Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Best Rock Band That Isn't The Beatles.

Yesterday, I began the first leg of my quest to teach the world what "rock" music really is. By naming The Beatles The Best Rock Band, I laid the foundation for understanding what "rock" is and why bands like Coldplay and Queen are not rock bands.

I have to continue because I was discussing my post with The Boy, and when I mentioned that I'd put up The Best Rock Band, he interrupted and said "Queen." Which is how "Queen" gets into that sentence alongside Coldplay.

Queen is not a rock band.

That doesn't mean that I don't like Queen. It doesn't mean that Queen is no good. It just means that Queen doesn't fit into the category of rock band.

Ordinarily, saying someone or something doesn't fit into a category doesn't invoke a violent reaction. Tell someone "Cherry pie isn't a type of burger," and they'll happily agree with you. Say to someone "An automobile isn't a WNBA referee," and they'll nod along with you. Go up to a crowd of people at a bus stop and say "William Shatner isn't Christopher Walken" and they'll applaud you.

But say a band isn't a rock band and people act like they're going to roll up their sleeves and sock you in the nose. I touched on why yesterday, for at least one group of people. Baby boomers don't want to admit that they no longer are "rock and roll," so they just redefine "rock" to mean whatever music they're listening to. Instead of saying Yeah, I used to like rock but now I gravitate more towards adult contemporary, they say adult contemporary is rock, and, voila, Coldplay becomes "rock," in their minds at least. (Baby boomers redefine everything that way. "40 is the new 30." "Green is the new black." "Hillary is winning the popular vote." When Boomers don't like reality, they just describe the reality they want to exist and pretend that's what's actually outside their door.)

But how to explain The Boy getting so upset that a band that hasn't been around for years and years and years and which had all its hits before he was born, isn't a "rock" band? The Boy, for the record, also thinks that Pink Floyd is rock. Why? Why would a kid raised in the era of Balkanized music, of "grunge" and "emo" and "punk-pop" and "hip hop" and "Top 40" care so much if his bands were "rock?"

It's because "rock" stands for something. That's why. "Rock" has a specific kind of feel to it, a meaning. "Rock" is rebellious, it's cool, it's movement, it's everything your parents don't like (even if your parents think they like rock, too), it's drums guitars piano shouting crowds arenas leather jackets over bare chests tight pants dimly lit clubs giant speakers...

...rock can't really be defined. It has to be felt. And we all want to feel "rock," so we try to believe that the music we like is "rock" even when we know it's not. We try to tell people that Queen is "rock" because they made the song "We Will Rock You," ignoring all the evidence to the contrary that Queen, for all their merits, for all their talent, for all their skill, is not a "rock band."

"Bohemian Rhapsody" is a great song. It's a classic. It has guitars and drums and stuff... but it's not "rock." It's operatic and beautiful and touching and moving. But it's not rock.

The Beatles, for the most part, were rock. A "rock" band can make a non-rock song. A non-rock band can make a song that sounds like "rock," but that doesn't make them a "rock band." Queen made "We Will Rock You," which sounds like "rock," but it was made by Queen, and they're not a rock band because they're missing out on that essential quality that makes a rock band.

Queen doesn't have that essential quality, which cannot be defined clearly. The Beatles had it. The Best Rock Band That Isn't The Beatles has it, too.

U2 is a rock band, and they're The Best Rock Band That Isn't The Beatles. That may surprise you if you remember that I began, yesterday, by pointing out that "All That You Can't Leave Behind" was not a rock album. I stand by that. It's not. That doesn't matter because Rock Bands can make songs that aren't rock without losing their credibility, and U2 did that.

U2 is The Best Rock Band That Isn't The Beatles because of three words: Rattle And Hum.

The conventional wisdom -- which will never understand "rock" -- is that The Joshua Tree was U2's greatest album ever, and possibly one of the greatest rock albums ever. The conventional wisdom further goes on to hold that "Rattle And Hum" sucked.

The conventional wisdom is wrong on both counts. The Joshua Tree was okay, as far as albums go, but it paled in comparison to Rattle And Hum. To say otherwise is to prove yourself ignorant of both human nature and music.

Human nature is responsible for Rattle And Hum's perception as a bad album and The Joshua Tree as a good album. The Joshua Tree was a really, really, really well-liked album that had a few songs on it that even stand up to the test of time: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "Where The Streets Have No Name." Those two songs are still worth listening to today; the rest of the album is dated and/or mediocre.

The Joshua Tree owes its position in people's memories to the phenomenally overrated With Or Without You, which has been played so often since it was released that I understand it's actually imprinted on the DNA of babies that born in or after 1987. The Human Genome Project was surprised to find that out, but it's true.*

*Note: "True" in that sentence means "made up."

