Rock: Where It's At
From the conception of the embryo, with the gentle reassurance of the mother's heart beat, man is introduced to music. Upon birth the melody of audible sounds is added to the rhythm of the heart and the symphony of life begins. This essay concerns itself with one of the more popular genres of formal music—Rock.
Rock music is the contemporary blending of two very different worlds. The melodic music of Western Europe has been melded to the rhythmic music of East Africa, creating music originally only "American." These two distinct and equally valid forms first met in the second decade of this century in the southern United States. From this blending, known as "Jass," grew the "New Orleans" sounds of the 20s. In the 30s and 40s, Swing (formalized "Big Band" descendent of Jass) enjoyed its greatest popularity. Through this point, melody held sway over rhythm. Then, in the mid 50s, a phenomenon which was to reach into every home in America exploded. With the grotesque bump and grind of Elvis Presley as the vehicle, Rock and Roll began its climb in popularity. It is true that others—Fats Domino, Bill Haley, etc.—predated Presley. But Elvis was the personality that carried this music form into the hearts (and heads) of the American people.
(This presents a major foundation for any discussion of Rock. The enjoyment of listening to Rock music is first felt and then, if one wishes, intellectualized. This is true of other types of music, but with Rock feeling is absolutely necessary for understanding and appreciation. I can hardly over-emphasize this point.)
As with any creation of man, there is infancy before maturity. The music of the Rock and Roll era, with its three and four chord wonders rolling by in seemingly endless procession, was extremely primitive in construction.
Writing mills cranked out mediocre (at best) songs to a generation only beginning to experience the possibilities of an alternative culture. A formula for the popularizing of music grew out of this generation—a formula without which Rock would never have emerged. It is quite complex and draws from socio-economic as well as esthetic traditions.
In the cultural periods prior to World War II, music was usually a lifelong struggle for the composer and/or performer. It was chosen as a profession, not a diversion, and tended to perpetuate a closed subsociety of masters and pupils. Those aspirants who showed little ability were weeded and thinned until the upper strata of excellence in performance were narrow indeed. It is obvious why the percentage of classical composers of genius is very high taken with the whole of known classical composers. Because of the traditional hurdles one needed to overcome—archaic teaching methods, mastering of many different instruments, etc.—only those of extraordinary ability ever succeeded. How many individuals in 18th or 19th century Europe (or America, or Asia, or Africa) could have become Mozarts or Schumanns but were prevented because they had to spend their lives in situations where the development of musical genius was impossible?
After WWII, with the availability to the consuming public of technology, many cultural changes began to occur. Not only was listening to music available to the masses (as it had been since the invention of the wireless radio), but, through television, the observing of music being created was also enjoyed. This fact, coupled with the mass production of musical instruments and the deep desire of the American "frontiersman" to become civilized (how old were you when you first took music lessons?) laid the foundation for a particular kind of music. One that coupled rhythm and melody and then, through technology, allowed the masses to dabble. The emergence of genius in contemporary music was inevitable.
Another new development played a very important part in the blossoming of Rock popularity and more importantly, Rock-genius. This is the composer-arranger-performer combination which was all but impossible in any (modern) music forms except Rock, Jazz, and Folk. In the case of the latter, the rigid structuring of music to carry lyrics in a usually solo-artist situation greatly restricted the creation of musical genius—it is invariably lyrical. Jazz and Rock both meet the criteria for musical creativity, with Jazz relying more on melody and Rock more on rhythm.
When one is able not only to compose music but also to arrange and perform it, the personal feeling that can be carried to the listener is as exciting as one would imagine a concert of Chopin etudes performed by Frederic himself would be! After one wades through the almost overwhelming deluge of trash that floods the music market to reach the brilliance of performers like Leon Russell and Jimi Hendrix, the desired goal—quality—is more than reached. This is not to imply that there are only a very few composer-arranger-performers who produce quality music. There are many groups and individuals, past and present, whose music is very listenable and creative. But, as in any field, genius is limited to the very few.
It is very difficult in Rock to separate the music as it is written from the music as it is performed. To illustrate this point, imagine Heifitz or the Romeros performing a Bach concerto. The music as it is written is of a simple melody/counterpoint pattern. The technique of the artist transforms a piece that perhaps an amateur could play into a thing of immense beauty. In Rock there are many simple songs that are transformed by technique and improvisation (which occurs often in Rock) into art with the emotional impact of any acclaimed classical piece. I might suggest listening to Eric Clapton play "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" on the album Layla (Atco: SD2-704). The sounds Clapton coaxes from his Fender Stratocaster transform an old blues song into a concert of gut-level emotions difficult to surpass. This is nothing more than a result of genius.
Brilliance in Rock is not restricted to technique alone: Although the expertise of many performers contributes a great deal to the listenability of any given song, style is only rarely enough. There is an abundance of innovative and original composers and arrangers. I have already mentioned Leon Russell, whose unusual ability to construct Rock in novel ways is very refreshing. Hearing "Hurt Somebody" on his first album (Shelter: SHE 1001) with a refrain pattern for a lead-in and first verse dispels any doubts about the excellence of contemporary music. Another composer-arranger-performer of real ability is Frank Zappa. His powerful compositions have been performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta and were received with enthusiasm by both the audience and the critics.
No discussion of Rock music would be in the least comprehensive without recognition of the contribution of the team of Lennon-McCartney. More responsible for the rise of superior Rock than any other musicians, it was they who broke the monotonous "dance-music syndrome" of 20th century popular music and began experimenting with the many directions music can take, applying them to Rock. In 1963 the Beatle phenomenon surprised and delighted listeners. Critics turned a previously deaf ear to Rock and Roll and the impetus was created for others to investigate the possibilities open to their own individual creativity. From the now dated sound of "I Want To Hold Your Hand" grew Rock, the most spontaneously joyful, and perhaps most representative art form of the so-called counterculture.
To attempt listing the composer-arranger-performers of talent would be difficult and time consuming for both the reader and myself. Individual tastes in music as well as musical styles vary tremendously. There are certainly redeeming points to even seemingly mediocre songs. They are creations of people—attempts by individuals to share personal deep-felt impressions of life. With generally acclaimed works, the joy of listening to and feeling the gifts of the artist surpasses, for many, most other pleasures of life.
In the cultural world that awaits us in the future, retrospective and unbiased critiques of Rock will most certainly be written. In that time, not only the few artists mentioned here but undoubtedly many others will join those composers of past ages revered by our own culture as "classical greats." Brilliance is not restricted to any favored era and as long as man exists on Earth there will be evidence of that brilliance. Our time is no exception. Through the ever-changing scene of contemporary man, his music will accompany him on his journeys through space and time. Its power is limitless—encompassing the softness and fragility of an infant's breath and the ragings of an exploding universe. Stop—and listen.