South by Southwests of Yore

South by Southwest, that bastion of independent music, Web 2.0 crowdsourcing folksonomy panels, and drunken mid-level industry types, hasn’t always been such an established tradition. It took a good 20 years for that magnificent phoenix to rise out of the ashes of the late ’80s underground, through ’90s shoegazing rave-pop, then onwards and upwards to the festival behemoth we all know and tolerate today. It’s about time we took a look back on the last two decades of this tractor expo of music, movies, and interactives(?) and say, “Enough of that already.”

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Poi Dog Pondering, “Candy” (download)

To get through this wild, wonderful venture across the plane of 1990s alterna-rock, it took a few handfuls of silo-made LSD, some ill-advised dreadlocks, and a little band I like to call Poi Dog Pondering. I’m not sure any other band could represent the earlier days of the festival better. Mixing intellectual R.E.M. college rock and world music seemed like the thing to do at the time, there in your Doc Martens and a tye-dyed T-shirt. You might find Poi Dog on a compilation CD with Trip Shakespeare, Phranc, and maybe a Love Tractor song or two (all SXSW grads). As much as I’d like to write it off as disconcertingly innocuous, I’d never actually heard them.

Morphine, “All Wrong” (download)

There’s that old saw that the Velvet Underground were only seen live by a select number of people, but those people all went on to influence other bands because they were overwhelmed by the pure, unbridled, anarchic creativity they saw before them. Complete hokum. They knew Andy Warhol and he was a one-man marketing machine. Plus, the Velvet Underground played plenty of shows as evinced by the number of bootlegs available. It’s the same for SXSW. Bands don’t really break there so much as they are found by A&R reps and then hyped into position a few months later. I’ve heard it was big for Tapes ’n Tapes, the Octopus Project, Trail of Dead, Broken Social Scene; but really, there’s no accurate way to measure these things. All these bands’ success could be only tangentially related to them getting a record contract and actually having an album to sell. Or like Morphine, the show just happened to coincide with an already released album.

The Gin Blossoms, “Hey Jealousy” (listen at Can You See the Sunset From the Southside?)
For a select few, the festival has been both kingmaker and sloppy drunken prom queen. How else to describe its ability to bring an unknown band like the Gin Blossoms to such prominence? “Hey Jealousy” was that ubiquitous hit of the time that played from every speaker in the empty parking lot of family-friendly restaurants in the tri-state area as people walked to their car. Only to be followed by Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Mat Kearney’s “Nothing Left to Lose,” and any of the “three” bands: Three Doors Down, Third Eye Blind, Three on a Hill. If familiarity breeds contempt, “Hey Jealousy” bred something akin to toxoplasmosis. People tend to think that all modern radio is manufactured pop, but really some of it is authentic songcraft that’s been overplayed into derision. There’s an interview with Eddie Vedder in the great movie Hype!, where he laments the odd result of writing a popular song and then having people threaten to hunt him down and kill him for having it repeated so much.

“Arboga Teenage Riot” (listen at WFMU)
SXSW isn’t so much the Dionysian orgy, like your Burning Man or Rainbow Gathering, that people seem to expect. It’s more of a southern cotillion, where most events are highly organized, invitation-only formal affairs put on by magazines or record labels, with a strict social order that secretly wants you to get drunk and piss in the family urn. Most of the music is mainly straightforward rock and roll, and cue times are respected (as they should be). For every 100 bands out of a thousand, there’s only a handful of Atari Teenage Riots. I used to try and listen to Burn Berlin Burn while fumbling with a DOS prompt and think I was hacking into the matrix of a supercomputer. It lasted all of 10 minutes, or until the frustration of trying to concentrate with somebody screaming German insults in my ear became overwhelming.

The Reverend Horton Heat, “Psychobilly Freakout” (download)

Since these olden days, the scene’s fractured into a million different fragments, man. It used to be that you could sum up and dismiss all of the music being played there with the brush of a hand. Nowadays it takes two or three brushes. This year’s reunion shows alone are hard to shake a stick at: Simply Saucer, the Homosexuals, Half Japanese, the Slits, Roky Erickson. That’s like half of The Secret History of Rock & Roll right there. It makes Bonnaroo look like a poor man’s Coachella, a second-tier Lollapalooza, or a poor tier’s argle bargle. Gone are the days when the Reverend Horton Heat was the number-one attraction, and the fire marshals showed up on a regular basis. I can imagine what it was like back in 1987 based on episodes of Austin Stories, and it must have seemed so quaint.

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