Ted Rall: New Music, Old Rockers and Young Punks Forever

BreakingModern — Used to be, bands peaked out early.

The good ones cranked out three or four great albums before drugs, complacency, exhaustion, fights over girlfriends or money began to take their toll. Then they’d either break up or, not being suitable for gainful employment or lacking the imagination to try something new, soldier on.

It’s a sad old story for generations of oldsters before you. As time passed and many of the fans moved on, diehard loyalists made do with new albums and then CDs that sounded enough like the glory days to keep them satisfied and turning up at concert halls. This kept grizzled old rockers on time with the rent — but rarely if ever achieving the magic spark of the early years.

Elvis Costello in 1978. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Elvis Costello in 1978. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

This happened even to the most-brilliant rock and rollers any music freak alive today has heard about and even listened to.

Take David Bowie. He was good for seven or eight iconic albums, but since the early 1980s we lost all hope of another soaring achievement at the level of, say, Aladdin Sane.

And the once great Elvis Costello turned out one amazing disc after another between 1977 and 1988, but by the mid-1990s it had become clear that, despite his admirable willingness to stretch outside of his comfort zone with collaborations with artists working in other genres, the new stuff was pretty much only going to appeal to Declan’s hard-core fans.

Look, you spend the first 20 or 30 years of your life speculating experiences for songs that go into your first few records. Then you become a professional musician, and pretty much the only thing that can go into your new stuff is what you did last year, while you were touring and negotiating with your surly record company.

And unless your wife or mistress (or both) dump you, your muse just doesn’t have that much to work with.

But the old slow-fade dynamic appears to be a thing of the past. 

I don’t know if musicians are responding to the fiscal pressures of digitalization, which has made it more difficult for creative types to monetize their work, or maybe it’s just a 2015 thing. I’ve been amazed, lately, at some of the great new music old bands now are releasing.

Now, this isn’t like Bob Dylan, whose every musical fart is always greeted by corporate music media as though, well, it didn’t really suck. That guy was old when I was a kid and he’s been boring for years. We’re talking about bands who have been around a long time and actually really keep getting better. Like they practice. Or something.

Bear in mind, many of these reboots result from the kind of personnel changes that typically destroy bands. I mean, imagine if the post-Jim Morrison Doors LPs were as good or better than even the original Doors, as opposed to the notorious disasters they actually were. Imagine if it not only didn’t matter that guitarist Mick Jones of the Clash – who wrote most of the songs – was missing from “Cut the Crap.”

Is such a thing even possible?

Well, maybe so. Or maybe the veteran performers whose new stuff is so good benefited from never playing huge arenas or being able to afford distractingly large mounds of cocaine. Clean living and poverty have some real rewards for artists.

The Buzzcocks: Brit Punk Gone Wild

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The Buzzcocks. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Consider legendary British punk rockers, The Buzzcocks, and their most-recent album. Not so excitingly named “The Way,” it continues a remarkable forward movement for a group that burst on the scene with androgynous lyrics about the politics of romance and relationships going back 40 years ago.

Like many bands from this punk generation, The Buzzcocks broke up in the 1980s and reformed in the 1990s. And this band returned full force. It kept its signature buzzsaw guitars and still maintains its core concerns, all while evolving its signature sound and songwriting chops.

Highlights of the reunion period include “Modern” (1999), the self-titled non-debut “Buzzcocks” (2003) and 2014’s “The Way,” which switches back and forth between songs written and sung by Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle. “Virtually Real,” about social media, would come off as contrived and insipid in the hands of lesser social satirists. In the hands of Buzzcocks, it’s a gem.

Client: Frosty English Electronica

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Client: Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Hard-hitting English electronica band Client has reveled in mystery since its founding in 2002. The group’s two original members were identified only as Client A and Client B, and their images never appeared on their CD artwork. Blending retro 1980s synthesizers and frosty lyrics influenced by the late singer Nico and the early 1980s French Cold Wave movement led by KaS Product, Client was a reliable favorite – until Sarah Blackwood, the lead singer of Dubstar formerly known as Client B, left the band.

