Ghosthustler Resurrects '80s Synth Beats
Rock 'n' roll is dead.
It was crushed under the leathery $400 heel of a record exec as he blithely made his way out of a Los Angeles restaurant. Or, ravaged by cancer, it succumbed with Joey Ramone at 3:21 a.m. on April 15, 2001. Or it blew its own head off with a shotgun.
Of course, we already knew this. We knew this on March 18, 2002, when the Ramones were inducted into the sterile Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, the Hard Rock Cafe of all such halls. Or maybe we knew it whenever it was that MTV stopped showing videos. Or maybe before that, when haircuts became more important than album cuts (or maybe the day people stopped using the word "album").
It's difficult to pin down a definition of rock 'n' roll—it's kind of like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's explanation of hard-core pornography, "I know it when I see it." But let's try anyway, just to keep things clear. Rock 'n' roll is an attitude, yes, but it's one that must be matched with certain things: Debauchery, frankly, is a must. (Has any band you've ever loved put out a good album after getting sober? Aerosmith pre-rehab was rock 'n' roll; Aerosmith post-rehab was embarrassing.) A certain revolutionary thread is a must. This can be implied or stated plainly, intentional or accidental. The revolutionary component can be aesthetic (Dylan goes electric); social (women begin playing electric guitars); political (Anarchy in the U.K.); or whatever, but it must exist. Guitars are important, but not 100 percent necessary. There must be a certain aggression, whether it's attacking your guitar or attacking the president or attacking the audience or attacking yourself. Most of all, there must be that thing in the music that makes your bone marrow boil and your skin prickle with an ineffable feeling, like you are harnessing the power of the sun. This latter part cannot be defined—but we all know it when we see it. Or hear it.
The following, then, are examples of rock 'n' roll: Bruce Springsteen, The Sex Pistols, Sleater-Kinney, early-to-mid Stones, The Clash, The Arctic Monkeys, Joan Jett, Elvis Costello on Saturday Night Live in 1977, The Pretenders. Purple Rain-era Prince, Gnarls Barkley.
The following are examples of what is not rock 'n' roll: Madonna, Justice, Depeche Mode, Phish, Radiohead, Devendra Banhart, Explosions in the Sky, Elvis Costello singing opera, The Postal Service, pre- and post-Purple Rain Prince, Robert Johnson.
Rock 'n' roll has been replaced by a number of idioms: post-rock, house, hip-hop, emo, electronica, experimental, jam bands, synth pop, freak-folk, nouveau synth pop, regular ol' pop and countless others. Some of these are awful genres, others not so bad. Some are fantastic, but none of them constitutes rock 'n' roll. Pop king Michael Jackson, for instance, is a glorious artist; Off the Wall is one of the greatest albums of all time. But does it give you that feeling?
The death of rock is not particularly a bad thing. It has died before, like the years when Jackson topped the charts. But rock has always resurrected itself, righted the ship, swung the pendulum the other way. For every Eagles, a Sex Pistols will roll away the stone and emerge from the tomb. For every Paula Abdul, a Nirvana shoves open the coffin.
In the meantime, there is still fun to be had. In the space between eras of true rock there is infinite room for energy, experiments, dancing—new wave, for example, and disco, and innovative, exciting pop. Ample room to create kick-ass music that isn't exactly rock, but still rocks your dick off. Something that is fun and transcendent at the same time. Something that milks, dare it be said, postmodernism, replete with choice bits borrowed from decades past plus a bit of Internet savvy and partaking in a strange, invented nostalgia.
Just ask the guys in Ghosthustler.
Ghosthustler is a band from Denton. The oldest member, Grey St. Germain Gideon, is 24; the youngest, Alan Palomo, is 19. Shane English and Noah Jackson round out the young crew. They met when Palomo, who is what you might call the Primary Ghosthustler, matriculated last year at the University of North Texas as a radio-television-video-film major. Ghosthustler does not have a publicist, a Web site, a label or even a record. What they do have is attitude, luck, the Internet, one hell of a video and one hell of a song. From all this they have garnered more buzz than a bee hightailing it to the pollen. And the story around Ghosthustler is more than just about a good song. It's about the culmination of a number of pop traditions, and how the future of music—via software, Internet communication and, oddly, looking to the past—is now.
