Dinosaur Jr.

2012 in Review: Five Rules for Staying in the Alt-Rock Canon

Douglas Wolk

By Douglas Wolk

on 12.10.12 in Spotlights


Teenage Fanclub

There’s a quietly telling scene in Young Adult, last year’s Charlize Theron vehicle about a woman pining for her lost youth. Theron’s character Mavis Gary plays an old boyfriend’s mixtape: “The Concept,” by Teenage Fanclub, is her favorite song. It’s also the movie’s unofficial theme song, and the band is in the privileged position of standing in for, and embodying, early-’90s nostalgia. Teenage Fanclub still show up on cool bar jukeboxes and on college radio stations’ playlists, get name-checked in interviews and play to decent crowds. In other words, they’re safely part of the alternative rock canon — in the company of My Bloody Valentine, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr., Mazzy Star, Guided By Voices, Built to Spill, Pixies and other bands whose audiences keep renewing themselves.

In another universe, though, Teenage Fanclub might not have been the band for the part, and “The Concept” not the song Theron listens to. Plenty of other bands had the same things going for them, but have been (more or less) lost to time. For instance: the North Carolina-based group the Connells. Like Teenage Fanclub, the Connells were a reliable, likeable power-pop band with multiple songwriters; they were all over college radio around the same time as Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque, and had a sizeable European hit with “’74-’75.” But if you bring their name up now, you’ll likely get only blank looks. And for every Teenage Fanclub whose 20-year-old records are enduring favorites, there are three or four more bands who also seemed like a big deal in the early ’90s, and who settled instead into obscurity. Have you heard anyone talking much lately about Sky Cries Mary or the Cranes or King Missile or Magnapop or Buffalo Tom? Exactly.

As 2012 draws to a close and publications across the web are busy crowning a new batch of future classics (and there are 100 of them right here on eMusic), we thought it was a good time to ask: What separates the Teenage Fanclubs from the Connells of the world? How do you become one and avoid becoming the other? We’ve come up with a handful of simple rules. Up-and-coming bands, pay attention: This is how you survive.

1. Having records in print beats a legend every time.

The brutal, precise trio Bitch Magnet made a handful of terrific records between 1988-90 that pointed, directly or indirectly, to a whole generation of arty but tough bands, from Gastr Del Sol to Oneida. Then they broke up, their discography fell out of print, and they fell out of the conversation. Now their albums have finally been reissued (have a listen to Umber‘s “Navajo Ace,” for starters), and they toured in 2012, but they’re still far too little-known among people who didn’t hear them the first time around. It’s possible to imagine what might have happened to their reputation if their music had been continuously in circulation. Bitch Magnet’s career arc might have been something a little more like Sunny Day Real Estate’s: a cult item, not particularly pop-focused, that inspires a subsequent wave of artists and gradually gains admirers as the aesthetic they anticipated catches on.

2. Burning bridges is a bad long-term idea.

Butthole Surfers were a hugely popular touring band for a good chunk of the ’80s and the early ’90s, and when they had an actual commercial radio hit with “Pepper” in 1996, it looked like their profile was about to get much bigger. Instead, they had well-publicized fallings-out with various labels, their manager, and others; they haven’t managed to complete a new studio album since 2001. So where are Butthole Surfers in 2012? That doesn’t seem to be a question many people are asking.

3. Side projects never hurt anyone.

Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore joked in SPIN a few years ago that if they’d broken up after Daydream Nation or Dirty, then reunited after 15 years, “you’d be interviewing me at the Chateau Marmont as I’m waiting for my limousine.” Well, maybe — but they stayed together, letting the spotlight shine in turn on all three of their very different songwriters. They may (or may not) be defunct now, but they’ve spent the last couple of decades releasing a never-ending string of side projects, collaborations, solo records and official bootlegs, every one of which added to the gravitational force of Sonic Youth proper as a cultural institution.

4. Don’t use a band name unless all the crucial members are present.

Very few bands with sub-cultural cachet have been able to get away with replacing their lead singer. Black Flag pulled it off, but only because guitarist Greg Ginn was clearly their star until their fourth singer Henry Rollins arrived. But nobody wants to hear Bad Brains without H.R. (fortunately, he sings on this year’s Into the Future), or the Misfits without Glenn Danzig. Gene Loves Jezebel were once in roughly the same alternative-rock tier as the Cure and Depeche Mode; now the identical twin brothers who once fronted the band each lead their own Gene Loves Jezebel, and the group’s name is practically a punch line.

By contrast, one of the most satisfying reunions of 2012 was the Afghan Whigs. They’d broken up more than a decade ago, but the new version wasn’t just singer Greg Dulli with a pickup band: He hadn’t used the band’s name until he could reconvene its classic lineup with bassist John Curley and guitarist Rick McCollum.

5. Nostalgia is poison.

Performing an old album in its entirety may be a worthwhile idea for a band that’s been constantly active in the meantime (Sonic Youth’s return to Daydream Nation), or that only does it once (as with many of the bands who’ve played the “Don’t Look Back” concert series). Otherwise, it can also be an admission that their best ideas are far behind them, as with the Lemonheads’ 2008-12 tours rehashing their 1992 album It’s a Shame About Ray.

Swans, conversely, have 30 years’ worth of music behind them, most of which they barely touch in performance. Their live shows in support of this year’s titanic album The Seer included several as-yet-unrecorded songs, and only one older song. (“Last time we did two or three, and I began to feel a little inauthentic about it halfway through the tour, so we started dropping them,” frontman Michael Gira told Pitchfork.) The Lemonheads had two gold albums and a string of modern-rock hits; Swans have never had anything like that level of mainstream success. But guess which band’s whole career seems more vital in 2012?

It’s possible to imagine the mixtape Mavis Gary’s boyfriend made her in that alternate-universe Young Adult —the one where the song she listens to over and over is, perhaps, the Connells’ “Stone Cold Yesterday.” It might also have had Bettie Serveert’s “Palomine” on it, or the Chills’ “Effloresce and Deliquesce,” or Basehead’s “2000 BC,” or Soho’s “Hippychick,” or Urge Overkill’s “Ticket to L.A.” Some of us who lived through the era of those songs are nostalgic for them, too. Still, “The Concept” and “Achin’ to Be” and “Feel the Pain” — the songs that actually are in Young Adult, and that we now understand as the representatives of that era — mean more, and maybe even sound better, in 2012, because the bands who created them never gave their listeners an excuse to forget them.