I’ve been diving into the history of rock music recently because, quite by chance a few weeks ago, I glimpsed an answer to a couple of odd little questions that had been occasionally been bothering me for decades.
The most obtrusive of these questions is: Why does nothing in today’s rock music sound like the Beatles?
It’s a pertinent question because the Beatles were so acclaimed as musical innovators in their time and still so hugely popular. And yet, nobody sounds like them. Since not long after the chords of the “Let It Be” died away in 1969, every attempt to revive the Beatlesy sound of bright vocal-centered ensemble pop has lacked any staying power among rock fans. It gets tried every once in a while by a succession of bands running from Badfinger to the Smithereens, and goes nowhere. Why is this?
Another, related question is: Why does so very little in today’s rock music sound like Chuck Berry?
Inventor of rock and roll, they still call him. And yet outside of occasional tributes and moments of self-conscious museumizing, nobody writes rock music that sounds anything like “Johnny B. Goode” anymore. Modern tropes and timbre are vastly different. Only the rock beat – only the drum part – survives pretty much intact.
It’s odd, when you think about it. The sound that electrified the late Fifties and Sixties is still revered, but it’s gone. The basic rock beat remains, but everything above it has been flooded out, replaced by something harder and darker.
We all sort of know, even as casual listeners, that rock has evolved a lot. There’s even a tendency for the term “rock and roll” to nowadays be specifically confined to the older sound, with “rock” standing alone to refer to the more modern stuff.
But…what happened? What made the newer sound we all take for granted? Where did it come from?
If and when you start wondering about this, YouTube is a terrific research library. You can use the search facility to hop across decades and genres. With Wikipedia to trace connections among artists this sort of musicological forensics is probably easier than it has ever been before.
I’ve been listening while I programmed, and taking occasional times out to think about what I was hearing and how it fits into a larger picture. My first clue was a quip in an article about the legendary Chicago blues guitarist Buddy Guy, who reported bring irritated when people thought he was imitating Jimi Hendrix when in fact it was rather the other way around.
Here’s what I found. The sea-change happened between 1969 and 1971. The moving figures were: Jimi Hendrix. British Invasion bands like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and the Who. American West Coast bluesmen like Mike Bloomfield and Al Cooper. The San Franciso acid-rock scene. And many lesser imitators.
What they did was raze old-school rock-and-roll to the ground, replacing it with a bastard child of LSD and Chicago-style hard electric blues. That angry, haunting, minor-key idiom is what buried the Beatles and put a stamp on rock music so final that today the sound of any modern arena rocker – like, say, Guns’n’Roses – is recognizably the same thing musicians began to record around 1970.
(Which it should be pointed out, is a very long run for a mass-market pop genre. It’s as though in 1970 our radios had still been full of pop in forms dating from 1925…)
Yesterday I listened to the first three albums by the James Gang (“Yer Album”, 1969, “The James Gang Rides Again”, 1970; “Thirds”, 1971) for the first time in probably 35 years. Why? Because when I stretched my mind back to try to remember the earliest pieces of music that would sound completely in place on a modern rock playlist and were recorded by people neither black nor British, “Funk #49” and “Walk Away” leapt to mind. Go listen, and think about how undated and modern Joe Walsh’s guitar work sounds…
You can hear the transition happening on these albums. The 1969 one sounds like a midwestern imitation of a Fillmore acid jam session – loose, spacy, a collage of half-assimilated influences from old-school rock and roll, country, blues, and psychedelia. It has clever bits but is kind of a mess. Walsh’s signature guitar tambre is there, but he’s still stumbling.
1971 is subtly different. It’s played harder; the phrasing is tighter, the dynamic range is wider, the compositions sure-footed. We’re not listening to a collage of influences any more; this is its own thing, and the mature playing style Walsh would exhibit on later solo classics like “Rocky Mountain Way” and bring to the Eagles in 1975 is established.
Stepping back a bit, the style he settles into is much, much more like hard Chicago blues than it is like like Chuck Berry or the Beatles or Buddy Holly. You can’t really pick this up by listening to modern rock, because that’s what everything sounds like (Walsh’s later fame was a contributing factor). You have to go back to pre-1970s blues, from before the transition I’m talking about, to really get it.
I’m pointing at players like Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James…the men who took Delta blues and urbanized it and amped it up, adding electric guitars and jazz-inflenced rhythm sections. John Lee Hooker was more Delta than Chicago but seems to have had a particularly strong influence on the Chicago sound as rockers received it.
This was all going on in the decade and a half before “Yer Album”, parallel to 1950s proto-rockers and the Beatles but running pretty separate from them. It was blacker and more urban, while white proto-rockers owed more to Texas swing and country music and gospel than to blues. You can hear that in, for example, Buddy Holly or Elvis Presley.
Earlier, I had “or British” in some qualifiers. It’s pretty well-trodden ground that the British Invasion bands were made of guys who had become fascinated by blues music in the England of the early 1960s. They crossed the Atlantic bringing that enthusiasm with them. This is well known, but it’s often thought of as a minor historical point with only unspecified and vague relevance to later music.
What I’m arguing is that the ensuing victory of hard blues over pre-1969 “rock and roll” was so total that it made itself nigh-invisible. We can see it, sideways, by noticing that today everyone from before the transition sounds quaint and rootsy and – even when as listenable as the Beatles – not actually very relevant to modern rock.
Cue up any modern leather-jacketed rock hero. Then cue up Buddy Holly or a random early Beatles single. Then cue up Howlin’ Wolf. I think you’ll see what I mean – or, properly, hear it.