The State of Rock Today – Part II

Nobody pictured above actually has a song in this post. I just dug the picture.

In Part One of my magnum opus (heh!), I pondered whether rock was still a viable life force or if like ’40’s big band music, it was dying on the vine, doomed to shuffle off this mortal coil with its generation. You can go read that one. I won’t rehash it here.

But Part II is less about whether rock is viable at all, less about the quality and more about the – for want of a better word – variety. The reason I prefer not to talk about it from a quality point of view is simply that quality – or the judgment on what is and is not quality –  has a flavor of subjectivity. One man’s ceiling, Paul Simon says, is another man’s floor. “It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” says the selfsame Mr. S.

So what do I mean by variety? It’s this – I would argue that much rock I hear today sounds like much other rock I hear today. Homogenous. Four or five guys or gals pounding it out on bass, drums, guitar. (Or sometimes, just drums and guitar.)  It’s not bad shit per se. It’s just that I’m not hearing any real variation in sound. And here is where I’m gonna put on my baby boomer hat.

Because it occurred to me one day while pondering this that not only was there an extraordinary amount of great music in the, let’s say, mid-’60’s to late ’70’s, into the early ’80’s, there was also a fairly wide variety of styles and colors. A wide range, if you will, on a scale of 1 to 10 rather than a narrow range from, say, 4 – 6.

Case in point – the band Traffic. All by themselves, they were a musically diverse lot. Their album John Barleycorn Must Die is a prime example. (Fellow blogger Cincinatti Babyhead did a nice write-up a while back.) Released in 1970, instrumentation includes organ, piano, sax, flute, percussion.

I’m thinking of the tune “Glad.” And it’s an instrumental. A jazzy one. And it kicks off an album that is a mostly indescribable mix of jazz, rock, and folk. Who the fuck does that any more?

Spotify link

Now don’t get me wrong. There was a lot of traditional 3-chord rock being churned out back in the day. And a fair amount of dross. Twenty-minute songs that went nowhere. Interminable drum solos. Some pretentious bullshit got tossed around. “Brother” this and “revolution” that. But at least bands were trying to push the fucking envelope. I think that maybe artists back then had a wider palette of colors they were allowed to paint from.

And I can’t say if that’s because they were more talented, had more exposure to a wider variety of sources or if the musical environment allowed for this kind of creative expression. If you pushed me on that, I’d opt for the latter. Boppin’s Blog and I were chatting about this recently when we talked about Lou Reed. See his post here on Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, another boundary-pusher.

Was there any greater tribute to eclectic style than Frank Zappa? He did everything from doo-wop to classical to jazz and back again. All with just enough weirdness to make it count. But boy could these mothers play.

From Hot Rats, “Peaches En Regalia.”

Spotify link

I’ve talked before in an earlier post about Mike Oldfield’s great Tubular Bells . You can check that out at your leisure. But again, who puts out a double-sided instrumental album that is essentially a guitar-based rock suite? (I am not even going to get into Tommy and Quadrophenia here.)

You are now saying to yourself, What about some horn-driven rock? Better yet about how about a great horn-driven Steve Winwood song? Sure. Chicago (Transit Authority.) “I’m a Man.” Oh, yeah.

Spotify link

I know, I know. That blew you out. Is that what’s troubling you, bunky? Of course you then need to mellow out with a little smooth jazz courtesy of Gil Scott-Heron. If you didn’t listen to Gil or get into him at some point, I’m telling you, you missed something. He was unique and I can’t think of anybody currently with his mix of poetry, jazz and social conscience:

Spotify link

Progressive rock had been somewhat underway already by the time King Crimson showed up. But my guess is that they did as much to invent the genre and push it along as much as anyone else. Robert Fripp here on guitar with the late Greg Lake on vocals.

From 1969, “The Court of the Crimson King.”

Spotify link

And finally, it’s time to do something nice and easy. The problem, of course, is that Tina Turner never does nothin’ nice and easy. Lordy, get out the fire extinguisher. It’s “Proud Mary.”