This is one of those situations that usually spells music death. Yet the 2014 CD “Authority” not only maintained enough of the original musical and conceptual aesthetic to satisfy existing fans but moves things forward with more forthright political commentary on the nature of oppression in the 21st century, all to an inevitable dance beat set behind a new singer whose voice is different enough from Blackwood’s to carve out her own territory while moving the band forward.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love the old albums. But the new one is just as good, if maybe a bit more contemporary.

The dB’s: a Return to ’80s American Pop Power Form

old rockers new music young punks

The dB’s in 2012. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

For my money the seminal American power pop band, the dB’s, never recaptured the highs of their somewhat neglected 1984 masterpiece “Like This.” Yet here we are, three decades later, after a series of on-again off-again albums, including the insanely flat 1994 “Paris Avenue,” with their next album, “Falling Off the Sky.”

Okay, so this one came out in 2012, but I didn’t notice and neither did many other people so I’m talking about it now.

Critics like to say this a lot, but this really is a true return to form, plus it moves the band forward in a way that doesn’t spell “old.”

The Adverts: TV Smith and Melodic Post Punk

adverts new music old rockers punks

The Adverts. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Of the many unjustly overlooked musical artists out there, there has never been a bigger gap between soaring talent and popular obscurity than that of singer-songwriter TV Smith, formerly the lead singer of the Adverts, who were contemporaries of the Buzzcocks in the late 1970s in the UK. Smith writes heart-wrenching, droll elegies, from those crushed by the steamroller of heartless capitalism (e.g., “It’s Expensive Being Poor“) to delightfully melodic postpunk.

Year after year, he puts out one CD after another, each better than the one before, which is itself amazing. Most recent was last year’s “I Delete,” which blends elements of classic late 1970s British punk, 1980s hair metal, 1990s grunge, early 21st century postproduction gimmickry and pretty much everything else that has ever mattered to me. Lots of amazing songs here, but “It Don’t Work,” about the feelings and failings of technology on both a personal and political level stands out. It’s unbelievable to me that this is a guy who made it big with a 1970s novelty song, “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes.”

Frank and Walters: Irish Alternative Bond

frank and walters new music old rockers punks

The Frank and Walters. Image credit:Wikimedia Commons

Finally, another revelation, which thanks to the Internet I just found out about even though the thing came out in 2012, is that Frank and Walters, an alternative rock band from Ireland famous for their jangly guitars and beautiful, winsome lyrics about the nature of desire who formed in 1990, got back together and issued a new CD, “Greenwich Mean Time.” Here the triumph isn’t so much that they moved forward. They didn’t.

“Mean Time” sounds like they never went away. It’s a seamless transition from 2006 to 2012, which is kind of amazing when you think about it.

Sometimes, when you love a band, more of the same is good enough. And sometimes, rarely, it might even be better.

For BMod, I’m Ted Rall.

Keep rocking. Or whatever.

Ted Rall

Author: Ted Rall

Based in New York, Ted Rall is an award-winning political cartoonist, essayist and Pulitzer Prize finalist. He covers news, justice, music and privacy for BreakingModern. Follow him @TedRall.

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2 Comments


  1. There are some excellent points raised here, although I’d argue against the Bowie point a bit more loudly had he not made the abysmal Never Let Me Down-and I’m a Tin Machine defender at that! But Ted makes a good argument about a lot of musicians losing the muse, while great music comes from some unexpected territory. Certainly the Buzzcocks reformation was a surprise success, and that’s a band that won’t compromise. The group still has something great to share-and it’s hard to believe Pete was making post-Buzzcocks records that were effectively synth-pop!

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  2. I would add Camper van Beethoven to the list of second-act artistic successes. Their hugely influential first record, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, helped invent American post-punk/Indy/alternative. Their follow-up records in the 80s displayed much musical ingenuity, but they never lived up to their major label’s commercial expectations, and they broke up at the start of the 90s. Then, in the early 2000s, they reformed, and have since made a series of strong, musically and intellectually rewarding concept albums, starting with 2004’s New Roman Times. In 2013 and 2014 they recorded a pair of records about California.

    I think one secret of their success is that they were on the verge of a big payday and came back, but continue to make music on the commercial fringe because they want to. Frontman David Lowery and his other band, Cracker, combine with Camper for annual short tours that work around the members’ other commitments and draw fans every year. I suspect they make enough money to keep at it, but no one is in it for the big bucks at this point.

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