People loved With or Without You the way they love every sappy love song that comes along, because it reminds them of their love or the love that got away or that one movie they saw, and so they snap it up. The top 100 bestselling songs of all time is littered with throwaway love songs made up of banal lyrics, and With Or Without You is no different.

That song made The Joshua Tree so popular that not owning a copy of the album back then was like not wearing a flag pin in 2008; your very sanity was questioned. The popularity of The Joshua Tree then put U2 into a bind with their next album, in the sense that whatever they did was bound to be seen as a colossal pile of junk.

I feel sorry, a bit, for musicians who make it so big. It must be kind of tough to be Paul McCartney or Bono or David Bowie and have a career that spans decades and keep making songs that you think are great, and all you ever hear is "Play Young Americans!" But I only feel a bit sorry for them, because while they have to put up with that, they also have $200 kajillion dollars and that probably eases the blow.

If you were u2 in 1988 and you're setting about to make a new album because even with $200 kajillion dollars and an album which everyone in the world owns two copies of, but you want to make a new album because you like making music, what do you do? Everyone loved the last one so much, there's really no chance that they'll like the new one at all, right?

If you're most musicians, you make a crummy album of 1940s tune updates, or some techno junk or release a greatest hits album. But if you're U2, you blow the old album right out of the water. Even though people will hate what you make next, you go ahead and just make it about a million times better than your last album so that while they'll say they hate it, they'll secretly like it.

That's what U2 did with Rattle And Hum. They made an awesomely great rock and roll album. And they announced right up front what the plan was-- that they were going to do better than you expected, and that you were going to hate it but they didn't give a damn.

"This is a song that Charles Manson stole from the Beatles," are the opening words on Rattle And Hum. "We're stealing it back."

See, U2 couldn't begin their record by saying "You're gonna hate whatever we do but you're gonna have trouble hating this because we're awesome and so is this record." That would be to blatant. Instead, they make a reference to a horrific killing, a cult leader, and then say they're better than the beloved Brits.

That's so rock and roll -- being in your face but not obviously so. Rock and roll can rebel and challenge, but it doesn't say it's going to do so. James Dean, saying he was going to rebel, wasn't rock and roll. Holden Caulfield, just going and rebelling, was. Some bands -- Queen -- say they're going to rock you; others just do it. U2 just did it, and did it better.

Where The Beatles showed us that rock and roll is raw emotion and propulsive force and set out the boundaries by demonstrating the variety and range of forms rock could take, U2 showed us that rock is in-your-face and bold and not daunted and constantly improving itself.
U2 improved on everything that had gone before them. They didn't stop by making Helter Skelter better than The Beatles had done it, and weren't even satisfied with their upstart stealing/upgrade of John Lennon's ideas on God Part II; they improved on their own song, turning I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For into a gospel choir singalong that elevates the spirits of the listener -- oh, and tromps all over the memory of The Joshua Tree, too, since that was the point of Rattle And Hum, after all, to show listeners that rock doesn't rest on its laurels, that rock keeps on pushing forward, and the band just kept on going from there, taking the basic elements of rock and building them into something bigger and better than everything that went before it.

For an analogy, try this: carbon atoms are pretty common and basic elements that form the building blocks of everything in our universe. That makes them pretty cool.

Put enough carbon atoms together, though, and you get the Apollo rocket, using more power than humanity has ever put together in one place before at one time, and launching you to a location no human being has ever touched.
The Beatles were carbon atoms. U2 made them into the Apollo rocket.

In a more conventional context, Rattle And Hum looked at the past, including U2's own past, and climbed on top of it and did a gigantic stage dive off of everything that had gone before, jumping off of B.B. King and The Beatles and Angel of Harlem and Jimi Hendrix's Star-Spangled Banner and their own songs and diving into Rattle And Hum. Nothing on Rattle And Hum was especially new, or unusual, or challenging. It was just better -- better than anything U2 had done before, and better than anything anyone else had done before.

In that respect, U2 nearly topped The Beatles; Rattle And Hum was certainly more powerful, more visceral, more rock than everything The Beatles had done; but it wasn't better than The Beatles because The Beatles did it first and did it more creatively. The Apollo rocket couldn't be made without the carbon; you need a stage to dive off.

But still, U2 on Rattle And Hum showed us that rock and roll doesn't have to be new, it just has to be bold, it just has to be raw, and it just has to be good. In doing so, U2 became The Best Rock Band That Isn't The Beatles.

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1 comment:

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