In 1995 PBS aired a documentary series called Rock and Roll narrated by the not yet ubiquitous voice of Liev Schreiber [i]. The series, comprised of ten episodes, traces the history of rock music beginning with the discovery of rhythm and blues by white teenagers and concluding with the beginnings of dance music coming out of the UK in the early 90s. The shows’ interviewees include some of the most important musical artists of the past fifty years including Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten, David Bowie, Berry Gordy Jr., Phil Lesh, Bo Didley, Chuck D, producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Eric Burdon, George Martin and Mick Jagger. One of my favourite episodes, called “In the Groove,” examines the girl groups of the early 1960s. One of the highlights of this episode is Brian Wilson’s account of the first time he heard The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” Wilson identifies Phil Spector, the producer/prodigy whose “wall of sound,” “symphonies for teenagers” and love of recording in Mono defined the sound of early 60s American music, as the person who most inspired him. Spector produced songs such as “Be My Baby,” “Walking in the Rain,” “And Then He Kissed Me,” “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” the underrated and lesser known Harry Nilsson penned “Paradise” and “River Deep, Mountain High.” The last song, recorded by Ike and Tina Turner, failed to be the success Spector promised the Turners. In his disappointment Spector would close Philles Records, the label he founded. Brian Wilson, who would spend the rest of his life trying to write a song that would top “Be My Baby,” would come the closest with “Don’t Worry Baby”—his favourite Beach Boys’ composition and a song that Ronnie Spector, former lead singer of The Ronettes, would later cover.
What is striking revisiting this show fifteen years later is how the producers trace the evolution of rock and roll into dance and rap music. While rock and roll certainly influenced (and has been influenced by) dance, rap, reggae, etc. I think it is clear from this vantage point in history that just as rock is not rap, rap is not rock. What the show seems to be suggesting is that all forms of contemporary music are variations of rock and roll. In the show’s taxonomy, rock and roll is afforded the status of domain, the highest taxonomic rank of life—rap, dance and reggae are just species. In the 1990s, when the show was produced, popular music seemed to be only understood as it related to rock and roll. There was basically one section in the music store and that was for rock and roll music. Rap music wasn’t yet the bestselling popular genre of music and country music was, well, country music. The terms rock and roll and music were nearly synonymous. Only the arrival of so-called “Alternative music” offered an, albeit shortly lived, exception[ii]. What, precisely, “alternative” was an alternative to was never made clear. The term typically meant “grunge,” another relatively ambiguous term, or music performed by people wearing plaid shirts[iii]. One thing was clear: anyone who used the used the label alternative did not listen to alternative music, just as no one who listened to “grunge” music actually called it that. The sign at the record shop marked “Alternative” was not there for the people who actually listened to that music. If you wanted to listen to a Primus album, you found it. No, the alternative section was there for rock fans as a warning label—“Caution—this is not Guns n’ Roses.” The label alternative was a place marker to indicate a certain type of music’s relation to rock. Alternative meant an alternative to rock music.
Now, all musical genres are reflexive to a degree. Try counting the amount of debut songs by rap artists that are about the song being rapped. To a certain extent, this just makes sense. In order to conform to certain generic conventions you first have to be aware of the conventions you wish to emulate. Rock takes this a step further. Often rock and roll is only about itself. Just think of all the rock songs that have the word “rock” in the title let alone rock songs about rock. If I search my iTunes for “rock” this is some of what I get: Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” David Bowie’s “Rock ‘n Roll Suicide,” Patti Smith’s “Rock and Roll Nigger,” Sleater-Kinney’s “You’re No Rock and Roll Fun,” Ian Drury’s “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll,” Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock and Roll,” and Eric Carmen’s “That’s Rock and Roll.”[iv] Since its inception rock and roll has been preoccupied with its own place and its own meaning. From Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” in 1954 to Eric Carmen’s “That’s Rock and Roll” from his first self-titled album, many rock songs are intent on describing what rock and roll is and how to appreciate it. Except, when you listen to the lyrics, what they are describing often doesn’t sound like fun. In fact, many songs about rock and roll read like instructions. For instance, the lyrics to Haley’s seminal song are actually just a schedule of what to do. Granted, each hour we are given the same task but that is not the point. This is what you have to do to enjoy rock and roll music. Or take Carmen’s song. Carmen might assert that “it doesn’t matter who or what you are”[v] but first he tells us that we have to get down and “get with it.” He tells us to clap our hands, that we have to sweat, that we have to be loud enough for him to hear us and that we shouldn’t try to “fight it, just get excited.” That seems like an awful lot that we, as listeners, are expected to do to have fun. There is a certain irony in telling people to be excited. Carmen’s lyrics sound like parents upset with their children for not having a good enough time or “playing the right way.” If there are so many things we need to do to find rock enjoyable doesn’t that take away from its enjoyment? Anyway.
