In rock ’n’ roll it wasn’t the winners but the losers who made for the most compelling stories. — English rock journalist Nick Kent
You’ve been chosen as an extra
In a movie adaptation
Of the sequel to your life.
— Pavement, “Shady Lane”
What exactly happened to rock music? Where did it disappear to, storming off like that? Maybe it’s just a function of age, and I associate rock with my youth, and so that explains my long-lingering affection. The wonderful tribal rituals of seeing bands and buying records, sitting with your mates in someone’s bedroom listening to Bowie or The Clash on a crappy stereo system, or piling on the train with the same mates to go up to town and see Floyd or The Stones. You hadn’t yet shaved, but you had seen The Who, Thin Lizzy, and Alice Cooper (the Welcome to my Nightmare tour, also in ’75, one of the best gigs I have ever seen).
One thing that could be said about ‘70s rock music is that it was a lot more affordable then. When I was growing up, inflation hit the British male working class hardest, with beer and football becoming disproportionately expensive. Later, the entrepreneurial class discovered a new revenue stream: live rock music. That was where the money was. And it still is, just even more so.
In 1975, aged 14, I saw Led Zeppelin. The ticket cost me £2.50, or $3.20 — the equivalent of £10.73 today, or a little under $14. It was my pay for two newspaper rounds on a Sunday. So, this is one of the most famous rock bands in history at the height of their powers, and that was what it cost a suburban London boy to see them live. If Zep were time-warped here today and played Earl’s Court or Madison Square Garden, do we imagine tickets would give us change from 15 bucks?
When Bruce Springsteen played his runs on Broadway five years ago, ticket prices actually dropped between 2018 and 2019 — yeah, dropped from $508.93 to $506.39. In 2020, it would have set you back an average of $337.43 to catch Lady Gaga’s act, should you have so wished. You would have been in pocket if you’d gone to see Metallica instead, who were charging a hundred bucks less.
Live music today is a financial orgy that would have made Peter Grant — Led Zeppelin’s thuggish manager who first got the idea that live music was a cash cow — salivate. Music magazine Loudwire gives an average price for “classic rock” gigs at $119.14 a ticket three years ago, and I don’t imagine prices have gone down since, despite The Boss and his two-buck, index-linked reduced tariff. Hail, hail rock and roll — if you can afford it. When I was younger, we could.
One morning in 1992 I awoke in a Brighton apartment (that’s the Brighton on the south coast of England, not the one on Coney Island). It was my apartment –always a bonus waking up there in those days — and I found myself conveniently ready-dressed for my busy day. Going through the detritus in my pockets from the night before, I found a crumpled ticket (sadly, I forget the price) to see a band playing at one of the little beach-front venues that night. Why had I bought this ticket? Who on Earth were Pavement?
Pavement formed in 1989 in Stockton, California with founder member and singer/guitarist Steve Malkmus having been something of a jock at school rather than the bookish existentialist you might expect from his lyrics. He cited Hendrix and punk as his initial influences, and school friend and co-founder Scott Kannberg agreed on the punk and added a love for electronic music to the band’s dynamic.
After their first EP, Slay Tracks: 1933-1969, got good press, Pavement were briefly the bright lights of indie rock. To give a perspective on their standing then (if you are old enough to get the references), they were on the 1995 Lollapalooza tour with Sonic Youth, Beck, Hole, Cypress Hill, and the recently deceased Sinéad O’Connor. Pavement made five studio albums and various EPs, had a chaotic but charming live act (if a rock band can be charming), and were quite neatly summed up by the LA Times at the time: “While Nirvana introduced punk to the mainstream with pop, Pavement meshes catchy melodies with experimental noise for the average kid who didn’t attend art school.”
Malkmus drifted around middle-class pursuits in the ‘80s, reading a history degree, working as a radio DJ, and writing lyrics for unwritten songs until he met Bob Nastanovich, and Pavement were born after some early prototypes. Malkmus cites his influences then as REM, New Order, and Echo and the Bunnymen, whose song “The Killing Moon” they have covered.
There are a few bands I have fallen in love with the first time I saw them, and knowing nothing of their music before seeing them. The Stranglers, Echo and the Bunnymen, A Hawk and a Hacksaw all qualify, but Pavement had a goofy lo-fi charm which worked on me straight away. They looked as though they were quite happy to be there, playing for a few dozen students, but hadn’t really prepared and hoped we didn’t mind. The song “Type Slowly” typifies the band, sounding as it does as if they were making it up as they go along. At one point during the gig, a girl next to me was eating toast. I noticed the drummer leaning down to the floor — sometimes even between songs — and giving slices out to the audience from a toaster he had by the drumkit. I never got any but, as the young people say, I totally got the band.
Pavement received a $1,500 advance from New York’s Matador Records for their first album, Slanted and Enchanted. They parted company with drummer Gary Young (he of toast fame) on good terms, albeit due to his erratic and drunken behavior (he would often get up from his drum-stool and go missing during gigs), and their critical response waned as their indie fame rose following their rightly acclaimed second album (and one of the best titles of any rock album), Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Also, no American band is complete without a feud with another band — take Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young as your starting-point — and Malkmus chose Smashing Pumpkins, whom he referenced in the country-tinged single “Range Life”:
Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins.
Nature kids, well they don’t have a function.
I don’t understand what they mean
And I couldn’t really give a fuck.
The always irascible singer of Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Corgan, was not amused. Although I liked the Pumpkins’ album Siamese Dream, and they were a great live band I saw at Brixton’s Academy, Corgan probably envied Malkmus’ lyrical expressionism, and a don’t-care attitude his own band — riven as many bands are by heroin — and his own lyrics could not match.
