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Who Saves the Saviors of Rock ’n’ Roll?

Revisiting the Vines’ ‘Highly Evolved,’ a killer debut and a jarring cautionary tale

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

I want you to think about how hard it would’ve been to faze David Letterman by 2002, as jaded and sardonic and unflappable as he’d become. And then I want you to watch this clip of the Vines fazing the bejesus out of him.

Here we observe the Australian garage rockers stumbling and snarling their way through “Get Free,” the hit single from their debut album, that year’s knuckle-dragging Highly Evolved. Singer-guitarist Craig Nicholls is in Meltdown Mode from the moment he opens his mouth (“AAAAOOOOOOW!”) and attempts to pry open his heavy-lidded eyes. He somersaults across the stage during a crude instrumental break designed expressly for that purpose; from the second verse on, his Kurt Cobainesque caterwaul is freed from the shackles of Western tonality.

His mic stand topples to the ground halfway through. Climatically, courtesy a few swings of his guitar, so do all the drums. Nicholls rolls around onstage some more, righting himself just long enough to grab the mic and offer a closing “WOOOOOOOOO!” as the feedback blares.

“How about that?” Letterman asks, safe at his desk, smiling brightly. “Is he all right, Paul?”

“I can’t say,” sidekick Paul Shaffer replies, a look of profound concern on his face, backing up slowly. “I can’t say for sure.”

“Could be the West Nile,” Letterman muses.

Cut to commercial. The show returns with a slow-mo shot of Nicholls pulverizing the drums. Letterman is still bemused and spellbound: “You know what? I think they’re troubled teens.” Shaffer has likewise recovered himself. “I HOPE THEY’RE NOT NEGLECTING THEIR STUDIES,” he mock-yells, as Dave giggles.

OK, maybe these guys didn’t faze him after all. But just getting Letterman’s attention, for any reason, was quite a feat. And getting attention for any reason is what the Vines always did best.

The party line is that as the 21st century dawned, popular music was in a sorry, moribund state, dominated by vapid boy bands and graceless nü-metal mooks. The continuing party line, as reinforced by Lizzy Goodman’s excellent new oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001–2011, is that hometown heroes the Strokes were the last true rock stars, and NYC’s biggest band since at least the Ramones. Nobody was cooler, or better, or more deserving of superstardom.

But once they opened the floodgates, plenty of other bands threatened to get even bigger. The White Stripes. From Sweden, the dapper and devious Hives. And yes, straight outta Sydney, the Vines, who fused ’60s psychedelia to ’90s grunge and Britpop, a woozy and bludgeoning sound dreamt up by the rawest frontman of them all.

Highly Evolved celebrated its 15th anniversary Friday, old enough now to rebel against itself, against its own We Saved Rock ’n’ Roll myth. Buy it on vinyl! It’s a very strange and sneakily excellent record, but the Vines are nobody’s favorite band, and the historical perspective here gets a little difficult.

As the Strokes ascended, the music business scrambled to find more bands just like them: scruffy, unwashed, vaguely cool-looking gangs of contemptuous dudes who played guitars and longed for some idealized past. The specifics of that past — what decade, what genre, what continent — were negotiable. It was enough to be young, and retro, and dangerous-looking, and malleable in a way the Strokes were not.

The Vines were extremely malleable, and also, in retrospect, a little more dangerous than was strictly advisable. The entire Craig Nicholls value proposition was there’s no telling what this guy will do!, and when the boom times ended for his band, that took him to some much darker places. The industry loves a story like this: a talented kid seemingly hell-bent on self-destruction, on burning out before anyone even gets the chance to wish he’d just fade away. Musically, he exploited a hot trend, but the music biz ended up exploiting him, too.

The Vines were among the first to catch this new wave, and they rode it just a little higher than they deserved: There were better bands, better records, more uplifting personal narratives for the hype machine to manufacture. But you can’t blame anybody for finding Nicholls irresistible, the way he broke all the rules rock stars are supposed to break. This is a textbook case of how a young rock band jumps the line. Less predictable, as always, is what happens in the aftermath.

But first, this happened:

(Rolling Stone)
(Rolling Stone)

This probably shouldn’t have happened. By fall 2002, the hype machine had more or less contracted the four bands listed on that cover into one unwieldy supergroup. At that year’s MTV Video Music Awards, the Hives and Vines did a bizarre Battle of the Bands sorta thing, Nicholls trashing all his gear in a perfunctory manner after blaring through “Get Free.” The Strokes were invited to perform, too, but wouldn’t do it. Probably a wise move. Gotta love the intro here:

Loose chatter in Meet Me in the Bathroom (from Ryan Adams, for what it’s worth) suggests the Strokes were up for that Rolling Stone cover as well. Instead, critic and author Rob Sheffield got to hang out with the Vines backstage in L.A. and watch the band flame out before it even got started.

