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And The Answer Is........

Today I was trying to determine if the sphere of influence from which the indie/alternative/punk rock genres are drawn could be reduced to a handful of bands. This mental exercise has been more difficult than I suspected. With music, there is not a Latin root, a Martin Luther, or an Immanuel Kant. Rather, the task is like staring out at the ocean and trying to figure out what swell constitutes the first wave.

If I think about the various and most prominent sects of alternative rock—metal, folk, pop, indie, garage—I suppose I could come up with a list of corresponding progenitors. But can it really all be traced back to Black Sabbath, Graham Parsons, Elvis Costello, The Beach Boys, and Led Zeppelin? If so, we are still lacking rhythm, and thus the root of other offshoots like post-punk, industrial, or eletronica. Maybe we need to add Bo Diddley to the list or Lee "Scratch" Perry. But it still doesn't seem right.

A few years ago it felt like every band was the offspring of Gang of Four, Joy Division, and The Cure. Then the lineage switched over to Bruce Springsteen and the Talking Heads. But even those artists, maybe with the exception of Springsteen, didn't feel far enough back in the family tree.

Then again, a lot of the most influential bands probably drew their influences from the cracks and crevices, from old 45s and rare LPs. They discovered Soft Machine and Love, Jackie Mittoo, and Anne Briggs. They chose Sparks over Queen, Blue Cheer over Cream, and The Left Banke over The Rolling Stones.

So, my attempt to reduce the scope of musical influence to five bands was a failed one. Plus, it gave me a headache (though it did prompt interesting discussions with some friends). If all bands sprung from the same few sources we would have only derivative sounds as opposed to inventive ones. It would be Wolfmother instead of Wolf Parade, Darkness instead of Lightning Bolt, and so forth and so on.

Though it would be strange if after much research it all boiled down to someone like Neil Diamond. Thankfully, it does not.

Enjoy your weekend.

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But Mr Diamond is not toooooo far off...
As doesnt it all really boil down to the King? (Who covered a few Diamond songs, and, Neils drummer over the last 20 years, is Mr Ronnie Tutt, who played with Elvis from 69-77)

Elvis stole a whole bunch of unheard sounds... put it to the world... which later, inspired a whole generation of artists from the Beatles, to The doors, to Led Zeppelin...

I heard Little Richard make a great quote on Elvis once... ill try to sum it up best I can... (sorry Mr Richard if im not 100% on this... but)

"HE stole our music, he stole our style... but I didnt make a penny off "Tutti Frutti" and no one knew who I was, till Elvis sang my songs..."

What I wanna know, is WHY does Elvis catch so much flak for the jump suits?
Has everyone forgotten some of the outfits Hendrix wore on stage? or Zeppelin? the Jacksons? George Clinton? Sly and the Family Stone?

Sent by Kramer | 10:58 AM | 2-22-2008

GRAM!

I love reading interviews with artists where they list their influences. Their influences rarely match their sound, and usually come off as wish-lists or name-dropping. That, or they don't want to list their actual influence on account of us catching on to how blatantly derivative their sound is - my perception of their fear, not my own perception of their sound, usually.

Sent by ljc | 11:08 AM | 2-22-2008

I don't know, I like Neil as much as the next guy, but if all music boiled down to Neil Diamond I think I'd listen to less music.

Sent by Brian | 11:21 AM | 2-22-2008

Did anyone else hear a lot of Neal Diamond in the first Arcade Fire album?

Sent by mr jones | 12:43 PM | 2-22-2008

I don't know, "I Am, I Said" is pretty badass:

Did you ever hear about
the frog who dreamed
of being a king
and then became one?

I was influenced to write a nine minute instrumental piece exploring the wonders of amphibians thanks to that song.

Sent by JJ Hellgate | 1:20 PM | 2-22-2008

What about Eno? Rhythm and electronics get covered in spades and its pre-Talking Heads. Could those Talking Head records exist without him? I can think of many contemporary bands that are direct descendents from the Eno family tree, but I???ll let you guys think them up for yourselves. Oh, yeah what about the Velvets? I guess I think they???re more influential than they were.

