Monday, January 21, 2013

The Top 15 Fictional Musicians and Bands of All-Time

Matt Domino gives you yet another one of his masterful lists. This time, it's the Top 15 Fictional Musicians and Bands of All-Time.

Foxygen will release their first LP,  We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, tomorrow. Who are Foxygen you ask? They are a songwriting duo based out of Los Angeles who already have one EP under their belts. Don’t worry, I didn’t know who they were until about two weeks ago when my friend asked me what I thought about their single, “Shuggie.” Since I hadn’t heard it, I got the album and listened to the entire thing repeatedly.

I have a complicated relationship with the album—nothing profound, but complicated—that I will delve into in another piece in a few weeks, once I have properly let my thoughts on the band and their work settle. However, what is most striking about Foxygen and their first album is how it sounds like a missing album from another time, or perhaps the album by some fictional band from some long lost movie.

Now, that may be a stretch, but it got me thinking about the best fictional bands and songwriters of all-time. Of course, I need no prompting or inspiration to make up some kind of crazy list full of of long-shot entries with questionable justifications, but for some reason this felt like the right time to dissect this particular area of pop-culture; or maybe it had something to do with the approaching Oscars?

Regardless, here is yet another Domino list. These are the Top 15 Movie Bands/Musicians of All-Time.

Honorable Mention: Marvin Berry and the Starlighters – Back to the Future (1985)

We can’t do a list of fictional bands without mentioning the band featured in perhaps one of the most famous scenes in cinema history. Marvin Berry and the Starlighters played the 1955 Enchantment Under the Sea dance at Hill Valley High. However, thanks to Calvin Klein/Marty McFly being inadvertantly locked into the trunk of Marvin’s car by Biff Tannen’s gang while Marvin and the band were smoking marijuana during a set break, Marvin ended up slicing his hand, leaving him unable to play guitar. So, Marty stepped in, played “Earth Angel,” almost ceased to exist, bounced back and introduced the world to “Johnny B. Goode,” as well as a very Van Halen-esque style of guitar-playing. Since Marty McFly was just a special guest lightning rod and not technically in the band (and actually ended up tipping off Chuck Berry to the song “Johnny B. Goode” due to his 1985 rock n’ roll knowledge) the band doesn’t make the list, no matter how iconic the scene.

Or, as Futurepedia says, “Marvin was somewhat bewildered as Marty handed back the guitar.” I hope that makes sense.

15. Lovebürger – Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)

The actual list starts with a criminally underrated and underrepresented fictional band, Lovebürger. The band were supposed to be the musical entertainment at the big after-graduation party, but instead infighting led to a premature demise before they could even play one of their signature tracks that everyone at Huntington Hills High School loved. The band argued over their t-shirt merch, the wearing of cowboy hats and the placement of the umlaut above the “u” in their name while Preston Meyers tusseled with fate and tried to confess his undying love for Amanda Beckett. However, their sundering was short lived, as the guys in the band decided that a huge end-of-the-year party might just be the best place for a “reunion” show with “some of the old stuff” and a few new tunes thrown in. Just as the partygoers were ready for the Lovebürger reunion, well-known nerd, William Lichter, who was heavily under the influence of beer in his first foray into alcohol, took the stage and did a rousing karoke rendition of “Paradise City” that had everyone in attendence revved up into an adolescent (despite whatever actual cast birth certificates might have said) frenzy. Yes, Lovebürger will always live on in our hearts, even if there is no film or audio evidence of one of their songs or performances.

