Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The Best Rock Band

It's time I took America, and the rest of the world which looks up to us like little brothers look up to big brothers (i.e., with a mixture of grudging respect and secret loathing, always ready to tell Mom and Dad what we're up to but still hoping that they'll get invited along), under my wing and explained what rock music really is.

This is necessary, unfortunately, because people are throwing around the term "rock" rather loosely and diluting it. I first noticed this trend when U2's album "All That You Can't Leave Behind" was released. Here's what one reviewer on Amazon had to say about the first single from that album:

"Beautiful Day" signaled the return of U2 to their classic rock mold.

That was okay, as far as it went since "Beautiful Day" was sort of a rock- ish song, but the rest of the album was similarly lauded for U2 returning to "Rock and roll" when in fact, they had not. Critics were all agog over how U2 had given up on the techno of the Zooropa era and returned to "classic rock," but almost nothing on "All That You Can't Leave Behind" was "rock." It was mellow, adult-contemporary, easy-listening pop music that probably had guitars in it but they were unobtrusively hidden behind the plaintive lyrics about regretting your past.

That's not rock.

The trend of calling things "rock" that were not "rock" continued until it reached a head with the release of not one, but two Coldplay albums that were identified as "rock." First, X&Y came out and people called it a great "rock" record, mostly (I think) because Coldplay had a rare-for-them uptempo song with guitars and a video that was as far as I could see entirely ripped off from The Killers.

I know you baby boomers and music critics missed it, so I'll prove that last point:

Coldplay's Speed Of Sound:

The Killers' Somebody Told Me.

Do you think Coldplay had to wait until The Killers left to sneak onto the set and film their own video? Were they trying to save money.

The rest of X&Y was otherwise typical Coldplay: moody, slow, thoughtful... and not rock.

Then, Coldplay got set to release another album soon and people referred to the first single off that one as "rock," too.

No, it's not. Sorry. Just because somebody appears in Rolling Stone and/or uses a guitar in their music and/or you want to feel young and hip does not make something "rock" music. You can't simply take every song that has a guitar solo and call it "rock," but that's what's happening; people call everything "rock" or "rock and roll" and that's just wrong. There are categories of music just like there are categories of books and movies and tv shows and people. But only in music do people take the thing they like and try to cram it into the category they want to be in.

Would it be correct to say that every book is a "thriller" because that sounds exciting? No.

Would it be correct to say that every movie is an "action-adventure" because doing that promises that it will get the adrenaline flowing? No.

Would it be correct to say that every tv show is a "drama," every person is a "hunk" or "hottie," or every meal is "spaghetti" just because those are things you want? No, no, and no!

So why, then, does everyone refer to the music they like as "rock," no matter how non-rock-and-roll it is? And is there anything less rock-and-roll than Chris Martin promoting soccer? I don't think so.

Frankly, I blame the baby boomers; they're pretty much responsible for everything that's wrong with the world right now, anyway, and they are definitely responsible for attempting to blatantly recategorize "easy listening" as "rock and roll," because baby boomers are getting older and don't want to hear real "rock" anymore; they want to hear easy listening rock that doesn't cause heartburn, doesn't have lyrics that embarrass them in front of their kids, can be played over their iHome in their office without unnerving the staff, and would blend in very well as background music on either Grey's Anatomy or CSI: New York, those being what pass for "edgy" shows on TV nowadays.

But, baby boomers do not want to admit that they're getting older and mellower. They want to still be the people who claimed to have been at Altamont the people who pretended to like Hendrix even though he was a little over the top, the people who sang along with Roger Daltrey about wanting to die before they got old (but they didn't do the stutter part because they thought that sounded lame.) They want, in short, to still be the kind of people they used to pretend they were.

I get it. It's not easy admitting you're getting older. It's not easy admitting that your tastes have changed and nowadays you have less sympathy for the devil and more sympathy for your tired feet. It's not easy admitting that you have become a real-life version of Chevy Chase in "National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation," tapping your hands out of rhythm and getting the words wrong.

I couldn't find that clip, but I did find this, which makes the point almost as well:

It's not easy, that is, unless you're me and you were always like that and always knew it. I'm not a baby boomer; I'm a member of the real Generation X, which is the one the media never discovered because they were too busy calling kids who turned 16 the year "Smells Like Teen Spirit"came out "generation X," no matter how wrong that was, too.

As a member of real Generation X, I had no "rock and roll" fantasy to cling to. We didn't think we invented rock and roll; we didn't invent anything, musically speaking, unless it was the use of those video game sounds in "Rock The Casbah" by The Clash. That was Gen X's great contribution to music history-- mixing in random bits of sound here or there.

So I had that going for me, and also I had the fact that I was never considered cool. Never in my life. Kids who look forward to their weekly trip to the library, who have a shirt with iron-on letters that spell out "The Great Brain", who play D&D and have glasses and an eye patch, who never know what's going on, do not grow up to be rock-and-rollers. They grow up to be bloggers and lawyers who leave work early on Friday so they can go pick up three new CDs: Kraftwerk's Autobahn, a collection of Barbershop Quartet songs, and classic bagpipe music.