Sent by b avery | 1:47 PM | 2-22-2008

Great topic~I also think about the bands that influenced others, and they change through time. The "New York" sound owes itself to the Velvet Underground. There are always Beatles and Beach-Boys influenced bands out there. Neil Young has a range of influence to outsider folkies and bands like Built to Spill. Now I see the bands who I was listening to in high school becoming influential to more recent bands such as The Smiths, Joy Division, The Cure, T-Heads, Pixies, etc. (Maybe Bauhaus too?). I must say that in most cases I prefer the original bands.

Sent by DK | 2:02 PM | 2-22-2008

I'm surprised you didn't mention the Kinks Carrie! They precede the bands you mention, except the Beach Boys (whose appeal I've never understood). I didn't listen much to the Kinks in my youth, but my husband did. As I've gotten more and more familiar with them, I'm continually astonished by them; their records contain the seeds of so many genres--certainly punk, garage, alt-country, possibly disco. I believe Lola was released in 1970. What a brave, honest and empathetic song from a more homophobic era. It may very well have influenced and emboldened (perhaps too) many confessional singer-songwriters.

Lately though, I hear U2's hand in so many newer bands work (Arcade Fire and Bloc Party, to name a few).

Sent by Pamela Goldsteen | 2:41 PM | 2-22-2008

Isn't the old axiom of pop music that band + band = new band? Velvet Underground + Television = the Strokes, Big Star + Sex Pistols = the Replacements, and what was Nirvana but a "grungey" version of the Pixies? It's nearly impossible to say that a band single handedly created a something 100% new. Even the most influential bands of all time (Beatles, Velvet Underground, Nirvana, et al.) have clear influences to their sound. But it's obvious these bands cast much larger shadows over pop music than others, but to think that it all can be traced back to a handful of bands is utterly impossible.

Sent by Brandon | 2:54 PM | 2-22-2008

Neil Diamond...that is f-ing hilarious!
I agree with your point that it might have been the lesser known bands sparking something in other bands. I just can't accept that is was all about the Beatles, the Doors, Zeppelin, Elvis, and Sabbath. What about John Cage? He was so influential.

Sent by ryan | 3:34 PM | 2-22-2008

I have always thought of Little Richard as the Godfather of Punk.
I think the true genesis of Rock and Roll took place at Dockery Plantation, with Robert Johnson, Son House, and Howlin Wolf all sitting at the feet of Charlie Patton.

Sent by Brent Kelly | 4:09 PM | 2-22-2008

I'd say the roots are to be found in the 50s. There is a direct line from early rock and roll to all forms of rock since then; only hip-hop has created a truly different line. So I think you have to pick your canonical punk/alt/indie artists, and then work back from there. Bo Diddley is a great call. Wanda Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Little Richard for attitude, Elvis-at-Sun. Johnny Cash. And Link Wray.

Sent by Steven | 4:21 PM | 2-22-2008

It's interesting also to consider bands/artists who do something "innovative" which catches on. Does this count as primary influence or would we have to figure out how the innovation was devised? Regardless, while this post didn't answer anything or really ask anything or even really say much of anything at all, it's something to consider. And there were some lovely lovely turns of phrase.

Sent by Elizabeth | 4:33 PM | 2-22-2008

Interesting exercise...I can certainly understand the headache. You mentioned Kant, while obviously not a root for music, his idea that senses mediate the world gives us a clue as to why this task of influence is somewhat impossible. Everyone experiences music uniquely even if from the same source. Given that how can anyone convey direct influence? The most derivative sounding band is merely reflecting their unique mediated interpretations of the original source and by finding them derivative we are relying on our own mediation in determining that assessment. While the artist creates the music, we own it since it is our senses and processing that allow us to experience it in the first place.

