This week’s entry in the “GET PSYCHED” series is the first of a two-parter focusing on UK bands playing the Coachella Festival in 2012. Not sure if you noticed, but there’s a sort of mini British Invasion taking place in the desert this spring. And it’s not just reflective of some new trend exploding in England; it’s more like a lesson in the history of modern British pop, starting with the punk era (and its roots) and plowing straight through to the country’s “newest hit makers.”
In this first part of our look at these bands, I’m going eschew lumping bands together by era or style, and instead whip-saw from past to present to give you some sense of the breadth of coverage that the festival will attempt this year. We’ll hit the ’70s, we’ll hit the ’90s, we’ll hit the ’00s, traveling by way of Manchester, West London, and Sheffield. We’ll have our hackles raised as we keep our pinkies up. And, as alternatively inclined Anglophiles, we’ll find a lot to love in this year’s Coachella lineup.
Buzzcocks: Orgasm Addict
It’s so hard for me to pick just ONE Buzzcocks song to represent the Manchester band’s thoroughly awesome, totally essential catalog. I went with “Orgasm Addict” because it was the first song I ever heard by the group (courtesy of legendary Los Angeles DJ Rodney Bigenheimer‘s weekend radio show on KROQ … Jesus, remember when KROQ was worth listening to? What the hell happened there?), and because it so perfectly encapsulates everything that’s great about punk rock.
I was probably 13 or 14 when I first heard this song come blasting out of my boom box speakers, stuck in my bedroom on a Sunday night doing homework to the sounds of whatever Rodney had chosen for his show that week. And by that point — ’88 or ’89 — “Orgasm Addict,” which the Buzzcocks released as its first US single in 1977, was already a “flashback” track. You’d never have known it to listen to it though, then or now. Even by the late ’80s, brash, bratty talk about self-abuse and sex addiction was NOT the stuff of mainstream pop lyricism. And that was the point: confrontation, delivered like a bitch slap via subversive lyrics whose sting was amplified by slashing Telecaster guitar tones and stop-start rhythms cranked way past what was acceptable for rock music in the mid-70s. All of this made the song sound immediate and current a full 12 years after its release. I’ll argue that’s true today as well; “Orgasm Addict” could have been cut last week without sounding anachronistic.
You can look up the band’s history elsewhere online — but it’s worthwhile to note here that the Buzzcocks’ appearance at Coachella seems like it will feature the full, “classic” lineup of the group (including co-founders Steve Shelley and Howard Devoto) that recorded singles like this and other seminal tracks (check out “Ever Fallen in Love,” “What Do I Get?,” “Harmony In My Head” and “Why Can’t I Touch It” for starters).
Arctic Monkeys: Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair
I’m not really sure that Arctic Monkeys have sustained the justification for the hype surrounding its first album (or their second … both of which hit #1 in the UK pretty much the minute they were released), but I am sure that front man Alex Turner has evolved into one of the finest lyricists in all of rock. His wordplay has been at the center of each of the band’s four albums, and it just gets better — more intricate, more epic — with each turn.
What makes the Monkeys appealing as an act to see at Coachella, however, is just how effing good the band is live. It played the main stage during the mid-afternoon in 2007, right as its second album was being released, and absolutely floored me (and everyone else, if I remember correctly). It doesn’t quite come through on record, but the band more than matches Turner’s dextrous lyrics with its playing. This clip offers a more recent taste of what it brings to the stage, something a bit more muscular that what fans of the group bouncier early work might expect. Recent albums have been inconsistent but listenable; I still expect the live show to be incendiary.
The Vaccines: Post Break-Up Sex
The Vaccines debuted last year with just about as much buzz as Arctic Monkeys, all of it justified. Heck, I even put one of its songs (“Wetsuit”) on my “Favorite Songs of 2011” list, and slapped its album, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?, on my “Best Albums of 2011” list. So, I’m clearly impressed. I really just love everything about this band, and I can’t wait to see them play live.
