“Rock and Roll is dead!”
This is a quote everyone has heard. Critics and fans alike have been claiming that rock and roll as we know it does not exist anymore and there will never be a band like insert your favourite 70’s band here again. Everything we hear now is rubbish they say. “They just don’t play them like they used to”. “These youngsters wouldn’t know good music if it slapped them in the face!”.
And so on, and so on, and so on…
Respectfully, I disagree. In my opinion, rock and roll is not dead – it’s just not as simple to define anymore.
What is rock and roll? A quick Google search will provide you with one of the simplest but thought-provoking answers imaginable – a type of popular dance music originating in the 1950’s, characterised by a heavy beat and simple melodies. Rock and roll was an amalgam of black rhythm and blues and white country music, usually based around a twelve-bar structure and an instrumentation of guitar, double bass, and drums.
So here we are saying that rock music was born out of the marriage of blues and country music. Have blues and country kicked the bucket? They evolved, yet still exist. In the same way, because rock has moved forward with the evolution of sound, has it now shuffled off this mortal coil? No. Rock music has evolved, but still exists.
Listeners will always have a subjective attitude toward music, which brings me back to the most important point – rock music is not dead, it has only evolved. If we can consider Elvis Presley and the Foo Fighters to both be rock artists in their own right, then who are we to say rock is dead? Who decides what rock sounds like now? If we whittled it down the most common denominators (i.e. a heavy beat and simple melodies) then isn’t all music rock music? The answer to that is – of course it’s not. The emergence of endless genres and sub-genres has essentially enabled listeners to pigeon-hole any band into anything they would like. It’s not as simple anymore as rock, or jazz, or blues, or country. The evolution of sound means we have divided everything up into tiny sub-genres to pinpoint the sound of a given band to a tiny factor – and to me this is where it all starts.
We can’t simply say that rock is dead, when there are now this many variables. Rock has evolved from a heavy beat and simple melodies. It is no longer defined by a simple set of guidelines. The evolution of music into the digital world has enabled musician and machine to work together to create melody in a way that has never been heard before. Music can’t be defined by the instrument being used to create it. That’s absolute crap. Music should be defined by the relationship between creator and instrument, and not the sound it produces. That is where the beauty of music lies. Who is more talented? Adele or Deadmau5? The two couldn’t be more different if they tried, but I’ve seen Adele connect with thousands by singing her heart out, and I’ve seen Deadmau5 use electronics to connect with just as many. Are either of these artists rock musicians? The basis of their music sure lies in the origins of rock, so why are they not considered rock? They have evolved the sound. If a band uses electronic sounds, are they no longer considered rock? Why are the two mutually exclusive? John Butler made himself famous by using an acoustic guitar to play distorted guitar music. Is he excluded?
The Beatles evolved the sound of the blues when they were in their heyday. It was considered rock, but did it sound like Nat King Cole? No. Did it sound like Bill Haley and the Comets? Similarities could be pointed to. The Beatles evolved a sound that currently existed, to create their own brand of music. As we move through the years, successful artists continued to experiment and change how they connected with instruments and machines to create melody. Over a period of 60-some odd years, that’s a lot of experimentation! Yet we still think that rock music belongs in this small window of sound that existed years ago.
The rock purist out there will probably argue that music featuring heavy, distorted guitars being played at a ‘headbangers’ pace by alpha males singing about beer and women is what constitutes rock. AC/DC, Cold Chisel, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, Nirvana, Tool. Are these rock bands because they have similar qualities? Or are they bands which have taken the fundamentals of rock and evolved it to their liking? Is rock music played by men in tight leather pants with big fluffy hair and colourful attire? Guns N Roses, Aerosmith, The Darkness, Airbourne, Judas Priest. Is rock played by British troubadours switching between acoustic and electric guitar? Coldplay, Travis, Keane, Arctic Monkeys, The Smiths. Is it sung by angry young men with a vendetta against life? Greenday, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Vines, The Offspring, Bad Blood. What about the many fantastic female lead bands we’ve heard over the years? Blondie, No Doubt, The Cardigans, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Peaches. How can we define rock music anymore when so many talented individuals have made it their own?
Consider the 1980’s. There were such diverse sounds being made popular, all formed out of the roots of music from the 60’s and 70’s, but evolved using the technology available to them. If we continue through until present day, that technology has evolved, and rock music has with it. It’s inevitable. If we looked back in 40 years time would we hear the same music we hear today? I would think not. For the same reason we can never take today’s music and compare it to 40 years ago. It has evolved. Whether you personally like it or not is completely up to you, and that subjectivity is what creates opinion, discussion and ultimately inspiration, which I hope never dies.
The formula of guitar, bass and drums playing loud music still exists, but from that formula we saw the evolution of music into something completely new, which is seeing it’s popularity over the past decade. We saw musicians change from tinkering with stringed instruments to tinkering with buttons, and the sound changed accordingly. I could sit hear and name one hundred bands that are still actively using that guitar/bass/drum formula. Does Japandroids sound like Queen? No, but they are using the same instruments. It is impossible now to define what rock music is, an artists inspiration has now moved the soundscape beyond simple measure. You can bet your ass any male who sings has been inspired by Freddie Mercury, in the same way that Billy Joel was inspired by Roy Orbison, or Incubus modelled their early sound on RHCP and Primus. Every time someone is inspired to create music, they will do so in their own way, most likely in a way that has never been done before. If rock music is guitar, bass and drums being used to create melody, then shouldn’t all bands sound the same now? Inspiration creates evolution. These instruments and formulas are being used as the basis to create something new. Blues became rock, rock became metal, metal became punk, punk became grunge. The sound has changed over time with artists who took what was available and tipped the formula on it’s head, creating a new sound that took a course of it’s own.
Rock and roll is not dead. We just don’t know how to define it anymore. Rock music has evolved into something that can’t be generalised any longer.
In the end, if we are listening to music only to put it in a box, then we are certainly missing the heart of music and why it is being created.