Wrong place, wrong time: The Vines on late night TV

The Vines

The Vines are an Australian alt-rock band that became well known around the beginning of the 2000’s. Around the same time that groups like the Strokes, White Stripes or Interpol were featured heavily on covers of magazines as part of a “garage rock revival“. Granted most of those bands had a lasting effect on music. And while they did wear their influences on their sleeve, their rock n’ roll mutation in turn influenced a generation of bands .

The Strokes were compared the Velvet Underground and Television, Interpol bore a resemblance to the post-punk sound of Joy Division and the Vines were called “the new Nirvana” in the hype surrounding their first release. In all fairness, the sound of the band was built around a melodic foundation, with the garage rock backing of bass and drums and the vocals veering from clean to loudly distorted, all characteristics also associated with Nirvana and with garage/alternative rock.

We’ve already seen here that late night talk show host, David Letterman had a history of guesting musicians who’s performances can be rather hard to predict. Credit where credit is due, the show never seemed to shy away from guests who’s behavior could be a tad erratic (see http://alt77.com/wrong-place-right-time-at-the-drive-in). And that’s just what they got when they invited The Vines to perform in 2002.

The Vines had released their first album Highly Evolved and were riding on a wave of favorable reviews and public attention. The single Get Free especially have been featured on heavy rotation on MTV and radio. The song is by now somewhat of a staple of the early 2000’s rock songs. It was even immortalized in a parody by Weird Al, together with bands like the Hives and System of a Down.  And as history has shown, a Weird Al parody is the ultimate tribute.

The Vines performed on Letterman on the strength of their album going Top 20 in the States and Top 10 in the U.K. They performed Get Free, or at least a version resembling the song. While stage destruction is not uncommon in rock music, it’s odd when only one member of the band does it and the others continue to play as if being oblivious to what’s going on.  Furthermore acts of destruction are less familiar with rock bands playing on television, mostly because they only get a few minutes to play anyway and they have to take care of the bill afterwards for whatever they trashed.  This of course helped make this one of the more memorable performances on late night television.

For their part The Vines had made a really good debut album and must have been pretty confident. But they were also burned out from touring and promoting their successful record. The performance starts with singer Craig Nicholls delivering the first scream of the song off key. Things start get really unhinged after the first chorus when he starts rolling around the floor, soloing on the guitar in the wrong key.

Fortunately he has enough conviction to carry on with the song and sing the next verse purposely in mock opera style. The rhythm section (at the time the band was a power trio) continues to play. Just watch their faces before the second chorus as they seem to be praying to deity that somehow things will be stirred back on track. But then Nicholls cuts them off, and while the drumming and bass playing are pretty much in the pocket, the wrong chords being played and the dissonant screaming make those rather redundant.

The performance ends with Nicholls smashing the drum kit (while the drummer is still actively playing it), crawling on the floor and leaving the guitar in an endless mess of feedback. Letterman obviously entertained by this (always was a good sport) asks if Nicholls is OK. Band leader of the show, Paul Schaffer answers “Can’t say for sure..”, which must have been exactly the reaction of bewilderment and confusion of most of the TV audience.

It resulted in one of the most memorable performances on late night show. It’s also rather heartbreaking to see a group at their wit’s end. The band self sabotages itself out of some form of frustration just as it had become an internationally successful group. Singer Craig Nicholls did blame some of the erratic behavior at the time on mental and physical exhaustion. He would also detail more recently in interviews being diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and his personal struggle.

The Vines continued to make good records, although the exhaustion of promoting Highly Evolved did take it’s toll and for a while their behavior alienated some of their core audience. All things considered, the band was not doing something as radically different from say.. Nirvana,the band that the British press had compared them to the most in their early days. In fact, the British press were responsible for a lot of the hype that the band received early on in their career. Much like they would later do with the Arctic Monkeys, magazines in the U.K. were quick to call the Vines a modern day classic. For all the hype though their early recordings still capture a great sense of messy and melodic garage rock played with a lot of excitement.

In 2014 they released the album Wicked Nature  which seemed to put them back on track. The band earned back a large portion of it’s fan base and went back on good standing with the press.  As for garage rock,  it never went away with it’s sound continuing to influence both mainstream and underground music.

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