You Say You Want an ‘Evolution’?
Trying to write something reasonable about the evolution of rock and roll is a daunting, if not impossible, task. Not that countless writers and historians haven’t tried over and over again. Just walk into a bookstore (provided you can actually find one these days) and wander over to the music section. You know where it is. You’ve spent time there; a lot of time. Walk your fingers down along the spines of the books and scan the titles. There are hundreds of titles espousing that inside the cover lays the ‘thing’, the history, the evolution as it were, of rock and roll.
But despite their noble intent and the equally impressive talents brought to the search, so many of these titles are an assemblage of rock facts, almost as if they were massive trivia books, giant lists of who’s who in rock or a collection of reviews and critiques as opposed to what it was attempting when the process began. Where did rock and roll come from and where is it going?
As to where rock and roll came from; well that’s one of those chicken or the egg type of questions that will be debated until the four horsemen of the apocalypse come thundering over the horizon. The generally accepted thought is that rock and roll essentially sprung from the pelvis gyrating, slicked pompadour sporting, sneering, King himself, Elvis. There might be an element of truth to that but as we know from Zeppelin, “All that glitters is not gold…” especially when it comes to chasing the ghosts of music past. Elvis grew up in the Delta area at a time when the Blues were the sound track of the day. They were the sound that infiltrated his world and they seeped into his very soul. When Elvis erupted from nowhere and landed squarely into the world’s ears, he was singing what he knew. He was singing the blues. If Elvis was the world’s very first rock star, he rode into the arena on the back of the blues.
But to say that Rock and Roll was born with the arrival of Elvis would be disingenuous if not downright wrong. A few years before Elvis recorded those first private recordings for his mother, Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed was broadcasting The Moondog Rock and Roll Party where he began broadcasting ‘race’ music to a young, white audience. Some say he even coined the phrase Rock and Roll but that’s another piece of rock and roll lore that will debated for a long time to come. The truth is that Trixie Smith recorded a song called “My Daddy Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll), in 1922, substituting rock and roll as a euphemism for sex. And that was just the start of it. It didn’t take long for ‘rock’ to be the term musicians used for something with a good ‘beat’.
Rock and Roll is a term that has been bouncing around in the world of blues music since there was blues music. Around the same time that Alan Freed was figuring out how to market to a youth culture with money to spend, there was Ike Turner’s classic ‘Rocket 88’, which most critics and historians seem to agree, was the very first rock and roll record. This record was released in 1951. (But to illustrate what an inexact ‘science’ this is, there is a very vocal group that maintains that it was Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s ‘That’s Alright Mama’ that was the ‘real’ first rock and roll record. Of course, the fact that Crudup actually borrowed a great deal of this song from an old blues song, ‘Black Snake Moan’ from Blind Lemon Jefferson years before never really seems to come up. Never mind the fact that it was Elvis’s version that was the hit recording of the song…. Oh and we can’t forget that the others that insist that rock and roll did not exist until Bill Haley and The Comets stomped their way through ‘Rock Around The Clock.”).
But Elvis did something else besides spring rock and roll on the largely unsuspecting world. Elvis made it mainstream. The music enraptured the youth and it alarmed their parents. Pastors slammed bibles on pulpits around the country, spittle flying from the corners of their mouths that were twisted into a yowl, warning and impleading their flocks against the evils of the ‘devils music’. And yet it grew legs and began to crawl. Within a few years of Elvis’s arrival on the scene, rock and roll outfits were forming all over. Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis and so many others were growling and coming up fast… the list goes on and on.
But even in it’s infancy, rock and roll was already evolving. Genres were already beginning to splinter off like musical tendrils. Rock-A-Billy, Doo Wop, and even the folkies were beginning to take notice of the blues’ naughty child. Then the Beatles hit the shore setting off an un-paralleled change in direction in the way music was seen and heard. They were special in that they were young, prolific, sensitive and ornery at the same time and just generally likable. It didn’t take long for them to stop being a band and to become icons and a pure piece of world history. Coming right along their heals were the Rolling Stones, a band that has been making music for over 40 years with no intention of stopping.
When Bob Dylan plugged in and whomped his way through ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, despites the pitiful cries of the folk purists, rock and roll had stood up and began running through the culture like a toddler who found an open bag of sugar. Things were changing and changing quickly. Those kids who first heard those scratched up 45’s of the 50’s were becoming teenagers in the 60’s and they found that the rock of their childhood was maturing right along with them, experiencing the same rage and hormones that they were. But they noticed something else. There was a youth revolution going on in America and around the world. The music became their theatre, their anthem and the music and the message began to mix. Who begat who when it comes to the psychedelic movement may never really be understood but despite it’s origins, they grew together. Protesting the standards of their fathers’ generation, music provided the beat to the underlying message and frankly for the party the seemed to run alongside.
And then there was Jimi Hendrix, one man and a Stratocaster who essentially redefined the role of the electric guitar in rock and roll. He set the standard that players the world over aspire to regardless of the genre they play. His time was powerful, earth shaking but far too brief. In a few short years, James Marshall Hendrix changed everything. Again.
By the time of the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam War, rock and roll found itself in a position where it was changing again. Powerful bands of the sixties were morphing yet again. Arena rock ruled to roost with bands like Lynyrd Skynrd, The Who, The Allman Brothers, Steve Miller and countless others pounding out what is now considered ‘classic rock’. But out of it grew a sense of a need for change and again rock winked its rebellious eye. Punk, that screaming, three-chord vitriol grew from the cement that seemed to be under the feet of the rock giants. Along with the anger and its fist shaking sense of discontent, punk took on something else. Punk wasn’t just music, it was a lifestyle. Rock had returned to its roots. It wasn’t Corporate, it was outlaw music yet again.
Every time music grows on the outskirts, it doesn’t take long for the enterprising business minded to figure out a way to co-opt it and turn a message into dollars. Punk was no exception. Pure punk didn’t last long before it was massaged yet again, this time into New Wave. To many rock fans, the Eighties were a desert; a long expanse of synthesized sounds and hair gel. The guitarist, long a mainstay in rock music took a back seat to spandexed keyboard player who was as much a computer programmer as a musician. But evolution finds a way and despite the shrill white noise of popular music in the eighties, again rock rose from the ashes. Hair metal bands found their collective voices and brought the hammer up from the underground. U2 blasted rock and roll with a powerful sound and a conscious, something that had been missing in rock and roll for some time. And Metallica came in from the dark, hurling white-hot rock and roll from the shadows.
And then a band from Seattle knocked the scene on it’s behind once again. Nirvana re-set the stage, reconnecting with the roots of rock, spawning the grunge movement of the nineties and helped revive the dreams of countless garage bands the world over. Even with their short run before tragedy struck, Nirvana struck the tuning fork hard and the reverberations are still being felt. By the turn of the century, rock and roll had been given back to the independent bands. There are bands now, thanks to technology that are being born on the electronic byways and being beamed into millions of homes at the touch of a few buttons. These bands burn white hot, some last, many don’t. But when technology and the fickle taste of the record buying public threatened to doom rock and roll to the dusty discount bins in department stores, it found a way not only to survive but also to thrive.
So you say you want an evolution? Well my friend, you’ve got one.