Is rock and roll alive and kicking or, as Gene Simmons would have us believe, dead and buried? Rock and roll, in its purest form, on stage and in front of a live audience, is alive and kicking! It always has been and it always will be. As a major and significant contributor to musical culture and fashion, however, it has lost the real purpose of its existence. Rock and roll has been overtaken by dance friendly, Electro-Pop and Rap as the music of choice on mainstream radio and television. Rock and roll needs to reassert its rebellious authority by offering something new, radical and influential. Rock and roll is still loved by its millions of devoted fans as I exemplified in my article on guitar sales and popularity but it has been nearly twenty-five years since the last significant and profound musical movement turned rock and roll upside down. Grunge and the Seattle Sound, with their heavily distorted guitars and angst-filled lyrics, was rock and roll nirvana. In the UK, Britpop was the last musical oasis worthy of note - even if it was a little blurred around the edges.
Waiting For The Next Big Thing Or Musical Nirvana!
There hasn’t been anything new or significant in rock and roll since
the early 1990s when Grunge turned it upside down.
Where are the inventors, radicals, mavericks and free spirits who have the ingenuity, passion and soul to create the next cultural rock and roll revolution? Surprisingly, they are alive and kicking too. You can find them on stage every evening performing what could be the next big thing. The problem is, however, we can’t hear them because rock and roll is no longer played on mainstream radio and television. If you want to hear it you have to look elsewhere. Over the past twenty years or so, rock and roll has been slowly segregated from mainstream popular music - and it happened through no fault of its own. It’s not only rock and roll that has been segregated from mainstream radio and television. It’s guitar-based music in general. What caused the segregation and why do we need a new rock and roll cultural revolution? If I may be so bold!
When rock and roll first appeared it was marketed as popular music. “Greetings Pop Pickers”, as Alan “Fluff” Freeman used to say. Back in the day, individual musical styles were all grouped together and labelled “Pop Music”. The Beatles, James Brown and Bob Dylan, for example, were all marketed as one easily identifiable musical commodity. As the years rolled by and each musical style or genre grew in numbers, it was deemed necessary by the record industry, for marketing purposes, to group and compartmentalize them. Soon these genres became so big that they had to be divided into sub-genres. Once these genres were established they became individual musical industries in their own right, each catering specifically to their musical culture and fanbase. When I was growing up in the early 1980s and buying LPs and singles, my local record store was divided up into musical compartments. Dance/Electronic, Rock/Heavy Metal and New Wave were all labelled and easy to find. There was also chart music or Pop as the record industry was still inclined to call it. This genre of music was typified by all the mainstream artists of the day. All these genres were, in essence, quietly competing against one another. Initially, the majority of consumers did not see it this way because they were more than happy to purchase different genres of music. Television and radio stations followed the charts and aired all these different styles of music under the mainstream banner. You only have to watch old repeats of Top of the Pops to see the individual genres vying for your attention.
By the mid 1980s music had entered the MTV video age. MTV was hugely influential and each musical genre had to turn up the volume if it wanted maximum airtime. Consequently, they were all jockeying for position. Rock and roll had to fight hard for mainstream ascendancy and bands such as ZZ Top and their Eliminator videos helped maintain the status quo. Each genre was becoming ever more industrious and competitive. Creative marketing was essential if rock and roll was to remain in the mainstream spotlight and the arrival of Guns N’ Roses was the gift that kept on giving. By the late 1980s, rock and roll had lost its way. It was too clichéd and had turned into a parody of itself. As we entered the 1990s, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince were the royal courtiers of Pop. Hip Hop and Rap were established musical genres. Artists such as Chuck D and Public Enemy, Calvin Cordozar “Snoop Dogg” Broadus and Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs had become household names and rock and roll was only saved from eternal ignominy by Grunge. The Seattle Sound had revitalised rock and roll by going back to basics and, not since the days of Malcolm McLaren and Punk, had rock and roll such a strong identity and raison d’etre. We did not know it at the time but rock and roll had taken its mainstream popularity curtain call.
