What killed Glam rock in the first place? Was it Grunge? Or excess? There's a bunch of theories, but most lead to some version the two aforementioned. In its heyday, the adage ‘party like a rockstar’ couldn’t have been a more blanket cliché for the entire genre. Continuous drinking binges, pill-popping, all the injecting and snorting were bound to take a toll. Sure enough, it led to a string of infamous deaths and near-deaths. Talk about short-lived and ending with that reputation!
In fact, a mate of mine who hates the term 'Glam' always says - "Back then, it was just hard rock, glam was a derogatory word based on look and lifestyle that reduced the actual music to something it wasn't."
For the sake of this write-up, I'll use Glam rock. Things are what they become, and nostalgia can be a seductive liar (That's George Ball). Maybe some day, future generations will look back at the Man-Bun with a similar fondness, just as some of the younger millennials today refer to the Backstreet Boys as 'great retro music'.
Artists from all genres have been consumed by excesses, though not as widely prevalent. Grunge and Alternative, that many claim buried Glam rock, had its fair share of excess-related mishaps. Two cases in point, Kurt Cobain and Scott Weiland. Before them, Elvis Presley, allegedly, though there have been many disputes and backs-and-forth about the causes of his death. And most recently, rappers Lil Peep and Juice WRLD.
Could it then really be Grunge? A look back does suggest it. But for many of us who grew up on this particular genre, Grunge wasn’t enough to render us unfaithful. I personally never completely warmed up to Grunge. I liked many of the bands, I bought their albums and all, but it wasn’t as though I was fanatically obsessed with the genre. Most often, I thought of it as nothing more that ‘downer’ music and tended to prefer the more manic stuff. My only natural progression then was heavy metal and heavier heavy metal (Death, speed, black et al). I can pretty much say that the same was the case for my friends who shared the same tastes in music.
But just today, I was forwarded a link to a song by an up-and-coming Mumbai band called The Venom Berries. It was the first time I’d heard a Glam rock track in, well, forever. If I’m not mistaken, the last mainstream artist to have seriously attempted to bring back the genre was Josh Todd of Buckcherry, most notably his single Lit Up which used KISS' iconic opening riff from Shock Me. This was in 1999, which is incidentally the year the Venom Berries boys were born!
I must admit, I was curious. Why would a bunch of 21-year-olds form a Glam rock band today? And on purpose? I mean the real thing and not the 'elements of Glam rock' that you find mentioned in music-related articles talking about how so-and-so pop star has influences of it in his or her songs/videos/sense of style.
The guitar-intro to their single Gimme Action is reminiscent of AC/DC’s Shook Me All Night Long and their artwork is VERY Appetite For Destruction. Now, one can’t simply write an article about a rare occurrence such as this without asking many MANY questions. So I did what I did, and called up the lead vocalist of the band, Maahir Siddique, who is exactly half my age.
We spoke for four hours! Here’s a summary of it.
Maahir’s mum introduced him to Glam rock. She apparently had a buckload of audio cassettes, not uncommon in 1999. Maahir turned 10 in 2009, and if pop-science is to be believed, one begins to formulate ones interest in music at around that age, which is completely solidified by his or her teens. Even I'd dumped my cassette collection by 2001. So props to his mother for that.
He began playing guitar by the age of 12 and was almost entirely shaped by Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, Def Leppard - all the usual suspects that had shaped me two decades prior. He’s a fan of Punk-rock (like we all are) but prefers to play and sing Glam rock. And what's more, Maahir is quite equipped to have a sapient conversation about the said topics with someone who was actually around when it was all happening. I, on the other hand, don’t think I could ever have had that socio-emotional conversation about The Everly Brothers or Ricky Nelson with someone who grew up in 50s and 60s, though I love their music immensely.
The conversation did take a humorous tone with Maahir mentioning that when he met his guitarist for the first time, the guy just looked like he was into Glam rock. It’s been a while since society’s been able to tell music preferences from the way someone looked. It was easy back in the day, they all wore rock t-shirts and had goatees. Long hair was almost always associated with the subculture. These days, it’s not uncommon to bump into someone wearing their ‘favourite’ Misfits t-shirt, while not knowing that the Misfits are a Punk-rock band and not a word they self-identify with.
