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The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll, Part 7: The Black Keys

In the final installment, we look at a blues-rock duo from Ohio that feels like the last band standing

We can’t relate to people who grew up in L.A. or New York City. It’s like seeing the rich kid in high school get a BMW for his 16th birthday.” —Dan Auerbach, 2010, in Spin

“Some bands have audiences where you feel like you’re just hanging out with clones of yourself — you never meet anybody new. I like the idea of our fans being a wide spectrum. Whenever anybody talks about being uncomfortable about being at a show because there’s a different type of person there, that’s just straight fucking ignorance. I wouldn’t want somebody like that to be a fan of us.” —Patrick Carney, 2012, in Rolling Stone

“God gave rock and roll to you / gave rock and roll to you / put it in the soul of everyone.” —God, as dictated to the band Argent, in 1973′s “God Gave Rock and Roll to You”

So, we’ve reached the end of our journey, and we’re right back where we started: in 2013, at a time when the term “mainstream rock” is virtually an oxymoron. The idea behind the Winners’ History of Rock and Roll was to figure out how we arrived at this point — as I wrote in Part 1, “if we can learn how and why [these] bands became popular, and what those stories tell us about a larger narrative taking place in American culture over more than 40 years, we can track the fissures and failures that eventually caused rock to slouch toward irrelevance — and determine whether it can (or should) wage a comeback.”

Let’s set aside the comeback question for a moment and focus instead on what our rock-and-roll winners have shared. I think it boils down to two things:

1. Popular rock bands have relied on support networks made up of canny managers, powerful record labels, and influential radio stations. Creatively, they’ve sought outside help in the form of record producers and professional songwriters who are highly experienced in creating hits. In the ’80s and ’90s, music video directors helped bands reach millions of people outside their normal fan bases. Over time, this network — particularly radio — has eroded, and mainstream rock bands have suffered as a result.

2. Popular rock bands appealed to an audience primarily made up of teenagers, working-class adults, and women. Over time, as rock’s popularity has declined, so has its reach.

As radio bands like Linkin Park struggled to stay on the air as the number of rock stations shrank in the late ’00s, the music press began focusing disproportionately on rock groups that seemed to be a lot more popular than they actually were. In the parlance of the Winners’ History, “elitist taste” rock moved to fill the void left by rapidly diminishing “mass taste” rock — only it was driven in large part by the media rather than by the general public.1 Unlike the alt-rock bands of the ’90s, the generation of ’00s indie rockers approached the mainstream without ever really taking it over. The closest they came to true infiltration were pop groups in indie clothing — imagine if Stone Temple Pilots and Bush had made it while Nirvana remained a cult band and you’ll get a sense of the relationship between the decade’s indie vanguard and acts like Fun. and Mumford & Sons.2

During this time, as Pitchfork’s Nitsuh Abebe wrote in 2010, “indie completed its trip from being the province of freaks and geeks to something with cachet — something that appeals to people’s sense of themselves as discerning.” As with most things with cachet, indie popularity was hard to quantify — press coverage arguably mattered as much as sales, even for the rare indie band that managed to chart an album in the Billboard Top 10 for a week or two. No matter how modestly the biggest indie bands performed in the pop marketplace in relation to actual pop stars, it was enough to create even more divisions among rock fans. For true-blue DIYers, groups like the Shins and the Decemberists were too “middlebrow” to be “true” indie bands; they were instead relegated to a weird no-man’s-land between the underground and the mainstream. Cool kids shrugged them off as lame dad-rock bands, while rock fans weaned on radio bands inevitably saw them as effete “hipster” music.3

The last chapter of the Winners’ History of Rock and Roll is about the Black Keys, one of the only indie bands of the ’00s to break out of the underground rock ghetto and achieve mass stardom. The Black Keys succeeded, in part, because it worked around rock radio, licensing songs to more than 300 films, TV shows, and commercials. In a way, dealing to corporate America from its deep well of bluesy, atmospheric guitar riffs was better than radio airplay, since the audience was bigger and you could actually get paid big dollars up front.

