Is rock dead? When was the funeral? I certainly would have gone and paid my respects. I’ve had a pretty close relationship over the years with rock. You think I would have heard something. I begged my parents sometime around 1984 to let me go to a midnight showing of ”The Song Remains The Same” by myself. It kind of changed my life. I may have attempted the Pete Townshend windmill more than once or twice while listening to “Pictures of Lily.” I find it slightly hard to function every time Sweet’s “Fox on the Run” or Cheap Trick’s “Dream Police” comes on.
Rock can’t really be dead, right? I actually believe power chords are kind of indestructible.
I googled “Is rock dead?” and found a few articles, but no obituary. Which leads me to believe that it’s still among the living. Maybe it’s just kind of gone missing. I was listening to Courtney Barnett’s “Pedestrian at Best” the other day and I certainly felt rock’s presence. Spoon and Guided By Voices are still making rock. They certainly haven’t gotten the memo. Bon Iver is trying to strangle the life out of rock but they can’t seem to finish the job.
Rock may be down, but somehow it keeps getting back up. Remember the guy in Monty Python’s Holy Grail that said, “It’s only a flesh wound?” That’s rock.
In the time it takes Jimmy Page to strap on his double neck Gibson EDS-1275 you will find that there are those that want you to believe it’s true. Rock is in hospice, they say, and family and friends are being called in to say whatever it is they need to say before this beloved music goes the way of the rotary phone.
The last gasps are as audible as the power chords in “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Tom Petty, David Bowie and Prince are all deceased. And the guys in Led Zeppelin and The Who are in their 70s. George Martin and George Harrison are no longer with us. Springsteen and McCartney are pushing octogenarian.
Hell, last year Gibson Guitars filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Yes, God and the music journalists have spoken. Rock is on a respirator. It needs some kind of miracle.
That said, have you heard Money City Maniacs?
Yeah, the song came out in 1998. But I found myself amidst a rapt crowd of about 250 people at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge last Wednesday, where the legendary Canadian rock band Sloan was playing their classic album “Navy Blues” from start to finish. Money City Maniacs is track 6 on that album, and on Spotify it has 2.5 million streams. I was eagerly awaiting that song, and my will to not play air guitar in public was wavering hard.
Of course, Money City Maniacs isn’t the only thing “rock” about Sloan. The legend is very real. They were signed to Geffen Records in the early 90s and released “Smeared” which featured the minor hit “Underwhelmed,” a 90s grunge rock song that fit in with the times. Their eagerly awaited second album, Twice Removed” was rejected by Geffen. It wasn’t grunge. It was, as we have all come to know Sloan, rock/power pop/British influenced brilliance. Geffen begrudgingly released it when Sloan refused to re-record it; the album got no promotion, and the band got out of their contract with Geffen. End of story.
Not so fast. The band formed their own label, Murderecords, and released their watershed album One Chord to Another, which became their biggest selling album. That album is damn near perfect, and opens with the roar of a crowd, and a man proclaiming, “Would you please welcome, Sloan!” It felt like a reintroduction. The first song, “The Good in Everyone” hits you in the face; all jagged power chords and Keith Moon. The song opens as if they are talking to Mr. David Geffen himself:
Here's what you do to me
You get rough
Attack my self-esteem
It's not much
But it's the best I've got
And I thought you saw
The good in everyone
When Sloan says, “Hey, we’re nice guys from Canada that just want to make music, can’t you see that?” they do it in a way that you want -- no, you need -- to sing along.
I would assume the members of Sloan have had somewhat the same experience with rock that I have, obsessed with melody, a riff and a kick ass chord progression. Learning how to play “Substitute” and breaking down the bass line to “Come Together.” They, like thousands of other musicians, must have seen the clip of The Who playing on The Smothers Brothers show when the band blew up their amps. That was when rock was its most virulent and essential self; all swagger and sweat. If rock could text back then it probably would have overused DGAF.
The Bottom Lounge in Chicago has a spacious back room with a bar, and really no matter where you are, you feel close to the band. The stage was adorned with a massive lit up number 4, just like the one on the cover of their double live album 4 Nights at the Palais Royale. Which reminds me of another reason Sloan is clearly rock: They have a double live album.
Money City Maniacs starts with a siren. As if there is some type of rock emergency. It’s the sound of the city, and as sirens are known to do, it wakes you up, gets you to pay attention. Live, the siren sits atop guitarist/bassist Chris Murphy’s amp. It spins a red beam throughout the club before a perfectly dirty guitar hints at the chords, and the song builds to a crescendo cutting into a full blown riff laden 4/4. This is the 70s by way of the 90s, by way of 2019. Which leads me to another reason Sloan is rock: They get what’s timeless and they execute those things to absolute perfection.
Every band member of Sloan writes songs and is represented in the vast Sloan catalog, spanning 12 albums and an EP or two or three. Because of this, the members trade off instruments during the show, with Andy playing drums and moving to guitar for his songs, and Chris playing bass for his songs and moving to drums for Andy’s songs. Jay plays bass when Chris moves to guitar. Patrick Pentland is the only member who plays guitar and sticks to it. I guess this is all a complicated way of saying that Sloan is band of able bodied musicians who are professionals of the highest order.
Apart from the aforementioned siren and power chords there is a section of Money City Maniacs where the crowd is inspired to clap along, which is as rock as it gets. Most of the great rock anthems involve the crowd somehow, from the na-nas of Hey Jude to the instantly singalong-able refrain from Kiss, “I want to rock and roll all night and party every day.” During the clapping section of Money City Maniacs Pentland leads a sing along with the crowd and one of the key lyrics of the song sound like Sloan talking to rock’s eulogists:
“If you admit that you were wrong, then we’ll admit that we’re right.”
I know that’s just me projecting but we all build stories around the songs we love, and make associations that may not have been the songwriter’s original intent. That’s part of a song’s universality and timelessness. Some may not understand Stairway to Heaven, but for thousands of people it’s the song they made out with their girlfriend to in 1973.
In 2017, in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, a list of the 50 greatest Canadian songs of all time was compiled, and Money City Maniacs locks in at number 36. Lists are dumb, I know. Then again, number 36 is pretty impressive considering it lives in a world with Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Rush. Oh, and the Barenaked Ladies. Yes, lists are dumb.
Sloan blistered through Navy Blues in their first set on that November night in Chicago, and added a second set of crowd favorites and deep cuts. Remember deep cuts? That’s another thing that’s rock about Sloan: Longevity. It’s something that’s sadly rare these days, where few bands make it to 10 albums.
Speaking of longevity, yes, rock is still alive. And if I need a reminder, Sloan is here to make do that for me. And regardless of which album I pick there are reminders of rock’s true vitality: “Ill Placed Trust.” “Losing California.” “Friendship.” “Unkind.” Any of these songs played at full volume have the power to shake the screws off of my car’s engine.
Yes, the death of rock is as real as the “Paul is dead” theory among Beatles’ conspiracists. It’s intriguing to talk about, but it’s total bullshit. In an article published by Vice, written by Dan Ozzi, this really sums it up eloquently:
“While rock may be getting nudged out of the top, its middle is expanding. The more its popularity shrinks, the more it attracts freaks and weirdos—those with something to prove and nothing to gain. The more the traditional rock star career path crumbles, the more it draws in the true, inimitable visionaries making groundbreaking work for the sake of art and not money. Hopeful thinking? Sure. But the alternative is to accept that guitars are playing the siren song of a floating corpse.”
I’m one of those freaks and weirdos, and happy to say so.