Every once in a while, usually when I’m driving my grilfriend’s car, I listen to the radio. I’ve burned her plenty of mix CDs, mostly for my own benefit, but she tends to ignore them and/or hide them in some obscure compartment out of my reach, because she is an actual human being and therefore the radio is fine for her purposes. Turn on the radio, skim around, find nothing worth listening to, turn the radio off. That’s about right. I do my own version of that often enough with music hype blogs and limited-one-time-pressing-of-300-because-nobody-actually-cares records. Everybody has a line beyond which they no longer give a shit. I got no complaints with setting boundaries.
So it was that I found myself listening to, and actually enjoying in a relative sense, Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out.” It’s a decent enough radio single. It has guitars. It’s also got that part where it morphs from a perfectly acceptable sub-sub-sub-Velvet Underground rock chugger into a decade-predicting guitar-techno jock jam.
Remember Franz Ferdinand? Anybody? They were that band that was not the Strokes back when people thought the Strokes was how bands were going to sound from now on. They were from not America. They had that one guy with the fedora, patient one for “fedoras are for douches now instead of high school nerds.” You know, Franz Ferdinand.
Listening to this jukebox monster hit of theirs on a pleasant Sunday ride home from dropping my girlfriend off got me thinking. The change in “Take Me Out” from, “oh this is a fun bridge,” to “oh wow, that’s actually the whole song and that beginning was just an intro to this” was a prescient glimpse into the turn towards eurotrash suckage that rock music took in the 2000s. It happened (September 11 reference) just as there appeared to be a nationwide revival of the rattling janglefied drug punk we had approximately none of in the nu-metal/post-rock late 90s. Sorry Charlie, we’d like to bring back that old sneering ‘tude just as much as you would, but we’re gonna take care of the dance floor first because we know what side our bread is buttered on. Zzzzzzzz rock history, and worse, the “larger zeitgeist” variety that bears no resemblance to what was actually going on. That’s what you get for turning on the radio in your girlfriend’s car.
But here’s the question that popped into my head as “Take Me Out” summed up the entirety of rock music in one little in-song transition: Has there ever been a band that rocked harder over time? Not often, friends. Not fucking often at all. Close to never, even. And so there it was, the Theory of Rock Entropy. Bands tend to rock less over time. “Oh great,” you’re saying, “some windbag has come up with a way of combining rock historian with the laws of thermodynamics to create an unstoppable Boredo-tron of talking to me.” Sure, guys. Definitely.
Let’s say for the sake of still taking, that the Theory of Rock Entropy is something you’d be interested in hearing about. In this case, possible questions you’d have include “How and why does it work?” and “What are the possible exceptions?” and “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
How and Why It Works:
Rocking is not particularly difficult. Get some gear together, plug it in, turn it up, bang away, and you’ve pretty much unlocked the key to whatever mysteries are involved in being a rock band. Rocking is the first thing any given rock band is ever capable of doing. Some (most) bands are never capable of rocking at any point in their existence, but if there’s ever a time when a band is most likely to rock, it’s the instant they plug in.
Sure if nobody in the band knows how to play an instrument (awesome), there’s going to be a little refractory period of non-rocking for the band members to figure out how the shitty guitars are supposed to go with the shitty drums and shitty vocals. Once a kind of confidence (you need confidence, or at least an oblivious shamelessness, to rock) is gained, all possibility of rocking begins its slow evaporation. I will not postulate on the relationship between musical ability and likelihood of rocking aside from saying it has not been historically favorable. There are exceptions. I’ll talk about the exceptions later.
So bands tend to rock less over time. But why? Well, since rocking is the first thing any given band can do together, it’s also the first thing to get old. After “hell yeah, we rock,” the other stuff immediately starts drifting in. “I don’t want to just rock all the time, I want to make people DANCE,” “I want to write a love song so people will FUCK to our music,” “The tape deck in the tour van died, so we’re all obsessed with Carly Rae Jepsen now,” “man, if we got a song on a iPod commercial we’d be able to buy CARS,” “[anybody is]…pregnant,” “I’m 30 now, you guys,” “I have been practicing like crazy because I enjoy this rock band more than I like anything else in my life, and I ended up being a pretty good guitarist, can we please do something with this flamenco piece I’ve been working on?” or “Hey guys, it’s me Dave the bassist, and I have a few ideas…” etc. infinity. ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROCKING LESS. As soon as a band rocks, those other things start creeping in, and before you know it, the band WANTS to do anything other than rocking.
I’m not saying this is a tragedy or it’s wrong or anything, that’s just the way things go. Being in a band is supposed to be fun, so you do things you’re interested in to keep it fun. Sometimes a band will be like “band meeting, guys, let’s all make a decision to stay serious about rocking or else just not do this.” Being “serious about rocking” is not actually rocking. Also this fact: once the band gets to a point of musical competence which allows for other motives other than rocking, any future rocking will be a result of a conscious decision to rock, rather than because you're in a rock band and you rock and that's all you know. It’s a less potent form of rocking. This is perfectly illustrated by the small but palpable difference between The Ramones and Rocket To Russia.
The Possible Exceptions:
“The exception that proves the rule” is maybe the worst commonly used phrase in the English language. Nonetheless, there are some interesting exceptions to the Theory of Rock Entropy.
Exception one is solo artists. They’re much more volatile than bands. Sometimes they rock, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they call themselves “Mount Eerie,” sometimes they call themselves “the Microphones.” Sometimes they’re Aerial M, sometimes they’re Papa M, sometimes they’re Dave Pajo, and if so, all of the time they are boring. Solo artists are whimsical creatures.
