Greta Van Fleet vs. The Psychedelic Pop Revival: The Battle for Nostalgia
Written By Stephen Coler
I found myself shuffling around my digital music library and stumbled on to a couple albums that were recommended to me but either out of personal patience or natural skepticism never got around to listening to them upon adding them to my Apple Music collection. While I find this a personal habit I should learn to kick, the new streaming world doesn’t give you much urgency to check out what you would in the past have to buy or borrow from a friend in which your money or opinion was on the line and awaiting a verdict. The two albums of note in this instance turned out to be Ta Det Lunget by the Swedish band Dungen and Sun Structures by the British group Temples. I remember both being recommended due to having an interest in recent movement of Australian psychedelic rock acts such as King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Tame Impala, and Dario Russo (known for the Dinosaur TV productions Italian Spiderman, and Danger 5). It suddenly occurred to me that in the last twenty years or so there has been an increase of unashamed open psychedelic pop/rock music flowing through the undercurrent of independent music. While that last statement was so obvious it was actually painfully embarrassing to write, it also created a predicament being that I’ve spent the last year questioning nostalgia as to whether it is progressing the creative narrative of popular or rock music in the most self-aware era to be creating anything at all.
The main instigation came from the bizarre rise to fame by Michigan hard rock revivalists Greta Van Fleet, which I first believed to be a joke until pop taste maker/force feeder Scooter Braun “foresaw” them as the next great thing in music. Greta Van Fleet for those who are blissfully ignorant have taken the blueprint from Led Zeppelin and essentially copied down to the very instrument setup (Hey look kids, the bass player is also playing organ too! Just like John Paul Jones!). The only thing lacking is the song craft, musicality, groove, and innovative creativity that made arguably Led Zeppelin the beefiest band in the Pantheon of rock music. When their latest album was released in October of 2018, I was in the midst of writing an article attempting to flesh out why anybody would be interested in listening to a clearly derivative and lesser band being that this may be the first band to truly be so nostalgic and so retrogressive that it questions its very own existence.
I quickly abandoned the article after reading the Pitchfork review of Anthem of the Peaceful Army, which was one of the best and funniest pieces that I had read of the previous year. Jeremy Larson’s review shelled out all the frustration I had with everyone involved in GVF’s rise to influence among the unironic dad-rock apologists, from the fans whose excuses resemble Southern Lost Cause sentiments, to the boardroom of Universal Music Group scheming the new streaming age’s algorithmic exploitation (i.e. If you like Led Zeppelin…Spotify recommends Greta Van Fleet…), to the band members themselves that come off unintelligent if not insincere. Since that review and the waves it made with the rest of the internet, I hadn’t thought much about the Zep wannabes and would bring them up only re-read the Pitchfork article or to make fun of their attempts to tell the music press that they’re tired of the obvious comparisons and how it is time to “move on.” The ball is in their court.
This is all leading to my main question why do I sympathize and thoroughly enjoy current psychedelic rock artists that clearly have a obvious influence to 1960s pop and counter culture acts while I find the Greta Van Fleet music obnoxiously try-hard and pretentious…
Psychedelia and Hard Rock
I will attempt to break this down on a few levels before I get to the more obvious conclusion at the end. But first will take a brief look into the two genres of note here: One being 1960s psychedelia and 1970s hard rock. While the two are very related they almost take on sibling roles (The experimental idealistic older brother with the more aggressive if not indulgent younger brother). The argument I am making is that the psychedelic genre has aged more gracefully and perhaps developed more naturally as years have passed allowing re-imaginings of the early concepts to feel more organic. The hard rock genre on the other hand seemed to create a more hard lined mythology based on sex, drugs, and blues based Marshall driven guitar licks. While it is clear that these description of each sub-genre of rock music is not beholden to these stereotypes, the motives involved in creating both music styles fire signals of its artistic or intentions be it for the explorer or the social darwinist.
To use a much simpler analogy, professional football players in America receive generational wealth that the average American won’t ever glimpse into. NFL players also receive the most rigorous training and the brutality of practices to play sixteen to twenty weeks in the most dangerous sport in the United States. Professional baseball players make significantly more money for a fraction of the exertion of work that NFL players and professional basketball players are more famous due to their size, exposure (no helmet or cap), and are more marketable through shoe companies. My point is that to play in the NFL you must love the game. Many ex-football players often critique current players for lack of drive asking the rhetorical question: “Do you love football or do love what football provides?” This is referring to the generational wealth and potential fame.
I equate the previous question to the rock musical genre and the roots of each sub-genre as where I believe if the two genres were football players, the 1960s Psychedelia loved the game and 1970s Hard Rock loved what the game provides.
