Thursday, November 1, 2007

“The Next Great American Band” Can’t Stand Up to a Great Old One

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

In Peter Bogdanovich's epic (four-hour), exhaustive, informative and exhilarating documentary "Runnin' Down a Dream," a comprehensive look at the first 30 years of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Petty makes the observation "Now, they choose rock stars on television," with a sense of disbelief and disgust. The film, which enjoyed a one-day theatrical release on October 15 before being released on DVD, premiered on the Sundance Channel on October 29. Petty's honest and astute observation ran through my head as I watched the first two episodes of Fox's "The Next Great American Band" (8 p.m. Eastern on Fridays).

“American Band” was created by Simon Fuller, the man who brought us "American Idol," but even if he used an alias, there would be no doubt about the pedigree of "American Band." From the lighting, to the graphics, to the format, to the host, to the judges, it could not be more clear that the show is "American Idol" for groups. The first show even showed auditions, just like "Idol" (only, inexplicably, they were held outdoors in a desert near Las Vegas), including a lot of acts chosen just because they were comically awful.

The “Idol” imprint is everywhere. The host of “American Band” is Dominic Bowden, whose only major previous credit is serving as the host of “New Zealand Idol.” Bowden is a loud, clueless, vapid presence, providing nothing aside from annoyance, as well as making me constantly wonder if he looks at himself in a mirror before walking out on stage (everything from his clothing to his hair screams ambitions for a self-consciously, over-styled too-cool-for-school status). He is so off-putting, you’ll find yourself missing Ryan Seacrest, and that, my friends, is no easy task.

The judges, too, are cast straight out of the “Idol” playbook, with Ian “Dicko” Dickson assuming the part of an Australian Simon Cowell, laying harsh truth on the contestants and basking in the boos showered on him by the audience; Goo Goo Dolls lead singer John Rzeznik taking on the Randy Jackson role of the generally easy-going-but-tokenly-critical music industry veteran; and Sheila E., far from her role as drummer and music director for Prince (a fact we are reminded of again and again), sliding into Paula Abdul’s seat as the nurturing female presence, only, thankfully, Sheila E. is far more coherent than Abdul.

The real problem, though, with “American Band” is the bands themselves. I mean, the show is called “The Next Great American Band,” which is a problem when few of the 12 finalists even approach the level of decent, let alone great. As Petty’s quote illustrates, there is something inherently wrong with developing a band through a television program. Truly great bands come from a place of integrity. The Ramones may have barely been able to play their instruments, but their music was genuine and heartfelt, and it showed.

The bands on “American Band,” as a rule, feel prefabricated. In a telling moment from the show’s second episode, during Dicko’s critique of Dot Dot Dot, a co-ed five-piece outfit that resembles, sounds and acts like Fall Out Boy, he noted that the group "looked like an ad executive’s idea of a rock band." He was right, and he could have made the same observation about any number of the night’s performers.

The glitzy approach of “Idol” is actually perfect for the mindless pop singers that the show promotes. But that same corporate attitude fails miserably in the context of bands, certainly ones that are supposed to be great.

The only rock band of the 12 finalists that seems to have any kind of genuine spirit is a Detroit trio called the Muggs, a garage band in the vein of the MC5. That’s not to say that the Muggs are a great group. The lead singer struggles for competence, and while the band is tight, their songs meander. At least the Muggs felt like a real rock band to me, really the only one on the show. Unfortunately, “American Band” would rather concentrate on the fact that the bass player survived a stroke, is now partially paralyzed, and now bangs out the bass lines on a keyboard.

The only other groups that feel at all genuine are the bluegrass outfit Cliff Wagner and the Old #7, the Clark Brothers (think an acoustic country/heritage version of Hanson), and funk rockers Franklin Bridge. These groups, along with the big band consortium Denver and the Mile High Orchestra (who feature one of the least interesting front men of all time), aren’t bad, but they seem like they belong on a different program.

The other seven finalists are all rock bands, and while many of them can play, and many of them are marginally entertaining in their own ways, not one of them has a lick of genuine star quality, and all of them lack originality. Rock music has always borrowed from its predecessors, but too often the competitors on “American Band” feel like they are actors playing the role of bands they would like to be.

Tres Bien, from Clearwater, Florida, slavishly performs 1960s Britpop, but adds nothing at all to the equation. L.A.-based girl band Rocket wants to be the Donnas, but they’re way sloppier and the lead singer can’t sing, which, as you can guess, is a big problem. Sixwire is a Nashville country rock outfit that is so nondescript, they’d fit in great at any southern bar, but they will be hard-pressed to find a wider audience. And Brooklyn’s the Hatch so want to be Maroon 5, I wouldn’t be surprised if the lead singer, in some kind of method acting stupor, makes his bandmates call him Adam (as in Levine, Maroon’s vocalist).