14. Crucial Taunt – Wayne’s World (1992)

Sure, Wayne’s World was a great movie and the most successful Saturday Night Live character spin-off of all time, but there really isn’t any story without Cassandra Wong and her band Crucial Taunt. Wayne and Garth were happily plodding away with their cable access television show in Wayne’s parents’ basement when they signed a contract with Benjamin Kane who bought the rights to their show for a staggering $10,000 (what indie comedians, entertainers or musicians wouldn’t leap at that figure even today?). That same night Wayne meets Cassandra at a Crucial Taunt concert at some hip Aurora 90’s DIY venue and they hit it off over Chinese dialect. Well, we all know the rest of the story: Crucial Taunt is coveted by producer Frankie “Mr. Big” Sharp, Wayne foils Benjamin’s plans to steal Cassandra away and there are a variety of proposed possible endings to the story, but we eventually settle on the “happy” one. What people forget is that Crucial Taunt rocked. Their single “Why You Want To Break My Heart?” was a bona fide early 90’s hit, they did a deep cut cover of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” and their track “The Way That I Feel About You” presaged much of Lenny Kravitz’s 1990’s catalog. With a beautiful lead singer like Cassandra, they are a criminally overlooked fictional rock band.

13. Bunny Rabbit – 8 Mile (2002)

It takes a certain amount of achievement for a fictional character to have a statue erected in their honor. In fact, Rocky Balboa’s statue in Philadelphia may be the only example of such a feat. However, the people of Detroit ought to think about erecting their own memorial in honor of one, B-Rabbit. Over the course of this film, Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith battles his own insecurities, day job, life decisions, choices in women and friends (hmm..sounds like a new article about “BEING IN YOUR 20’S!”) and manages to secure a modicum of MC fame. Yes, at the beginning of the movie he consistently chokes in his freestyle battles, but over time he learns how to harness the world around him into an inner confidence and self-awareness that he unleashes in his final freestyle battle against Papa Doc. Said freestyle battle is not only a clinic in inducing goosebumps, but it is also perhaps the archetypal lesson in using self-deprecating humor to win in any sort of altercation. When B-Rabbit makes fun of himself and then Cheddar Bob for shooting himself in the leg, it’s…well, it’s just magic.

12. Drive Shaft – Lost (2004-2010)

I don’t care who you are, what country you're from or what God you believe in, the one thing that unites all of us living right here, right now, is that we all lived through Lost. Some of us loved it more than others. I mean, how could you not get enough of the Dharma Initiative, a huge statue of a four-toed foot, the character Walt, and numbers that didn’t really mean anything. If you watched the show, there were two things that you will undoubtedly agree with: 1. Desmond was the best character; and 2. “You All Everybody” by Drive Shaft was one of the best fictional singles of all time. I mean let’s not kid ourselves here, when watching Lost, you cherished the moments when Charlie’s storyline incorporated the Drive Shaft mythology. Hell, I know I stood around many a water cooler making “You All Everybody” jokes to pass the time, even when Lost was off the air and even when I was at the water cooler alone!

11. Alex Fisher/Pop! – Music and Lyrics (2008)

This entry on the list is a fictional band that sits near and dear to my heart because Music and Lyrics is not only one of the best movies about songwriting of all-time, but one hungover viewing of this movie (along with the drinking of multiple Mountain Dews) inspired myself and two of my friends to write a classic birthday track for my friend Emily Schenkein back in 2008. Pop! were a fictional 80’s band much in the mold of Wham! and Duran Duran and rode the popularity of the huge hit single “Pop Goes My Heart.” However, after the band broke up, one of the founders, Alex Fletcher found himself floundering while playing county fairs and theme parks. See, he could handle the spotlight and had a deep musical knowledge, but could never find words to put to a melody by himself. Then, when he was commissioned to write a song for pop star Cora, he had to enlist the help of aspiring poet/plant waterer, Sophie Fisher. They had some romantic misunderstandings while writing the pop hit, “Way Back Into Love,” but eventually, after almost losing Sophie forever, Alex dug deep and wrote “Don’t Write Me Off,” which he played solo on piano for some reason at Cora’s big Madison Square Garden concert. The tune won Sophie back and the two of them formed a formidable songwriting duo according to the closing credits.

10.  Dewey Cox – Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)

I’m going to be blatantly honest about this entry. I have only seen bits and pieces of this movie and, while they have been funny and I do love the great John C. Reilly, I don’t have a thorough knowledge of Dewey Cox’s catalogue. However, any fictional artist that moves through various musical eras and has a face-to-face with an Elvis played by a very inspired Jack White deserves my respect and admiration.

