My wife Diana and I were in the European Café in Colorado Springs a few Saturdays ago when a guy came through the patio door, looked at me and asked, “You the guy with the Red Sox license plates?” I was proud to answer “yes,” because the Red Sox were still in the League Championship Series and hadn’t yet forgotten how to swing their bats.
Diana and I grew up in Connecticut and it turns out this dude had as well. He was about my age, plays guitar, and used to play in bands around CT as I had. We even played in some of the same nightclubs like Mad Murphy’s and The Russian Lady, which is still in Hartford. I believe I still owe some money at the Lady on a band tab.
This man named Mark and I bored Diana into a coma as we waxed nostalgic about the circuit back there and our favorite bands. He asked me if I knew who Al Anderson was, and we sure did. Big Al was the phenomenal guitar player for NRBQ and originally with the Wild Weeds. NRBQ played all around New England and eventually all 48 states and was a wild favorite everywhere they went.
Eventually he got around to the big question: “What do you think about modern music?” I replied, “It sucks.”
To be fair, when he said modern music, I immediately thought of Adele, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Rihanna, basically the darlings of the Grammys. He knew I was a column writer for Copper because we had talked about the series I’m doing on Tom Waits. Also, I tell everyone I meet that I’m a writer, hoping to impress someone fer cryin’ out loud.
Mark suggested I do a column on what’s happened to rock and roll.
I initially dismissed the idea. I was mentally in the middle of the Waits series and wanted to stay focused. I have a short attention span. But within an hour and after some reflection I thought this was a pretty good idea. Thanks, Mark. Waits will have to um, wait.
Again, that cursed attention span.
I can feel the hairs springing up on the back of my neck. That usually means I’ve struck a nerve and I’m going to get some nasty comments from the pop fans out there about how wonderful life is with Taylor Swift. Bring it on. I’m not through yet and bound to piss off many more.
I will not compare today’s pop to yesterday’s. Dat crap’s been done. I won’t even compare current wunderkind guitar players, and they are out there, folks, to guys like Hendrix, Page, Van Halen and Stevie Ray. That doesn’t explain anything.
What I found interesting were my talks with people on this subject. I asked 20- and 30-year-old folks who their current favorite guitarists were. For the most part they looked embarrassed, and finally stammered out someone like John Mayer, Jack White or David Grohl. Note: none of those players was born after 1978.
My research did turn up fantastic young players, unbelievable guitar players. My son (thedeanwoodward.com), who helps run a music store, pointed out that guitar sales have skyrocketed during the pandemic, so possibly we may see a resurgence in interest and guitar-playing genius. He also directed me towards Norway and Finland, where the guitar is still a god. But what had happened ubiquitously to guitar as a major influence since 1985 took reflection.
Certainly, the disappearance of guitar in pop music, starting in the 1990s, and the emergence of keyboard techno and sampling, played a part. Still, that had to have happened because the public lost interest in rock and roll in general and guitar in particular. No small part of that causation can be blamed on the takeover of the radio waves by corporate classic rock idiots who think the only hit Hendrix ever had was “All Along the Watchtower.”
So, chicken? Egg?
Consider this. For you old coots out there, remember the dominance of guitar in music from 1965 to 1985. I can name a song, not necessarily a hit, and the lick will jump into your head. If you hear a snippet of that song your brain opens:
- Opening bars to Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary”
- Opening bars to Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker”
- First bars of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride”
- Signature opening riff to Deep Purple’s “Strange Kind of Woman”
- Opening to the Who’s “Pinball Wizard”
- Opening riff to “Layla”
- Opening to the Allman Brothers’ “Statesboro Blues”
- That four-note haunt that starts “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”
- I’m at work so sans guitar, but as I remember, Bb, F, G, E [yes – Ed.]
- Any part of Van Halen’s “Eruption”
- Opening riff to Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung”
And what about acoustic guitar in rock? Like:
- “Wish You Were Here”
- Steve Howe’s beginning of Yes’ “Roundabout”
- Recurring refrain in Tull’s opus, “Thick as a Brick”
- Jimmy Page’s use of acoustic on songs like “Stairway to Heaven,” “Over the Hills and Far Away” and most of Led Zeppelin III.
By the way. I’ve been waiting to say this somewhere. “Since I’ve Been Loving You” off Zeppelin III is hands down the best studio rock blues recording ever done. Stop, just stop. I’m right and you know it.
All right. There’s only one way to prove this. Headphones on please. Shhh. Just relax. If yer reading this, you have nothing better to do.
But I digress.
The list of licks is endless, and my intrepid readers will no doubt point out some glaring omissions.
