The Dirtbombs

An Alternate History of Rock Icons

Kenneth Partridge

By Kenneth Partridge

on 06.06.14 in Lists

In 1963, after years of hard work in Hamburg and their hometown of Liverpool, four young rock ‘n’ rollers managed by Brian Epstein landed three singles atop the UK charts. They seemed destined to blow up and become Golden Gods, but it never happened. The reason: They were Gerry and the Pacemakers, not the Beatles, and they lacked the mystical charisma and superhuman songwriting skills of Epstein’s other major signing. Rock history is filled with such stories, and from the ’50s on forward, countless worthy artists have been overshadowed by now-legendary peers. Sometimes it’s a matter of merit, as with the Pacemakers and the Fab Four, while other times, it’s down to bad luck or timing. What follows is a list of 10 alternate icons — acts the world might have worshipped had things turned out differently.

Gene Vincent: Elvis’s Evil Cousin

Many a history of punk begins with ’50s rockabilly, and no man better embodied that howling, hiccupping hybrid of country and R&B than Gene Vincent. Where Elvis was handsome and smooth, this wily Virginian looked and sang like a crazy person. This was partially due to the constant pain in his left leg — the result of a pre-fame motorcycle accident — but early classics like “Who Slapped John?” “Jump Back, Honey, Jump Back,” and the truly chilling “Cat Man” reveal an innate wildness that can’t be so easily explained. Best known in the States for the 1956 hit “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” Vincent was huge in England, where he influenced everyone from the Beatles to the Clash. His spirit lives on today in Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner’s wondrous quiff and equally unruly songs.

The Shangri-Las: The Backstreet Supremes

It’s the early ’60s, and a group of teenage girls from a rough neighborhood meets a showbiz visionary and lands a record deal. That premise instantly calls to mind those sparkly Supremes, but it also applies to the Shangri-Las, two pairs of singing sisters from Queens, New York. The Shangri-Las weren’t tremendous vocalists, but what they lacked in musical ability they made up for in attitude. With the help of producer George “Shadow” Morton, they created marvelously over-the-top tunes like “Leader of the Pack” and “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” — teenybopper operas that treat young love like a matter of life and death. The Supremes told us we can’t hurry love; the Shangri-Las warned us we might not survive it.

The Pretty Things: Badder Than the Stones

The standard line on these British Invaders is that they were a rawer, punkier version of the Rolling Stones, and indeed, early fuzz-bombs like “Buzz the Jerk” and the all-time garage classic “Midnight to Six Man” — referenced in the Clash’s “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” — burn hotter and nastier than much of what Mick and Keith were dropping at the time. Toward the end of the ’60s, the Things went psychedelic and invented the rock opera, releasing 1968′s S.F. Sorrow months before the Who’s Tommy — and that may have sealed the deal. They were too British, too dangerous and too weird, a trifecta that doomed them to obscurity.

Graham Parker: Angry, Young and Male — Just like Elvis Costello

In 1976, a young bespectacled British pub rocker enlisted Nick Lowe to produce his debut album. The following year, a slightly younger dude with a similar look and sound did likewise. The first guy was Graham Parker, and while his excellent Howlin’ Wind made a minor splash, reaching No. 4 on the Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll, the second guy, Elvis Costello, fared much better. His My Aim Is True went to No. 2 on the Voice critics’ list and eked onto the Billboard 200, establishing him as the alpha male in a trio of “angry young men” that also included Joe Jackson. Luckily, Parker kept his chin up; 30 years beyond his string of late-’70s and early-’80s classics, he’s still at it, releasing late-career triumphs like 2010′s Imaginary Television and 2012′s Three Chords Good. He even poked fun at his underdog legacy in Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, earning a new distinction: affable old man.