Malkmus’ lyrics are generally woven from a string of non-sequiturs from which a story occasionally emerges. Here are my top ten Pavement songs, with sample lyrics for your delectation:
From their first album, Slanted and Enchanted (one I played all that summer), Pavement were still raw in sound and technique, but Summer Babe from the album gave them their first indie hit, and their off-kilter lyrics made each song a little mystery:
I’ve been crowned the king of id,
And id is all we have, so wait
To hear my words, and they’re diamond-sharp.
The song opens with what sounds like the band unsuccessfully tuning their guitars, then stumbles into a grungy riff that might have come from 1970s psychedelia. It’s a jaded, faded lyric, teen angst seen from a skewed angle:
Come on now, talk about your family.
Your sister’s cursed, your father’s old and damned, yeah.
Silent kid, don’t listen to
Your grandmother’s advice about us.
The nearest to punk the band came, this perversely begins with a folky, scratchy electric guitar madrigal and a lyric concerned with what happens “when the world starts encroaching on your plans.” It is quite close to being lyrically understandable as it really is about embassies, as Malkmus explains that:
I wanted a visa
I bought off a geezer.
This very English phrase shows Malkmus’ fascination with the old country, and there was always a very obvious influence from The Fall, who I covered at Counter-Currents here. Mark E. Smith, The Fall’s much-missed (by me, at least) leader, was less than charitable when the English rock press made the comparison between Pavement’s sloppy sound and The Fall’s clattering chaos. “They can probably play all of In a Gadda da Vida,” said Smith dismissively, referring to a notorious 1968 prog-rock album by American band Iron Butterfly. Malkmus’ lyrics, like those of Smith, are tangential, and you have to tease out a storyline:
I need to get born, I need to get dead.
I’m sick of these forms, I’m sick of being misread
By men in dashikis with their Leftist weeklies.
Colonized wrath their shining new path.
The converted castle of Moorish design,
If you want to stay the weekend, well, we wouldn’t mind.
This song and “Newark Wilder” are slow and strangely sentimental, not a combination any of the grunge bands ever really achieved.
But your vulgar display caught me off guard.
Cold cold boy with American heart.
Gonna run in and lock up the shots again.
But Ann, don’t you cry.
It’s a love song with more than a touch of bitterness.
This is from the band’s third album, Wowee Zowee, which was panned critically, and I tend to agree. Malkmus said it was the first time he had written lyrics in the studio rather than driving around Stockton in his mother’s little German car singing along to his own demo tapes. The song noodles around in standard Pavement style until lurching into a lazy metal riff which is as close to a sneer as guitar music gets. It is also one of the few rock songs, I would imagine, ever to reference golf:
Loose like the wind, from the rough we get par.
Sleet city woman waiting to spar.
This song is out of control from the start, my favorite type. It’s the perfect encore song, one after which the band could cheerfully smash up a guitar or two, although Pete Townshend of The Who set the bar for that particular act very high indeed. The lyrics are a curious tourist guide:
Up to the top of the Shasta Gulch
To the bottom of the Tahoe Lake.
Man-made deltas and concrete rivers.
The south takes what the north delivers.
It’s one of those thrashes that just takes a band over, careering to a halt not because it wants to end but because it has gone everywhere it can.
This drops you into some strange war zone, and features an outro which is pure Pavement, kiddie-chords played on two strings but building to a rackety crescendo.
Got struck by the first volley of the war
In the corps.
Never held my service.
Send ‘em a wire, give ‘em my best,
‘Cos ammunition never rests.
No one makes coffee.
No one wakes up.
One of Pavement’s goofily uplifting singles, along with “Carrot Rope” and “Range Life,” this still makes space for the lyric:
Show me a word that rhymes with “Pavement”
And I will kill your parents and roast them on a spit.
The video linked is like all Pavement videos, amateurish and dumb, and purposely so. This is a band who made a feature of crass slacker ideology.
I recall a conversation around 1980 in which a fellow student told me that the English band Bauhaus were “genuinely frightening.” What codswallop. Bauhaus were goth drag queens who relied heavily on singer Pete Murphy’s cheekbones to save them the bother of writing any songs. The single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” has somehow been elevated to an indie icon, when it actually sounds like a third-rate Joy Division covers band tuning up.
Pavement’s song “The Hexx,” on the other hand, is a frightening song and I can never quite put my finger on why.
Architecture students are like virgins
With an itch they cannot scratch.
Never build a building till you’re 50.
What kind of life is that?
The song, with its haunted guitar chimes lapsing into a sleazy, hoary old rock riff, also features the line that heads this piece;
You’re standing on the freeway in love,
Motion, you were destined for the pauper’s grave.
I have written about a number of bands here at Counter-Currents, but they have all been English. I like American post-punk rock and no mistake. Patti Smith, Television, New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, The Ramones, Velvet Underground, and later, Afghan Whigs, Come, Idaho. But on some days you’ll even catch me going back in time and listening to Neil Young or Creedence. But Pavement have always had a special place in the pantheon for me, ever since I wandered in to see them over 30 years ago. I love many rock bands, but with Pavement the love is tempered by a genuine affection. I’m glad I didn’t lose that ticket.
Pavement are most assuredly not everyone’s cup of tea, and if you like your American indie rock you will doubtless already know the band. If not, my recommendation is that you follow my practice: I listen to Pavement if I am either in an odd mood or want to be in one.
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