It's that distance, that lack of anything to cling to, that makes me understand far better than anyone else what "rock" really is. And it's that distance that makes me so upset when people refer to everything they like as "rock."

So with that incredibly long intro, I'm going to teach the US and the world what "rock" is by defining it the only way it can be: through giving you the groups that are essential rock bands and highlighting some of their more rocking songs.

Note: Not every song by a great rock band is "rock." It's possible for rockers to make a non-rock song; after all, Elvis recorded some gospel songs and they sounded great. So the fact that a band is called a "rock band" doesn't mean that everything they ever did is "rock." I just put that out there so that I don't get a bunch of snide emails saying "Yesterday isn't a rock song, jerk-face." Save your typing fingers. I know it's not a rock song. It's a non-rock song recorded by The Best Rock Band, The Beatles.

Sometimes, The Best in a category is just obvious, isn't it? I don't think there can really be any argument that there was ever a better rock band than The Beatles. I've been listening to their music the whole time I've been writing this and each time I listen to anything they played, I get astonished all over again at the passion they played with, the breadth of their musical ability, the music they created and influenced, and the span of their reach over music.

The Beatles didn't just take over America with their peppy natures, crazy movies, and catchy tunes about being in love. They tore into America with songs that aren't as well known as the poppier "Eight Days a Week" and the like but which had an undeniable rock and roll snarl to them. Songs like the first Beatles' song I ever heard, I'm Down:

If that song doesn't get your feet moving and head bobbing and make you want to get up and dance and do the splits, then you're just a weirdo. From Paul's a capella intro to the jamming synthesizers to the bold, striking guitar chords to the screams, I'm Down is the Indy Car of early Beatles' rock songs: all exposed parts and raw speed and danger. Nowadays, we hear about the early Beatles and it's all "moptops this" and "fainting girls" that, but I'm Down presented a rock and roll that was dangerous and moody and rebellious and dark -- while driving forward full-speed.

Now, that's rock.

They didn't stop there. The Beatles stripped rock down early on and then began rebuilding it. Listen to "Baby You Can Drive My Car":

It's got the same instruments and feel to it as I'm Down -- raw guitar, tambourines, piano, but it's different. It's more layered, more developed. It's rock-and-roll with all the edges sanded down so that they're not as sharp -- but they take curves better.

Oh, and they threw in the "beep beep beep beep yeah," a bit of nonsense that as I sit here more or less set the tone for, nearly 20 years later, The Clash to throw in their little video-game sounds. That's one of the many things that makes The Beatles The Best Rock Band: they were an influence, acknowledged or not, on every single band that came after them. They invented most areas of music.

Don't doubt me. Don't ever doubt me. Heavy metal? Wouldn't exist without The Beatles' Why Don't We Do It In The Road -- which had the same bass, the rolling undertones, the heavy guitars, that would come to mark the more moody parts of Led Zeppelin's work.

Oh, Darling was the same way:

Psychedelic stoner rock? Sorry, Pink Floyd, you just ripped off The Beatles' third stage, the one that came after Rubber SoulLong before there was a Mother to say Goodbye Blue Sky, The Beatles had "Mother Nature's Son" and "Glass Onion." And even then, they could rock:

And that little ending song on The Wall, the quiet little meditation on life that follows the overwhelming grandure of the album? Done before, on Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, when after the wall of rock and roll that was "Golden Slumbers/The End," The Beatles' gave us this runout groove:

Overall, for years and years and years, The Beatles proved that not only could they craft ear-pleasing pop songs, tender love songs, and humorous little throwaways, but they could rock, with a ferocity that could not be matched, and a new-ness and creativity that would serve to set the tone for all rockers that followed them. They didn't take old R&B and build on it, like Elvis and the other early rockers had; they took the essence of music, ripped it apart, and put it back together for us in a new way, a way that grabs each corpuscle of your blood, each nerve ending, and each hair on your body, and electrifies them, making them appreciate the power of the sound and making you want to get up and move.

That's rock and roll. Rock and roll is powerful and fast and new and creative... and it makes you move. Like The Best Rock Band, The Beatles did, making rock and roll so good and so new and so excellent that everyone thereafter just copied something the four guys from Liverpool had already done in the course of making great rock, great rock like this:


Andrew Leon said...

I look back at what was considered "rock" when rock and roll was starting, and I'm inclined to be rather generous in what people call rock, because I wouldn't call anything Elvis did rock. Not in comparison to rock bands I grew up with, which formed my ideal of what rock really is. I think there are some technical definitions about what makes something rock or not, but I don't know enough about music to know what it means.

I wouldn't consider The Beatles rock, either. Nor do I consider them the best... anything. Except, possibly, the best at being popular.

I'd actually say U2 is the best bock band ever and far more influential, especially on a global scale.

Pat Dilloway said...

Since I was born after the Beatles had already broken up I was never much into their music. Their most popular songs sound so bland to me. I guess it's because I lack the context of being around when they were so big.

I don't have any idea what "rock" music is these days. Except I know it's not One Direction or Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus or any of that Disney-related BS.

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