1960s Psychedelia had roots at the cross pollination of socially conscious folk revivalists in New York, British Beat groups reintroducing blues and aggressive drive, and jazz crossover artists such as Miles Davis and perhaps more importantly John Coltrane. Along with the non-musical elements such as the alternative thinking of the Beat writers and experimentation of lysergic acid diethylamide in San Francisco, 60s psychedelic existed to further explore what popular music could be defined as. The money, fame, and sexual exploits were merely consequential as a side effect. You played music because you loved it.
Hard Rock came about as almost a hard reality of the suppression of the counterculture by means of either the Nixonian silent majority, or by collapsing under the weight of its unorganized idealism. “Out of touch” record executives blinding giving out contracts to care free communal bands in San Francisco now gave way to the next generation that saw the 60s risk taking paying off as an easy money grab. The music itself still had creative intentions, but if you weren’t a progressive or art rock act then you were most likely looking to score wealth, narcotics, women (at least as advertised), or a combinations of the three. Like I said earlier this does not apply to all 1970s and 80s hard rock acts as I understand that this is a broad accusation. But the likes of Bad Company, Kiss, Grand Funk Railroad, The Eagles, Foreigner, Journey, Aerosmith, AC/DC, and Cheap Trick need not appeal their case for a rebuttal.
All this being said, because psychedelic influences of the 60s were mostly musically incentivized, there can be elements of psychedelic found in 80s (Tom Petty, Peter Gabriel, Oingo Boingo, synth pop), 90s (Elephant 6 collective), and the 2000s (Radiohead). Hard rock hasn’t gone away either but rather swung along the pendulum from garage DIY to over the top indulgence (Classic Rock→ Punk → Hair Metal → Grunge → Foo Fighters?).
So while I can speculate that King Gizzard may actually enjoy re-creating or enhancing classic tones from a time honored tradition of tape delays and spring reverb, I confirm that the label they built themselves, Flightless, allows for the creative freedom to release five records in one year regardless of financial or social implications. So I must ask the question to Greta Van Fleet: Do you like re-creating Led Zeppelin or what re-creating Led Zeppelin provides for you.
I mention a few paragraphs earlier that 60s psychedelic music came about as a result of several other genres all peaking the interest of groups at the same time around 1965 and 1966. But San Fransisco did not stake the sole claim to the new sound coming up from underground. Different variations from London, New York, and Los Angeles found stylistic unique ways to create their contribution to the psychedelic sound. For example London had access to the mellotron, a keyboard instrument in which tape loops of sampled instruments such as a flute, cello, or even a choir could be performed. The samples themselves were not really lifelike owning to the saturation and warping of the tape but this gave it a more haunting presence that was not found in nature. Being that the mellotron originally hailed from Sweden, it was not entirely accessible to the United States. You can hear it prominitely used in The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King.
Meanwhile New York based groups didn’t really have the same environment to explore the idealistic San Fransisco concepts and as such the music was significantly gritter and darker. The Velvet Underground or Silver Apples would develop more from the Warhol factory and infuse more sinister narcotics into the subject material. Detroit was similar in its industrial and racially uneasy environment spawning proto-punk legends in the Stooges and the MC5 (not quite as psychedelic but I can make an argument for the first Stooges LP).
Los Angeles maintained a more relaxed sound with more emphasis on the song. Most of the music industry had moved from New York to Los Angeles by the late 1960s and so there’s more of a popular or commercial appeal that could not be found as easily with San Fransisco or New York communities. The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield would develop the talent that drove the singer songwriter of the Laurel Canyon scene: Joni Mitchell, CSN (Crosby, Stills, and Nash), Neil Young, Poco, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. And as a side note, Los Angeles also had the Wrecking Crew musicians at the disposal of Brian Wilson to create a uniquely different psychedelia in its own right.
All these different approaches allow the modern psychedelic artist to cherry pick the best elements or in a away homogenize the styles to fit that artists vision. As we know with Greta Van Fleet, the inspiration is a one note tune that was excavated somewhere on side two of Led Zeppelin III. This lacks the engagement of active listening and promotes the passive aural experience akin to watching a documentary about Led Zeppelin, but because the filmmakers could not afford the sync license or get permission from the copyright holders, you must use royalty free library music. That’s right, Greta Van Fleet is the world’s biggest royalty free library muzak band.
The Record Label Vibe
This is more difficult to describe if you’re not screening Billboard all day hunting for peaking trends. I’m not going to suggest major label support is bad being that the three major labels left have significant ownership in “independent” labels. What I will say is that it has been no secret that the promotion of Greta Van Fleet has felt forced coming to its culmination with a Grammy win this past February. The optics of a major label support would not be a deal breaker if it had any hint of organic growth. Sounds contradictory I know, but if this were any other artist in any given genre, there would have been some semblance of a populist movement that was dictated and/or championed by a group of fans. That doesn’t at all mean the rise to fame and rock stardom is not exponential. However, if any new young band wants the quickest route to stadium or festival glory, then a precedent has been set that all you may have to do is develop a sound that eerily resembles a The Eagles, Buckingham/Nicks era Fleetwood Mac, AC/DC, or any other platinum selling group with a unique sonic style that can confuse people into thinking they’ve found a ling missing b-side.
