Why Rock Has Rolled Out of Town
If you’re a Rock N’ Roll fan, you know what I’m talking about. The thought has likely crossed your mind. The thought has been on my mind for years now. One of my very first blog posts touched on the subject. Yet in that post I simply asked the question. This time I’d like to explore the all-important answer to the question…….”Why is Rock N’ Roll dead?” Granted, I’m not suggesting that Rock music is gone. From the ’50’s up through the ’90’s the Rock N’ Roll world gifted us material that will always be here through one medium or another. I suppose the more specific question is, “Why have those gifts mostly stopped coming these past two decades?”
I don’t typically engage in any sort of extensive research when blogging. Most of the topics I write about relate to subject matter I’m already well-versed in. Sure, I use the internet to verify specific dates and other various statistics. I’m not Rainman after all. But for the most part, as you can imagine, there isn’t a great deal of prep work that goes into blogging. I’m posting on a personal blog site. I’m not writing for Esquire or Rolling Stone. (I’d love to….anyone have any contacts over there?)
Yet for this particular post, I found myself doing research. A lot of it. For one, I didn’t want to come flat out and say there are no good newer Rock bands out there. That would seem a bit disingenuous since I don’t listen to newer Rock bands. So lately I’ve been doing just that………listening to newer Rock bands. A lot of them. Thanks goodness for Youtube and Google! Unfortunately, my findings confirmed my expectations. There are very few good newer Rock bands out there. The least of any decade or generation in my lifetime.
During my process I stumbled upon an excellent article from Forbes written by a contributor named Danny Ross. He’s also a music producer and musician himself. Here’s a link to the article if you’re interested: Rock N’ Roll is Dead. No Really This Time. The following information is directly from his piece. It describes the definition of Rock, followed by the definition of what’s popular today.
According to Danny Ross, (3/20/17) Forbes magazine:
Let’s put aside the notion that rock ‘n’ roll is an attitude of subversion that can never die. Subversion existed long before and has since: in jazz, blues, hip-hop, ad infinitum. Instead, rock can be defined as a particular musical style with particular elements:
- The instruments: Electric guitar, bass guitar, live drums, acoustic guitar, piano, lead vocals and backup vocals (and sometimes orchestral instruments).
- The lyrics: About romantic relationships, or social change – usually defying the older generation’s taste in such matters.
- The songwriting: Music and lyrics – a lead melody with words over chord changes that anyone can play on guitar or piano. The chord patterns are generally derived from the African-American blues tradition, along with its expressive vocal styling
The style of music described above is not recognizable on the charts today. So what are we hearing? Here are some elements in the mainstream right now:
- The instruments: Drum machines, percussion (snaps, hand claps, marimba, clave), synthetic bass, arpeggiators, piano, recording samples, and a wide array of synth sounds (and sometimes guitar). The lead singer is multi-tracked many times over, and melodic vocal sounds (like “Oh”) are used as hooks.
- The lyrics: About romantic relationships, but also hip-hop culture, club culture, and sexual encounters.
- The songwriting: Music, lyrics and digital production – a song with words that is interconnected with its complex production and mix. The chord changes are usually very simple to make way for complicated rhythms.
Ok so what. My take is this: We older folks can listen to older stuff the rest of our lives. Jazz, Motown, Blues, Rock, whatever. Yet in my opinion, newer, younger bands of any musical discipline are launched by the interest of youthful ears. Ross’ article defined Rock as being an electric guitar, electric bass, live drums, etc. That would describe exactly what I saw and heard in Nirvana when they first came on my radar in 1991. In fact, that would aptly describe many bands who enjoyed mainstream popular chart success in the early ’90’s. Yet guitars, bass, and drums certainly weren’t a new concept back then, so why did it work? Because young people took to it. High school and college-aged kids were digging it. Young people today apparently dig that other stuff Ross described. Suffice to say, how he describes what the kids are into today doesn’t sound much like Nirvana. Long story short, maybe Rock is dying/dead because young people today aren’t interested in electric guitars, bass, and live drums. If they’re not interested in hearing it, they even less likely to be interested in playing it.
