Photo: Hand in rock n roll sign via Shutterstock.

Waiting for the Rails to Rumble: The Cycles of Rock Music

The romantic sentiment that rock was better in the past and has, as they say, given up the ghost, is a charming but misguided notion.

As I sit in an undisclosed location, the same undisclosed location I find myself in every morning after my cup of coffee, I peruse an article in Playboy by the eloquent Rick Moody, lamenting the expiration of the rock icon (“In Search of the Lost Rock and Roll Icon”, January 2014). While reading through the article, I am struck by the odd familiarity of his words, a profound sense of déjà vu which settles in like a cat in front of a warm fire.

The romantic sentiment that rock was better in the past and has, as they say, given up the ghost, is a charming but misguided notion. Sure, rock music has seen better days, but as a society of rock consumers, we have been to this same sullen spot before, regretting the inevitable passing of the species, wondering if there is any way rock can possibly survive the most recent virus with which it has been infected. Yet rock is a resilient beast that has recovered from each and every recession with a David Bowie-esque style worthy of the most ardent rock icon and will keep on truckin’ for any foreseeable future.

How do I know rock will survive? Because of what it is. At its core, rock is rebellion. Yes, it has distorted guitars and stacks of Marshalls, but rock, real rock, in all its different guises and various genres, rebels against everything and everyone, from the established music of the day, to established social norms, to the political establishment (Go Pussy Riot!). And, yes, it rebels against its very own fans and it does so defiantly, and with great volume. What the folk music of the ’60s said politely, rock screams at the top of its bleeding lungs.

Rock is not a song or a sound, but an attitude. It is the musical version of every high school hoodlum and loner and stoner with middle fingers raised high, the soul of every self-conscious teen who doesn’t quite fit in. Rock is not a decorative gem that is mined and polished; instead, it is quarried out of sweltering garages, musty basements and sleazy dive bars the world over. Rock never pretends to be what it’s not, though many pretend to be rock, and it never, ever gets its start in an expensive studio with a producer and publicist hovering over calling the shots, although it often ends there.

In spite of the genre in which they reside, or the distortion level of their guitars, some bands are rock, some are not, and some were, but are no longer. And sometimes, every so often, an artist or band comes along that so embodies the very essence of rock that the most rare, most admired thing of all is created: the white whale, the rock icon. In the end, as long as a band can fend off the onslaught of fame or the handcuffs applied by an industry run by stock holders of giant conglomerates, the longer they will continue to represent all those high-school hoodlums, well-seasoned barflies and silently screaming moms with rebellion in their hearts.

Throughout its existence rock has been at constant odds with the music industry, proving to be both extremely popular with the consumers, and also an extremely unwieldy, unreliable product.

That is to say, the longer a band can retain that its erect center digit, harness that unruly spirit, that furor that stoked the creative fires back in those old abandoned warehouses and damp cellars, when there was no album deal, or publicist, or personal assistant, when they played pawn shop guitars through blown amplifiers and scrounged for a buck and a beer and loved it, the longer it will continue to rock.

But just like any rebellious teenager, rock, and perhaps more poignantly rock icons, are notoriously difficult to control. These icons also don’t tend to take very good care of themselves. They make bad choices, throw terrible tantrums, know absolutely everything, and are basically hell to live with. And there’s the rub. Throughout its existence rock has been at constant odds with the music industry, proving to be both extremely popular with the consumers, and also an extremely unwieldy, unreliable product.

Corporate executives try to subdue rockers by throwing cash and cars at them, hiring handlers, committing them to rehab, but these efforts rarely seem to work. After all, rebels are, by definition, uncontrollable, not to mention very rare; thus, most big record companies have found that creating a dozen copy bands in a lab in hopes that one will catch on to be a far more reliable strategy for a profit hungry industry that by its very nature thrives on the things against which rock rebels most; control, unoriginality, reward before risk, among many others.

