Cooler than you: the Velvet Underground
The three songs on the list so far have all been about sex and/or love (in rock’n’roll terms, there’s not much difference between the two). So where’s the third leg of the holy tripod? Where are the drugs?
There aren’t many drug songs from rock’s first decade or so. Certainly it wasn’t that people weren’t taking them; it’s just that they weren’t writing songs about them, or if they were, they were doing so in code. It just wasn’t socially acceptable to write overtly about drugs, or at least not commercially acceptable. By 1967, the Beatles certainly had experience with marijuana and LSD, but they never wrote a song identifiably about ganja, and John Lennon famously and disingenuously denied that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was about acid. Even Jimi Hendrix, poster boy for the psychedelic lifestyle, ended “Are You Experienced?” with the disclaimer “not necessarily stoned, but beautiful.”
There’s a moment in the U2 documentary Rattle and Hum when Bono — in his typical annoying, self-righteous style — introduces a version of “Helter Skelter” like this: “This is a song that Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.”
Well by 1966, the Brits had up and stolen rock’n’roll from us. We needed someone to steal it back. Fortunately, fate provided just such an agent in the person of James Marshall Hendrix.
It was fate that gave Hendrix his middle name, the same as the name of the powerful brand of amp he would one day use to make noises never before heard by humans. It was fate, along with probably some amount of American racism, that made him go to London in 1966 in search of a recording contract. And it was fate (acting through ex-Animal Chas Chandler) that hooked him up with two big-haired British hipsters, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The Kinks, on top of the world.
Levitin left Elvis off his list because the person he was making the list for “had heard Elvis Presley, so I didn’t need to cover that.” This left me with the decision of whether to do the same. For serious Elvis people, this would be no decision at all; the question would be which Elvis song to put on. “That’s All Right, Mama”? “Blue Suede Shoes”? “Heartbreak Hotel”? “Hound Dog”?
But I am not a serious Elvis person. I enjoy his work, admire his talent, and yet there’s something lacking in his music that is essential to what I think of as rock’n’roll. For lack of a better word, I would call it balls. It’s laughable to me that he was once considered so dangerous, because however salacious the material, there’s always a softness about Elvis, an absence of real menace. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — it’s part of what made him lovable, and vulnerable. Some cynics will try to tell you that Elvis was the white devil who stole rock’n’roll, watered it down, and sold it to the mainstream, but in my version of the story he was a guileless soul who happened to be the right guy in the right place at the right time, and got famous beyond all comprehension. Which is the tragedy of Elvis, and that’s more than I want to get into here; if you don’t already know the story, read Peter Guralnick’s Careless Love. (As a sidenote, if I was going to pick an Elvis song, it would probably be “Baby, What You Want Me to Do?” from the ’68 comeback special — the rawest and realest he ever sounded.)
Bo Diddley’s influence was not just musical, but sartorial (see also: Isaac Hayes, R.I.P.).
Somebody has to represent the African-American inventors of rock’n’roll on the list, and while I have much respect for Little Richard, his singular vocal style and use of the piano as primary instrumentation place him outside the mainstream. Chuck Berry is the obvious choice, maybe even the smart one, but the late Ellas McDaniel (a.k.a. Bo Diddley) was arguably even more innovative. Rock’n’roll famously changed popular music by placing the emphasis on rhythm rather than melody; Diddley took it one step further and added an element of pure sound, pioneering the use of reverb and distortion that Jimi Hendrix would later take into outer space.
But while Bo had one foot in the future, he also had one way back in the past. The rumbling drums found in most of his music are a direct link to rock’s African roots. He was most famous, of course, for the Bo Diddley beat, but even when he didn’t use it — as on “Who Do You Love” — he could lay down the tribal thunder with the best of them.
I haven’t actually read This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, but I have been in the same room with someone who has. It was he who pointed out to me a passage where the author attempts to explain rock’n’roll to an 80-year-old engineer friend of his.
He knew about my previous career in the music business, and he asked if I could come over for dinner one night and play six songs that captured all that was important to know about rock and roll. Six songs to capture all of rock and roll? I wasn’t sure I could come up with six songs to capture the Beatles, let alone all of rock and roll. The night before he called to tell me that he had heard Elvis Presley, so I didn’t need to cover that.
Here’s what I brought to dinner:
Long Tall Sally – Little Richard
Roll Over Beethoven – Beatles
All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
Wonderful Tonight – Eric Clapton
Little Red Corvette – Prince
Anarchy in the UK – Sex Pistols
Now this is the sort of thing that grabs my attention, of course. There are some interesting choices here. Little Richard is obviously meant to represent the roots of rock’n’roll, which makes sense since he invented it (just ask him), but he’s such a singular talent it’s hard to think of him as representative of the genre. The inclusion of the Beatles and Hendrix is hard to argue with, though one might quibble with the choice of songs, which were intended in part to acknowledge their writers as well (Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, respectively). “Roll Over Beethoven,” while a perfectly enjoyable rocker with some historic resonance, doesn’t well represent the depth and breadth of the Beatles’ creativity. “Watchtower” may be Levitin’s strongest choice — majestic, evocative, poetic — though it wouldn’t necessarily be mine.