As we approached the new Millennium, rock and roll had slipped of the mainstream radar and was no longer fashionable. Grunge had died with Kurt Cobain and rock and roll withdrew into itself. Dance, Hip Hop and Pop were the musical genres getting all the attention. The music industry was changing too. Digital technology was starting to make an impact and the record store, as I knew and loved it, was approaching the end of side two, metaphorically speaking. You did not need recording studios anymore. You could create and record your own music at home using a computer and appropriate musical software. You could sample various tunes, hooks and lyrics from past recordings and artists such as Fat Boy Slim and Moby became hugely successful overnight. Consequently, they became the new generation of “rock and roll” stars. You did not need record and distribution companies either. If you created a single, for example, you could distribute it directly through your website. By the mid 2000s, digital on-line downloading and file sharing were having a major impact on the music industry in terms of lost revenue. Music files were easily accessible and if you knew where to look you could download your music for free; and if Gene Simmons is to believed, aiding and abetting in the murder of rock and roll. Television talent shows and associated marketing companies were now setting the popular musical agenda to commercial effect. Marketing had changed too. Facebook, You Tube and social networking had become part of our everyday existence. With every click, post and comment, music retailers (along with everybody else in the world of retail) could easily assess your musical tastes and target you accordingly.
Today, mainstream is the be-all and end-all of the music industry. You hear it all day, every day. It has become predicable, lackluster and robotic. It is just another retail commodity and similar to fast food: relatively cheap to produce and consume, readily available and quickly digested, where marketing is everything, and content is simply the means to the end. If you purchase mainstream music today, or any music for that matter, you can download it directly to your smart phone where it becomes just another application bidding for your attention. Smart phone technology has completely revolutionized the way we engage with society. Everything we need for twenty-first century survival can be downloaded to your smart phone. Today, we communicate with one another by social networking application software. We have become a nation of anti-social, social networking zombies glued to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and similar communication applications. How we find the time to talk to one another, let alone listen to music, is anyone’s guess! Consequently, we no longer value music in the way we did before digitalization.
Back in the days of analogue, I would often walk into my local record store and browse through countless boxes of LPs in the hope of finding something rare and wonderful. In those days, buying an LP was a pleasurable experience, something to be treasured. Music was your passion. You valued your collection, not monetarily, but musically. Your collection said more about you as a person than any other group of objects you owned. Your collection was also physical. You could touch it. Today, it is all hidden away on your computer, tablet and smart phone. You can’t touch and love an MP3 file like you could an old 45! With a record or cassette, your music was three-dimensional, literally, physically and socially. Now, it is a two-dimensional mathematical binary file. We need to put our smart phones down and engage with music again. To do that, we need something new and exhilarating to listen to. We need the next big thing. The time has come for the greatest music on earth to flex its creative muscles and save us, not only from twenty-first century musical monotony, but from ourselves too. How can it do this?
Historically, rock and roll has always had the gift of re-engaging with its fanbase by going back to basics. Punk came along at a time when rock and roll had become too narcissistic and out of touch with its audience. In London, The Clash, The Damned and the Sex Pistols stripped it back to the bone. Likewise, The Ramones and Television in New York. We could relate to these bands because they spoke for us rather than at us. Ditto Grunge and the Seattle Sound fifteen years later. Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden spoke for the next generation of teenagers who required spiritual fulfillment! I am not saying that today’s musical wilderness requires a back to basics approach for redemption. However, if you believe that history repeats itself then we are overdue the next back-to-basics movement. If that is the case, Brighton’s Royal Blood could be the big thing that ignites the inferno. After all, they have stripped rock and roll back to the marrow, let alone the bone!
As I stated at the beginning of this article, the inventors, radicals, mavericks and free spirits who have the ingenuity, passion and soul to create the next cultural rock and roll revolution are alive and kicking. As music fans we owe it to them to make their voices heard. Therefore, the time has come to take our heads out of the digital stratosphere and return to planet earth and engage with rock and roll again. If we don’t, we shall lose it forever. There is still time, but the clock is ticking. Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock . . .
As always, thank you for your time and support. SR
Photograph Credit: Charles Peterson