Sadly, music spawned in a test tube not only has the undesired effect of watering down the pot; most importantly, it is invariably missing the marrow, the soul, the oomph. These Xerox copies inevitably end up inducing an adverse reaction, a visceral pushback, like townsfolk rising up against Frankenstein’s monster.

Corporate owned radio doesn’t help matters, either. Radio does its best to perpetually supply a scarce resource, but when it can’t, it attempts to quell the cravings for rock by force feeding us studio produced mock-ups and finely sculpted, family-friendly versions of former rock bands, musical high-fructose corn syrup, then subsidizing these pseudo-rock bands with endless steaming piles of pop.

Rock, in turn, responds by changing its sound, and the industry scrambles to produce new forgeries and process begins again; it is an endless game of cat and mouse. However, rock is a living, a breathing entity, a natural, unprocessed phenomenon incapable of being cloned. It’s your grandmother’s jambalaya: you simply can’t dehydrate it, box it, label it and sell it on some supermarket shelf.

Yet, as is the case with most living things, rock has ebbs and flows, seasons of growth and decline that repeat over time. It is in these down times when the music industry has, perhaps inadvertently (perhaps not), nearly snuffed out rock on more than one occasion. The first major crisis that rock experienced was such a potentially fatal blow it was nicknamed “the day the music died,” yet somehow, someway, rock not only survived, but thrived.

Popularized by the Don McLean song “American Pie”, “the day the music died” is often glossed over as a singular tragedy in which three fairly popular musicians met their end in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. What is uniformly forgotten about the event is the two years that preceded it. The plane crash was not what killed the music; it was, in fact, the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, the last blow of a vicious combination that left rock and roll flat on the canvas groping around for its dislodged mouthpiece.

Long before rock music grew into an audacious youth, it was birthed deep in the Mississippi Delta, brought into this world on a train stop bench from an old Spanish guitar with a pocket knife for a slide. It hitched itself a ride up to Chicago and Memphis and was finally introduced to the rest of the world on the back of a country and gospel singer who never forgot where he came from. This earliest incarnation of rock, an interesting combination of rhythm & blues, gospel and country we nostalgically refer to as rock and roll, became extremely popular in the mid-’50s.

Unfortunately, during a few short years in the late ’50s, the vast majority of rock’s original icons, and with them the rock and roll genre, were decimated by a combination of bad luck and bad decisions. Elvis Presley joined the army in 1958 taking the foremost rocker and number one hit machine on what ended up being a somewhat permanent hiatus. Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year old cousin and was rightfully ostracized from decent society, while Little Richard had his own airplane scare which caused him to quit music altogether and go into preaching. Chuck Berry’s string of hits had shriveled up and he would soon be arrested and jailed under the Mann Act for transporting a 14-year old girl across state lines. Even Alan Freed, the DJ who helped launch the genre and coined the very phrase rock and roll, was stripped of his TV and radio shows for letting a white girl dance with Frankie Lymon on live TV. He ended up drinking himself to death in California.

Thus, when the legend Buddy Holly, the kid Richie Valens and the singer/songwriter known as the Big Bopper, the man who is actually credited with making the very first music video, all perished in that four-seated single-engine comet over the Midwest, rock and roll had literally no one left on which to lean. A year later, when the up-and-coming 21-year-old Eddie Cochran (“Summertime Blues”) perished in a car accident, the last breath of a dying era was squeezed from its collapsing lungs.

Yes, the early ‘60s had so completely siphoned the life out of music it actually created a rift in the fabric of space-time, a vacuum of talent so massive, so complete, that the next generation of rockers would be sucked all the way from the other side of the Atlantic like pigeons through a jet engine.

The next four years would suck the marrow out of the limp corpse. As the music industry would have it, for every Little Richard there was a Pat Boone and, unfortunately, the airwaves from 1960 to 1964 were chock full of dreadfully boring Boone tunes, tame acoustic folk music, highly polished girl groups (the Supremes, the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Shangra-Las) and oddball novelty songs like “One Eyed, One Horned Flying Purple People Eater” and “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” In fact, for several years in the ‘60s, radio sounded an awful lot like it does today, infected with acoustic-guitar strumming singer/songwriters, young, strong-voiced, strongly manipulated female pop stars and odd one-hit, blurred line wonders who will wash away with the next high tide (with any luck).