So what about the youngsters who do want to strap on the ax, pound the skins, and rock the bass? Are there any good ones? The young lads in the image above is a band called Greta Van Fleet. By all accounts they are the most popular young Rock band in America today. I have listened to their work. They are unquestionably a talented group. Yet I just can’t do it. You see, all bands are influenced by someone. Nobody creates this stuff out of thin air. But there’s a line between influence and full-blown derivativeness. Greta is so absolutely derivative of Led Zeppelin that it’s uncanny. The problem is after a few songs you’d rather just put on some Zep and listen to the real thing. Nothing sums them up better than a quote I heard from the great Robert Plant. When asked what he thought of their sound, he simply said, “I think it’s cute.” So simple, and so perfect. That’s all they really are…..a cute impersonation of Zeppelin.
So who else is there? My Morning Jacket is decent, but they’ve been around for 20 years. The Black Keys are good too, yet they’ve been around for 19. The Killers. The Strokes. Interpol. I like all these bands, but they’ve been around for 20 years or so too. I’m sorry, but I can’t call them ‘newer’ Rock bands. 20 years is usually about the time most bands are creatively done. Another issue with these particular bands is none of them really have that one seminal album. The one that stands out above all others. The defining career piece. I think that’s important to have.
There are many other bands (probably 50 or more) whom you’ve probably never heard of, that I listened to prior to this post. The biggest problem I had with most of them wasn’t actually their music, but rather their vocals. Nearly all of them had a wimpy, weak-sounding lead vocalist. In many cases, their lyrical content left much to be desired as well. Weak voice + weak lyrics = bad. Powerful voice + weak lyrics however, can still work. There’s been plenty-a-Rock song over the years about nothing more than parties and cars. But if you sing it with authority, it plays.
Of all the newer Rock bands I listened to, I only found one really good one: Rival Sons. This group started about 10 years ago, so though they’re not brand-spanking new, I still consider them in the ‘newer’ category. Their most recent album, 2019’s Feral Roots, is the best straight-up Rock album I’ve heard since Ben Harper’s 2009 release, White Lies for Dark Times.
Powerful lead vocals is no problem for this band. They’re powerful all the way around. I once heard a guy on the radio refer to them as “The Black Keys with balls.” Though that may not be entirely fair, I do sort of get it.
Here’s a pair of songs from Feral Roots: It doesn’t take the most trained ear to hear how these guys flat-out rock.
So what other factors contribute to Rock’s disappearing act? If I’m being honest, one could be drugs. I’m not advocating here, but there’s no denying the positive, creative influence LSD had on so many great bands and songs in Rock’s past. I highly doubt today’s musicians are gleaning that same creative influence from their seltzer beers and weed. Just saying.
What about work ethic? This past March Pearl Jam released their first studio album in seven years (Gigaton). Though not their all-time best work, it’s a very solid album. Their best in many years. So how is it a group of guys in their mid-50s who’ve been at it for 30 years can produce a good Rock album but bands half their age can’t? Does it just come down to talent, or lack-there-of in relation to today’s bands?
The purpose of this post wasn’t to pose more questions, but rather an answer. My answer is this: I think it comes down to supply and demand. I offered up merely one newer Rock band that’s making good music. Why is there such a short supply? The demand for Rock music simply isn’t there right now. Does that mean Rock N’ Roll is dead? I don’t think it has to be. My 7-year-old son has already expressed interest in learning to play guitar. That’s one 7-year-old. It’s gonna take a lot of 7-year-olds to experience the thrill of hearing a guitar rage through a Marshall amp. To feel the force of banging away on a well-appointed drum kit. To know the power of holding down a song’s rhythm on a powerful bass. To bring it together with wailing vocals through a mic over the top of it all. That’s Rock N’ Roll baby. I don’t think it’s dead. I think right now it’s dormant. It may not come back around in my lifetime, but I think someday it will. I know I’ll go to my grave believing Rock N’ Roll will never die!
Thanks for reading,
It’s official, real instruments are being replaced by machines!