R.E.M., The Go-Go's, And Why The World Needs More Bands Who Can 'Barely Play Their Instruments'!

You start out in a band, barely in command of your own chosen instrument, and attempt to perform a cover song because, hey, that's what bands do. Before long, it becomes quite obvious to all involved that "covers might not be our thing".

Cover band aspirations dashed against the jagged rocks of reality, it is then decided to come up with our own song, dammit. If Kelly Clarkson can write a song, darn it, so can we. After hours of intense jamming, each musician approaching their instrument with the patient demeanor of a master craftsman, a song begins to emerge and it's got just enough dizzy swagger to it that you momentarily allow yourself to imagine seeing your band's name up in lights on the marquee of the cool venue in town where all the hippest bands serve it up.

A few weeks later, you play your first gig, jammed into the middle of a ten-band bill on a Tuesday night during one of the strongest blizzards anybody in these parts has seen since Elvis was alive. Sure, the audience was mostly comprised of members of other bands who hadn't played yet and their bored-looking friends, but, despite having to start your first song over a couple times, once the lopsided trolley gets some momentum, the rest of the set flies by in a blur.

As you load out, you try to recall as much of it as you can, but can pull out only bits and pieces: looks on faces in the crowd, the EXIT sign at the back of the room, the way the waitresses chuck empty beer bottles into the trash can with absolutely no regard for the beat, how dare they!

Most of all, you remember the moment during your band's last song when even the bar staff clapped.

Hey, that's gotta mean something, right?

And then the band splits the night's take - $40 - four ways after spending an hour trying to track down the guy with the money. Get used to that one.

Once in the van and headed back home, your fellow band mates help fill in some of the blanks from the night's performance, some so kind as to point out each one of your eight, no, nine flubs, and, in doing so, a sense of brotherly camaraderie develops that will propel you well beyond their obvious musical limitations.

In such limitations, your band seems to almost thrive, creating a sound that outsiders perceive as well-conceived and mysterious when, in fact, it's four kids who can barely tune their instruments just trying not to suck.

The world is full of bands whose musical limitations ultimately worked to their benefit: The Ramones, R.E.M., Velvet Underground, the B-52's, the Go-Go's, and on and on. It has often been said that showing up is 80% of the battle and, to a band, it has been well-documented that each of the aforementioned bands would "show up" anywhere to play for anyone at any time, sometimes traveling great distances just to do so.

Hell, R.E.M. barely knew ten songs before they were off on any number of van tours to neighboring states while the Go-Go's finally broke through in their hometown of L.A. by going to England and playing shows with Madness.

Both would eventually sign with I.R.S. Records and become cultural touchstones. Not bad for "bands who could barely play their instruments".

By their examples, what motivation is there for becoming as accomplished at their instrument as, say, Joe Satriani or Steve Vai when the only advantage would seem to be being stereotyped as a virtuoso and have the focus be on your physical talent and not so much your music?

Oh, and you also get to make instructional videos. Yay!

Can you imagine an instructional guitar-playing video featuring a young Peter Buck? Me neither, although I'd buy it a heartbeat because just hearing Peter Buck talk about music is enough for me because he'll more than likely wind up talking about other cool bands than about his own, which only widens my own musical horizons.

Thing is, put ANY band on the road long enough and they will begin to get the hang of things and become "good at their craft". It's only natural that a young drummer with dreams of being a professional musician wants to be able to play to a click track or make it to the end of a song without messing up, or a guitarist would want to be adept at scales and alternate tunings, but there is always the risk of becoming "too good".

Since we've been using R.E.M. and the Go-Go's as an example, we'll continue to do so:

In the case of R.E.M., with the release of the mostly-acoustic Out Of Time in 1991, we saw a band that had started out barely able to play their instruments gradually become a band capable of performing those same early songs in an acoustic setting and, in doing so, attain their greatest commercial success.

And we watched this very same band abandon the mandolins and bongos to crank up the guitars and partake in the grunge explosion soonafter.

It was the first bad move the band had made, in this writer's opinion, and it forever changed how the public responded to every album the band would make thereafter. See, in watching R.E.M. willingly break from their own creative trajectory to partake in such trend-chasing as heard on Monster, many of the band's longtime fans saw a band that was now following instead of leading, slumming instead of soaring.

Subsequent albums such as Reveal, Up, and Around the Sun were pleasant and well-received albums that, quite sadly, could have been made by any number of bands - none of which are in this writer's collection.

In becoming musically adept at their chosen instruments, the members of R.E.M. had unwittingly futzed with the magic and, in doing so, completely lost touch with the ambitious novice within who, together with three other equally ambitious novices, had created a sound unlike any that had ever been heard.

I'm reasonably sure that if Peter Buck were here right now, he'd implore you to work hard to become only reasonably accomplished at your craft, but not so good that the mystery is lost and calamity no longer lurks around every corner. Breaking rules that you don't even know exist is how great things get made.

One of the best examples of this has to be the Go-Go's, whose musical limitations did not stop them from appearing on Saturday Night Live, Fridays, American Bandstand, or MTV, nor did it prevent their first album (Beauty & The Beat) from hitting #1.

When this writer caught them during their farewell tour this summer, it was evident from the first song that the Go-Go's were the same moderately accomplished musicians they'd always been. Sure, decades on the road had tightened their skills to a considerable degree, enabling band members to play their instruments and kick beach balls into the audience simultaneously (harder than it looks, ladies and gentlemen), but, beyond that, they remain the same rag-tag rockers they were when "This Town" was sparkly and new.

There are no acoustic/unplugged albums in the Go-Go's discography, no moments of mandolin-driven self-reflection, and, most importantly, no albums that sound like any number of other bands could have made them. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the Go-Go's are smart enough to know that getting too good at their craft would kill the charm of their joyously hormonal teenage racket.

Need we remind anyone that this is rock & roll and not architecture. Can't play that instrument? So what? Pick it up anyway and change the world.

Superior St. Rehearsal Facility

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