The Beatles and Nivana

While the girl group era would eventually produce some unstoppable divas, women like Diana Ross and Cher who would wrestle control of their own careers (a record company’s greatest blessing and worst nightmare), the foul stench of those stagnant years is palpable. Meanwhile, in a small Greenwich Village apartment a still very folksy Bob Dylan was toiling under the burden of soulless pop radio, quietly jotting down of over 300 coverable tunes, an incredibly large portion of the rock music cannon, preparing for the day rock would live again. Rock and roll had come and gone, but artists like Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis had fully embraced that mutinous mentality, the rock part of rock and roll, and the embers endured in the hearts of young dissidents everywhere, most notably several boys from Liverpool.

Yes, the early ‘60s had so completely siphoned the life out of music it actually created a rift in the fabric of space-time, a vacuum of talent so massive, so complete, that the next generation of rockers would be sucked all the way from the other side of the Atlantic like pigeons through a jet engine. It wasn’t a moment too soon when the now famous 1964 Ed Sullivan episode took place and the Beatles’ US debut started a snowball effect that would roll on for the next quarter century. Even then, despite what the television documentaries would have you believe, the change wasn’t immediate.

The Beatles, who become one of, if not the most influential rock band ever to record, still needed some time to evolve. Although their popularity was never in doubt, their initial sound was still very poppy, light-years from the innovative rock they would come to produce in the second half of the decade. They actually settled very nicely into the early ‘60s novelty niche with pop ditties like “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. It would take a pot fueled meeting with Dylan to convince the Beatles to grow their hair, write better songs and take full advantage of this incredible lull in music history, and another year before Bob would decide to go electric himself.

The Beatles wouldn’t churn out Rubber Soul, their first truly original work and the sonic predecessor to rock albums like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album, until Christmas of 1965. The Monterey Pop Festival, which launched unknowns like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Who, among others, wouldn’t take place until 1967, and Led Zepplin wouldn’t crash the party until 1969, but by the end of the decade rock had been properly defibrillated, resuscitated out of its slumber to full a state of awareness. The second era, the golden age of rock, was upon us.

All through the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s rock icons would flow like the mighty Mississippi. From Ozzy Osbourne to Iggy Pop, from Bowie to Bono, the list extends like a double-thick roll of Charmin. Sadly, however, it would all come crashing back down once again as the record companies wormed their way back into our collective brains, took back jurisdiction of the now corporate owned radio stations and petrified popular music during the last half of the Reagan era.

No longer able to fend off the constant onslaught of highly processed copy bands, pasteurized punk bands like the Go-Go’s and MTV fueled hair-metal bands like Warrant and Winger, real rock went into hiding. Radio during the ‘80s rear-end was dominated by Madonna and Michael Jackson clones (Remember Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, or Terrence Trent Darby?), passionless bleeps and buzzes of bandwagon synth-pop bands whose musical prowess consisted of pushing a few buttons (or in the case of Flock of Seagulls, one button) and a swell of no-talent, over-produced groups who fattened us up on an endless stream of tripe so vial the decade actually ended in a Best New Artist Grammy for Milli Vanilli—no, that’s not a typo.

This time, the death knell was heard far away in an earth-bound town tucked deep in the Washington mist. A town that responded in turn by handing over for sacrifice the most prototypical rock icon since Jimi Hendrix (who, by the way, was also from Seattle area). A large source of inspiration for this new band came from the striking songwriting of the Pixies who were, at the time, an semi-obscure but tremendously influential post-punk band who slaved in the time of pop and broke up long before most people had heard of them, automatically making them a truly great rock band. Additional inspiration came from the fuck you attitude of underground punk bands like Bikini Kill. This band, Nirvana, and its lead songwriter Kurt Cobain, would write their momentous song “Smells like Teen Spirit,” or more specifically they would release the video on MTV (still the gateway to American musical consciousness in the early ‘90s) and start a stampede of rockers crashing through the open doors like Walmart shoppers on Black Friday.

