The Pitchfork 500 Alt Rock 101 Part 1 – Sonic Youth to Meat Puppets

The next two Pitchfork articles feature the flowering of US Alt-Rock; these are the bands that your favourite bands love. From early ’90’s staples like The Pixies and Nirvana, to more recent bands like The Hold Steady and even the likes of Fleet Foxes, they were hugely influenced by the next six bands. I’ve split this article in two, so that you don’t have a 2,000 word behemoth to trawl through1.

Sonic Youth – Death Valley ‘69
Hüsker Dü – Pink Turns to Blue
Meat Puppets – Plateau

Of the next six bands, I only own records by three of them, and had hardly heard any songs by the rest. Which, funnily enough, was one of the reasons why I started off doing this whole Pitchfork 500 thing. I remember looking through the list, and when I got to this bit, thought “Hey, I don’t know any Replacements or Minutemen songs but I’ve always wanted to, so this is my chance”. And whilst both REM and Sonic Youth’s later records (Out Of Time/Automatic For The People and Sister/Daydream Nation respectively) were staples of my teenage years, I didn’t know much about their earlier songs, making it doubly worthwhile.

Would it be a disappointing experience, discovering that these bands really aren’t all that? Hell no. Would I wish I’d bought the likes of “Let It Be” and “Zen Arcade” 25 years ago? Hell yes.

First off are Sonic Youth. I’ve not heard “Death Valley ‘69” in years. I mean, years and years and years. From one of their earliest records, it’s got that whole chaotic Sonic Youth vibe but doesn’t quite have the pop sharpness of later classics like “White Kross” or the evergreen “Teenage Riot”. Noisy, yes, groundbreaking, to a point, but do I like it more than their later stuff? Nope, sorry.

Hüsker Dü (love the umlauts) were one of the most influential rock bands of the ’80’s. Taking hardcore punk and adding a huge slab of melody, they turned it into something approaching a angst-ridden version of power-pop. Whilst I loved Sugar and some of Bob Mould’s solo stuff, I never got any of the Hüsker Dü back catalogue. I guess it’s all about worrying that the record I get will be the wrong one and I’ll end up disappointed. Yeah, it’s daft.

This is one of those tunes I didn’t know and it’s been stuck in my head for the last few weeks. One of Grant Hart’s songs, it’s a swirling maelstrom of a song about a drug overdose, and has a nauseous, nightmarish feel to it. It’s also hopelessly catchy in a way that hardcore hadn’t been before. If anything it’s got as much “Don’t Fear The Reaper” as it does “Minor Threat”. Which was exactly what the band intended, having never wanted to be put in a straightjacket and told what to play. That bloodymindedness would end up tearing the band apart acrimoniously. That, and the huge amount of drugs they were all doing.

Meat Puppets came to most people’s attention thanks to Nirvana playing three of their songs in MTV’s Unplugged. Yeah, I know some of you hipsters had heard of them before, but the rest of us hadn’t, so ner. Anyway, anyone buying their “Classic Puppets” compilation expecting some lonesome country-rock might have got a right shock for the first few songs. I certainly did. But then “Plateau” comes along, with its weird country-acid-punk, and Kurt Cobain’s love for the band suddenly starts to make sense. It really doesn’t sound like anything else, except maybe Gun Club, and is quite marvellous.

The song has a woozy, half-awake quality, like one of those dreams you have that when you drift back into conciousness, you’re not quite sure if you actually experienced it in real life, or whether it was just a bit of your imagination going bonkers again. It also sounds better than the Nirvana cover, funnily enough. And I just love the beautifully restrained guitar solo – a lesser band would have gone haywire at that point, but Curt Kirkwood, with his hardcore punk background, understood exactly how much noise you need to make the maximum impact.

Sadly, Meat Puppet’s obstreperousness took them to recording entire albums with the singing out of key, and despite the fame brought to them by that Unplugged show, they ended up breaking up. That, and the huge amount of drugs they were all doing.

Don’t do drugs, mmmkay? 2

Three down, three to go. Next time it’s The Replacements, The Minutemen, and REM.

1 And I haven’t written the second half yet. Ahem.

2 Please see the below video for more information on the subject. Any implication that I may agree with Mr Hicks is purely coincidental, and stating this would make you a liar and a communist.

MP3: Pink Turns To Blue by Husker Du

MP3: Plateau by The Meat Puppets

Buy “Death Valley ’69” (MP3)

Buy Husker Du’s “Zen Arcade” (MP3)

Buy “Classic Puppets” (MP3)

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The Pitchfork 500 Goes RAWK! – Blue Oyster Cult to ELO

Blue Oyster Cult – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper
AC/DC – Highway to Hell
Van Halen – Runnin’ with the Devil
Fleetwood Mac – The Chain
Steely Dan – Deacon Blues
Electric Light Orchestra – Mr. Blue Sky

This section of the Pitchfork 500 is a blessed relief. I’ve rather had my fill of hedonistic Disco and miserable post-punk, clanging punk-funk and Italian prog-rock film soundtracks. This is pure drive-time music, for winding down the window of your ’66 Chevy and driving fast along a highway in, er, Milton Keynes.¹