Light of Doom is made up of five 13-year-olds who sound like Iron Maiden if the heavy metal icons were fronted by, well, a 13-year-old who can’t sing. It is annoying and somewhat disturbing to watch a bunch of suburban kids from the San Diego area pretend to be badasses. When both Sheila E. and Dicko told the kids to put their shirts on, they spoke for most viewers, I’m sure.

As bad as Light of Doom is, and as studied as Dot Dot Dot comes off, the award for most prefabricated act has to go to generic rockers The Likes of You (think Nickelback, only wimpier, with extensive use of falsetto), whose lead singer admitted under interrogation by Dicko that the Likes of You was not, in fact, put together as a band. Rather, lead singer Geoff Byrd (whose proud claim to fame is having opened for Hall & Oates, which would have been impressive if it was 1982) put together three musicians to back him for the competition. Of course, he claims they’ve clicked, and now they really are a band. His proof? He proudly claims that the band members are splitting the publishing rights on their songs. It was a moment that crystallized the problem with this show. Do you think Tom Petty sat around his band’s shack in Gainesville, Florida, in 1973 and talked about publishing rights? As Petty points out in “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” after two Heartbreakers records, he still thought publishing referred to sheet music.

“American Band” is a mess, a lazy effort to graft the “Idol” concept onto the vague idea of a band, without the guts to limit the type of music the show is looking for (can’t tee off any demographic groups, now can they?). Pitting a bluegrass band against a heavy metal outfit is pointless. How do you compare them?

But what is even worse is that the groups fail to inspire. These can’t be the best 12 unsigned bands in America. I think even Fuller and Fox would admit that their mission was different, since they were really looking for the combination of 12 bands that would make for good television.

Fuller should stick to picking television-made pop idols. His formula is a better fit for that artificial pursuit than seeking out the next great American band.

Rather than going on a misguided search for the future of music, you are better off looking back at the history of one of the best American bands of all time in “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”

I could write thousands of words on why the documentary does an amazing job of tracking the history of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a band that has quietly and steadily established itself as one of the most successful and influential groups in modern rock history. But to do so would limit what “Runnin’ Down a Dream” accomplishes.

Even if you’re not a fan of Petty and his band (is that possible?), the film, in a clear-sighted and entertaining fashion, shines a light on how rock bands were developed in the days before reality television. (And later, how the members hang together -- or don’t -- despite adversity.) Watching “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is a primer on why great rock bands were able to emerge in the 1970s, and why there seems to be a dearth of interesting and original bands now.

Between 1974 and 1979, Petty endured the breakup of Mudcrutch (the band that scored his first record deal), the formation of the Heartbreakers, the commercial failure of the first two Heartbreakers albums, and a protracted legal battle with MCA when it purchased Petty's contract from Shelter Records, leading to Petty having to hide the masters of the album he was recording and, later, filing for bankruptcy.

Nowadays, any one of those setbacks likely would have ended Petty’s career, or at least set him back to square one. But the Heartbreakers were nurtured and allowed to develop, so much so that in 1979, the band finally broke through with the classic album “Damn the Torpedoes,” and went on to crank out quality albums and sell out arenas for 25 more years (and counting). Petty and the Heartbreakers spent years honing their abilities and building their chemistry, putting in the hard work and effort to accomplish what they went on to achieve. Compare this to the “American Band” entrants, who are trying to reach fame via a shortcut, looking for a free pass rather than paying their dues.

Petty and the band went on to not only sell tons of records and record a string of now-classic rock songs, but Petty also established personal and musical relationships with a who's who of rock legends, including George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, Stevie Nicks, Dave Stewart, and Johnny Cash, all while playing a role in the careers of the next generation of artists, like Dave Grohl (who played drums for the Heartbreakers on "Saturday Night Live" before going on to form the Foo Fighters) and Eddie Vedder.

One of the truly amazing things about “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is that it is more than just interviews and cool archival performance footage (although it has both). Rather, nearly everything discussed by the talking heads is also shown in old footage, thanks to the penchant of bass player Ron Blair (and others around the band) to record everything on 8mm film. As a result, virtually nothing chronicled in “Runnin’ Down a Dream” is unaccompanied by matching images. When band members talk about Tench’s car breaking down when the band was heading out to L.A. in 1974, improbably, you get to see it. When Petty discusses how the band was detained in 1977 at a German airport by authorities who thought that they were carrying drugs (they were coming from Amsterdam), even more improbably, you get to watch these naive young rockers waiting to be set free.

I think Fuller should sit down the 12 finalists of "The Next Great American Band" and make them watch “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Maybe they would learn something. Sadly, I think they wouldn’t get it. Which is why “American Band,” in the end, is uninteresting television.