These rockers would include the multi-talented Dave Grohl, the anti-rock star Eddie Vedder, the soaring, heavy metal vocals of Chris Cornell, Billy Corgan’s gothic guitar, the industrial tones of Trent Reznor, and the experimental, self-produced efforts by Radiohead and their eclectic frontman Thom Yorke. Of course, we would soon see $300 flannel shirts and Armani cargo shorts on the pages of GQ, but with the early ‘90s returned the old concepts of rock: screw the man, play your own instruments (poorly if need be), make good songs, and make ‘em loud. It seemed a simple formula to follow, a mantra to be held aloft by both the truly and newly iconic.

When a balding Led Zepplin gets the Grammy for Best Rock Album and a 71-year-old Paul McCartney wins Best New Rock Song, the writing on the wall can look a lot like engraving on a headstone.

Yet, sadly, for every Pearl Jam there is a Creed, thus here we are again, another 20-something years later, and the tides have ebbed once again. Rock has once again run its course and the old guards, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Jack White, have faded. The record corporations have once again wrenched control of the airwaves and drained them of anything remotely resembling teen angst, meanwhile hoisting up endless heaps of garbage in hopes the recent rotten piece of refuse will conceal the lingering odor left behind by the latest Justin Bieber single. Musical Febreeze, if you will.

It seems the early ‘60s have returned to haunt us. Folk music is back in full force in the form of Mumford and Sons, the Lumineers, and American Authors. Along with these bands comes an absolute loaves-and-fishes stream of well-managed, dime-a-dozen female pop stars. Add to that the series of musical impressions performed by Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga, and a preponderance of electronically generated, auto-tuned, one-hit wonders and it appears obvious the pendulum has swung and rock is barely treading water in the interim.

When a balding Led Zepplin gets the Grammy for Best Rock Album and a 71-year-old Paul McCartney wins Best New Rock Song, the writing on the wall can look a lot like engraving on a headstone, but if you read between the lines you’ll find ever since the guitar, that strange new, cheap to produce, cheap to maintain, portable box of sound was introduced to southern field workers, the blues, and subsequently rock music, has been destined to suffer through many seemingly mortal wounds, only to come back stronger, better and louder each time. That’s what rebels do. They fight ferociously then hide-away in jungle trenches or desert caves until they’re ready to ambush us again. The components are in place.

Artists like Gary Clark Jr. are blowing on the dim coals, while songwriters like Citizen Cope and Lorde toil away under the anvil, thinly veiling their formidable tunes into radio friendly styles like coffee shop folk or pop diva, patiently waiting for the next battering ram to appear. Meanwhile, somebody somewhere is being inspired by an underground MP3 their Dave Grohl inspired drummer texted them last night after an impromptu Facetime jam session. The drive of the creative spirit and youth’s innate appetite for a music that lives and breathes simply refuses to be strangled by the hands of profit, business and bad taste. If you put your ear to the rail, you can already hear the rumbling. History tells us something amazing is just around the corner.

Benjamin Barrett is an accomplished writer of fiction, poetry and independent film. After studying Literature at the University of Oxford and creative writing at UC Santa Barbara, Benjamin spent a decade travelling the world, spending time in over thirty counties and acquiring a truly unique viewpoint along the way. Early training as a classical pianist eventually gave way to synth-pop bands by high school and helped fuel an immutable love of music that pervades both his fiction and non-fiction. The author created a successful seminar based on his lesser known theories of Rock and Roll history, is an award winner for both his poetry and short fiction and has published articles and essays on subjects as varied as music, travel, politics and the NFL. After a seven-year involuntary hiatus, derailed by fate, he has recently returned to the writing game with a vengeance. See more of his eclectic work at his website.

Photo: Hand in rock n roll sign via Shutterstock.

Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers