Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Riff That Saved Rock

I love rock and roll. It is the soundtrack of, well, my life basically. Long as I can remember there was some kind of rock, whether it was bubblegum as a pre-pubescent teen, Elton John singing Rocket Man at the roller rink, or Black Sabbath groaning from my brother’s room. When I hear Maggie May I think of hitting puberty. If it's Boston's More Than A Feeling, it's copping more than a feeling from Marci Bartlett in an Ohio cornfield.
For my generation, rock was rebellion. It was a drastic left-turn away from the sound of our parent’s generation, which consisted of Sinatra and Streisand. It was mandatorily cool to rock. The fact that it got under our parent’s collective skin made it all that much better - “Turn that crap down!” was my dad’s favorite phrase when I was between 16 and 19 years of age. I sported tee shirts of all the concerts I attended - Blue Oyster Cult, Golden Earring, Deep Purple to name but a very few. It was a new, exciting sound.
I also realized that it had been around for about twenty years, having essentially started when Elvis stole the black man’s Delta Blues, swung his hips and made teenage girls cream their collective undergarments. But by the mid-seventies, it was still a fresh sound because it had regenerated itself a few times over - the British Invasion snatched the mantle from Elvis, who by then was busy making bad movies. Then the psychedelic sound reconstituted the 60s pop sound into a mind-expanding experience. The Vietnam War brought us the protest sounds of Crosby, Stills Nash & Young. And when I was in high school, Bruce Springsteen and his street troubadour style of gassing up the Chevy and getting the hell out of this dump of a town resonated with us teenagers wanting to tell our parents to shove it. Rock had a way of reinventing itself when it was necessary. 
The 1980s came and with it some new sounds - the punk scene gave us The Clash and U2, two very relevant bands that kept things tight. Then there was the synth-tinged, dancy stuff of bands like Psychedelic Furs, The Smiths and Depeche Mode. Not my cuppa tea, but still, interesting new sounds. But these sounds, in my mind, were fringe efforts. The mainstream of rock and roll was, unfortunately, starting to fall under its own collective excess. Pseudo-metal junk bands like Warrant, Cinderella and Poison were taking over the airwaves. These bands brought nothing new - they were a rehash of what was already done filled with vacuous lyrics. Springsteen talked about busting out - Warrant talked about busting cherries. Hairspray and spandex took over. It was a wasteland of cheesy music videos. Something had to give, lest the soundtrack of our lives turned into Driving & Crying or Stryper. There wasn't a decent rock song from 1987 through the end of that decade, save Guns 'N Roses. By 1990, rock was dying, being choked of all relevance and integrity.
Then, in 1991, a group of surly slackers from Seattle gave us the following riff -

Four power chords. F–B–A–D. Simple. Revolutionary.

And rock was saved. 
Suddenly spandex was out, flannel was in. Big hair was replaced by unwashed hair. Mosh pits were created. It was no longer about production; it was about plugging in the Gibson and letting it fly. Don’t need no mixing boards, don’t need no producer. Just let it rip. Keep it underproduced. Keep it raw. Keep the hairspray.
The Grunge Sound was born. Mother Love Bone begat Nirvana which begat Soundgarden which begat Pearl Jam which begat Alice In Chains. The sound spread from the epicenter of Seattle and bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Stone Temple Pilots built upon its new relevance. And it was a sound that was true to the roots of rock. It was in your face without making you wince at its silliness. It had the same punch as Elvis had in 1956 when he told people not to step on his Blue Suede Shoes.
Now, I understand that many may not like Grunge. That’s cool. It is a somewhat dense, depressing sound, not conducive to dancing or picking up chicks. But it saved rock. I shudder to think what would have happened had Kurt Cobain, despite all his eccentricities, had chosen not to say ‘Fuck this shit’ and didn’t try to keep rock from careening over the cliff under the weight of its own ever-increasing irrelevance. The lyrics of Smells Like Teen Spirit may have a certain amount of WTF-ness to them, but that didn’t matter. It was the sound that mattered.
A mulatto. An albino. A mosquito. My libido.

How time flies. That was twenty years ago. Thus I sense that rock may be ready for another seismic shift. The novelty of Cobain’s indulgent self-pity has long worn off and has been cloned so many times that it is now just a caricature of his original. I’m sorry, but Buckcherry just doesn’t do it for me. So the time may be ripe for another guy (or gal) to take the mantle and shake us out of our complacency. It’s time for rock to reinvent again.
Kurt said it back in 1991 - Here we are now. Entertain us.

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