Perhaps what makes rock and roll unique is that it was the first music to celebrate rebellion, non-conformity and pluralism. Except it wasn’t. Don’t those qualities also describe jazz, blues and many other forms of music? The idea that there is something unique about rock and roll music betrays a level of hubris worthy of the heights of prog-rock. Imagine a group of 10th century monks hanging out, musing about 10th century Italian popular culture and the popularity of Gregorian chant. One of them remarks that “There will never be a time when people don’t love hearing a lot of monks singing at the same time.” Another comments that, “Gregorian chant can never die.” These statements are true in that monks still sing and, although I have never met anyone who loves Gregorian chant, I assume they exist. However, I can’t remember the last (or first) time someone complained about how that monk song was overplayed, or that everywhere they looked it was nothing but Benny Goodman. Even classical music is just that…classical music. When in 1979 Neil Young first sang the lyrics, “Hey, hey, my, my, rock and roll can never die” he wasn’t actually singing about how “rock and roll will never die.” I think he meant that it would better if it did die or “burn out.” I think he may have been right. Looking back now it seems that rock and roll may have already been dying back then and the music to replace it (rap, dance) was waiting, getting stronger and biding its time in musical-Mordor. Even ok artists like Marilyn Manson and Lenny Kravitz have written about rock’s demise.
The 2000s, or aughts (or perhaps the “naughts” given the overall quality of music, film, etc. during that decade), began on a musical highpoint with the release of The Strokes’ “This is It” and The White Stripes’ “White Blood Cells” in the summer of 2001. After years of hearing Train, Marcy Playground and Fastball it seemed like music was changing yet again (it always does) and for the better. However, “This is It” and “White Blood Cells” were largely a rock and roll oasis[vi]—a lovely place surrounded by an altogether too hot desert. And then, in a puff of brimstone to the sound of “BAMF,” almost as quickly as rock seemed to re-emerge it was gone. The White Stripes are officially no more and The Stokes latest album turns away from the 1970s, the high point of rock and roll music and, like everyone else, looks towards the 1980s.
Contrary to the “wisdom” of the past twenty years or so, many now see the 1960s as the demise of American liberalism and the rise of American conservatism. Looking back, many years since PBS’s documentary series Rock and Roll, something similar seems to have happened to rock. Rock music wasn’t just transforming in the 1980s—it was disappearing. Perhaps all the people singing about rock’s ubiquity were protesting too much. In Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Trainspotting, protagonist Mark Renton sums up Sick Boy’s “Unifying Theory of Life”—“We all get old and we cannot hack it anymore.” Or, as W.B. Yeats tells us in “The Second Coming,” “the centre cannot hold.” Do I think rock and roll is dead? Probably. Then again, listening to The Dead Weather’s “I Can’t Hear You,” I think I might be wrong.
[i] Coincidently, Time-Warner aired another documentary about the history of rock and roll music that same year, this one narrated by Gary Busey.
[ii] Yes, Alternative was actually a section in record stores. The “Alternative” section featured albums like Nirvana’s Nevermind which has since been certified ten times platinum.
[iii] People once again wear plaid shirts. But for a while they didn’t.
[iv] Or Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” which doesn’t even know that it isn’t rock and roll.
[v] What on earth does he mean by “what?” Inanimate objects? Viruses that may be alive?
[vi] Coincidently, this is the same time that Oasis, rock’s purveyors from across the pond, stopped being good.