Friday, October 27, 2006

It Rocks. It Rolls.

Several beliefs about rock music and my thoughts on them:

1. There's a difference between "rock 'n' roll" and "rock."

Yeah, but the difference is so trivial that I don't always bother making the distinction. A lot of people are all too willing to point out that, during the '60s, "rock 'n' roll" became "rock." The attitude changed, the music got heavier and more complex, the genre moved far away from what it had been originally. In 1969, Dick Clark proclaimed, "The roll is going back into rock 'n' roll," explaining that everyone had been trying so hard to get far-out in the psychedelic age that they'd forgotten to have fun. Maybe so, but some far-out psychedelia is fun: Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man," anyone? Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men," if you please? Or maybe you're a "Strawberry Fields Forever" kind of person? Still, I agree with Clark that the "roll" is what makes rock 'n' roll so much fun. Complementary to the fun of it all—the roll—is the "rock," that dark, aggressive energy that makes the music so viscerally exciting. Therefore, I believe that "rock 'n' roll" is an attitude, a "let's make some noise and have a good time" ethic that doesn't belong to any particular era or generation. Then again, before it was a style of music, "rock 'n' roll" was a black American slang term for sex…but let's not go there.

2. There's a difference between "rock 'n' roll" and "rock and roll."

Yes, there is. The change in spelling was a bid to make the music more respectable. I think it fails to capture the true essence of the music, so I always say "rock 'n' roll." Some people choose to spell the term "rocknroll," but even I find that excessive!

3. Rock 'n' roll was never the same after the '50s.

Damn skippy. Rock 'n' roll had a lot of enemies in its infancy. The sound of this wild, raunchy music was offensive enough to the WASP American middle class mainstream, but the fact that it was derived directly from black styles such as blues and R&B led many of its white opponents to dub it "nigger music." Then there was payola, which was customary in the music business at the time—why were you wasting a deejay's or programmer's time if you weren't offering a little something for his troubles? And payola was technically not illegal until many powerful music industry figures, politicians, and others charged that it was the only reason rock 'n' roll was so popular. The payola crackdown was not helped by the actions of some of rock's pioneers, such as Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 13-year-old cousin and Chuck Berry transporting a female minor across state lines. To make matters worse, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and Eddie Cochran died young in tragic accidents, while Elvis got drafted and Little Richard decided he'd rather sing praises to the Lord. The years 1958-1960 almost killed rock 'n' roll. However...

4. Rock 'n' roll died in 1959 and was not revived until the British Invasion of 1964.

Sorry, not buyin' it. Yes, in response to all the backlash against rock 'n' roll, we got cutesy teen idols (actually, I always liked Bobby Rydell), elaborately-produced pop records passing for rock 'n' roll, and the addition of orchestration to rock records to "legitimize" them. Some of the best and most popular early '60s artists, such as Roy Orbison and Gene Pitney, straddled the fence between straight rock 'n' roll and big dramatic pop ballads. But then again, we had the pounding, growling sound of Freddy Cannon; the minor-keyed guitar-and-organ drive of Del Shannon; the hard Southern stomp of Gary U.S. Bonds; the doo-wop-on-steroids of Dion and the early Four Seasons; the R&B-infused Northwest grit of The Wailers and the early Paul Revere & The Raiders; and the seemingly endless stream of West Coast surf bands. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

5. Soul music is rock 'n' roll.

That’s a really grey area to me. I could rack my brain for a thousand years and never make up my mind on that. So let’s just call soul music "soul," okay? If I get the urge to shout "Rock 'n' roll!" next time I listen to Otis Redding, so be it.

6. Rap music is rock music.

How? It may be a distant relative of rock, but it ain't rock 'n' roll. I'm not some rock snob who hates rap; I just don't get a rock 'n' roll vibe from it. Rap-rock? Well, that's rock music that just so happens to have rapping in it.

7. Punk rock started with The Ramones—or at least Jonathan Richman.

I beg your pardon? Listen to ? & The Mysterians' "96 Tears," The Bluestars' "Social End Product," The Standells' "Riot On Sunset Strip," or probably anything by The Monks, just to name a few examples of pure punk rock from the '60s. And check out the double-LP (since transformed into a CD box set) that inspired the '70s punkers, Nuggets. In his liner notes to this collection of '60s DIY bands, compiler and future punk rocker Lenny Kaye said that the music contained therein had come to be known as "punk rock"—and that was in 1972, long before The Ramones released their debut album.

8. Bill Haley sucks.

Okay, I've read or heard so many variations of this that I must address each one individually.

a. Bill Haley didn't know what he was doing.

One listen to "Crazy Man Crazy," his self-penned breakthrough hit from 1953, should dispel that notion.

b. Bill Haley ripped off black people.

Yes, he did. So did Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, and every other non-black performer who had anything to do with early rock 'n' roll. Rock came about as a combination of many different styles; folk, swing, and country were among them, but so were jazz, blues, and R&B. As for Haley covering black people's songs for white audiences, it was called racial segregation, folks. It was the order of the day in America at the time, and often the only way a black person's song would get heard by white people was if a white artist covered it. And yes, Haley had to water down the lyrics to "Shake Rattle and Roll"—black audiences welcomed sexually explicit lyrics, white audiences did not. Frankly, I prefer the lyrics to Haley's version because I find the original lyrics quite disgusting ("I can't believe my eyes, all that mess belongs to you," and so forth). In any case, Bill Haley's appropriation of black music was unexceptional.

c. "Rock Around The Clock" is not rock 'n' roll.

Are you serious? Again, it's a combination of styles. You can't point to one specific sound and say, "That's early rock 'n' roll, period." "Rock Around The Clock" had a hard-hitting beat, a wild electric guitar solo, lyrics brimming with youthful hedonism, and a teenage audience that loved to dance to it. Sounds like a prime piece of '50s rock 'n' roll to me.

9. Johnny Cash was a pioneer of rock 'n' roll.

Johnny Cash was every bit as rock 'n' roll as he was country. He was transcendent not only in his music, but also his image and personal life. Country performers of his day wore white or light-colored clothing; he wore black. He lived the rock 'n' roll lifestyle: got famous, became a drug addict, earned a reputation as a destructive figure, ran afoul of the law, found (or in his case, rediscovered) religion and cleaned himself up. He worked blues inflections and motifs into country music, and didn't much of early rock 'n' roll come from the mixture of country and blues? Anyone who had the brilliance to write and sing, "Get rhythm when you get the blues, get a rock 'n' roll feelin' in your bones" is alright in my rock 'n' roll book.

10. Rock 'n' roll brought the world together before "globalization" was a buzz word.

In the '60s, bands in Uruguay, Sweden, and Japan were trying to look and sound like The Beatles. So what do you think?

11. Singer-songwriters are part of the rock 'n' roll pantheon.

Depends on the artist. I like James Taylor as much as the next guy, but if I see one more feature on him in a "rock" book, I'll have all of my Beatles CDs converted into nipple rings.

12. SJ, in item #3 you said that payola was customary in the '50s as if it's now a thing of the past. But doesn't payola still run rampant in the industry to this day?

I swear I have no idea what you're talking about. Payola's been illegal since 1960. People don't do things that are illegal, especially as far as music is concerned.

Copyright © 2006 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

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