Back in the day when I was young, impressionable, and more than a little foolish, I and my circle of acquaintances prided ourselves on having musical good taste – and in those times that meant we listened to rock music. This included many cross-pollinated genres like folk rock, classical rock, jazz rock, psychedelic rock and, my go-to music of choice, hard rock.
But it didn’t include rock and roll; for us, that term applied to music of the 1950s such as Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry and was strictly to be avoided by anyone wanting to maintain their hip street cred. It was cornball music, strictly for squares, or maybe our parents – which, when you’re a teenager, basically amounts to the same thing.
But after a while we had to come to terms with that pervasive phrase: after all, our hard rock heroes referenced it constantly. Deep Purple’s “Speed King” squeezed a catalog of Little Richard songs into the lyrics of first verse. Uriah Heep ran an extended medley of 1950’s hits on their live record. And wasn’t one of the best moments on Led Zeppelin’s arguably best album a song called “Rock and Roll”?
But, “Rock is dead,” or so it was proclaimed among the dissatisfied, and the musical and personal excesses associated with rock stars of that decade seemed to be self-evident proof. By the mid-1970s, the rock industry had become serious business – and the music, like the industry to which it loaned its name, had similarly become solid and immobile.
In other words, rock music had become a brick, and as such, in that transmutation had itself become music for squares.
The advent of punk in the latter part of the decade forced the issue for me and many others. To get things moving again, maybe it was a simple matter of putting the “roll” back into “rock and roll.” This process of reinvention had very little to do with actual musicianship; rock ‘n’ roll became much more about a particular attitude than a musical genre. The technically excellent, yet often-soulless performances on stage and in the studio from industry professionals gave way to performers who could get across a sense of emotional immediacy and inspired amateurism: Those were the hallmarks of rock and roll in the first place.
Actually, it turns out this process was and is a standard cycle in which the old gives way to the new. You might agree with it, or maybe not. As for me? I made my peace with it quite some time ago, being not so young and impressionable anymore – but still more than a little foolish.
In any case, here are a few comparisons that probably just make the whole distinction clear as mud:
THE BEATLES, “ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC” vs. THE ROLLING STONES, “IT’S ONLY ROCK ‘N’ ROLL”: So, traveling back in time, one might ask, why were 1960’s singing and songwriting sensations the Beatles covering a song by Chuck Berry, one of the pioneers of the original rock and roll era? In some respects, that whole style of music got washed away in the early days of the British Invasion. Album filler, maybe?
At least by the early 1970s the Stones knew that bands were expected to write their own material (an expectation ushered in largely by the Beatles). “Would it be enough for your teenage lust?” drawls Mick Jagger while the band sloshes through the chord changes like they just woke up on the wrong side of an open E chord. And didn’t care.
Winner: The Beatles. The Stones should’ve taken this, but the fact is that their song is a co-wrote between Jagger and Faces’ guitarist Ronnie Wood, with Faces’ drummer Kenney Jones driving the bus on this track. It turns out that neither received official credit for their contributions on the album cover. It’s this mentality of keeping the brand intact that helped level the charges against the Stones that they were no longer rock ‘n’ roll rebels but simply jet-setting businessmen.
THE BYRDS, “SO YOU WANNA BE A ROCK ‘N’ ROLL STAR” vs. OASIS, “ROCK AND ROLL STAR”: Here, the Byrds catalog all the perks that come with being famous musicians. Still, lyrics like “Sell your soul to the company,” sound more than a little ominous. So, it’s a cautionary tale underpinning a tribute to glorious excess.
It’s been said that Oasis, in one of their most popular songs, celebrates the joys of wanting to be a star as opposed to actually achieving that goal. Maybe; like so many Oasis songs, it’s catchy as heck but lyrically both portentous and vacuous at the same time.
Winner: It doesn’t often happen, but the prize tonight goes to a non-combatant – Eddie Money, “Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” from his self-titled first album. Oasis’ message is too unfocused, and the Byrds’ is too much like sermonizing. Neither really addresses the core value of the music they purport to represent. “Oh God, dear God up in Heaven/I’ve been working so very hard,” Eddie extemporizes in the middle, and in the delivery of that line one can almost touch the spiritual nature of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a lyric that walks the fine balance between caring too much and not at all.
DAUGHTRY, “LONG LIVE ROCK AND ROLL” vs. BLACK REBEL MOTORCYCLE CLUB, “WHATEVER HAPPENED TO MY ROCK ‘N’ ROLL”: Daughtry runs a mid-tempo laundry list of dropped names, including Elton John and Billy Joel, both fine talents but neither usually first to come to mind when thinking about the embodiment of the rock ‘n’ roll spirit.
On the other hand, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club raises the roof with the barely contained anarchy of “I fell in love with the sweet sensation/I gave my heart to a simple chord/I gave my soul to a new religion…Whatever happened to my rock ‘n roll?”
Winner: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. Though the song came out years before nationally televised talent shows became the quick way to the big time, it seems the band knew exactly what was going to happen to their rock and roll. Simon would have buzzed them out within 15 seconds.
LED ZEPPELIN, “ROCK AND ROLL” vs. THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, “ROCK AND ROLL”: The heavyweight contest. “You could dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station/And it was all right,” sings Lou Reed in the Velvet Underground’s tribute to rock and roll as a force for both redemption and salvation. There are probably millions of people who identify with the sentiment of that line.
“It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled,” wails Robert Plant in Led Zeppelin’s tribute of their own, connecting their love of American bluesmen and rock ‘n’ rollers of the past with their updated version of the same genres. Though sticking closely to the traditional three-chord structure, they manage to make it sound as fresh and inspired as the best rock and roll usually does. The same, yet different; it’s not a bad thing.
Winner: incredibly close, but the victor here is Led Zeppelin. When a desperate, bluesy line like “It’s been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time” gets sung with such delight, the balance has got to be considered perfect.
JC Mosquito spends most of his day keeping the wolves from the door. When he’s not occupied with this pastime, he’s interested in all things rock and roll — which may or may not have died back in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, or the early ’90s, depending on who you believe. Contact Something Else! at email@example.com.
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