Street Sweeper Social Club and the future of classic rock
I apologize for getting off topic and delving into a genre not normally covered here. Actually, that’s a lie; country, folk, and blues are all forms of American roots music and eventually paved the way for pop and rock. Which is not to say that I plan to review the next Marilyn Manson album here, just that an occasional foray into rock criticism is not necessarily a diversion and could, in fact, be a look at what the roots music we all know and love has led to. To further justify this particular post, one of the members of the band Street Sweeper Social Club was once featured in the pages of No Depression.
I’ve mentioned here a few times in the past that I came to discover roots music through rock. Mostly it was a combination of CCR and Mellencamp’s The Lonesome Jubilee, but it was also the blues numbers by the Doors, Nirvana’s cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” Lynyrd Skynyrd covering Jimmie Rodgers, and the realization that Bob Dylan sounded a lot better unplugged. And that just scratches the surface. But what I’m getting at is this: just because I’ve discovered Bill Monroe and Dock Boggs that doesn’t change the fact that Pink Floyd was a hell of a band. Yet modern rock bores the hell out of me.
Today’s so-called “indie rock” is neither indie nor rock and rock and roll’s last true golden age lasted from the time Guns ‘n Roses killed hair metal to the death of Kurt Cobain. Today’s biggest rock band is Nickelback. “If everyone cared and nobody cried,” one of their hits goes, “then we’d see the day when nobody died.” Excuse me, but what the fuck is this? “We Are the World, Part II”? What happened to “you say you want a revolution?” What happened to “Rockin’ in the Free World”? What happened to “Anarchy in the U.K.?” What happened to rock-infused tales of “generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses?” What happened to the soul of the music? What happened to classic rock?
Part of what No Depression is all about is celebrating music that carries on tradition without staying glued entirely to the past and in the last few years several artists have been doing that within the framework of rock. Dead Confederate, Titus Andronicus, Jack White’s various projects, The Gaslight Anthem, Shooter Jennings & Hierophant. (“What? No Kings of Leon?!” you ask. “Sex on Fire,” I reply). Yet what is needed to truly revive the spirit of old time rock and roll and bring it into the new millennium is star power. Enter Tom Morello.
Everything Morello touches turns to gold: the hardcore metal of Rage Against the Machine, the contemporary rock of Audioslave, his stripped down acoustic folk tunes as The Nightwatchman, and now the Street Sweeper Social Club, his collaboration with rapper Boots Riley of The Coup.
Last year’s self-titled debut album was amazing and their new release The Ghetto Blaster EP is even better. The band mixes the best elements of classic rock with contemporary issues and a modern feel. You get the swagger of classic Stones and Aerosmith, the heaviness of Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, the intensity of MC5, and the unabashed activism of The Clash. But where does Riley’s rapping fit into the classic rock lexicon? A lazy writer who wished to give an uncontroversial answer would tell you that this is simply the modern aspect of it. I’ll tell you to go listen to “Crosstown Traffic” by Jimi Hendrix.
I wish not so much to review the new EP as to simply discuss it. There’s the opening Zepplinesque “Ghetto Blaster” that celebrates ’70s hard rock while discussing modern culture, the darkly humorous “Scars,” and “Everythang” which declares that “Every banker is a fuckin’ thief.”
And, of course, there’s “The New Fuck You,” which is the EP’s best track and the band’s best thus far. Over what could be a lost AC/DC riff, Boots tells us that “Three strikes is the new lynching,” “right now is the new Holocaust/More troops is the new call it off,” and “Revolution is the new fuck you.” The only line in the song I initially had a problem with was “Hip-hop is the new rock.” Accepting that would mean accepting Marshall Mathers as the new Dylan and I just can’t do that, but a friend of mine who is much more of a rap fan than I am had a different interpretation. He thinks that the line means that both genres have become commercialized to the point of artistic irrelevance. “To the safety of sterility, the threat has been refined,” as Phil Ochs said.
But another great thing about the old classic rock was that they quite frankly didn’t give a fuck. They had the effrontery to perform their own interpretations of classic blues, country, and folk tunes with the cocky confidence that told them they could do it better. Street Sweeper Social Club keep that tradition alive as well. There’s a hard rocking cover of LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” contained here that plays to the strengths of everybody in the band, but more important is their cover of “Paper Planes,” a recent smash hit for M.I.A. But this is not simply a cover as they change several lines to make it fit the bad-ass, anarchist persona of the band. “Sometimes I think when I’m sitting on trains,” becomes “Just like Jesse James when I’m sitting on trains.” “If you catch me at the border I got visas in my name” is changed to say “They got warrants in my name.” And the line about how “No one on the corner has swagger like us” is removed entirely, probably because the entire song and the entire EP expresses this and there’s no reason to drive the point into the ground.
What is the future of rock? I don’t have the answer to that. But as a music fan and a rock fan, I would much rather it be Street Sweeper Social Club than Nickelback. Now back to roots music….