Godspeed The Shazam. The Shazam.
1999, Not Lame Records. Producer: Brad Jones.
IN A NUTSHELL: Hans Rotenberry has a gift for catchy melodies, terrific harmonies and all the things I love about guitar pop songs. I hear influences such as The Who, Cheap Trick, Big Star, The Raspberries, but most of all I hear his fantastic songs. The band can rock, it can mellow out, it can get weird and silly, but they always hit their mark. This record is definitely a success – even if it’s only you and I who know about it!
When I was young, I knew I would be famous, respected and, dare I say, consequential in my career as a … well … er, uh … something. Musician, maybe. Or comedian. Or actor. Or novelist. Or playwright. Whatever, the point is that WHAT I was going to be wasn’t important. What was important was HOW I would be that thing. Whatever that thing was, I was bound to be consequential. I would be important. It’s just a feeling I’ve always had.
I still have it.
My genius was perfect and indisputable, and what’s more, it was tantalizing because of its latency; how it coiled in a hidden corner in the attic of humanity’s consciousness, tightly compressed beneath an old flag, or a princess’s forgotten wedding gown, waiting for the perfect moment to be revealed, to spring forth and burst into full display on humanity’s front lawn where it could be properly celebrated. Whether it would be revealed in my first novel, or my first acting job, or my first standup TV special, or my first music album, or my blog about my favorite records … well, these were mere details. The point, to my mind, was that it would, of course, be revealed.
The inevitability of my deep consequentiality, and its approaching impact on society at large, is so apparent that I’ve never felt compelled to work particularly hard to ensure that it would be, in fact, uncovered. It’s seemed like a waste of time and energy to, say, attend college for creative arts; unnecessary to deprive myself by working low-paying, menial jobs so I could focus on my creative endeavors. Attending Writers’ Camps, relocating to LA or New York, practicing my bass guitar … none of these things have been part of my path to success. I’ve simply relied on my gift: no, not that coiled genius, for that type of gift is unremarkable, common. My gift is Destiny. I can just sit back, relax, and let the glory make its way to me.
The glory has been held up, apparently, and slow to arrive thus far.
I’m not scared by this delay on the part of my preordained glory of consequentiality, for I’m aware that it’s silly to think something so eminently inevitable would somehow not occur. It’s like fretting about today’s sunset being the last. But there are times when I allow myself to consider what it would mean if I were to suddenly die before my prestige was revealed1. Would my life have then been a failure?
The first place to start in my pursuit of an answer to this hypothetical is this question: What does the word “failure” mean? Merriam-Webster is pretty straightforward on the concept, and despite the best efforts of Lifehacker, its definition leaves little wiggle room: the omission of an occurrence; falling short; lack of success; ONE THAT HAS FAILED. So if you want to get technical about it, the answer is “Yes. My life would have been a failure.” That pretty much answers that.
But thinking of myself as a failure is very unsettling, so I’m going to continue to delve into the question until I’ve obliterated the idea through sheer reasoning, re-contextualization and self-delusional flim-flammery. And let me start by saying that if my life were to surprisingly end with little or no established “consequentiality” from my artistic endeavors, the failure will not have been mine but will instead have been that of Destiny. For it was Destiny that wrote the ending, not me. Destiny labeled me as “Consequential;” I’ve simply enjoyed my creative pursuits. My only culpability was in trusting in Destiny.
So if it’s true that I was merely creating stuff because it’s fun, then the simple fact that I DID CREATE, and had fun doing so, means that I was not a failure. The occurrence wasn’t omitted, I didn’t fall short, I did succeed, I am NOT one who has failed2! Then perhaps a better question than “Am I a failure?” for me (or any artist) to answer is this: “Why do artists create?” There are probably as many answers to that question as there are artists to answer it3. Some folks say they do it to avoid a day job, or to learn about others. Others just let the audience continue to wonder, “Now, why did he do that?”
One of the best places to go to explore the “why?” of creativity is Baltimore, Maryland’s, American Visionary Arts Museum, a museum that “emphasizes intuitive creative invention and grassroots genius.” You won’t find a Picasso or a Rembrandt in the permanent collection at AVAM, but you will find DeVon Smith’s First Family of Robots. There will be no exhibitions on The Impressionists, but there will be one on the History, Fantasy and Future of Food. It is pure creativity for creativity’s sake, and when you linger long enough looking at the bizarre space worlds and childish portraits, the answer to the question “Why do they create?” becomes perfectly clear: Because They Create.