There was no disputing the results, at any rate: In 2003, when the Black Keys were signed to the Mississippi-based record label Fat Possum, the duo had turned down an offer of $130,000 from a British mayonnaise company interested in using one of its songs in an ad. Singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney worried at the time that taking the money would hurt their image. Instead, the hard-touring musicians were as broke as ever — not to mention largely unknown outside a small coterie of fans still hungry for stripped-down blues-rock after wearing out their White Stripes records.

But once the Black Keys became the soundtrack for every new car, push-up bra, and fourth-ranked nighttime TV drama on earth, people finally began noticing and buying their records. The last two Black Keys albums, 2010′s Brothers and 2011′s El Camino, have gone platinum, which for a rock band in 2013 is like going quintuple-platinum back-to-back in the late ’80s. And the Keys have done it by sounding like an actual rock band, an even rarer occurrence in contemporary pop culture; there’s no mainstream rock group today that has more in common aesthetically with the subject of Part 1 of the Winners’ History, Led Zeppelin, than the Black Keys.4

And yet, in spite of the Black Keys’ indie roots, the band’s victory had hardly anything to do with indie rock. Just as they sidestepped the entrenched orthodoxy of rock radio, the Black Keys also transcended the indie caste system. They were never underground stars; in the indie rock high school cafeteria, this band was the kid with the wispy mustache and acid-washed jean jacket. And conversely, the Black Keys were outspoken in their resentment of indie politics. They depicted themselves as small-town outsiders from flyover country diametrically opposed to the privileged insider-ism of indie’s fashionable New York City hub. And, in the end, the Black Keys wound up towering over those who had ignored them. This might be a little pat, but it rings true: The Black Keys’ successful rise plays like a shadow story of how ’00s indie failed rock and roll.

Black Keys
If you’ve been keeping up with this series, you can probably guess the general outline of the Black Keys’ career without knowing any of the details in advance. Auerbach and Carney were childhood friends from Akron, Ohio, who formed the Black Keys in 2001. Their first album, 2002′s The Big Come Up, was lumped into a boomlet of garage-rock bands that followed in the wake of the Strokes and the White Stripes. On their next three records, the Keys refined a lo-fi, bargain-basement sound — and I mean that literally, as Auerbach and Carney preferred to record inside actual basements — deviating only occasionally from move-like-molasses sludge for a piss-drunk ballad or an extremely piss-drunk psych-rock jam. “I wasn’t even thinking about songwriting on the early records, just music and the groove,” Auerbach told Rolling Stone in 2012. “It was absolutely just fucking around — taking old blues riffs, making up lyrics on the spot, and turning it into a song.”

Auerbach claimed that he listened to Robert Johnson in his spare time — though if that’s true, it’s not really an indicator of what the Black Keys were like. My favorite Black Keys record from this period, 2004′s Rubber Factory, sounds remarkably like Bad Company — or, rather, like a collection of moderately audible demos for Bad Company’s first record. Normally, I wouldn’t mean that as a compliment, because Bad Company is terrible. But Rubber Factory is, like, the Bad Company record that would’ve changed my mind about Bad Company. After Rubber Factory, I was convinced that the best possible course of action for the Black Keys was to add a bassist and a smokin’ keyboard player and start touring county fairs. Instead, they made 2006′s Magic Potion, which was like a lesser version of Rubber Factory — and more like an actual Bad Company record — and I started to lose interest.

