Alas Poor Rock, We Knew It Well
Rock and roll exists today only because so many have decided they're going to be rock stars or they're going to make a living as accessories to rock stars. They don't realize the era of the rock star is over.
We've seen all the clothes and poses and we've heard all the riffs. Built on ego and pretense and the dollars they require for validation, rock has become corporate and boring, with bands counting on getting signed on the way to their first rehearsal. The vogue "modern rock" format is the new Top 40, with its own share of one-hit wonders: Just as Luke Perry is no James Dean, despite the lost gaze, the likes of Bush, Sponge, and Hootie are not making important music, even if they do have stupid names.
How did rock become rote? Why did fun become meaning's sidekick? When did art outgrow the galleries and start infiltrating the genre where "Tutti Frutti" said it all? Why is everyone holding a guitar so goddamned depressed these days? Is it because they've spent so much time reading poetry they haven't had the time to learn how to play well? Hell, Chuck Berry is the greatest rock lyricist ever, and he probably thinks Rimbaud is a character Sly Stallone played in the movies.
The following albums had a lot to do with why so much of today's music is more about the hole than the doughnut. Welcome to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Mausoleum. Here are the fifteen albums that killed rock and roll:
1. Rubber Soul, the Beatles (1965). The pristine pop machine decided perfection wasn't enough; they also wanted to say something with their songs, and so they slowed them down and brought in acoustic guitars so you could hear lyrics such as "Michelle/My belle." Earlier in '65, the Beatles were rocking hard on amazing versions of "Bad Boy" and "Dizzy Miss Lizzy," as well as goosebump-inducing originals like "Eight Days a Week" and "Help!" Yet by year's end they were playing sitars and writing future Vegas standards "Norwegian Wood" and "Run for Your Life." My guess is that somewhere around the middle of '65, the Beatles found a good drug connection.
Evil spawned: The Eagles, America, Hootie and the Blowfish, Deep Blue Something, the Rembrandts, MTV Unplugged.
2. The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967). Decadence was a key part of early rock, from Little Richard to the girl groups, but the social twists were submerged in the exuberance of the music. When the Velvets just came out and sang about heroin, sadomasochism, and cross-dressing, they often played in gentle waves, with the words floating out like the self-image of someone on drugs. Rock gets real, perhaps a bit too real.
Evil spawned: Mazzy Star, Jonathan Richman, Cowboy Junkies, Violent Femmes.
3. Are You Experienced? Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968). Jimi couldn't sing, which right away made him a great role model for up-and-coming musicians, but he played the guitar better than anyone before or since. Many have imitated Hendrix, but none can match his feeling or his fingers, so you wonder why they even bother. Nobody ever looked as cool as Hendrix playing the guitar, and when he died all that was left was the footage and an army of ax-toting sycophants. Hendrix has almost as many imitators as Elvis, but like those pudgy black-haired guys in the white jumpsuits, Jimi's throng rarely gets close enough to capture the essence of the big man.
Evil spawned: Living Colour, Lenny Kravitz, Robin Trower, Frank Marino, Sonic Youth, Neil Young's Ragged Glory.
4. Live/Dead, Grateful Dead (1970). Even as the Dead had entered their most concise songwriting period, recording FM radio staples "Casey Jones," "Uncle John's Band," "Ripple," "Truckin'," and "Box of Rain" during 1970, this live LP was full of the wandering psychedelic jams that have influenced a million teens to dance with their hands. "Dark Star" has inspired more masturbation than the Dark Brothers, only in "Dark Star" they use both hands.
Evil spawned: New Bohemians, Phish, Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews Band.
5. Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell (1975). Stacking wisps of sound over rolling rhythms and using her voice where the soprano sax solo should go, Joni seemingly released this jazz-pop experiment so every future female pop singer would have something to listen to while coming of age. Although there are moments of magic, this LP is generally as boring as the mowing of summer lawns.
Evil spawned: Natalie Merchant, Juliana Hatfield, Liz Phair, Heather Nova, Edie Brickell, Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow.
6.OneNationUnderaGroove,Parliament/Funkadelic (1978). "Who Says a Funk Band Can't Play Rock?" I do. Oh, sure, the black KISS could play anything, and mastermind George Clinton found some cool jams in his update of James Brown for a drugged-out dance crowd, but songwriting was drowned in a sea of puerile sci-fi inventions. "A mental musical bowel movement," Clinton sings on "Promentalshitbackwashpsychosis," and one can only assume that he's referring to his own work. P-Funk inspired two of the scariest things on the planet: black metal bands and white funk bands.