This provides a couple of benefits for a major label and its various shareholders. The first being that their highest paying demographic, the baby boomer, is brought back and introduced to streaming or perhaps even album sales. While observing reactions toward Greta Van Fleet by Baby Boomers and various older age groups more often than not the boomers were not appalled by the gaul of Greta Van Fleet’s attempt to recreate Led Zeppelin. Quite a few were impressed that these kids were playing “their generation’s” music (I don’t think that these folks understood the post modern, post Napster environment in which musical “generations” has broken through to a non-linear format, but that’s a philosophical article for another day.). Some boomers even thought Greta Van Fleet sounded better than the band they were cloning. Boomers also have the money to spend on music and a willingness to spend it. After all, this is the generation that were either were suckered or forced buying the same album twice buy the same record companies when eight-tracks, cassettes, and compact discs were introduced into the market to supplement, compliment, or replace the vinyl albums. Getting boomers back on the music money train can’t hurt the upturn of the music macro-economy.
With a lack of new traditional rock forces in the musical zeitgeist, labels have relied on back catalogues of established popular artists that have more reliable intellectual property or I.P. This is something not foreign to other entertainment industries as this is Hollywood’s bread and butter. But the Greta Van Fleet arrival has brought about focus on a new trend based on algorithmic programs such as Spotify. Jeremy Larson’s Pitchfork article did a much better job highlighting this new way of exploiting new streams. So if I’m into dad-rock and on Spotify I’m following Deep Purple, The Doors, Rush, and I know let’s say...Led Zeppelin, there’s going to be a series of suggestions made by the Spotify algorithm of albums, songs, and playlists that I might like. What are the chances that Greta Van Fleet pops their little head onto my suggestions list? This is where the previous paragraph about the the Baby Boomers comes full circle. I may know better, but your average joe past the age of 40 would probably click that suggestion out of pure curiosity. That’s really what I mean by the “Record Label Vibe” that the Fleet give off, especially when the music does not translate to impactful performances whether it be studio or live.
This segment has been mostly focused negatively on Greta Van Fleet and their label. But it is here where I contrast that with the modern takes on psychedelic pop music. With regards to label vibe and perception the most prominent of the artist (just to note most are from Australia), Tame Impala, has the backing of Universal Music via Interscope. Interscope, founded by industry mogul Jimmy Iovine, have built reputation of a hands off approach with its artists dating back to the Death Row records. While Tame Impala shares the same parent company as Greta Van Fleet, Tame Impala’s rise to popularity has been if anything the opposite where the perception of word or mouth and community promotion has felt natural and organic. Just to note that I had first heard of Tame Impala when I was told that there was this dude who sounded like John Lennon.
The Insult of Intelligence
If you’ve reached this far you probably have received the notion that I don’t like Greta Van Fleet on both an aesthetic, philosophical, and perhaps ethical level. And while I may have emphasized the negative and have possibly pulled punches on how much I enjoy the styling of Temples, Dario Russo, or even Fleet Foxes I think the true breakdown of why I can enjoy Tame Impala and yet roll my eyes demonically to Greta Van Fleet comes down purely to the insulting the intelligence. Greta Van Fleet comes across like teenage twerps that heard an Eric Clapton record from the 60s for the first time and then commence to go forth preaching this great new style proclaiming, “There’s this great music you gotta check out...it’s called The Blues.” When in reality these clowns aren’t fooling anyone. The non-linear format of music sharing means that anyone can look up a early Gershwin recording of Porgy and Bess or a Leadbelly tune. It can be reintroduced and reinterpreted for new generations by a Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain but we live in a world where many versions of the same songs exists. Why would I ever listen to a Greta Van Fleet album when I only need perhaps two or three really exceptional Led Zeppelin albums? The only conclusion to these questions is that Greta Van Fleet is in fact the first group in popular music that we truly never needed.
The unironic support for the Van Fleet is truly puzzling. I made a comment in passing earlier that their fans and their interviews resemble the Lost Cause movement of the post reconstruction Southern United States. You know, those same folks who built the statues of confederate generals, insist the stars and bars remain on southern state flags, and reformed the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century while mumbling beneath their breath that the south will rise again. Scathing hot take? Fuck off and think for yourself. Greta Van Fleet interviews remind me of my middle school self who didn’t understand the modern popular music of 2003-2005 and thus believed that the Rolling Stones, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and the Doors would make quick work of an Usher, Outcast, or Fall Out Boy in a fictitiously lame battle royale of musical skill that would take place exclusively in my head. #LeWrongGeneration.
