Posted May 28, 2008

The History of Rock and Roll

I was at a party the other week and, at some point Donna rocked up and asked me to make up a History of Rock and Roll CD for her. My first thought was, well my first rational thought, since I’d had some surprisingly potent drugs, was “can I fit a history of rock and roll onto one CD?” We’re looking at 50 plus years – how does one condense that into 80 minutes?

Let’s face it folks, the history of rock and roll is, appropriately enough, about 18 years all up. We start with Elvis in 1954 and we finish with nothing in particular and everything in general, but all was sung and done by 1972. Say whatever you want, there’s three-fifths of fuckall that’s been put on tape since then that’s seriously advanced the notion of whatever we call rock and roll.

So I awoke early one morn with the concept in my head, rolled over, lit a cig and grabbed a pen and an old envelope and scribbled out the track list. Every one of these songs is fucking essential.

Elvis Presley – Mystery Train
‘Mystery Train’ is one of the legendary Sun sessions tracks and it carries a weight. “It took my baby, but it never will again.” Because his baby has just one last ride. This track weirdly prefigures rock and roll death – a concept inalien to the blues that formed part of the young Elvis’ musical diet. This southern teenager singing a tale he’d live and die, beyond his wildest imagination. Physical, artistic, whatever, death strikes us all. And we get Scotty Moore’s beautiful guitar to serenade us all the way there.

Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls Of Fire
“You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain – Your kind of loving drives a man insane.” Aint no-one walked the line between sex and hell like The Killer. Those balls of fire are straight out of the brimstone of Satan’s domain. The Black Prince was behind the hellacious piano playing and, just for fun, drove Jerry Lee’s cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, into some uniquely perfect hell. The southern church was a major, tho oft unrecognised, influence on rock and roll. Here’s the moment where the stress gets just too much. And aint it fucking beautiful!

Chuck Berry – The Promised Land
A better world awaits us all, if we get out and find it. Dave Marsh has probably already written a book about every song on this list, but ‘The Promised Land’ demands a fucking encyclopaedia. Chuck Berry’s sheer genius goes strangely unremarked. He invented rock and roll guitar solos and wrote devastatingly great lyrics. This is his best. The knowing irony of a black man in the mid 1950s writing a USA travelogue entitled ‘The Promised Land’, yet wrapped in a history of the US’ continental expansion. I might write a book about this song one day, but right now, it demands quoting:

I left my home in Norfolk Virginia, California on my mind.
Straddled that Greyhound, rode him past Raleigh, on across Caroline.

Stopped in Charlotte and bypassed Rock Hill, we never was a minute late.
We was ninety miles out of Atlanta by sundown, rollin' cross the Georgia state.

We had motor trouble it turned into a struggle, half way 'cross Alabam,
And that 'hound broke down and left us all stranded in downtown Birmingham.

Straight off, I bought me a through train ticket, ridin' cross Mississippi clean
And I was on that midnight flyer out of Birmingham, smoking into New Orleans.

Somebody help me get out of Louisiana, just help me get to Houston town.
There's people there who care a little 'bout me and they won't let the poor boy down.

Sure as you're born, they bought me a silk suit, put luggage in my hands,
And I woke up high over Albuquerque on a jet to the promised land.

Workin' on a T-bone steak a la carte, flying over to the Golden State;
The pilot told me in thirteen minutes, we'd be headin' in the terminal gate.

Swing low sweet chariot, come down easy, taxi to the terminal zone;
Cut your engines, cool your wings, and let me make it to the telephone.

Los Angeles give me Norfolk Virginia, Tidewater four ten O nine
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin', and the poor boy's on the line

The Shirelles – Will You Love Me Tomorrow
I can’t listen to this song without a tear coming to my eye. The fear, the hope, the desperate longing for something to believe in, for a love unqualified. By the gods, it’s all here. Women are sadly underrepresented in rock and roll, for whatever reason, and we’re all the poorer for it. As this song so beautifully sets it, they bring a level of emotion and feeling that men rarely get near. And, as Phil Spector knew so well, a woman’s voice sits in the mix effortlessly.

