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.
We hear a lot these days about the importance of social intelligence—loosely defined as "the ability to act wisely in human relations." In business this includes working smartly with team members and customers.
It's a world apart from academic acumen or conventional IQ which, studies show, are poor predictors of success—professional or personal.
I'm sure you know some very bright folks—maybe off-the-charts brilliant—who are dumb as rocks when it comes to dealing with people. Perhaps they have trouble tolerating contrary viewpoints. Or they're ineffective in the persuasive arts. Or they can't communicate without insulting someone. Needless to say, they can be problematic team members. Like young kids who have trouble playing with others.
In my rock & roll days I observed—and sometimes performed with—uber-talented musicians who were clueless about "playing with others." Some individuals managed to survive because of their technical (musical) genius. But bands had a tough time staying together when one or more members were socially obtuse.
I've been reflecting on the importance of having a passion for your work. Yes, it's a tall order for some kinds of jobs. But if you're able to do what you love doing, it has plenty of benefits. This reminds me of a band I played in many moons ago, which I wrote up in one of my first blog posts...
Of the dozen musical ensembles I performed with in my twenties—the "artistic period" of my life—the most interesting one was a street-singing band, Uncle Crusty and the Venice Canaligators.
The group was named after the scenic canals of Venice, California and the scenic Uncle Crusty. His real name was Hook McGuire, a lovable, grizzly, one-armed harmonica player (he lost his hook in prison) who sang like Howlin' Wolf.