Simplicity rules: in design, technology, business… and Rock & Roll.

The sight of twelve-foot-high snow banks in my parking lot—with more snow forecast for tomorrow—has brought back a treasured childhood memory: school cancellations.

Freedom from oppression! Independence, self-determination, autonomy—at least for a day! (We would have rioted in the streets against educational tyranny but we weren't convinced anyone would take seven-year-olds seriously.)

But the best part of staying home then—aside from frolicking in the pristine snow drifts—was being able to watch American Bandstand on TV from start to finish.

Such memories prompted me this weekend to take a fresh listen to the old Hit Parade so I could hear how those rock & roll classics stand up fifty years later.

Well, after listening to a sample of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley tunes, I'd have to say I'm disappointed.

Disappointed that so little of that pure, unadorned rock & roll feel has survived into the present, where complex arrangements and overwrought production can stifle the simple rhythm—and primitive backbeat—that characterizes great rock & roll.

But if you want to hear the real thing, just fire up your iTunes and sample Berry's "Johnny B Goode," Richard's "Keep a Knocking,'' or Presley's "Hound Dog." Anyone with a pulse should be blown away by the energy, power, and raw simplicity of any of these artists' hits.

For instance, Little Richard, the rock & roll fundamentalist, conducted a clinic in how to sing uncooked rock & roll in "Lucille." Presley's backing musicians set the standard for bare-bones rhythm in "Don't Be Cruel." Not one note or beat too many on any of these tracks. I hate to sound Churchillian, but never has so much been communicated with so little!

Simplicity rules. Any designer or engineer will tell you that. Make things accessible—easy to understand, easy to grasp, easy to assimilate—visually or aurally. (Think Apple. Think Google.)

I hear this from product development teams, IT engineers, marketers and advertisers—in client companies ranging from accounting to banking to health care to pharmaceuticals to transportation to advanced technology. It's all part of design thinking—which anyone in any business should become familiar with. (Update: read the comments for references.) And the early rockers wrote the book on design simplicity.

But before I'm branded a rock regressive, musical atavist, cultural dinosaur, or just plain geezer, let me assure you I have found some contemporary bands that know to deliver the goods—that is, basic rock.

I love the straightforward power of the All-American Rejects, Nada Surf, Paramore (Hayley Williams can wail), and of course Green Day (the champs of pop punk). But for simple R&R elegance, nobody beats the early architects. Here's a live version of Chuck performing "Back in the USA'" in 1986—joined by Linda Ronstadt on vocals and Keith Richards on guitar.

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  1. For design thinking check out the Design Thinking blog of Ideo’s Tim Brown.

    For simplicity in design check out John Maeda’s book, "The Laws of Simplicity"—which I’m just getting around to reading. For simplicity in life and business, check out the blog of my buddy Trevor Gay at

    The video clip is from one of the greatest rock documentaries of all time: Hail Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. That’s NRBQ’s Joey Spampinato on guitar facing off with Keith, and Robert Cray also on guitar. Linda Ronstadt’s version of this song was a Top 20 Hit in 1978.

  2. If you were a bonafide geezer, you wouldn't leave out the Rolling Stones. Who played basic rock 'n' roll better?

    Simplicity is still a neglected art, but the best brands know how to apply it. The Google home page is one example.

  3. Trish, I intentionally skipped over the British invasion of the Sixties. The Brits of course resuscitated American rock & roll and added an entirely new artistic dimension to it. The Beatles were simply the greatest band ever, the Stones were arguably the greatest ROCK AND ROLL band ever, and the Who were, in my opinion, the greatest rock & roll PERFORMERS ever. But John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, and Pete Townshend always tipped their hats to their mentors: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bo Diddley——the pioneers (and masters) of simple R&R.

    Yes, the best brands and the best bands know what simplicity means.

  4. Nada Surf and Green Day..? Can't see the comparison. Green Day is to rock what Sarah Palin is to politics... not that I 'hate' on either..!

    For some reason, how could there be no mention of the only band that matters in this conversation? When it comes to the roots of American music, the commercial love is overseas. The best blues muscians tend to do better in Europe... and it is no accident that The White Stripes were able to gain traction in England after languishing in America...

  5. I think there is definitely an argument for simplicity but sometimes it over-simplifies the issue.

    There's no doubting the raw, visceral excitement of early Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis et al. But there's plenty of songs by Yes or Genesis or Frank Zappa which go through some complicated time signatures, odd keys, feature an array of instruments and yet still give me goosebumps.

