This week’s question, again via Josh: “Did you ever see a video or TV performance from a band that made you fall instantly in love with them?”
The artist that inspired this question doesn’t actually provide the answer for me, unless you add “all over again” to the end of it, but I’ll share it anyway. When I watched Phoenix on Saturday Night Live earlier this year—over a month before Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix came out—I thought to myself, “Wow, that band is better than I remember, and I bet a ton of people just fell in love.” (This is surely not the case for most SNL performances in the last 15 years.) Even though Ted Leo couldn’t Twitter enough about his disappointment with the band’s doubled vocal, I thought it was a live-on-TV performance for the ages—the kind you don’t see so much anymore. Here’s my real answer, though it doesn’t exactly conform to the question either: It’s the moment when my deep like for Neil Young clicked over to “Wow, that long-haired Canadian hippie is a genius.” It was a concert recorded for the BBC in 1971, when Neil was still shy and a little unsure of himself—which made pre-Harvest airings of songs like “Old Man” that much better. You can find the whole thing on YouTube pretty easily, and the official Live At Massey Hall 1971 covers similar ground with a longer setlist. But this is the one that made my jaw drop.
In 1986, in the middle of one of Saturday Night Live’s bleakest seasons, critical darlings The Replacements were invited on, in conjunction with their major-label debut, Tim. I’d recently read about the band in Rolling Stone, but I’d neither heard them nor seen them, so not only did I tune in eagerly, I popped a tape in the VCR and recorded the performance. And I’m glad I did, since as near as I can tell, this episode—which also featured Harry Dean Stanton as the host and Sam Kinison as a special guest—has never been re-run. The ’Mats roared through a take-no-prisoners version of “Bastards Of Young” in the first segment, and then, after everybody in the band had changed into each others’ clothes, returned for a passionate rendition of “Kiss Me On The Bus,” the highlight of which came when Bob Stinson strummed his guitar exactly when he was supposed to. Why was that such a big deal? Because during both songs, The Replacements were mouthing profanities into the camera, stumbling into each other, falling down, dropping their instruments, and generally behaving like the apathetic drunks they were. The fact that they still hit all the notes was miraculous. The next day, I was browsing in a used record store and I found a copy of Tim, which I bought immediately. A few weeks later, I borrowed a copy of Let It Be from a friend. I was hooked.
For as much as we (justifiably) slag MTV, I can’t ignore how much 120 Minutes affected me during the Dave Kendall era of the early ’90s. It introduced me to bands like Ride, Lush, The Charlatans, The House Of Love, My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins, The Jesus And Mary Chain, and a host of others. So many of those are applicable here, but I fell in love with Ned’s Atomic Dustbin the moment I saw the video for “Happy.” The song had the perfect balance of rock bombast (propelled by the band’s dual bassists) and poppy hooks, and I quickly became obsessed with it and Ned’s 1991 debut, God Fodder. My first “real” show was seeing them open for Jesus Jones that year at The Unicorn in Houston, blowing my 15-year-old mind—and eardrums. The three-day tinnitus that followed sparked my lifelong love affair with earplugs. “Happy” remains one of my all-time favorite songs, and I’ll preach the underrated glory of Ned’s second album, Are You Normal?, to anyone who will listen.
I’ll go for a double with this one: “Big City Nights,” the video for the song “Da Funk,” not only got me into Daft Punk, but into Spike Jonze as well. I’m really not much of a music video fan, and was even less so in 1995, but I happened to catch “Big City Nights” at a friend’s house, and instantly fell in love with it. The music was terrifically catchy and had that quality I would learn Daft Punk possesses in abundance: the ability to seem both familiar and unexpected at the same time. The video was both compelling and bizarre: a guy in a dog mask limps around New York, sad-sacking his way through the urban night while hauling around a decrepit boom box from which “Da Funk” blasts. And the combination of the two sparked my interest not only in the band that wrote the song and the guy who directed the video, but also in house and electronica in general and in the work of some of the more interesting video directors. If it hadn’t been for “Big City Nights,” I might never have developed an appreciation not only of Daft Punk and Spike Jonze, but of Basement Jaxx, The Chemical Brothers, and Boards Of Canada, and of Michel Gondry, Mark Romanek, and Hype Williams. Thanks, weirdos!