First, the song: "Parking Lot Nights" is one of three tunes available on Ghosthustler's one link to the world, their MySpace page. The song is less a traditional tune—though, to be sure, it's as catchy as any pop song ever written—than it is a collection of layered, futuristic sounds. It begins with an electric synthesizer line. Fairly simple, the riff zigs and zags like a bolt of lightning; its strength lies in its sharp, prickly fuzz rather than in its execution.
Palomo came up with the band concept and name and the skeleton of the song on his own. "Grey taught me some stuff, working with software," he says. "Then I went to Mexico for a few weeks, and when I got back I had this project with me. While I was out there sort of working on my laptop, I came up with Ghosthustler, came up with the name, and then we collaborated over the course of a couple of months."
Palomo says the creation of a tune like "Parking Lot Nights" is a sort of futuristic enterprise. "Jamming in a band, there's this sort of ubiquitous element of everybody working on it at the same time; it's like trial and error," he says. "With the laptop stuff it's just one person at a time: you sit down, you belt out some stuff on a MIDI controller, you tweak the synth a little bit, and then when your ears are kind of dead, the next person sits down and they work on it."
And tweak it they did, until it flowered into a zingy piece of retro-electro-disco pop.
Ah, but we can't talk about the song without talking about the video too. What's so amazing about "Parking Lot Nights" is that most people first heard it while simultaneously watching the video, so there's no separation between the visual and the sonic. They are tightly interwoven, and as such, neither can be taken on its own.
The video, directed by a guy named Pete Ohs, opens with a shot of a staticky, crappy TV from the '80s/early '90s; an old Nintendo sits atop it, with one controller hanging down, as if someone had finished playing and was too lazy to put it up. The TV's fuzz quick-cuts to images of young hipsters being punched in the face by a hand encased in some sort of futuristic glove in time with the 1...1, 2, 3 electronic bass drum beat, which in turn is cut with the thick, jagged initial synth riff. A natural response to the beat might be, Is this disco? (The answer is, yes, partially. But we'll get to that in a minute.) An equal possibility: Is this synth pop? (Again, yes. We'll get to that too.)
The TV bit cuts quickly to a scene from the point of view of someone driving a car. One hand, still wearing the white glove, is on the wheel. We do not see the driver. The glove is creamy white with buttons on it that are futuristic in the way people in the '80s thought the future would look—you know, technology that appeared streamlined and slick to folks back then, but to us appears clunky and awkward. It's sort of a cross between a motorcycle glove and an NES. Oh, you realize, it's a Nintendo Power Glove.
As the car zips through generic city streets, the glove-hand banging away on the steering wheel to the beat, we cut back to the TV screen, filled this time with Palomo and keyboardist Gideon, who wields a small portable keytar. Palomo is gorgeous. With his dark curly pile of hair and exotic eyes, he resembles a hybrid of Entourage's Adrian Grenier and Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti. Gideon stays more in the background, head down, his short brown beard framing his chin. It is a simple image, really, just Palomo lip-synching, "Your mind shakes and your body aches," in a simple, scratchy melody, inter-stitched with more glove-hand/driving cuts.
Then the music changes, so of course the visuals do too. The song shifts into a bouncy breakdown as the car pulls up into a parking lot, where a handful of youngsters mill about. The rubbery bass line bounces like a warped basketball, the lighter accent notes cascading on top as the glove continues its punching rampage. Then there's the breakdancer, who is given time to pop and lock before...getting punched in the face.
It goes like that for a bit: band, parking lot, punching, driving, band, culminating in another breakdown, this one replete with handclaps, until the parking lot denizens are zapped by the glove's laser beams. Then we see the last image on the TV screen...and the glove-hand, holding a remote aloft and clicking off the TV.
Influential local blogs Gorilla vs. Bear and WeShotJR caught wind of the song, as did the even more influential national blog Pitchforkmedia. Buzz branched off from there, the infinite octopus arms of the Internet reaching music-savvy Web surfers, bloggers and MySpace addicts, until suddenly it seemed everyone with a mouse and some bandwidth was posting it.
The quickly generated local lore surrounding the song has spawned some confusion as to exactly how Pitchfork got wind of the tune. "The thing that very few people know is the Pitchfork thing happened before Gorilla vs. Bear, and right after WeShotJR had barely mentioned us," Palomo explains. "But I'm pretty sure it was one of the forums I had posted 'Parking Lot Nights' to, where Jessica Suarez—she writes [Pitchforkmedia section] Forkcast—she just happened to be browsing through and contacted us via MySpace. That was before really any of the buzz happened, so a lot of people think it was Gorilla vs. Bear, but it's kinda the other way around."