The Beatles – Sie Liebt Dich
Long before fame came a’knocking, The Beatles honed their craft in a Hamburg strip club, wearing leather jackets and dropping pills. In tribute to those times, they recorded German language versions of a few of their hits. The session can’t have taken much longer than the setup and the tracking. From Ringo’s intro drum roll onwards, this song rocks like nothing else they recorded in those years. No-one doubts their songwriting/arranging ability but they’re oft considered a pop group. As indeed they were. But this track pumps it up, you get all the greatness of the early Beatles with an energy rarely heard.

Del Shannon – Searching
Del sings about trying to find a place for he and his baby to hide in. But when that falsetto kicks in at the end, you know that this song is really about his own crushing sense of paranoia. His baby? Whether she exists or not, is hardly the point. This is where rock, in the modern sense, really starts. A killer rhythm guitar track, too. We gotta keep searching, searching, find a place to hide. Indeed we do.

The Rolling Stones – Satisfaction
Is this the ultimate perfection of rock and roll? Musically, lyrically? The Rolling Stones played the halftime gig at the Superbowl a few years back, they kicked off with “I cant get no satisfaction.” Fuck, shit, cunt, their set was censored! If those wowsers in 1965 had a brain between them, they should’ve figured that it was that three note guitar riff that reallly fucked up their sons and daughters. Slinky sexuality, from a band that looked like alien beings to the average mum and dad, singing words that implicitly rejected frigidity and media sensationalism – “telling me more and more, ‘bout some useless information, supposed to fire my imagination, I can’t get no!”

The Byrds – Eight Miles High
These lyrics are actually about the Byrds first tour of England. Yet in the gist of the time, “Eight Miles High” was only gonna be interpreted one way, and they knew it. What a combination! Folky, Beatlesque harmonies, a guitar solo that owes more to Coltrane and a spiralling sense of disconnection. Whatever the hell inspired it, in a time when plane flights meant a whole lot more than they do now, this song connected with the times and still stands as a testament to a different state of mind. A better state of mind? Yes, you bet it is – as long as you’re prepared to take the risk.

The Kinks – Waterloo Sunset
Ray Davies is the Shakespeare of rock and roll. Small things count for a lot. This song is a poem for everyone, beautifully matched to an evocative harmoney and melody. Cool pop culture references, too – Terry and Julie, Terence Stamp and Jean Shrimpton, a celebrity couple before that term meant anything and far beyond anysuch we’ll see in our lifetime – and Ray makes the world’s coolest couple everycouple, every couple of lovers in the world, walking over a bridge at sunset. Gorgeous poetry.

The Beach Boys – God Only Knows
Brian Wilson is the true genius of rock and roll. He alone invented the modern concept of Califonia. In four years, before his genius got too much for him, he wrote hundreds of great songs. This one, sung by lil bro Carl, is the best. A two minute symphony. “God only knows where I’d be without you.” Anyone’s who’s ever been in love,, or hurt by it, can’t help but fall inside this song and find a reference to every feeling, no matter how beautiful or ugly, that they’ve known.

The Velvet Underground – Heroin
It gets weird. The Velvet Underground were an elemental influence so much that followed – for better and for worse – and they were an end in themselves. This band defined a nihilistic, brutal sensibility, driven by drugs and the screaming edge of New York avant garde and, at a time when such things were still possible, rewrote the book on rock and roll. Of course, few noticed at the time, when Cream were the cutting edge – which led to Lester Bangs opining that Lou Reed was a better guitarist than Eric Clapton, cos, while Eric could play stuff Lou couldn’t, Lou could play stuff Eric wouldn’t even think of. ‘Heroin’ is not only a brilliantly thought-out song, it has lyrics worthy of Byron or Shelley.

Jimi Hendrix Experience – Purple Haze
From ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ to this in three years. Hell of a leap, eh? Jimi was a ridiculously brilliant guitarist who would’ve spent his life playing in bars (like a lot of other great guitarists) unless Chas Chandler saw something in him, took him to London, the centre of the world in ’66, and hooked him up with an equally dynamic drummer and a frustrated lead guitarist conscripted to bass guitar – and, once again, the world shifted on its axis. Don’t it shit ya to death that Hendrix’s legacy is a gang of boring imitators playing lengthy dull solos? And not the sublime combo of slick soul rhythm guitar, freeform drumming and three-way soloing forever in the service of a cool song, that the JHE were at their best?

