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.
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.
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.