Rock and Roll will never die (just f-f-fade away)

I just got interviewed in A&G. You can see it online here .

Old Leicester chum Watto says he is getting a T-shirt made referring to the big-photons episode. Another old Leicester chum, Grimmers, aka @compactdwarf, referred to the interview as a “centrefold” which left me feeling a tad uncomfortable, but there we go. It also sparked off a debate with my grad student @wordled_muds, aka Jack The Lad. I thought I would expose the argument here and see what you think.

My children tell me that online social networking is the great cultural contribution of their generation, like rock and roll was the great contribution of ours. I don’t really like Facebook (although I do join in) but I love Twitter and blogs. I jumped on Google+ as soon as it came out, and yes indeedy it was dead cool – but also a tad disappointing. Somehow I was expecting something radically new and surprising, whereas it turned out to be pretty much like Facebook but done better. So it seems the revolutionary era is over, and we are into variations on a theme.

In a similar fashion, because rock music seemed to turn the world upside down between 1955 and 1968, I assumed that there would be some kind of revolution in music once a decade. But in fact, I would contend, nothing revolutionary has happened since. The different flavours of music since are really just variations on the same kind of stuff. I am not saying that the old stuff is the best. I think I might vote for Pretty Balanced  as best band ever. But its the same type of music I knew and loved in the seventies.

Jack M thought this wrong, and quoted dance, electronic, and dubstep as the proof. My feeling is that dubstep in particular is indeed pretty original, but not that far from the structure and feel of rock music. More to the point, none of these had the wide cultural and social impact of rock and roll. I could point you at even more radical modern music, but only about four and half of us care. A stronger case might be made for rap music, which is on a line through gospel and soul and Detroit rather than through blues and country and rock; and rap has had considerable social impact.

But I still think that if you take the helicopter view, jazz and rock were the only two musico-cultural revolutions in the twentieth century. I might give you rap music as a major earthquake without being a full scale revolution.

40 Responses to Rock and Roll will never die (just f-f-fade away)

  1. Sophia says:

    I would suggest hip hop as a musico-cultural revolution (I’m assuming that this isn’t what you meant by rap music – I apologise if it is). It has given people who sometimes see themselves as voiceless a means of expressing issues that affect them. It works well with the existing musical styles of cultures worldwide, so that each region maintains its own sound, and adds to it. It has its ‘bad’ side (gangsta rap), but also has the potential to help affect positive change (see http://twitter.com/#!/ibnthabit , who sang against Gadaffi).

    Sophia, not an expert!

    • Sophia says:

      That should be Gaddafi, of course. D’oh!

    • andyxl says:

      Sophia – yes, in my befuddled ageing white rocker way, I am thinking of hip-hop and rap as the same thing. It intrigues me, because it is so clearly inventive and clever and powerful, but I can’t find myself liking it. I can’t think of anything else where I have that combination of reactions. But really its just amazing that one ethnic/cultural grouping in one country has invented all of ragtime, jazz, blues, soul, and hip-hop. I could listen to John Lee Hooker all day. Actually, sometimes I do.

  2. Yes Andy, couldn’t agree more. By the way, what happened to your hair? 🙂 While writing my latest paper ( http://arxiv.org/abs/1112.1666 ), I usually had http://www.planetrock.com/ running in the background (cynics will cry “So that explains it!”). While the bands I think are good are the same ones I thought were really good 30 years ago, I do hear a wider variety of music now than I did as a wee lad. Despite the fact that I have a huge number of CDs, “radio” (if one can call it that on the intertubes) is still great for discovering new (old) stuff, hearing stuff I enjoy but wouldn’t want to buy (especially good for background music) etc.

    For some reason, I’ve been to quite a few concerts lately. Biggest surprise (I went mainly out of curiosity) and one of the best: Martin Turner’s (yes, there is more than one incarnation, but they’re both legit) Wishbone Ash. At most a hundred punters in a small-town club and a truly great performance: all of Argus except for one song and most of the others were also very good (I have only a couple of their albums, and know only Argus really well).

    Speaking of Jack the Lad, what do you think of the band from just across the border by the same name?

    Daily dose of Zen humility: If you have a thousand CDs, and hear one per day, and live another 30 years, then you will hear each one only about ten more times in your life. Tempus fugit.

  3. Michael Merrifield says:

    What about punk in the 1970s? The premise may have been flawed and subverted, but it did take music in a very different direction.

