One of the unique features of rock music is how liberally that term “rock” gets applied. Other genres tend to be restrictive, even proscriptive about who they let carry their official moniker (see “jazz nazis;” I’ve met similar bluegrass gatekeepers). Rock is a genre that seems to embody a completely different agenda.
There are some purists who dismiss anything that is not in a direct line to Chuck Berry, but to me, that would indicate a “rock and roll” fan. Rock music, per se, didn’t exist at the time when Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis reigned. I place its arrival in the mid-60s with the evolutionary shifts undergone by Bob Dylan and The Beatles, a seismic chain reaction that rippled through the British Invasion bands, inspired Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, Brian Wilson, and virtually everyone else in popular music, eventually flowering into rock, the most restless, expansive, all-inclusive, and eclectic genre of music ever to come down the pike.
Eagerly fusing rock and roll with folk traditions, soul/R&B, blues, jazz, country, classical influences, and soon psychedelia, 60s rock music would continue growing and evolving and by the late 70s, it had absorbed almost everything — latin music, country, bluegrass and Americana, European classical, funk, disco, reggae and ska, Indian and Middle Eastern influences, avant-garde, modern classical, electronica, ambient music, and beyond. The rock genre encompassed a broad array of sub-genres and movements — folk rock, singer-songwriter, country rock, jazz rock, prog rock, glam rock, “blue-eyed soul,” art rock, arena rock, yacht rock, as well as punk rock, new wave, pub rock, and various appendages of post-punk, plus every conceivable form of worldbeat. At the core of rock music was not only a set of American blues and country roots, but a wandering spirit ready to bed down and mate with any genre that moved. Including polka.
Now, to say I’m into eclecticism is a major understatement; it’s a bedrock principle of mine as both a musician and a music listener, a major source of joy, and probably why I’m such a huge fan of rock. But can mere eclecticism suffice as an explanation for what happened here?
Wild, unchecked growth and meteoric expansion is something outside of our musicological experience or comprehension. With no useful comparison available in music or art, we’d have to look elsewhere for similar models of behavior for some insight.
Since the unprecedented expansion in rock music tracks closely with the explosion in record sales across the same 30-year time period (1965-1995, roughly), the first logical place to look for analogous patterns of growth is in economics. Wall Street investors only got heavily involved in music corporations once CDs caught on in the late 80s, but the general Wall Street growth model might provide some insight here.
Unlike value stocks, which are typically thought to be low-risk, meant to be held long term, and offer most of their yield through the payment of dividends, growth stocks fluctuate a lot in price, they’re prized for their potential to quickly appreciate, and are completely reliant on their stock price to attract new investors, their only real imperative. Either through quarterly reports showing actual growth of profits, or via the charisma of their CEO (see Tesla), or by showing lots of muscle through mergers and acquisitions, companies that offer growth stocks rely on the lure of great potential and the relentless push for growth from all possible sectors, manifesting in that holy grail of Wall Street — an ever-increasing stock price.
The fallout of dysfunction from the unalloyed devotion to the Wall Street growth paradigm in America can be seen everywhere you look, but that’s a matter for further study. Where this unchecked growth applies to our question about rock music is more in the area of consolidation of power, a pernicious aspect of megalomania. In economics, this results in a handful of companies successfully driving out smaller actors, buying up the competition, and controlling the marketplace in every conceivable way, resulting in corporate control of the political system and all of the injustice that follows naturally out of that unholy alliance.
In the music industry, consolidation of power is only slightly more benign. Simultaneous with the expansions in rock was a similar renaissance occurring in Black music, but emblematically, it was Woodstock that got the massive press coverage and a movie release. It was rock music that got the promo budgets and the lion’s share of press which led to more and more sales and more and more signings. Meanwhile, the newly released, Summer of Soul (a document of the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969) is blowing minds this summer of 2021, not just due to the incredible music, but because of how the footage sat on a shelf for 50+ years and what that says about racial fairness in the music industry and the consolidation of power around music that white executives and consumers controlled in rock’s heyday. And even though rock music had generally peaked and was in descendancy through the 1980s, the hegemony of white music persisted on the MTV airwaves, prompting David Bowie to issue this famous public protest in an interview conducted and aired by the network itself (to its credit).
