Ah, Houston. Increasingly, we seem to be a city that loves its chain stores, a franchise-friendly haven where people get their groceries at Wal-Mart and will drive right past places like Lankford Grocery to get their burger fix at Mickey D's. And now, that Fertitta-fied philosophy is apparently extending to live music.
For the past year or so, one of the more popular bands on the H-Town small-to-medium club circuit has been the Spazmatics, a quartet that fetishes all things Reagan-era, from covers of the synth-heavy music of bands like A Flock of Seagulls and Men Without Hats to cheesy Kevin Bacon movies. Onstage, their costumes are an homage to the Revenge of the Nerds flicks — bowties, plaid pants, taped specs, pocket protectors, short shorts and the like.
The band has long held down a Thursday night residency at Midtown club Sammy's and also makes periodic appearances at the Scout Bar in Clear Lake. (This week it plays Sammy's Thursday and the Scout Bar Friday.)
The Spazmatics draw well and are said to command a pretty steep guarantee. Which Wack is fine with, even if they are one of those "Austin-Houston" bands, and a cover band at that. But while it saddens Wack to see so much of the city's live music love go toward yet another cover band, and one that covers music that is both overexposed and in many cases pretty shitty to begin with, that's not what troubles Wack most.
What's got us in a dander is less a group of guys and gals who bonded together over a shared love of the '80s than a marketing concept apparently drawn up on a whiteboard. They are a chain band, nostalgic replicants.
Google the Spazmatics and you get some interesting results. One site(www.thespazmatics.net) takes you to the Houston/Austin version of the band. A second (www.spazmatics.org) takes you to a Cleveland, Ohio, facsimile. At www.myspace.com/thespazmatics, you are steered toward the L.A./Las Vegas Spazmatics faction. If you are in northern California and want to have an '80s night, click onwww.spazmaticslive.com. (Other outlets are in Salt Lake City, Seattle, Chicago and New York.)
Each version of the Spazmatics is clad in very similar attire — invariably including one member with a neck brace — and performs similar setlists, and each of them is booked through Perfect World Entertainment, which has offices in southern California and Las Vegas.
And the Spazmatics aren't the only chain band on Perfect World's books. Here's how the company describes itself, with many a grammatical error, on its Web site: "Credited with single-handedly igniting the disco revival of the 1990s, Perfect World has applied the same innovative approach to its other shows like 'The Spazmatics,' a nerdy new wave dance party, and the comedic pop rock spoof known as 'Metal Shop.' But the party doesnt end here. Check out PWE's multi-media Classic Rock experience 'Anthem,' or their wacky 80s Hip Hop groove fest the 'Dope MCs.' And If you're an aspiring American Idol there's 'Rockstar Live' a live karaoke show where you can actually sing with a live band!!! Rounding out the field is the non-stop funk extravaganza 'Dr.Funkenstein,' the variety show 'Platinum Groove,' and a tribute to the greatest swing classics of all time — 'Zoot Suit Review.'"
Wait a minute — I thought I sparked the disco revival in 1993 when I made a mixtape of my mother-in-law's old 45s and took it with me to a kibbutz, where it was stolen by some Limey scumbag, who probably took it back to London and made it hip in Cool Britannia. Is that claim any more ridiculous than Perfect World's? No. The disco nostalgia boom kinda came about because, well, all music comes back in style, naturally, 20 years after its release. You can set your clock to it.
At any rate, Wack called Dekan Ringwald from local "mom-and-pop" '80s cover band Molly and the Ringwalds, and he refused comment pending a band meeting I didn't have time to wait for, but Allen Hill of the Allen Oldies Band and numerous other cover bands (though none that ply the same '80s turf as the Spazmatics) had no such qualms.
"Conceptually, I understand exactly what they are doing," he says. "It's like, 'Here's the spectacle, here's the way you can relate to it.' The marketing is consistent with the show."
Hill believes that the Spazmatics are merely a new spin on an old angle. "I guess the switch is that this is the first time this has happened at a local level," he says. "Basically this is just a low-rent version of the Monkees. They are not trying to create new space in anybody's brains. In spite of all the swipes at the Monkees, they had some great stuff. 'Stepping Stone' — what an incredible song. That's great pop music and they had a hand in doing it."
Overall, Hill regards the Spazmatics, Inc. with less umbrage than Wack. "I will say this — from what I've seen of them online, it looks like they don't shop at Arnie's and Party Boy for their costumes," he says, referring to their slick nerd look. "Boogie Knights and those fake fros? I am sure you could get all that for $50."
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While he brands their music as "live music for people who don't like live music," he says that they are ultimately pretty harmless. "It's better than the movies, and they are giving people a good fun experience when they go to a club," he says. "There's plenty of cheesiness, but they are getting people out there dancing.
Hill regards the movies the way Sinead O'Connor viewed the Pope. They are the "real enemy." "People are conditioned to accept that [the movies are] just good, and they will accept spending more on a Coke or even worse, a Pepsi, than they will on a CD or the cover at a club," he says. "And a lot of that is the bands' fault for not putting on something that people wanna see.
"The Spazmatics are consistent, they are an easy sell, it's very much shooting fish in a barrel," he adds.
Much like Burger King, Wack might add.