What, you may ask, is the Great Rock Explosion of 2009? Allow me to explain.
1955: Whole Lotta Shaking Going On
In 1955, Rock and Roll was born. Ignore, for a moment that the music that “burst” on the scene had, under the name of Rhythm and Blues, been played since the late 40s. Because 1955 was the cultural moment when the uniquely American fusion of Rhythm and Blues and Country and Western that had long been brewing finally hit the boiling point, and the teakettle whistled so loudly that the whole nation heard.
It kicked off subtly enough, with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”. But the country soon faced the raw sexual energy of Elvis, the ringing guitar of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly’s song craftsmanship, Little Richard’s oh so queer wild sweat-soaked mania, Jerry Lee Lewis kicking back the stool and banging away on the piano until his crazy curls fell down over his face, on and on. Even now, fifty plus years later, the anarchic thrill of that music threatens to break through anew with each listen.
But by 1960, Elvis was drafted, Eddie Cochran was dead, Buddy Holly was dead, Chuck Berry was in jail, Little Richard had entered the ministry(!) and Jerry Lee Lewis had been ostracized from broadcast following his marriage to his teenage cousin. All too quickly, it seemed to be over.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral.
1964: A Hard Night’s Day
Some British kids had been listening in the 50’s. Paul loved Little Richard. John said that, for him, Elvis was everything. George, for his part, thought Carl Perkins was amazing. By 1964, these floppy haired kids were writing their own songs and had grown into an awfully good band that seized the charts in the US. In the wake of the Beatles, it turned out that a lot of British kids had been listening. One after another, they arrived. The Rolling Stones. The Who. The Yardbirds. The Hollies. The Animals.
Meanwhile, a skinny kid with wild hair from Minnesota named Bob, who had himself been turned on by Little Richard, was making music that mixed the energy and irreverence of the Rock and Roll of the 50s with older American traditions of Blues and Folk. Along the way, he infused the songs with lyrical sophistication and social commentary.
The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion revived Rock in the 60s. Bob Dylan challenged it to reach a new level of maturity. They spurred each other on, and people on both sides of the Atlantic started rocking. By the end of the decade, Rock and Roll had blossomed in multiple directions: the dark Nietschean poetry of the Doors, the political stridency of the Jefferson Airplane, the sweetly clanging pop of the Byrds, Cream and Jimi Hendrix taking heavy guitar and amplification as far as it could go, the Beach Boys and the Beatles out-competing each other into producing increasingly sophisticated psychedelic masterpieces, the Who turning out a rock opera (for Pete’s sakes!) and too many more happenings to mention here.
By the early 70s the brilliant flare had faded. One of the top songs that year was by the pre-packaged poppily cute and harmless Partridge Family. The production advances and psychedelia of the 60s spawned songs that were overly ornate, abstruse, and long. Very long. Singer-songwriters proliferated at an alarming rate, producing acoustic and quiet music. Rock as powerful, noisy, dangerous and vital as came from the outpourings of 1955-1959 and 1964-1969 seemed to be a thing of the past.
Then came 1976.
1976: Anarchy in the UK
A quartet of greaseballs from Queens donned leather jackets, renamed themselves the Ramones, and started writing Rock songs played as quickly and simply as physically possible— three chords in two minutes. Elsewhere in New York, a gaunt dark-haired girl named Patti Smith intoned, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” as she proceeded to launch into burning intense poetry set to ragged music. A group calling themselves the Talking Heads produced quirky spare paeans to alienation.
Meanwhile, over in the UK, a group of Ramones fans led by some guys named Mick and Joe ripped through fast, noisy garage rock that took on neo-fascism, racism, unemployment and the other social and economic woes of the mid-70s head-on. At the same time the Clash were raising their White Riot, a pimple-faced seventeen year old with spiked red hair and torn clothes named John took on the last name “Rotten” and headed up a band called the Sex Pistols, singing with a snarl so unrehearsed and natural that it electrified everybody who heard it, “I am an antichrist. I am an anarchist!”
Gone were the layers of production, the attempt to be complex, the stifling sense of seriousness that had arisen from the 60s as they decayed into the 70s. The fetid stagnation was replaced by an attempt to be as loud, as shocking, as fast as possible, fueled by the fiercely egalitarian impulse that anybody could do this shit. And anybody did.
The Clash, Elvis Costello, the Damned, the Dead Kennedys, Joy Division, the Ramones, Patti Smith, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Stiff Little Fingers, the Talking Heads, X and literally hundreds of cohorts all over the world flared into being in the few bright, intense years that ran from 1976 to 1979.
A precious few managed to gain large followings. But most settled in to size niches, intensely, but not widely, loved.
The mass market was awash in synthesizers, slick pop production and an increasingly depressing lack of real emotional content. Even so called “Hard Rock” had become the neutered bubblegum of Hair Metal, with a flashy show of rebellion hiding the musically and socially conservative palp underneath. By the end of the 80s, many declared either with triumph or anguish that Rock was dead.
But something was going in Seattle.
1991: Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
A whole generation of kids who felt alienated by the conformist 80s was forming bands. Loud bands. Bands that took something from the Punk explosion, something from the critically unregarded but musically untamed Metal of the 70s, brought in a strain of the melodic from the 60s and maybe even from the synth-pop 80s, and fused it all together with an intensely personal emotional content that the 80s had forced underground. An astonishing number of these bands were crushed into the mid-sized city of Seattle: Alice in Chains, Hole, the Melvins, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden.
Oh yeah. And some guys who called themselves Nirvana.
In the wake of the unexpected breakout success of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” (which knocked Michael Jackson’s “Bad” from the number one spot late in 1991), new, hard-edged and emotionally dangerous music sprouted up all across the country. It turned out that there was a vast Alternative Nation that had been desperately yearning for something real throughout the 80s and now had a lot to get off of their chests. Not all of it, to be sure, followed Seattle’s Grunge musically. But the emotional intensity that Kurt Cobain and company had brought back to Rock was apparent everywhere you listened: Bjork, the Breeders, the Cranberries, Greenday, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morrisette, Liz Phair, Radiohead, the Smashing Pumkins, Veruca Salt, and more, in a hundred directions at once.
Some might date the demise of Rock’s last great explosion to Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide. I don’t agree, but his despair at the commercial machine that was co-opting the music surely played a part in his end. It is true that one can’t find a decent Grunge album after 1995, although many other strains carried on. Radiohead’s OK Computer in 1997 was thought by many to signal the end of Alternative Rock and the rise of Electronica. True or not, Rock radio over the next few years was quickly reduced to droning bleary emo, monotonous post-grunge and watered down commercial Punk.
On top of that, Gen-Y’s hideous revenge on the Alternative Nation of Gen X arrived in the form of Britney Spears. Britney’s number one “Oops, I did it Again” seems almost to be the voice of commercial pop triumphantly telling us it has once again overcome Rock. After all, she did tell us she was not that innocent.
So is all hope lost? I think not.
Nine years elapsed from the initial outbreak in 1955 to the first wave of the British Invasion in 1964. Another twelve passed from the halcyon days of 1964 to the noisy outburst of Punk and New Wave in 1976. And then fifteen from 1976 until 1991, when Grunge, the bastard child of Punk and Metal, reminded the world that Rock could still be dangerous and interesting. Are you starting to catch on to the periodicity? 1955+9=1964. 1964+12=1976. 1976+15=1991. 9, 12, 15. The next entry in the sequence is 18. 1991+18=2009.
And there you have it. The coming Great Rock Explosion of 2009. Stay tuned…