Chemically addled and overwhelmed young rock stars are the engine driving both Rolling Stone and rock ’n’ roll as a whole, of course, but from the onset, the Vines felt like a more severe case. (“Yeah, I wrote that story,” Sheffield says in Meet Me in the Bathroom. “That’s still a little traumatic.”) In print and on TV, Nicholls seemed a little too raw, a little too real.

It would take several years, a series of disturbing incidents, and the intervention of a particularly savvy guitar tech before Nicholls would be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. But in 2002, in the midst of an exhilarating garage rock renaissance, all anyone needed to know was that he was unpredictable and alarmingly telegenic.

Sheffield’s Rolling Stone story ends with a semitriumphant afterparty mob scene, the details slyly hinting at an imminent comedown in myriad senses: “A blond Ukrainian model with pupils the size of golf balls goes around asking the band members to autograph the banana she’s carrying.” The piece suggests that both the band and the guy leading them couldn’t hold up under this strain for long.

As a musical artifact — as a product of its era and an echo of the various bygone eras it meant to evoke — Highly Evolved is just wild and intriguing enough to justify getting too much attention. It could’ve come out in the alt-rock salad days of the mid-’90s and been just as huge — maybe more so. But it was perfect for 2002, when it charted in Billboard and suggested that every extant style of guitar-based rock music was now huddling together for warmth. The opener and title track summarizes the appeal in 90 seconds: the ramshackle swagger, the distorted guitars, and Nicholls’s gnarly wail.

Produced by Beck/Elliott Smith cohort Rob Schnapf, the record is a winsome jumble of retro moves and savvy poses. (“We were signed to Capitol and it was all organized for us, so it wasn’t too difficult,” Vines bassist Patrick Matthews says in Meet Me in the Bathroom. “Someone just said, ‘You’re going to record here with this guy,’ and we were like, ‘Cool!’”) The screamier stuff is pure ’90s Seattle, from Nirvana to the sour vocal harmonies of Alice in Chains. But there’s also the ersatz Beatlemania of Oasis, the cool-kid diffidence of Pavement, the stuffy balladry of Blur. Lots of tambourines amid the screaming. The bouncy ska of “Factory” suggests, yikes, a grunge version of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”; the climax is a zoned-out ballad literally named “Mary Jane.”

Another ballad, the piano-driven “Homesick,” is unexpectedly gorgeous and very telling:

I left my home
I left my home
Yeah, yeah
Where I should go?
Where I should go?
Yeah, yeah
Nothin’s gonna save you
Nothin’s gonna save you out there

The Vines have put out five albums since Highly Evolved, managing a decent single or two, but nothing approaching magazine-cover status; Nicholls is the only original band member remaining. His struggles began before the rapturous buzz around Highly Evolved had even faded. In 2004, during a hometown show in Sydney, in the midst of berating the audience, he accosted a female photographer and smashed her camera; the photographer went on to file assault charges. (The charges were later dropped.) Nicholls was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome soon thereafter. The band’s 2006 album, Vision Valley, was meant to be a triumphant comeback. Nicholls sought treatment and dialed back on the touring. But things eventually got worse.

In 2012, he was arrested following a “violent rampage” at his parents’ house, where he allegedly attacked his mother. The band’s last record, Wicked Nature, came out in 2014; Nicholls, cared for in part by his younger sister, conducted interviews from his parents’ house. “I have been out of my mind a couple of times in my life,” he told one journalist. “To me, that’s just what I’m like. When I was younger it seemed cool to be crazy. I’m not trying to be crazy now. I’m trying to be normal. What’s important to me is my family and making the albums.”

No tours now; no talk-show appearances. This is the danger in valorizing Dangerous Young Rock Bands in real time, cheering as someone toes the vanishingly thin line between a magnetic frontman and a troubled human being. What everyone wanted in 2002 was rawness, volatility. The Vines pushed that envelope a little too hard, and the music industry pushed them harder still. Revisiting Highly Evolved now, the musical appeal is still obvious, and still frivolous the vast majority of the time. But a few other things are obvious, too. Those who are not quite ready to rock often rock the hardest.