So first off, Blue Öyster Cult. You have to respect a band who saddled themselves with such a bonkers name, to then add an umlaut, sparking off a great little chain of heavy metal umlauts from Motörhead through Mötley Crüe to Hüsker Dü. “Don’t Fear The Reaper” was one of those songs that, when it came on the tedious late-night radio we were forced to listen to whilst doing nightshifts in a warehouse some years ago, was universally loved by everyone – from the housewives, the old guys to the young students. It’s just one of those songs. The warm, comforting blanket of sound is pierced by the insistent riff, restless drumming and the suicide pact lyrics, simultaneously romantic and deadly. The repeated rising motif keeps nagging at you until it’s finally resolved with the downward “Da da da”‘s.  The bonkers instrumental bit in the middle.

Until I listened to it for this I’d forgotten how great it is. I’ve listened to it three times already today. This is the sort of song that gives MOR a good name. Mind you, I never knew this was released in 1978; it has such a feel of early ’70’s paranoia that I thought it was from then.

As for AC/DC, there really is none more rock. Not even Van Halen, with Eddie Van Halen’s astonishing guitar playing can beat them in the RAWK stakes. AC/DC and Van Halen, though both heavy rockers, are really the opposite ends of the spectrum. AC/DC were dumb, basic fists-in-the-air RAWK! and frankly none the worse for it. Still are, I suppose. There’s little on “Highway To Hell” that can’t be played by your averagely talented pub-rock band, but that’s what makes them such an enduring band; Angus Young’s guitar playing is simplicity itself (at least on this song), and the band as a whole know exactly what needs to be done. There’s not an ounce of flab; the entire band concentrates on just rocking, rather than flashing technique. With a bloke screaming over the top.

Van Halen, however, were revolutionary. Or rather Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing was. For those of you not versed in the intricacies of playing guitar, he popularised a technique called tapping (or fret-tapping). This involves tapping the string instead of strumming or picking it, and allows for very fast rhythmic note-changes. Whilst other guitarists had occasionally used the technique, EVH made it his own, and whilst the track on offer here doesn’t show masses of it, it’s still clear that the playing is extraordinary. There’s a bit about 2/3 way through where there’s a sudden arpeggio fill that just comes from nowhere.

Are You Sure You've Got Enough Guitars?

Just a shame that it’s otherwise dumbass metal though with Dave Lee Roth screeching like someone’s caught his bollocks in a drawer.

I approached the next two tracks by Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan hoping that I’d be amazed by the hidden intricacies of the music, the depths of the emotions involved, the craft and the songwriting skills used, but no. Middle of the road bollocks, I’m afraid. I’d rather listen to The Clash than these two songs again, frankly. It’s stuff like this that gives MOR a bad name. And the lesson of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” is, if you’re going to be millionaire pop-rock stars, don’t go round shagging each other, it’ll only end in tears. And tedious albums about shagging each other. That make you even more money. So you can get depressed about shagging each other and having loads of money. It’s a tough life.

And yes, the awful 90’s band Deacon Blue did indeed name themselves after Steely Dan’s track, “Deacon Blues”. There should be a special circle of hell for people who name themselves after tedious soft-rock songs.

And finally, ELO. Now, ELO have had a bad name for many years. And frankly, given Jeff Lynne’s pomposity it’s not surprising. But then you listen to “Mr Blue Sky” and you marvel at what a great tune it is, and how much detail there is in the song.  Jeff Lynne had tried to mix The Beatles and Beethoven into one huge, mad, vocoder-and-string band, and sometimes it was a bit of a godawful mess. But sometimes it just clicked, and this is one of those times. Just listen to how beautifully it’s all done – whilst the Pitchfork writers say it’s dated, I don’t see that at all. This song is more than 30 years old now, and yet it fairly stomps along and sounds more modern than a whole load of people I could mention (er, The Killers?). You can see exactly why Super Furry Animals love them so much, there’s a psychedelic oddness mixed in with the pop nous, and the stomping Krautrock beat is just fantastic. Listen to how, as the first verse starts to build, they add strings, bells, multi-tracked vocals, and panting as Jeff sings “Running down the avenue”. The bizarre classical coda. And that guitar solo, simple, nicely complementing the song, rather than taking over and spoiling the tone.

As a brief aside, the song was used to great effect during the Dr Who episode “Love And Monsters”, to show the main character dancing around his bedroom because he’s happy, and he’s met a lovely girl, and life suddenly has meaning. Sure, it’s schmalz, but Russell T Davies knew he’d hit upon just the right note using this song. As did Michael Gondry, using it in “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind”.

So, cast off your prejudices, and rejoice in a great song. Madly catchy, experimental, and a thumpingly good tune. Well done, Mr Lynne and co.

A right mixed back coming next…

¹Funnily enough, I’ve just finished “Rip It Up and Start Again” by Simon Reynolds, and he confessed to feeling the same at the end of the post-punk era back in 1984.  Nice to know it’s not just me, then.²

²Yes, I’ve worked out how to do Superscript.  Hurrah!

Don’t Fear The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult

The whole list is available here.