It should be clear by now that rock and roll poses no danger to the status quo. Fair enough: It’s going on 70 years since Elvis and Chuck Berry freaked out parents of screaming teens, and 50 years since Iggy and the Stooges ripped up stages in Detroit and the denizens of CBGB made rock subversive again. That’s a long time for an edge to dull, and dull it has. Perhaps nowhere is this more in evidence than rock films like CBGB, which “somehow manages to make punk rock boring,” and Netflix’s The Dirt, a movie about Mötley Crüe that gives us as much insight into the band as a couple spins of “Dr. Feelgood,” argues critic Brian Tallerico.
Yes, we can chalk up bad rock films to lazy filmmaking and studio greed, but there’s also a general sense that the culture now understands rock only as a matter of gestures and anecdotes: the making of the music reduced to stylistic quirks and kitschy artifice.
This is in contrast, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich felt, to earlier media like the live performances on The Old Grey Whistle Test. (It’s certainly in contrast to John Peel’s raw sessions and films like Urgh! A Music War.) In making his From the Basement series, Godrich said, “I’m a sad fan trying to bring the magic back to music TV.”
Just as rock photography was reduced from “total access all the time” to well-kept marketing and PR (or so claimed the late, legendary Baron Wolman), rock performance has become overproduced spectacle in which it can be difficult to tell pre-recorded tracks from real playing. Add to this the loss of intimacy in live venues in the time of COVID, and we get even farther away from the music’s creation. Godrich and producer Dilly Gent conceived of From the Basement years before the pandemic, but it’s almost as if they anticipated a cultural crisis of our moment, the enforced separation from the making of live music.
Like the best Zoom concerts, From the Basement, produced between 2006 and 2009, eschews the trappings of host, audience, and studio lighting for an immediate experience of live creation. It’s a safe, sterile environment — missing are mosh pits, fans swarming the stage, and the sex, drugs, and violence of old. But to pretend that rock is dangerous in the 21st century is nothing more than pretense. There’s no need to turn the music into the edgy spectacle it isn’t anymore (and hasn’t been since “Creep” ruled the radio), Godrich and Gent’s concept suggests. In doing so, we miss what it is now.
Or as Thom Yorke — whose band got first dibs, playing “Videotape” and “Down is the New Up” in the debut episode — remarked, the show “was exciting because it came from the desire to cut out the crap that lies between the music and the viewer. To get plugged straight into the mains. No producer or director egos messing it up.” See From the Basement performances from Radiohead, Sonic Youth, the White Stripes, and PJ Harvey above and many more archived at the From the Basement YouTube channel here.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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