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Who Stole the Roll?

Say I could stick my pen in my heart and spill it all over the stage. Would it satisfy ya, would it slide on by ya, would you think the boy is strange?

Hopefully you recognize those lines as the opening verse to the Rolling Stones' 1974 hit "It's Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It)." If you don't, I forgive you, and I understand. Today, the answer to Mick Jagger's questions would be, respectively, no, yes and most definitely. It's not only rock and roll anymore, it's just "rock," and the roll is missing in action.

What does it mean, as Led Zeppelin put forth in "Stairway to Heaven," "to be a rock and not to roll"? By "roll," I mean the element in the music of people like Elvis Presley, Bill Haley & the Comets, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly — and try finding a non-satellite radio station that still plays any of those artists, by the way — that triggers an involuntary synaptic impulse somewhere in the brain that forces you to shake your hips and move, baby, move. Remember, rock and roll took its name from an African-American slang term for sexual intercourse.

Details

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers perform, with Steve Winwood, 7 p.m. Friday, August 29, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Dr., The Woodlands, 281-363-3300. Rock the Bayou runs Friday, August 29, through Monday, September 1, at the former AstroWorld location, Loop 610 at Kirby Dr, www.rockthebayou.com. Little Steven's Underground Garage airs locally7 p.m. Sundays on KKRW, 93.7 FM.

The name wasn't all early rock and rollers lifted from their darker-skinned cousins. In the beginning, the fundamental rhythm of rock and roll was almost identical to the beat of rhythm and blues, a fluid, steady pulse itself derived from swing. The primary, perhaps the only, objective of both styles of music was to make people dance, and dancing in turn was one of young people's few available outlets for their awakening sexual impulses before things like drugs and the Internet came along.

It's impossible to watch any live-music footage from the late '50s and early '60s and not notice the auditoriums full of frisky teenagers shucking, jiving and spinning each other all over the place, showing off what they had learned from TV shows like American Bandstand. By contrast, when's the last time you saw anyone dancing at a rock concert — not nodding their head back and forth or swaying from side to side, but actually dancing? With each other?

In a case like this, there's only one person to call for a second opinion: Houston's High Priest of the Oldies himself, Allen Hill.

"I couldn't agree with you more," says Hill, who fronts the Allen Oldies Band, plays bass in the El Orbits and, most recently, took over booking for Discovery Green's Thursday-night concert series that starts next week.

"You're right — this is totally up my alley," laughs Hill. "If I didn't know better, I'd think we were driving [home] after a gig in the middle of the night somewhere, trying to stay awake."

The easiest explanation for the roll's mysterious disappearance is that as rock and roll matured, for better or worse, it simply outgrew the roll. Once Bob Dylan plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and the Beatles began their LSD-laced magical mystery tour that led to Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, rock took on a new degree of intellectual cachet. Songs about dancing and teenage crushes, however much fun they were, sounded hopelessly quaint and even juvenile in the wake of "All Along the Watchtower" and "A Day in the Life."

The Beatles ushered in the stadium-rock era at New York's Shea Stadium in 1965, and — aided by improvements in sound-amplification technology — rock's center of gravity rapidly relocated from small nightclubs and high-school auditoriums to sports arenas and giant ballrooms like San Francisco's Fillmore. This shift in scale completely changed the way performers interacted with the audience — and the way the audience interacted with each other.

"It was dances all these [early] guys were playing and writing music for," notes Hill. "Then, when it became concerts — where, you know, sit here and be stoned out of your mind and don't interact with the opposite sex, like Pink Floyd — then it wasn't about dancing."

Furthermore, the more the spotlight lingered on guitar gods like Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, the Who's Pete Townshend, AC/DC's Angus Young and Eric Clapton, the more the piano was pushed into the background, if it was even there at all. Power chords, not 4/4 barrelhouse piano, became rock's signature sound, further bleeding out the roll. However, several performers from this era — the Stones, Faces, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Creedence Clearwater Revival and certainly Elton John — could safely be said to both rock and roll, and besides CCR, they all featured piano prominently in their songs.

"[Piano is] a huge element," says Hill. "Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, certainly the walking bass parts both of those guys did with their left hand, there was tons of swing in that, and really rolling."

Through the rest of the '70s and '80s, rock and roll stayed somewhat in the picture thanks to the efforts of artists like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, the Pretenders, the Romantics, John Mellencamp — and at least some ELO, Cheap Trick, Journey and Bob Seger — but most other major bands of the time like Boston, Chicago, Styx, Foreigner, Supertramp and Toto were all painfully lacking in roll. Punk helped rekindle interest in rock and roll's bare-bones sound — "A Ramones record's gonna make you want to dance, an AC/DC record's gonna make you want to drink," notes Hill — but that was over once it splintered into artsy post-punk and mosh-happy hardcore.

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