Thrilling because It Takes a Nation of Millions . . . — roundly acknowledged as Public Enemy’s finest album, or at least as being in a dead heat for the title with 1990’s Fear of a Black Planet — was a fearsome, buzzing, agit-rap masterwork that rolled hard enough to lure a lot of previously rock ‘n’ roll-inclined white kids from the ’burbs and the boonies on board the hip-hop train. I know that for a fact because I was one; even in my rural-New Brunswick junior high, it muscled its way in past the prevailing soundtrack of Guns N’ Roses and Metallica and Motley Crue to change a few lives.
And when PE collaborated shortly thereafter on a remake of the album’s pretty-metal-on-its-own “Bring the Noize” with thrash heroes Anthrax, most of the holdouts fell in line, too. Public Enemy talked a lot about bringing down barriers but, with albums like It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, it actually did what it set out to do It’s one hell of an important record.
So, yes, I would undoubtedly be at Sound Academy on Sunday night if I wasn’t leaving town for the long weekend. And I would undoubtedly enjoy the show. But by leaving town I remove the very possibility of going, which was a temptation-quelling technique I learned around this time last year when Peter Hook rolled through town playing my absolute favourite album, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, in its entirety.
Depressing, in part, because it will be at the maddening Sound Academy, and I wouldn’t really see or hear any of it. But Public Enemy also has a new album up on iTunes, the wholly overlooked Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear on No Stamp, that even famously headstrong Chuck D and Flavor Flav don’t seem terribly confident in standing behind as the plank for the Toronto date. Still, maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise, because even that (pretty good) album’s title is a reference to past glories, being an update of a seminal line from 1989’s walloping “Fight the Power.”
Chuck and Flav — who’s not done much himself since getting sucked into “reality” TV’s hateful maw — aren’t the only hip-hop legends who’ve done the “classic album live” thing, of course, and given the speed rap music tends to toss aside its frontrunners that’s not surprising.
The phenomenon crosses all genres, however, and has always been with us — although, at least in the beginning, generally the other way around. Pink Floyd, for instance, proudly announced The Wall by playing the entire opus from top to bottom onstage for two years in 1980 and 1981, and that tradition of creatively consistent rock acts premiering an entire new record on tour is regularly upheld today by everyone from Metric to Mastodon. Jam bands like Phish and the Allman Brothers, meanwhile, regularly haul out an entire track listing from the catalogue to the delight of an expectant fan base.
Depending on the circumstances, too, hearing a band not typically known for tripping on nostalgia bust its way through a full classic can be an exclusive sort of treat to fans who don’t usually expect to walk into a “greatest-hits” set. Sonic Youth doing all of Daydream Nation for the All Tomorrow’s Parties — which has also coaxed full-album shows from the Stooges, Teenage Fanclub and Mudhoney — or the Pitchfork Music Festival belongs in this category, I’d say, because Sonic Youth is a band that tends to hit you hard with the new stuff and dig deep for non-obvious oldies whenever it comes to town. When Bruce Springsteen does Born to Run on the road, it’s likewise a big deal.
A lot of the time, however, these sorts of performances feel like a way of renewing interest in a touring act that hasn’t contributed much of note to its catalogue in years and stands in danger of exhausting even faithful fans’ continued interest in hearing the same songs over and over and over again every two years. This is, no doubt, why we’ve seen Judas Priest doing all of British Steel, Motley Crue all of Dr. Feelgood, Metallica all of Master of Puppets, Aerosmith all of Toys in the Attic and Rocks and the like in recent years.
A lot of the time, however, these sorts of performances feel like a way of renewing interest in a reunion road show that has, perhaps, overstayed its welcome and/or yielded nothing in the way of intriguing new material. How many people would have bought tickets to see the Pixies again on their last tour if they hadn’t promised all of 1989’s Doolittle every night?
I actually prefer to be surprised at my rock shows. I like not knowing what’s coming, and I’m not a wholesale believer in the “shut up and play the hits” ethic that dominates the concert industry. On the subject of structuring a set list, I defer to MSN blogger and former Metal Edge contributor Phil Freeman: Fans “can listen to the CD on the car ride to the gig, then compare what they just heard with what they hear from the stage. It’s lazy, thoughtless, and frankly insulting,” he wrote online a while back.
“It reduces the band to a jukebox, no less than if they’d taken the stage and said ‘We’re gonna play nothing but requests tonight. We haven’t planned a set — just tell us what you want to hear.’ There’s no art to it.”