LAMB HAMMER, GODS OF ROCK | June 12th 2008

Lamb Hammer

Courtesy of Lamb Hammer

Rock Band bands finally give expression to the democratising dreams of the punk movement, writes Brett McCallon, proud member of Lamb Hammer. A lack of talent needn't keep anyone from kicking out the jams ...



Like at least 3m of my fellow American citizens, I lead a double life. By day I am a mild-mannered, white-collar husband and father. But by night (Tuesdays, specifically), I am a one of the leaders of Lamb Hammer, the Gods of Rock (careful: the site is loud).

You might think: Oh, good, another 30-something dude living the dream on evenings and weekends, doing terrible cover versions of over-played songs at the Holiday Inn off route 70. But you're so wrong.

For example, we don't actually play any instruments.

Lamb Hammer is a Rock Band band. The video-game averse among you may not know it, but over the past few years a legion of non-musical musicians has been unleashed upon the world through the Guitar Hero franchise. The series is, in essence, a rhythm game, in which players hit precise button-combinations as "notes" fall down the screen. Playing the buttons properly maintains the sound of the original song uninterrupted.

By now, literally millions of would-be rockers regularly strap on a plastic axe, plug it into a video-game console, and wail along to Slash, Keith, Jimi and that dude from Poison while leaping frantically around the room. Onlookers are often bemused, though some find the id-friendly exercise unnerving (until they try it for themselves).

The Guitar Hero games, rather like Nintendo's Wii console, appeal to a far larger demographic than your typical shoot-'em-up or role-play video-game. The franchise's immense popularity (it was by far the best-selling series of 2007) has helped to catapult its publisher, Activision, to record profits and the number-one spot in the game publishing universe.

Then late last year Harmonix (the original developers behind Guitar Hero) and MTV unleashed Rock Band on the world, expanding the virtual musician space to include two guitars, a drum-kit and a microphone. And thus Lamb Hammer was born.

But bear with me. We're not just talking about me and my friends getting together and "playing" Pixies covers at ear-splitting volume (though we are, in fact, doing just that). We are talking about a strange new entertainment frontier, somewhere on the border of karaoke and terrible cover bands. This brings us to the 2007 New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center "Sweet Arts" benefit, where Lamb Hammer was a featured (and only semi-ironic) part of the evening's entertainment.

How it happened isn't all that important--in New Orleans, every weird idea is going to get tossed into a cocktail shaker once or twice, just to see if it tastes good garnished with mint. That it happened, though, is pretty fantastic. Unfortunately I can't describe what it was like (I had to miss the performance, sadly), but my bandmates taped the festivities (which you can watch here).

In any case, the Hammer's job for the evening was to serve as both entertainment and audience enablers. The band introduced the game's concept, played the hits and then switched out members for the bravest among the audience's wannabe rock stars. In other words, the Rock Band game allowed the Hammers to portray the archetypal ur-bad cover band. But more importantly, it allowed the audience to join in for a few tracks, transforming talentless rubes into thundering drummers, sultry bassists and preening guitar gods before their very peers.

By all accounts, Lamb Hammer's performance was one of the highlights of a very good night. At certain points there was a larger crowd for Lamb Hammer than for the evening's headlining act, the immensely talented Trombone Shorty and his band. Think about that for a second: a bunch of costumed jackasses (of which I am proud to be a part) playing pretend instruments alongside clueless, drunken audience members drew more attention than a group of truly excellent real musicians.

As a Hammerer, I couldn't be prouder. As a music fan, I'm kind of appalled. But mostly, I just wonder what sort of effect this is going to have on terrible cover bands.

Amateur performers are already grumbling in online musician forums. Kotaku, a gaming news site, recently carried the story of a musician who was incensed that his local pub had replaced open-mic night with Guitar Hero night. His case is not without merit. But for those of us who have suffered through more than our fair share of open mics, the prospect of replacing some of those memories with the sight of some drunk dudes flailing away on a Guitar Hero controller is appealing.

Musicians of decidedly minor talent are right to be nervous. Any reasonably competent Rock Band band is going to be just as good as the band that played your sister's wedding. In fact, because playing the game correctly leads to the original instrumental tracks playing unimpeded (missed notes in the game knock the corresponding note out of the song), they probably sound better. When Lamb Hammer plays "Won't Get Fooled Again", the guitar you hear is by Pete Townshend, not Bill from accounts payable who fancies himself a shredder. Sure, we've got our own vocalist, but remember--we'll let you sing, too.

Lamb Hammer played Sweet Arts for free, but what happens when we, or some other Rock Band band, start offering our services for hire? We're never going to be a threat to real, talented musicians, but it's hard to see any advantages to hiring Danny Island and the Soul Wailers (or whatever other terrible wedding/bar mitzvah/kegger group might dwell in your town) over a Rock Band band. I mean, will Danny let you touch his golden, scarf-draped microphone? Hell no. Will you get to sub in on drums? Unlikely. And you wouldn't know what to do if they let you.

But Rock Band bands finally give expression to the democratising dreams of the punk movement. There's no real barrier between band and audience, except for our kick-ass costumes. We're not particularly talented. Neither are you. So pick up your plastic guitar. I'll take the sticks. Let that girl in the corner sing. It's time to rock.

(Brett McCallon is a writer based in New Orleans.)