Paul McCartney once remarked that the Beatles resisted learning music formally because they were afraid that such training would stifle their creativity and spontaneity, which begs the question of whether modern rock and pop music (that is, all four decades of it) can be analysed and studied in the same way as classical music. After all, much of the impact of rock and pop music lies, I would submit, in its emotional impact rather than its theoretical impression. To strip away the emotional quotient and focus wholly on the so-called “nuts and bolts” of rock and pop music-making is a futile exercise. What we would be left with after all the scholarly analysis and academic study would be a lifeless, soulless husk.
So I present to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit A: Michael Hicks’ Sixties Rock.
Hicks is a professor of music at Brigham Young University and the author of Mormonism and Music: A History. His goal, as stated in the preface, is to aspire “to clarity through a methodology that is not always so clear.” Basically, Sixties Rock is an academic discourse of a specific era in rock and pop music, as Hicks admits himself, “a relatively small body of music in a short space of time.”
With that expressed objective, Hicks dives into an attempt at scientific analysis into the various components of “garage-rock” vocal styles and techniques, the ascent of the fuzz or overdriven guitar, the beat and rhythm structures, the chord progressions and riffs and even the way songs are begun and ended. He then utilizes songs as case studies into the phenomenon of psychedelic rock, in this case the myriad versions of “Hey Joe” and the Doors’ classic “Light My Fire.”
The first half of Hicks’ exercise into dismantling the elements of garage/psychedelic rock I found dry and mundane. In his efforts to define the very building blocks of this music, he has stripped it of its vitality and power, although it is perversely impressive to witness Hicks analyse something so primal as Mick Jagger’s vocal stylings. Terms like the “roar,” “baby talk,” “buzz” and so on are bandied about in a dizzying display of musical academese. This approach is followed for the other “components” listed above.
Only when Hicks discusses the history and evolution of “Hey Joe,” is he able to shed the rather highbrow, elitist veneer and revel simply in the story of rock’n'roll, and it is an intriguing tale of ambiguous origins, lost opportunities, twists of genius and ultimately mainstream co-option. It is truly amazing to discover the number of versions released during such a brief period of time by the likes of The Leaves, The Enemies, The Standells, The Byrds, Love, The Hazards, Tim Rose and perhaps the definitive version, Jimi Hendrix.
Hicks closes the book, however, with a rather muddled study of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” that is tedious and odious at the same time. Filled with technical terminology, it is virtually impossible for the layman to navigate. Fans of the legendary band would not recognise the classic song from the descriptions accorded.
I began from a position that musical theory may have little place when discussing rock and pop music. This book, as is obvious, reinforces that position. Music as an art form is not the issue here rock and pop music is about passion and the power to touch the lives of its listeners. Hicks has succeeded only in making such an exciting musical era come across as dry and staid. Leave the appreciation of rock and pop music to the journalists and the fans but leave the academics out of the equation.