That little piece of personal information may be some form of self-loathing of my youth that I’ve been trying like hell to correct in my first decade as a consenting adult just like my over correction of picky eating. I am also suggesting that Greta Van Fleet’s hatred or at least ignorance of modern music of the last twenty to twenty-five years is juvenile at best. This is also with the implication that they are not self-aware which is a very good possibility. But, if they are self aware and know what they are doing, then they are indeed preying upon the rationality of nostalgic baby boomers and less knowledge and for that they should be shunned and ignored.
The psychedelic pop scene today in addition of paying musical tribute to the 60s also seem to have a tongue and cheek sense of humor about it. Dario Russo’s Danger 5 Season 1 soundtrack plays up the score stylings of Les Baxter, Ennio Morricone, and even Indian composers and artists R.D. Burman and Kalyanji Anadji. A quick read through Russo’s Bandcamp page reads the list of influences that is transparent and meant to bring an extra dimension to the satirical edge of the same television program that Russo produces, writes and directs.
From this point forward I will focus this piece in favor of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Why? It is because of all the examples of the psychedelic revival, they are the greatest antithesis to the Greta Van Fleet’s musical existential problem. These guys from Melbourne, Australia are doing what they want, how they want to, and especially as much as they want to. In 2017 King Gizzard released five full length albums each with both varying styles and recurring motifs. Boasting three guitars, two drummers, one bass player, and a multi-instrumentalist who can wail the trippiest harmonica through heavy driving odd-timed jams. And while Greta Van Fleet have been divisive to the point of needless polarization of the hard rock fans against more broad minded music enthusiasts, King Gizzard have done what I thought was unthinkable bridging the divide between the progressive intellectual guard, and the emotionally and physically charged punk community.
I witnessed this first hand while King Gizzard had a stop on their 2018 world tour in Los Angeles. The venue was the Hollywood Palladium, a general admissions haven in the shape if a great oval space. A only two small mezzanines follow the curve of each side of the building, leaving the main floor very open for a standing room only experiences.
My two colleagues and I arrived early for a good view upfront, which to be honest is not my preferred spot. As a live mix engineer I prefer a spot where the mix of the show is balanced and working together in a solid coverage, too close to the P.A. and there’s not enough spacial or low end development. Being that I’m not working my day job I actually prefer a spot where I can observe the performance of the players, the reaction of the audience and the connection between the two. This usually means up and to the side. Most of my favorite shows have had this connection where the audience is feeding the energy an artist is providing, and it is not as common as one might think. Anyway, being that I’m with the group I position myself where the group is and we stay there through the opening act.
While opener is performing, I’m noticing the the masses of fans arriving. And while I expected more prog rock neckbeards, or even fedora headed hipsters I really did not anticipate the amount of denim clad punks of various age groups. Being a beard stroker myself I very soon found out I’m in a dangerous place. King Gizzard took the stage and very quickly began one of their famous drives, which is where the moshing began to push and shove in my direction. Frustrated by the distracting shoves and not wanting to react in blind rage I began the epic quest for higher ground.
I found myself on the stage right (which is left if you’re in the audience's perspective) watching the human hurricane unfurl below. I was completely caught off guard and dumbfounded that a band that could swing between a crazy microtonal melody, a jazz odyssey, a heavy metal rage, and an odd-timed epic could create this kind of reaction as the eye of the mosh storm slowly moved from one side of the Palladium to the other. I was still in a bit of a shock coming out of the show and now taking the time almost a year later to write about it, it now stands to be one of the more impressive events I’ve seen in musical culture. The intellectual divide between punk and prog had been an internal battle between the creative rigor and emotional laziness. The best part is that I may be the only soul in that building that really seemed to care that this was a thing at all. It certainly did not seem to be the goal of King Gizzard who’s genre jumping suggest that their influences are broad enough to not give a shit about cultural divides in musical movements of the past.
It is because King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard embrace the modern nonlinearity of the musical zeitgeist that allows them to have the most fun possible and any nod to the past is tongue and cheek and twisted to a mold that fits the band’s personality, not an algorithm. Most importantly their existence is built and fed through their own label which can assist in the creative business practices of the band creating more avenues to enhance their following. Meanwhile Greta Van Fleet is playing old major label game using traditional media outlets like Billboard and Rolling Stone to release public statements. Which is why their faces continue to spam my news feeds furthering my annoyance to their refusal to just go away as a bygone attempt turn classic rock, a term I’ve always hated, into a bloated lumbering Frankenstein’s monster. I’m not one to grab the torch and pitchfork submitting to the will of the mob, I’m too contrarian for that. I would rather just listen to something more interesting.