The Rolling Stones – Jumping Jack Flash
What it’s all about – from that first chord, and onwards through a tale of hellfire and infamy – this song defines the Rolling Stones and they define rock and roll bands. Still do, really. World’s full of bands like Jet, just hacking away at something they’ll never get within an ace of. The best listening experience of my life, spinning singles one night with my girlfriend, doing coke, Es, smoking joints and drinking Moet and Stolly, I threw this 7 inch 45 rpm slab of vinyl on the turntable, everything peaked at once with the impetus of the world’s greatest rhythm track. The next 48 hours was the most debauched two days of my life, but the sound of that ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ single, with everything on the kickarse stereo running fullbore, sticks in my memory with a clarity unmatched.

Blue Cheer – Summertime Blues
Eddie Cochran can’t be ignored, nor can the birth of metal. Eddie was a genius, doing in an unforced manner what Pete Townshend worked so hard at. For all their hamfisted stumbling – I wouldn’t’ve trusted them to walk a block in laced shoes – Blue Cheer somehow managed to define… hell, something! A combo of teen angst, drugs, heavy metal before anyone had imagined it, and violence. Leigh Stephens quit because he couldn’t stand the aggro at their gigs. That aint in no way a positive thing, yet metal pretty much peaked on its first outing. About 1983, SBS ran a 6pm music show, hosted by one Basia Bonkowski. One eve, I caught a clip from a 60s Dutch music show – “The boss says – (rumbly bass riff)”

The Who – I Can See For Miles
You CAN play a drum solo all the way thru a song! Keith Moon made a career of it. Pete’s slashing guitar, the Ox’s hyperactive bass, Rog’s singing, just at the point when he’d gotten good at it, but didn’t have a persona to get all wanky about, this is The Who at their peak. Yeah, it’s a shame it wasn’t engineered to sound as good as ‘Who’s Next’, but what the fuck, this another song that, despite all it influenced, is an end it itself. I’m still waiting to hear the drummer who takes Keith Moon’s approach in imitation, let alone somewhere else. The whole damn band, for that matter. Come on, you kids! Do something to impress me! We’ve been waiting 40 years now.

Aretha Franklin - Respect
It’s what we want and need, all of us. Yeah, if ya wanna get pedantic, it’s a soul tune, but, really, it’s all part of rock and roll and in 1967, folks didn’t make such definitions the way we do now – it was all hot, new music, the world was shifting, a brighter place was just around the corner… Sadly, that didn’t happen. But we still have this glorious tune, sung by the single greatest singer of the second half of the Twentieth Century, to remind us of all the hope and optimism of a brief moment when anything seemed possible.

The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter
We all need a place to hide. From the chiming open E tuning, those chords create a sense of unresolved suspense that never lets up throughout the song, the Rolling Stones once again defined the zeitgiest of the time – and in this tune, created a feeling that rings true today, near 40 years after the song was recorded. Legend has it that Keith wrote it while sitting in his car outside of the house wherein Mick and Anita were filming ‘Performance.’ Another legend says he wrote it in the summerhouse in his Cheyne Walk garden around the same time, while smoking heroin. Keith Richards wrote a song about fear of his best mate stealing his woman and together they made it a tale of fear of the world crashing in. The personal becomes the universal. Pretty much what rock and roll is all about.

MC5 – Poison
The musical culmination of everything. The album ‘High Time’ is extraordinary for it’s time, and still is for this time. You can hear just about every song the MC5 ever listened to in this record. You can hear one fucking hell of a lot of it in this song. After 20 years of loving this track, I finally read the lyrics. They aint what I’d expected, which made the song even more of a great track. Dennis Thompson takes rock and roll drumming to a level it’s never been near since. The desperation, the yearning, the sense of trying so hard, to only fall so far short, yet to still keep a shred of hope…

The Stooges – I Gotta Right
The attitudinal culmination of everything – anything I want, I got a right to say. Take a Motown riff, speed it up and kick the living fucking daylights out of it. I gotta right, the right to say, the right to do, any ol’ time.

The Troggs – I Can’t Control Myself
For all the high and mighty notions, no spotty teenager never picked up a guitar without thinking that it’d massively improve his chances of getting laid. The Troggs had just the right kind of dumb honesty to make a career out of that notion. The history of rock and roll must culminate with “When I’m with you, I can’t control myself.” Because, face it folks, who amongst us hasn’t gone to a gig as a single man or woman, and not wondered whether we’d pick up? Rock and roll, the term, is 1940s black American slang for fucking. Where the hell else did you think that rhythm came from?