The New York Times
February 13, 1981, Friday, Late City Final Edition
Section C; Page 1, Column 5; Weekend Desk
ESTHETIC OF THE FAKE STIRS ROCK WORLD
By ROBERT PALMER
WHEN Deborah Harry of the popular rock group Blondie made a television commercial recently for a jeans manufacturer, she was indulging in utter fakery. The camera followed her through a fake loft district and into a fake Bohemian nightspot, where John Lurie, who leads a New York combo called the Lounge Lizards, was playing fake jazz on his saxophone.
The Lounge Lizards, who will be performing tomorrow night at the Squat Theater, 256 West 23d Street, are leading purveyors of an esthetic of the fake. At this point it is mostly a New York phenomenon, but the esthetic of the fake has penetrated the top of the country's pop charts as well.
There has always been a certain amount of fakery in rock. Elvis Presley was a fake guitarist; he knew how to play the instrument, but found that it was more effective slung over his shoulder as a prop. Most rock performances these days are carefully orchestrated set pieces that give the illusion of spontaneity, but which are repeated exactly night after night. In most instances, the groups are capable of improvising, but have found that predictably exciting shows are good business.
But the exponents of the esthetic of the fake are members of a younger generation of rock performers who have chosen to emphasize the fakery that was always inherent in rock. Their intent is partly satirical; the Lounge Lizards affectionately recreate the cliches of 1950's jazz and then explode them with startling bursts of electronic noise. But these musicians are also searching for fresh sounds and novel juxtapositions, using an existing body of American popular music as their raw materials. In effect, they are conceptual artists who enjoy toying with the form and content of musical idioms and sometimes satirizing the associated behavioral stances - the Lounge Lizards don't just sound like a 1950's jazz band gone berserk, for example; they even look like one.
Rock Itself Is Seen as a Cliche
These musicians seem to be saying that rock, which was originally a reaction against the musical and social cliches of an earlier era, has itself become a cliche. To them, is no longer a symbol of youthful rebellion; it is a style that can be dissected and analyzed like any other style, and groups like the Lounge Lizards are musical laboratories for this kind of analysis.
The most popular success of the esthetic is Blondie's best-selling ''Autoamerican'' album, which begins with fake movie music composed by the band's guitarist, Chris Stein, and finds Miss Harry singing fake jazz, fake cabaret and fake disk jockey spiels, as well as the melodic pop that has made Blondie one of today's most popular bands. Blondie's career began on the same Lower Manhattan club circuit that has produced the Lounge Lizards, D.N.A. (which plays ''fake heavy metal'' and which will be at Squat tonight), Mars (which recently recorded ''John Gavanti,'' a fake opera that makes mincemeat of Mozart's ''Don Giovanni'') and other vanguard groups.
John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards and Arto Lindsay, who plays guitar with the Lounge Lizards and D.N.A., got together to discuss these developments the other day in a Greenwich Village Cafe. Mr. Lindsay's thin, angular face and thick-rimmed glasses make him look something like a 1950's adolescent, and his knitted stocking cap and baggy raincoat completed the picture. Mr. Lurie has a longer, more sober face and a disposition to match. He could be a 1950's cool jazz musician, which is just what he looks like when he is playing the saxophone. The look is further accented by loose-fitting 1950's suits. ''When you're playing for rock audiences,'' Mr. Lurie commented, ''you can't let your persona slip.''
Still, Mr. Lurie said: ''We don't want to be identified with a 50's esthetic. There are elements of that in our music, but some of the stuff we play is like overly theatrical free-form jazz, too. We're very eclectic, and the 50's elements just happen to be the most immediately identifiable thing that we do.''
''The 50's element is like what adults listened to in the 50's,'' Mr. Lindsay chimed in from across the table. ''We don't want to just play for kids and cut ourselves off from the adults; we'd like to be able to play anyplace and get people excited.''
''When we started,'' Mr. Lindsay said, ''the strategy of the new wave was to combine some older genre -60's Motown or 50's rockabilly - with little electronic touches. We thought that was really boring. So we would start out being faithful to a genre -playing the kind of beat bands used to use behind strippers, for instance -and then just go nuts from there.
''Or we would have half the band playing really straight jazz and the other half playing noise. It was a way of giving the music more content, and it was a way of stretching people emotionally.''
The members of the Lounge Lizards and D.N.A. belong to a generation of young musicians who arrived in New York in the mid-1970's. Mr. Lindsay came from Brazil, where his father was a missionary, by way of Florida. John Lurie, his brother Evan (who plays keyboards with the Lounge Lizards), and the group's bassist, Steve Piccolo, grew up in Worcester, Mass. The drummer, Anton Fier, was born and raised in Cleveland.
Lead Singer in Brazilian Band
''In the mid-70's, a whole bunch of us were living on the Lower East Side, making super-8 movies and transferring them to video,'' Mr. Lindsay said. ''I was interested in making movies and acting before I came to New York; I had also been the lead singer with a rock band in Brazil.''
John Lurie, who met Mr. Lindsay through these informal film experiments, has acted in and composed music for underground films. In the first film he made after moving to New York he re-enacted a scene from ''The African Queen''; he played Humphrey Bogart, and James Chance, later the leader of the Contortions, a seminal punk-funk band, played a leech.
The rock bands that grew out of this mixed-media ferment - Mars, D.N.A., the Contortions, Teen-Age Jesus and the Jerks and later the Lounge Lizards - were labeled ''no wave'' when several of them appeared on an influential 1978 album produced by Brian Eno, ''No New York.''
A number of the musicians in these bands were self-taught; Mr. Lindsay made his first appearances with D.N.A. only a month after he first took up the guitar. But he worked hard at his playing, developing a style that involves deliberately untuning the instrument in order to get a thick, abrasive sound. ''In a sense, I learned the same way,'' said John Lurie, who played the saxophone for a year before he looked at a fingering chart or took any lessons.
Went to Work on Wall St.
Playing fake jazz was Mr. Lurie's idea and grew out of his music for films. First he played informally with his brother and Mr. Lindsay, and then, just before the 1979 debut of the Lounge Lizards at Hurrah, Mr. Piccolo and Mr. Fier were brought in on bass and drums. Mr. Piccolo had studied and later played jazz but became disillusioned with music in the 70's and took a job as a Wall Street systems analyst. He used a borrowed bass for the first Lounge Lizards performances. Mr. Fier had also studied jazz, but he was working with the Feelies, a New Jersey-based rock group.