotify et al, to be a fan of a band – the kind of fan who listens to a new album within hours of its official release, and can name all the prior members going back to the lineup on their initial demo which you not only own, but refuse to admit is diabolically bad – required a level of commitment which is now entirely optional. For me, this was a mixed blessing.
Yes, it meant I gave the album far more chances than I might have done if it had been just one of hundreds released to the streaming services on that day; if the initial listen didn’t reel me in, I’d try again. Listening to a different album required effort; listening to a different, new album required another trip to wherever it was I’d acquired the first let-down. Much easier to just hit ‘repeat’ and wait for the songs to work their magic. But this system also imbued in me an all-or-nothing approach to my favourite artists.
The deal was: I’ll pay for and listen to everything you release. But the second you release something I don’t like, you’re dead to me. There were no bands whose last albums had been sub-par. Just bands I liked, and bands I used to like.
This attitude unknowingly followed me into adulthood, and it’s only on reflection now that I realise just how many of my most beloved bands I have, at some point ,written off on the basis of one duff record. Hundred Reasons (Shatterproof is Not a Challenge); Alkaline Trio (critical damage caused by Agony & Irony, Mortal Kombat-style Fatality delivered by This Addiction); Coheed and Cambria (Year of the Black Rainbow). Thrice (The Alchemy Index). Weezer (oh, take your pick).
I know I’m not the only person guilty of this, but I do think it’s an interesting phenomenon – and one that’s been perpetuated by the sheer availability of new music. Not sure about that new letlive. album? You’re three swipes away from listening to Every Time I Die instead. Feeling lukewarm halfway through the new Billy Talent? Switching to that new NOFX record takes less energy than opening WhatsApp, selecting the name of that mate with whom your entire message history is aggressive, hyperbolic judgements on musicians and mutual acquaintances, and typing “Billy Talentless, amirite?”
The list of bands a couple of paragraphs above isn’t exhaustive, but neither is it random. Every one of them went on to release records which blew the preceding turkeys so far out of the water that the Air Force got involved. And more interestingly, three of those were released in the last 12 months.
We’re in the midst of what might lightly be termed a Legacy Band Renaissance. Bands who seemed to have settled on a purpose of recording and selling sufficient records to warrant regular tour dates, on which to wheel out the decade-old songs their fans were really interested in hearing, are producing exciting, successful, Career Top-3 albums. And it’s not just an echo-chamber of sweaty-palmed, nostalgic music critics who think so.
At Thrice’s sole London date this year, the biggest singalongs not from defining albums The Artist in the Ambulance and Vheissu (2003 and 2005 respectively) were reserved for tracks from this year’s To Be Everywhere is to be Nowhere.
When Weezer played London’s Brixton Academy in April – four days after the release of The White Album – their set included five songs from the record. Half of the album, and more than they played from any other record in their back catalogue. This is a band who know what their fans want: who’ll play the ostensibly-obscure-yet-beloved ‘You Gave Your Love To Me Softly’ yet exclude any material from the three consecutive albums prior to 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright In the End.
By contrast, when Coheed and Cambria toured in early 2016, in the six months following the release of the triumphant The Colour Before the Sun, the most common complaint I heard about their set regarded the lack of new material. Instant classics like ‘Atlas’, eschewed in favour of presumed fan service.
Bands like this finding a fresh vein of form from which to draw is the perfect intersection of older fans getting the opportunity to enthuse over records like The Artist In The Ambulance, Coheed’s In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth:3, and everything Weezer released between 1994 and 2002 ,and a new generation of music fans getting to ‘discover’ an older artist. It also gifts that generation with an album to ‘own’, in the way that Generation X had Weezer’s Blue Album, and my generation got The Green Album.
One could make a comparison with Green Day, and what happened between 1994’s Dookie and 2004’s American Idiot. But so disappointing has their subsequent material been, up to and including the recently-released Revolution Radio, that it might be time to add them to that list of ‘classic’ bands. Their legacy undeniable, their live draw everlasting, but their relevance rapidly diminishing.
When bands are deemed to have outstayed their welcome as recording, rather than performance, artists, they might be described as having ‘gone stale’, or failed to move with the times; even worse, they’ve cynically, clinically moved in lock-step with the times and wound up producing something as unintentionally hilarious as Buckcherry side-project, Spraygun War. What 2016’s class of postgraduate Masters in Rocking the Fuck Out have shown is that there’s a lot to be said to owning your best qualities and channeling them into great songs.
Great songs who distil those qualities, rather than exploring them. It’s no coincidence that all three albums cited above are under 40 minutes long. They comfortably sit on a single vinyl disc and leave you sufficiently energised to immediately listen again. When bands forget that it’s their songs which drew people in, like Oasis did in 1997, they quickly disappear into their own exit holes. Both Coheed and Thrice have been guilty of this in the past; Weezer are notorious repeat offenders.
The common threads underpinning this renaissance could be comfort with their own sound, songs, and place in the annals of genre history. But then I loved these bands growing up and, on some level, I’m still that over-excited teenager, pressing ‘play’ and desperately wanting to be overwhelmed with joy.
It would make perfect sense if, at some point in the future, someone currently in Peppa Pig’s target demographic went on to write this same essay with Weezer, Thrice and Coheed being exchanged for a band who’ve just released their debut album. And I look forward to reading it. In my retirement home, shaking my head and regaling my long-suffering fellow residents with tales of Weezer’s 2010 Reading Festival set. No but seriously, Rivers put on a blonde wig and sang ‘Poker Face’. It was great. You wouldn’t understand.