Screenwriter William Goldman’s famous observation regarding the movie business applies just as profoundly to the music industry: “Nobody knows anything.”
Throughout rock history, music journalists, record promoters, culture chroniclers, and other (mostly) self-anointed “tastemakers” have hurled their collective weight behind various artists that they genuinely may love and/or believe would be “good for the public” if these acts were to become enormously popular.
Sometimes the hype is justified (Ramones, Sparks), and sometimes it isn’t (Sonic Youth and, again, Sonic Youth).
In addition, sometimes pressure from media elites can manipulate the marketplace (not to knock The Boss or his music, but Bruce Springsteen’s megastardom is in no small part a byproduct of rock critic relentlessness), and sometimes it doesn’t (reviewers at Rolling Stone, Spin, et al spent the entire 1980s attempting to murder heavy metal and vaporize its corpse).
Here’s an opinionated countdown of eight acts who, for better or worse, the hype-makers could simply not turn into hit-makers. It’s written by a rock critic (of course).
The Strokes lineup contained scions of entertainment and fashion biz royalty, Hollywood starlet arm-charms, all-around Manhattan glamour boys, and, okay, one kind of Frankenstein-looking dude. Somehow, that Parade of Over-Privilege was sold as rock’s saviors—finishing school ruffians who’d correct the course alt-music had taken by getting its flannel filleted by boy bands and Spice Girls.
The band’s 2001 release, Is This It, was supposed to achieve this redemption via “garage rock.” It did generate a substantial radio hit with “Last Night,” which sounded swell if rich kid ennui rocks your socks off.
When the first album answered its own titular question by producing nothing else of note, Those Who Know Best insisted the Strokes would really, really “rescue” rock via “new wave” with Room on Fire. Spin magazine even issued five different covers one month, each featuring an individual Stroke a la the 1978 Kiss solo albums (only, in this case, everyone involved was the human equivalent of the Peter Criss album). Room on Fire went down in flames.
The final Hail Mary pass was having Shia LeBeouf sport a Strokes t-shirt in 2007 throughout the entire first Transformers movie. In that case, two repulsives (three, if you count the movie itself) didn’t add up to a resplendent.
Alas, as with many other bands on this, when the Strokes reformed several years later, crowds should up sufficiently for their shows to appear crowded.
The Brothers Mael, Ron and Russell, have weathered Sparks through myriad lineup changes and overall stylistic mutations with results as consistently brilliant creatively as they have been a bust on the commercial end.
Sparks launched in the early ’70s as a glam band, creating a trifecta of the genre’s absolute masterpiece albums: Kimono My House (1974), Propaganda (1974), and Indiscreet (1975). They briefly flirted with hard rock on Big Beat (1976), before going art-disco for several albums beginning with No. 1 in Heaven (1979) and then arriving at their new wave ’80s stage with Angst in My Pants (1982).
During those initial decades, Sparks’ record labels backed the brothers with all conceivable might. The Maels appeared multiple times on American Bandstand, got to perform two songs in the 1977 big-screen thriller Rollercoaster (in Sensurround!) after Kiss pulled out, and they even pulled off a spectacular Saturday Night Live visit in 1982.
In addition, Sparks landed two tracks on the multi-platinum 1983 Valley Girl soundtrack and, by the end of the decade, they ranked as the third most played artist on Los Angeles’s tremendously influential alt-rock radio powerhouse, KROQ.
Regardless, outside of “Cool Places,” Sparks’ 1984 near-hit duet with Go-Go Jane Wiedlin, only severely devoted fans ever paid attention and/or money to these two scintillating siblings—except for in Europe, especially England, where the Maels have long been major cult figures (Morrissey is their great champion).
The upside is that Sparks fans have remain devoted around the globe and that the Maels teamed up in 2015 with Scottish alt-stars Franz Ferdinand as supergroup FFS. Their tour has performed to sell-out crowds worldwide.
Even during the Replacements’ first era as the drunkest maniacs in snot-punk, the band’s heart lay in the lofty songwriting of hopeless romantic and lead singer Paul Westerberg.
The further the Minneapolis foursome evolved away from their legendarily intoxicated early live gigs and the gleefully grotesque assault of their opening one-two punch-in-the-puker Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1981) and Stink (1982), the more mainstream music journalists championed the band as bad boys with big hearts, sometimes seemingly just so they could repeatedly bust out the sort-of word “shambolic.”