Guitar defined rock and roll from Chuck Berry to Elvis Costello and the Clash. We do need to consider how record companies and radio stations kept remembering how to mold pop tastes. When I was a mere prat, AM radio dominated the airwaves, and certainly the stations owned by corporate nincompoops had already locked in on what they considered sales material. There are plenty of instances, even back in the mid 1960s, of hits shoved down everyone’s throats like “Winchester Cathedral.” Lord, my mom loved that song, and I use the term “song” loosely. There is a good story about the production of “Winchester Cathedral” and I’m ashamed to know it.
Turn the page to my teen years and the advent of FM rock. At first these stations mostly consisted of college stations with DJs who were as stoned as we were and had full reign in the studio. I remember when our whole school was abuzz when one local FM station announced they would play “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in its entirety on a Tuesday evening at 7 pm. The waste of that evening belies the tale. There was a buzz.
The format for the college FM stations was so open that the college kids who DJ’d at the stations could choose the music being played. We were exposed to everything from the Allman Brothers to Zappa. It was glorious, and one developed loyalty to certain DJs because of the types of music they played.
So, what happened? This is not one old guy’s rant about how life was better when we had to walk to school carrying rocks. Backpacks my ass, man. You walked with a serf’s load of books twice a day and ate lunch that damn near killed you.
I honestly want to understand.
Recently I was watching a video on Rick Beato’s YouTube channel (he’s a well-known YouTube musician and video personality) titled “Has Every Song Been Written?” with guest Rhett Shull.
They were talking generally about what had happened to rock, and Shull mentioned something that grabbed my attention. Shull’s point was there was a phenomenon he called a “negative feedback loop” that happens when listeners gravitate to something simple, and the record companies who really know nothing better than to replicate anything successful, rinse and repeat. The audience’s ears get used to that simplification and the downhill slide continues until bingo, you have Doja Cat and autotune.
This spectacle is not without precedent. Rock had slid down that slope in the late 1950s. Elvis had decided he wanted to do movies and become Sinatra. People stopped listening to rockabilly, or rock- or blues-related material (in the US, anyway) and the negative feedback loop by 1962 left us with hits like “Ahab the Arab” by Ray Stevens and Bobby Vinton’s “Roses Are Red.”
Shame on you (and welcome to the monkey house) if either of those songs just popped into your head.
Then came the Beatles. In 1963 they released Please Please Me and With the Beatles. There were six cover songs out of 14 sides on the former and five covers on the latter. They had not completely formed as a band writing all their songs, but they had a good start. Still, the hit songs were bubblegum drops like “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me.” Wow. Autocorrect changed ‘hit’ to ‘sh*t’ right there and I almost missed it. Maybe autocorrect was right. The songs were still pleasing to the average pop ear and not representative of anything that really stretched sensibilities.
But the Beatles were sneaky.
Each subsequent album raised the bar slowly on what pop could be. And others were coming. In 1964 the Rolling Stones released the Rolling Stones and 12 X 5. In contrast to the Beatles, there was one original song on the first and three on the second. However, the Rolling Stones were tapping hard into the blues from America and developing a following that was separate from the Beatles.
As albums progressed further along the positive feedback loop, ears were getting accustomed to more sophisticated material. Look at the progression from A Hard Day’s Night to Rubber Soul to Revolver. By 1965 you had the Yardbirds, the Who, the Sonics, the Kinks, the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd. Frank Zappa was getting his feet wet at that time, but you can’t count him in this discussion. Frank was an alien.
None of those bands would have had a Gremlin’s chance at Le Mans before 1963, but by 1965 the pendulum was swinging and clanging a siren song to ears that would eventually spawn King Crimson, Yes, Weather Report, Brand X and Gentle Giant. The tree of rock grew vociferously and stayed growing that way for 30 years, and in some ways is still growing in patches.
I believe we are again in 1962 territory where pop is gathering moss…and waiting. To follow the ways of feedback loops, if a Yes-type band came along now, and folks I am telling you they are out there, the listeners would be no more ready for it than they would have been in 1962. The Beatles certainly didn’t plan their journey; in many ways they followed their muse to Sgt. Pepper’s. Plus, there was a heady stew of competition between all those bands as they tried to outdo each other on every subsequent album.
No, the next revolution will start innocently with a band that begins with something harkening back to earlier rock and progresses slowly and willfully, with more bands following and creating a new genre that will still be undeniably rock and roll.
I would trade in my IRA to experience 1963 to 1985 again. Of course, I only have $600 in my IRA but…I’d still do it.
To paraphrase Zappa, rock and roll isn’t dead, it just smells funny. We wait patiently for the next generation to wake us up.
Header image: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, 1971.