by Holden LeBlanc
Despite the attempt of grunge to crash their party, the 1990s saw R&B, rap, and boy bands rule the airwaves. This transition away from commercial success for rock acts is evident in their disappearance from the Billboard Hot 100, as R&B musicians like Boyz II Men, Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston dominated the charts. In my own brief research observing the top ten songs from the first week of each year between 1995 and 1999, the only non-legacy rock acts to make the list were the Goo Goo Dolls and Blue Deep Something (I don’t recognize the latter either). Their hit song Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the band’s only commercially successful track, and as a YouTube commenter on the song’s music video noted, sounds like it was made expressly for the TV show Friends. In this era, there was a prevailing sense among labels, listeners, and maybe even musicians themselves that rock was diminishing in the public consciousness and lost its status at the peak of the music hierarchy.
There was something brewing, however, as the world edged closer to the millennium. In New York City, it was a few kids with strong global roots and big dreams. In Detroit, it was an apprentice upholster and his ex-wife. In California, it was a broke guitarist who teamed up with his friend and an Englishman. I am, of course, talking about the bands The Strokes, The White Stripes, and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Although they inhabited three different parts of the country, they share an odd camaraderie: each band formed in the late 90s, sought to reinvigorate rock music in their own distinct way, and released pivotal albums in the year 2001 to usher in the garage rock revival. Let’s take a look at these three albums and the bands behind them – the two you already know, and the one you might not.
In the late 1990s, Julian Casabalancas, the son of a wealthy Spanish model agency mogul, teamed up with French-Tunisian Nick Valensi, Brazilian Fabrizio Moretti, and the French-educated Nikolai Fraiture to make music. Not only do the band members, who formed the group known as The Strokes, have undoubtedly the coolest sounding name of any musical act, but their multicultural roots certainly contributed to the revolutionary sound of their 2001 album Is This It. Leading up to the release the group released singles “Someday,” “Last Nite,” and “Hard to Explain,” which despite a lack of success in the US, were well received by the UK charts.
Although the first two of these singles received more significant airplay after the album’s release, “Hard to Explain” offers a more interesting musical study. It features a strong vocal performance from Casablancas from the start, as he hits the opening lyrics “Was an honest man” with all the youthful gusto you could desire, particularly in live performances of the song. Albert and Nick’s guitars compliment the vocals in such a satisfying manner, as Nikolai and Fab lock in at the rhythm section to drive the song forward. The song is enhanced by a perfect breakdown in the chorus, with Albert’s whiny guitar combined with Julian’s lyrical contradictions leaving the listener with a strange sense of nostalgia and longing. Much has been written about the success of The Strokes in the aftermath of Is This It, becoming an undisputed leader of the garage rock movement. But a different band from the Motor City was just as important in propelling this new sound into the mainstream.
The Detroit rock scene in the mid-1990s was exploding with talent. From the Dirtbombs to the Von Bondies, the latter you might recognize from their single “C’mon C’mon” used in seemingly every commercial in the mid-2000s, the city was cultivating great rock bands, but individually lacked the national attention to make it big. One Detroit band, however, formed by Jack and Meg White, would make it big. The duo, who were briefly a couple before separating and adopting a brother and sister stage persona, personified their name as The White Stripes. The band followed a strict dress code, only wearing black, white, and red, and combined psychedelic imagery with a hard-hitting style of rock and roll. After releasing their self-titled debut in 1999 and receiving critical acclaim with their 2000 follow-up De Stijl, their 2001 album White Blood Cells established the “White Stripes” sound that would launch the pair into stardom.
The opener “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” introduced the world to Jack’s gritty and emotional vocal style along with his heavy use of unique guitar distortion to make the band sound significantly larger than the two-piece it was. The most commercially successful hit of the record came with “Fell in Love With a Girl,” which exemplifies Meg’s simple but animated style of drumming, allowing Jack to unleash his sharp vocals and a tight guitar riff. The album also famously features a subdued acoustic cut “We’re Going to Be Friends” which shows a softer but equally powerful side of the band. This release, although very successful in its own right, also paved the way for the release of the band’s fourth album Elephant in 2003. This album was one of the most critically acclaimed of the year, and even decade by critics. It also released “Seven Nation Army” into the world, one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous stadium chant songs of the 21st century. The Strokes and The White Stripes are collectively credited with saving rock music by introducing a new generation to the genre. However, the efforts of groups that did not receive the same spotlight have largely been forgotten, as the case for one band coming out of the West Coast.
Peter Hayes, a guitarist who ended a short stint with the San Francisco-based psychedelic rock band Brian Jonestown Massacre, wanted to keep making experimental rock music. With the help of bassist Robert Levon Been and drummer Nick Jago, Hayes founded the band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to pursue this mission. Listening to their 2001 debut self-titled album B.R.M.C., Hayes’ musical background is quite evident from most of the record: tracks like “At My Door,” with its absence of drums, prominent tambourine, and laid-back attitude, feel straight out of BJM frontman Anton Newcombe’s playbook. Other songs like “Too Real” sound like something off the Beatles’ White Album, played with the relaxed demeanor of a jam band.
However, the songs that are most fondly remembered from the album and would go on to define the band in the image of the masses were the bold, punchy, and expressive rock anthems. Their distinct sound includes Jago’s simple but passion-filled drum beat on “Red Eyes and Tears,” Hayes’ danceable riffs and subdued vocals on “Love Burns,” along with Been’s heavy use of bass distortion. These songs, led by the radio hit “Spread Your Love,” helped the band chart in Britain, where the band still remains most popular. BRMC also saw success in the US through the song’s prominence in commercial spots and movies. However, despite the second album Take Them On, On Your Own, also charting in the UK, every subsequent release seems to have fallen deeper into obscurity.
Although the music industry is a beast and difficult to predict, I would venture to say Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s lack of lasting mainstream success comes down to the nature of the band itself. Peter Hayes is a rather elusive man, hardly doing interviews and always exhibiting the down-to-earth quality which is not associated with rock stars. BRMC comes from the tight-knit West Coast rock scene, where success is an afterthought to the music. They may never have the eccentricity of The White Stripes or the reckless youthful disregard of The Strokes, but Black Rebel Motorcycle Club also deserves a spot in rock history for the movement they pushed forward and the unique sound they crafted.