"It's still surprising," Pitchfork says in its "On Repeat" section, where the song was highlighted, "how quickly aggressive synth-disco has moved from decadent Parisian clubs to, say, Denton, Texas, where you'll find MySpace sensations Ghosthustler...the band carries on in a...woozy, pop-oriented electronic tradition."
The final four words of that assessment may seem simple at first, but Ghosthustler represents the most recent example of a rich electronic pop legacy. Most critics and fans agree that the genre began in the late '70s, with the simultaneous drop in prices of previously expensive synthesizers and the rise in electronic-based music created by Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, both of whom Palomo cites as influences. Kraftwerk and Moroder begat a second generation: '80s groups such as Depeche Mode, Human League, New Order and even Prince, whose late '70s and early '80s work indulged more in off-kilter, streamlined, synth-laden songs rather than the funkiness for which he is better known. These in turn begat yet another generation, the likes of current electronic pop favorites Daft Punk, Chromeo and Justice. "I love Prince," Palomo says. "I love a lot of electrofunk stuff, Yello. There's a lot of early '80s pop that I really enjoy. There's sort of a science to ['80s pop] that a lot of people discredit, but there's really an aesthetic to it. It's really well-contemplated."
"You get a lot of new bands like Chromeo, who pretty much wear their influences on their sleeves," he adds. "They definitely understand that their sounds are spot-on from that era, and they have the record collection to back it up."
The short Pitchfork mention was a jackpot. Pitchforkmedia today is like the Rolling Stone of old; if you get the endorsement of those praise-stingy hipsters, you are officially a player. Everyone from those in the know to the casual fan religiously checks the site many times a day, and many a great band—or at least, a successful band—has kicked its hype into high gear via Pitchforkian attention.
It was no different with Ghosthustler. Ohs heard the song and sent the band a MySpace message asking to work with them. "I told them the concept, and they were like 'OMFG, let's do it,'" he says. Ohs then set about filming the Power Glove/parking lot scenes in Cincinnati, where he lives, while the Ghosthustlers taped themselves for the TV scenes and e-mailed the footage to Ohs. Ohs and the band have never physically met.
Almost immediately, Spin magazine, in its September issue, chose "Parking Lot Nights" as a "Must-See Video." "These Denton, Texas, electropoppers hearken back to a simpler time, when goofing around in a convenience store parking lot was the only thing to do on a Saturday night," says the blurb, "and it was perfectly normal to indiscriminately zap and/or punch hipsters in the face with your Nintendo Power Glove." It's true: The "simpler time" air of nostalgia weighs heavy in the thing, both visually and musically, as both the Power Glove and the synth-pop tradition from whence "Parking Lot Nights" comes maintain that odd futuristic clumsiness. Just as the Power Glove represents what folks in the past thought the future might look like, the innovators from whom Ghosthustler's sound derives also thought their music was what the future might sound like.
"Synthesizers in pop go back further than you might think," says Simon Reynolds in his essay, "Synth Pop: Depeche Mode, The Human League and the Soul of the Machine," published in Spin in the mid-'90s. Synth has long been known as a streamlined, futuristic genre, but Reynolds points out that it actually began with, of all things, that bastion of bloatedness, prog rock. "Still," he says, "the synth-pop era as commonly understood—the early '80s Britwave of Human League, Gary Numan, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode—really started in 1977 with two epochal singles: Kraftwerk's 'Trans-Europe Express' and Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love.'" Both of these songs make their legacy known in "Parking Lot Nights."
Kraftwerk are one of the few bands in history who genuinely bear comparison to the Beatles. Not because of their sound or their image, but because, like the Beatles, it is impossible to overstate their influence on modern music...In their clipped, weirdly funky rhythms, simple melodies and futuristic technology, you can hear whole new areas of popular music being mapped out. Kraftwerk were so far ahead of their time that the rest of the world has spent 25 years inventing new musical genres in an attempt to catch up. House, techno, hip-hop, trip-hop, synth-pop, trance, electroclash: Kraftwerk's influence looms over all of them.
