Rock is art. Rock songs toy with time. Decades after first hearing it, a song will find its way to your radio and instantly transport you to a place and people. They are three-minute symphonies. They are novels with plot, theme, and character. Because rock songs matter, the groups that create them matter and so let us ponder our most important groups.
- Crickets and the Beatles
Sex spawned Rock ‘n’ Roll. Even the name was an African-American slang for sex. The early songs were blatantly sexual. Consider Good Rockin’ Tonight, Great Balls of Fire, and anything by Little Richard including his transvestite tale in Long Tall Sally. The Crickets and then the Beatles turned rock from sex to fun. The Crickets sang Oh Boy at the thought of merely seeing a girl and the Beatles just wanted to hold her hand.
More important was that they killed the old music industry. For decades, songwriters punched the clock each morning in small offices on Nashville’s Music Row and New York’s Brill building. They wrote the songs that A & R men pitched. The Crickets and Beatles proclaimed that from that point on, groups would write their own material.
- The Byrds and the Band
The Byrds married the rhythms and harmonies of the Beatles with the lyrical maturity of Bob Dylan. Many of their early songs were Dylan covers. Kids were surprised to learn that with Turn! Turn! Turn! they were dancing to the Bible’s Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. They certainly knew that Eight Miles High was about drugs.
Like the Byrds, the Band taught listeners that rock songs could move beyond girl-boy angst. They focussed on deeper matters. With The Weight, they wrote of the American Civil War’s pain and the century-long yearning for redemption. With Cripple Creek and many others, they sang of the joy in anti-establishment and anti-consumerist attitudes and behaviours.
- The Monkees and the Eagles
That’s right, the Monkees. Of course they were a made up band but they’re on this list because of Mike Nesmith. To quell his protests, he was allowed to produce two of his compositions for the first Monkees album. Papa Jean’s Blues and Sweet Young Thing were rock but also country. Unlike today’s country, which Tom Petty has said is bad pop with a fiddle, Nesmith’s songs were outlaw country before Waylon and Willie coined the phrase. Each Monkees album contained Nesmith country-rock songs and lots of kids were hearing the new genre because, in 1967, the Monkees outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Before winning his casting call, Nesmith had been an MC at an L. A. club where he sang and introduced local talent. Among them was Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys. Their first hit was a Nesmith country-rock song: Different Drum. After touring with Ronstadt, her band left and renamed itself the Eagles. They took country-rock to new levels. Marvel at their harmonies and stellar musicianship as you hear country and rock fusing seamlessly in Already Gone, Take It Easy, and Heartache Tonight. A string of hits and sold-out concerts taught folks that the line between rock and country is as illusory as that between the beer and wine of Saturday night and Sunday morning.
- The Beatles and the Beach Boys
After enjoying a string of hits, Beach Boys muse Brian Wilson surrendered the road for the studio. Although deaf in one ear from a beating his father inflicted in childhood, he meticulously coached LA’s Wrecking Crew through layers of overdubs until the music on the tape matched the vision in his head. The quirky arrangements and odd instruments, such as the theremin, were like no one had ever imagined. The result was God Only Knows, Good Vibrations, Wouldn’t It Be Nice and the album Pet Sounds.
I know the Beatles are on this list twice. So what, they earned it. When Paul McCartney heard Pet Sounds he drove to Lennon’s house and they accepted the challenge. The Beatles and their genius producer George Martin locked themselves in Abbey Road for months until their masterpiece was complete – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There wasn’t a single single. That was the point.
FM radio was invented to allow rock music to graduate from commercial AM formats where songs were almost incidental to ads and DJ patter, to a place where albums could be played in their entirety. The Beach Boys and Beatles and their two albums raised rock music from disposable to art.
- Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin
Rock ‘n’ Roll was born in the delta blues of the American south and electric blues of Chicago. A teenaged Keith Richard was at a train station when he noticed a skinny kid with an armful of American blues records. Intrigued, he introduced himself to Mick Jagger. The group they created was named after a blues song and dedicated to bringing American blues to British and then back to American kids. When in America, they insisted on meeting not movie stars but Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and their blues idols. Listen to Honky Tonk Woman or any number of others and try not to hear the blues.
Led Zepplin was more outrageous in their clothes, behaviour, attitude, and concerts than any group before and their music more ragged, innovative, and loud. All of that distracted from the fact that they were playing little more than operatic variations of the blues. Listen to Muddy Water’s Hoochie Coochie Man then consider the direct line to Whole Lot of Love. As Elvis had, the Rolling Stones and Led Zepplin reminded listeners of rock’s black roots.
- The Heartbreakers and the Clash
Rock survived the early ‘60s folk music scare but was nearly defeated by ‘70s disco. It was music untouched by human hands that appealed to neither head nor heart but rather the spinal chord. Some groups manned the cultural barricades and burned the white flag. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played music that reminded listeners of the best of the ‘60s but brought a power either not imagined or too long forgotten. Refugee, American Girl and many others pulsed with catchy hooks but just beneath the surface lurked desperate rage.
The Clash employed classic ‘60s models in musicians and song structures. Their songs bespoke the simple beauty wrought from three chords and the truth. They were based on the notion, as Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell once said: “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” Their lyrics decried the phoniness of celebrity culture and the pain of Thatcherism. The Heartbreakers and the Clash saved rock music from disco’s circling of the cultural sink and reminded people of rock’s potency and potential.
- Pearl Jam and Nirvana
Every decade asks rock music to save itself from the industry of which it’s a part. Grunge did the deed in the ‘90s. Pearl Jam’s music harkened back to classic rock writing structures but it was rougher and more adventurous. Their lyrics were decidedly dark in addressing suicide, sexual abuse, and depression. They sacrificed untold millions to fight Ticketmaster and its greedy, gouging fees. It played stadiums and forced advertising banners to be covered and even tape to be placed over the beer logos on concession workers’ shirts.
Due to the suicide of its leader and lead singer, Nirvana recorded only three albums but that was enough to contribute to the move toward songs that jumped from one rhythm to another, from quiet, gentle sections to screaming raves, and yet stuck to the verse-chorus-bridge structure. Their unplugged concert proved that while bad songs can make fun records, only quality songs stand with credibility when stripped to acoustic instrumentation. Talent always trumps show.
Picasso once took a child’s sparkler and dashed a swirl that instantly vanished. A photographer caught it. There, slashing the darkness, was art. Most rock music is equally fleeting. Some groups, though, are like Picasso. Their concerts are the artist’s sparklers creating moments immediately gone. Recordings, though, are canvasses. They speak to artistic intention, society’s gaps, and a listener’s yearnings. Songs by any of the groups on the list are exactly the same as the day they were recorded but our world has changed, we have changed, and so the songs have changed with our evolving perception of their meaning. That we can visit as old friends is the beauty of art, of all art, but perhaps especially music.
Please consider sharing this with others on Facebook or elsewhere and leaving a comment as to groups I missed and which should not have made this list. You might also be a brute for punishment and check my previous columns where, perhaps as foolishly as above, I tackled:
6 Singers Who Matter Most https://johnboyko.com/2016/01/04/popular-important-6-singers-that-matter-most/
Most Important Bands of All Time https://johnboyko.com/2016/01/18/most-important-bands-of-all-time/
Top Concerts of the Last 5 Decades https://johnboyko.com/tag/concert/