There’s an old story about one record company executive who passed up the chance to introduce the Beatles to the American public, saying “Guitar bands are dead.” It’s probably not true (I looked and can’t find confirmation of it anywhere), but of course it’s a good story. The irony should be obvious: the Beatles were the band that almost single-handedly extended the shelf life of guitar bands for decades to come, and established that particular combo as the bread and butter of Western (and even worldwide) popular music. Real or imagined, this particular executive represents everything we all hope we’re not: believing that we’re on the cusp of the future, while we’re actually hopelessly stuck in the past.
Of course it’s been nearly half a century since the Beatles formed as a band, and guitar bands are very much alive (though once a decade or so, there’s always a pompous music critic who comes forward to exaggerate rumors of their demise), due in no small part to the Fab Four’s exponential expansion of the medium. And while numerous guitar bands have attempted to drag rock and roll in numerous labyrinthine directions, every decade or two there’s always a new crop of bands clinging to British Invasion-style pop rock and its simple harmonies and bouncy guitars.
And why not? There’s something pure and simple about the style; and while there’s always room for innovation (as the Beatles’ later records proved, of course), there are some things that simply can’t be improved upon. It’s not necessarily the fastest way to win awards, but it’s probably the best way to get a crowd on its feet.
As a child of the 1980’s, I’ll probably never quite understand what it was like to see John, Paul, George and Ringo play “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the Sullivan Show, but I got what might have been a very small glimpse Saturday night at Cain’s Ballroom when the Chicago-based quintet Plain White T’s performed. Their guitar rock has been described as “emo-pop” and “pop-punk,” but when the played Cain’s, the emphasis was decidedly on the “pop” end of the spectrum, with radio hits like “Hey There Delilah,” “I Will Write You a Song,” and “Hate (I Really Don’t Like You)” featured prominently.
Dressed in cheeky three-piece suits (yes, they’re ironically named—did I really have to point that out?), the T’s played a set of love and breakup songs for a crowd that consisted mainly of high school girls. They didn’t miss a beat, and they nailed every harmony. It was somewhat akin to watching the British invade all over again. Except they were Americans, and they weren’t really invading. And…well, um, yeah.
Those who still maintain that guitar bands really are dead—and who are looking for something a little different than three chords and tight harmonies in their music—found some ammunition two nights later when the Boston-based septet Dropkick Murphys took the same stage. Playing everything from electric guitar to banjo to bagpipes to bouzouki to tin whistle (band members traded out instruments on nearly every song), the group drowned the crowd in a cacophonic mixture of oi! and Celtic folk music.
When you think about it, it’s a combination that makes sense—both styles of music grew out of the working class of the British Isles (albeit with centuries in between their respective advents)—and the Murphys have been around long enough (twelve years!) to prove that it works. And while the Irish influences in their music sound a bit stereotyped—something like what you’d expect from a punk band who had stayed up late last night to watch Darby O’Gill and the Little People seven or eight times—their energy and musical ability are hard to argue with. The crowd (many of whom were wearing leprechaun hats—I think that says all you need to know about the Murphys) cheered loud and moshed hard; one particularly inebriated fan even rushed the stage to propose to her boyfriend (he said yes, for the record).
It was a set-up that I have to admit was a bit more interesting than the standard lead guitar/rhythm guitar/bass/drums arrangement that we’ve all been taking in since the 1960’s, and I’m sure the crowd (which was very appreciative) would agree with me on that. Still, it’s hard to imagine that guitar bands will ever be “dead”—especially considering how heavily the Murphys depend on guitars for their brash, working-class sound. After all, is there anyone still snobbish enough to claim they don’t love a good guitar band?
And as long as it sounds good, who’s complaining?
About the author:
A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Luke Harrington currently resides in Tulsa and works in the aerospace industry–but, at any given moment, would probably rather be reviewing movies and music. In his spare time, he’s off playing blues piano, pretending to be Assistant Editor for MovieZeal.com, or reviewing the many musical events in Northeastern Oklahoma for Tulsa Today.