The Vaccines have sort of inherited the “hot new thing” torch from the Arctic Monkeys, for whom they once opened — so, if the Monkeys are Coachella’s representatives of British rock in the ’00s, The Vaccines represent where it’s at in the ’10s. It seems like every decade, a new band makes a grand unifying statement that rolls up everything that’s great about independent British rock, aand waves the flag for a new batch of bands to rally around. This decade, that batch of bands is led by The Vaccines. You’ve got front man Justin Young’s smart, sensitive, smirking lyrics (see: the clip above), the driving guitar rock aimed at the cheap seats (check “Wolf Pack”), and the soaring, sing-along choruses (“If You Wanna”) — all of it wrapped up in a package that’s undeniably influenced by punk and post-punk.
If you want to witness this year’s “State of the Union” for this particular genre of music, don’t miss The Vaccines’s set.
Pulp: Common People
You know what’s really awesome about this clip? That Richard Hawley — who played guitar for Pulp back in the 90s, without much fanfare, before going on to become on of Britain’s most acclaimed songwriters / performers — is right there with the band, ripping out power chords for this 2011 reunion appearance. Slim chance he’ll show up at Pulp’s Coachella gigs (despite also having ties to Arctic Monkeys) … but damn. I’m a HUGE Richard Hawley fan, so I’ll hold out a music nerd’s outsized hope for a surprise appearance.
ANYHOW … I’m going to go out on a limb and label “Common People” the “How Soon Is Now?” of the mid-90s. Every BritPop fan I knew (and I include myself in there) regarded this song as an anthem and unanimously went ape shit on dance floors and at living room parties whenever it hit the decks. In England, I totally get its massive, enduring popularity (listen to the lyrics; though deftly written, it’s not hard to score big by taking a swing at the posh class). In the US, however, where we live in perpetual denial of our own entrenched class system and regularly invite the wealthy to piss all over the middle and lower classes, its popularity seems … less likely.
What you quickly figure out when you just let go and listen, however, is that “Common People’s” success — both in the US and the UK — came down to its strengths as a song, pure and simple. The mounting tempo (which builds to a furor by song’s end), the built-for-dance floor rhythms, and the not-so-vague sense that it was an angry underdog’s anthem (albeit, written for the slightly twee set) comprise the DNA of a classic. There’s actually something Springsteen-esque about it, when you really listen.
So yeah … I’m looking forward to going completely mad when the band rips into this in Indio, and re-living all those sleepless Thursday nights dancing with my friends at PopScene in San Francisco.
Radiohead: Good Morning Mr. Magpie
Does anyone still think of Radiohead as a “British band” anymore? While its first two albums sat strong alongside mid-90s releases from Pulp, Blur, Oasis, etc. as solid representatives of a nation’s popular musical output at that time, each album it’s put out since then has been a more singular statement’s of the band’s own evolving aesthetics. Radiohead have become, as QuestLove of The Roots recently commented to Spin Magazine, the Remain In Light era Talking Heads of the 21st Century.
I’ll confess that my affection for Radiohead tracks inversely alongside its core fanbase’s; The King of Limbs, the group’s most recent, is my favorite album of its catalog. I like the band better and better as its sound drifts further and further away from the pre-millennial angst of its biggest hit, OK Computer. I especially like that Thom Yorke seems to have stopped crawling up his own asshole, lyrically (there’s something about his tone now that reminds me of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris; it’s more journalistic than accusatory, despite the fact that he hasn’t stopped confronting the great bogeymen of modernity). And I really dig the band’s exploration of poly-rhythms, glitchy electronic music, and ambient beauty. Radiohead is a much strong band — maybe the most interesting band working in popular music, at present — now that it’s learned to stop worrying and love the dystopia.
How all of this will translate to a headlining spot on the main stage at Coachella, I have no idea. The last time Radiohead played this spot, several years ago, it totally let me down by failing to bring sufficient enough rock to really drop the festival to its knees. It’s an even quieter, weirder band now — but also, one whose members’ musicianship has increased severalfold. I’ll be watching not just because I love the new material, but also to see what happens. Radiohead have made it impossible not to be curious.