Of course I had always known who The Beatles were and was familiar with their music: I have baby boomer parents who played the oldies station in the car as the compromise between the pop station and the classical or news stations. I knew The Beatles like I knew Herman’s Hermits and ? And The Mysterians—they made old, fun songs that otherwise didn’t make a big impression on me. That was, until, sometime in 1993 (I was 14) when I caught Paul McCartney playing “Hey Jude” at the piano on Saturday Night Live. I’m not sure if it was the performance or the song, but something about the whole thing just burrowed a hole into my brain and heart. We typically taped SNL back then, so I watched and re-watched that performance. I found my Dad’s Beatles guitar book so I could learn the words and sing along (and eventually teach myself a few guitar chords so I could play to it as well). That performance tipped off my first serious pop-culture obsession: After “Hey Jude” I pulled out my dad’s Beatles LPs and spirited the record player away to my room. I later bought all the albums I didn’t already have, then watched all the movies, hung an Abbey Road poster on my wall, read John’s books of poetry, I Me Mine, and several other authorized and unauthorized books on the band. For me it’s rare to be able to pin down exactly what made me start appreciating something, but maybe since this was a major cultural turning point in my young life, or maybe because I really enjoyed that obsession, I’ll definitely remember that particular performance. And guess what, even though I thought it was kind of dorky of McCartney to perform at the Super Bowl a few years ago, there I was, singing right along to “Hey Jude” 13 years after I first heard it.
This is stretching the topic a bit, but one of the happiest pairings of song and image in my experience came from watching a not-so-happy movie. I’d never heard Desmond Dekker, or really any Jamaican music from the ’60s until I watched Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. The film features “Israelites,” Dekker’s most famous song, and it sent me scurrying to catch up with what I’d been missing. Having gone to college, I of course knew Bob Marley’s ’70s work; like Dark Side Of The Moon or, in my era at least, Nothing’s Shocking, the Marley hits collection Legend practically comes pre-installed in most dorm rooms. But I’d never heard the vibrant ska, rocksteady, and early reggae that fed into Jamaican music’s most famous era. Soon I was snatching up Toots And The Maytals and any Trojan or Studio One compilation I could find. Years later, I’ve yet to hit the bottom of great music from that period. I’ve also never quite gotten a handle on who did what and where. It’s a tangled, fascinating world and here’s a hat tip to Van Sant for opening it up for me.
I fell desperately in love with Oasis the first time I saw the video for “Supersonic.” I was blown away by just about everything: the sneering vocals, monster hooks, bratty attitude and infectiously debauched/nonsensical lyrics. I immediately became a fan and set about buying every last bit of Oasis ephemera I could find. I was well versed enough in pop music to realize just how much of the song had been shamelessly purloined. Liam’s nasal delivery was John Lennon refracted through Johnny Rotten, the big-ass riff belonged to T. Rex, and the “aren’t we some naughty little lads?” brattitude seemed to belong to just about every ballsy British group of the past 50 years. It was a little like my reaction to Reservoir Dogs. I remember thinking, “Wow, that is the most awesomely original movie I’ve ever seen.” Then I cooled down a little bit and realized, “Wow, that is the most awesomely unoriginal movie I’ve ever seen.” If the good borrow and the great steal then Oasis instantly achieved greatness right out the gate. My ardor for Oasis cooled, then disappeared once I made it through the harrowing gauntlet of adolescence and I ultimately came down firmly on the Blur side of the great Blur/Oasis divide. But hot damn how I loved Oasis for a brief shining moment.
I’ve often thought about what would be the “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” equivalent for my generation, and after I get done mentally puking for even considering such a boring party-game question, and for thinking in terms of “my generation” when there’s really no such thing, I usually concede that it would be seeing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video for the first time—which then sets me off on another round of cerebral spewing for coming up with such a clichéd answer. But as loath and soaked-in-imaginary-vomit as I am to admit it, that video really did have a huge impact on me—maybe not for “my generation,” but for me—and I’ve honestly never been the same since. Prior to that I was a model citizen, listening to my nice R.E.M. tapes with the other shiny happy people; seeing the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was like hearing the codeword that triggered the sleeper agent of snotty adolescence inside me, and pretty soon after I became just another worshipper at the altar of Cobain: sarcastic, sullen, and obsessed with ideas of “rebellion” and “non-conformity.” Rebellion against what? Non-conformity as compared to what? I don’t know, man, but it’s like, this world is just one big, stupid pep rally and everyone’s just a mindless cheerleader, and I just want to SMASHY SMASHY, y’know? Even though I eventually realized that Kurt Cobain wasn’t exactly T.S. Eliot when it came to articulately expressing disillusionment, his interviews (and especially the liner notes for In Utero) had already set me on a path toward discovering new, even more invigorating bands that I came to love just as much (if not more), and the attitude I had borrowed wholesale from him and that video formed the basis of everything I’ve done since. Why, just look at this entry, and witness my inability to express genuine feelings for something without copping an aloof, ironic distance about it!