The whole point to rock is that the stage forms half the story. The Venom Berries, predictably, have found better favour with live audiences.
“We have people, 35-years and older, who come up to us and tell us how our music reminds them of their younger days and at the same time, we have folks around our age and who haven’t had the exposure to Glam rock tell us how different we are from run-of-the-mill bands.”
Since the lockdown, The Venom Berries haven’t recorded much and Maahir is going through what he describes as a sort of writers block. I, personally, can’t wait to watch them live once things get back to normal. YouTube just won’t cut it for this sort of music.
Jams and Recordings
In the nineties, it was difficult to find a place to practice. It’s not like we could soundproof our homes or rent a studio every day. There was a lot of jugaad involved and sometimes rooms were rented and costs/practice hours shared by several bands who used the space one after the other. Usually these were in independent homes where neighbours weren’t likely to be close enough to complain and could be paid off. Sound-wise, rock music isn’t really the most discreet of them all. Apparently times have changed and The Venom Berries faces no such problem, what with the abundance of jam rooms that have mushroomed across the city.
The Venom Berries’ sound is as raw as it gets, minimal programming and a lot of practice. With the rise in ‘music producers’ all over the scene, one-click AI-mastering and the ability to literally hum a tune into a software that generates a midi file which can then be connected to any damn instrument under the sun, it’s refreshing to see a real band record real music with (mostly) real instruments. In 2020, that’s pretty darn real.
"You don't come into this world with the perfect voice, or even a great one for that matter, it takes practice and a hell of a lot of patience. You've got to work on it and if you're even slightly better a year later, it's good progress. Legendary vocalists also have the potential sound like crap when they haven't sung in long," Maahir points out.
Some of the best songs in the world aren't perfect. They are flawed, sometimes a little muddy and aren't always processed until they sound like they were created in a vacuum. In fact, many were created in a single take. This is why bands like The Venom Berries are rare. In the last month or so, I’ve spotted plethora of "trending" songs in my review list that have used the exact same loops and sounds as other ones I only just listened to.
At 21, we were all future rockstars. At 42, we are all engineers, software developers, doctors, lawyers, co-founders and whatever else there is to be. The ones who continued with music have slid light down the snake’s body and into the wonderful world of composing jingles for vanaspati commercials. India is an impossible country for rock musicians and it turns out that Bollywood (A metalhead’s kryptonite) is actually the lucky deal. Maahir has no unrealistic expectations.
He casually tells me - “The conversations about my future have long begun. I’ll probably end up doing something else, but I want to go with the band for as long and as far as it takes me. We’re all really passionate about the music, it’s not like we’re doing it for the subs and likes. It’s quite the opposite actually, we really enjoy real people coming up to us at these venues and telling us how much they enjoyed our music. That, to us, is the best kind of appreciation.”
Maahir's statement made me ask myself this time, and not him, "Why Glam rock?"
It's not like anyone wakes up one day and says I'm going to invest these years of my life in this specific genre because it has such a great future or because there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. With rockers, it's about passion for the music and not merely the lifestyle associated with it.
By the time I finished the call, it hit me like a freight train. It was as though for those four hours, I’d travelled back in time and had a conversation with my younger self. From one generation to the other, rock music influenced us in similar ways. Despite the taunts fans and musicians were, and still are, doomed to endure; “Why do you like that noise?” And “Why are there so many skulls?”. We share similar experiences and respond to these questions in similar ways.
Rock and metal are about the immense technique, sometimes buried under distortion. They're about the profundity of the lyrics and the fact that they present their fans with a way to belong, to vent, to be whatever they want and most importantly, to be strong. For many, it has nothing to do with sex, alcohol and drugs. Virtually every confident and bad-ass rocker was once an outlier. The best of them had horrid childhoods, fraught with bullying, put-downs and cruel jokes. In our own lives, when we were pushed up against the wall, rock music was what made us push back.
As for the thing about the skulls, I once read an amusing anecdote, “...It's because it’s not possible to tell whether the skull is man or woman, straight or gay, black or white, fat or thin, rich or poor, good or evil, religious or atheist.”
I’ll leave it at that.