9. Conrad Birdie – Bye Bye Birdie (1963)

A lot of people are—rightly—dazzled by Anne Margaret and her rendition of the memorable, titular track, “Bye Bye Birdie”; however, Conrad Birdie was an Elvisesque sensation for a reason. A single like “Honestly Sincere” is a crazy mixture of country, salsa and big band that might be unmatched in actual music history. I mean, listen to that song again. I don’t blame the whole town going into a frenzy due to an impromptu live musical performance with no discernable PA system. Also, now that we live in a post-Girls culture filled with full recognition of the desire that twenty-somethings have to do anything, a song like “Lot of Livin’” takes on an extra level of resonance. The bottom line: you don’t wear a full, gold jump suit during the peak/ending-peak of first-era Elvis unless you’ve got the fictional tracks to back it up.

 Am I right?

8. Otis Day and the Knights – Animal House (1979)

College! Where do I start with Otis Day and the Knights? This R&B outfit is perhaps the definitive soundtrack for any reasonable guy’s idea of what college life and attitude should feel like. Yes, part of it has to do with the fact that the band was black and cool and played in the basement of a white, party animal fraternity house and thus lent the white guys an extra aura of coolness; but, it also has to do with the fact that Otis Day and the Knights pumped out some truly inspired and memorable R&B. Their version of “Shout” is definitive and Otis’ vocal performance is as iconic as anything that Otis Redding or Sam Cooke laid down in the same era. Plus, “Shama Lama Ding Dong” is a classic slow dance song and led to the memorable scene at the Dexter Lake Club where Otis pretended not to know Otter and Boone and the rest of the gang even after being the house band for the toga party where Boone smashed the acoustic guitar over the folkie’s head. And of course, any band that can soundtrack the line, “Mind if we with dance with your dates?” in a textbook example of racial tension is inevitably going to go down as one of the top ten fictional bands of all-time.

7.  The Blues Brothers – The Blues Brothers (1980)

This section of the list is known as the “Belushi Duo,” namely because John Belushi was in both Animal House and Blues Brothers. The making of this film was recently chronicled in the outstanding “comedy” issue of Vanity Fair that was guest-edited by Judd Apatow, and really the driving forces behind the band were Akroyd’s deep knowledge and passion for the blues and Belushi’s deep passion and knowledge for living life—and doing cocaine. But that’s the real stuff, the fictional band was far more interesting. Elwood and Jake “Joliet” Blues met at an Illinois Catholic school, learned the blues from the school janitor and became “blood brothers” by slicing their fingers with a string taken from the guitar of Elmore James. Needless to say, these guys were troublemakers, with Jake getting the nickname “Joliet” from the time he spent in Joliet Prison in Illinois. Once Jake is out of prison, the two brothers get the band (filled with epically named and tight-as-shit musicians) and start wreaking havoc and playing gigs all over Illinois. The spree ends with both getting arrested, but landing a record deal in the process. They put out A Briefcase Full of Blues, which was full of fantastic covers of artists ranging from Otis Redding, to Floyd Dixon and Sam and Dave. There’s not too much cooler than the Blues Brothers dressed in their black suits with the black Ray-Bans belting out “I Can’t Turn You Loose.”

6. Scäb – Home Movies (1999-2004)

Possibly my favorite entry on this list, Scäb were without a doubt the most creative fictional band of all-time. For those unfamiliar with the fantastic TV show Home Movies, Scäb were the garage band who soundtracked nearly all of the music featured in main character Brendan Small’s “home movies.” The leader of the band was a Slash-looking teenager named Duane who was a fifteen year old guitar virtuoso. Scäb, in my opinion, successfully pulled of a rock-opera version of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, which included one of Erik Gundel’s five favorite songs ever, “Living Like a Bug Ain’t Easy,” and not to mention the operatic title track, “Franz Kafka!” In fact, The Metamorphosis wasn’t their only rock opera, they also performed all the music (though, not all the vocals) for The Wizard’s Baker, which was one of Brendan’s later works. Scäb mastered a variety of styles ranging from prog-rock to the hardcore punk of “Don’t Kill Children” and “Don’t Put Marbles In Your Nose,” which were as concise as they were informative, and also to the uncreditied vaudeville of “Compliment Song,” which would have made Harry Nilsson smile.