My friend and I were just discussing classic 120 Minutes videos this past weekend, sparked by the realization that Spookey Ruben —who I have managed to entirely erase from my memory—was still around and playing a medley of his hit, "Running Away," at the Empty Bottle here in Chicago. My key 120 Minutes moment was Superchunk's "The First Part," video, a clip that sparked a 15-year and running love affair. I was aware of Superchunk in at least name at the time, but had no idea what they sounded like. The opening beat had me instantly nodding my head and by the time Jon Wurster is shaking it at the slumber party I was sold. The performance shots of the band were kinda murky and mysterious, but that just made them look that much cooler. Plus, they were constantly bouncing, which the 15-year-old me really respected. I bought Foolish later that week and never looked back.
March 13, 1998, The Oscars, Elliott Smith. I refuse to say how old I was, but it was quite possibly the first time I’d heard a pop song in full and actually been paying attention. My mom is a classical-music professor, and my dad simply didn’t care about anything besides gypsy music and various Russian folk singers (they’re immigrants), so all pop music was pretty much a closed book to me. I was a confirmed movie nerd already, but I always tuned out the disgusting, vulgarian sounds of the Best Song performances, because I hadn’t figured out that Best Song in no way lived up to its category title. I didn’t know Elliott Smith’s appearance was one of the oddest moments of his career, and it didn’t occur to me that his white-suited appearance was obviously incongruous with the tenor of the broadcast; I just knew this was the first Academy Awards appearance I’d heard that didn’t suck. I turned out to be a huge Smith groupie, so there’s that, but in a way that appearance also probably first broke the ice with, like, the entirety of 20th-century popular music. Would’ve happened one way or another, but he got there first.
Does anybody watch MTV anymore? I’m not even sure of the channel number. (It was always 28 when I was growing up, with VH1 to follow on 29 in case you found yourself suddenly reaching a numbing maturity in the middle of Carson Daly discussing the ramifications of Britney Spears and the fella she may or may not be currently engaging in sexual transgression with, all’s it took was a nudge to the remote, and the screen would transform into the soothing endless snark of comedians remembering Michael Bolton videos.) The year after I graduated college, I considered myself past point of enthrallment when it came to music videos, but one sleepless night, I came across something quite extraordinary. It had a Lego guy and a Lego girl, and they were singing and playing Lego instruments, and it rocked. The video was for “Fell In Love With A Girl,” off White Blood Cells, the third album by The White Stripes. I’ve been a fan ever since. The charms of consistently gut-pounding rock can’t be denied, and to this day, I can’t hear Jack White singing without remembering that video; it was the perfect thing to stumble across at 2:35 in the morning.
I was already familiar with Tilly And The Wall due to their Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes connections, and was relatively impressed with the Omaha group’s tap-dancing indie-pop when I saw them open for Rilo Kiley back in 2004. But everything changed on Oct. 26, 2006, when they played “Bad Education” on David Letterman, a show that I normally no longer watch, but I was in L.A.—where I watch most of my TV and try to catch up on all of the music videos I’m always hearing about—and my best friend had recorded it to show me Dave’s impressive grilling of Bill O’Reilly over the Iraq War. I really only kept watching to see Tilly And The Wall because it seemed weird that such a small-time band was on such a big-time network show, but almost immediately I was transfixed: The music was beautiful, creepy, and, due to the lack of a bassist, exceedingly thin-sounding, which heightened my awareness of the small-band/big-network juxtaposition; the intriguing lyrics (“Now it’s all bad education / feeling fine, I’m feeling patient / girls and boys and full frustration”) made me really want to know what the hell they were singing about in a way that I usually don’t care; and man those girls looked good, especially Neely Jenkins, whose subtle moves had me obsessed by the end of the four-minute performance. (Check out avclub.com/articles/sxsw-friday,2213 for evidence of my love for Neely still going strong two years later.)