In last week’s post, while writing about what Mink DeVille was doing with the album “Le chat bleu,” there was a line from a song that was trying to get outta my head. All that kept surfacing was the Stones’ “It’s only rock and roll, but I like it,” which wasn’t what I was looking for at all.
Of course, a couple days later, up pops “It ain’t what they call rock and roll,” from Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing.” But what do we call it, and why?
Well, we call it rock and roll — sometimes. But sometimes we call it pop, too. For a genre that stretches to accommodate everything from ABBA to Zevon, the term has to be pretty elastic.
Everything was pop, pretty much, before the early ’50s, and the majority of the music mostly veered toward the middle-of-the-road well into the ’60s. Alan Freed is said to have coined the term “rock and roll,” sometime after he started his “The Moondog House” radio show on Cleveland’s WJW-AM in mid-1951.
Freed was playing what we now call rhythm and blues — but what was it called at the time? Well, rhythm and blues, but also race music and rockabilly; it had its roots in jump blues, boogie-woogie, doo-wop and jazz, but also gospel.
Freed underlines that in the 1956 film “Rock, Rock, Rock.” The disk jockey tells the audience that “rock and roll is a river of music that has absorbed many streams: rhythm and blues, jazz, rag time, cowboy songs, country songs, folk songs. All have contributed to the big beat.”
And it all took on a name that had a sexual allusion. But not many years after Freed gave it the name rock and roll (or popularized the term as applied to the genre), the music starting fissioning: surf music, soul, Motown, punk, prog, country rock, folk rock, metal, disco, acid, psychedelia, and on and on.
People disagree, though, over what is really rock: punkers, for instance, trashed progressive rockers. I recently watched the Pink Floyd documentary “Which One’s Pink,” during which ex-Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof talks of how he thought the band’s classic “Dark Side of the Moon” was too middle-class, although he admits he eventually came to appreciate it. (Geldof was the guy who reunited Floyd after two decades of estrangement, for his Live Aid concert, so maybe that’s your explanation.)
And U2’s Bono once said — I’ve tried to find the exact quote, but can’t — that prog rock is soulless, or something like that. (He also said that we shouldn’t be listening to the rock music of the past — to which my response was, well, Mr. Hewson, guess I won’t be buying those early U2 albums after all. Kiss those royalties goodbye …)
My philosophy has come to be, in the words of Mao — trust me, I don’t often cite mass-murdering authoritarians — let a thousand flowers bloom. Rock is a big enough tent that we can have a lot of different sounds playing within its walls.
(Although I have to admit that I like to trash some forms of rock, and some groups, but that’s a topic for another day — and was the subject of one of my Struggling Weekly columns; you can look it up, in this blog’s archives. Anyway, as my cousin R.W. Emerson once said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”)
The line in the Dire Straits song describes youths who are hanging out in the London club where the Sultans are playing Dixieland, but aren’t paying attention: “They don't give a damn about any trumpet playing band/It ain't what they call rock and roll/And the Sultans, yeah, the Sultans, they play Creole, Creole.”
Which reminds me of one of the better concerts I ever attended, Buckwheat Zydeco (which took place in one of the worst concert venues in our neck of the woods, Zorn Arena on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire campus). The band’s leader, Stanley Dural Jr., at one point talked about the influence of Creole music on his art form (with a pointed reminder not to confuse it with Cajun, you better not!).
Zydeco is accordion-intensive music, with some percussion provided by a custom washboard hung from the shoulders over the chest. It ain’t what the guys “in their best brown baggies and their platform soles” would call rock and roll, probably, but the music was lively and infectious, and the concert was very entertaining.
It also included an absolutely killer cover of the Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” one that might have sent Jagger and Richards crawling out of the venue with their tails between their legs. Or maybe just left them standing in awe.
Or more likely, they would have been in the snake-dance line that stretched halfway around the gym (and included my daughter, maybe 10 years old at the time). After all, it was what Keith and Mick would have called rock and roll.