There’s a song by The Stone Roses called “She Bangs the Drums.” I’ve heard it a lot recently, which is odd considering I don’t own the 1989 album it comes from. I’ve also played it a lot recently, which is odd considering I don’t know how to play any musical instruments. With the help of two fantastic holiday gifts, both of these scenarios are absolutely true. “She Bangs the Drums” is the link between two must-have releases: Rhino’s four-disc set The Brit Box: U.K. Indie, Shoegaze, and Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium and the mega-popular video game Guitar Hero III. And, in the middle of this holiday week, I’m using some free time to explore both with great enthusiasm. It’s amusing to me, since I just posted my top music picks for 2007. Talk about an 11th hour consideration, when it comes to releases that had a musical impact on me.
Now, here’s the thing about Guitar Hero III: it’s like karaoke. You’re given a list of popular songs to choose from, and you play along with a plastic guitar. The better your hand-eye coordination, the higher your score. So, in a sense, Guitar Hero is kind of like karaoke-meets-Atari. In other words, I’m hooked. There’s something really gratifying and fun about swinging away to Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing” or The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Cherub Rock.” Not surprisingly, “Anarchy in the UK” (by the Sex Pistols) isn’t that challenging but “Raining Blood” (by Slayer) is an intense workout. If you do well enough, you can jam with Tom Morello, Slash, and even Satan. How cool is that?
I feel as if Guitar Hero and The Brit Box have tapped into the music geek I was in high school, which is to say, the geekiest music geek time ever. The Brit Box could be renamed “Matt Dentler’s all-purpose soundtrack from age 12 to 21.” These are the songs I listened to all the friggin’ time, from riding school buses to studying in the dorms. A lot of them wound up on mixtapes for girls.
It’s a snapshot of bands that conquered the UK rock scene as the 20th Century ended. Bands that floated under the radar, not getting much US airplay besides rotation on college radio. If these bands were ever on MTV, they were on the program 120 Minutes. The four discs flow in chronological order, starting with late ’80s pioneers such as The Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen, and The Cure. Greats like this are as mainstream as the collection gets. The rest of the 75+ tracks consist of essential listening by everyone from The Sundays to Happy Mondays, from James to Gene, from Manic Street Preachers to The Jesus and Mary Chain. It’s all there, almost.
While The Brit Box covers such mid and late ’90s acts as Pulp and Kula Shaker, there’s no Travis. And, what about trip-hop? Brit acts like Portishead and Tricky were co-existing in the same circles as many of these artists. The same could be argued for “electronica.” There’s no Chemical Brothers, Underworld, Orbital, or Prodigy. Of course, maybe Rhino is saving all those for another boxed set. And, of course, I will try to pick that one up too.