"All you people, you know the blues got soul Well this is a story, a story ain’t never been told Well you know the blues got pregnant And they named the baby Rock & Roll"
~ McKinley Morganfield aka, Muddy Waters
To play rock you need to understand the blues. No, I don’t mean knowing those three chords and that twelve bar progression. I mean indwelling the soul of the blues. But, that achievement comes later in life. Men play the blues. Children… like me… play rock and roll. I’ve got some more indwelling to do.
About every ten years or so up springs a new generation of hormone-driven youth to reinvent rock and roll in their own image. That’s culture for you. The reinvention is a healthy part of the genre. It keeps it alive. For those enduring that teenage hell of being stuck between childhood and adulthood, nine out of ten sufferers choose Loud Music Therapy. What better cure can there be than to ROCK!? I can’t think of one.
Lacking a mature identity, the sufferers of those Happy Days really need a voice shouting out: "We are here! We are here! We are here!"
The resistance phase when one seeks to break away from parental jurisdiction calls for something so profound that no one over the age of 25 can penetrate its measure or stomach its content. That, my tinnitus-suffering friends, is where rock and roll comes in.
I remember a heartwarming moment with my father. I was deeply enthralled in the full-length version of Iron Butterfly’s opus In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida when my dear old dad turned from grading his school papers, looked at me over his bi-focals and snorted: "That’s crap!" Well… uh… he was right. But it was my crap!
Thank God I never played the first side of that Iron Butterfly album around my dad. That side was worse crap… Fans of Spinal Tap may think otherwise. So I moved on to more substantial music and fell into the thrall of The Who, Neil Young and the early Led Zeppelin (you know, before they became too bloated for their own britches).
Alas. With every rock movement comes some schmuck wanting to make a profit. Beware the recording labels and their bloodlust for money. Oh sure a few decent artists slip through the corporate cracks. But, by and large the bands that sell out to "top 40" sell their souls to something worse than The Devil. After all, The Devil teaches the blues and will let you rock.
Remember the 1970s? You turned on the radio and were slapped in the face by a farm-raised fish. In a tsunami of commercial pabulum, Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 was enough to put you off those fascinating controlled substances. FM radio offered a bit of an "alternative," but that too was just another outlet to sell more AMC Gremlins of schlock to the gullible. "Alternative" rock today is no different.
And after Top 40 Radio, it only got worse. MTV climbed out of the cesspool. Man… If I ever get my hands on the executive who came up with that… Well, let’s just say in some cases waterboarding may be excusable. Since its inception, the rock video has been the bane of real rock and roll. Sorry to break it to you but rock and roll is NOT about dance moves, fashion or how "cool" and stunningly beautiful the "musicians" are. Can you imagine Janis Joplin having any degree of commercial success today? I can’t.
Fortunately, new generations come along and at least some aren’t as easily hoodwinked. Maybe what happened to the pretty Britpop boys was the final lesson? The real musicians on the block don’t respond well to being packaged and sold as This Year’s Model. Even some of today’s iPod generation have wised up and don’t want corn syrup in their music. It doesn’t take them long to listen to the big sellers and shout: "This is crap!" And in response, a whole new wave of rock and roll is born. If the newcomers get it right, the previous generation will hate it.
I grew up with the Woodstock Generation but was too young to enjoy the perks… you know the uh… well, never mind. I only got to listen to the music. The fraudulent Vietnam Slaughterfest was punctuated by the kids’ anti-draft protests. The Age of Aquarius knew how to make itself felt and heard. I think of it as the golden era of rock. There were no rules and nobody knew how to get their equipment to sound like today’s computer-mix soup. Nowadays, thanks to high technology and places like Hollywood’s corporate-sponsored Musicians Institute of Technology (what a load of codswallop!) all guitars, drums, keyboards and bands are often made to sound the same. No wonder so many music-lovers look back to the rockers of the 1960s who made music that was beautiful, visionary.
As all good things must come to an end so did the Summer of Love. Altamont shattered the dream of Woodstock while the corporate world moved in for the kill. Safe music came out… cringe. One cannot bare one’s soul and remain "safe." Well, rock and roll has never been about permanence anyway.
I was a first generation punk from the late seventies. The unadulterated anger, brutal satire and total lack of redeeming qualities were just a few of our admirable traits. One did not want to play the Sex Pistols for one’s mom. The corporate media declared punk the scourge of the civilized world! Cool! If respectable folks hated punk rock so much, then punk had to be good! Not to mention, it actually helped if bands couldn’t play their instruments! Out of that maelstrom, The Rotters were born. With our awe-inspiring incompetence, we fit the bill nicely.
As The Rotters’ vocal stylist Nigel Nitro’s’ (Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers, remember him, LRC readers?) father put it succinctly: "You ain’t never gonna get nowhere playing that crap!" On receipt of that judgment, Mike beamed with… uh… "Pride." The Rotters had just got the ultimate stamp of approval!
People hated us! We enjoyed such golden moments as being kicked out of a disco club for sucking, being pelted with garbage and beer cans in Yoko Ono Park in Goleta, being hailed at the Ventura Battle of the Bands by a sea of middle fingers and the appropriate vernaculars. I was favored by a beer bottle in the face at that one. One show was so glorious it ended with an eight-car police riot. Ah… those were the days my friend.
Still, times change and rock and roll changed again. The Rotters may be too old to rock. Well, not really… just me. I, for one, can’t help but feel like a dork when I do…. But then I always did feel like a dork. In the words of Grace Slick: "Old people look ridiculous on a rock and roll stage and I’m no exception."
Nevertheless, through various incarnations The Rotters survived for three decades. Few bands of any genre are so lucky. Aside from the tragic vacancies caused by chemical-induced death, there are the thousands of bands crushed every year by the delusion of the Golden Dream… a recording contract. It’s their funeral. "Flick of the wrist and you’re dead baby." All too many young bands sell their souls in pursuit of getting "signed."
With big money involved, technology served as the midwife to a canned formula of consistent production and milk toast music. It was like big agri-business killing off the family farm. What you got was elevator music. Recording studios morphed from four-track recordings to thirty-two track recordings to computer mixes and from thence to synthesized, dry-cleaned drumming. The raw edges of creativity were smothered by studio perfectionism.
One perfectly engineered, boring album with no hit and "the commodity," formerly a band, doesn’t produce a profit and it’s tossed out on the rubbish heap. If the latest Next Big Things are lucky and actually have a hit, well then there’s the pressure from the music bosses to do the near impossible, repeat the feat. Few groups succeed. In the minds of record company executives, bands are not people and there is no such thing as "art." Record companies might as well be selling Barbie Dolls and GI Joes.
Remember Payola? "The practice was criticized in the chorus of the Dead Kennedys song "Pull My Strings," a parody of the song "My Sharona" ("My Payola") sung to a crowd of music industry leaders during a music award ceremony."
It has been said that the music business is not about success. It’s about survival. That’s God’s truth. If you want to experience real rock and roll, don’t waste good money on giant stadium shows. Go to your local dives and see your struggling failures. That’s where the soul of rock and roll lives.
My advice for budding rockers? Simple. Flip those "artists and resources" bloodsuckers the bird and tell them to (vernacular often used in the rock world) off. It’s not about fitting into a formula to achieve fame and fortune. It’s about something much more real. Play for yourself and you’ll do fine. Play the Chords of Fame and you’re doomed. Remember, rock and roll is the baby of the blues and The Blues has soul.