Innovation the Difference Between Good, Great

By Rob Patterson

The annual South By Southwest (SXSW) musical gathering almost always offers issues ripe for discussion. The one this year where I fall on the vocal minority side is with an English band called the Jim Jones Revue, who have generated an ever-increasing buzz from last year’s debut SXSW appearance to this year.

Many people whose tastes I trust tout this band. And in some ways I can’t argue with why they like this act. They hearken back to the origins of rock’n’roll, taking their cue from Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard — artists whose work still excites me today.

The group’s energy is fierce and furious, which is a quality I value and seek out in music. But having heard their recordings and seen a number of live videos, I still wasn’t induced to see them perform.

Why? Jim Jones Revue may not be all form and no content, but they certainly are more the former and hardly enough of the latter. Yeah, they play like the dickens and offer an exciting show. But like the old cliché about Chinese food, an hour later you are hungry again. Or at least I would be. Because the Jim Jones Revue are symbolic of what I find lacking in too much of today’s music: genuine innovation. They also have rather slim songs when it comes to any musical originality and meaningful message or lyrical brilliance.

And their vocalist, who can howl with the best of them, isn’t any kind of great singer whose voice and how he uses it brands itself on your heart and soul. The worst irony is that they draw from rock’n’roll’s originators yet don’t seem to get the most cogent point about what those artists created: something new, innovative and original. Jim Jones Revue may be the best retread in ages, but they remain just that. For many people, that’s just fine. For me, it’s not enough. A similar plague infects the indie and alternative music made these days. Many of those acts also draw from the past, albeit more recent antecedents. But too often they stitch together styles but fail to come up with something that takes the music to new and truly exciting new places. Most of the music that has genuinely moved me since I first tuned in on my transistor radio in 1959 is that which took what came before and made it not just anew, but took it further.

The last concert that genuinely wowed me with something no one else does was nearly four years ago by the band Sonic Youth. These onetime “noise rockers” who started out 30 years ago left me thrilled and all but exhausted by the power of their creative brilliance. And that’s because their sound truly reconfigures rock’n’roll into something new, original and all their own (even if I could still identify some antecedents). Yes, making something new can still be done. Sure, it’s harder than ever as the realm of rock’n’roll and its stylistic relatives like soul, country, blues and even hip-hop are decades old.

Yes, the best new music is built on what came before. Sir Isaac Newton hit the nail on the head when he attributed his genius of seeing further to standing on the shoulders of giants. But few if any musical acts are seeing further. Yeah, Lady Gaga does take what Madonna forged and make it work for this new era. And even if she’s not my taste, she does it impressively well.

An old saw in the Nashville country music business is that great music is three chords and the truth.

But what truly great music does goes beyond that. Sure, there are only so many chords, so many words, and so much has been done with both that, yes, today it is harder than ever to make something new from them. But vision, imagination, and a raw ambition to take music further is what made artists the Jim Jones Revue draws from like Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard so indelible and timeless. Same goes for the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the mid-1960s. And artists like The Clash from the 1970s into the ‘80s. Then Nirvana at the dawn of the 1990s.

I don’t just hope for but anxiously await artists who will forge new musical paradigms. The times seem to suggest there may not be anything new under the sun. But in the past that’s always been the time when some artists or acts make that great leap forward. And I pray that comes soon.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1/15, 2011

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