Another great place to find answers to “why create?” is within the pages of artists’ autobiographies. I am a sucker for Rock Musician autobiographies in particular. (Only “auto-;” I’m not interested in biographies [unless the artist participated in writing the book].) I’ve read dozens, such as Keith Richards’, Pete Townshend’s, Eric Clapton’s, etc., etc., and those of less luminous stars, such as Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi, The Police’s Andy Summers and The Kinks’ Dave Davies. After reading so many of these books4 the answer to the question is as clear as it was at AVAM: Because They Create.
One gets the impression from reading rock autobiographies that whether or not “success,” in the form of money and record sales and radio airplay, had visited these musicians, they’d have been making music their entire lives all the same. When you read the words he uses to describe his passion for music, it is easy to conjure an image of Keith Richards in the 60s on an alternate path, pumping petrol for a National Benzole station along the motorway, picking out the blues on his guitar between servicing lorries. And it’s quite the same for all of them: making music for them is like having fingernails: it’s just, like, part of who they are.
So, then – if you are just doing what it is you do, creating art like other people maintain fingernails, is there any way you possibly can FAIL at it5? I suppose you could create a piece that you yourself don’t like; or you could have the feeling that you never properly put down on paper, or in notes, or in marble or clay, what it was you truly wanted to create. These situations might make you feel like a failure, but I believe if you earnestly continue to work to improve and move your art closer to whatever vision is in your head, then it’s difficult for anyone else to make the case that you, as an artist, failed. Even if nobody buys your albums. (Or reads your blog.) This isn’t to say that any creative effort is good; it just means it wasn’t a FAILURE.
Another way an artist could feel like a failure is if few people ever see/hear/read the artwork that’s been produced. While it’s true that artists create because they create, I’d say greater than 99% of them also seek out an audience for their work. This means it’s not just the ACT of creating that’s driving them, but also the satisfaction of sharing the fruits of their labors. Keith Richards’ band continues to release albums and plan concert tours. If he’d be pumping petrol instead, I’d expect he’d spend his off days and free evenings recording songs and playing in a club somewhere all the same – opportunities to share his art with others. It’s no different than your aunt inviting you to the local library for the exhibition from her pottery class. You create because you create; you share because you take pride in your creations. (And, possibly, like Keith Richards, because you make a little money.)
The point is this: you may not have heard of The Shazam, and their fantastic album Godspeed The Shazam, but it doesn’t mean they’ve failed. It means our country’s musical-art-delivery-systems (i.e. radio, record labels, Spotify, live venues, etc.) have failed. It’s the same reason bands like Marah, Heavenly, The Shys and The Redwalls were largely unheard.
I first heard The Shazam back in the early 00’s, in the days of Napster and LimeWire and KaZaa and other fancy forms of thievery. Also gaining in popularity at this time were new garage-rock bands whose sound harkened back to the punkish, new-wave guitar music I loved from the late 70s. Bands like The Strokes, The Hives, The Vines, The White Stripes, The Mooney Suzuki … these were bands unafraid to showcase catchy guitar lines, and happy to have a definite article before their names, like the good old days. A friend in the comedy scene6 mentioned The Shazam, and I bought the CD after stealing a song from KaZaa.
That song was the catchy, pop marvel “Sunshine Tonight.”
The crunchy, brassy guitar sound immediately reminded me of early-70s glam rock, like T-Rex. The wide ranging melody and harmonies were reminiscent of The Raspberries and Big Star. I played the song a lot. I love the drums, which sound a bit sloppy, but in a good way (ala Keith Moon?). The song is simple, but builds nicely until the second time through the chorus, about 2:03, where the band really sounds like they’re having fun. I could’ve used more of the outro guitar solo, from 2:33 on, but there’s plenty of guitar left on the record.
Most of the guitar, as well as most of the vocals and all of the songwriting, is courtesy of the Head Shazam Man, Hans Rotenberry. He’s got obvious influences (as stated above), but they’re excellent influences and he never sounds like he’s simply ripping off old songs. Or maybe he does, but I like it so much I don’t notice. A terrific song, with influences front and center, is track one, perhaps my favorite, “Super Tuesday.”