I have found this paradox- that all music is derivative yet all music is unique because we individually mediate it-to be liberating when looking at music history and influence. I am less dismissive of bands or genres that in the past may have seemed uninspired or unoriginal. If a band sounds (ie Black Mountain) like what my senses determine Black Sabbath is supposed to sound like, and it moves me in some way, who cares because what Black Sabbath sounds like is uniquely my own and I like it.

Sent by Rick | 4:39 PM | 2-22-2008

ever heard of the Music Genome Project, Carrie? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_Genome_Project

Sent by joe | 4:42 PM | 2-22-2008

Personally, I have a problem with tracing origins and canonization. It's a moot point, one will argue the beatles the other the beach boys the final something obscure that kills the conversation. It's fun to discuss over beer with friends but when it becomes academic it becomes competitive and ultimately leads to another pet peeve of mine: know-it-all obscure hunters. Not to say this post represents that necessarily. I just think that to boil something as complicated as music down to a few chosen influences is selling the form short. Art, literature, film, politics, etc. these all add to the "canon" as well. Could you have the Velvet Underground without Warhol, heroine, the Sixties, new york??? Not likely. Bands like the Darkness are totally nostalgia laced from the onset and maybe in such a case it makes sense to look at those they are imitating but even still, why? And why now? Then the question is how well do they imitate that form, and is it adding anything at all to that form? I mean all the bits and pieces that define a time help answer some of those questions too. These questions also set an incredibly high standard for artists to be "innovative" or "original" when nothing is ever... everything is building on whatever came before or is happening at the present. It's not about "newness" it's about relevance.

Sent by KM | 5:02 PM | 2-22-2008

I always thought everything could be traced back to the Velvet Underground! Without them, would we have had The Stooges, MC5, Patti Smith, Television, Sonic Youth, Feelies, Luna, Yo La Tengo, etc., AND the bands that these bands spawned?

Sent by BTH | 9:03 PM | 2-22-2008

What is the saying (I know I'll mess it up): something like only a handful of people ever saw the Velvet Underground, but everyone of them went out and started a band. Buddy Holly was a big influence for a lot of people, as well.

Sent by Pete | 9:46 PM | 2-22-2008

Man, don't diss on the Diamond. He was a great Brill Building songwriter, check out his Bang records era work. Also, he penned some of the Monkees' best tunes.

As far a the o.g. indie rock template goes, look no further than lute strumming emo boy Orpheus, whose futile trip to hell and back is at least a good metaphor for the careers of many an indie artiste.

Sent by Nicole | 12:35 AM | 2-23-2008

hey pamela, check out the cover of dig me out, the kinks were a mighty influence on a certain band. and i have to agree that it all begins with elvis. he brought it to the masses.

Sent by erik | 1:54 AM | 2-23-2008

I'm a guy (bloke?) who often needs a visual http://image.guardian.co.uk/sys-files/Guardian/documents/2006/02/02/underground5.pdf and this will do fine--

Sent by Nick Freedman | 3:30 AM | 2-23-2008

i often ponder this one, who are the founding fathers of punk (and rock and pop?) before Iggy there were the velvets and before them, should we say Dylan. I cant stop thinking Dylan is at the roots of punk, not aesthetically but maybe spiritually, indignation~nihilistic~angry~confrontational. But it is the "image" that seems to dominate its character. I have never considered Little Richard, that one i got to think about.

Sent by o drigro Ra | 8:46 AM | 2-23-2008

C'mon, doesn't everything trace back to the Beatles?

ha. I hear that one so often that it gives me a headache just to think about it.

Sent by Sarah J | 10:17 AM | 2-23-2008

I think everything traces back to Louie Louie. Before that there was only a shapeless void.

Sent by Bloodyserb | 12:52 PM | 2-23-2008

Well, I read somewhere in the definitive source of such matters (the Internet) that the original indie/alternative dude was Eric Satie. Punk, Industrial, Musique Concrete, Ambient, Minimalism, Electronica, and a few other things all have direct lineage to Satie. I'd say yes on some of those and a definite maybe not on others.

