A long time ago, Pete Townshend said rock was dead. Even longer ago, Pete Townshend said the kids were all right. Pete Townshend was right on both counts: Rock is dead, and the kids are all right.
But then, Frank Guan, in New York, just wrote a piece claiming that rock isn't dead, that it had just moved to Canada. "After the early-aughts rock boom went bust, [the heart of indie music] moved all the way out of America," Guan reasons, citing the True North wave of the New Pornographers, Metric, Arcade Fire and Japandroids.
Guan also draws attention to New York bands the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs – well-educated melodic hipsters and trust-fund types who, if they didn't kill rock 'n' roll, put nails in the coffin with their aloof privilege. Vampire Weekend is of the same ilk. On the other end of the stick is Grizzly Bear, the indie rockers who in 2012 famously complained about not having health insurance.
Guan mentions Canada's socialized medicine. Interesting. Did young Iggy Pop have a comprehensive health plan when he cut himself with razor blades on stage? Steve Marriott of Humble Pie specifically waved off medical care in the 1970s, singing "I don't need no doctor," with bad-ass conviction (if poor grammar).
Anyway, here we are, whether in Canada or anywhere else, and it's hip hop, not rock 'n' roll, that is the danger music of the day.
One rock band that has accepted this is the Orwells, five scrapping dudes from suburban Elmhurst, Ill. Hearts on sleeves and chips on shoulders, they take not taking things seriously very seriously.
"A lot of rock music now comes off as being sanctimonious," says Orwells guitarist Matt O'Keefe. "It's if they're saying, 'If we can't shock, let's try to reveal something.' I don't know. It's tough to compete in 2017. Even if you're the most pissed-off band on the planet, what can you possibly do to sound more angsty and ballsy and in your face than something like Kendrick Lamar's Damn?"
It's not as if the garage-rocking Orwells don't have some edge to them. They have a bad reputation, like the one Joan Jett likes to sing about:
I don't give a damn 'bout my reputation
You're living in the past, it's a new generation
The new album from the new-generation Orwells is Terrible Human Beings, a reference to some of the shady characters they sing about but also to their standing as ruffians.
"There are a lot of people out there who really don't like us," says O'Keefe, 22, over the phone from Chicago. "We decided to own it, and name our record after what people think of us."
The Orwells earned their brash repute early, as outsiders – interlopers have the best rock 'n' roll attitudes – who ventured abrasively from the outskirts into the Chicago downtown scene. "We were suburban kids who didn't play by the rules set by the city bands," O'Keefe says. "It pissed them off." For good reason?
"We were young, we were drunk and we were jerks," admits O'Keefe, talking about the band's teenaged beginnings. "There were some fist fights. People hold grudges."
Memories are long in Texas, where a high-profile onstage fracas at Dallas's Spillover Fest last year involved Orwells singer Mario Cuomo and a sound technician.
"Live music should be on the edge," says Cuomo, 23, also speaking from Chicago. "You might come out looking a little bruised up, but it's positive violence."
Although Terrible Human Beings wins with tuneful ruggedness, the record is a little more polished and bouncier than the band's attention-getting EP from 2013 (Who Needs You) and full album from 2104 (Disgraceland).
O'Keefe counts the Strokes and Iggy Pop as influences, and another deep inspiration gets a shout-out with the song Black Francis, named after the lead singer of the Pixies.
O'Keefe is attracted to pioneer provocateurs from the past, but he recognizes rock music has lost some of its ability to offend. "When you go back to listen to Heroin by the Velvet Underground, it's no longer shocking."
If rock no longer shocks, it no longer makes money like it used to either, a point referenced on the album-opener They Put a Body in the Bayou. "All right make it quick, good songs make ya rich," Cuomo sings, before adding wryly, "That feeling, it'll pass."
The Orwells might have once had rock 'n' roll fantasies, but not any longer. "It's a different time," Cuomo says. "We're not going to take over the world in this day and age, and I've accepted that."
As for being outsiders, the Orwells have accepted that as well. "I don't think that's ever going to go away," Cuomo says.
Rock isn't dead, then, it's just moved to the suburbs.
The Orwells play Toronto's Mod Club, May 22 and Montreal's Bar Le Ritz, May 23.