That buzz eventually nabbed the group a major label deal, resulting in Tim (1985), the first Replacements release to come off entirely shorn of danger. The reviews gushed accordingly, with Cameron Crowe beaming in Rolling Stone of the album’s “emotional perfection” (Yeah. Say Anything, dude).
The Replacements appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1986 and performed well through two songs. Still, today, true believers admiringly claim the group’s SNL shot a booze-sotted mess (watch the video and judge for yourself).
In ’89, the Replacements also played the International Rock Awards on ABC, and the usually impressed crowd clucked over bass player Tommy Stinson (Bob’s brother) audibly asking, “What the hell are we doing here?” (Ooh! He said h-e-double-hockey-sticks! No wonder Axl asked him to join Guns N’ Roses!)
Critics stayed with Westerberg after the Replacements dried up in the early ’90s, none more so than Cameron Crowe, who hired the Head Replacement in Charge to score his 1992 scrubbed-grunge romance movie, Singles (if you ever hear a song more sickly sweet than “Dyslexic Heart,” kill it in its tracks).
The late-stage Replacements got to play arenas by opening for Elvis Costello and Tom Petty (who actually may have nicked the lyric “a rebel without a clue” from them), but, as always, precious few shelled out for product.
At present, half of the Replacements have reunited (Bob Stinson died; drummer Chris Mars lost interest) for nostalgia shows that attract vast throngs of enthusiasts. Good for half of them.
Sonic Youth is the ultimate rock critics’ band in that, exactly akin to rock critics, they didn’t actually create original music, so they much as they essentially commented on the efforts of those who do—emptily, ineptly, and with trite obviousness of course, but that’s almost beside the point (again: almost).
What this assessment means is that Sonic Youth, from their “no wave,” “noise rock” and “alternative” stages straight on up until bass “player” Kim Gordon’s disingenuously titled 2014 memoir Girl in a Band, existed as solely stylistic parasites who were prescribed as “Good for the Benighted Masses” by Those Who Know What’s Best for You.
In fact, these pampered panty anti-talents fed off whatever underground movement they could attempt to force through their Liberal Arts-degree imitation of rock(lessness) toward like-minded hosannas hailed by sideline-dwellers.
Ultimately, no band was pushed ever harder on the public than Sonic Youth; and no band has the public ever more resoundingly not noticed than Sonic Youth.
The final straw effectively came when, on the power of meager (hype-versus-reality) record sales, Sonic Youth headlined (!) the 1995 Lollapalooza tour, drawing such miniscule crowds that only a lineup dominated by (then) critically reviled heavy metal bands could squeeze one more year out of the traveling festival.
Sonic Youth appears to be on hold, but the nonstop siphoning continues. Now that mainstream critics have embraced metal, Thurston Moore—who once said he wanted to “try Led Zep for war crimes”—took up with a black metal outfit.
Nonetheless, Sonic Youth will always have their disciples. It’s a quality they share with all other succubi.
While some conspiracy theorists continue to make noise about Courtney Love’s role in the demise of her husband Kurt Cobain, it’s definitely easy to make a case for her killing alternative rock’s mainstream moment in the 1990s.
As a shrill groupie patterning her existence after Chloe Webb’s performance in Sid and Nancy (1986), Ms. Love was an absolute genius. She traded up from Falling James of the underground band Leaving Trains to marry the biggest new rock star in the universe at the peak of his fame, and then rode that to two critically foamed-over albums consisting of songs many maintain where ghost-written by her various exes.
Corporate media in its entirety when mad, however, peddling this notion of Courtney as a monstrous talent of her own making. Just days after Cobain killed himself in 1994, Courtney stood dolled up (a look pilfered from riot grrls) on the cover of Spin. She ran her yap everywhere, suddenly one of the most famous humans on earth, and she had an unthinkable tragedy that just happened to coincide with the fresh release of her band Hole’s album Live Through This.
Nonetheless, for all the round-the-clock, in-every-periodical, on-every-channel attention Courtney got in the single biggest-selling year for alternative rock, Live Through This peaked at #52 on the Billboard chart.
