Originally published in Spin / 2007
At some point during each day of the best rock festival I’ve ever attended, 1991’s International Pop Underground Convention in Olympia, Washington, a guitar player would gaze purposefully at his or her instrument, pluck its six strings in turn — bung, bong, bing, bang, skrknkxgg!!!, bung — and then, satisfied despite the painfully audible evidence, start the next song. Under the watchful eye of Beat Happening / K Records founder Calvin Johnson, the event’s joyous parade (which featured Jad Fair of Half Japanese as well as the Spinanes, Bratmobile, Unwound, Pastels and other purveyors of untutored minimalism) erased issues of native skill and adequate rehearsal. Some of the bands were crap, plodding through hapless imitations of whatever, but others proved their d-i-y ingenuity in stop-start, rhythmic collapse and microtonal spades.
Rock and roll has spent a half-century pushing apart the poles of bad and good by continuously revising what it means to be either. There is, finally, no practical way to compare the grunting thuggery of “Wild Thing” and Joanna Newsom’s harp-carried webs of wordplay. From the wild-eyed slop of cranked-up ’50s rockabilly ravers to the obliterating noise of Sunn0))), the wavery voice of Neil Young to German art-noisers Einstürzende Neubauten (who once fielded an electric shopping cart), the traditional borders of popular music have been erased by artists and audiences happy to step over them. An opera audience might well hiss a veteran soprano who muffs a note in La Traviata, but there’d be almost no one left standing if shoddy live singing were judged anywhere as harshly in rock.
Many of the greatest bands of all time have looked at what it takes to play and sing “well” and shrugged, or done their level best to be “good” and still come up yards short of what is traditionally acceptable. What made Roxy Music so influential in the ’70s was ultimately not style-mongering or sophisticated posturing, it was the pitchiness of Bryan Ferry’s singing. Ditto Morrissey, Lou Reed and others with the courage to defy music’s supposedly inviolate rules. (But not Justin Hawkins of the Darkness; badness is no blanket excuse for sucking.) Ray Dolby spent years reducing recording noise only to have the Jesus and Mary Chain slather it on their songs like clotted cream. On one live album by London’s wonderfully lovable Television Personalities, a shambling mess at the best of times, Daniel Treacy’s guitar is hideously out of tune, which presents no obstacle to the record’s entertainment value. Further back on that same road lies the Velvet Underground’s deliciously depraved indifference, Roky Erickson’s ferocious B-movie acid delusions and the weird and frightening world of the Wiggins sisters (soon to be the subject of a major motion picture), who as the Shaggs released Philosophy of the World, an album of staggering incompetence and charm in 1969. No less an iconoclastic icon than Frank Zappa called them “better than the Beatles.”
The benefits of careless genius are captured in the history of garage rock and (as it was called in the ’60s) punk. Like all good outsider artists, the practitioners of the form neutralized competence as a problem by functioning outside the realm where such malarkey mattered. There are no relevant rules when four high-school friends plot world domination in a finished basement or in front of a remote-control door. If it rocks, it rocks. The bands who somehow made it out of suburban anonymity, their indefensible ideas intact, added such essentials as “Gloria,” “Louie Louie” and “Psychotic Reaction” to our lives. While polite pop bands were perfecting three-part harmonies and buttoning down their uniforms, our graceless heroes gave their worst impulses full rein, jacking up teenage libidos with sneering sonic calamity. Thank the devil for that.
When garage rock made its triumphant return this century, it looked like slapdash abandon might be on the way back, short-circuiting a disturbing rise of ambition and formal achievement (not to mention automatic pitch correction and strobe tuners!) in rock. The Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie, the Killers and My Chemical Romance wouldn’t dare their audiences to put up with ineptitude the way Pavement and the Replacements did. (Perhaps pricier concert tickets are to blame for the shift from we-love-you-however-flat-you-are to give-me-my-money’s-worth!!!) Jeez, even Cat Power, Liz Phair, the Donnas and Green Day learned to play nice. So while they weren’t as fast or loose as the Smugglers and the Dirtbombs, the Vines and Jet learned enough from the Stones and AC/DC to put spunk back into their conceptual garages. But then came the Hives and their Swedish precision to replace the magic of risk with the contrivance of irony. (Working to seem bad or simple is as impossible as trying to think of nothing. Cruddiness is come by honestly or not at all, which is precisely what Kiss and the Knack, beyond the letter “K,” have in common.)
Metal is another refuge in which genuine godawfulness can be triumphant: the mix of pomp and incomp is a formula with potential: if not the parody of Spinal Tap, Black Sabbath is proof of that. There’s even something weirdly poetic in the random medical textbook inventions cobbled together by Carcass in the late ’80s: “Excoriating Abdominal Emanation” and “Crepitating Bowel Erosion” anyone?
To be fair about it, bad-good grace is a difficult state to inhabit. Years of touring and the iron will of Johnny Ramone turned the Ramones from a hapless calamity to a dependable music machine. As encouraging it is that the wavering and feckless Daniel Johnston has proven himself eminently productive and capable of baring his unguarded psyche in public with some consistency, something’s been lost in the transition from the poorly recorded cassettes of his beginnings. Bad-is-good orthodoxy is no less a dead-end alley (who would want to watch nothing but John Waters’ movies?) than goody two-shoes musical duty, but just because a band chooses to live in a garbage can doesn’t mean it deserves to be thrown out with the trash.