Sunday Songs: VHS or Beta – “Night On Fire”


As I walked from my neighborhood’s music festival up to the burger place, I heard a car drive by, playing The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” That’s when I realized the problem with rock music these days, and the reason I’d loved Car Seat Headrest so much: There’s no middle ground any more.

When I saw Chuck Klosterman speak a few weeks ago, he discussed the theory posited in his new book that rock music might have been a long-term fad, and not a new dominant musical archetype. His theory was that, decades from now, every town will have a rock radio station, just like we do now with jazz or classical. The age of the guitar is ending, or so he says.

The same night, he heaped praise on Car Seat Headrest, who seems to be redefining the genre in some ways. Whereas my generation went for depth, listening to the same handful of albums over and over, Will Toledo showcases the potential of the Spotify generation, to pick the best of everything and blend it together.

His stage presence yesterday afternoon was lacking, at least to start, but midway through the band’s set, Toledo loosened up. And, despite his rigidity, despite the awkwardness, the crowd was into the set from the get-go. It was a strange contrast of all that live music can offer: Just before Car Seat Headrest, local favorites Thunderpussy, led by Molly Sides, had blown the audience away with their AC/DC-style flash, heavy on showmanship but lighter on songwriting. Thirty minutes later, Toledo used the opposite formula to the same effect.

But what if it’s not enough? What if my favorite music really is headed for the trash heap of history?


When I interned at SPIN, all those years ago, I witnessed a band play a show that left everyone in the room thinking they were due for a meteoric rise. VHS or Beta played the first night of our CMJ showcase, and from the balcony, looking down on the crowd, there wasn’t a single person there who wasn’t blown away. As we made our way back to my place, another intern and I discussed what we’d just seen, and developed one of our many theories, one of the few I still cite today.

Every band has a certain size room, we decided. You can see that band in any room that size or smaller, and you’ll be absolutely blown away, but any room bigger than that, and their energy can’t fill it. Seeing U21 in the Bowery Ballroom would be a life-changing experience, but seeing VHS or Beta in Madison Square Garden would be a disappointment.

Bands can improve. Bands are people, and so they can learn and change and develop. You see this all the time, with bands slowly moving up the ranks of venues, but it doesn’t always translate. The first time I saw Death Cab for Cutie was at the 1,100-capacity Showbox, and while they’ve grown to feel like a Paramount-sized (Capacity: 2,807) band, the idea of seeing them at KeyArena (Capacity: 17,459) underwhelms2.

If you went back and asked VHS or Beta what the greatest moment of that band’s existence was, I doubt they’d choose that night I saw them. Wikipedia tells me they opened for Duran Duran in 2005, which makes total sense on multiple levels, and I’m pretty confident that would be ahead of some CMJ showcase in their rankings. But that night was the night that set all of us SPINterns talking, the night that some nobody band dominated the room with dark, dancy, synthy rock. It felt fresh at the time, like they’d discovered the midpoint between Interpol and the Killers, two bands whose creative apexes were, in hindsight, both happening right then.

In the weeks afterwards, I remember picking up their album, which slowly dropped out of my rotation. A year or two later, they appeared on the soundtrack for a video game I played, along with another band who played a different SPIN event a few months later, much to the derision of some of the staff. After that, VHS or Beta was gone from my life, much like the format wars from which they took their name.

But there’s something to be said for a single, glorious moment. The past couple days, I’ve sampled a few different bands on my way to or from the ones I most wanted to see. A song here, half a song there. None of them clicked, and I’ve spent more time the past two days on my couch waiting to go back into the festival than I actually have inside its bounds.

Those moments are getting harder to find. And Chuck’s theory makes me wonder if maybe it’s not me, it’s actually the music.

  1. Who was, at the time, the gold standard for live shows
  2. That said, the night they played Transatlanticism in its entirety at Bumbershoot could single-handedly undermine this entire theory, but we’ll write that off a special occasion.

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