Are neo-garage bands like the Strokes and the Hives true rock revivalists or just skillful recyclers?

By David Browne
Updated July 26, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
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The people have spoken — enough of them to matter, anyway — and they want to rock in a far different way than they have in the past few years. You can see it in the gold-record certification for the Strokes’ first album, or in the sight of curious MTV and VH1 executives smushed together on a balcony at a recent Hives show. You can feel it in the announcement that the Strokes and their brethren in guitars and shags, the White Stripes, will be coheadlining a concert next month at New York’s landmark Radio City Music Hall. And I saw it at the gym, as the guy on the bike next to me pumped away while listening intently to the Stripes’ White Blood Cells.

A decade ago, no one would have guessed that disheveled indie wailers from the Northwest would be the ones to trample New Kids on the Block and Paula Abdul. Similarly, anyone pondering what would supplant rap-metal and teen pop never would have predicted a wave of frenetic, riffy bands with a sound and fashion sense that hark back to the mid-’60s. But there you have it. Corporate teen pop is crumbling as fast as corporations are (Britney Spears will become music’s own Martha Stewart — a focal point for the backlash — any moment now). And, amazingly, there appears to be an audience for music much more wild-eyed and raucous than what it’s been fed — music less actively hostile than the pent-up, burdened baying that’s lately constituted mainstream rock. For however long it lasts, the garage door is open, which portends as many good things as bad.

The appeal of this genre isn’t hard to decipher. I keep playing the White Stripes album over and over in the hope I’ll get to the bottom of its seductive murk; almost a year later, the Strokes’ set holds up thanks to the strongest, hookiest songs of the garage-istes; and the Hives’ frenetic spewapalooza, ”Hate to Say I Told You So,” vies with Nelly’s ”Hot in Herre” for single of the summer. But the secret, which becomes apparent at these bands’ gigs and has nothing to do with nostalgic longing for the original ’60s shagheads, is something even more old-fashioned — positive energy, otherwise known as ”fun.” Unlike the rap-metal boneheads or the grunge recyclers on the charts, the bands of the new Gritty Invasion convey the simple pleasure and passion of performing and connecting with an audience. At the Hives/Mooney Suzuki double bill I recently caught, there was enough onstage leaping, bouncing, and stamina to satisfy a jumping-bean convention. Everything was proudly forged from some unwritten rock handbook of the past: The Hives’ lead fop, Pelle Almqvist, stole about half his steps and his haircut from Mick Jagger circa 1969, and Mooney’s guitar windmills were pure Who.

Both bands delivered these moves with a degree of self-consciousness absent from the original sources, and that’s where we hit a slight bump in the road. Rock has been declared dead as far back as 1959, but each ”rock is back” movement that followed — from the invigorating arrival of the Beatles through the music’s reinventions in subsequent decades via heavy metal, punk, indie rock, and grunge — all had one vital element in common. Each launched the music in a fresh direction, either sonically or philosophically. Each essentially proclaimed that not only was the genre not ready for its funeral but there were new roads to explore and new paths to wander.

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