Spotify link

Anyway, I’m not 100% sure I got my point across or just gathered together a nice collection of tunes. The point of all that was not to say, Boy am I nostalgic for the good old days. (Well, maybe a little.) Or boy, that generation was great, this one sucks. It’s really about that wide spectrum from rock to blues to jazz and back, seamlessly.

But I do miss being able to just flick on the radio and hear all this variety. Or you’d walk into a record store or that place that sold stereo equipment and they’d be playing this stuff. Or something you’d never heard and you’d say, “Man, I gotta check those guys out.” Or it was all just bursting out of apartment buildings and from car radios and from clubs.

This variety may well be out there today. I hear it to some extent. I’ve got satellite radio. Problem is you just gotta work too hard to find it.

 

15 thoughts on “The State of Rock Today – Part II

  1. I agree, Jim. Bands today don’t have the heterogeneousness they used to. Again, I think it’s (mainly) Big Business’ fault. Major record labels discourage experimentation. You have to fit into a certain niche to even get a contract. I’m listening to the progressive bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles right now, and their Wikipedia entry shows 7 different chart evaluators in the U.S. alone: Grass, Rock, Folk, Alt, Indie, Heat (whatever that is), and “regular.” The fact that T by T was able to hit all of them is testament to their broad appeal and heterogeneousness, but they’re a serious exception to the rule.

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    1. Right. And I look back to those wide-open days and realize that there was more a community of rockers. I think of that Canadian train ride in 1970 called “Festival Express.” The Dead, Joplin, The Band, Delaney and Bonnie. All traveling together cross-country. Of course they were getting high. But there was a fervent community and sharing of ideas. Something that occurs to me after writing that post is this – maybe rock is a little tired. There were no boundaries back then. So they were inventing prog-rock, they were inventing folk-rock, they were inventing blues-rock, they were inventing jazz-rock. So maybe it’s just harder in part because they can only expand on what’s there, not invent it. Could be my ears are just tired too. I hear something and say, yeah, already heard it.

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  2. How good does ‘Glad’ sound? Another Traffic album coming up on my side. Like your “indescribable mix ….and who does that anymore?”. No kidding. They’re out there Doc. Somewhere. FZ ? That’s funny. Reading CB’s mail again. I lived in his music for a long time. Maybe it’s the jams? Maybe its just “those Mothers can play”. Chicago does a good job on that one. What a groove. Also like the guitar. KC and CB spent lots of time together also. Help me out with Gil. I completely missed the boat. I need a starting point. An album I can live in for a while. Always liked the tastes I’ve heard. The cut you posted is very very cool. I wonder how much Fogerty liked that version? Great post Doc. Not a bad cut.

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    1. I was driving around the other day, trying to think of songs to illustrate what I wanted to say in this post. ‘Glad’ came on and I cranked it up 11. I remembered your piece so it was a nice tie-in. We share a love for Zappa, no question. He will pop up periodically. As to Gil Scott-Heron, you actually commented on him way back when you first started reading here. You said you weren’t that familiar with him. Do a search on my search bar under his name and you’ll find the post. About a year ago. Poet, jazzer – interesting dude. Lotta great different stuff. Album-wise I like “The First Minute of a New Day.” I like Side One of his “Best of” better than Side Two. As to Fogerty, he loved Tina’s version. He also loved Solomon Burke’s. What’s your overall thought on the variety of music back then vs. now? Feel free to tell me I’m full of shit if i am.

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      1. I remember the GSH take. Now that I’m Spotified I have no excuse. Top of the list. Still going to look for some cds. Traffic/Zappa have always been two of my favorite go to music sources. Right up there with Bruce, The Band (and many others). Listening to Burke’s version right now and yeah I can see why he liked it. Very good. Thanks for that.