    The key word in that last paragraph was (of course!)...


    I think the problem is when acts forget that they are in service to the song. A 10-minute drum solo might impress a few would-be drummers and 17-year olds, but what does it add to the song? The new recording desk might have 128 tracks, but does the song need that many parts? Your best pal might play an excellent trumpet and want to be on the record, but does the song really need one? Your fans / record company / bank manager might be hassling you to put out a new LP but have you got 12 songs you'd be proud to put your name against and sing every night?

    It's all about the song!

  6. Hey Mark — You don't think Green Day rocks? You can sit still for American Idiot and Do You Know the Enemy? The band can play primitive rock with the best of them — and then turn on a dime and play sophisticated pop — thanks to the versatility of BJ Armstrong. Re the Palin comparison: Green Day, politically, is to the left of everybody, though you probably weren't talking politics. (I'd love to ask Gov. Palin for her opinion of American Idiot.)

  7. By the way, Mark, which band are you referring to as "the only band that matters"? I assume you're not talking about the White Stripes, though they're certainly worth mentioning (and I don't mention them enough).

  8. Always great to focus on simplicity.
    I write books and the more words you eliminate the better. I love your sense of humor John. Herb Pearce

  9. Mark #2: fair point, but I'm focusing on basic rock & roll here, as opposed to pop music or even "generic rock." When I listen to Little Richard Penniman blast out Good Golly Miss Molly or Long Tall Sally (or Chuck Berry sing Sweet Little 16 or Roll Over Beethoven) I become a fundamentalist again. So for this week at least I'm a true believer in bare bones R&R. (Next week I'll probably lapse...) But today I say: if the vocal and back beat aren't moving parts of your body, it ain't the real thing.

    A hundred years ago my band opened for Zappa & the Mothers and I was mightily impressed by them, but I wasn't tapping my foot to them. (Too many changes in the time signature?) Electric Light Orchestra, to take another example, was a very respectable band (and I LOVE Mr. Blue Sky) but I can't relate to it as rock & roll. That doesn't mean it isn't good pop music — it's just a different animal.

    Remember, my all-time favorite band is the Beatles, and they didn't play much stripped down rock & roll since their early days‚ though they never completely abandoned their rock roots and — thanks to Ringo Starr — that all-important backbeat. (Also, they wrote and played extremely sophisticated music, but they knew how to make it SOUND simple. I can't tell you how many times I sat down to learn a Beatles song, expecting it to be 4 or 5 chords and then discovering it had 10 chords — in unusual voicings — and multiple key switches.)

    That brings me to your brilliant second point. The greatest bands and artists — rock, pop, whatever — understood this basic lesson: "It's the SONG, stupid!" The arrangement and performance need to be in total service to the song. More on this later...

  10. Thanks for making some interesting links, John.

    The concept of keeping things simple in business makes a lot of sense. While the issues may be complex, and figuring out what to do may be painfully convoluted, it seems that the best master strokes are elegant, simple, easy to communicate.

    It wouldn't hurt the executives of many companies to take an old-fashioned snow-day every now and then, spin some R&R, and reflect on what they are doing, why, how they add value to their customers, maybe even how society benefits.

  11. I was flipping channels the other day and Back To The Future was on, and I caught the part at the dance (in the 50s) when the band plays Johnny B Goode, and at the end of the song Michael J Fox says "Your kids are gonna love it". That is such a great line. I'm not exactly sure the timing is correct - seems like it happened way before those kids had kids, but still - a great line.

    Rock and Roll. Nothing like it.

    Simplicity DOES rule. It's amazing, though, how much it seems like simplicity has to be mindful. Doesn't seem to just happen, in this day and age. We are a complicated folk.

  12. Hi John - The folks who get simplicity right know about complexity and how it screws things up for the vast majority of people.

    How many people do you kow who go to bed at night hoping their work tomorrow will be more complicated?

    Far too much pretentiousness of language, far too much bullshit and far too little simplicity in my opinion - specially in the business world.

    The Kinks knew all about simplicity and mastered the art - best Brit band ever in my opinion.

  13. Herb, thanks. Good luck with your book ("The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Power of the Enneagram").