I love the drum entrance, at about 0:50, played by Scott Ballew, who isn’t as wild and flamboyant as Keith Moon, but who plays with a style that gives many of the songs a “Who” feel. And the harmonies on the chorus “This is it!” (about 1:20) sound great. Rotenberry has a vocal-fry style of singing that he uses to great effect, particularly on the bridge – about 1:48. In the final verse, beginning about 2:07, the band mixes up the harmonies and Mick Wilson’s bass line, which helps to increase the urgency of the song.
I’m a huge fan of melody and harmony vocals – probably due to years of immersing myself in The Beatles – and Rotenberry and The Shazam do these perfectly. Consider the song “Calling Sydney,” for example.
This is one of my favorites on the album, a song that seems to get better as it progresses. For instance, at 0:30, the verse gets a second melody, with great drumming and a cool bass line and harmonies that I like even more than those opening the song. Then about 0:39, the band adds some vocal hoots, and THEN – at 0:45 – the chorus adds a third melody, another soaring piece. (And of course I must mention the fantastic, pompous kettle drums!) There is a guitar solo that doubles the verse. Such is the limited renown of this band that I couldn’t find any lyrics online. But I will say this: whatever they’re saying, they sound pretty cool saying it!
The band had a bit of success in 2003, when Coors launched their “Guys’ Night Out” advertising campaign, which, viewed generously, reduced young men to drunken boobs; less generously to would-be date-rapists. A song called “Goodbye American Man,” from their 2003 album Tomorrow the World, was used, and it seemed like maybe good things were in store for the band7. But they didn’t catch fire, waited 6 years to put out Meteor, and have been on hiatus since.
But those of us who followed them haven’t forgotten. We remember gems like “The Stranded Stars.”
With its boppity-bop drum fills, far-ranging vocals and soaring harmonies, and nifty guitar lines, it’s got a lot of what interested us in the first place. And it shows that Hans Rotenberry has a way with the mellower songs, too, not just the rockers. Another example of his sensitive side is the sad, acoustic lament to lost love, “A Better World.”
It’s a nice, sad piece. The cheap-sounding piano solo is a bit reminiscent of the sound of The Replacements’ “Androgynous,” and while there are some subtle strings added, it’s mostly just Hans and his guitar. The oddly-named “Sweet Bitch” is another sadly melodic gem that sounds remarkably like it could be a Cheap Trick song. But Hans doesn’t stay sad for long, as the frantic “Sparkelroom” demonstrates.
It’s got a beat and bongoes that remind me of the dance on the Bugs Bunny cartoon where he’s stranded on a desert island. It’s a high energy song with surfer girls and moonscreen and swirly space sounds. It’s one of a number of songs on the record that have a sort of updated, anything-goes 60s feel. Others include “RU Receiving,” which references Spinal Tap with a shouted “Goodnight Cleveland!” “City Smasher,” which is almost a novelty song.
Another of these is the strange “Chipper Cherry Daylily.”
It sounds like a late 60s garage band trying to capitalize on the “psychedelic sound” … but in a good way! This used to be one of my favorites on the record, and now I don’t know why that was. They also dabble in riff-rock on “Gonna Miss Yer Train,” the most guitar-oriented song on the album, giving Rotenberry a chance to show off his fretboard skills.
So what does it all mean? What is the point when a great band releases a terrific album and the world collectively yawns? The fact is, a great band8 being ignored is far more common than a great one being noticed. But being noticed is only a small part of why creators create. I’d venture to say that Hans and his bandmates have to look back at Godspeed the Shazam and consider it a success, even if it’s only unknown-though-Destiny-bound-49-year-old-guys-with-album-countdown-blogs who realize what a gem it is. In the song “Some Other Time,” probably my favorite on the album, the singer tells an ex that the timing just wasn’t right for them. But if you imagine Hans Rotenberry talking to his bandmates, instead of an old lover, the lyrics describe a resignation that reflective artists everywhere understand. Even those of us with Destiny on our side.
Maybe in a dream/Maybe in my mind
There’s a place where you and me could really be something
Somehow, some other time.
I know/It was nothing that was ever meant to be
Except for the moment there/When I could plainly see
But it’s too late for it to hurt/Your name is just another word
Coulda been years ago/If I hadn’t been so shy
Who’s to say that you and me couldn’t really be something
Somehow some other time
Might’ve once ago/But the world just passed us by
Maybe in a fantasy/Or memory
You and me coulda really been something
Somehow, some other time
“The Stranded Stars”
“Some Other Time”
“Chipper Cherry Daylily”
“A Better World”
“Gonna Miss Yer Train”