Evil spawned: Primus, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, Fishbone, Billygoat, Living Colour, King's X.
7. Third/Sister Lovers, Big Star (1978). Introducing the warped Southern pop song, where dreariness tussles with the melody and the melody wins. Modern popsters have spent almost twenty years trying to love the limbs right off the Beatles, and it all started in Memphis with Alex Chilton and Chris Bell.
Evil spawned: Let's Active, the dBs, Rain Parade, Teenage Fanclub, Alex Chilton.
8. Off the Wall, Michael Jackson (1979). Thriller may be the best-selling album ever, but the blueprint for the current crop of pseudo-soulful R&B can be found in its predecessor. Michael was dressed in a tuxedo on the cover to signal his metamorphosis from boy II man, and producer Quincy Jones tarted up such pillow-humpers as "Rock with You" and "She's Out of My Life" as if he were decorating Diana Ross's bedroom.
Evil spawned: Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, Shai, Brandy, Bobby Brown.
9. Meat Puppets II, Meat Puppets (1983). Anytime you see a roots band that's playing badly for art's sake, you can give a tip of the cap to Arizona's Puppets, who made this sun-stroked country rock at a time when punk music was all about faster, faster, kill, kill. The Velvets can probably claim "lo-fi" along with all their other credits, but the Meat Puppets were the modern pioneers. In its way this record was as influential to a new breed of country boy as were the Flying Burrito Brothers in their day.
Evil spawned: Giant Sand, the Grifters, Palace Brothers, Sebadoh.
10. Confusion Is Sex, Sonic Youth (1983). Too smart to rock and roll, these East Village People have been erroneously labeled "post-punk" when they're really "post-rock." Deconstructionists of the first order, S.Y. succeeded in butchering and maiming the pop canon with weird tunings, abrasive feedback, and really shitty vocals. Yeah, I know, S.Y. copped a lot from Glenn Branca and Euro-wank bands such as Can and Neu, but none of those people headlined Lollapalooza.
Evil spawned: Dinosaur Jr, Pussy Galore, Nice Strong Arm, Royal Trux.
11. Power, Corruption and Lies, New Order (1983). The point at the center of this album's incredibly wide sphere of influence is the programmed drumbeat on "Blue Monday," which was widely sampled by Frankie Knuckles and Silk Hurley during the inception of house music. A speeded-up portion of the drums on "Blue Monday" could also be the foundation for Ministry's aural assault. Boy, imagine a world without either house music or industrial.
Evil spawned: House music and all its spinoffs, Depeche Mode, Erasure, nine inch nails.
12. Ride the Lightning, Metallica (1984). Where their 1983 debut LP pioneered thrash metal, this follow-up introduced a lot of gloomy material, including the suicidal "Fade to Black" and the electric-chair ode of the title track. Do we need all this self-pitying angst? I liked it better when heavy metal songs were about screwing girls with big butts.
Evil spawned: Pantera, Slayer, Anthrax, Korn.
13. Psychocandy, Jesus and Mary Chain (1985). With backing tracks that sounded like lightning hitting a sheet metal plant, this Scottish band set out to make pop music ugly and succeeded brilliantly. Brought back feedback, phaseshifters, and fog machines.
Evil spawned: My Bloody Valentine, Wedding Present, Ride, Pale Saints, Cranes.
14. Three Feet High and Rising, De La Soul (1989). Hippie-hop is born! Called innovative for finding things to rhyme about other than sex and violence, this album took the edge off hip-hop and showed that "trippy" is in the mind of the beholder.
Evil spawned: P.M. Dawn, Digable Planets, Jazzmatazz, Tribe Called Quest.
15. Nevermind, Nirvana (1991). The best way to destroy a band is to make it real popular real fast. It broke up the Beatles and splattered the Sex Pistols; the oppressive adoration and the boundary-erasing mega-success of this album and the single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" proved to be more than Kurt Cobain could handle. Be careful what you wish for.
Evil spawned: "Modern rock" (i.e., Helmet, Silverchair, Live, Bush, Seven Mary Three, Collective Soul, Alanis Morisette, Everclear, anything on
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.