    • I live my life as if punk never existed. It’s not just that I don’t like the music, but also that I don’t like the arrogant attitude: Johnny Rotten (or whoever it was) with his “I hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt, punks complaining that progress is being stymied by the boring old farts in Genesis (who were 27 at the time). Folks, if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it. I remember reading an interview with a punk band: “Others just pretended they couldn’t play their instruments; we really couldn’t play.” Give me a break.

      A bit later, New Wave. I remember reading an interview with Thomas Dolby: In a few years time, one could go to a small club and see an old geezer with long hair and a shiny guitar or listen to real music (meaning his own). Thomas who? Guess which I prefer.

    • andyxl says:

      Song for Phillip : New Rose by the Damned. Absolutely Perfect.

  4. andyxl says:

    Phillip – I don’t really like hip-hop/rap but I can still see that it is original and important … But responding to Mike, I think punk was not musically original, so it doesn’t score as a revolution. In fact, its joy was precisely in stripping rock music back to its bare minimum. The cruder the better, Phillip.

    • Does your last sentence also apply when you are refereeing scientific papers? 🙂

      • andyxl says:

        Pretty much yes. My scientific pet hate is unnecessary complication – blinding with science as it were. Of course sometimes in science there is no choice : the complication is intrinsic, or a certain degree of complication is needed for a desired level of precision. But complication and indirectness should be avoided whenever possible.

  5. Michael Merrifield says:

    You set a pretty high standard for what constitutes a revolution, Andy! Rock and roll has its own heritage in blues, gospel, and even country music, so in that sense was not entirely original. Punk certainly changed attitudes to music, and provoked strong reactions (as illustrated above!), so seems to fit the revolutionary bill.

  6. Alan Heavens says:

    I’d agree that nothing revolutionary has happened recently, and modern music is generally quite disappointing, but there are some exceptions. Mahler, for example.

    • andyxl says:

      Well I agree, Mahler is just the fag-end of the revolution that Beethoven started. Jolly good, but hardly original. Really, there has hardly been anything interesting since Guillaume De Machaut.

  7. telescoper says:

    For what it’s worth, I’d say the most recent important musical revolution came with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in the 1940s. But I’m an old fogey.

  8. andyxl says:

    I say what jolly fun. (1) I think I was wrong to use the word revolution. Not thinking of steep cliffs, but big mountains. (2) Rock was not completely new; it just merged blues and country. But it turned into a big all enveloping fifty year thing. (3) I was getting at broad cultural impact, not absolute artistic quality or interest. Bebop was really important to a dedicated community of fans, and of very high artistic quality, but of little importance to the bulk of ordinary people. (4) Of course there has always been Tin Pan Alley. But what is interesting about both rock and social networking is that they are of BOTH significant quality AND huge impact. (5) In times gone by, one could sustain an illusion that each development of classical music was of broad sweep and importance. But this was because the educated elite simply ignored the bulk of humanity. Mahler, like Charlie Parker, was deeply moving, but only to a minority. (6) There is no point 6.

    • telescoper says:

      I think you’re missing the difference between what’s created and what’s manufactured…

      • andyxl says:

        Err.. no I don’t think so. I hope you are not suggesting that Charlie Parker was “creative” whereas eg The Damned is some artificial thing made by the record company ?

      • telescoper says:

        Every act of creation happens within a context, so I’m not trying to deny that, e.g., punk is devoid of creativity. What I’m saying is that music that sets out to be commercial is in a different category to music that’s made because it says something that has to be said and can’t be judged the same way. How can you compare the Beatles with Mozart? Why should you try?

      • telescoper says:

        ps. To be more specific, I have a collection of commercial pop music, because I like dancing. I am a huge fan of Abba, for example. I also love Mahler. And Charlie Parker. But for very different reasons.

      • andyxl says:

        Depends what you mean by “commercial”. Most rock bands don’t set out to make money. They set out (a) to do what they are driven to do and (b) to be famous. Of course later on the successful but untalented ones may churn out boring albums to maintain their lifestyle… Why is it that music is troubled by this “my art is pure” thing ? In theatre and cinema and novel writing people have no trouble being “commercial” and artistically successful at the same time. Indeed the discipline of producing something that actually appeals to other people is one of the best defenses against decaying into drivel.

      • andyxl says:

        Its time for bed, but I do need to point out that its hard to think of something less commercial than The Damned … unlike Abba.

      • telescoper says:

        I’d say poetry is the purest form of literary art, and nobody nowadays makes any real money out of it!

      • telescoper says:

        ps. Your previous point is spot on. Abba *were* commercial, but excellently so.

      • “I’d say poetry is the purest form of literary art, and nobody nowadays makes any real money out of it!”