I expected the Black Keys to follow up Magic Potion with three or four lesser versions of Rubber Factory5 before sort of falling off the face of the planet, as bands who aren’t U2 or Metallica tend to do. Instead, on 2008′s Attack & Release, the Black Keys attempted to modernize, shoring up their songwriting and taking their first steps toward becoming a pop band. Attack & Release isn’t a great album; when it came out, I wrote that it was “a tacit admission that the [Black Keys'] two-man blooze formula had finally worn thin,” which sounds like something I would’ve written in a record review in 2008. But Attack & Release is an important album in the Black Keys’ career, because it was the first time they worked with producer Brian Burton — better known as Danger Mouse — who was red-hot at the time for the much-bootlegged Beatles/Jay-Z mash-up The Grey Album and the pop-rap-soul hybrid Gnarls Barkley.

Until Attack & Release, the Black Keys resisted interference from outside producers. For thickfreakness, they had the opportunity to work with Jeff Saltzman, who went on to produce The Killers’ glossy Duran Duran–goes–Joshua Tree debut, Hot Fuss. But the results were less than satisfactory: “The drums sounded like fucking Mötley Crüe,” Carney told Spin in 2010, adding that “if we would’ve followed that route, we would have been part of the bell curve” of “here today, gone tomorrow” disposable radio rock bands.

Burton proved a better fit for Auerbach and Carney, particularly on Attack & Release‘s slower numbers, which pared back the band’s usual bluster to reveal a surprisingly slinky, soulfully sexy side. Burton showed with The Grey Album that he had affinity for re-contextualizing classic rock for a hip-hop audience, and Auerbach — an avowed rap fan partial to RZA’s gritty productions for the Wu-Tang Clan6 — approached his guitar playing like a DJ drawing from a rich backlog of obscure records. On the best parts of Attack & Release, Burton and the Black Keys met somewhere in the middle between classic rock and rap, and the result was retro-ish, vinyl-friendly R&B.

For Brothers, the Black Keys fully committed to this new direction, and it didn’t sound anything like “Feel Like Makin’ Love” — it was more like a grungier version of Adele. Burton assisted on only one track, but it was the album’s biggest hit, “Tighten Up,” a song that was already ubiquitous in pop culture7 by the time rock radio finally relented to playing it every hour on the hour. Brothers made the Black Keys arena rockers, and for their next album, El Camino, they set about making an arena-rock record, this time with Burton back co-producing and co-writing all of the songs.8 What they ended up with was something the world didn’t realize it had been waiting for: trad-rock with a modernist sheen, a collection of unapologetically rockist songs with a poptimist beat, a record that played equally well on a turntable at home or on a jukebox at a bar. El Camino is the 21st-century version of ZZ Top’s Eliminator: a big-tent rock album so catchy and danceable that nobody noticed it was made by veteran journeymen.

And it totally worked. As of last week, El Camino was still ranked in Billboard‘s Top 30 a full 14 months after its release, lodged between records by the country group Little Big Town and the boy band One Direction.

Black Keys
Once the Black Keys were big enough to appear on the covers of major music magazines, a recurring theme started appearing in the band’s talking points: indie rock sucks. Auerbach and Carney relished taking potshots, not at specific indie bands, but at the whole enchilada of indie as a concept.9 There were several reasons for this: It bolstered the Black Keys’ self-made underdog story.10 It was a preemptive strike against critics who faulted them for licensing so many songs to advertisers and deliberately making their music more commercial.11 And it was good old-fashioned ax-grinding over years of slights — some real, some projected — that the Black Keys had suffered in silence for years.12

The crux of the Black Keys’ critique of indie rock was class-based; for Auerbach and Carney, rock and roll represented an escape from the obscure drudgery of a normal existence, just like it had for pretty much every other band in The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll.13 The degree to which any of this “rock and roll or bust” talk is actually true or just mythmaking is debatable — Auerbach and Carney were raised as middle-class Midwesterners, not back-alley garbage eaters — but the point about privileged, urban indie bands not subscribing to a “winners’ history” view of rock music is valid. It’s dumb to make a reductionist argument about musicians from well-off backgrounds not making great records; it’s equally dumb to make an equally reductionist argument about how your background has no influence on your art, or on the sorts of people you see that art engaging with. Some bands don’t have the luxury of making music that only a few thousand people will ever like, was what Auerbach and Carney were getting at.