    Bill, there are many companies like Google—and departments within companies—that mandate "creative time" for their associates. (At Patagonia headquarters they sometimes hit the beach when surf's up.) But spinning some R&R works for me.

  14. Dorothy, making things easy to use, easy to understand, easy to grasp can take extra work. There's no denying the complexity of organizations, the complexity of business, the complexity of life. The trick is to make it relatively easy to navigate that complexity. I'm reminded of Commerce Bank (which had branches up and down the Eastern seaboard of the US) — which got swallowed up by TD Bank a few years ago — that did a brilliant job of simplifying the banking experience for customers. The customers didn't have to know about complications in the back office. They just wanted quick and easy access to customer reps and simple solutions to their problems. The bank had live 24-hour phone service in which actual human beings located in Delaware or Pennsylvania answered the call by the 2nd ring. And if the customer had a request, the teller or phone rep could not say no without getting a second opinion! A revolutionary approach. Coincidentally the bank president was once a rock & roll drummer. Former Commerce customers are still voicing their complaints online over the loss of their bank three and a half years later.

    Trevor, you've been carrying the torch for simplicity longer than anyone I know on the blogosphere! Good point about the Kinks. I've always been a big fan. (I got to see them up close in a small Hollywood club circa 1970.) But until you mentioned it I missed the obvious: that they were true masters of simplicity. "You Really Got Me" is as raw and primal as it gets.

  15. I worked for a number of years in human services, both non-profit and for-profit. What an interesting group of social work folks and social work folks trying to be business people. Rarely did I find the two mind sets merging very well. And (in my opinion) to mask those differences, an impressive amount of paperwork and terminology was enacted.

    My most recent position was working with people with developmental disabilities, and their families, trying to help them navigate that system. At one point, Health and Welfare (the perpetrator of the system) made us (service coordinators, case managers, and the clients) a promise that they would no longer change the rules and paperwork any more often than every six months.

    Every six months? We were supposed to be grateful. When I started the position, my time was spent with the clients, with the families. By the time I left (six years later), my time was spent largely in front of the computer, writing plans and trying to keep up with all the changing requirements. For a while, the changes were so frequent that they presented all paperwork as pending forms. When I started, there was an attitude of team work between H&W, providers, and clients. Six years later it had totally become Us and Them. That was about 5 years ago, and I understand it just gets worse all the time.

    "How many people do you kow who go to bed at night hoping their work tomorrow will be more complicated?
    Far too much pretentiousness of language, far too much bullshit and far too little simplicity in my opinion - specially in the business world."

    Yep. In the human services world, also. Often -- pretty inhumane, actually. Sad.

    My ultimate, personal response was sort of one third of Timothy Leary's advice -- I dropped out. My husband and I figured out how to make our life small (AKA cheap) and dropped right out of that world. Moved to the coast, working on recovering from the physical havoc of that stress. And I try not to hear too much about how it goes back there, in the old world.

    Yep, Simplicity Rules!!!! Thanks for the reminder, John.

  16. John - a point that sometimes gets overlooked when talking about the old records is the excellence of the engineering / recording / production.

    We live in an age where people seem happy with cruddy MP3 files: low bit rates, 46th generation copies and played through mediocre kit. Hi fi has come to be seen as elitist or snobbish when the fact is that for £500 - £1000 you can buy decent kit that will blow away any £400 all-in-one set-up. Many people haven't so much forgotten about good quality sound, they've never really known it! (As an aside, it must be pretty frustrating for people who spend hours and $$$ trying to make a great sounding record in the knowledge that it'll end up as a cruddy MP3 file played through a £10 set of headphones!)

    Back in the 60 and 70's, people listened to the sound of the studio, they spent hours setting up the mic's on the drum kit to record it right, they recorded straight to tape or without too much hardware in the way. There was a clarity and a feeling to the sound.

    On top of this, bands often played live in the studio with very little over-dubbing.

    Without detracting from the musicians, I think it's this combination of great songs + passionate playing + excellent recording that often comes together to produce the classic rock n' roll.

  17. Brilliantly put Dorothy - I recognise your feelings of frustration because I suffered in the same way. Too many managers inventing their own language to try and protect their position - its true in every orgnisation. I think it's arrogance or pretentiousness rather than insecurity.

    Well said and well done for getting out - so did I!!!

    Tom Peters was absolutely right when he said "Life is too short to work with jerks"

    Best wishes Dorothy and always keep it simple!

