Rock & roll has long obeyed Newton's Third Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. When rock's boogie got too endless in the early '70s, glam came along and gave us pure pop by pretty people. When things got too overblown a few years after that, punk ripped it up and started again. When rock got too spandex in the late '80s, grunge flew the flannel. From time to time, rock gets back to where it once belonged, and now maybe it's happening all over again. For the past few years, indie rock has been in a baroque phase: odd meters, sophisticated changes, non-rock instruments, ambitious lyrics, and idiosyncratic arrangements. Now, along comes the inevitable counter-movement: tom-tom rock.
With its rudimentary rhythms, straightforward, prominent melodies and vintage guitar sounds, tom-tom rock draws heavily on girl-group music, surf-rock and pre-Beatles beach-blanket pop — and there's been an explosion of the stuff lately. There's Tennis, La Sera, Girls, Frankie Rose and the Outs, Dum Dum Girls, Hunx and his Punx, Vivian Girls, and the widely acclaimed Best Coast, whose singer Bethany Cosentino wails on their best known song to date, "I wish he was my boyfriend" in a catchy, reverb-drenched and rather glorious pop song that wouldn't have sounded out of place as a Ronettes single.
One of the things that marks this kind of music is the fact that the drummers often keep their invariably 4/4 time with the floor tom instead of a cymbal or hi-hat — boom-boom-bap-boom, boom-boom-bap-boom. Hence "tom-tom rock."
Why no cymbals? Well, for one thing, the iconic Phil Spector girl group recording, "Be My Baby," famously didn't use them. Losing the release that a cymbal crash brings is a great and simple way to maintain the tension in a song. But, to dig down into their connotations, cymbals recall the momentous clashes of symphonic music and the skittering time-keeping of jazz, both forms that emphasize technique, even virtuosity. A steady thump on a tom-tom is a classic signifier of primitivism. And primitivism is what we're talking about here. "Teenage caveman," warbled Calvin Johnson of prototypical tom-tom rockers Beat Happening, "rock with skin and bone." Note he doesn't say anything about rocking with metal — after all, it hadn't been invented yet.
It's far from the first time this kind of music has enjoyed a renaissance — in the mid 2000s, the Raveonettes and the Pipettes (the recurring "-ettes" and "girls" in the band names is intriguing, and probably deserves its own post) drew on the tom-tom rock sound; then there was Beat Happening's late '80s heyday and before them the Jesus and Mary Chain, whose drummer Bobby Gillespie used only a floor tom and a snare. First-generation punk bands like the New York Dolls, the Ramones and Blondie drew heavily and outspokenly on this music, and before them, the Velvet Underground featured the godmother of all tom-tom rock drummers, Maureen Tucker.
Maybe it reaches all the way back to Chuck Berry, who declaimed about "the beat of the drums, loud and bold" above drums that beat loud and bold on "School Days" (1957) — a song so rudimentary, it didn't have a bridge or even a chorus.
The source music for tom-tom rock is so old that the parents of the musicians in these bands may well have been conceived while it was playing. Why has that sound resounded anew with today's discerning, trend-starting youth, those intrepid, Internet-enabled musical explorers? Maybe those chords and changes are so classic simply because they're easy to play on guitar. Or maybe they really do contain some kind of eternal music truth. But either way, they're entwined deep in our musical DNA and they work like a charm.
It would be a mistake to confuse primitivism with naivete though — that was the same condescending mistake that progressive rock snobs made when punk first came along. The tom-tom rock bands are anything but naïve, just as Beat Happening, the Velvet Underground and the Shangri-La's were anything but naive. See Tennis play live and tell me they're not keenly self-aware; there's no faulting the construction of Best Coast's classic pop; the excellent Dum Dum Girls come off like Bettie Page's younger sisters and are bad-ass singers and musicians — they definitely know what they're doing.
Retro and yet definitely not kitsch, there's something about the true economy of tom-tom rock that resonates with nascent stirrings in our culture as we suffer through the Great Hangover. Maybe it provides a comforting familiarity in uncertain times, straightforward music that's easy to sing along and dance to. It also underscores the essential concept of DIY in no uncertain terms — it's not much of a stretch to imagine making this music, no matter what one's musical aptitude, and that brings it closer than the admittedly more abstruse sounds the indie nation has been making lately.
Tom-tom rock is kind of ephemeral if catchy stuff so far, but then few of these bands seem to be aiming at what's left of the big time, and that's surely part of the point. Still, if the right band comes along with the right song, it could make the leap from trend to full-on movement. That's because tom-tom rock has something very powerful going for it: the inexorable force of a pendulum swinging back the other way.