        As to your question, I think a big difference is bands/musicians learning their chops playing live. Is there bars and bar bands anymore? Back when you could hear so many styles of music live. I remember seeing some pretty big names (before they made it big) playing in shit holes, clubs, lounges etc. We talked about Heart being popular in Vancouver. They played clubs that only seated a few hundred (and not always full) and they played their asses off. I remember they would pull out Yes’s ‘ Roundabout and just kill it. You name your fave bands Doc, the Beatles, any blues person you like and they all played bars. Disco came in (and I know how much you liked that) and I think the game changed. Live music was pushed to the outside , underground and CB went with it. I don’t know about you but I know I’m full of shit. Possibly the longest comment in CB’s history. My finger is sore. I bit on your question.

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        1. Yeah, I think you make a really good point about the live thing. Bands had to know their shit and they were playing for fairly knowledgeable audiences. Now it’s not that there aren’t live bar bands these days. But I can tell you that, for example, Boston isn’t the hotbed of clubs it used to be. Clubs closed but were never replaced one-for-one. So there are still some around but definitely fewer. There are still a couple of good jazz clubs around. But to hear that mix of good stuff you and I like to hear, I’ve gotta drive almost an hour west to one club that features all that stuff. But frankly, that place is the other side of these bands being popular. Still good but not big like in the good old days.

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        2. Really good topic Doc but I can just go on my experience and I know for sure I’m not up on the current music scene. I was never up on the scene back in the day but there was so much good music. I find I’m going back and discovering people I missed, GSH for example. And so much jazz and blues yet to get into.

          Now that you got me going a bit, I really don’t pay attention to awards, hall of fame things etc. I pick up things by accident. I think I’ve heard you mention that J Geils is not in the hall. If that’s true CB has to ask himself what the hell is that? Things like that tend to lose me,from paying attention.

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        3. I used to be up on the ‘current scene’ many years ago. I still try to keep up with what’s going on. But many bands come and go without my even knowing of their existence. But I find if they’re good, somebody usually advises me of them. I get more out of the blogosphere on that than anywhere else. Geils is nominated again this year. Not sure how they’re doing, vote-wise. Maybe this year, maybe not. Yeah, the whole thing is kinda bullshit but hey, it’s fun to observe from a distance.

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  3. I don’t want to be old man shouting at clouds (because I’m only 38) but I do think that one reason why rock music was arguably more vital in the 1960s and 1970s was because it took on board influences from outside rock – blues, folk, jazz etc. Whereas later rock music drew from earlier rock music, and ended up more sterile in some ways. This isn’t an issue for a genre like metal, which is intrinsically artificial and sterile, but not so good for rock and roll. Of course there are lots of other things going on too – fragmentation is also huge – but it’s probably similar to what your post is driving at?

    One of my favourite (and one of the most critically acclaimed) musicians from the 21st century is Sufjan Stevens, and he has clearly taken on board influences from outside rock music, like Steve Reich.

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    1. I will play the old man shouting at clouds role. 😀 What you say about the other influences is unquestionably true. Rock picked up on all those influences because it was ALLOWED to do so and audiences ate it up. Maybe not always in a mass market sense but enough for bands and record companies to pay the bills and then some. But I’m reminded by this that rock then was more complex but got back to simplicity once the punks came in. So some of the – for want of a better word – diversity got hammered out of it. And of course, later generations did their own thing and weren’t beholden to blues or jazz or even soul. All of which is expected and understandable but leaves less, as you say, to pull from. If a band today is influenced by say, Nirvana and Green Day those are good influences. But they’re limiting. And yeah, like so many things including the profusion of different channels, there’s much fragmentation.

      Funny you should mention Sufjan Stevens. I’ve been aware of him and just the other day heard a song called “Visions of Gideon” by him I want to feature on one of my posts. Dreamy.

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  4. Really enjoyed the song choices. You showed us how diversified music was back then. Almost all of these tunes are on one of my playlists. I still remember the first time I saw Ike & Tina do Proud Mary on TV. Her voice just blew me away

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