Mr. Know It All,
My friends and I want to start a rock and roll band but we heard that it is dead. What do you think? If it is dead, should we just kick back and smoke a bowl? I’ve got this huge resin ball I wanna dig into.
Please help us,
Young man, the way I see it, rock and roll is a product of tensions. Rock and roll is home to a lot of tensions, but three are primary. The first tension is literally black and white. As every history of the music will tell you, rock and roll is the child of Black and White folk music (Black: country & urban blues; White: hillbilly or early country music). 1 In the beginning, this blend of Black and White was working class, adult music. Its rhythms were designed for an earthier dance floor than that of the big band ballroom and its lyrics dealt with work, heartbreak, sex, and drinking. However, thanks to radio, rock and roll’s audience crossed generations, as well as class and ethnicity. The new music’s noise, beat, and novelty appealed to White middle class teens and poor Black youth, as well as its original audience, working class Blacks and Whites. Though the music had cross appeal, thanks to the post-World War Two economic boom, it was White, middle class kids who were rock and roll’s biggest market.
Rock and roll was fortunate to have been birthed during economic good times. In days of lesser means, it might have disappeared on its own or been successfully suppressed by its enemies. However, money has a way of making things stick around, at least until whatever is generating cash is bled dry. Overnight, hundreds of independent record labels were created, all wanting to capitalize on rock and roll’s sudden popularity. Soon the major record labels wanted a piece. Their interest created the second tension that makes rock and roll.
During its formative years, rock and roll was an underground phenomenon and essentially a folk music. Its roots were Black and White folk music and its initial concerns were that of every day people. Sure, its performers were entertainers, but no more than the musicians who played the music from which rock and roll came. 2 While rock and roll’s roots had appeal within the segments society from which they came from, they lacked mass appeal. With rock and roll things were different. Its success and subsequent growth came so fast and so large that it did not have the time to establish itself as a folk music.
Elvis Presley is often credited as the first rock star. While you can certainly find other rock and rollers who proceeded him in stardom, no one was bigger than Elvis. Whether his popularity is warranted or not is not relevant here. What is important is that it showed business what could be done when rock and roll was presented in a pop music context.
Prior to Elvis, there were pop stars. Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Kay Starr and others were all immensely popular and part of a popular culture that goes back at least to the 1920s and the rise of radio and motion pictures. Elvis was folded into the same star system that maintained the careers and styled the images of those who came before him. As Elvis’s popularity boomed he became seen as less of a musician and more as a pop icon. And that can be heard in his music. But, however watered down Elvis had become after being sold from Sun to RCA, it is important to remember that he took rock and roll into pop music and not vica versa. 3 I state this because it is in Elvis that we see the tension between folk music and pop culture. However shitty his music became, his big boom, the ten number one singles between 1956 and 1958 put rock and roll into the realm of pop music and corporate culture. 4 All rock and roll that followed has been impacted by this tension, a variation of the age old struggle between art and commerce.
While rock and roll’s popularity grew and grew, so did its opposition. Those who rock and roll appealed to were mostly young, of different ethnicities, and from assorted classes. Socially, whether conscious of it or not, these folks were liberal, if not radical. Just by listening to rock and roll, they were crossing lines that others thought should not be crossed. Those others happened to be the people in power.
The mystique of rock and roll is a product of this struggle. When parents, police, preachers, and the press saw that their children were consorting with “undesirables” and it was due to this wretched new music called rock and roll, well, it was time to stop the madness and save the children. The backlash against rock and roll, with all its racism and classism out in open, was strong. However the will of rock and roll’s fans and, just as important, the power of commerce was stronger. While rock’s enemies struggled to eliminate public displays of ecstasy and overt race mixing, they ultimately lost.
Whatever the outcome, this battle between the status quo and the supporters of rock and roll did two things. First, it had a revolutionary impact upon the social, cultural, and even political direction the United States was to go. It aided in the growth of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It was the primary force that created an identity for several generations of young people, giving them a foundation to oppose things such as the War on Southeast Asia. And, just as important, it gave the right wing a cultural bogie man, one that persists to this day. 5
The second result of the status quo/rock and roll fight is the idea of the rock and roller as rebel. The rebel icon has worn greasy hair, long hair, spiked hair, no hair, and day glo hair. It has dressed in leather jackets, suits & ties, trench coats, military uniforms, and lingerie. It has been anarchist, communist, liberal, nationalist, and fascist. Whatever it looks like or ideology it preaches or subgenre it dwells in, rock and roll is a rebel music. At the same time, rock and roll is a commercial music. It could not have developed as it did without commerce. While its popularity was good for business, business helped spread its popularity. Commerce is many things but one thing it is not is rebellious. Therein lies the third tension, that between rebellion and commerce. 6
So here we are with rock and roll as a product of Black and White, folk and pop, and rebellion and commerce. All rock and roll, no matter its trappings or posturing, balances between these tensions. Its identity and its vitality demand that it dance between these tensions. We can take certain genres within rock and roll and ascribe to them what we find is pure about rock and roll. We can think of punk rock as being more rebellious than say country rock. We can claim death metal is less pop than bubblegum. We can draw lines as to what is and what is not rock and roll based on our own prejudices and narrow interests. “Keyboards aren’t rock and roll.” “Nazis aren’t rock and roll.” “Christians aren’t rock and roll.” Obvious products of rock and roll such as disco and electronica are ignored, actively shoved aside lest they taint this glorious music. We can cleanse rock and roll all we want, define it according to our tastes and prejudices. Whatever we think rock and roll to be, the tensions I just outlined are not only part of its historical make up but have to be present for rock and roll to exist.