And to think, these guys were teenagers just trying to win the Battle of the Bands!

5. The Wonders (Oneders) – That Thing You Do! (1996)

When it comes to fictional songs, “That Thing You Do” might top everyone’s list, but the band’s rise to fame was so fast and their dissolution even faster that it is hard to make them any higher than number five. However, it is very tough to debate the merits of their hit single; the song has a classic, mid-period Beatles backbeat; textbook 1965 jangly guitars; it features warm harmonies as well as a wonderful high vocal hook in the chorus; and for all the aspiring songwriters out there, the B-section in this song is how you do it. And, like any truly great single, it clocks in at a shade under three minutes, leaving the listener with the involuntary urge to turn the song on again. Unfortunately for the band, they couldn’t duplicate its success, as lead singer Jimmy Mattingly had greater ambitions than just writing pop singles and marrying his high school sweetheart, Faye Dolan. The Bass Player went to Vietnam while the second guitar player, Lenny Haise, went to Las Vegas and got married to some woman. That left “nonchalant bro,” and talented drummer, Guy “Shades” Patterson to find work as a high-quality session musician and profess his love* for Faye once Jimmy cast her aside. Despite the band’s messy and rapid break-up, the highs of that one single are extremely hard to overlook.

(*Editor's Note: And rightly so. Man, Liv Tyler was beautiful in this movie.)

4. Spinal Tap – This Is Spinal Tap (1984)


I’m sure many of you reading this expected that Spinal Tap would top this list since they might be the most well known of all the fictional bands. However, I find the movie This is Spinal Tap to be a bit overrated, which definitely drops the band out of the top three. What can’t be denied is the quality of the music and Spinal Tap's influence on the fictional band genre as a whole. A track like “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” is possibly better than most of Kiss’s entire catalog, and with better backing vocals and more virtuosic guitar would fit right at home on a Van Halen record. “Stonehenge” is pure Black Sabbath with a slight dash of Led Zeppelin (though, I mean, these guys weren’t even close to that real-life league). And of course the triumverate of “Hell Hole,” “Big Bottom,” and “Sex Farm” set the bar extraordinarily high for any fictional band that followed. Even early, lesser tracks such as “Gimme Some Money” stand up with the best work of most of the previously mentioned bands on this list. I know it may be disappointing for some of you true Spinal Tap lovers to see the band and their songs this low on the list, but please take solace in the fact that I truly do appreciate their music. I mean, it doesn’t get much better than:

“The bigger the cushion, the sweeter the pushin'
That's what I said
The looser the waistband, the deeper the quicksand
Or so I have read.” 

So, you can at least take that with you.

3. Wyld Stallyns – Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

There are a few crucial distinctions to make when discussing Wyld Stallyns, the heavy metal band formed by Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan. The first incarnation of the band, in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, was just a garage band and not much of one at that. Even in the fictional realm of the film, the band was a fiction; a dream conjured up in both Bill and Ted's minds even though they didn’t have other band members or any musical abilities. Now, today that wouldn’t stop them from making a bedroom-metal band and releasing a record on some DIY label or on Bandcamp. However, back in the late-80’s that was a big roadblock. By the time we get to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey the band still isn’t anything of substance, but at least Bill and Ted have been able to fill out their lineup with the two princesses they picked up as girlfriends in medieval England. And, even by the end of the movie when Bill and Ted have to face-off against former gym teacher, Chuck De Nomolos, at the San Dimas Battle of the Bands, they still don’t have any musical talent. After defeating De Nomolos, they use their mastery of time travel to quickly acquire masterful guitar skills through "an intense sixteen months of guitar training plus a two week honeymoon." What follows is perhaps the best ending to any movie in the history of cinema. Wyld Stallyns take the stage at the Battle of the Bands and perform “God Gave Rock n’ Roll To You” to the audience as well as a satellite feed (originally intended for De Nomolos to broadcast their execution) that is beamed all over the planet.

