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Opinion & Analysis

Comfortably numb

Photo by Johnny Bugeja

A review of the Taxi/Melon Diesel concert at the Sunborn’s Aurora Ballroom, as broadcast on GBC recently.

by F Oliva

Melon Diesel is arguably the finest rock ‘n’ roll band to have emerged from these shores since Albert Hammond sang ‘99 Miles From LA’ back in 1975. Certainly the most successful to have competed and demonstrated their worth in the real, cutthroat world of the music industry. At the turn of the millennium they had four good years with a string of radio friendly hits that earned them a well deserved spot in the Spanish 40 Principales, no mean feat in itself, including several national tours that elevated them from grunge obscurity to the middle class of the Spanish rock scene. Any local band that bucks the dismal prevalent trend of performing music by numbers otherwise known as cover versions, to do their own original material, already earns them automatic credit in my book.

Taxi, the later iteration of Melon Diesel minus the original rhythm section, the charismatic tandem of the band, took to the stage to an appreciative home crowd of devoted karaoke fans who sang the songs along, and were enthusiastically supportive of everything that they saw and heard. The most cliched image in stadium rock was the cigarette lighters swaying to the music. In this post-rock era, it is iphones that do the trick, expanding the cringeworthy practice from outdoor arenas to indoor venues, turning rock concerts into mobile phone adverts. A bad omen if ever there was one.

The Aurora Ballroom witnessed a professional polished concert, a repertoire which yet again established the proficient showbiz quality they can deploy. There were few peaks in their performance, a regular mid-tempo vibe of well-crafted pop songs from start to finish, effortless, compact interplay between all musicians, particularly two excellent guitarists and a technically gifted drummer, who appeared to be on automatic pilot most of the time, a unit equal to the sum of its parts.

It was materially faultless, a band so refined, so mechanical, that their live sound is virtually the same as their records. For far too long Taxi/Melon Diesel have sat on the throne as local Kings of Rock, the absolute monarchs of the scene, and this stunted their growth and creative ambition. All the songs have virtually the same verse-bridge-chorus structure, most things sound in the same key, everything is safe and unchallenging to the ear, there is no magic. In 2023 they have become giants with feet of clay, awaiting to be knocked off the perch. But is there a new wave of young insolent punks raising the guillotine as in 1976 or is the music scene an atrophied runt of cover bands? Even then, in this post-rock era of reggaeton and trap, the sound of a distorted electric guitar and analogue drums almost brings a tear to the eye, so kudos to them. A band that can connect with a crowd – any crowd – and get it going is also worthy of respect.

But good rock’n’roll since Elvis Presley first shook his hips in Memphis in 1955 to create a musical and cultural upheaval, has to be more, much more than about just another uneventful day at the office, regurgitating the same songs as a matter of routine, in the same way, with the same ingratiating demeanour, in musical terms “running over the same old ground what have we found?” as Pink Floyd sang in their memorable ‘Wish You Were Here.’ Other than for the faithful, very quickly the predictability of it all weighs like a millstone round the neck, there is no excitement, no surprises, no dynamics or shifts in tempo. A seamless, congenial plateau that blended into itself and into the next plateau, a homogenous band of well-arranged sound, the product of a constrained musical vocabulary, melodically, rhythmically and harmonically.

There is no sense of abandonment or point of rupture, the categorical imperative of musical pre-eminence, just a combo sticking to a predetermined script, steady and deliberate every step of the way. The sense of emotion and pathos that artists like Cash, Dylan, Young, Cave, Drake or Cohen can convey with a phrase was just not there. But in pure rock’n’roll language, the defiance, anger, energy, the pure raw quality of early Who, Small Faces, Kinks, NY Dolls and The Jam was just not there, let alone the cathartic states Swans and Sonic Youth can induce, the trance like atmosphere they can whip up; or the mind altering textures of the Velvet Underground whose discography should be compulsory listening for any aspiring rock outfit.

There are many rock’n’roll bands in the world but few are capable of transmogrifying the genre into a transcendent force, into an art form, only the truly exceptional are capable of this. Lester Bangs the legendary music critic, probably one of the best in the business defined the music of bands like Detroit’s seminal The Stooges – MC5 could easily qualify too – as ferocious, dangerous and intense, qualities that have become quintessential in any band’s quest to achieve rock greatness. Add to that the mythological status that some acquire, a timeless canonical quality that keeps them alive in the collective consciousness. It is the highest benchmark that only a few are called to embrace.

Taxi/Melon Diesel can keep traipsing the same well-trodden comfort zone for the next 30 years as the GBC house band if they so wish. Alternatively they could take to heart the instruction that Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, issued to his musicians about “unlearning” everything they knew before playing with him. They would do worse that listen to Trout Mask Replica and then get back in the studio and see what comes out.

At the conclusion of the concert I had to reach out for my vinyl copy of Johnny Thunder’s LAMF LP to heal my ears and my spirit.

Mind you, give me Grita, Por Ti, Niña del Sur or Contracorriente any day of the week over the dreadful covers of Santana and Eagles – Hotel California for god’s sake, what next Smoke on the Water? – at the National Day concert, with the habitual ageing rock aristocracy churning out the same stale, horrid numbers they were doing last century. In this case there was no metaphor about a day at the office. It literally was. It is about time the formula was scrapped and young musicians were given incentives and a chance to perform their original material. Time for (musical) change. Indeed.

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