        Actually, the people who write the lyrics for (all types of) songs make real money out of it, at least if the songs are commercially successful.

        Of course, a poet can make a fair amount of money by being awarded the Nobel Prize, as will happen tomorrow.

  9. Mark Taylor says:

    “Less commercial than The Damned” sounds like a challenge; a few candidates from my record collection are Bumgravy, Merzbow, Gerogerigegege, Flying Saucer Attack, Team Brick, I could go on … but of course those are people that have actually sold at least one record which maybe puts them out of the running.

    Thomas Dolby went on to invent the audio synthesiser that goes in Nokia mobile phones by the way, so there’s a pretty good chance that you do listen to his music more often than guitar geezers in pubs.

    • andyxl says:

      I am disappointed to tell you that I can’t find Bum Gravy on Grooveshark. You should upload something Mark

      • Mark Taylor says:

        er, not sure I can help you with Grooveshark since I imagine it’s one of those social facenetting things you young people are so enthusiastic about. But if it’s Bumgravy you’re after, you can find some here. Worth persevering (or skipping, if you must) to the end of this particular gem for words of wisdom from a man who knew a thing or two about rock’n’roll.

      • Bob Mann says:

        I’ve always maintained that “Half Man Half Biscuit” is the best band name ever, but “Bumgravy” is making me question my assumptions.

      • andyxl says:

        I tried out bumgravy. Yes, I would call that somewhat uncommercial. From the wordpress dashboard, I can tell you that three other people have also tried out bumgravy. No reactions so far.

        ps dontcha miss Peely

  10. Martin E. says:

    I’m really not much of a believer in artist’s working because they had to. Even Mozart had to make a living, be it rich patrons or the paying public for his pop operas (as they were). Charles Ives earned a living in insurance and wrote music as a hobby. Can’t think of any other examples.
    [Genius is always a post facto attribute, anyhow. Too cryptic?]

  11. John Womersley says:

    Andy,

    I’m surprised you didn’t make the same point you did in your earlier post about astronomy – namely what technological developments took place to enable and drive this revolution?

    I think you could make a good case that it was the invention of the electric guitar that turned blues and country music into rock & roll; but it was television that turned rock & roll into a cultural phenomenon. (and perhaps something to do with changing attitudes to race – it was no longer taboo for TV to broadcast “black” music).

    John

  12. andyxl says:

    Yup good point. Its all down to Gibson and Les Paul. But I guess one might have to go for radio rather than TV … all those local stations that could play what they liked in the US, and the pirate stations in Europe

  13. As late as the mid-80s, Murray Head was booked for a US tour on the strength of his vocal for the Chess (the musical by B&B from Abba, not the record company) song “One Night in Bangkok”. It was cancelled when the promoter learned that he wasn’t Black.

    Could it have been the other way around with regard to race, to some extent? In other words, back in the radio days, to coin a phrase, listeners might not have been aware of the race of the singer. (Even an episode of Star Trek was banned in the UK at the time due to an interracial kiss. It might seem camp today, but with a Black woman on the bridge when there was still segregation in the US as well as a Russian at the the height of the Cold War, Star Trek was amazingly progressive for its time. Roddenberry actually wanted half the crew to be female, but the network objected, reducing it to a third. The reason was that in the former case viewers would complain about “all that fooling around going on up there”, which leaves open the question of what 2-to-1 means: Menage a trois? Gay astronauts? Yes, about the same time the Beach Boys were singing “two girls for every boy” but that was the other way around. I did like the miniskirts, though.) Sure, The Beatles and other enlightened (definitely no pun intended) folk were, and loudly spoke out against segregation etc, but I don’t know about other people buying the records. Television might have been more of a barrier at the time. As Colonel Tom Parker said, if I can get a White man who sounds like a Black man, I’ll become a millionaire (he did, and he did).

  14. Paul says:

    I knew I’d seen it here first. Dead tree version of aforementioned A&G arrived here in my mailbox yesterday. Can’t help feeling there’s some kind of quaint irony going on… 🙂

  15. Plumbers Forum…

    […]Rock and Roll will never die (just f-f-fade away) « The e-Astronomer[…]…

  16. dubstep music maker

    Rock and Roll will never die (just f-f-fade away) | The e-Astronomer

  17. Dubstep Blog says:

    This is a great article. I began my career in music creating rock, and metal songs primarily. Dubstep is the next evolution. There were so many sounds I wanted to create on a guitar in a live setting that were just impossible. Modern day synthesizers make this possible.

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