12 May 2009

Then Again, What Do I Know?

It was suggested by a couple PPMB carpers that I was kind of over the top in my review of 21st Century Breakdown, or that I was giving the band special treatment because they were friends of mine.

I'll take the second charge first: anyone who's known me very long will be aware that I'm absolutely hopeless when it comes to schmoozing with musicians, because I can't help letting my opinions be known, no matter how positive or negative they might be. Doesn't matter if the band in question are close friends or if I've just met them. I learned long ago that when bands ask you, "So, what did you think of the album (or show)?", most of them are not looking for or expecting a detailed critique. Nine times out of ten they want to hear some version of "Awesome, man, you guys are geniuses."

Even when the band are very close friends and genuinely care about your opinions or your criticisms, it can be pretty awkward if you actually come right out and say what they are. Which I know because I've done it. Many, many times. It's actually a miracle that many musicians still want to talk to me at all. Assuming they do, of course.

After all, these guys have been working for months or years to create the record or performance you're commenting on, and they wouldn't have put it before the public if they didn't in their heart of hearts think it was just about as good as it can be. And chances are, especially if they've got a record label or a manager or a fan club telling them how great they are, they've come to at least partly believe it. So when someone, even if it's someone like me, with considerable experience in the music business, starts explaining how the song's too long and they should have left off that second chorus or how they missed a golden opportunity to insert an extra harmony on the bridge, they're not usually that thrilled.

And I've tried, believe me, I've tried, to keep my opinions to myself, especially when I haven't been asked for them, but hey, old habits die hard. During the years I ran a record label, at least part of my job was to tell bands what I thought was good and bad about the music they were producing, and even though I wasn't always right, I was right enough of the time to compile a pretty enviable track record when it came to picking bands and albums that would be popular.

All well and good, as long as it was my job (and even then, some of the bands were known to get pretty irritated with me), but once it stopped being my job, I unfortunately didn't lose the habit. It's been over 12 years since I released a record, and yet I still have to bite my tongue to keep from unleashing a full-scale deconstruction of the band who just played at a local bar show.

So if you should ask me what I thought of your band and I get this strange, screwed-up look on my face (more than usual, I mean), chances are that I'm striving manfully not to tell you that your band either sucked, delivered a bad show, or should seriously consider shifting to a career in carpet installation. If I tell you that you were good, you almost certainly are good (at least in my opinion), and if I start offering detailed advice about arrangements, harmonies, tempos, etc., it probably means that I'm taking your music quite seriously and am encouraging you to do the necessary work to make it as good as it can possibly be.

But never mind, because you'll probably just be annoyed, so I'll shut up about that now. As for my extremely enthusiastic review of the new Green Day album, well, I've also had a lot of experience in predicting great success (or lack thereof) for a band or a record and being laughed at for it. My favorite example (and sorry to those of you who've heard this story before) was when in 1988 I predicted that Operation Ivy would be one of those bands who would become punk rock classics, who would continue to grow more popular for years and decades after they ceased to be a band. Like Minor Threat and the Dead Kennedys, I said, those being the classic punk rock bands of that era.

When I said that to Tommy Strange, who was in charge of the warehouse at Mordam Records (our distributor), he laughed and laughed, and then insisted on going around to every other person in the warehouse to tell them the ridiculous thing that Larry had just said. For the next few years of his life, he would spend an ever-increasing amount of his time piling crates upon crates of Op Ivy CDs onto trucks for shipment around the world; I don't know for sure, but I would guess that Op Ivy have long since outsold the Dead Kennedys, and probably Minor Threat as well.

I was reminded of that the other day when being interviewed by a British magazine about the history of Lookout Records. Asked if I had any idea of how big Green Day would become when I first saw them, I said, very truthfully, that I'd almost instantly thought they could be as big as the Beatles. Note: I didn't say I expected that to happen, but I saw them as being good enough that it could happen.

If you've been around the music biz very long in any capacity, even if only as a fan, you'll know that many bands who have the potential to make it really big don't end up doing so. This happens for a variety of reasons, most involving some form of self-sabotage. Drugs and/or alcohol are a perennial favorite, but so is giving up too soon, or changing your sound because some promoter or manager convinced you "that's what all the kids are listening to this year." Often, too, a band will fail to take care of some of the boring fundamentals: getting good people and labels to work with, signing favorable contracts, in short, just taking care of business. Result: they get ripped off or at least feel ripped off, become disheartened and cynical, and either give up altogether or start focusing on transparent cash grabs instead of whatever it was that made their music special in the first place.

That's why, as I've said several times, it's a miracle when a band manages to hold it together long enough to make more than two or three really good albums. It might also help explain why thoroughly mediocre bands seem to be able to stick around at the top of the charts longer than the truly great bands: if all you're producing is formulaic pap, the pressure is considerably less.

UPDATE: Back at the PPMB, resident curmudgeon Chris Grivet just called me "a raving lunatic" for my 21st Century Breakdown review and goes on to claim that if any Green Day record goes down in history for its social/cultural impact, it will be Dookie. Bear in mind, of course, that Mr. Grivet is the same gentleman who, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, claimed to have seen "Longview", the first video from Dookie, in 1993, before it had even been made, let alone shown on TV. His "proof" of this assertion: well, in the video, the band were all wearing summer clothes, so it must have been made in the summer of 93, and that when he, Chris Grivet, saw it, he was wearing fall clothes, so it must have been the fall of 93.

Not that I want to bag on Grivet, who is generally, despite his personality quirks, an all-around great guy. But, it needs to be said, an all-around great guy who is frequently, even belligerently wrong about certain musical issues. Like his frequently propounded theory that Nirvana were largely responsible for Green Day's success. Evidence for this? Well, he, Chris Grivet, liked Nirvana a lot when he was 12, and after that he liked Green Day, so obviously one thing led to another, and he, Chris Grivet, turned out to be the bellwether of a generation!

Well, looks like we've come full circle here. 20 years ago it was Tommy Strange calling me a raving lunatic for my musical predictions, and now it's Chris Grivet, who is undeniably strange in his own lovable fashion. We already know who was right the last time. Why not bookmark this page and come back in 20 more years to see if yet another carping critic has bitten the dust?

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