The charade carried on throughout the decade. Courtney earned an Academy Award nomination in 1996 for The People vs. Larry Flynt. She has not worked as an actress of note since then.
When Rolling Stone in 1997 finally did an oversized “Women of Rock” special issue, its cover featured Tina Turner, Madonna, and… the lead singer (or whatever) of Hole. That decision, most decidedly, proved to not be one for the ages.
Still, we all know who Courtney Love is, don’t we? So, really, who won?
A long-standing music geek adage notes that, “The first Velvet Underground only sold 10,000 copies; but each of those 10,000 people then went and started rock bands.”
For all the love among bona fide musicians for the VU, it’s a hard point to dispute. The down-and-dirty, narcotic-chronicling New York degenerate foursome proved profoundly influential not just musically, but aesthetically and simply in terms of “f—k off” attitude.
The Velvet Underground’s impact rippled out most directly toward punk, but they also affected heavy metal, glam, prog, new wave, and countless other underground subgenres.
VU leader Lou Reed transformed into a shock-rock icon in the ’70s and did become a legitimate superstar. Reed’s tempestuous love/hate relationship with wrecking ball rock journalist Lester Bangs continues to be lovingly chronicled by music writers.
That tradition has a lot to do with said writers believing that their championing a Lower East Side junkie in a leather jacket will make them look cooler than pointing out Bangs’ other favorite rock star and dueling partner: Elton John (Creem back issues—look them up).
Iggy Pop led the Stooges out of an incendiary late-1960s Detroit proto-metal hard rock scene that also spawned the MC5, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Bob Seger. Some of those marauders became stadium-packing mega-stars. The others are the Stooges and the MC5.
That’s certainly no knock against the mad, mayhemic genius of the Stooges and/or the MC5—their records remain among the greatest and most explosive in all of rock, but the mass market just wasn’t having them.
After both bands disintegrated in the ’70s, hope endured that perhaps the public would come to embrace Iggy Pop as a solo artist. David Bowie took up the cause dynamically, producing Iggy’s two towering 1977 LPs, Lust for Life and The Idiot. Still: no paying takers of any numerical note.
That story continued throughout Iggy’s career. He was an icon, inspiring awe among all who ever witnessed him live, but he simply could not move units off music store shelves.
When Iggy finally did score it hit, it was 1990’s “Candy,” a milquetoast duet with the B-52’s Kate Pierson. Six years later, “Lust for Life” caught on after turning up on the Trainspotting soundtrack. Royal Caribbean Cruise Line commercials have kept Ig in “Lust for Life” royalty checks since then.
The story of the Ramones in the public arena is also the story of the first decades of the genre they crystallized, punk rock.
The fearsome foursome of glam rock and heavy metal fans from Forest Hills, Queens initially took up instruments in hope of competing with their arena-rocking idols on the order of Kiss, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, and Blue Öyster Cult.
The Ramones’ limited technical capabilities, however, cracked open a different form of brilliance, and these mooks reinvented rock from the first teenage rebellion on up, setting off a deceptively simple revolution that continues to change everything.
Rock writers, understandably, went nuts for the Ramones. So did a vast array of other talented types, particularly musicians. Regardless, the allure of the Ramones eluded the average FM rock fan at the time, even after the band got their own movie (the mighty Rock-n-Roll High School).
At no time was this discrepancy more painfully apparent than in 1978 when the Ramones opened for Black Sabbath on tour. The “punk-vs.-metal” premise ended with one clear winner, as Sabbath fans bombarded the Ramones with boos and garbage, not even allowing them to stay on stage for a typical 20-songs-in-25 minutes set.
While the Ramones always had fans, particularly in Latin America where headbangers embraced them as forefathers of speed-metal, they never enjoyed that one mainstream breakthrough. In 1996, the band finally hung up their motorcycle jackets and retired.
Curiously, then, the very pop-punk invented by the Ramones went on to become the most popular form of rock on Earth. First, it happened via Green Day, then with Blink 182, and then finally, after the turn of the century, with the cheez-whiz emo cversion embodied by Fall Out Boy and Panic at the Disco.
The fact that each successive and more commercially popular pop punk incarnation moved another giant leap further toward “pin-up cute” and away from the “disturbingly ugly in face, body, mind, and attitude” aspect of the Ramones speaks volumes.
All four original Ramones, in the meantime, are dead.