Friday, January 20, 2023

In praise of the derivative

If it moves ya, who cares about the source?
The Kaisers
Way back in the 16th century, humans recognized that which is "taken or having proceeded from another or others" as "secondary." And they duly named it. Derivative behavior is as old as dirt. I'm not sure when the negative connotations arrived, but "secondary" pretty much says it all.

If you're in the Rock as Art camp (I have annually-updated but provisional membership), then music should evolve, challenge, surprise musicians as well as listeners, forge new ground, destroy the past. Songs and albums should build upon on the last songs and albums, horizons should expand. Countless artists and bands have burned to the ground following the dreaded sophomore slump, their well dry, while countless others have lobbed toward Billboard a track conspicuously similar-sounding to their previous big hit, hoping that no one would notice—or rather, that everyone would notice, and open their wallets for another round.

I'm here to praise the derivative. Years ago, I caught the Kaisers at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn, Illinois. I can't remember now where I'd heard of them, but I went expecting precisely what the band delivered: a note-for-note, gear-for-gear, pointy boot-for-pointy boot recreation of early 1960s Beat music. And, man, was it a blast. The Kaisers were fun, funny, and absurdly tight, and their stage patter delivered in thick Scottish accents only added to the vintage Northern verisimilitude. They'd stop mid-song and strike a spy-action-movie pose, holding their glinting vintage guitars like guns. Their cover tunes mined an appropriate blend of the well-known and the obscure, and their originals were catchy, utterly unoriginal. I had a great, beery time. If you never caught the Kaisers in person, here are couple clips to give you a feel, one from a 1993 Scottish television appearance and the other from a 1995 gig in Manchester.

Joyce Carol Oates said that outstanding writing "is not place- or time-bound," that it "survives the occasion of its original composition." This is true also of ground-breaking music that breaks molds, or creates ones that hadn't yet been made. But some songs have nervy ways of slipping free from imposed ways of defining their value, and they're among my favorites. Some time after the Kaisers show I picked up their 1995 album Beat It Up!, recorded in glorious mono by the inimitable Liam Watson at Toe Rag Studios in London. Amidst a few ace ace covers ("Leave My Kitten Alone," "Let's Stomp") are some rip-roaring originals, including "She's Gonna Two Time," written by guitarist Matt Armstrong. One can easily listen to this tune and imagine a a 1963 or '64 U.K. band bashing it out, but I find it hard to do that only because I'm catching up to the song every time I play it and have little time to access, let alone frowningly care about, appropriation. The interplay between the sharp, ringing lead and chunky rhythm guitars, the open hi-hat—a sonic equivalent of a toothy grin—, the blissy manner in which the guitarist threads his way through the words in the bridge, the hoarse harmonies, the forward momentum of the whole damn thing, over in two and a half minutes, create such a joyous sound and movement that the song transcends its obvious influences. The only tradition it belongs to is "Songs, great."

Sure, the singer sounds a lot like early Lennon—so did Buddy Randall of the Knickerbockers in their sublime '65 hit "Lies," and we're still cranking that one. Sure, the mono production consciously evokes the four-track limitations of early '60s technology, and the arrangement screams late-night Hamburg. Like Sire-era Flamin Groovies, Utopia's smart, playful Beatles homage Deface The Music, and early Spongetones, the influences in "She's Gonna Two Time" arrive at your door decked out in the proper period look and gear, but are really here just to throw a party, at the end of which everything—and everyone—is so blurry from the fun and good times that "revivalism," "retro," and any slurred phrase beginning with "Neo" are beside the point. Pull wide and the only thing that matters is the fun, not how we got there. If we can listen to "She's Gonna Two Time" a hundred years from now, we're likely going to get off on the delight, not do the math to determine degrees of separation from Beatlemania.

Anyway, what I'm really here to praise is joy, wherever the hell you find it. Turn it up.

The Kaisers, "She's Gonna Two Time," Beat It Up! (1995)

Photo of The Kaisers by Masao Nakagami via flickr

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