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?
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.”
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.
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:
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.”
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.”
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.