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- Posted on Jul 14th 2010 5:00PM by James Sullivan
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Rock 'n' roll is supposed to be cool. But what is cool? By definition, a cool attitude is a kind of detachment, a lack of passion. It's a reluctance to show emotion.
By that measure, what could be more uncool than playing air guitar? All that effort, all those silly faces.
And what could be more rock 'n' roll than a glorious, ridiculous display of air guitar? The spirit of rock, in fact, runs hot. It's hyperactive, unafraid to look foolish. And it's very uncool.
In the high school of life, the cool kids and the geeks are not supposed to mix. But a geek, in the word's original usage, was a sideshow performer who did weird, shocking things in his act. Most notably, the historical geek bit the heads off live chickens, snakes or bats.
Which, of course, makes Ozzy Osbourne the biggest geek in rock.
If we identify a geek more generally as an obsessive, then Iggy Pop is a geek. John Lydon is a geek. Billie Joe Armstrong, Lady Gaga and the guys in Gnarls Barkley are geeks.
In the increasing micro-categorization of popular music, "geek rock" has come to identify the music of the bands who might actually wear pocket protectors – bands like Barenaked Ladies and Art Brut, who pride themselves on their eggheaded lyrics and personae. But the history of rock 'n' roll is filled with geeky overenthusiasm.
Bill Haley, who rocked around the clock, did so in a corny spit-curl and a tartan jacket. Little Richard was an unashamed volcano of emotion. Even Elvis was a big dork who would re-enact Monty Python routines for the Memphis Mafia.
Buddy Holly, on the other hand, is often mistaken as a geek-rock forefather, simply because of the thick black frames on his glasses. Folks, those things were stylish back in the day. In truth, the prolific and adventurous original Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was quite a cool customer -- for example, he and his Puerto Rican bride relocated from West Texas to bohemian Greenwich Village in Manhattan near the end of his brief life.
The true pioneer of latter-day geek rock should be noted as Jonathan Richman, who founded the Modern Lovers in 1970. At a time when most young rockers were hoping they'd die before they got old, the dweeby, nasal-voiced Richman looked forward to the day that he'd be 'Dignified and Old.' He wrote against-the-grain songs about martians and the dangers of drugs, and when he serenaded girls, he was the submissive one, not the aggressor.
Around the same time that Richman was forming the Modern Lovers, a group of artistically inclined Kent State students in Ohio were coming together around their brainiac concept of the "de-evolution" of humankind. Devo's landmark debut album, released in 1978, featured the group singing about such uncool feelings as paranoia and sexual anxiety. With their flowerpot hats and their ludicrous matching yellow jumpsuits, Devo would soon become unlikely MTV superstars.
Absurd theatricality has always been a staple of geek rock. Peter Gabriel's fox-head costumes and songs about talking lawn mowers, all conceived with little or no help from the psychedelic drugs of the day, made Genesis a geek-rock staple in the 1970s. The mysterious, long-running Residents hid their identities behind giant eyeball masks as they dissected rock 'n' roll history like a flayed frog.
The two Johns of They Might Be Giants, the nearly 30-year-old accordion-and-humor-based duo, have often cited their affection for the Residents. TMBG earned their geek-rock stripes early on with songs that celebrated book-learning and word games ('I Palindrome I'), and their science-y songwriting style has since made them favorites on the kid-rock circuit.
Like They Might Be Giants, many geek-rockers are noted for the Professor Frink quality of their singing voices. When the B-52s' Fred Schneider first flaunted his essential nerdiness on 'Rock Lobster,' the band's goofy party vibe helped inspire the closeted geek John Lennon to make a comeback after years as a stay-at-home dad. Jello Biafra, the sarcastic autodidact who skewered middle-class concerns and ran for mayor of San Francisco as the Dead Kennedys' frontman, brought punk's inherent geekiness front and center. The Smiths' Morrissey, the Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano and the Smoking Popes' Josh Caterer have all flown their geek flags high.
At the height of punk provocation, Talking Heads stood out for combining David Byrne's comically well-mannered singing style with a defiantly preppy image. The underrated Feelies likewise helped usher in the seemingly oxymoronic era of "college rock." Meanwhile, Elvis Costello was playing up his own knock-kneed Buddy Holly appearance. A more recent generation has its own representative dweebs in Weezer, whose breakthrough was due in part (fittingly?) to a song called 'Buddy Holly.'
To repeat: It's not the thick glasses that make the geek. It's the excitability.
And if it's not exciting, it ain't rock 'n' roll.