Battle Axes

The Art of War Meets the Art of Noise at the Battle of the Bands.

IN THE NARROW CONCRETE HALLWAY, thick-muscled young men wrestle heavy, sophisticated equipment into position. Pulses quicken as they work against the clock. They are only too aware that out there, in the dark, eyes are watching…studying…waiting for the first misstep. There will be no second chance tonight. Victory or defeat. A tall, lean figure straps on his hardware and steps into the light, preparing to take the first shot:

“Test. Testing one two. More guitar in the monitor.”

The battle is under way.

Though a life in music is usually considered a gentle calling, there is a history of bitter conflict alongside the sweet harmonies–trumpets raised in anger, sounding the charge for the Battle of the Bands.

Competition is very much a part of the arts: Sculptors, painters, classical pianists, all compete for grants and awards. But these honoraria are never referred to as combat medals. So, why in the pop arena are such contests branded with the mark of hostility and bloodshed?

Seeking clarification of such semantic distinctions brought me to Virginia last Thursday night to witness the George Mason University Ninth Annual Battle of the Bands. Sponsored by the Student Program Board as a showcase for campus talent, each musical group must claim at least one registered student. (Tonight’s event sports ringers as old as 35 and even a resident of West Virginia.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I must mention that I am a survivor of such musical militarism. The third gig I ever played–LBJ was still in office–was a CYO dance organized as a Battle of the Bands. Against a sartorially coordinated, betuxed and behorned soul “revue” (i.e., they had dance steps) and a band of older and better musicians, my ragtag combo, The Fifth (“Music for Every Occasion”), emerged victorious. This was due largely to the fact that we played last and performed our “show-stopping” cover of James Brown‘s “Try Me.” (Picture our singer, a pudgy P.G. County white kid, doing the drop-to-your-knees, feign-emotional-agony bit for a roomful of pubescent Catholic girls.)

These curious clashes have been occurring since at least the swing era. In fact, the night of May 11, 1937, has been called one of the “key jazz events.” That was the date when the mighty, mighty Benny Goodman Big Band marched into Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom to cross horns with the house orchestra led by a tiny, hunchbacked drummer from Baltimore, Chick Webb. Though Goodman’s arsenal included ace drummin’ man Gene Krupa, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and vibes master Lionel Hampton, by all accounts Webb’s outfit dethroned the King of Swing that evening. (The Variety headline, “Call Out Riot Squad to Handle Mob at Goodman-Webb Battle,” was apparently factual reporting. Police and firefighters made the scene as well.)

This George Mason clash is less about acclaim than moola–the spoils total a cool thousand bucks. The Program Board had to wade through 20 demo tapes to choose the six bands that will duke it out tonight. So, how battle-ready are the troops?

Backstage, the Kniphler Brothers, a rockabilly band, who are–shockingly–not related, tune up. We discuss strategy. I wonder if they’re familiar with The Art of War by Sun Tzu, the 2,500-year-old treatise still used by military and business leaders to plot success. Yes, they are. Guitarist “Rupert Kniphler” (his nom de rock) claims to keep a copy in his bathroom, filled as the book is with “bite-sized nuggets” of wisdom easily digestible in that chamber. Which particular advice nugget will the Kniphlers call upon tonight? Rupert calls out a quotation I don’t remember finding in Tzu’s text: “Rock like fuck.”

Taking the stage they do, but they also step on a musical land mine–a broken bass string–which cripples bass player “Declan Kniphler,” and brings their act to an uncomfortable halt. (The skillful general does not waste time in waiting for reinforcements: Sun Tzu.) The self-proclaimed band “that goes to 11” doesn’t make it to three. Though Rupert stalls amusingly with a “dinner jazz/tribute to Earl Scruggs” medley, defeat is in the air.

