Ludicrously Brief History of RnR
A Ludicrously Brief History of Rock'n'Roll.
This piece began as a follow-up to my article on "Landmark Albums" and Alan’s response that ended "Enjoyed the subject- let's do it again."
I thought OK, let's do it with 45 RPM singles……but then the impossibility of this became clear as I started to compile lists and the piece became something else entirely. Forgive me if I wander…
My contention had been that the "Classic Rock Albums" era began in 1965 and ended at the end of the 1970s, although I made an attempt to list a worthy album for each year of the 1980s.
When it comes to rock 'n' roll 45 RPM singles, obviously one must go back at least a decade from 1965 to begin with, but then when one reaches the 1960s, the sheer volume of undeniably great records renders the task frankly ridiculous. When I use the term "great records" I do not mean just great songs or great recordings of those songs - I mean that generally a great recording of a great song is a great RECORD of lasting value (and admittedly I can probably come up with some great recordings of less-than-great songs).
David Hepworth has posited that 1971 was the "annus mirabilis" of the Rock Album, and I would not contest this, but the "Annus mirabilis" of the 45 RPM single, I would suggest, came six years earlier: I'm putting in a claim on behalf of 1965. So why was this period, when rock 'n' roll came as close to synonymity with "pop" as it has ever been, so fertile? The reasons have been rehearsed many times - it was the era during which the baby-boom generation came of age, when post-war austerity was over, when young people began to have their own disposable income, and when young Brits looked with envy and fascination at the apparent glamour of the USA (we know better now of course).
These factors led to the development of a societal phenomenon that was entirely new- a "Youth Culture" centred around music that was both black and white. In the 1950s, while claims could have been made on behalf of others (Chuck Berry?), there was general agreement among the audience that Elvis Presley was "The King of Rock 'n' Roll," and in the 1960s I would contend it was widely recognised that British Invasion bands, American Surf Music or Folk-Rock, Soul Music and Tamla Motown, were all part of the same phenomenon. OK, there were "Mods" and "Rockers" (Ringo Starr famously made fun of this by declaring that he was a "Mocker") and there were those who favoured The Beatles and those who favoured The Stones, but I suggest that the fragmentation of the Rock audience into assorted tribes really began at the end of the 1960s when it became clear that the "Counter-Culture" had come to nothing (Altamont is often cited as a crucial event), the Beatles split up, folk-rock turned psychedelic, blues-rock devolved into heavy-metal, sensitive singer-songwriters came to the fore, and posh boys got "Progressive" in an attempt to make Rock "respectable."
At this stage people started to believe that long-haired white boys playing over-amped guitars and wearing denim or leather were making "serious" music whereas black artists were merely making light-weight "dance" music. I consider this to be completely wrong-headed, and would suggest that anyone who thinks this way should have a proper listen to the '70s works of Stevie Wonder, Al Green, George Clinton, Curtis Mayfield, War, Marvin Gaye and several others.
Of course, a number of 1970s developments led to even further fragmentation of the audience, including the increasing popularity of Reggae and the rise to international super-stardom of Bob Marley, the popularity of Disco ( much of it admittedly the antithesis of "Funk" but arguably a return to the original function of rock 'n' roll as dance music - see the previous point), and the impact of Punk-Rock as a new generation came of age.
Then too there was the rise of Hip-Hop, which many a (white) rock critic has tried to commandeer as just another form of Rock Music.
NO IT IS NOT!
Just as rock'n'roll involved different methodology in songwriting, performance and recording from the swing-based popular music that preceded it, so Rap involves different techniques to Rock. (It also has urban origins in New York, whereas rock'n'roll is largely Southern in origin (the most important early recording centres were arguably Memphis, New Orleans and Nashville). In other words, calling Rap another form of Rock is like calling Rock another form of Swing.
As for where we are now in the 21st century, the age of electronic dance music (EDM), naff Television "talent shows," and consumption of music via downloads, rendering the idea of "Albums" obsolete as far as many young people are concerned and preferring convenient accessibility to quality of sound, there is certainly no such thing any more as a youth culture centred on music. If there is a youth culture at all, I suspect it is centred around computer games, though I have no knowledge in this area.
All that being said, there is no need for the over 60s to lose interest in music. I understand that similar clubs to Elsing's own RPM are springing up in various locations (I know of one in Somerset). In addition, I would suggest that there are still intelligent, literate songwriters out there for you to discover, many distinctive and interesting performers, and quality albums can still be found.
To return to my opening statement, perhaps it might be fun to produce a list of crucial rock 'n' roll 45s covering the years 1955 to 1964… but that's for another time.