It’s an English thing to do. If it helps you to understand a band by categorizing it or framing it within a context, go for it. For example, if knowing that the Who started on the Mod side of the barricade, or that Ringo said he was a mocker; a pun combining mod and rocker. If it helps you after all these years, then really, you’ve got me there. In London, during the late ’70s and into the ’80s, it was the Teddy Boy, then Punk, then the New Romanticism, then what? These are the petty fashion skirmishes that rage on the streets of London, and because they turn over so quickly, they never catch on in America. English bands relentlessly associate themselves with these organically grown fashions and micro-cultures, while we, in the states, really don’t care. They may say “we’re a Neo-Romantic Punk Irish band,” and we just nod our heads and listen to the music. We either like it or not, but we can easily get the band through their sound. The myth of the “handsome young man” has persisted in rock and popular music since its beginnings. For example, Elvis was the sweaty, bull fighter-like, dandy king, the Beatles were the stylishly charming, lovable mop-tops, Marc Bolan and David Bowie were the androgynous crooners, and the Sex Pistols were the beautiful ugly mess – etc. You could use your own examples to mark how street fashion and music co-mingle into a constituency. In the ’80s, we saw a flood of bands that played on their sexual image in a bold and overt way (Prince, Madonna). Sex was in the video air and almost every band played up to this dandy inoculation. For all their energy, there are still so many remarkable ’80s bands that aren’t included in the hall of fame, much less played on the radio in the canon of “classic rock.” And this fact is the real goofy cultural segregation that we see in our media and critical discourse.
For a band that intentionally used a name that is common and pedestrian, The Smiths are a sophisticated rock band. At times, their music evokes the sweet aroma of stationary and literature. It astounds me that Johnny Marr is not included in the canon of great rock guitarists. His fills and flourishes layer over strong rhythmic patterns, and he uses a capo to play in another register on top of the bass harmonies. He runs through chord changes with so much flexibility and intensity that he makes his virtuosity seem off-handed and casual. Marr makes it seem so simple by playing counterpoint to, not under, Morrissey’s singing. Marr’s and Morrissey’s melodies are expressionistic and have a propulsion in a linear way. The band is nimble and drives forward, and their harmonic progressions support Morrissey’s phrasing, which is unusual and idiosyncratic, giving it the dramatic emphasis it deserves. The Smiths are original sounding, yet they are the standard set-up rock band, having intentionally expunged all the traps of the glamorous synthesizers or drum machines that were popular with competing bands. You get them from the strong belief they have in their music. Morrissey is so clean-cut, with a rarefied air of a “James Dean” sort of dandy. His sexual image is so fluid and ambiguous, that it contradicts itself relentlessly. For example, “Girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know, It’s Serious” – whose girlfriend is it anyway? or is he opening his arms to a friend with the possibility that the loss will…? On the other hand, “Girlfriend in a coma,” are realistic lyrics because they express feelings that are directly inherent in daily life, but may seem hard to express. Morrissey is very effective at this level because his lyrics get more ironic and ambiguous the more you think about them. Yet, half the fun is trying to pin down who/what he’s singing about (a third or fourth sex ?), as it appeals to everyone. Morrissey’s tongue in cheek morose humor has the sweet drama of being oh-so-overwhelmed by the tragedy of daily life with its troublesome decisions of what to wear or where to go out, or even finding a job. In this, Morrissey articulates the very essence of woeful teenage angst through his songs.
Sailing the seven exotic seas, in a yacht full of young dandies on board, Duran Duran‘s videos show the achingly fun, world-wide adventure of the carefree, high energy, ’80s. On that level, they recall the wacky adventures in the Beatles films or the Monkees’ episodes. But there they are: they are the handsome sons of Dr Livingston, vacationing in the jungles of Sri Lanka, riding elephants, and swinging from tree vines in their white ice cream suits with their songs on the sound track; the heart-throbs of Princess Diana, and neo-colonialism on coke. That’s what we saw, and what we wished we could have been. But how did they get there? Everything seemed to come out of nowhere and contorted on MTV. Duran Duran was John Taylor, Roger Taylor, and Nick Rhodes, with Andy Taylor following, and lastly, Simon Le Bon as the main song writer and singer. It was only after I read Andy Taylor’s autobiography that I really appreciated how hard they worked and how lucky they were. They had the look of beautiful fresh-faced English boys, but they worked relentlessly as the house band at the Rum Runner night club. A house band is fortunate to get paid for “practising” and trying out new material night after night. Not only that, but Andy Taylor and Nick Rhodes spent a ton of hours in the studio, away from the videos, perfecting the mix, overdubs, and fighting over details. They both had a strong ear for what they wanted and weren’t happy until it was perfect and intentional. Also, when they first met Le Bon, they couldn’t believe how much he wrote and how quickly he could write lyrics to a song. “Girls on Film” was one of the first, and they had the fortune of getting an immediate response from the audience at the Rum Runner. You can hear the influence of the Rum Runner in a lot of their songs: their catchy white boy funk migrated from the dance floor to such songs as “Notorious.” Their core sound was Andy Taylor’s guitar from 70’s funky bands like the Ohio Players, Nick Rhodes’ idiosyncratic keyboards, and Le Bon’s inflected phrasing. These are all their own stylistic elements, and later became a sort of Duran Duran cliché. After Andy Taylor left the band, they came out with the “Wedding album.” This was their swan song album, and in comparison to their other albums, seemed beautifully sober as a come down. “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone,” are sublime, intimate songs without the dance or commercial hysteria. This album veered away from the “big world” issues that Le Bon was currently pushing (“Planet Earth”). Like a lot of 80’s “band-aid” bands, he wanted to be as serious as Bono’s politics. But with the “Wedding” album, it seemed as if all the coke had run out and they confronted their honesty as a band. This made the absence of Andy Taylor even more questionable. They finally showed the world that they could produce beautiful songs without the pretension of putting themselves and their dandy image first.
In the early ’80s, there really wasn’t anyone who sounded like the Cure, and they never failed to hit that spot. From songs such as “The Love Cats,” “Just Like Heaven,” “High,” and “Halo,” we knew this was a band all about love songs. Robert Smith is a man in love and he sings about all things love; from the highs and lows of love, to how sick and sweet love can be. Even after those years, Cure songs have an immediacy and deep musicality. Robert Smith and the band have a fine ear and play with such a terrific invention and variety. Right from the opening chords, their songs are never ordinary. They are an autonomous band that resonates a strong point of view. Yet, you can hear their distant influences: Pink Floyd, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix. The Cure use those elements in such a blended way to flavor their own unique sound. The Cure can sound like sheets of wind or heavy flowing water, and it is a sound that varies in density, consistency, and architecturally. In songs such as “Never Enough,” the Cure can spit fire that is on the level of the best in hard rock. With the amount and variety of material they have produced alone, they should have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago or played in the media more than just a few songs. My strong sense is that the general media statically clings to just the surface style of Robert Smith’s cooing and lip stick/eye liner smeared appearance, and only views the Cure’s blues element as their main ingredient without going further into the depths of their style. Indeed, the microculture of the Goths have appropriated the Cure as their emblematic band and “dark vampire” appearance. But from Robert Smith’s interviews, he trivialized the Cure’s connection to the Goth style. I have my doubts as to what Goth is. This is another whirlpool of street styles that may not have any significance. But I will celebrate St. Valentines by playing the Cure all day, as they celebrate all the points of love through their songs. They are indeed dandy.