This was supported, if indirectly, by a 2012 New York magazine profile of the Brooklyn-based band Grizzly Bear. Grizzly Bear is a near-great band that has made one masterpiece (2009′s Veckatimest), two good albums with flashes of brilliance (2006′s Yellow House and 2012′s Shields), and one album that is largely unlistenable (2005′s Horn of Plenty). Like other popular-ish indie bands, Grizzly Bear sells out midsize theaters in large cities and elicits blank stares every place else. It is a group that appears to have little or no concept of what a beer-chugging, Middle American audience might want out of a rock record.

The angle of the New York story was how seemingly popular indie bands like Grizzly Bear don’t make as much money as they appear. “People probably have an inflated idea of what we make,” says the band’s thoughtful front man, Edward Droste. “Bands appear so much bigger than they really are now, because no one’s buying records. But they’ll go to giant shows.” Like the Black Keys, Grizzly Bear toured as an opening band for Radiohead and have notched two Top 10 albums; they’re also far from puritanical about selling songs for use in commercials, even licensing an unreleased song to the Washington State Lottery. But Droste is still on the outside looking in at a game he finds “utterly fascinating and infuriating at the same time.”

In Droste’s mind, Grizzly Bear could be more popular if the system weren’t stacked against it. “I’ve always thought we write pop music,” he says in the article. “I think songs of ours could be on the radio. They’re not.” You get the sense reading the New York story that worthwhile rock bands like Grizzly Bear have a hard time — perhaps too hard of a time — making a living with their music. But there’s a noticeable lack of urgency on display. Grizzly Bear doesn’t seem like a band that would do anything to make it; there’s no talk of joining up with a big-name pop producer or a major label, much less schemes of payola and radio glad-handing. It’s an issue of getting by as a mid-level band, not taking over the world.

Black Keys
I know nothing about the music business. I couldn’t write a hit song if you put me in a room with Paul McCartney, Max Martin, and the Neptunes. But I can speak with a reasonable level of intelligence about what comes through my ears. And based on that, it’s pretty obvious why El Camino has sold 1.1 million copies and Shields has not. I’m not saying El Camino is better than Shields. (I like them both for completely different reasons.) I’m saying that one record sounds like it was conceived with a particular group of people in mind, and the other sounds like it was conceived for a much broader group of people. Put another way: Shields is an exquisite, gluten-free, red velvet cupcake, and El Camino is a cheeseburger.

As a rock fan, I want both kinds of records. In Part 1 I wrote that “most of my favorite bands have sold at least 1 million records, or could have sold at least 1 million records if they had existed 20 years earlier or 20 years later.” I also like lots of bands that never had a chance to find a big audience — the ones that were too strange or too ugly or too far ahead of their time to connect with most people. We need the fringe-y stuff, or rock music will get stale and boring.

But the problem right now is that we have a surplus of rock records like Shields and a deficit of records like El Camino. And I mean that in an ecological sense — even if you hate El Camino or mainstream rock in general, the dearth of this sort of music has made the entire system worse for all involved. In order for a band like Grizzly Bear to have any hope of getting on the radio, there needs to be a band like the Black Keys to convince the powers that be that listeners actually still care about rock bands. If a major label — particularly a label that can get you on the radio — is going to take a chance on a Grizzly Bear, there needs to be a Black Keys to make that investment seem feasible.

What rock music needs right now is more gateway bands. When I was a kid, I never would’ve heard of or cared about Sonic Youth or Fugazi or Guided by Voices had it not been for the alt-rock bands I heard on the radio and saw on MTV. The popular bands connected me with the less popular bands. In 1984, when Born in the U.S.A. put Bruce Springsteen on the same level as Michael Jackson and Prince, a rock fan could go from the Boss to R.E.M.’s Reckoning to the Replacements’ Let It Be to Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade to Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime to Black Flag’s My War.