  18. Great comments, Dorothy. I'm curious what caused all the rule changes at H&W?

    Mark, excellent points. The song became less and less important in the rock world over the years. (I may write a book about it some day.) I could count on one hand the number of bands in the last 30 years who wrote and recorded GREAT songs year after year. Regarding record production, I think the sound engineering & production of the top acts is state-of-the-art today — and I believe they take the time to get it right. (For just one example, listen to "Gives You Hell" by the All-American Rejects on a good system.) But, yes, too many listeners won't get to hear that on their iPod. It's also true that over the years mostly everyone on the value chain — from artists to producers to consumers — has lost touch with the rock & roll fundamentals. In the "early days" of Elvis/Chuck/Little Richard the recording technology forced them to keep it simple. And they would sink or swim based on a passionate vocal and a hot guitar/piano/bass/drums rhythm track. THAT'S what makes a song like Keep a Knockin' or Back in the USA absolutely REMARKABLE. Bare bones stuff. But it COOKS. Even a ballad like Don't Be Cruel has so much swing in it you can't sit still.

    Your equation works for me: great songs + passionate playing + excellent recording = classic rock n' roll.

    THAT equation inspired the reinvention of rock — a half-decade after the music "died" in 1959. The Beatles, Stones, and Kinks all started as basic R&R/R&B bands. The Beatles, remember, were scruffs in leather jackets playing at deafening volume when they came back from Hamburg.

  19. Trevor, I always appreciate the perspective of someone who has spent decades in the bureaucratic trenches and successfully emerged to share his insights. (And long live the Kinks! Are you finally letting go of your attachment to that country-rock band from Holllywood?)

    To Mark and everyone... If you're a fan of classic rock & roll (and the roots of R&R, such as R&B, blues, rockabilly, pop) you've GOT to check out "Russ and Gary's 'The Best Years of Music.'"

    Do a search of your favorite artist in their archive and you'll hear musical clips and read surprising factoids about them.

  20. Hi John - I will never let go of The Eagles - the best ever band to emerge from your side of the pond my friend.

    I'm just imagining The Kinks and The Eagles in one concert - now that would be some night eh John?

  21. Trev, the Kinks are playing in England this very month I believe.

    And in defense of the Eagles they're a band that has always taken THE SONG seriously.

  22. Hi John - take a look here at Waterloo Sunset. This was the first vinyl 45rpm record I bought with my own money once I'd started work as a 16 year old in 1969 .... Ahhh memories Eh?

    A classic Kinks number.... Let me know what you think Sir!

    The Kinks

  23. Waterloo Sunset was one of Ray Davies' greatest songs—and one of his best vocals. It was originally titled Liverpool Sunset because Ray loved the Merseybeat. (Some have speculated it was about the demise of the British Empire, but that might be a stretch.) I loved all of their hits, especially Lola, Victoria, and Well-Respected Man. Loved their early rockers too, like Till the End of the Day. The Kinks could have given the Stones a run for their money as the #2 British act of that era if they could have toured the US when they were hot. The musicians' union apparently banned them from touring the US between '65 & 69 because of various "controversies." The Kinks might have been as commercially successful as they were artistically successful.

  24. As a lifelong Kinks fan I rest my case John - couldn’t have put it better myself. The Kinks were unfortunate in some ways that they were around with the Beatles and The Stones otherwise I suspect we would regard them as the real ground breakers. Musically and lyrically they come out as good as any band I’ve seen. Ray Davies was/is a master writer.

  25. Trevor, I think I know why the Kinks and the Eagles are your two favorite bands. The SONG is top priority for both groups.

    Forgot to mention why the American Federation of Musicians banned the group from the US for four years: onstage fist fights between musicians was frowned upon. Ray recently said, “In rock, there has to be an element of conflict. We wouldn’t have made ‘All Day and All of the Night’ without that aggression. It gives you an edge, and the bands that lasted the longest had that edge to begin with.”

    While the Kinks' conflict may have been excessive, it's certainly true that harnessing dissent is critical to the success of most business teams.

  26. That reminds me: Jerry Hirschberg — the founder of Nissan Design Interntional and the author of the management classic "The Creative Priority" — said he intentionally paired up designers, modelers, and engineers who thought differently from each other in order to generate "creative abrasion." Harnessing conflict is still an under-appreciated skill for business teams.

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