Returning the Gift

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One of the biggest regrets any music critic can have is being born too late. We youngsters missed out on so much—Elvis on Sullivan, Woodstock, Beatles on Sullivan, the birth of punk—the list just goes on. But the truly obvious ones are the ones that are easiest to let go of. Beatles? Elvis? They almost seemed too huge to actually make a connection on a personal level. Plus, it’s harder to connect to something you can’t see up close. But when you start getting down to cult favorites, particularly during certain periods of time like the aforementioned punk movement, or the ensuing post-punk era, that’s when it becomes really frustrating. The bands never lasted all that long, some went on extremely limited tours in the States, and well, that was all a long time ago anyway, so to argue the minutiae of the logistics seems pointless. But that doesn’t make it any less lamentable.

There have been many times when I would listen to an album released many years ago, during which I would curse myself for not being able to have ever seen that particular band live. I ran through a list in my head — Joy Division, Teardrop Explodes, Television, The Buzzcocks, Talking Heads, The Clash, XTC when they were still performing live, Bauhaus, Wire, Magazine…the list is seemingly never-ending. And though, from time to time, I would read things like “Joy Division were crap live” in Alternative Press, it never gave me any relief. After all, sometimes even a sloppy show by a great band can be phenomenal. And it didn’t change the fact that I was still just a wee lad (by comparison, that is).

Still, despite missing out on some major turning points in music, some of the legends I longed to see actually never stopped performing. In 2002, during Moby’s Area Two tour, David Bowie stole the show, performing a mixture of songs from his Heathen album, combined with countless songs from his entire discography. What’s more he played my two favorite Duke songs (“Life on Mars?” and “Ashes to Ashes”) back to back. The rest of the set was peppered with songs from Low and Young Americans among many others, and David even performed “Ziggy Stardust” to commemorate its 30th anniversary. Likewise, New Order has been playing shows here and there since they released Get Ready in 2001, even playing some shows stateside, though none near Treble HQ, regrettably. And The Fall seems to never stop, even though Mark E. Smith is the only original member. And while these artists still make for thrilling live experiences, they were never really “missed,” so to speak, save for maybe New Order’s hiatus during the ’90s. No, that status is reserved for the long list of bands who called it quits while many of us were still too young to have any discernable taste in music.

For every few bands that seem to drop off the face of the earth, however, there is a band that decides to patch up the old wounds and start fresh, or at least with a renewed vigor and some old favorites at hand. During the ’90s, a handful of bands from earlier musical eras came back into play. Echo and The Bunnymen returned in two forms, first as Electrafixion, the project of Will Sergeant and Ian McCulloch, and later as Echo, once again. The former was interesting if not particularly memorable, while the latter found the band returning to the sound we missed on Evergreen, which even infamously had a misprint on the spine that read “Bunymen.” Likewise, The Jesus and Mary Chain returned with a new batch of tunes and some re-sparked sibling rivalry on Munki. Depeche Mode and The Cure also offered new albums after long absences, though Ultra was clearly more listenable than Wild Mood Swings. Regardless, that sense of nostalgia and comfort from old favorites seemed to open up a new window for long forgotten favorites to float through in the coming decade.

New wave and post-punk hearts have pumped with longing and joy as the double-oughts have become something of an age of comebacks. Due in part to mega festivals like Coachella, bands of yore have dusted off their spurs and gotten back in the saddle, riding into a new century with, not a new batch of songs, but strictly old favorites (some exceptions in certain cases, however). Though this is merely speculation, one would think that the promoters certainly saw this as something of a unique experience to concertgoers, giving them the “once in a lifetime” feeling that they wouldn’t get from seeing your typical rock festival in a giant arena. And what’s more, it would undoubtedly raise ticket sales. One of the first cases of such a return in this decade was Siouxsie & The Banshees in 2002 at, where else…Coachella! The band even toured after that, giving old school Goths and new converts a chance to catch the legendary post-punk act once more.

That very same year, All Tomorrow’s Parties LA saw Television and Big Star returning to the stage after a long absence (25 years in the case of Big Star), while Mission of Burma played a reunion tour, among which All Tomorrow’s Parties UK was a stop. Having been at ATPLA, I did get a chance to see Big Star, but was not given the opportunity to check out Television. Big Star was, however, quite good, if not quite the untouchable band that they once seemed. I did see Mission of Burma a year later, though. That, dear readers, was an experience that finally fulfilled some longtime, frustrated young indie rocker expectations. Though not as young as they once were, and with Roger Miller’s hearing damage, their set could have been more of a letdown. But, quite to my surprise, the Boston trio rocked as hard as they ever could have, giving all of today’s young punks something to strive for. Singer/bassist Clint Conley was thin and spry, running and twitching around on stage like a wiry young rocker, while drummer Peter Prescott, walled in soundproof barriers, was irreverent and unafraid to drop a few f-bombs between songs.