However, what happens when those tensions lessen or even disappear? What happens when the balancing act can go on no longer?
Of the three tensions, none exist. Rock and roll evolved to be a White music. Radio stations and record companies pushed Black people out of rock and roll by reestablishing segregation. By the early 1960s, the music establishment was calling Black rock and roll Rhythm and Blues, a less shocking way of saying race music, the term used to refer to any music made by Black musicians prior to the 1950s. While at first there was little or no difference between rock and roll and R&B, the two genres were to develop their own sound.7 Granted, trends in rock and in R&B influence each other and there have always been prominent musicians of each ethnicity playing the “other’s music.” However, by the 1990s, the “vanguard” of both genres, punk rock and hip hop, had little common, musically. 8
Though some will argue, rock and roll is neither a folk music nor rebellious. Commerce and mass public acceptance has made it nothing but a piece of pop culture that can be used to market anything from automobiles to cookies to laxatives to stock brokers. The icon of the rock and roller is less threatening than a Catholic priest. Parents accept their children’s dream of being a rock musician. Instead of dangerous folly, such an ambition is looked at an acceptable career choice. It is now music safe for both dentist offices and malls.
What is now called rock and roll is the White, commercial music of the status quo, the soundtrack of pop culture. There are some who say that what is popularly called rock and roll really should be referred to as “rock music” or “popular rock music.” Rock music is nothing but a commercial appropriation of rock and roll, so the line goes. Real rock and roll is still alive and still not concerned with commerce or popular acceptance. It is just underground.
Until recently, I talked that talk. I thought of punk rock as real rock and roll. However, even when I stretch the term punk rock to mean rock and roll that pushes the boundaries, I know that commerce accepts anything, that even the harshest noise is acceptable to pop culture. Nothing, absolutely nothing is beyond marketing. If he was alive today, even GG Allin could endorse adult diapers and razor blades. The sound can always be cashed in.
In the early 1990s, the success of Nirvana pushed punk in the forefront of American music. Suddenly a punk band was king, as big as classic rock bands of yore. Major labels took chances on Green Day and the Offspring and were pleased with the results. I thought that this was a fluke, a commercial fad. For years the major labels and corporate radio claimed that punk had no commercial future in America. The majors had tried to break a few punk bands in the late Seventies and nothing happened. The biggest deal in punk rock, the Sex Pistols, attempted to conquer the US and failed. Americans would only appreciate punk on an underground level. Not only did I believe that, but I embraced that way of thinking. So when Nirvana, Green Day, and Offspring signed and then hit, I figured, “Ah the corporate locust will gather and then leave when there is nothing left to eat.” I figured by the late 90s, punk would be stripped of its opportunists, gobbled up by the corporate locust, and left to the diehards. It didn’t happen. The locust stayed and became part of punk’s landscape, feeding the music to its friends in advertising and sit-coms.
What if we dismiss sound and style and look at rock and roll as an attitude, some kind of independent spirit, a contrarian impulse that runs through history. Greil Marcus makes that argument in his book, Lipstick Traces. However, as Stewart Home points out in Cranked Up Really High, what is the use of divorcing the “spirit of rock and roll” from the music. If rock and roll is a spirit, than why listen to records or go see bands. The act of reading in an age of aliteracy is rock and roll. To be a Nazi in a Jewish neighborhood is rock and roll. To eat a salad among meat eaters or a pork chop in the company of vegans is rock and roll. Marcus would claim that this contrarian impulse also needs to be progressive. However, that qualification still does not solve the problem of divorcing the music from what is essentially a philosophy of life.
As much as I’d like to claim rock and roll for all that is good and fair and rowdy and fun and irreverent, it is music that I am into, not ideology. I admire acts of rebellion, not poses. I like what is created for creation’s sake, for the fuck of it, not something created for shock or for commerce. Sometimes I think I see that “rock and roll spirit” in a band, but I am really being duped by a band that has the exact same sound as another band that really does possess that spirit.
That said, I’ve been in bands and at no time during the life of those bands was any consideration ever given to commerce or mass acceptance. We never thought of selling songs to advertising agencies or playing the Warped Tour. We had no career ambitions. Hell, we didn’t even do it to get laid. We were happy to get paid but happier to play. What was going on with Green Day, the possibility of punk rock selling chocolate chip cookies, and radio stations being dedicated to punk rock never entered our minds. We were a rock and roll band and doing it for no other reasons than we could and we wanted to. And if I started a band today, I would call what we played rock and roll and hold us to a much higher standard than fakers like the Hives or whatever is getting passed off as punk these days.
