Mod-Rock Cons

The Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters won't save rock but they're hanging in there

By recent definition "modern rock" is practically an oxymoron. With pretty teen groups and scantily clad Lolitas clogging the airwaves and charts, "rock" has become about as old school as they come. The age of the average audience member, upward of 22, clearly is outside Rolling Stone's target demographic, and while a largely irrelevant and, journalistically speaking, shoddy rag might not be the best place to check up on the health of modern music, it does serve as a barometer of the times, regardless of how much hot air it is anyway. And from all evidence brought to the jury, rock is facing the same doldrums it faced around the turn of the Nineties, when Billboard magazine pointed out a serious dearth of guitar rock on its charts. Of course this all changed with a head turn as Nirvana jump-started the latest pendulum swing toward hard and harder with "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Sabotaging his own great work and life, Kurt Cobain effectively ended any possibility of furthering the cause when he sent the bullet to the back of his head, severing ties far deeper than he could have imagined.

From those ashes sprang Foo Fighters, when Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl reinvented himself as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter for the post-Nirvana age. With Grohl the touch was lighter. He couldn't help it. While he liked the severe pounding and brutal attack as much as the next former Washington, D.C., hardcore drummer, existentially speaking he wasn't as mired in the day-to-day struggles of staying alive. He accepted his good fortune as just that, and once sufficiently through with the mourning of his friend's untimely passing, set out to see if his good fortune could last.

Beyond anyone's wildest suspicions, Foo Fighters succeeded. Ginger Baker's Airforce may have had its aficionados, but it never came close to overtaking Cream. Besides, who seriously expects the drummer of a former heavyweight band to come close to matching past achievements? Ringo the 4th might be someone's cup of preferred tea, but seriously folks.... Although Foo Fighters obviously will never pack the cultural clout of Nirvana, in terms of longevity (heck, pretty soon, album-making), they've already outpaced their predecessor. One listen to "Learn to Fly," the standout single from their third album, There Is Nothing Left to Lose, makes it clear that pop hooks are the essential ingredient to the band's success and its modus operandi. They'll be making goofy, fun loving videos well into their midthirties.

Anyone looking for "Scar Tissue" need look no further than those Southern California brats, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. If ever a band was tailor-made for the VH1 Behind the Music trip, it's these suburban boys. Good looks, awesome bods, instrumental dexterity (if little understanding of nuance or swing), and the ability to channel an audience's energy into a shirt-waving frenzy, RHCPs really are nothing more than David Lee Roth-era Van Halen updated for a new generation. Singer Anthony Kiedis may not have Roth's smarmy show-biz charm, but he's got the athletic prowess to drop-kick the old dude in the first few rounds, no contest. Guitarist John Frusciante may not preen and pose like Eddie VH, but he's got an arsenal of riffs that defines his generation's approach to white-boy metal funk and has influenced a thousand garage bands worldwide.

The story behind the band's latest album, Californication, obviously is the return of Frusciante, who as the Behind the Music special showed, was at one point as far gone on heroin as anyone this side of eternity. Somehow he managed to record some impressive solo work -- removed from the band's context, the playing is both more melodic and warped, sounding a bit like companion pieces to Skip Spence's Oar -- but the band suffered in his absence.

Without Frusciante the Chili Peppers were quite literally at death's door. A less-than-stellar outing, One Hot Minute, with former Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, proved you can weight a band with all-stars, but you can never guarantee team chemistry. Audiences noticed, and the rock supremacy the Peppers declared with Blood Sugar Sex Magik was seriously in doubt. Faster than you could say Faith No More, they put the pieces back together.

Kiedis needs to lose the rhyming dictionary. Yes, Tony, "Johnson" rhymes with "Wisconsin" and "elation," "quotations," and even "Californication" prove you have a "gift" for the English language, but proud punters positively predict pretentious poetry proves pitiful once taken too far. Besides, while the expectant rave-up funk of "Around the World" or "Purple Stain" may get the crowd moving, ironically it's tracks such as "Scar Tissue," "Otherside," and the title track -- friggin' ballads, for funk's sake -- that seem to capture the band's ethos best these days, just as "Under the Bridge" gave these gangly jockheads the compassionate human edge they needed to connect with a mass audience.

In other words no matter how "modern" your rock might be marketed, it's letting the audience in on your Achilles' heal that often makes the difference.

 
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