—Alexis Petridis, "Desperately Seeking Kraftwerk," The Guardian, July 2003
"Clipped, weird, funky rhythms, simple melodies and futuristic technology" could just as easily apply to "Parking Lot Nights." The odd thing is, the futuristic technology used by Ghosthustler is layered with history and, in fact, is not futuristic at all. That technology, as represented by synthesized music, is again a throwback to what people once thought the future would sound like. The crazy thing is, that future is now, and we know what it sounds like. By now, it's almost impossible to be surprised by any sound made by a synthesizer. Unlike in 1977, we all know what the machines are capable of. In fact, many bands today, from Madonna to Daft Punk (a band to which Ghosthustler is often compared), spend a lot of time, creativity and money trying to re-create that old Kraftwerkian sound. So what does the future sound like? Yesterday.
Confusing, yes. Let's put it another way: In an unpublished essay for the Village Voice, later posted on his blog blissblog.blogspot.com, Reynolds reminds us: "Kraftwerk stir up nostalgia for the days when we thought technology would liberate us. Immaculately groomed, dispassionate and perspiration-free, Kraftwerk still transgress most of the precepts of rock 'n' roll." Again, the nostalgia rears its head; again, with Ghosthustler part of the third generation influenced by Kraftwerk, "Parking Lot Nights" represents nostalgia for nostalgia. And that is something—meta-musical-nostalgia, maybe—but according to Reynolds, it ain't rock. "I like to think of it as future-pop," Palomo says.
I have to admit, I do not listen to much rock music.
Nostalgia thread No. 2 takes the form of famed Italian music producer Moroder's influence, specifically that soaring, stunning, throbbing electronic beat that transformed Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" from an above-average disco song into a song that changed pop music—and pop culture—forever.
"'I Feel Love,'" Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton say in their much-lauded history of dance music, Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, "with its electronic pulse-beat, sequenced throb and thrum and Summer's autoerotic delivery, was a deliberately futuristic sound, a Fritz Lang vision for the dance floor...[s]omehow submerged beneath its nervous electronic sequences, like Kraftwerk, it was still funky."
"Parking Lot Nights" embraces Moroder's influence less specifically than Kraftwerk's; it's more in spirit than deed, though again the elemental connections are there: the autoerotic delivery, the deliberately futuristic sound. What's different with Ghosthustler is that Fritz Lang has been abandoned for Space Invaders. A good bit of the video's appeal, according to the gazillion bloggers who have described it, is the nostalgia of the glove. It reminds us of a more innocent time, they say, or perhaps just of the same kind of dork-cool of, say, digital watches or the rudimentary bleeps and blips of early videogames. What twists it all into something more than just a video, more than just a song, is that the guys in Ghosthustler are too young to remember it firsthand. Even Ohs notes that. "I mean, those guys weren't even born yet during the time of Nintendo," he says with a good-natured laugh (at 24, he barely was himself).
Ironic, then, that the Internet played such a heavy role in Ghosthustler's rising notability. Speaking with the band and with Ohs, you notice many of the sentences they utter contain some variation of, "...so I MySpaced him." The role of MySpace, blogs, e-mail and laptops affected Ghosthustler's world in much the same way MTV would have in the past. Only much faster. Moreover, it allowed Ohs and Ghosthustler to collaborate from hundreds of miles away, to create a finely honed video. We all thought it was the synthesizer that was going to change music, when it turns out the futurists had no idea this was coming.
Still, it all takes us back to the temporary death of rock 'n' roll. There is another '80s synth band who culled from the early days of electro, only to turn around and influence future generations: Duran Duran. There's a famous quote from the group's keyboard player (of course), Nick Rhodes. "Rock 'n' roll all goes back to R&B, but to me it's not very relevant," he said in 1987. "Kraftwerk is much more relevant." And one can see that is true again 20 years later. Rock will be resurrected, to be sure, but in the meantime, bands such as Ghosthustler are crafting a complicated aesthetic around simple songs—songs often so simple, they pique that primal human instinct to dance. And they're using what truly is the future, an idea that those futurists back in the day never envisioned: the Internet. So while we're waiting for the new future of rock, there is plenty of opportunity for complex musical elements to sneak in, for crafting new sounds or new-old sounds from the bits and pieces of nostalgic aesthetic that float just beyond our perception, that haunt American pop music like, you know, a ghost.
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