Sent by Chickencurrypdx | 8:43 PM | 2-23-2008

I think that you probably could, but it would be limiting the imagination. If I had to pick 5 people/groups from the last 60 or so years...
Elvis Presley-The performer. Music as entertainment will always be there. It's the most reliable form of it.
The Beatles-The group. Shows everyone if you work together, anything could be possible.
Miles Davis-The player. Patience and practice with craft is essential for this kind of music. Capturing a singular moment is what jazz is all about.
Bob Dylan-The poet. The right words and a simple melody can effect the way people think and feel.
The Velvet Underground-The reject. Dark obsessions, certain base instincts, and lust dominate their subject matter. "It's not shameful to be human after all", is the message I get from their music.

That's the best I can come up with, but it's true, I don't want to think all the music I listen to, just comes from 5 different artists. It makes it too categorical. That's why I base my choices on one criteria: If it's good, it's good, and I want to listen to more of it.

Sent by Jack | 12:12 AM | 2-24-2008

I would say you need to start looking in the 50's. Rebelion gave birth to rock and roll, and that's what the Ramones recognized and channeled. Pissed-off doo-wop is what it really amounted to. But look to bands like The Sonics (yes, from Seattle) and the MC5 from the 60's who were important protopunk bands. Jay

Sent by Jay Pack | 2:06 AM | 2-24-2008

The Stooges, to me, are the quintessential American underground band. Maybe not the first, but the source you can trace to New York proto-punk to punk to hardcore to college/indie rock to grunge even to alt-country (Uncle Tupelo). They cover rhythm, noise and self-destruction in one fell swoop.

Sent by Matt | 10:29 PM | 2-24-2008

Influences are different for everyone. The first music most people listen to is the music their parents listen to. For myself that was country music, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams Sr. and Jr., Kenny Rogers, etc. Besides my parents the music I listened to was what my aunts and uncles listened to. Which was early Rock and Roll, or Oldies but Goodies as it's called on the radio, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Richie Valens, The Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino, etc. After that was the music that my babysitter listened to. I remember a lot of Stray Cats, Culture Club and Cyndi Lauper from this time period. Then as I started to get older other, outside source began to influence the music I listened to, mainly movies. I remember acquiring an insatiable thirst for rap after seeing Breakin' for the first time. It seemed like every elementary school kid wanted to become a breakdancer. I could continue this ramble forever so I'll stop now.

Sent by Ken | 5:43 AM | 2-25-2008

I'd put in a vote for Chuck Berry. His guitar sound was the practically the blueprint for early rock and roll. Including the Beatles.

Sent by Brian from NH | 9:51 AM | 2-25-2008

I'm a little surprised no mention of Velvet Underground, Can, or Dylan. Seems to me the sounds the Velvets (not to mention Lou's subject matter/writing style) and Can made are absolutely still felt/heard

Sent by mark | 11:39 AM | 2-25-2008

not to be one of those people but I believe Lighting Bolt the band is not plural.

Sent by a | 5:39 PM | 2-25-2008

the slave trade/forced mixture of cultures in the americas set the precedent for the hybrid styles of music you discuss. there are anarchic celebrations of life happening all throughout north, south, central america, caribbean, etc. and isn't that what punk is about, singing out about oppression, and celebrating life in the face of it?

also, no one has mentioned bowie yet.

Sent by skot | 11:43 PM | 2-28-2008

Not Neil Diamond - Fred Neil! Darned near everyone owes him major credit. Great blog!!

Sent by future landfill | 12:24 PM | 2-29-2008

I just remember I spin article you did with Sleater-Kinney about 3 years ago where you said all these new bands sound like Gang of Four, if Gang of Four sucked. I think I still have it because it had an elliott smith article and I collected items surrounding the time of his death like one would news clippings of 9/11 or any significant event

Sent by Devin(shire) | 6:09 PM | 3-8-2008

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