The reason solo artists are exempt from the Theory of Rock Entropy is you can’t rock in a vacuum. If you’re there alone, how much are you rocking? You’re a tree rocking in a forest with nobody around to hear you. Sure, you could decide to rock. You could be a rocking one man band like early Ty Segall or Bob Log III, but if so are you really rocking, or are you just showing everybody all the fancy rocking-like things you can do all by yourself?
Let’s say you have a backing band. Is that band even a band or is it just dudes who desperately want to get away from a deteriorating relationship with an end of her rope girlfriend who rightfully wants them to grow up and stop being in bands? To what degree are you collaborating with these people? Are you treating them like some combination of a session musician and your drinking buddy Doug, or are you actually “in” a “band” with them? Are they even allowed to rock without your say so? What if they DO rock? Who is responsible?
A thing that sometimes happens to solo artists, is they appear to rock harder over time when really they’re morphing from a solo artist into a band and back again. Take Thee Oh Sees, for example. They’re all over the rocking map. Sometimes it’s a solo artist, sometimes it’s a band. Sometimes it’s a solo artist saying to the band “I want this to be the calm one.” How do you gauge the state of rock entropy decay? You don’t. Because you can’t. Every project is different and the band is only as much of a band as one person chooses, unless that one person chooses for the band to actually be a band, and there’s no way for anybody to know the difference.
If you’re a “solo artist,” people are always going to question, and justifiably so, if your ego is being serviced before the rock is. Maybe that’s unfair, but it’s okay, nobody’s actually keeping track. Except me. I am keeping track. I have charts about your Rate of Rock Entropy. I have time on my hands.
Exception two is volunteer rockers. When you have a garden, and I learned this from my Mom, sometimes a plant will come in out of nowhere and just bloom there like you had planned it even though you didn’t, and those plants are called “volunteers.” I don’t know why this word popped into my head just now. It’s possibly Jefferson Airplane (hugely evident Rate of Rock Entropy) related.
Volunteer rockers is a fairly uncommon phenomenon where a band will seem to rock more over time because of issues related to the time rather than the band. You’d be more likely to see this in the 60s with folk-to-rock bands like the Byrds (not a great example because of lineup changes) or Fairport Convention.
I’ll call this an exception to the Theory of Rock Entropy for three reasons. One: Because in the 60s “rocking” (as opposed to “rock n’ roll”—different things) was just being invented, it makes sense for things back then to be a little weird, just like how the laws of physics were weird in the couple of nanoseconds after the big bang. Two: Back in the 60s (or to a similar extent the post-Nirvana 90s) all of music was going in a “more rock direction,” so these bands just floated on that tide, which means the time was special and not the bands. Three: deciding to rock after starting out as a non-rock band is a non-rock decision, and although it will appear to outside eyes that you are rocking harder, you of course can’t actually be rocking harder than you would have if you had initially rocked at inception.
This last one might seem like cooked books to anybody out there stupid enough (it’s just me, isn’t it?) to be taking this seriously. A band may always rock less than they’re capable of, including at the band’s inception where their rock capability is at its highest possible. Then in a few isolated incidents, a band might for commercial reasons in an extraordinarily rock-heavy time arbitrarily decide to rock more than they had previously. The resultant amount of rocking is limited to the band’s rock capability threshold, which is in steady decline due to the still in tact Theory of Rock Entropy.
Here’s a graph:
Is this cheating? I don’t know, man. I made a fucking graph for it so the least you could do is give me a break. I guess all of this is to say that if the Bee Gees rock a little harder on “2 Years On” than they do on “Cucumber Castle,” we shouldn’t get all bent out of shape over the Bee Gees redefining rock. They’re the fucking Bee Gees. You don’t get credit for rocking harder than the fucking Bee Gees, even if you’re the fucking Bee Gees. That’s not an achievement.
Exception three is “avant garde” bands. So Sonic Youth rocked harder over time because when they first started they were a shitty Lydia Lunch-style poetry screaming no wave art band, and they ended up rocking more than that simply because they continued to exist and still play guitars. Big deal. I’ve had bowel movements that rocked harder than that first Sonic Youth album that were also twice as listenable.
Exception four is “scared straight.” That’s when you’re R.E.M. and you look back at your career and you see mandolins on Losing My Religion and "Shiny Happy People" and "Everybody Hurts" and you’re like "Guys, look at our legacy, when did we become such clowns? We've got to rock from now on or else we'll forever be confused with Toad the Wet Sprocket."
Sometimes a band decides to be more rock if they first decide to go so far in a non-rock direction that they actually embarrass themselves. As in "I am embarrassed to be myself." Remember: there’s no limit for non-rocking. At any time a band can decide to put out a Klezmer album just because somebody’s oboe-playing Jewish dad died. Should you get credit for coming to your senses after realizing that you just foisted your Klezmer-related grief on an unsuspecting public? No. No you should not.
Exception five is a lineup change. Hawkwind didn’t rock harder after they added Lemmy. They just became Hawkwind with Lemmy. Different band, different Rock Entropy curve.
Exception six is the Stooges. If you are the Stooges.
What the Fuck Is Wrong with You?
I don’t know. My girlfriend is trying to become a teacher so every once in a while I drop her off at the inconveniently located testing center at like 7 in the morning because I’m trying to be a decent human being instead of the no good shitheel I actually am, and my reward is fucking Franz Ferdinand on the radio and a still-asleep brain spewing idiotic rock music theories at me. At least I don’t think they’re good or anything. I used to, but that was when I just started. It’s been downhill ever since.