BUT JERRY, THE JON BON JOVI LOOK-ALIKE drummer for the Bon Joviesque Islander, is not gloating. He seems genuinely bothered by the competitive nature of this event, regretting that he must take up sticks against friends in other bands. His brother and fellow band member, Jeff, is more pragmatic, predicting the outcome will depend on “how organized you are.” (The general who wins a battle makes many calculations before the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few: Sun Tzu.) Islander is quite organized. The only group with a dark-suited agent in tow, they’ve also mustered a phalanx of Farrah-coiffed girlfriends who are carrying band-logo-embossed binders and passing out fliers.

Onstage, Tainted is playing a cover of R.E.M.‘s Vietnam War-inspired “Orange Crush.” To rally the crowd to the proper spirit? Perhaps, but their next song is an original and “probably our only dance number.” An undanceable dirge begins, with the lyric “Trip through the emotions with me….” (He wins his battles by making no mistakes: Sun Tzu.) I trip backstage.

Mick, the drummer for Calibra, is in the hospitality room, planning to take all the ice. When grilled on band tactics, he seems puzzled at first, then offers: “Full-force energy for 20 minutes.” Good plan. (When utilizing combined energy, fighting men become like rolling stones: Sun Tzu.)

In fact, Calibra brings out the first heavy artillery of the evening: ominous black Marshall stacks flanking a huge set of drums. One bass drum head reads “Suck,” the other, “This.” (Make much use of drums and banners; a whole army may be robbed of its spirit: Sun Tzu.) Calibra has clearly spent many hours watching MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, for their show most resembles video antics. Four simultaneous-head-bobbers are maniacally hair-whipping and churning out very tight, very enthusiastic, very loud Speed Grunge Death Metal. Or maybe it’s Metallic Power Pop Funk.

Whatever classification, Calibra seems to have the same effect on the crowd as every other group–hardly any. The 80 or so students comprising the audience sit at large, round tables as if stunned. There is little motion during the music, no dancing, and tepid applause after each act. Queried about the concept of the Battle of the Bands, most say it’s “not fair” and the acts are “too diverse” to legitimately choose any winner. These compassionate pupils were drawn here not by the spectacle of conflict, but because, on this school night, there’s “nothing else to do.”

Another table of people with apparently little else to do are the five men judging this event: three music teachers, a rock columnist, and a jazz bandleader. Most have played in band battles and several profess “mixed emotions” on the battle concept. While competition is deemed healthy, one judge admits the idea is “kinda strange.”

“It’s almost as bad being in one as judging one,” says guitarist/teacher/judge Danny Leonard. After sitting through six sound checks, an understandable sentiment. (If victory is long in coming, men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be dampened: Sun Tzu.)

The judges have been given score sheets and asked to rate each band on a one-to-five scale in such categories as: Selection (Entertainment Value, Challenge Level); Showmanship (Movement, Appearance); Dynamic Range and Drive; and Originality. Two of the judges dictated comments into recorders while the bands blasted away in front of them. The tapes were passed to the musicians. Listening to one such appraisal proves unenlightening: distortion…”garble”…more distortion and feedback…”very”…garbled distortion. Nice idea, but one gets more intelligible information at the Wendy’s drive-thru lane.

The final band, THEdeepEND, features the only woman to take the stage. Their Edie Brickell neopsychedelia manages to stir the crowd to what seems like the most enthusiastic response of the night. And then, it is over. After four hours of combat, peace–and quiet–have come to George Mason. As the judges total the scores, bands intermingle, enemies no more. The singer from Tainted congratulates a Kniphler Brother for “working that broken bass string.”

Then the “winner” is announced: Calibra. Having heard from Calibra’s bass player that one of the judges is his old music teacher, I am not surprised. (Spies are a most important element in war: Sun Tzu.)

What has been learned from this “battle”? The musicians earnestly study their score sheets, seeking insight among the rows of 2s, 3s, some 4s. Me, I leave this hallowed ground with a weary mind, for I know that next week history will repeat itself. I have volunteered to be a judge for another Battle of the Bands. War is hell. My ears are shot.

Reprinted from Washington City Paper