Sure, a band like the very Beatlesque Raspberries comes along every so often, scoring a hit single or two--but for every Raspberries with a classic AM radio staple under their belt, there are a ton of Beatlesque bands that come along and end up mere footnotes in the rock history books. Since "pop" was originally used as just a shortened term for "popular," today's pop purveyors would ultimately be your Mariah Careys, your Whitney Houstons, your Michael Boltons...hence, mass confusion on the part of modern music fans who read the odd music review every now and again.
Alas, Del Amitri is one of the few `90s bands to fit both descriptions of the term "pop." The Scottish group--which has been together since 1982 (at least in the form of founding members/principal songwriters Justin Currie and Iain Harvie)--delivers delicious melodic tunes and somehow manages to score relative fame here in the States. Even a casual VH1 viewer has to be familiar with their Triple A radio staple, "Kiss This Thing Goodbye." And the band's latest A&M release, Some Other Sucker's Parade continues in the same vein; in fact, "Not Where It's At," the album's kickoff track (featuring the classic, self-explanatory lyric: "I don't have a finger on the pulse of my generation/I just got my hand on my heart/I don't know any better location"), sounds even more "pop" tasty than their previous efforts--and I'll eat my word processor if it doesn't become at least as big a hit as "Kiss This Thing Goodbye."
Currie and Harvie have gathered in an old building (in fact, the ancient screening where Charlie Chaplin once screened his classic silent flicks) on the Los Angeles A&M lot to discuss Del Amitri's pop concepts. And while we don't sense any silent film star ghosts in our presence, singer Currie (who resembles a '60s POP! star, with his young McCartneyesque good looks and black leather trousers) and the more hippie-ish looking Harvie manage to conjure up some genuine good vibes in the Beatlesque "pop' sense.
"Well, actually, that's what we call our music, too--pop-rock," agrees Currie, though he thinks America may be headed for another revival of that type. "Things seem to be changing here. Look at the success of No Doubt. Though I'm not particularly a fan of theirs, I'd much rather be force-fed No Doubt than, say, Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam, who all sound rather drab to me. In fact, I think the reason we originally signed to A&M was that we'd written a batch of quite accessible, mainstream songs. I mean, we didn't try to write in that vein..."
"It just happened," agrees Harvie. "Neither of us were really songwriters at that point. We would just look at each other, and say, `OK, you play something now.' But most bands start like that. We had no idea of what we were doing--but we had a lot of conviction." He laughs.
"So, we figured we were a pop band," continues Currie, "and therefore we'd better sign to a pop label. And A&M had bands like Squeeze, Joe Jackson, and the Police. Not that we particularly wanted to be like any of those acts; we were much more interested in the rock side of pop. But, of course, rock was changing. I mean, we've had angst in the past, but the difference seems to be that in Britain, it's always been translated much more as being angry. A lot of the modern rock groups, we just don't get. I mean, Nirvana, we got. Because Nirvana was a punk band. But these other bands that came along, I don't know! Did they all grow up listening to Iron Butterfly? Well, we just don't write ponderous music.
"We don't necessarily sound like what we listen to. Most of what we listen to is guitar-based, guitar-driven bands." (Which explains the terrific Neil Young & Crazy Horse cover tunes Del Amitri has been known to pull out during their live shows!) "But we don't ever try to change our sound deliberately. We just sound the way it comes out. I don't know that anything really influences our songwriting because writing is sort of personal--so we just do what we do. But, musically, our influences are obvious: the Beatles and the Stones. Of course, I never really listened to the Stones until the mid-'80s because I was a Beatles fan, and when I was growing up, it was always the Beatles versus the Stones. So, I discovered them later than most people.
"And then beyond those two bands, it's, of course, British and American punk rock. The Ramones were a great influence. The Buzzcocks, the Undertones. All that very melodic pop stuff. They were angry, but they were tuneful! The only band, other than Nirvana, that comes anywhere close to that early pop-punk sound is the Irish band, Ash. They write very sophisticated tunes but with a real spirit of rebellion. When I saw them live, I was so struck by how good the melodies were. They're very very clever. That's guy's obviously listened to a lot of stuff--John Barry, Motown..."
Of course, this last statement could be the chief difference between modern American and British punk, in that a lot of Americans--even those from Del Amitri's generation--wouldn't have a clue as to who in the hell John Barry is.
"Yeah," Harvie agrees, "but that's because people in Britain just seem to have more Catholic tastes. If you grew up in middle America, chances are very good you grew up listening to Led Zeppelin. We never heard that stuff because it never got played on the radio in Britain."
"Stuff like Rush and Led Zeppelin, all that classic album stuff," says Currie. "Thank God, we were spared the really horrible things--Journey and Styx..."
"They just didn't get played on the radio in the U.K.," continues Harvie, "because they really didn't put out singles. We heard `pop' music. You really didn't hear what's considered modern rock music on the radio in Britain."
Not that Del Amitri's barbs are reserved solely for modern plodding rock, those bands that "grew up listening to Iron Butterfly." In fact, "High Times," one of the new album's more eccentric tracks, is directed at current Brit sensation Kula Shakur and their "phony" '60s Eastern mysticism.
"Yeah, it's a saki song about all this New Age, pre-millinium hysteria," explains Currie. "And being pragmatic, cynical Scottish people, we just don't buy into any of that shit. Sometimes it actually annoys me! It's like `Why are you wasting our time with this crap? Why don't you write something real; tell me how you feel instead of putting on some kind of a disguise.'"
It's sort of like all these Grateful Dead clone bands that are rising throughout the U.S....
"Exactly!" agrees Currie. "And the Grateful Dead have always been a complete mystery to us."
"Well, anybody can sound like the Dead if they take enough acid!" says Harvie.
"I'm all for people taking drugs if they want," continues Currie. "There are obviously liberating aspects to getting inebriated--but I don't know that they're necessarily intellectually liberating. I think it's definitely a mistake to get out of your head for a few years on drug and then decide you've seen the light."
"I mean, there's definitely a `spirituality' in music in so much as you're looking inside and pulling stuff out," contemplates Harvie. "But that doesn't imply any spiritual beliefs."
"That's right," says Currie. "I can be moved by a work of religious art. Not because I necessarily believe in Jesus Christ, but because the artist passionately believed in Jesus Christ and put a great deal of time and effort in describing this belief. Music, of course, can be very moving, but it's not magical. It can sometimes feel magical--but it's just a bunch of strings being plucked!"
So, you obviously think that bands like Kula Shakur are sort of a con?
"Well, they are a con," says Currie. "Even if I don't like a band's music, that's fine. But British music seems to be in a fairly healthy state at the moment, but this is one of the few bands I've seen recently that are really putting it on. The whole thing just seemed to reek of phoniness. I think the `90s are kind of an interesting decade on their own without having to come up with this whole phony `60s thing as simply counterculture fashion. I'm more interested in, say, Tricky than anything Kula Shakur has to say because Kula Shakur are well-educated, middle-class, white kids--so what the hell are they playing at?
"But, hey, maybe I'd better shut up, y'know. It's, like, bad Karma, man!" He laughs.
Of course, bad Karma is a claim that can never be cast on the music of Del Amitri. It's simply "pop," man. And a sound like that can never really be bad.