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Why I love rock 'n' roll
Talkin' 'bout my generation
I love music. I like all genres (well, disco not so much, and ditto for gangsta rap); especially bluegrass, swing, and jazz; but most of all, rock and roll.
Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the living room couch, rocking back and forth listening to classical records my mom would play on the "HiFi": Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak.... A few years later I recall seeing Leonard Bernstein on TV, and after that whenever I would put on those same records I would stand in front of the stereo pretending to direct the orchestra in Bernstein's famously expressive manner. Something akin to "air guitar", except this was "air conducting".
I first became aware of rock and roll around 1963, when I was 4 years old. I was at my friend Jennifer's house, and she asked me which Beatle was my favorite. I didn't know, because I had never heard of the Beatles. I remember Jennifer saying that her favorite was Ringo...
A few years later my parents got me the 45 of "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" by the Royal Guardsmen (one of the many Beatle knock-off "bubblegum" bands), and my friends and I wore it out. We also listened to Paul Revere and the Raiders on the radio ("Cherokee Nation"), and fantasized about having a rock band called The Skeletones (I was the drummer). But beyond that rock and roll was off my radar.
The next time rock music really caught my attention was around 1971, when my parents bought the album Jesus Christ Superstar. Not long after that we began listening to that album in my Sunday school (we had a hip junior minister; later in his class we studied Don McLean's American Pie). I remember being in band class in the 7th or 8th grade, with my buddy Carl in the trombone section--while the director Mr. D was working with the flutes or saxophones up front, Carl and I would be in back singing "What's the buzz, tell me what's a happenin'...", until Mr. D invariably told us to shut up.
Beyond that, I was completely out of it during my tween and early teen years. Up until 1974 if you asked me about Woodstock I would have thought you were talking about the bird in Peanuts. While Carl and my other friends were all into Chicago, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Black Oak Arkansas (remember Jim Dandy?), and Alice Cooper, I was still listening to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky (and also by that time Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs). What I knew about rock was what I heard in the news--like when the Beatles broke up, and when Janis died--but I still didn't relate to it.
That changed in '74. It started with high school dances (slow dancing to 'Us and Them' by Pink Floyd; 8 minutes of pure... ahh, well, you know). And then I discovered record stores. The first rock album I bought was Get Yer Ya Ya's Out by the Rolling Stones. The music blew me away, resonating with and providing release for my hormonally fueled teenage angst. I was hooked.
Record stores suddenly became my favorite place to shop, and my album collection grew exponentially. At that time in my life my favorite activitiy after school was sitting in front of the stereo (or better yet, putting on a pair of headphones) and cranking albums by my favorite bands: the Stones, Yes, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Led Zep, Lynyrd Skynyrd... Sheer ecstasy.... It's an experience lost on later generations. For one thing, after CDs came along you no longer had the wonderful album covers (remember Thick as a Brick , with its fold-out newspaper and connect the dots drawing?). I also attended my share of arena concerts--The Who (By Numbers tour), the Stones (Black and Blue), Jethro Tull (Too Old to Rock and Roll), Gentle Giant, the Moody Blues, Queen, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Yes (one of the best shows I've ever seen), to name a few...
At one point in high school, I had the Rolling Stones cranking on the stereo, and I remember my dad shaking his head and saying to my mom, "Don't worry, he'll outgrow it".
I never did.
Here are just a few of the reasons why, to this day, I love Rock and Roll.
What it is
What makes rock rock is the rhythm; and so it begins with drums. What the Godfathers of rock and roll (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, and Elvis) did was to set blues and country music to a driving beat. That's what drove the kids crazy and scared the hell out of their parents. It was a release of primal sexuality that had been pent up by generations of puritanical caucasian uptightness.
Because rock starts with drums--which are inherently loud--it needs amplification. So electric guitar became the instrument of choice. Sure keyboards are also a big part--Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard introduced the world to pounding piano, and later the Hammond organ became a rock mainstay--but guitar rules the rock world. This thanks primarily to Chuck Berry, followed by the British revival: the Beatles, the Stones, the Who; Cream; and of course Jimi Hendrix, who blew the lid off with pyrotechics (literally) and screaming feedback, and showed the world just how sexy the the electric guitar can be....
The most basic rock combination (the White Stripes notwithstanding) is the power trio: drums, bass, and guitar. What really makes a band rock is a tight rhythm section, which means synchrony between drums and bass. When the bass and kick drum are in synch you get that punch that gets everyone up and moving. A really tight rhythm section (e.g. John Bonham and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin) launches the music to a higher level, making it easy for the guitarist and singer to soar.
Which brings us to vocals. If you listen to all the great rock singers from the late '60s on you will notice two things: (1) their voices are highly distinctive and often as wonderfully raw as the guitars that back them up, blasting out with screaming emotion (e.g. Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart); and (2) they often reach notes that are stratospherically high (e.g. Robert Plant, Ian Gillan).
Combine all these things, and you end up with loud throbbing music that you can feel in your bones, that is pure soul, sexy as hell, and way larger than life. Add to that the often brilliant poetry of the lyrics (Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell) and mind-blowing virtuosity of the musicians (Eddie Van Halen) and, well, what's not to love?
But I guess when it comes right down to it, what I love about rock n' roll is the attitude. Rock music is about rebellion, self-expression, and setting your soul free. You don't need to be a virtuoso to play kick-ass rock n' roll--all you need is soul and boatloads of attitude (think punk rock). It's what Jack Black's character Dewey Finn (posing as Mr. S) in the movie School of Rock said: rock music is about sticking it to the Man. And you gotta love that.
A few of my favorites...
I could never do justice to all the rock music that's influenced me over the past 35 years; there is just way too much to list here. That's why I'm usually disappointed by the Rolling Stone magazine's top 100 lists--there's always something missing that I thought should be there. However, here are some of the bands, albums, and songs that I keep going back to and never seem to get tired of (you will notice a heavy emphasis on mainstream classic rock; I guess that I, like most folks, like the music I grew up with best. But in my opinion rock peaked between 1965 and 1975. I had pretty much stopped buying rock albums by the '90s; as I said, CDs just weren't the same....In any case, I expect I may be moved to update this list from time to time).
Classic bands: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who, Yes, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Chicago, The Doobie Brothers, The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Eagles, Little Feat....
Later bands: Blues Traveller, Green Day, Loverless...
Classic albums: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, The White Album, Abbey Road, Beggar's Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, The Wall, Close to the Edge, Yessongs, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, The Who Live at Leeds, Who's Next, Led Zeppelin 1, 2, and 3, In the Court of the Crimson King, A Night at the Opera, The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East, Cheap Thrills, American Beauty, Workingman's Dead, Europe '72, What were once their Vices are now their Habits, On the Border, One of these Nights, Hotel California, One More From the Road, Street Survivors, Waiting for Columbus,...
Later albums: Jagged Little Pill, American Idiot, Nothing Under the Sun...