Dan Herman of Radio Crystal Blue explores and attempts to define
THE SOUL OF ROCK AND ROLL
“I know it when I’m feelin’ groovy,
It’s kind of funky like an old-time movie.
I can feel it and it’s really something,
It’s really something when my heart starts pumpin’, yeah.”
–Grand Funk Railroad “Rock and Roll Soul”
Who, or what, is the soul of rock and roll? A question that SPIN Magazine back in 1991 posed to its readers and staff. When the votes were tallied, a 31-year-old rough diamond from St. Paul, MN with a seminal rock sound stood head and shoulders above them all: Paul Westerberg. Paul, for all the media glory, was mildly impressed at best.
In an interview with SPIN announcing the proclamation of the title ‘soul of rock and roll’ PW said to the magazine’s senior editor, Mark Blackwell, that he wasn’t, but …”who really does? I’m not really casting a vote for myself, but I can’t think of anyone who really carries the torch. Maybe Keith Richards or someone like that, but that’s been written about forever. I sure I won’t sell on the cover of SPIN..”
He went on: “To me the soul of rock’n’roll is mistakes. Mistakes and making mistakes work for you. In general, music that’s flawless is usually uninspired. The people who go with thc flow and go with the mistakes and turn that into something special are the ones that show guts–that’s what we’ve always tried to do. The people who shy away from change and mistakes and play it safe have no business playing rock ‘n’roll. I never trust someone who thinks they know exactly what they want, and goes in the studio and gets it. That might be their art, but it’s usually shitty rock’n’roll”Further along in the interview he cites examples of who and what are and aren’t the soul:
Not: The Black Crowes (“..very pedestrian”)
Not: Elvis Presley
Close: Bob Dylan
Close: Gene Vincent
Unsure: Alex Chilton
Not: Drug abuse
Very close: Johnny Thunders
Good: Goo Goo Dolls
Paul again..”I don’t stand out like Robert Smith from the Cure would. I’m invisible. Can you see soul? We’re getting at something here. People follow us every night. I can always spot them. I get a lot of letters slipped to me that say things like, ‘I’ve always listened to your stuff and I’d like to meet you and everything but I really don’t want to.’ It’s what makes me keep doing this.”
At the time of the interview, PW was on the precipice of leaving the ‘Mats for his own series of projects and whatever he would be doing otherwise.
I further quote from one Mick Jagger who uttered the following for Rolling Stone in 1988: “The best rock & roll music encapsulates a certain high energy, an angriness,whether on record or onstage. That is, rock & roll is only rock & roll if it’s not safe. Violence and energy and that’s really what rock & roll’s all about”
From the All-Music Guide:
“In its purest form, Rock & Roll has three chords, a strong, insistent back beat, and a catchy melody…..From the British Invasion, folk-rock, psychedelia, and through hard rock, heavy metal, glam rock, and punk, most subgenres of rock & roll initially demonstrated an allegiance to the basic structure of rock & roll. Once these permutations emerged, traditional rock & roll faded away from the pop charts, yet there were always artists that kept the flame alive….Although the term “rock & roll” came to refer to a number of different music styles in the decades following its inception, the essential form of the music never changed.”
Tom Chartier (The Rotters), columnist for political commentator Lew Rockwell’s blog, dated January 2008: “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.”
I’m sure you are curious as to my own definition. One way for me to define this would have to be this way: Taking a trip back to 1957, New York, where my parents, not having met yet, would have accepted as good music. What would they listen to if any of today’s rock & roll bore resemblance to today’s sounds? My answer is that there is precious little that has carried forth once the 70’s and 80’s happened (especially when hip-hop came about). Yet there was the blues, and blues chords, and R&B that would truly produce some of what rock and roll truly embodies sonically. My dad was more of a standards and doo-wop man, while Mom more of a classic folk enthusiast. I gather they would find (or perhaps they did; I never asked) some common ground with Simon & Garfunkel’s albums from the late 1960’s.
For me to go into the time machine and emerge 50 years hence, knowing what I know now and listening for something ‘good’ I would listen for songs with horns (which were certainly present much more back then than now), sly sexual references, and a songwriter or band behind them with a great ‘live’ reputation. That’s it. Put those ideas together and see what you recall.
Now come with me back into the machine, go into the year 2057 and see if you can explain to your fellow human or alien just what rock and roll is. It may seem familiar with electronics, or impossibly relevant just as we might speak of war songs or the show tunes of the previous turn of the century, or (gasp!) precious operattas.
Back to the present now: I believe there is much food for thought. Stay with me on my small definition and mind the definitions in quotes above from musicians past and present.
Can the soul be defined in a person? Who is it? Is it a behavior such as mistake-making?
Think of those who made their mistakes, publicly or otherwise, and yet trudged forwards and did some great shows and albums.
Think of those who aren’t seen as a frontman/frontwoman plus a band..
Think of those whose very egos scared and troubled some of their fans and closest allies….
Think of those who aren’t the safe types of performers, as both Jagger and Westerberg had alluded to.
Think of the bands with horns, the great link to the past, no matter the time period
Someone who remembers to keep the blues alive.
Who keeps the chords and words relatively simple.
Who keeps the edge.
Maybe it’s a hanger-on of Dylan, or Thunders.
Maybe it’s Jack White.
Or indeed perhaps the Glimmer Twins.
Or your local struggling band or songwriters playing early-week residencies. You know who they are. And if you don’t, you will.
Here are a few suggestions:
Iggy Pop/The Stooges
Now, your turn: Give me some names of artists and bands that most represent the soul of rock n’ roll. I’m particularly interested in names of acts that appeared on the scene from the mid-70s or later, and who are still active and alive today, someone touring or otherwise busy composing his/her next masterpiece. No matter if the artists are major label, indie or unsigned or underground.
Also, in the spirit of the question, if you feel the soul is an idea, a concept, an action, or even a mistake, and not a person, please describe in detail.
My aim for this page is to gather at least 100 quotes from various people within the music industry. Once this is done, I’ll post them below.
I look forward to hearing from you.