Bill and Ted's music leads to the achievement of world peace as well as the following milestones*: the Stallyns playing the Grand Canyon; Bill and Ted conver nuclear weapons to power the world; air guitar is used to eliminate air pollution; the Grim Reaper wins the Indy 500; Bill and Ted win Sportsman of the Year; a rumored Wyld Stallyn split causes the markets to crash; the split is revealed as a hoax, which causes the Dow to reach record highs; Wyld Stallyns play a concert on the moon; and the Wyld Stallyns tour Mars.

If that isn’t inspiring, then I don’t know what is.

(*Editor's Note: For your reference, all of these milestones are presented in the form of newspaper front pages and magazine covers. They aren't actual scenes.)

2. The Rutles – All You Need Is Cash (1978)

I love anything Beatles related, so you had to figure that the Beatles parody band, the Rutles, had to be up here. Whereas Spinal Tap parodied a musical style and the bands that played within that style, the Rutles were a straight up parody of the Beatles and their rise and fall as a band as well as their worldwide cultural significance. In that light, its harder to take album names like Sgt. Rutters Only Darts Club and Tragical History Tour as purely fictional. That being said, as is the case with Spinal Tap, the music here is just too good as are the jokes. For example, in 1966, when Ron Nasty says that the Beatles are “bigger than Rod” he is referring to club singer Rod Stewart who didn’t really break out until 1968-1969 as a member of the Jeff Beck Band, so no one really knew what he was talking about. That’s a top-notch stupid joke! Songs with easy to read parody titles like “Cheese and Onions,” “Ouch!,” “Can’t Buy Me Lunch,” and “Get Up and Go” all have a real musical craftsmanship to them and are all created in a loving tribute to the kind of pop music the Beatles mastered. “Cheese and Onions” could easily be a lost John Lennon song from 1968-1973. Considering that the Rutles preceded Spinal Tap, they are the ones who really set the bar for how good a fictional band could actually be. Just listen to The Rutles and then listen to any Beatles album and see how close they came to matching that very hard to master sound. Like the Beatles’ music, it’s still impressive after all these years.

1.  Stillwater – Almost Famous (2001)

Though I love modernist literature, I am a realist at heart (though, modernism technically is realism and well, what is realism anyway?). And Stillwater is the most realist fictional band that has ever been created (there was an actual band named Stillwater, but this band was not inspired by those guys). There are elements of parody in the makeup of the band, but those elements are especially self-aware. For example, when the band are having some backstage squabble, Jeff Bebe says to Russell Hammond, “we agreed that I’m the lead singer and you’re the guitarist with mystique,” which was obviously the overarching dynamic of the early-70’s with Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones sitting at the top of rock’s royalty. That self-awareness of the time and place only adds to the fact that the band just seemed completely real. Even their names—Jeff Bebe (vocals), Russell Hammond (guitar), Larry Fellows (bass) and Ed Vallencourt (drums)—seemed accurate and perfectly in line for their respective roles in the band. Then there are the songs. A track like “Love Thing” seems like a lost Deep Purple song from 1973; “Love Comes and Goes” and “You Had To Be There” both sound like outtakes from a Bad Company record; finally, “Fever Dog” is one of the most accurate Led Zeppelin IV rip-offs, right down to the “When the Levee Breaks” drums. Now, I’m not saying that the songs are better than the songs of some of the other bands on this list (I’d take “Livin’ Like a Bug Ain’t Easy” any day), nor am I am saying that a comparison to Bad Company is a good thing (dear lord, no!). What I am saying is that you have to admire the attention to detail, to the “everyday” quality the band takes on as being just another hard rock band touring America in the early-to-mid 1970’s. The sheer realism of Stillwater without the use of parody,  is what sets them apart and above the other band on this list. When you watch Almost Famous you feel like Stillwater are real, which makes you want to make jokes about “Fever Dog” and singing along to “Tiny Dancer”; its what make you want to fully import them into the overriding pop culture and the culture of your life.

In any event, they hold up, the movie holds up and they are the best fictional band of all-time.

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