It’s a different world for today’s 13-year-olds. But even now, casual music fans still listen to the radio and discover new artists via televised performances on middle-of-the-road award shows. The most successful rock band of the ’10s, Mumford & Sons, arguably had the biggest break of their career when they upstaged Bob Dylan at the 2012 Grammy awards. Maybe those young Mumford fans are now on a path that will eventually take them to Will Oldham, Mark Kozelek, Townes Van Zandt, and Leonard Cohen.

When I said earlier that indie has failed rock and roll, this is what I meant: Indie bands haven’t done enough to compete. The status quo in indie rock these days is to make records aimed directly at upper-middle-class college graduates living in big cities. Only a small handful of indie bands attempt to reach listeners who aren’t already on the team; even the really good records reside firmly in a familiar wheelhouse of tastefully arty and historically proven “college rock” aesthetics and attitudes that mean nothing to the outside world. The distance is also geographic: If you want to see most indie bands play live, it helps if you reside in New York City or Los Angeles, because the bands probably live there, too. Otherwise, you have to hope that your city — and by “your city,” I mean a city within a couple hundred miles of where you live — is one of the 15 to 20 stops on the band’s tour.

If you happen to be part of the audience that rock music used to cater to — if you work an unsexy job in an unsexy town in an unsexy part of the country — you’re not really invited to the party anymore. Which is OK, because there’s still a form of rock music that’s made for you, it’s just not called rock music — it’s called country. One of the best-selling country records of the last few years is Eric Church’s Chief, and one of that record’s biggest songs is “Springsteen,” which is about the ability of rock music to signify the most crucial moments of a person’s life. When was the last time a rock song talked about that? Chief is precisely the sort of heartland rock record that people like Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Bob Seger made into a viable commercial genre in the ’70s and ’80s. It’s not that people stopped wanting records like that; rock bands just lost interest in making them.

If Eric Church feels like a rocker in country clothing, so does Taylor Swift. In another time, her multi-platinum 2012 album Red would’ve been considered the epitome of mainstream rock — it has 1985 Bryan Adams’s guitars, 1989 John Mellencamp’s small-town populism, and 1995 Alanis Morissette’s love life. And what about Ke$ha and the hair-metal posturing of last year’s Warrior? Or Lady Gaga, who quoted liberally from stadium-rock benchmarks like Born in the U.S.A. and Def Leppard’s Hysteria on her 2011 album, Born This Way? Even Skrillex — Skrillex! — collaborated with the Doors once, and he makes music that at least aspires to the visceral body blow of The Sound.14

Rock is still a part of pop music if you can get past the superficial window dressing. So why can’t actual rock bands at least try to reconnect with this audience again?

It’s possible I’m asking the wrong question. Perhaps I should ask, Why bother? Part of me thinks we’d all be better off as rock fans to unplug and go local. I live in Milwaukee, and there are at least a half-dozen rock groups here that I love and can see for next to nothing at a corner bar. A couple years ago, a local band named Call Me Lightning put out a record called When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free that sounds like The Who if Steve Albini had produced15 Who’s Next. It’s maybe my fifth or sixth favorite rock record of the decade so far. The isolationist in me would be fine caring about bands like that for the rest of my life and forgetting about the rest of the world once and for all.

But I’m not really an isolationist. I’m an insurrectionist. I have a small hope that by mentioning Call Me Lightning just now, at least a few of you will be inspired to check out When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free and have your heads torn off. And who knows? Maybe that will turn into a few hundred people — or if I really dream, a few thousand. Can we please get enough of you together to see this band play a hockey shed? Because that would be awesome.

I can’t help it. I still have high hopes for this 58-year-old whippersnapper called rock and roll. I want it to keep growing and make new friends. I want it to matter outside of my own head. Either way, I’ll be listening. Will you?

Filed Under: Art, General topics, History, Music, The Black Keys

photo

Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden