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.
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.
Rock and roll made one last valiant stand in the late '80s and early '90s, when unrepentant rock and rollers like Guns N' Roses and the Black Crowes pushed their way to the top of the charts — a lot of metal, especially fast metal, swings like a demon. As a matter of fact, vestiges of roll can even be found in the music of many bands playing this weekend's Rock the Bayou festival on the former AstroWorld grounds — Ratt, Great White, Dangerous Toys, Jackyl, Bullet Boys (featuring ex-GN'R drummer Steven Adler) and certainly erstwhile Poison frontman Bret "Rock of Love" Michaels. Then Nirvana came along and redrew the map, and it's been all post-grunge and rap-metal ever since.
But why is the roll worth mourning in the first place? Who cares about a little rhythmic flourish that's hard to define outside "I know when I hear it" when you can load up another round of Guitar Hero or Rock Band? First of all, because rock is a whole lot less fun without it — think of the roll as a sense memory of a time when music was less scrutinized, less compartmentalized, less civilized. And considering today's so-called "rock stars" are either manufactured pop acts in disguise like the Jonas Brothers or personality-free wankers like Nickelback and Puddle of Mudd, rock could use a little roll now more than ever.
Luckily, it's still out there; you just have to know where to look (besides obvious places like Rock the Bayou and Tom Petty's show Friday, that is). Though old-school rock and roll may be relegated to the nostalgia circuit at the moment, younger bands like The Hives, Drive-By Truckers, Kings of Leon, The Hold Steady and Black Keys — and even scattered modern rockers like Queens of the Stone Age and Toadies (see "No Deliverance from Evil," page 54) — all have moments on recent albums (see list below) where they both rock and roll.
Don't forget, the highest-grossing tour of all time was the Stones' A Bigger Bang outing a couple of years back (and it wasn't all 50-year-olds at those shows, trust me). Springsteen's right-hand man Little Steven van Zandt waves the rock and roll flag higher than anyone on his weekly Underground Garage radio show. And given the cyclical nature of all popular music, it's impossible — and downright stupid — to ever count rock and roll out entirely.
"I think it'll be back," agrees Hill. "At some point, people are going to say, 'We're tired of antiseptic music that's quote-unquote "perfect" — we want something that's kind of funky in there.' There's going to be somebody that has a hit record with a swing and rock and roll thing in the next five years. Without a doubt."
"It's too powerful," Hill says. "And it's a new sound to people. I see kids at Oldies shows and they're singing along — they love this stuff."
So maybe Neil Young was right after all: Rock, and roll, will never die. Hey hey, my my.
Ten Great Rock and Roll Songs from This Decade
1. Kings of Leon, "Holy Roller Novocaine"
2. Ryan Adams, "New York, New York"
3. Franz Ferdinand, "Take Me Out"
4. Wilco, "I'm the Man Who Loves You"
5. John Fogerty, "Creedence Song"
6. Drive-By Truckers, "Aftermath USA"
7. Queens of the Stone Age, "Little Sister"
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8. The Strokes, "Juicebox"
9. The Black Keys, "Strange Times"
10. The Hives, "Hate to Say I Told You So"