I came across something I wrote years ago about early rock records that seems even more relevant today, given the ubiquity of computer-generated robopop...
I was prompted this weekend to take a fresh listen to Ye Auld Hit Parade, so I could hear how those rock & roll classics stand up, almost 60 years later. (Is rock that old??)
Well, after listening to a sample of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley tunes, I'd have to say I'm a tad 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 back beat that characterize 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-Knockin','' or Presley's "Hound Dog." (Go ahead, do it!) If you haven't heard these songs—or heard them lately—you'll be in for a surprise. Anyone with a pulse should be bowled over by the energy, power, and clean simplicity of these hits.
We lost another great one with the passing of Prince Rogers Nelson last week. This diminutive dude of outsized talent was an uber-creative alchemist of funk, soul, pop, and rock, which he delivered with lustful bravado.
He was also a guitar master—as amply displayed in the second half of this must-see video from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductions in 2004. (The Beatles' George Harrison and Prince were both inducted that year.)
With the world’s attention now focused on Prince, this would be a good time to make sense of the cultural impact he’s made. After all, this is the performer who so offended the white bread sensitivities of the reactionary 80s that his Purple Rain album drove Tipper Gore (wife of then-U.S. Senator Al Gore) to successfully lobby for “Parental Advisory” labels on CDs.
Love those rock & roll lawsuits! Here's a fun one: Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are being sued for copyright infringement for the opening guitar line on their overwrought classic, "Stairway to Heaven."
The plaintiff is the estate of Randy Wolfe (aka Randy California) of the band Spirit. The estate alleges that Page and Plant—as composers of the song—stole the guitar intro from a Spirit song, "Taurus," that California wrote.
Zeppelin as a band has reportedly made over a half billion dollars on "Stairway to Heaven" and Page and Plant have probably made even more from songwriter royalties, so what's at stake here isn't chump change.
Listening to the opening of the two songs back to back, I think Page's guitar intro may qualify as a lift. [The video I linked to is no longer available.] Page even plays it in the same key (A minor) that Spirit used. Zeppelin was likely exposed to the song when the band opened for Spirit in the late 60s. And the fact that Zeppelin has a history of losing plagiarism lawsuits won't help the case—assuming it makes it to trial without a settlement.
It might seem odd to be discussing country legend Merle Haggard in a rock & roll blog, but the singer-songwriter was unquestionably a rocker in spirit—at least the outlaw kind. This was a man who, in Bob Dylan’s words, “transcends the country genre.”
Anyone can call himself a rebel but this dude started out as a bona fide desperado. He spent much of his impoverished youth in juvenile detention centers and state prisons before turning his life around after joining a country band in San Quentin, inspired by a 1958 Johnny Cash gig at the prison.
Within two years Merle was paroled and quickly got his first record contact. By 1965 he had his first Top 10 country hit, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” and his career was off and running.
By the time he passed away last week on his 79th birthday, he had amassed an astonishing 38 #1 country hits and 71 Top 10 country hits, including “Mama Tried,” “If We Make It Through December,” and “”Workin’ Man Blues.” All the more impressive given where he started.
One obvious lesson to learn from Merle Haggard is the importance of doing it your way and, in the process, separating yourself from the pack. Merle did it first by making Bakersfield, California his musical home in the 1960s—not Nashville, which was home to the more polished sound of country—and playing a grittier, twangier style than was heard on country radio at the time.