But just as it’s hard to completely condemn a pro-white socio-economic construct that gave rise to the culture of William Shakespeare and J.S. Bach, the consolidation of power and money around rock music meant that in the frenzy to sign more and more lucrative rock acts, we also got underdogs and revolutionaries — Frank Zappa and the Mothers, The Velvet Underground, Iggy and the Stooges, Captain Beefheart, and later Patti Smith, The Ramones, The Clash, and the Sex Pistols, and finally Nirvana, all seeds of the rock power structure’s own destruction. And just as the unquenchable thirst for growth and wealth of the Wall Street paradigm (and its offspring, the private equity model) ends up shaking a whole lot of trees, so did the music industry foster an incredible amount of musical diversity under the rock umbrella. There is no justification for injustice but there’s a whole lot of bathwater to contend with (and other metaphors too) if we’re trying to honestly contend with rock history without condemning the whole endeavor as toxic.
The pure economic model is downright kindly compared to the other obvious model of unchecked growth that might provide comparison, that of colonialism.
Rock musicians may have originally approached the music of blues artists with the greatest reverence, but they didn’t express it very well and their managers, publishers, and record companies behaved like marauding Vikings descending from the north.
Loathe as I am to engage in cultural appropriation arguments (especially around music), it’s impossible to deny that our beloved rock was initially based largely on ideas, riffs, and entire songs lifted from Black America, from either the early pioneers of rock and roll or the Black blues and jazz musicians that preceded them. We fans know that these sources were rarely credited or paid, so it’s a sordid affair from the outset. That rock musicians later branched out to appropriate ideas, riffs, and songs from white Appalachia and English folk sources (with formal crediting a rarity) only shows the pattern of appropriation being reinforced.
While the business end of rock can be rightfully thought of as a bunch of marauders and pillagers, a gentler analogy is probably more appropriate to the musicians themselves, that of explorers. Despite Cortés and Pizarro, not all explorers were conquistadors (some were only occasionally murderous), and our rock adventurers themselves should probably be given a pass for cribbing from other cultures, creating the interesting, often thrilling musical hybrids that constitute so much of the rock canon. As for the adaptations and straight lifts, there’s a long tradition of “borrowing” melodies known as the folk process (coined by Charles Seeger, father of Pete), a practice that started long before there were copyright laws and publishing royalties to divvy up. It’s one thing to steal a melody from an English Folk song from centuries ago. It’s quite another to do it when the writer of the source or even their heirs are still alive.
Fitting that one of the most emblematic sequences of the Woodstock film was a montage of young white hippies en route to Yasgur’s Farm playing over Canned Heat’s “Goin Up the Country,” a song credited solely to Alan Wilson who sings it (and a huge hit for the band), but it’s a note-for-note straight lift another song, “Bull Doze Blues” written in the 1920s by Texas bluesman Henry Thomas. No credit, no royalties. More than cultural appropriation, this is actual appropriation. They wanted this melody and, in the days before sampling, Canned Heat and their team did the next best thing:
When Bob Dylan reworked Henry Thomas’s “Honey Won’t You Allow Me One More Chance” as “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance” on his Freewheelin’ album, he shared credit and songwriting royalties with Thomas. No one is doubting that Bob Dylan is a songwriting genius but he owes much to the aforementioned folk process — at least 30 melodies of his are borrowed from other songs (as this ongoing Wikipedia fully-sourced list shows in detail). A little-known fact is that creating a new work without permission from the original writers or their heirs (changing the copyright) by altering either the words or melody is not permissible by law. Led Zeppelin freely took what they wanted from other sources, dead or alive, without crediting or sharing their massive royalties with them, daring all comers to sue them for just compensation. This kind of white arrogance is just part of the legacy of rock. That it is consistent with a theme that runs through Western Civilization is not something we can just ignore if we care about justice and are interested in forging a way forward that is equitable and promising for all.
