The Kids Aren’t Alright . . . They’re Amazing 

Why what was old and lost and a bit odd is young and new — and exciting — again

Thursday, Sep 18 2003
Photo by Gregory Bojorquez

It happened again a few weeks ago. I was checking out Kings of Leon, a band made up of three brothers and one cousin from Tennessee who do an amazing, uptempo ’70s Allmans/Faces/gospel/Southern-fried beast of a slurred boogie–rock & roll thing. That these guys were playing this well at 7:45 p.m. on a weeknight to a House of Blues that was at best one-quarter filled was noteworthy. That they had ballads this good and a stage presence this intriguing was special. But it was their ages (16, 18, 21 and 23) that left me in a state of mild shock. I couldn’t believe how young these guys are.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In the last year and a half, there’s been a host of notable debut recordings and performances by other deep-past-influenced youngsters: Starsailor, the Coral, the Cuts, the Black Keys, Devendra Banhart, Whirlwind Heat, Entrance, Jet, Sondre Lerche — young artists looking not just a few years back for inspiration, but decades, to a time before they were even born. This phenomenon seemed counterintuitive — interesting work is rarely done by retro-heads, and artists chasing a strange vintage are usually older, not younger — and perhaps even unprecedented. How and why are these artists, from all across the English-speaking world, arriving on the scene near-simultaneously, playing music rooted in styles templated before their births? How could a kid be so nostalgic for a non-experienced past that he shapes his own art in its image? And why is this happening to the unprecedented degree that it is right now?


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The Sleepy Jackson
(Photo by Andrzej Liguz)

Well, it wasn’t always 2003. In 1987, when I was still in high school and trying to find out about the Sex Pistols, the search was difficult. The songs weren’t played on the radio. The record wasn’t available at the Wherehouse. There were no books on the subject at the public library or the local B. Dalton. Music magazines like Rolling Stone, Spin and Musician wrote mostly about contemporary bands, with only the slightest occasional reference to mysterious characters named Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, who’d apparently made the most controversial music ever. In Upland, just 50 miles east of Los Angeles, if you didn’t have a cool older brother or sister, or didn’t know someone else who did, you were stuck — no Bollocks for you. The scope of the music you knew about was only what you’d heard on the radio in the previous years, and maybe whatever records your parents had lying around from high school or college. And if you were a musician, that would be where you would start — and the results could be good. As Brit musician-scholar Julian Cope noted recently:


In those bad old days, it used to be that certain of the more eclectic pop groups had such a wide range of styles that once in a while a song might be released that the public definitely needed more of. But the originators were just so totally on one that it surely weren’t gonna be them who provided it . . . [Take] the Zombies’ 1964 epic “She’s Not There,” which the band themselves never even came close to revisiting but whose bass parts, drum parts, keyboard stylings and minor-key melodrama was lifted with extraordinary vision and percipient thoroughness by the Doors for a magnificent (and genuinely exploratory) six-album career of sub-Nietzschean post-Jungian pub-banter.


It had been like that for years. Teenage musicians and music fans would have memories of, at best, the previous five to eight years; everything older than that was kind of mysterious and shadowy and rumorlike. It was like this in 1987, and it had been like that in 1981, in 1977 and so on. The upshot, in rock-music-history terms, was that, generally speaking, you’d get occasional stylistic or formal innovations, followed by a simplified imitation of said innovation, which would eventually fade. Then, a decade or so down the line, you’d hear that style being played again: a revival played by bands making something like the music they’d grown up on; thus you got the god-awful hair-metal of the ’80s, a devolution from the glam and glitter of the early to mid-’70s. Sometimes these bands would be good, sometimes they’d be silly, sometimes they’d sell, sometimes they wouldn’t. (Late-’60s/early-’70s revivalists in the late ’80s to ’90s, such as the Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz or Oasis, managed to do all four of these things.) The point is that their absorption of musical ideas would be pretty much limited to the biggest-selling pop from the 20-year period prior to each band’s emergence, because information about music styles earlier than that — and/or less popular than that — was so limited and so arbitrarily distributed. In other words: We all knew about the Beatles and the Stones, but how many of us really knew much about Tim Buckley or Love or the Raspberries or the Voidoids or Gang of Four?

Kings of Leon:
Allmans or all boys?

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