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Kick Out the Jams: The Modern Relevancy of Rock and Roll
By An Article of Opinion by Travis Becker

Driving into Washington DC on a Sunday, the rain spitting at me like so many British punks at a Black Flag concert, my hopes and expectations were limited. Not getting murdered and finding somewhere to park my car, where it stood at least a reasonable chance of remaining for the duration of my business in city, pretty well summed them up. Feeling reasonably confident about those objectives, my friend and I strolled down 14th Street in downtown DC. We stopped in front of a Domino's Pizza and stared across the street at the front of Black Cat and spouted the usual complaints about doors not being open and the likely outrageous drink prices while trying to shelter from the now steady downpour. Behind us, in the restaurant, sat two long-haired, leather-clad members of Swedish rock superstars, the Hellacopters. Kenny Hankansson and Nicke Andersson cordially chatted with us for a few moments before we departed, leaving them to finish their dinner in peace in the empty dive. While not one for star struck awe in the face of admittedly minor celebrities (at least in America), the encounter did leave me considering the place of the music I love so dearly, Rock and Roll, in America today.

When the Hellacopters made their way to America back in the mid-Nineties by way of their debut album, Supers***ty to the Max, released on the now defunct Man's Ruin label, people in the underground immediately began to take notice. The unhinged, explosive guitars and drums along with the overdriven vocals seemed to tear at the speakers and, indeed, at the very fabric of time, space, and sound. As the band grew they refined their sound, shedding some of the punk influence along with Backyard Babies guitarist, Dregen, while reining in the amps to maybe 11 from the 14 or 15 to which they had been cranked. Popular reaction was mixed. While those who had discovered the band early on missed the raw power, the band brought in scores of new followers with the catchy but uncompromising retro-rock stylings of such albums as High Visibility, By the Grace of God, and this year's Rock & Roll is Dead. Although they have already accomplished such feats as winning Swedish Grammy's and selling to platinum levels in their homeland and throughout much of Europe and Australia, the band has mysteriously failed to achieve even moderate success in the US. Perhaps we've forgotten the past or maybe the Nationalism of George Bush's America prevents the U.S. from embracing an act that doesn't pledge allegiance to the Flag, whatever the reason, the Hellacopters offer as much of our Rock and Roll past and future to us as listeners and fans as any other band out there today. Indeed, they carry on the tradition of underappreciated, but unrelenting, Rock and Roll. 

Perhaps the most immediately obvious influences of the Hellacopters are the Detroit bands of the late Sixties and early Seventies, defined by as Proto-Punk. "Proto" as defined by Webster's comes from the Greek meaning "first" or more appropriately in this case, "primitive." The MC5 and the Stooges filtered bands like the Who and the Doors through the sensibilities of dozens of garage bands and psychedelic acts, such as those featured on Rhino's Nuggets collections, and added just a dash of the Motown soul that so defined the musical identity of that working class city. The MC5, in particular, created a formula basically stating: volume minus pure virtuoso talent (although I'd put money on Wayne Kramer or Fred "Sonic" Smith in a guitar duel anytime) plus a beat you can dance to with a message laid over top equals beautiful chaos over and Rock and Roll ecstasy. Regardless of what you call it, the music tugs at you in a primal way with unfettered energy and undeniable ass-moving rhythm. While other acts, like the Stooges, may have pushed the sonic envelope further and may have paved a more direct road to Punk, as a pure Rock and Roll band, the MC5 were the best of the bunch.

Later, other acts followed in the footsteps of the MC5. Bands spawned directly from the MC5 like Sonic's Rendezvous Band ultimately proved commercially unsuccessful and broke up soon after forming. Many punk acts also cite the MC5 and the Stooges as huge influences, the Ramones notably, who also suffered from a lack of commercial viability for much of their career. While some acts garnered critical acclaim later on, or became big sellers after their prime, like Radio Birdman, no act with the unbridled sound of those so called Proto-Punk bands made a lasting impact on the charts or on radio, rather they had to settle for success down the road or not at all. So, why does it take the music-listening public, which ultimately is not a huge portion of the population, so long to catch on to these bands? And why, when a new band comes along that harnesses the sound and fury of those acts, does it meet the same sad fate during its own time? Important questions, indeed, but ones with no acceptable answers.

What is important is that there are bands to carry on the legacy of uncompromising Rock and Roll. While most of the modern bands who have taken up the torch for the MC5 generally lack that band's incendiary political stance, several of them have begun to stamp the music with their own signature. Whether it's the spacey excursions of New Jersey's Lord Sterling, or the Southern Rock tinge of Georgia's Bad Wizard, each of these bands is helping to create a new tradition based heavily on the old. New York's own Mooney Suzuki has even taken heavy does or R&B influence and made the leap to airtime in commercials for major car dealers, and the Brought Low, another New York band, possesses one of the most transcendent guitar tones heard in the last twenty years. Just try to find one of these bands on the radio, though. And, of course, the mighty Hellacopters keep cranking out anthems in our own time that would probably sound at home on most any rock radio station, modern, classic or otherwise if given a chance.

I suppose it could just be a case of people needing extremes. Maybe these bands aren't heavy enough for the modern rock radio set who seem content to feed on the likes of Metalcore and the misery of post-Grunge, or nu-Metal. While Rock and Roll has always had a dark side, the ultimate message has always remained uplifting, that is until the last ten years or so. It could be the always manic message of the Hellacopters and their ilk clash with people's medication. Who knows? By the same token, maybe sweat-soaked Rock and Roll guitars are just a little too straight forward and upbeat for the Indie and Emo kids, who also seemed destined to wallow in misery and self-pity. To each his own as the saying goes. But me? I'm happy right in the middle of two or three guitars, intelligent but not overly serious lyrics, and a damned catchy hook somewhere in there. That may place me in the minority of an already small minority, but maybe that's the fun of these bands, and any underground band for that matter-knowing you're in on something special that the rest of the mass media-fed world just hasn't locked onto yet. Still, there would have been something vaguely satisfying about having to fight through a Beatlemaniaesque mob to meet the mighty Hellacopters. Then again, I don't know if that kind of validation is really necessary. What I do know is that I would drive hours through the rain into a veritable war zone to catch the Hellacopters again, to see real Rock and Roll again. 

This article was inspired by the Hellacopters. Be sure to read Travis' review of the new CD as well as his review of the concert mentioned in this article.

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