Rock music’s creative ascent started to flag by the mid-70s and disco began threatening to usurp rock’s central position in the cultural zeitgeist. Some rock artists like Bowie, Rod Stewart, and Roxy Music rolled with the evolution (Bowie releasing his two back-to-back soul classics, the light hearted Young Americans album in 1975 followed by the dark, harrowing Station to Station album the following year). The Stones’ Some Girls album in 1978 featured one of the most culturally substantive songs of the entire disco movement in “Miss You.” By 1979 even KISS had joined in with their disco-inflected “I Was Made for Lovin’ You.” But these were crossovers — for the most part, fans seriously chafed at seeing the Studio 54 culture push rock out of its dominant position in the public imagination. The backlash was misguided, violent, and ugly, culminating in 1979 with the overtly racist and homophobic Disco Demolition Night, where rock fans were encouraged by ringleader, radio DJ Steve Dahl to bring their disco albums to Comiskey Park in Chicago for a public burning (exploding, actually) between games of a doubleheader in celebration of the dominance of rock. Yikes. Though many copies of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack were destroyed, so were many non-disco albums by black artists and order broke down almost immediately. The second game was cancelled as riot police dispersed the crowd of 50,000 (the 10,000 above stadium capacity poured in without tickets). In retrospect, the event was less an anomaly than thought at the time. Toxic masculinity and white dominance is more a part of the foundation of the rock movement than stalwart fans want to consider.
I’ve been captivated by rock music my whole life. I spent my early childhood with Rubber Soul, Meet the Beatles, Bookends, a couple of Nilsson records, and the original cast album of Hair never leaving the stack of albums on our family record changer (all killer, no filler — thanks, Mom). With such great music filling our house every day, I was destined — no, imprinted to be a rock fan. Jazz, R&B, reggae, folk, country, and other forms of music have subsequently given shape to my world, but rock is and will always be my musical DNA and for better or for worse, I will always be a champion of rock music for its sheer power and eclectic soul.
But being a rock fan ain’t what it used to be. In a more innocent, less connected time, it was possible to exist blithely as a passionate fan of rock but it’s getting harder and harder to separate the music from the circumstances of its ascendancy and dominant position it had in the music industry and the culture at large, something certainly to ponder in this, the summer of Summer of Soul. Rock, like no other musical genre, is eclectic and inclusive but, on the human scale, its ascendancy represents a dominating, hegemonic socio-political legacy that is not worth preserving.
Can we still enjoy the music? Should we?
Most vegetarians don’t want to outlaw the meat industry but they do advocate that every carnivore look at and think about what it takes to get that burger onto the plate. Rock music has a glorious history but in ways, a sordid one too. We don’t need to burn our records (or the modern equivalent) but, in a hyper-connective modern world, ignorance is getting harder and harder to maintain as a believable defense in all matters. Better to accept our shortcomings and do our best to make a better future.
In Stockard Channing’s premiere episode as First Lady in The West Wing, Abbey Bartlet has a priceless exchange with press secretary C.J. Cregg. Instead of making excuses for the collection of vermeil silver on display in the White House and the controversy surrounding its oppression of workers during manufacturing, Abbey offers: “It’s our history. Better or worse, it’s our history. We’re not going to lock it in the basement or brush it with a new coat of paint. It’s our history.”
And when C.J. compliments her for her good answer, she responds: “Well, the truth’ll do it almost every time.”
The West Wing, “The State Dinner” written by Aaron Sorkin
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Viking Ship Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay
Old Map Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels
Disco Ball Photo by NEOSiAM 2021 from Pexels
Electric Guitar Photo by Méline Waxx from Pexels