So if your question is can you start a rock and roll band or is it dead? My answer is yes. Yes, you can start a rock and roll band or whatever the fuck you want to call what you and your friends do in your garage. Yes, rock and roll is dead. I would rather declare it food for the worms than stand by with a clipboard seeing who does and does not meet the criteria for real rock and roll. But I wouldn’t want to play any other type of music. Confused? Great, pass that resin ball.
Mr. Know It All,
I have seen copies of Jumpin’ Beans and Willie 7"s at the local record store. They are $1 in the discount bin. Should I buy them? I don’t want to waste a dollar.
Of course you should, you cheap asshole. A buck is nothing to pay to check out a band. I mean, you’ve probably already spent a paycheck or two at felchgirls.com or whatever sick fuck site you stalk. Which one should you buy? All of them! In the late 90s, it seemed like there was a Jumpin’ Beans 7” coming out every month and every one just slightly different than the other. All are overblown, trashed out, no-fi punk rock. Taken one by one they are good. Taken as a set, you are looking at an insanely, relentless pursuit of some extreme sonic ideal. It’s a package deal you are looking at here, kid. Like Rancid Hell Spawn or Mr. California, the work of Jumpin’ Beans is worth the listen if only in honor of some guy’s absurd quest. Ultimately time will judge whether Jumpin’ Beans was successful in his hunt or just some punk rock Don Quixote.
Mr. Know It All,
It’s called saliva, pal. And it’s free.
1: Actually, you can go back even further than blues and country music to hear the roots of rock and roll. Black gospel, like the Golden Gates Jubilee Quartet and Blind Willie Johnson, has strong elements of rock and roll in them. And you can hear inklings of rock and roll in the first recordings of what was to become country music, the Bristol Sessions, recorded in Tennessee in 1927. Also, both gospel and early hillbilly music had both Black and White influences. Miscegenation in American music occurred decade before rock and roll; however back then little fuss was made because it was seen as isolated and just poor people’s music.
2: It is ridiculous to claim that blues and country musicians did not think about stardom or wealth, to be recognized and live in comfort is nearly every musician’s dream. A few of these folks did become stars and lived high. However, all musicians knew that stardom was a faint hope. They were lucky to get paid for the night and their ambitions were often limited to being able to play music for a living. Theirs was a life of hard work and craftsmanship not marketing and hype.
3: While folks like Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry brought rock and roll to pop music, others were bringing pop music to rock and roll. At the urging of their record companies and/or in quest of the big pay day, songsters such as Pat Boone, Neil Sedaka, and Paul Anka shifted rock’s lyrical content from the juke joint to the soda fountain. Professional songwriters like Leiber and Stoller used rock and roll as a template for cleaver songwriting that owed more to Tin Pan Alley than Beale Street. As rock and roll became more popular and White-washed, this rock-styled pop music was to fold into rock and roll (and eventually take it over). The differences between pop artist and rock and roller became so blurred that songsters from the Sedaka/Anka tradition such as Billy Joel and pure showbiz, song and dance guys like Bruce Springsteen were praised as rock and rollers.
4: Nowadays, when one thinks of an independent record label, the thing that comes to mind is a label run by people who put music before commerce and give their artists artistic freedom and a fair share of the loot. The major record labels are looked at as corporate pariahs, who care only about the bottom line. Before the independent label explosion of the 1980s and 1990s, what we think of as an indie label, were hobby labels, and what was then considered an indie were mostly small time operators who paid their artists poorly, if at all. Many of these small labels were owned outright or in part by organized crime syndicates and had absolutely no interest in music. It was the lucky artist who got signed to a major label, for at least with a major there was a regular paycheck.
5: Few modern right wingers preach against rock and roll as a whole. There are some from the fringe that do, but most attacks on rock and roll are either of a specific genre, like death metal or punk rock, or is guised in a general swipe at “liberal culture.” To many right wingers, especially the evangelicals, rock and roll started the slide toward promiscuous sex, AIDS, liberal Hollywood, violent video games, and homosexuality. Somewhere the communist threat got lost, but the rest of rock and roll’s Satanic spawn are still there.
6: There are more tensions than the three I argue. Within rock and roll there
is the tension between intellectualism and primitivism, as well as experimentalism and orthodoxy. If I had more of a gumption to, I could smother you with tensions.
7: It is interesting to hear what Chicanos were doing at the time rock and roll got split into Black and White. Bands like Thee Midnighters and Cannibal & the Headhunters were able to chart on both Black and White charts. That A Land of a Thousand Dances was considered both R&B and rock and roll shows how perverse race based classification is. Also absurd is how White English bands like the Rolling Stones and Them were considered rock and roll even when they were playing covers of songs by Black R&B artists, and often sounded more “Black” than “White.”
8: I am perfectly aware that racial barriers within music are breaking down again. Increasingly, bands are multi ethnic and not just Black and White but Black, White, Asian, Latino, etc. I also understand that stylistically music is breaking down. Genres are plundering each other and the past, all regardless of past prejudice and without any apologies. However, why is it still that a Black torch singer is Urban Contemporary (urban = Black) and a White torch singer is, uhh, a White torch singer? And why are their hip hop as well as rock as well as pop charts?
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