Now, the Mission of Burma experience was a thoroughly engaging one, but not long before, I was denied access to one of my favorite bands, Wire. Wire didn’t play Coachella, but they did show up at All Tomorrow’s Parties UK, and when they played their one and only San Diego date at The Casbah, I was a few weeks shy of turning 21, thereby prohibiting me from entry. Drat…foiled again! Oh, how irritating it was to see a legend return after so long without new music, and to have to let it pass because I wasn’t old enough to go in. But little did I know that a torrent of punk rock old-timers were still to come forward with their reunification.

In the spring of 2003, Iggy and The Stooges got back together to play Coachella and then All Tomorrow’s Parties in the Fall. Shirtless, twitchy and violent, Iggy Pop owned the stage with his unpredictable and seemingly dangerous presence. Humping speakers, swinging mic stands and dropping even more f-bombs (“Fuckin’ California, man, how are ya?”), Pop, backed by two Ashetons and a Watt, brought the fucked-up Detroit sound of the early’ 70s back to the present. This, in particular, was a surreal sight. On an enormous stage, The Stooges may not have seemed as dangerous as they might have at Max’s in Kansas City. Nonetheless, they adapted well, their power chord onslaught filling a giant field with ease.

A year later, yet another Coachella saw two more legendary acts returning: Kraftwerk and The Pixies. Just about every person in attendance came for The Pixies, who, now, seem larger than they ever were during their first run. Having comped tickets that year, I was able to witness their amazing return, and even though I was seemingly a mile away from the band, in the center of a 40,000 person clusterfuck, I was still blown away. Making very little time for banter, Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering rocked the Coachella Valley, returning longtime fans to nostalgic glee and giving first-time viewers something to remember. Still, I can’t help but complain that only nights before, they played “Dead” and “The Holiday Song,” but skipped them for this evening. Mind you, it’s a petty complaint and one that I offer in jest, but the show was truly amazing, regardless. I didn’t see Kraftwerk, though they were the band on all the other bands’ lips that day.

So, all of this background, and I admit there’s a lot, brings us to 2005, which saw two even more mind-blowing returns, particularly for this listener. In mid-2004 there were rumors of the original members of Gang of Four getting back together, and they did just that late in 2004 and into the spring of 2005. A second tour followed in 2005, bringing Gang of Four to San Diego, where I was able to finally see my post-punk heroes in action. They certainly didn’t look as young as they once did, but their energy was enough to belie their true ages. Dave Allen, clad in a t-shirt and jeans, seemed the most youthful in appearance, hammering away at his bass with a fiery punk fury. Hugo Burnham kept behind his drums for the most part, but every beat was hit with machine-gun precision. Andy Gill, dressed in a neatly tailored suit, leered at the audience while he jabbed away at his Fender. But the most animated of the “Four” was frontman Jon King, dressed in a Mao-like straight-collared button-down, flailing about and crab walking across the stage. The band charged through classics like “At Home He’s A Tourist,” “Damaged Goods” and “Paralyzed,” each one sounding even more intense and enormous than in their previous incarnations.

In one of the most memorable moments of the evening, King beat on a microwave with a baseball bat, one-upping the brick he used to swat during the band’s ’80s gigs. And the gig was wrapped up with Gang of Four being joined by openers Morningwood and…uh…some other shitty band whose name I forgot, for a huge, super fun rendition of “I Love a Man In a Uniform.” In that moment of unity, the stage seemed like one big celebration of the band’s music, even if the opening bands did royally suck. But putting up with a couple of lousy openers was worthwhile for the opportunity to see Gang of Four, as loud and as raucous as ever.

The other big return of the year came from UK goth heroes Bauhaus. Debuting first at an under-publicized show at The Glass House in Pomona, CA, Bauhaus played a pair of shows, the second being their now famous Coachella performance which saw Peter Murphy dangling upside-down like a bat. In the fall, the band booked a US tour to give others the opportunity to see them outside of a dusty polo field. Unfortunately, I can’t comment on seeing them, as their San Diego show was pushed back to mid-December, but their setlists have been known to include classics from their four studio albums as well as old singles like “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” And what’s more, they still look thin and stylish, a trait contemporaries like The Cure have not been able to uphold. Bauhaus is also playing a local Christmas show hosted by “alternative” radio station featuring Louis XIV, Alkaline Trio, The Bravery and the newly reunited Germs, despite frontman Darby Crash having been dead for many years.

Many can argue that watching many of these bands today doesn’t have the same effect as seeing them in their heyday. That may be true, but what’s even more impressive than a band who burns out fast is one that can stay vital and exciting over time. Longevity is something that’s clearly not spoken about with as high a regard as it should be, and many of today’s imitators of bands like Bauhaus and Gang of Four and, especially, The Pixies, can learn a thing or two by seeing how their heroes do it.

Music fans are constantly making lists, among them, which bands you need to see before you die or before they break up, which is something of greater concern, as it almost always happens unexpectedly. But we should be thankful that so many of these bands are giving us a second chance to see them after so long, as many lads like me will be gazing upon their presence for the very first time. And if nothing else, it proves that a good set of songs can last a lot longer than a fleeting genre, and that truly talented bands can surpass the era from which they came and let their dissonant chords and unearthly howls reverberate long into the future.

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