Remembering The Icarus Line, or the days when rock ‘n’ roll was provocative…

Posted on January 10, 2011


Cover of "Penance Soiree"

Cover of Penance Soiree

I’ve been thinking about the band The Icarus Line lately. They’re still around as far as I know, but it seems like their career peaked somewhere in 2004 when they released an album called Penance Soiree. “Up Against The Wall (Motherfuckers)” was the first single:

I didn’t know anybody who liked this band outside of those who read, which was a very small minority of people when I was living in Baltimore and Philadelphia at the time. It didn’t make a bit of sense to me. Here was a five-piece band–each member looking distinct and equally vital to the whole–filled to the fuckin’ brim with attitude. Their songs had a distinct swagger that bordered on sleazy, and the pop hooks were firmly in place. But nobody gave a shit (in the U.S. anyway–they were featured on Mtv in Japan and England pretty frequently).

As a music critic, I come from the school of thought that rock is supposed to be dangerous, and if your parents like it there’s something wrong. It doesn’t matter if your folks did “freaky” stuff of their own like snorting coke off record sleeves while getting down to Hendrix–it’s the responsibility of the young to one-up the previous generation. Rock music should always be progressing to new plateaus of dementia.  We were doing pretty good at that with punk in the 70’s, metal and shoegaze in the 80’s, and to some extent grunge, but perhaps more so with DIY hardcore in the 90’s. Hardcore became mainstream and more accessible in the 00’s, and then I’m not quite sure what happened with everything else in rock.  Whatever was trending with listeners that also pleased the critics was largely artier, quieter, space-y-er–perhaps more introspective.

But then there was The Icarus Line. While mostly ignored, there was enough buzz to at least make their presence known in the underground music scene, and they even tip-toed into the mainstream after signing to a major label and touring with A Perfect Circle. They got some press for smashing a glass case at a Hard Rock Cafe in Texas which contained one of Stevie Ray Vaughn‘s guitars. Guitarist Aaron North then snatched it and tried to plug it in before security chased him out of the venue:

Vocalist Joe Cardamone also spray painted “$uckin’ Dick$” on the Strokes’ tour bus in 2002:

I saw these things as thrillingly mischievous pranks that injected the music climate with some freakin’ life. But I think most people considered the band a pack of cocky and mean-spirited pricks.  Maybe they were. But what was wrong with that? Remember when Axl Rose made a platinum-selling hit with “One In A Million?”

I’m not sure if one can argue that the reason for the Icarus Line’s lack of fame is simply a matter of song-writing ability. Ever since Guns N’ Roses (perhaps the Icarus Line’s greatest influence) were dethroned as the kings of the rock ‘n’ roll landscape, it seems that we as a music-listening culture increasingly want bands that we can more closely relate to, and even feel safer around. In mainstream rock, I’m talking about artists like the Flaming Lips, Arcade Fire, and Green Day to name a few (the last of which, I’m not sorry to say, are not punk rock). In indie circles (which were traditionally a reaction against the mainstream until this past decade it seems), mellower, cheerful personalities like Dan Deacon and Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast tend to be on the same, if not somewhat geek-y level as their fans.

And yet mainstream hip hop continues to grow increasingly edgy and unapologetic–look no further than Kanye West, ‘Lil Wayne, and Jay-Z for examples. And I don’t even know how to explain the billion-dollar industry of the sass-n’-slut-rock genre of Katy Perry, Ke$ha, and Lady GaGa. But all six of these artists are more daring than any major or indie label rock act I can think of since, well, the Icarus Line before 2005 .

Our culture just doesn’t seem so keen on threatening behavior and risky antics in our guitar-driven, bass thumping, drum-crashing rock and roll right now. Mellow and artier seems to be the trend in both mainstream and alternative circles.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means Radiohead’s OK, Computer is the most influential rock record of the past 15 years.

But still, I’ll always prefer the bite and snarl of Appetite for Destruction. I suppose that makes me old fashioned.

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