Knowing When to Indulge the Rock-Out Impulse

Making the big dumb rock gesture isn't always the cool thing to do. But a good musician always knows when it's best to do it anyway.

In Noisey’s British Masters interview series, there is an exchange from the episode spotlighting once-and-future Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr that delights me to no end. When asked what the impulse behind his laying down a fist pump-inducing solo on the Smiths single “Shoplifters of the World Unite” was, the normally anti-rockist Marr first searches for the right words, then simply admits it felt right to just go for it (well, his actual phrasing was far more blunt — the curious can view the footage for his uncensored phrasing below). Marr then expresses his joy at watching a YouTube video featuring some long-hair dude rocking out to the solo in question (“It was worth it just for that guy’s response”), and goes on to state he never took a shine to heavy metal, only to then immediately recount the time the Smiths (“That’s everybody in the band”, he relishes emphasizing to the interviewer) went to a Van Halen concert. Fixating mainly on Eddie Van Halen’s pleased-to-be-here approach to performing, Marr recalls, “It was so brilliant to see someone sort of carried away by, like, dumb-ass rock ‘n’ roll, you know, and how brilliant he was.”

The Smiths and Van Halen were as far apart as two rock bands could be from one another in the 1980s. It would be understandable if there was never any overlap between the former’s defiant ordinariness and right-on mores and the latter’s unrelenting advocacy of party-hearty, red-blooded American manliness. Therefore I was pleased that Marr crossed that divide and gave Van Halen props for being Van Halen, even as his liberal impulses nagged him that he really should know better. But, really, Marr need not make any apologies, either for digging a Van Halen concert or that “Shoplifters” solo. That’s because there are times when making rock ‘n’ roll where you can intellectualize and experiment and rationalize all you want, yet in the end the only sensible choice in those particular circumstances is to let go and let it rip.

Since the 1960s, rock music has been driven largely by two conflicting impulses. There is the side of rock that wants to think deeper, see farther, and ask tough questions — that is the sort of music that asks to be taken as capital-A Art. Then there’s side that says screw all that, and would rather plug in the six-string, crank the Marshall amplifiers to 11, and rock people senseless. Me, I love both tendencies, and don’t feel one is necessarily any more valid than the other. I can get as much satisfaction from brainiacs like Peter Gabriel and Elvis Costello as I can from Def Leppard’s Pyromania, an album that dedicates a hefty portion of its tracklist to addressing the weighty matter of how awesome rocking out is. If I can find a band that scratches both itches — Queen, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails — that’s all the better.

Yet letting go and letting it rip hasn’t always been an uncontroversial decision within the rock world. There have been those that have had difficulty coming to grips with rock — namely, that on the heavier/louder end of the sonic spectrum — that favors stimulating the body over the mind. There were music critics of older generations, who spent the ’70s dismissing future legends Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and the ’80s turning their noses up at stadium-ready AOR and pop-metal. Certainly their general veneration of concepts like “substance” and “meaning” over other qualities typically biased them against records of the less-talk-more-rock variety, but I wonder how much of those dismissive attitudes stemmed from a fairly mundane professional quandary: if there’s no deeper meaning to the music than a concentrated effort to rock your face off, that doesn’t leave much else to write about.

Putting aside my idle speculation, it’s far more clear that for a long time the concept of “rockism” invoked a lot of iconography — bad-boy antics, preening frontmen, grade school-level lyricism, ludicrously immense stage shows, casual machismo that could quickly morph into casual sexism, showy guitar solos borne of self-aggrandizing narcissism — some found played-out and/or outright distasteful. If you weren’t a rebellious white heterosexual male — or you empathized with those who weren’t — the pervading image of what rock should be could make the very idea of rocking out a very gauche endeavor. Hence bands like the Smiths, who defined the sort of rock music they made in large part through negation, firmly indicating which elements of the genre they deemed necessary to avoid like the plague.

Thankfully, thanks to the alternative ’90s and their promotion of politically enlightened, anti-rockstar attitudes, wanting your rock to rattle the windows and blow out eardrums is no longer a blank check to act like a macho meathead. Even before then, the concept of what “rocking out” meant had been evolving. When the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll” was first bandied about all those decades ago, it had sexual connotations, and the ecstasy and release of rocking out were intertwined with concepts of impropriety and rebellion. Somewhere along the line rocking out became secularized, for lack of a better word, and rocking out didn’t have to mean anything more than, well, rocking out to rock music. I feel all these developments are wonderful, for they have torn down a lot of the old divisions between scenes and styles while also excising a lot of the obnoxious attitudes. That has meant that nowadays putting your fist up and nodding your head to a chugging riff and a driving beat have become neutral, if not by-default apolitical activities — you could be male or female, gay or straight, indie or headbanger. With all the baggage cast off, that means you don’t have to feel politically guilty about enjoying loud-and-proud no-frills rock anymore.

Going back to Misters Marr and EVH, Marr notes the base pleasure that accompanies Van Halen’s “dumb-ass rock ‘n’ roll” while also acknowledging the talent involved. Lunkheadedness plus brilliance — that’s essentially the whole appeal of Van Halen in a nutshell, isn’t it? Eddie Van Halen is a man who’s no dummy when it comes to notes and composition, yet he also knows when simple is better, and when louder and flashier is the path of righteousness. As a rocker, knowing when to stop thinking and let your guitar and amp do the talking is a trait that oddly enough requires a keenness of mind, despite what surface appearances might indicate. As different as their playing styles are — and as divorced as their ends of the rock-ideological spectrum were from one other during the 1980s — that’s a knowledge and virtue both musicians share.