Big Country: U2 — But, You Know, Bigger

As U2 demonstrated, you can become very wealthy by playing epic, wayfaring, windswept rock ‘n’ roll based around a single guitar gimmick. The key is to choose the right guitar gimmick. While the Edge went with a jagged, echoing sound that was as shimmery as it was sharp, fellow “Big Music” purveyors Big Country made their git-boxes ring out like bagpipes, fifes and fiddles. Although this Scottish group scored a few stateside hits (most notably “In a Big Country”), albums like 1983′s The Crossing may have proved too swashbuckling for the average listener. Stadium rock is supposed to make you want to swill beer and hoist a lighter, not storm the castle and rescue the princess.

Voice of the Beehive: Less Buzzy Bangles

Fronted by California sisters Tracy Bryn and Melissa Brooke Belland, Voice of the Beehive formed in London in 1986. That same year, another ’60s-leaning female rock band featuring a pair of Golden State sisters, the Bangles, dropped their best-known album, Different Light. The Bangles had songwriting help from Prince (“Manic Monday”), a ubiquitous novelty hit (“Walk Like an Egyptian”) and the come-hither glances of frontwoman Susanna Hoffs — VoB were never going to take their place. But their 1988 debut, Let It Bee, hit the same post-Paisley Underground psych-pop sweet spots, and 1991′s Honey Lingers was just as groovy. You can follow the Beehive without doing a silly walk, and better still: there’s no “Eternal Flame” to singe your eardrums.

Zhane: And You Thought En Vogue Was Hard to Say…

This Philly-born duo named their 1994 debut Pronounced Jah-Nay, so on some level, they may have known they might have an obstacle to overcome. Just as their name was harder to say than En Vogue’s, their sound was harder to peg. The hits “Hey Mr. D.J.” and “Groove Thang” mixed hip-hop and R&B, but they also had a smoothed-out club vibe and hint of neo-soul sophistication. These were jazzier, snazzier tunes than, say, “Never Gonna Get It” or “Free Your Mind,” and that probably hurt their chances with the middle-school set. But moms could dig ‘em on the drive to school.

The Dirtbombs: A Different Shade of White Stripes

As much as he loves unearthing arcane blues recordings and championing antiquated forms of technology, Jack White has at least some semi-modern tastes. Back in his White Stripes days, he borrowed liberally from ’90s-era Motor City crud-punk heroes the Gories, whose frontman, Mick Collins, went on to form the Dirtbombs. That band dropped its first album, Horndog Fest, in September 1998, a few months before Jack and Meg White started work on their self-titled White Stripes debut. Throughout the ’00s, the D-Bombs and Stripes took turns releasing contemporary garage classics, and if Collins wasn’t quite as innovative as White, he’s managed to incorporate funk, soul, vintage techno and even bubblegum into his sound, staking his claim as one of Detroit’s all-time greats.

The Cribs: The Libertines, Sans Doherty Drama

After the Strokes broke big in 2001, a slew of mangy-haired Brits with loud guitars lined up for their government-issued record deals and NME covers. The most famous were the Libertines, a London foursome whose tabloid exploits — particularly the drug-fueled adventures of co-frontman Pete Doherty — stood out more than their music. If songs were all that mattered, the Cribs would’ve outsold the Libs 10 to 1, as this West Yorkshire band of brothers does slapdash garage-punk with unrivaled tunefulness and plenty of smarts. So fantastic are the Cribs that they once added Johnny Marr to their lineup. The record they made together, 2009′s Ignore the Ignorant, isn’t even their best.

Doves: A Cooler Coldplay

Few bands are more divisive than Coldplay, and throughout their career, Chris Martin and his cadre of thoroughly uncool Londoners have forced fans to choose sides. You’re either into their twinkly-eyed stadium rock, or you want to punch the people who are. No one ever comes to blows over Doves, and while that’s mainly because relatively few people outside of England know who they are, it also has something to do with their music. Catalog highlights The Last Broadcast (2002) and Some Cities (2005) have that booming, rafter-rocking quality found on Coldplay’s Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head, but they’re more nuanced and slower to reveal themselves. Doves have been on break since 2010, and when they come back, it won’t be with a “Magic” or “Sky Full of Stars.”